Friday, April 25, 2008

April flowers

One of my favorite harbingers of spring in Minnesota is the cheery yellow forsythia that I planted in my front yard. The little bush is only four years old, having been planted as bare root stock in the summer of 2004 -- it looked like a lifeless twig when it arrived. I then dug it up and moved it when we moved in September 2006, so I'm pleased it's not only still with me, but establishing itself nicely in its new home.

It just started blooming a few days ago, around April 20. In most years it has bloomed by early April, usually on my grandmother's birthday, April 9. But spring seems to be a little reluctant this year; not only has it been cold so far this spring, but we once again have a threat of snow in the forecast. However, in 2005, when the forsythia was blooming on April 9, it snowed on May Day! So who knows what can happen in a Minnesota spring!

I took this photo today when the rain was just a light mist. Too wet for bike riding, but OK for a quick stroll around the yard to see how the gardens are coming along.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Help! My Car Fell Down and Can't Get Up!

Our 1991 Honda, with 172,000 miles on it and decorative accents of rust complimenting its light blue skin tones, was dubbed the Crapmobile by our very unimpressed 17-year-old son on the day we bought it. For more than a year now, our initial $1,000 investment has gotten us where we need to go, including as far as Ely in northern Minnesota and back again, with only a modest infusion of additional cash.

My husband, Craig, used it to commute to the Life Time Fitness offices in the far-flung suburb of Eden Prairie, where he worked as managing editor of Experience Life magazine, until the magazine offices were moved to the much closer Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul, just 2.67 miles from home (now he usually walks). On those occasions when Craig has apologetically offered a ride to his boss, who owns a shiny new Prius, she has assured him that she “loves” the Crapmobile and its distinctive character.

But the tired old car had been complaining for some time whenever we turned the wheel. It would creak and groan loudly, and even though we found its loud protestations amusing, we did know that they were also worrysome. Since it would soon be time to get another oil change, I told my husband that I would ask our mechanic to investigate the cause of the complaints then. We suspected it had something to do with the wheel bearings, since the sound was coming from the left front wheel, and we had recently had the bearings on the other front wheel replaced.

But I really wasn’t prepared for the sound I heard when driving through the Life Time Fitness parking ramp for an appointment with Ashley, a personal trainer there.

I had been putting off making use of the free membership we enjoyed (a benefit of my husband’s job), mostly because I’m not fond of gyms. I’d rather get my cardio outdoors on a bicycle; indoor spaces full of sweaty bodies hold no allure for me. But despite having ridden my bike throughout the winter, and walking the dog a mile or more at least five times a week, my weight hasn’t budged from the all-time high it has been stuck at for the last several years, and I knew I needed to be more strategic in my efforts.

So I was truly ready to get to work on some seriously productive sweating as I entered the parking ramp (I would have biked the 2.67 miles to the gym, but Mother Nature was in the process of gleefully dumping six inches of snow on the city), when I heard a loud CLUNK! and the sound of something dragging.

Denial immediately set in as I imagined a large branch and wondered how I could have run over something like that inside a parking ramp. I got out and peered under the car. Nothing there. I got back behind the wheel and started to move it forward again, only to hear more of the loud dragging noise. I tried backing up to dislodge the invisible thing. Then, finally admitting to myself that there was nothing under the car but definitely something seriously wrong within it, I turned the wheel to move it to one side so other cars could get around mine -- and heard another CLUNK! followed this time by a sudden listing to the left. The left front wheel was now skewed at an unhelpful angle; the Crapmobile would be going nowhere on its own wheels anymore today.

When you drive a car like mine, you keep your mechanic’s phone number handy; he diagnosed the problem over the phone as a broken ball joint and soon I was in the queue for the tow-truck guy, who had had nothing to do all day until right before I called him, and now must complete another tow before he could come to my aid.

It took more than an hour. I spent most of the time hovering somewhere near the car, explaining, apologizing, and politely declining kind offers of assistance from people toting gym bags, including one gallant fellow who wondered if changing the tire would do the trick.

Much to my relief, other vehicles, including The Boss’s Prius as well as some rather hulky SUVs, did manage to steer around my wounded car, so parking lot traffic proceeded reasonably well. The Boss expressed kind concern for my inconvenience, and tactfully suggested that it might be time to abandon the Crapmobile for something with fewer miles -- and car payments. I thanked her for her concern.

Then a woman with an air of authority and a Lifetime Fitness nametag identifying her as Denise came out with a young man who must have reported the disabled vehicle in the parking ramp. I did not recognize him as one of the people who had offered me assistance.

Denise sized up the situation and then announced that she would recruit a couple of PTs (personal trainers) to move the car. To where I didn’t know, since it didn’t appear to me that there was any better place for it at the moment. I also didn’t know how you would move a car with a busted wheel, but she seemed confident it could be done and back she went into the building.

A few minutes later several guys came out, most of them slender young men in black Life Time Fitness T-shirts, and two bulky fellows who were obviously weight-lifters. They eyed the car with its skewed front wheel and said, “What is she thinking? We could push it if the wheel wasn’t busted, but we’re not going to pick up a car!” I couldn’t tell if they were mostly amused or flattered that Denise thought their weight-lifting abilities extended to automobiles. One of the bulky guys returned to the building, presumably to lift more appropriate objects, but the other lingered, having just completed his workout.

He and the black-T-shirted PTs stood around for several minutes discussing parking lot etiquette, or the lack thereof, as several vehicles steered around the Crapmobile, and around the 180-degree turns of the parking ramp, at speeds which they clearly disapproved. “It serves people right to have to drive around your car,” one of them said, “They drive too fast in here anyway.”

After one especially impatient driver passed, garnering disapproving comments from all of the guys, one of the PTs said, “That will be one of my yoga-class people; they’re the worst.” I mused that perhaps that was because they needed the yoga class to help them calm down, but he disagreed. “They’re just as bad after class,” he said.

Having exhausted the conversational possibilities that my car offered, and having been informed by me that the tow-truck guy just called and would be here in 10 minutes, the PTs and the weight-lifter returned to the building.

The Crapmobile now sports a new ball joint and axle and despite the $470 price tag (including the tow, which cost extra for the pain of manipulating through a parking ramp), I still figure we’ve spent far less than we would in car payments on anything likely to be an actual improvement over a car that, despite this little mishap, has proven to be quite reliable.

And now that it doesn’t creak and groan so much, we’re becoming more aware of another sound coming from under the hood whenever we’re in the process of slowing down to a stop, a kind of wahka-wahka-wahka. The brakes work fine, so we’re not worried about our safety, and since the car is due for an oil change soon, I think I’ll just ask our mechanic to take a look at it when I next bring it in.