Friday, January 06, 2012

Silent Putridity

Along with deer and wild turkeys, skunks make up a significant portion of the wild animals that roam through the neighborhoods in our semi-rural neck of the woods. A few times a month, it seems, a skunk will make its way into our backyard, probably seeking refuge for the night under our backyard deck. We know this, of course, because we wake up with our eyes watering from the acrid smell that follows skunks around like Pigpen's cloud of dust.

Last night we experienced a new chapter in human-skunk relations. Around 3:30 a.m., we heard a scuffle between small animals on the deck just outside our room. We don't know exactly what happened, but we know with absolute certainty that one of the animals involved was a skunk, and that it was not a friendly encounter. Whoever was involved in the altercation was on the receiving end of a heavy dose of a skunk's essential oils.

I got up to investigate the fight just as the initial cloud began to silently infiltrate the house. Closed windows and doors are no match for the skunk smell under ordinary circumstances. With our bathroom window slightly ajar, we never stood a chance.

I have frequently smelled the aftereffects of a skunk in the area, but I do not think I have ever been in close proximity to the immediate aftermath of an actual spraying. There's something quantitatively different about a skunk's spray deployed in anger compared to the skunk smell we all know and love. The noxious stench smells like burning plastic, and spreads quickly and thoroughly into every corner and crevice of your house, clothing, and nasal passages. It is astonishingly strong, an assault on the senses. Our candles usually employed to neutralize doggie indigestion were powerless against the skunky onslaught. The plug-in scent dispensers that we previously banished to a storage closet after less than a day because they made our eyes water and skin itch were welcomed back with heartfelt apologies. Their chemical approximation of smells were are supposed to find inviting, ordinarily obnoxious and fake, was now like rosepetals and jasmine compared to the forces of evil we were battling, but gained territory against the skunk offensive only within a pitifully small radius. We could hardly get back to sleep, and both kids woke up recounting dreams revolving around horrible smells.

Today was our normal morning to run. We were more eager than usual to get out, if only to gulp in as much fresh air as we could. After clearing our senses for half an hour, opening the front door and entering the foyer was like getting smacked across the face with a 2 x 4. We can almost accept and deal with the normal skunk smell, but the ultra-repellent burning plastic smell was simply intolerable. We sprayed Lysol everywhere, opened windows, and bundled up against the pre-dawn chill. Unfortunately, we discovered that stench had made its way into every corner of the house, including closed closets. Our clothing and towels bore the unmistakable aroma of eau de skunk.

Our weekend will involve washing clothes nonstop, cleaning the carpets and spraying the drapes with Fabreeze.

And cooking with lots of garlic and basil.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

We Have Been Assimilated

Automakers report that sales were up industrywide. In 2011 in something of a surprise, we contributed to that uptick. We added to Volvo's 25% increase in sales for the year by taking delivery of a 2012 XC90 just before Christmas.

We can now say we are fully assimilated to life in Moraga, because if you had to pick one automobile as the official town car, the XC90 would be it.

On the way home from the dealer

Over the last few years, as Michael grew too big to be carried on a lap, it became impossible to travel anywhere in one car, even for short trips, whenever we had visitors (i.e. grandparents in town). The need for 6+ passenger capacity forced us to consider the possibility of acquiring an SUV or [shudder] a minivan.

For a long time, some portions of our family have lived in Oregon, which requires travel through a snow zone during the winter. We met that challenge once, with chains on the Passat familymobile. In general, however, traveling through snow is something we would prefer to avoid, so we usually limit our Oregon trips to the summer. For some time, we knew that Cheryl's parents had thoughts of moving to the Lake Tahoe area. Once that finally happened this past year, and we visited to play in the snow in November, it became apparent that, with our proximity to Lake Tahoe, traveling through snow would become a regular consideration for our future. If we were to get any sort of new vehicle, all-wheel-drive became a necessary consideration. Thankfully Sadly, that ruled out minivans.

There are a ton of SUVs in the market, but many are no larger than a station wagon. They are just taller, heavier, less capacious and more thirsty than the wagon we already had. We needed something a little bigger, with the third row of seats to allow for more passengers. We were very systematic in our approach in evaluating larger SUVs, spending focused time at the San Francisco Auto Show for the last two years, dispatching the kids to clamber in and out of the third row seat of a variety of vehicles. At the show this past November in particular, we were ridiculously thorough at my direction, sampling each of the likely contenders twice so that we would not be swayed by either first or last impressions. Although they rolled their eyes a bit, the kids played along and contributed significantly to our evaluation.

Ease of ingress to, egress from, and stowage of the third row seat was a high priority. Each manufacturer handles that engineering task differently, some with more success than others. We looked at a Buick that required near disassembly of the flimsy second row seat. The Ford Explorer operated the third row by pushbutton, giving me visions of expensively failed servomotors at some post-warranty moment down the road. The BMW X5 (never really a serious contender), which really is not big enough to have a proper third row seat, awkwardly pivoted its second row forward, leaving the third row traveler with an gymnastic squeeze into the back. The Audi Q7 (also not a serious contender) was enormous, enormously expensive, enormously comfortable, and not nearly as large inside as its exterior dimensions would suggest. The Toyota Highlander, as could be expected, did everything well, albeit with a deficit of style. Our collective consensus settled on the Volvo, which had a third row that was easily accessible and stowable, wrapped in a package that was very comfortable and attractive inside and out, and priced at the low end of that particular niche of the market.

Over the Thanksgiving break, Michael and I slipped out for a morning of test driving of some of the contenders. My interest was not so much how the vehicles drove, but how useful they truly would be. Testing my theory that most SUVs below the Suburban class are little larger than midsize station wagons, I took measurements of every useful dimension of our Passat wagon's luggage compartment I could think of: width, depth, height, height below the window (i.e., space below the cargo cover) and how much the slant of the rear window intruded on the cargo space. The cargo areas in the SUVs proved to be wider than the station wagon, but, for the most part, were no longer or taller, with a much greater intrusion from the slant of the rear window. The Volvo was the big winner, larger in every dimension, particularly width, then the Passat. It also had more room behind the third row than any of its competitors.

Having concluded that an all-wheel-drive SUV satisfied our semi-critical needs that have developed within the last couple of years, it became a simple matter of timing: if we were going to do this at all, when would we do it? The sad reality is that Kelly will be leaving home to go to college in less than four years. If we were going to do this at all, we decided should do it sooner rather than later in order to enjoy the benefits of the greater passenger capacity and ability to drive through snowy mountain passes.

It hit me the Sunday before Christmas that we could take advantage of favorable lease terms offered by Volvo during December and get started on this adventure right away. I flirted with marital Armageddon for couple of days, thinking I would re-create a Lexus commercial by parking the new car in the driveway with the big red bow on it. Wisdom most certainly comes with age, apparently, since I came to my senses and brought Cheryl into the decision-making process. Not until after I had worked out the outlines of a deal through, though (I regard that as "marshalling all of the facts"). After getting over her shock, Cheryl offered smart counsel. Over the course of our discussions, I reversed course and decided we shouldn't get the vehicle now, while she transitioned at the same time from being opposed to it to being excited about it. It didn't take anything more than that for me to be enthusiastic about the idea again, so we went ahead with the deal. We managed to keep it a surprise for the kids for Christmas, which was every bit as fun as I thought it would be.

(While I am generally a buy-and-hold person, the abundance of electrical and electronic gizmos on modern cars, especially Volvos, frightened me. Until proven otherwise, I see most modern cars as rolling storehouses of expensively-failed-silicon-brains-to-be. Hence, the three-year commitment, with free service for everything but gas and tires, will help me sleep at night. The much more modest initial financial outlay of a lease was absolutely necessary for us to pull this off nice, too. We have been able to hold onto the Passat, a fact that did not slip past the delighted aforementioned high schooler.)

The experience of actually acquiring the car is a story unto itself, and the subject of a future note. Having now had the vehicle for a couple of weeks (I have a hard time calling it a car, especially because I grew up with an International Scout that we always called "the truck"), including a shakedown cruise to Los Angeles and back for Christmas, we're very pleased with it. It is roomy, comfortable, versatile, and meets every expectation we had for it. The design is a little long in the tooth because the sale of Volvo from Ford to China's Geely delayed the development of a successor model, but it has aged well and remains attractive and useful.

The only real trick is figuring out which Volvo is ours in the local supermarket parking lot.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Not Found On Expedia

The truly intrepid traveler can now book passage online to anywhere on earth, or beyond. Virgin Galactic is now accepting reservations (directly or through a "local accredited space agent") for its upcoming flights into space. Just go to their booking website to schedule your voyage.

Make sure your AmEx has a credit limit of $200,000, though. And bring your own peanuts.