Tuesday, November 12, 2013


So Moby Dent, the Great White Car, keeps having to go to the car doctor, and it becomes clear that the day approaches when we will have no choice but to donate his inert husk to NPR or the Kidney Foundation or something; by which time, living where we do, we need to have another vehicle already in the driveway. Which means Damon and I spent a lot of Veteran's Day carshopping like responsible adults, when we would rather have been gaming or reading or watching a Netflix marathon. (We did go see the Thor movie and sat through the credits for both extra scenes because Damon always sits through the credits and catches the extra scenes. You can't fool him!)

Now, I have never bought a car before in my life. Apart from the driving school's learning vehicle, and the rental I drove briefly in Santa Fe last month, Moby is the only car I've ever controlled. Even Damon hasn't bought a car in the usual sense since before I met him, though he's been through a few cars since then. There's always been a cheap car available from some nearby source when he needed on, a co-worker letting something go cheap or whatever. Moby himself was an in-family transaction, originally purchased by my father-in-law. The result of this is that neither of us is all that sure what we want in a car, except for a handful of things - manual backups for all systems, for example - that we are unlikely to get.

(Forget the back-up camera and the GPS; when, as will inevitably happen, it dies in an intersection and all the systems go out, I want to be able to roll down the window so I can communicate with the helpful people pushing me out of traffic! That is what I call a safety feature! How the heck are you supposed to get out of a modern car when the bad guys run you off the road into the lake and everything shorts out? You can't count on the bad guys shooting your windshield out for you. And what I really, really want is a button on the dash that expands and contracts various parts of the car; so I can drive a compact when I need to park in Austin, a truck when I need to haul plants or furniture, a sedan when driving people around, etc.)

When I normally think about cars, which I don't do often, I think of them in terms of characterization. What sort of car would this or that character drive? I don't know anything about makes and models, but you don't have to in order to do this particular exercise. A pickup truck implies a certain culture; whether the truck is old and beat up, new and shiny, old and shiny, extended-cab, black or white or silver or blue or red, will assist the reader to slot the driver into certain economic and social places in that culture; and then you fill up the back (or not) and that's a powerful but digestible amount of information crammed into, at most, a couple of sentences. If the owner of the pickup also has a town car and a '65 Mustang in the driveway, then that's as good as an infodump.

But does that really work? How many people - how many characters - are out there with no more conscious choice about the kinds of cars they drive than Damon and I have had?

Would anybody look at Moby and make any kind of accurate deduction about how who Damon and I are?

And would anybody who knew Damon and me have predicted that we would go looking at smaller SUVs this weekend? Which is what we did. Damon's idea. Surprised me; yet if there's anybody you'd think I'd know it'd be him. I think of myself as a compact car person (and I did rent a compact in New Mexico, but that was for expense and besides, I was driving it from the airport in Albuquerque to the hotel, and from the hotel back to the airport - I don't even need a back seat for that!), but a compact would not be suitable for avocational archeology trips, and one of the SUVs we got into yesterday felt too small on the inside. Apparently I need psychological space inside a car I'm driving. (Damon just needs some head and leg room.) If I don't know what kind of car I want myself, how can I characterize other people with them?

Yet the first car salesman we had yesterday got a line on us pretty quick. We never said: We want something durable, but by the third thing we looked at he was bringing up maintenance issues and telling us which ones would last us the longest. And that was before he found out how old Moby is. And this is in fact what we want in everything: something we won't have to keep replacing or renovating.

So the lesson I take away from this is that characterization via car is valid, but that I don't have a handle on how to do it. I'll need to pay attention to the car salesmen, because the good ones will have a handle on it - they'll need to, in order to do their jobs - and I can perhaps learn from that.

I generally think of myself as pretty good at characterization, but no matter how good you are at something, you'll always find areas to improve.

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