I’ve been at my parents’ house in Milwaukee for about a week now. I enjoy coming to Milwaukee to see my parents, but it’s impossible, while I’m here, to lose count of the days, because nothing happens in them. I have been here for almost six days. My mother and my aunt Sue met me at the airport, my mother because she was excited to see me, my aunt Sue because she was eager for me to see—and perhaps more eager to see me react to—her recent face-lift. And I did. And she did. And it looks good. A little saggy around the jaw line, but she looks quite a few years younger, not exactly like someone you’d see on TV, but still pretty good, and although in truth I am relatively indifferent to whether or not my aunt Sue looks this good, I played up my sense of awe for a very specific reason: I want her to give me her Volvo.
Hers is a very nice Volvo, approximately three years old and with 55,000 miles on it, which is approximately 70,000 fewer miles than my car has on it, and it is not simply newer than my car but was much nicer to begin with. It has wide leather seats, and you can control the temperature separately for driver and passenger; and the seats themselves have heaters and massagers in them in case you or your passenger are feeling chilled or uncomfortable. Most important, you can control the stereo from the steering wheel. This means something to me. Whenever I think about the difference between doing poorly, economically, and doing much better economically, I always excuse the fact that I’m doing poorly economically by arguing to myself that unless you’re a part of the small class of people whose money is practically infinite, the difference between those of us who are doing poorly economically and those who are doing better economically—in other words, the difference between somebody like me, a writer, a part-time college teacher, adjunct faculty, a good-for-nothing, a traveler, an occasional gourmet, and my friend Andy, for example, the same age or, actually, a year older (as I remind myself from time to time) and an up-and-coming associate at a prestigious Silicon Valley law firm—is negligible. It’s not a fundamental difference, I tell myself, but simply a slight difference of scale, and I tell myself that a slight difference of scale does not warrant giving up on the things you believe in and the things you love. I tell myself: The difference between somebody like me and somebody like Andy is that somebody like me will drive a Honda or a Toyota and somebody like Andy will drive a BMW or, perhaps, a Volvo, and I tell myself that this is a negligible difference: both, or all four, are cars, and both, or all four, are charged with the primary labor of getting you from point A to point B, and all these cars do in fact do this, and in the end perhaps the BMW or the Volvo does it more smoothly, more prestigiously, and with better acceleration, but I tell myself that you only notice these differences at first. I tell myself that when you have been driving a Toyota and you suddenly get behind the wheel of a BMW, you may notice how much smoother the ride is, and how much easier it is to merge in traffic on the highway because you can accelerate so quickly, but that shortly thereafter you have adapted to these changes, you’ve begun to take them for granted, and now the vehicle is simply a car again, the same as any Toyota.
I tell myself that the difference between a car and a car, when you get down to it, is no difference at all, and so I will not become a lawyer in Silicon Valley; I will remain a writer in mid-city Los Angeles, the author of several unpublished novels, and work as a part-time adjunct faculty member for the regular paycheck, in order to pay the bills or, more often than that, to not come up as short as I otherwise might.
But then when I come home to Milwaukee, I often have the privilege of driving my aunt’s Volvo, and I must admit that I want that privilege. I want the whole Volvo, but what I especially want—or perhaps this simply becomes my image of what it is that I want, of what is somehow at stake—are the stereo controls on the steering wheel. With them you can adjust the volume on the stereo, or even advance to another song on the CD, without even having to move your hands. Imagine: a life without wasted motion.