Maintenance: “The process of keeping something in good condition.” Maintenance has consumed my thoughts for the last 2 weeks, and on a trip consisting of more 7 days of driving (by the time it’s over with), that’s a lot of time to think.

One of the ideas behind the simplicity movement when it comes to material goods is this: Purchase price is only the beginning. What the object will cost to maintain is something else altogether.

Take bridges, for instance. As we have learned from recent news, bridges by their nature are high maintenance objects. When a community builds a bridge, it may spend several millions of dollars initially, but few people ever realistically calculate the maintenance. The maintenance line items built into every DOT budget do not begin to cover the necessary funds. It’s the maintenance that gets you.

Every time you buy a piece of clothing, you have to calculate cleaning (whether dry cleaning or laundry detergent, it all needs cleaning). Whenever you buy a computer (don’t we know, Matt?) you have to realize it won’t last forever and will require maintenance until the cost of maintenance outruns the cost of buying another new machine. Houses (don’t get me started) require endless maintenance, and the older and bigger the house, the more maintenance is needed.

So this leads me to our car, a 2002 Jeep Liberty. In the last couple of decades, we have been trading cars in on new ones before the old ones begin exhibiting signs of imminent mechanical difficulties. This year, I guess, we crossed over the line on holding onto a car, as the Jeep is now showing its age, and the 1500-mile trip to Tennessee didn’t help it, I’m sure. Some of you know we were stranded in Virginia after the transmission fluid line blew, and we spent over half a day sitting in a dealership waiting room, then shelling out $545 for the pleasure. I asked the mechanic to explain the origin of the problem, and he said it is just something that can happen because the car is aging. We assuaged our feelings by thinking things could have been worse - as things always can - and we paid the money (well, actually Mastercard paid the money) and with a mixture of anxiety and relief we continued on our journey.

We just mentally added that bill to the 4 new tires last month. Cars require lots of maintenance.

Turns out they sometimes require repairs even faster than you can take out your wallet and say, “Charge it.” Around the time we crossed the border back into Maine, the air conditioning started making funny noises; as Ed described it, it sounded like “a hair dryer on heroin.” We kept listening as it got louder and louder, and then after a couple of hours, the air conditioning was no longer cooling. We were planning to get it checked out once we got home.

Today we were at the Ellsworth post office and the car would not start. Thinking it might be the battery, Ed had a nearby mechanic try to jump it off, but that didn’t work. So, for the second time in 2 weeks, we had the Liberty towed to a Jeep dealership. This time it was not $545. It was over $800, because it needed a new compressor. I asked the mechanic if the record heat temps in Memphis had contributed to our compressor’s demise, but he assured me it was just one of those things that can happen as cars age. “They don’t last forever, you know.” Yeah, we know. Boy, do we know.

I’m upset about the money, of course. I’m also upset about losing time on our trip and having to find our accommodations in the dark that night. I’m really upset that we can spend more and more on just fixing things and don’t even have the enjoyment of having something new for all that money. If you replace a roof or foundation, for instance, after all that money you spend, you don’t have a new house - you just have a house with a roof and foundation that can perform their jobs adequately. You don’t really have anything exciting to show for it. In our case, we don’t have a new car - we just have an older car that will be functioning as it should in the first place. Maintenance again rears its ugly and expensive head.

But why should I be shocked? As Ed and I get older, our bodies require more costly ongoing maintenance as well. We never are presented with a new body - it just takes all the maintenance we can muster to preserve the adequate condition and functioning of the old. The more stress we put on our aging body, the more upkeep it demands.

That’s why 3 months ago I quit coloring my hair. That’s one maintenance expense I have control over. Now when you see me, you’ll recognize me instantly. I’m the gray-haired lady riding in the Jeep Liberty - the one with the brand-new compressor under the hood. We’ve both accumulated a lot of miles and show signs of wear and tear, but we’re still chugging along. We aging folks have to stick together.


I'm late on blogging because I'm on a vacation trip to Tennessee to see my family. It takes 3-1/2 days to drive from our part of Maine to Memphis, and, of course, 3-1/2 days to drive back, which makes for a very long (and sometimes boring) drive. To pass the time, I read aloud books of mutual interest to us between my naps. This is sufficient to get us through Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. By the time we get to Tennessee, we celebrate the last leg of the long trip with various family traditions, some started when Joy and I were young, others when our kids were young, and faithfully repeated by us to this day.

There is a chain of stores across the South called Stuckey's. Part gas station, part refreshment stand, part candy shop, part restroom facilities, and part tacky souvenir store, Stuckey's businesses have always littered the highways and byways of our travels. When I was a teenager, I made up a silly poem as a tribute to the Stuckey's chain sung to the tune of "Cabaret." My sister and I sang it incessantly on family vacations, as the lyrics begin "Stuckey's, we love you, we always will whenever we see your sign," and for decades their billboards were posted hundreds of times on the interstate. As each sign came into view, we would take a deep breath and burst out in our ditty, testing our parents' patience (and now, Ed's patience). I only saw a couple of signs on this trip, so I fear that Stuckey's has gone out of business, bringing a disappointing end to our familiar routine.

Fortunately, even without the Stuckey's song, we have other trip markers to fill our time. When we pass a place called Bucksnort, we buck and snort, which, I assure you, is hard to do when you're laughing. When we cross the Buffalo River, we sing "Home on the Range," because the first verse contains the words "where the buffalo roam." When we cross the Tennessee River, we hold our breath over the entire bridge span. (This latter tradition has no logical basis as a marker, but since the USA has recently realized the decaying condition of its bridges, it might not be a bad idea to hold one's breath when crossing one.)

The marker that is the most fun to do begins at the Duck River bridge. All the occupants of the car quack until we reach the other side, then we say, still in our duck voices, "That was Duck River - quack, quack." We actually have this on video. (OK, we have a lot of strange things on video.)

Our fun is increased on the trip home, where each marker is dutifully reenacted with the usual precision and flawless technique. We have had many years in which to perfect them.

Each of these markers gives us a breather, a rest, a pause, along with a distinct feeling that we are marking pages in some kind of long, complicated novel. Each marking event lasts a short time, but if we count the pre-marker hours of excited anticipation and the post-marker moments of pure satisfaction, that pleasure stretches in duration. In fulfilling these little rituals, we feel in continuity with those who came before us and those who will come after us. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and so are life markers.

Birthdays are probably the most celebrated life markers. My uncle in Arkansas turned 80 this month, and my two nieces turned 13 and 16 this year. Next year our oldest child will be having her 30th birthday - a fact which truly boggles my mind.

On this trip, we are certainly celebrating markers, little but frequent moments of reflection that tell us where we are, remind us of where we have been, and giving us an idea of where we are headed. We aren't here totally for special birthdays (although we are appropriately noting them), we aren't here just to take a 2-week vacation, and we certainly didn't drive 3-1/2 days one way just to quack our hearts out on a Tennessee bridge. We are here on the highest priority mission - to be with loved ones - family and friends - just to celebrate life and love and laughter and the tight connection we have with each other - one which distance and the passage of time cannot destroy.

When we decided to move and downsize, one of our goals was to remind ourselves on a daily basis of our priorities, and one of those priorities is "people over things." This is our "people" week. Our markers have names like Jean, Tom, June, Timmy, Boo, Mike, Joy, Scott, Amelia, Kate, John, Joanne, Audrey, Zuleika, Gerrie, Malcolm, Claudia, Ray, Jackie, Rose, and others who have made our lives sweeter by their presence. We will head back home on Saturday, but the spirits of these people will go with us. They are the best kind of markers - reminders of love. We are forever grateful.

Our reasons for making the trip will have been accomplished. Our trip home will be full of memories of life, love, and laughter. Quacking over Duck River will be just icing on the cake.

Guest Blogger Today

We had the pleasure of visiting with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren this afternoon. While we were eating dinner, I took the opportunity to ask our ever-precocious 4-year-old Caroline for help with my blog.

“I need to write in my blog tonight,” I said. Caroline nodded. She has a blog of her own, albeit one sorely neglected as of late. “So tell me - what should I write about?”

I was truly curious as to what she would say. Caroline has always had a tendency to be distracted by whatever is in her environment at the moment. When Caroline was younger, I used to talk with her on the telephone, and the conversation would invariably turn nonsensical, almost evolving into a story-telling mode, except for the fact that the things she was saying didn’t make sense. I finally discovered the reason when her dad took the phone and explained what was going on. Caroline had been watching TV while she was talking to me, taking the characters in a batch of commercials and weaving them into a whimsical tale that made no sense to anyone but her.

So tonight as we munched on our grilled chicken and vegetables, I asked my question and Caroline contemplated her answer. I knew she would draw from her extensive file of whatever she had been doing recently, the last thing she saw or heard, or whatever she noticed out the window while we were eating. One of those would undoubtedly serve as the basis for her answer.

Of course, she had an unlimited supply of material from which to formulate her response. After all, we had done a lot together already this afternoon. We had watched part of the Wizard of Oz. We had read a book about a broken powder box that was miraculously made whole again. She had played in the “bouncy house” in the basement. We had talked about our garden, and she had begged us to plant beets because “that’s Daddy’s favorite vegetable and my favorite vegetable!” When we arrived, she had coins all over the coffee table, as she had emptied her little bank and was sorting the coins into piles. We had even gone over a few pages in her “workbook,” where she drew lines to connect antonyms (100% correct, of course). So all these experiences, I knew, could be potential sources for whatever subject line Caroline was about to advise for my blog entry.

So you can see why I was rather surprised at what she said. “People’s skin and eyes.”
I pushed her hair out of her face (her hair is always falling in her face). “What about people’s skin and eyes?” I had to ask.

“That people who have different skin and eyes are regular people. They’re just regular people.” She looked up at me with a very serious expression. “And you shouldn’t make fun of them.”

Her father then elaborated a little, saying that she had just been to the fair this week and had heard a kid making fun of a black man that had been running a merry-go-round a few years ago, calling him “Gorilla Man.” Chris said it happened because the kid, young at the time, had never seen a black man before (Maine is a pretty white state).

So from her deep reservoir of images and sounds and thoughts, this is what Caroline offered for my blog entry tonight. So be it. Caroline, this is for you. I'm sure we all can use the reminder.

“People who have different skin and eyes are just regular people, and you shouldn’t make fun of them.” - Caroline Alice, age 4, August 9, 2007

In Progress...

One of my favorite comic strips (thanks, Kelly, for the recommendation!) is Pearls Before Swine, written by Stephan Pastis. His characters exhibit a variety of traits; they are intelligent or endearing or gullible or stupid....and then there’s Rat. He is just plain evil. Stephan Pastis once said that he had given Rat his (Stephan’s) own worst characteristics. He took his personal faults and combined them to create the character of Rat, who is obnoxious, selfish, rude, arrogant, and greedy - and a liar and cheater to boot. As soon as I read that, I wondered, if I created a character with my worst faults, what would she/he be like? It wasn’t pleasant to think about.

Every time you get advice on how to prepare yourself for a job interview, it’s always the same suggestion, which goes something like this: “Your potential employers will usually ask you to describe your worst fault. The key is to use this to your advantage. Tell them something that could be categorized as a weakness, but in your description, make it sound like it’s really a strength.” Uh huh. The oldest trick in the book. Then they’ll offer an example, like “I’m a workaholic. That’s my weakness. I just work, work, work.” We all understandably want to play up our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. But gee, isn’t there room for a little honesty?

Some of my bad traits probably don’t bother me as much as they bother others. It’s all in the perspective. A habit that others might find highly annoying I might label as “eccentric.”

But other bad traits I know I possess are so glaring to me that they blind me, sometimes enough that I can’t even acknowledge my good qualities, which I know are in there somewhere. One of these such traits is my apparent inability to finish anything.

Now, anyone who knows me will nod and laugh at this analysis. Most of my family and friends would say that Carol is a great planner, Carol is a great starter, Carol is an idea machine. Sometimes I take months, even years, to plan a project or formalize a goal. Then when the race starts, I’m the first horse out of the gate. I’m excited, I have the adrenaline flowing, and I’m unstoppable.

But somewhere along the way, I get bored, or tired, or - as is usually the case - distracted by the next great idea that pops into my head. Quilters call this UFO syndrome (unfinished objects). Hence the quilt I started for Rachel’s marriage gift, which I am still trying to finish, and the poor girl just celebrated her 5th anniversary. How sad is that?

I was reading in my pregnancy diary (Matt) last night where I had written about a cross-stitched birth announcement I had started with plans to hang it in his nursery. It had little pastel ducks, rabbits, and blocks, with his name, birth date, weight, and height. I knew the date ahead of time (scheduled C-section) but I left the weight and height information for later stitching. I believe it was just a few years ago that I finally stitched that information in. The thing is still not framed. Matt is 24 years old. I’m sure it would be a wonderful whimsical addition to his bedroom now.

Other projects I have stored away in boxes, carefully labeled with their identification, maybe with drawings or patterns tucked inside. I’ve read about old ladies who die, and their survivors open these boxes and poignantly sigh, “Aw, Grandma never got to finish this...I think I can piece this quilt together/sew this placemat/cross-stitch this ornament (fill in the blank).” Then said relative lovingly finishes said project, and feels the bond of connection so strongly with their loved one, even through the veil of death.

Yeah, right. I see my kids and grandkids going through all this stuff and saying, “Oh crap! Here’s another half-finished project Grammy never did get done. What the heck are we supposed to do with it?! Hey, there, hand me that Goodwill bag, will ya?”

Of course, I have been known to finish a few projects. When that miraculous event occurs, I make sure I take a photograph, just as a souvenir to look back on one day and reflect on the fact that I actually completed something. But those moments are rare.

I don’t relegate this unfortunate trait of mine to my craft projects, no siree. I dropped out of piano lessons before my teacher and parents wanted me to. I went to college one year, then quit. It’s insidious. In any given moment, I am feeling guilty about innumerable things in my life so freely abandoned. Then I hear quite clearly the convicting phrase from the Book of Common Prayer, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done...” and I weep.

Then I dry my tears and start planning my next project.

Oh to be a Completer! Oh to be a Fulfiller! A Doer! A Concluder! A Terminator! (Ooh, I don’t like the sound of that last one.) Alas, my name is Carol Tiffin James, and I’m an Unfinisher. There’s got to be a good comic strip in there somewhere.