How to Delight and Humiliate Your Child


My father bought an 8-year-old Volvo station wagon in 1989, and drove it for thirteen years, until the a/c went kaput and the odometer read 250,000. He sold it for a neat $200. Away at college, getting the phone call about the Volvo was akin to learning a family pet had passed away. I guess. We never had a pet. But that car was most definitely a member of our family. Who would ever love it and hate it the way we did?

At 6 feet 2 inches, my tall father’s bald head had rubbed a permanent smudge in the ceiling above the driver’s seat. The car had its own special smell, a mix of WD-40 and aftershave. The tan leather upholstery was worn in like a La-Z-Boy, and a smattering of small holes in the floor caused by corrosion provided a decent amount of road noise. But the best thing about that car was the “back-back” seat, which was not a seat at all; it was a storage space accessed by the hatchback door, or, alternatively, by launching oneself over the backseat in a log roll, as my older brother and I often did when our parents weren’t looking.

When one parent was in the car, we fought over the front seat. When both were riding, we fought over the right side of the back seat. But when parked at Sonic, we compromised on the back-back. Nothing was better than sitting in the back-back with the door open, feet dangling while waiting for a rollerskating teenager to bring us our grilled cheese sandwiches, tater tots, and ice cream sundaes. And if we were lucky, the ensuing fast-food coma would elicit a “yes” from mom and dad at our persistent pleas to remain in the back-back on the way home, jostling around with no seat belts.

I loved that car. Parked in our garage next to the worn-out orange Datsun, it seemed, to my six-year-old self, like a luxury vehicle. In my small southern town, not too many people were driving Volvos. The car became one more thing to mark us as different, added to the list alongside my parents’ matching Ph.D’s, their hyphenated last name, their living room walls lined with endless shelves of books in a myriad of languages, and a suspicious lack of wall art prepared by taxidermists. My dad bought it because it was safe. He was, and is, a conservative man, a necessary trait for a middle school principal. The car was his calling card. More than once, teenagers he’d disciplined had dug their anger into that Volvo’s shiny exterior with house keys.

One night when my family was sitting in the worn booths of the local ice cream parlor, celebrating my brother’s participation in a rec league basketball game, some boys from my dad’s school egged the car and ran off. We had to wait inside the restaurant for my dad to clean the windshield, and for the police to come, and my childhood self was aware, possibly for the first time, that there were people who might not like us. My stomach churned with the newness of that particular brand of hurt.

I hated that car. Sixth grade was a breeze, but the summer before seventh grade, my teen angst kicked in big time, causing me to cajole my dad into dropping me at the entrance to the school parking lot so I could avoid being seen near the Volvo. I still loved cruising around town with the windows open and National Public Radio blasting, but always with an eye on passing cars, on the lookout for people who might recognize me, my dad, or the car. More than anything, I longed for a cloak of invisibility; that car was a spotlight.

Angst adorned me like a shroud for the duration of my teenage years; I don’t think I truly appreciated the Volvo, or my dad’s sense of humor, until after it was gone. One weekend when I came home from college, I drove my own car down the street past the ice cream parlor, and in the junkyard a few lots down, spotted the Volvo parked alongside rows of cars intended to be parted out or sold for scrap metal. I didn’t stop.

All of this begs the question: in what ways will I humiliate my own child? How can I do so in a lasting and fairly permanent way, but also a way that is only humiliating in his perception, so that he will look back from adulthood and see that, like Calvin’s dad always said, the experience was character building? I’m going to start a list. Suggestions are welcome.

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