Sunday, November 14, 2010

Public Shame and Other Lessons Learned the Hard Way

There are moments in life when you have to laugh in order to keep from crying. This blog is dedicated to those moments.  

A few weeks ago I got in a little accident, which incidentally was not so little and actually resulted in the total destruction of my car. As it turns out, looking for a great song on your ipod is not a good idea while driving. Everyday I wake up and think, “Why didn’t I just use the shuffle-shake feature?!” But the immediate horror of wrecking your car is nothing compared to the phone call that has to take place immediately afterwards. Telling your parents that you crashed the car they gave you….. 

So as a punishment, my parents decided that my sister (who got punished by default) and I, would not get the insurance money back from the car, but instead, we would get to drive the family mini-van. At first I thought they were joking, but apparently the hilarity of the situation overcame them, cutting off any sympathy they might have previously had. When my mom first mentioned the idea, I laughed it off. Until they started referring to it as “my” van. 

Some background information is necessary to understanding the comedic irony of this situation. We’ve had this van since I was in the 7th grade. Everybody liked it for like, a week. Then, without the new car smell dulling our frontal lobes, we realized how stupid we looked. My dad held on to the pretext that the van was cool longer than anyone else. Maybe because he never really had to drive it. He would often defend the magenta-abomination on the sole merit that it, “was very useful” and “could cart around a lot of stuff.” 

When I was in the 10th grade, my dad’s truck got stolen from in front our house. The first thing my mom said was, “Why couldn’t they have taken the van?! Literally, it was right next to the truck!" The fact that his truck got stolen was overshadowed by our disappointment that the van didn’t get stolen. 

On the rare occasion that I had to drive it to school (after much weeping and gnashing of teeth), I would park it a few blocks away and walk the rest of the way. Because it was cooler to have nothing, than to have a van. There was always that rare popular guy who made a cult following from driving a mini-van. But it was always his choice, and somehow everyone thought the fact that he wanted to drive it, somehow made it cool. I feigned that kind of confidence, but all it took was one kid shouting “HAHAHA LAME!!!!” for me to crumple into a defeated heap of shame. 

Eventually my parents gave us their other car, and they started driving the van. Once my dad got a more hands on experience with “Big Red”, he joined forces with the rest of us and now everyone in our family hates her. I don’t think my parents really care about punishing me as much as they saw this as a convenient excuse for getting rid of the van. They’ve been angling to dump her for years now.

In the decade we’ve had her, the van has sustained some battle wounds. Someone backed into it in a parking lot once, which we never bothered reporting to the insurance company. So we’ve just had a gigantic dent in the side for about seven years now. Also, she has a pretty nasty scrape from when Lauren first got her license and brushed up against a brick wall. Once the entire transmission went out and in a glimmer of hopeful thinking, we thought she might be out of out lives forever. My dad managed to secure a brand new engine, proudly announcing that she had “Another 100,000 miles left in her!”  We managed one half-hearted “yay” before slumping into self-pity.  She is operable now, but don’t try and roll the windows down because they won’t roll back up. And sometimes the keys randomly fall out of the ignition. Oh and did I mention the heater doesn’t work?

Now an interesting set of effects arise when you ride around in a moving embarrassment. Most notably, has been the emergence of the phrase: “Oh well, it’s just the van.”. As in, “Should I take the time to make a three-point turn, or should I gently scrape up against this wall to avoid reversing…. oh well, it’s just the van.” Or for instance, “It’s really dark out here and I can’t see the auto-lock button, should I just leave it unlocked all night? …. Oh well, it’s just the van.” 

Now while I drive, I don’t look for songs on my ipod because no matter what hot new song I’m listening to, I drive a mini-van. So I just listen to NPR now. And when I’m not exchanging knowing glances with high-schoolers at stoplights, I’m generally fantasizing about ways to get rid of the van. Usually it involves me getting into an accident that isn’t my fault, or just driving it off a cliff. That would be my fault, but watching the twisted metal contort in a heap of burning rubber would give me ultimate satisfaction. (And no, I wouldn’t die in the crash because I would tie a brick to the accelerator and jump out at the last minute). Once I asked Lauren what she thought the chances were of the van getting stolen if we left it unlocked. She too, responded with a question: “Do you know any soccer moms that participate in auto-theft? Because if you do, I think we have a great chance.” Point and Match. 

So the take-home point (besides setting up a playlist on your ipod before leaving the house), is that sometimes in life-- you just have to laugh at your circumstances. I used to drive the van and duck down every time I saw someone I knew. I would linger behind groups and then sneak away to the car when no one was looking. But now, even though this is a mortifying experience-- I’m learning to laugh at myself. More than that, I’m learning to laugh at my mistakes. I think sometimes it’s easy to become so fixated on failure, on embarrassment, or on the perceptions of others, that we forget to just live our lives. The fear of failure, or of looking stupid, becomes the thing that confines us to a life punctuated by hesitation. The van is symbolic of a life spent worrying what other people think, and more recently of a big mistake I made. But I’m learning that it really doesn’t matter. If you can laugh at yourself, if you can learn from the past-- you’ll be able to see the bright side of anything. As Al Franken said in “Oh, the Things I Know”, “Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are; precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.” So in that vein, safe driving everyone!  And if you see someone driving a mini-van with a crazed look in their eye, think of me! :) 


  1. LOL! Laine, I can completely relate. My cars included the white and pink-dirt stained Oldsmobile Toronado of high school infamy. An old '89 Buick Regal during the first 3 years of college, my Great Grandmother's '87 Oldsmobile during the last 3 years of college, and then a '94 Sundance. Sigh. I lived by the motto, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger! (and it worked-- google a white 78 Oldsmobile Toronado and you'll understand my agony)

  2. LOL! Laine. This is great!

    It's Melanie Bates from the Boulder Ministry. We were talking about our blogs a couple of weeks ago and I thought I'd stop by for a visit. Love your blog. Totally fabulous!