Dear Prudence

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The clouds will be a daisy chain/ so let me see you smile again — The Beatles

San Diego, California. On August 15, I received a text. “I was hoping to read some blogging on the van. Too much, too soon?”

“Yes,” I replied.

The text was from my mom (and it actually read ‘on the fan’ because she’s constantly battling her phone’s autocorrect, often to great comedic effect) a few days after I spent my first day in the garage with Norman, more than seven months after parking the van in her garage.

That was not the plan.

The plan was to promptly and enthusiastically work to get Norman back on the road, and instead I settled into the worst depression I’ve ever known.

What happened? There’s no simple answer. My family has an extensive history of mental illness, and I’ve experienced depression and anxiety since I hit double digits. I saw a therapist for the first time at age 12, and I’ve been learning how to manage that aspect of my health ever since. It will never not be part of me, and accepting this doesn’t mean I don’t resent it.

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The beginning of this year my beloved cat of nearly 22 years died, and maybe this triggered some sort of existential crisis. Maybe I cracked under the (self-created) pressure I felt to not fuck this (the van, LIFE) up. Whatever it was, I spent six months in the darkest place I’ve ever been. I felt broken. My brain had gone soft and slow. Holding a conversation was tedious and frustrating: I couldn’t concentrate and worse yet I didn’t think I had anything remotely valuable to say to anyone or contribute to the world. The most mundane tasks were suddenly towering obstacles.

In the thick of this sludge I was presented with a very thoughtful gift from my friend Chris, who helped with the motorcycle and was excited for my next project. His wife delivered it to me in April when I cut her hair. It was an ornament of a Volkswagen bus, inscribed with the phrase “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” I nearly burst into tears when I saw it, because it was so horribly true. I didn’t believe I could do much of anything, much less tackle this completely new endeavor which seemed nothing short of impossible. I was convinced I didn’t deserve the van, that I had somehow conned my family into letting me take it and had failed before I’d even begun. I couldn’t take the ornament home with me. I didn’t feel I deserved it, either.

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At the end of June, desperate for a change of scenery, I traveled to Cuba with friends and felt good for the first time in such a long time. I cried the afternoon we left Havana because I was afraid my mood wouldn’t make the trip back home. Before I could really find out I pulled my back, and it was a full month before it stopped spasming whenever I moved.

As my back finally began improving my mom started asking about the van. She had been exceptionally patient until now, concerned and sympathetic. But she also was without half her garage, and had been for most of the year. Something needed to happen.

There’s a doozy of a catch 22 with depression: you feel shitty because you’re not doing anything that makes you feel good (being creative, hanging with friends, getting outside) but you can’t do anything that makes you feel good because you feel shitty. But I at least was feeling un-shitty enough to make myself do something and hope that would get things moving again.

The first feel-good came when I bought the first parts. I thought I’d start simple: new battery, change the oil and oil filter, change the fuel filter. I found a Volkswagen specialty shop not far from me that sold parts.

Walking into BRU Auto it was easy to forget what year it was. Decades-old Volkswagens filled the lot in various stages of repair. The wood paneled office didn’t look like it had changed much from the 70s. I fondly recalled the amazing old specialty shops and parts pickers I’d visited while working on the Honda. It made me happy that such places still existed in this modern age.

The following Sunday morning I arrived at my mom’s house with the battery, filters, and four quarts of 20w50 oil. I started by installing the new battery, and immediately worried that I was mixing up the negative and positive terminals and would blow up the garage (not quite, but still). My first action was met with crippling doubt, even though the connectors could only reach one terminal apiece with the battery in one possible position — it was essentially foolproof. I messaged my Uncle Chip a photo and he verified I did indeed have things situated correctly. Since I did not want the battery connected for any of the work I was about to do, I pulled it out again.

The oil change went exactly as anticipated. I got a kick out of the screw-in filter, and took care to fill it with oil and lubricate the seal.

 

The fuel situation scared me.

While the battery was attached I had turned on the electrical to check the gas level. The needle didn’t budge from ‘E.’ Uncle Chip theorized the fuel sender, a plastic float that sits on the surface of the gas and reports the level, might be stuck, so that didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t gas in the tank. I really didn’t want to deal with a fuel line full of nearly decade-old gas, and didn’t trust that I’d be able to properly stop a flood in the garage, so I bought a cheap siphon kit. I thought I used it properly… maybe? I couldn’t really tell if I was getting a good seal to the hand pump. The hardcore way to siphon gas was just to suck it through a hose, right? Yeah, don’t do that, especially with gas that old. I got a lungful of rancid fumes, but no gas appeared.

Still anxious but not sure what else to try, I decided to give the fuel filter a try and hoped for the best. The rubber lines were fused to the ends of the filter, and I had to use a paint can opener to unstick the edges. About a teaspoon of stinky gas dribbled out of one end of the line. Relieved, I attached the new filter and marveled at my good fortune that there was no gas left in the tank. It must have evaporated, I assumed, not really knowing if that was a thing.

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The old filter was not such good news. It was almost completely gummed through with coagulated gas. If the filter was in such a state so too, likely, were the fuel lines, which were old, dried-out rubber anyhow. And the inside of the gas tank was possibly a mess, too — from what I’d read they weren’t sealed well and were prone to rust to begin with, and as gas sits it separates, the heavier water settling to the bottom. I didn’t want to run into problems down the road and regret not taking care of it at the beginning. Unsurprisingly, my simple start was mutating already.

My first day in the garage was a success, but I still didn’t feel up to writing. Over the next couple weeks the dark cloud lifted. Last week at the beach I wrote:

I’m standing in the breakers crying, because this is what I promised myself for six months, that I would feel okay again, that it wouldn’t last forever, that it never does.

It was hard to believe, like trying to remember a dream upon waking: having a vague idea of the feeling but the details slipping with each sleepy blink. But I believed it enough, and that’s all that matters.

And as good as this feels I know that this, too, shall pass.

But for now there’s the pull of the ocean on my legs and the blue of the sky and I feel okay.

I’ll take it.

So here, finally, is some blogging on the van for you to read, mama.

Sorry I took so long. But I’m glad to be back.


Norman Hits the Road

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Chino, California. The rooster crows his fool head off in the backyard as I nurse my mug of coffee. My cousin Ben graciously set the maker to start at 6am the night before, which makes being awake at such an early hour more bearable.

The Van is leaving my aunt’s garage for the first time in over 6 years to come home with me to San Diego.

This morning has been in the works for a number of months now, maybe six. While I’d been daydreaming about taking on The Van as my next project for a few years, I’d only more recently summoned the courage to talk about it with my family. The Van originally belonged to my Uncle Bill, my mom’s brother-in-law. He and The Van and an assortment of other passengers crisscrossed the country multiple times over the decades on adventures long and short. A school teacher, my uncle would take a month-long camping trip each summer during break with a variation of my three cousins and their friends. (My year-round school schedule was always at odds with his traditional, so I never joined.)

Uncle Bill passed away the end of the summer of 2008 during a solo canoeing trip on Mono Lake. The usually calm waters are sometimes suddenly and severely overtaken by high winds. Winds that day were clocked as high as 80 miles an hour. Making his way back to The Van, parked at the shore of Navy Beach, to return home for the start of the school year, his canoe capsized, and he drowned.

The Van was driven a few times after his death. My cousins, brother, and I took it to Joshua Tree National Park for my 30th birthday. But soon it sat, for longer and longer stretches, until it became a neglected fixture of my aunt’s garage.

It was summer last year when I observed the only time I genuinely felt excited was when I fantasized about taking on The Van as my next project. I’d only recently completed my first — a 1976 Honda CB550F motorcycle that had belonged to my dad and subsequently sat unloved in a backyard for 20-odd years. I’d never done so much as an oil change for my car or used a socket wrench. Having no idea what I was getting myself into I naively thought I’d “fix it up” and by the time I realized what all I’d gotten myself into (a complete rebuild) I was too invested and stubborn to quit. Three-and-a-half years later I was riding around town… and seemed to have something like post-project depression. The bug had bitten me. I wanted more.

A picture emerged in my mind: the moto (dubbed “Arnold” after we crashed in August and I used the insurance money to make upgrades — lemonade from lemons, and I prefer mine mixed with iced tea) towed in the back of The Van, a 1979 Volkswagen Type 2. Long weekends in the mountains or desert, season depending. I’d spend the day riding the moto, and return at its end to The Van, simply modified to safely and comfortably provide shelter for the night. I’d kick up my feet and put a record on the player (I’m happiest when fancying myself a character in a Wes Anderson movie, so record player is the logical source of sound), crack open a beverage and breathe in all that was good in the world.

I could never have gathered the gumption to ask to take on The Van without the confidence earned from the moto build, but even so it was sickeningly scary. My uncle is somewhat of a legend, not only among my family but in the broader community. He taught high school special ed math, and a regular incentive for his students was a trip in The Van to Joshua Tree; there are countless people with fond memories of my uncle and The Van. He was a prominent figure in his local Methodist church, and a mentor to former students long after they graduated. He is, to me, proof that life doesn’t owe you a damn thing or make any sense whatsoever in the way it shakes out. He was the kindest, most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and I am forever heartbroken at his absence.

I asked my aunt first, as I accompanied her to pick up Mexican food for the rest of the family. In the memory I’m awkward and halting, my nervousness tangling my words before they can leave my mouth. To my eternal relief she was receptive and calm, and nodded along with my plan. She liked it, but was very clear that it wasn’t her permission I needed so much as my cousins’.

I talked to them over the next few weeks, my confidence rising with each enthusiastic response. The youngest, Vanessa, had two qualifiers: don’t change the seats and don’t change the paint. I was vaguely offended at the second (change that paint job?!?? Are you kidding!!??!) but I was glad to have any expectations out in the open.

Everyone was on board. Not only were they on board, they seemed genuinely excited. My aunt and mom’s brother, Chip, was a life long car enthusiast who spent much of his time post-retirement at racetracks as a volunteer. I looked to him as the seasoned mechanic in my corner. He was glad to help. Thanksgiving morning we met at my aunt’s to give The Van an inspection. The battery was of course dead, but with a jump started right up. The excitement and emotion of hearing her running for the first time in years was exhilarating and sweetly sad. My aunt hooted, my cousins cheered and clapped. I declared we should start a mechanical project each Thanksgiving.

I expected AAA to tow us home, but I overestimated the package availed us. They would only cover 100 miles, and the distance between my aunt and mom’s homes was 123. At $10/mile over the initial 100, that made for a much more expensive trip than I’d counted on. (I live in a very tiny studio in central San Diego, with no space to store or work on… anything. My mom very generously donated a portion of her garage in Chula Vista for the moto, and is doing so once more for The Van.) But Vanessa had a friend, Thomas, with access to a trailer through his work and a penchant for moving vehicles.

And so here we are. Chino. Coffee. Early (so early).

I follow behind in my silver sedan, feeling like a protective barrier against the speeding Southern California drivers who whiz up behind us, going 55 – 60 mph. I’ve never driven so slowly on the freeway for so long. Around 10 am we arrive at my mom’s. She has a spot in the garage waiting — she’s relegating one of her vehicles to life outside. The guys push while I steer, and The Van is in my mom’s garage. Damn, it’s weird.

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I had promised Vanessa I’d take them all out to eat, but by this time I feel like I’m about to crack open from the emotion and expectation of it all. I meekly make excuses about it being 10:30 on a Sunday and how crowded it’ll be anywhere, and palm her money for food. I do the same with gas money for Thomas (who also gave The Van a bath! What a guy).

My mom and I sit for a while with coffee and gradually the lump in my throat subsides. I opt for the mildest yet most satisfying first task I can think of: scraping old tape from the inside of the back window. The remnants had stuck out to me the entire drive here. I climbed in, armed with a razor blade. I thought of all the times with the moto that I’d spent days doing menial tasks because I was too overwhelmed to do anything else. Once I was done with that I thought I’d just see how the seats were secured to the floor; I knew they bolted in and out and was curious how easily the bolts would release. Not a one gave an ounce of resistance. My mom came out to see midway through and when I told her how easily things were going she declared it “meant to be.” “Oh no,” I argued, shaking my head. “I’m not going there, because when things are more difficult down the road I don’t want to have to admit the opposite.”

 

It’s my first big step towards my dream of kickin’ up my feet after a day of moto-ing and putting on a record. The most precious part of the whole thing is the support of my family. I know it’s difficult for them, as it is for me, to be reminded that my uncle isn’t here, but I hope it’s worth it. And I can all but hear my Uncle Bill saying: “cool!”