Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Ride

I drive a minivan. A white Toyota Sienna.

It wasn't always this way. Until fairly recently, I was a die-hard Prius fan. We bought ours in 2006, the first year of the popular second generation model. We were the first on our street, if not for miles around, to drive one. Back in the days when people asked you if you had to plug it in.

I have no religious preference but when I'm forced to state one, I say "member of the Utilitarian Church." For that reason, the Prius fits me perfectly. It's small, which we utilitarians, who only want exactly what we need, adore. It stores a surprising amount for its size. We've gone on many vacations with our craigslist red canoe strapped to the roof, bikes racked on the back, the hatch piled to the ceiling with sleeping bags, American Girl dolls, blow-up Hello Kitty floaties, reusable Trader Joe bags of organic groceries and giant Ikea bags of swimsuits, sundresses and flip-flops (take that, Louis Vitton). And of course, with the Prius, I would zoom by the gas station day after day. I got a little nervous every time I filled up because it wasn't routine. At stop-lights, I could glance sidelong at those blond pony-tailed Marin mommies in their black Range Rovers and feel so pleased with myself. What are you doing for the earth, lady? Except killing it? Those lovely ladies might have been putting out smog, but I was putting out smug. Some call the Prius the "Pious" with good reason.

The Prius was the first new car we ever bought. After much discussion, we chose silver, the most utilitarian of colors. Within a year of our purchase, Marin was overrun with silver Pree-eye (if the plural of octopus is octupi and the plural of alumnus is alumni...). I felt like the single penguin amongst thousands in the Gary Larson cartoon singing "I gotta be me". We put a yellow, happy face ball on our antenna, which helped. For our friends, that tiny bit of sunny happiness became emblematic of our family, the signal they could find us at Peri Park or the Good Earth health food store. That scraped-up ball, which Ben had found discarded in a parking lot, became so important to our identity that when it was lost at the car wash, I left a my number and an impassioned plea with the manager. I got a call hours later that an employee had fished it out of a nearby canal. The ball, metaphorically, was mysteriously lost in our first days in San Jose. For all I know that sweet little guy jumped off at the Marin County line. WIth it, we left a critical piece of ourselves behind.

When we decided to adopt Mihiretu, I spent hours googling how to get three car seats across the back of a Prius. I bought him the slimmest of seats and eased the girls seats towards the sides. After some strategic shimmying and a triumphant shove to close the door, I knew I could keep my car.

When Mihiretu arrived, it became clear I had overlooked an important element. The kids, quite literally, were scratching each others eyes out. They would emerge from a ten minute ride to the market with blood oozing from their cheeks and throats. I started trimming their nails daily and tactically, they switched to pinching. Throwing caution to the wind, I had Mae ride shot-gun on short rides around town. The injuries were reduced but the cacophony of bellowing, singing, shrieks of "Mine!" and Dan Zane blasting on the stereo ("Louder, Mama, louder!") in that tiny cabin was deafening. I kept earplugs and advil within arm's reach.

We lived, for awhile, in denial. On our move day, tearfully driving away from all that was familiar and loved in Marin, Julia Andrews on the stereo, singing, at high decibels, "I Have Confidence" (because, boy, did I need it), getting lost in the seemingly identical strip-malled, six-lane boulevards trying to find the new house, all the while the kids trying to do each other in behind me, was something of a low point.

When all five of us would escape to the hippie haven of Santa Cruz on weekends, I took to sitting in the back between Mihiretu and Lana to minimize the brutality. The wings of the car seats would crowd my shoulders and I couldn't quite get my hips between the bases at the bottom. I would get lacerated, walloped, jabbed and assaulted with high-pitched squeals. Ben reported that, in the rear-view mirror, I made the most pitiful picture.

We rented a Sienna one weekend for a drive up to Marin. Each child was in their own four-foot diameter bubble of peace. We put on a Lemony Snicket audio book and shifted the sound to the rear. The girls listened happily in silence. Mihiretu fell asleep. Ben and I, hallelujah, had a moment to chat.

And so here I am. I live in San Jose. I, like the two other families on our cul-de-sac with young children, own a late model Sienna. I pull up at the stop-light and there's really nothing I can think as I look around at the other giant cars but greetings, sisters. And, yes, while the minivan is maybe the ultimate in the utilitarian family car, my vanity is taking a bit of a hit. It doesn't really fit my self-image as a MLF. But man, I'll fucking take it.

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