Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Windshield Factor

It took me a long time to learn the parts of a car; I still really don’t care about them.  I didn’t own a car until I was 24, and now—21 years later—I feel just as disconnected from my current car as I did from my first.

But the term “windshield” bannered itself across my forehead today as I was driving home from a frolicsome air-conditioned breakfast up north in Sedona, back down into the belly of Arizona’s worst heat in years: 118 degrees and humid.  

There is no pretending that these conditions are healthy for us, or that it’s okay to be outdoors.  My mom called from Minnesota last night and I said, “These are the opposite extremes of a way-below-zero day in January for you guys…with a high wind.” 

After all these years, I still could not bring myself to use the phrase “wind chill”.

I’ve never been comfortable with it, because I learned it incorrectly from the start.  To my young ears listening to adults talking all the time, something sounding like “windshield” ended up being correlated with something very bad, usually very cold.  Death related to windshield factor was particularly brutal.

In fact, I took “windshield factor” to mean the very worst thing possible that might happen in a car.
Around the same time, when I was nine, I’d been asking my dad how hard it was for him to get our car up a mountain.  “Do you have to work harder when we go uphill, or does the car do it for ya?” I would ask between my parents’ two front seats.

“The car does it,” my father would say, eyeing me through the “rear view mirror”.
“But you’re doing something with your feet,” I remember saying.  I could see my dad’s feet moving from pedal to pedal, and his right arm seemed to tense as it moved the car's handle.  There was always more commotion in the car whenever we went uphill; there had to be some connection.

Some years later, when the differences between cars and bikes were firmly set in my mind, I was off to college to discover, finally, two years into my undergraduate English degree, that there was also a significant difference between American Literature and English Literature, a difference that had somehow escaped me before, geography never being my strong suit.  I was not helped by all the ex-pat writers we studied, nor by one of my Honors English teacher’s feigned British accent, when in fact he was from New Jersey.
For one entire semester in 1986, I thought that the poet Ezra Pound was female based on the name “Ezra” alone, which for me fell into the same category as Edith and Ethel.  “She was this and she was that,” I wrote on my midterm.  “Her poetry was memorable.”  I could not have cared less about poetry at the time, much less learning any history behind it or seeing specific examples.  There was one picture of Ezra Pound in our textbook, and I remember thinking she looked masculine.  

One more thing that didn’t make sense.  I didn’t give her a chance after that.

So maybe it’s no surprise that even though I was born in Wisconsin, split between Michigan and Minnesota and Pennsylvania as a child—and even after I grew up and moved to Alaska—the meaning of “wind chill” did not come home to me until I began to travel as a young professor in Arizona.  I would attend writing conferences, and sometimes present.

To watch hotel TV was weird enough.  To finally see what I had always heard as “windshield factor” spelled as “wind-chill factor” on The Weather Channel made me doubt myself entirely.  Of course it was spelled that way: the term referred to a chill created by wind, so the spelling made perfect sense. How could I have misunderstood that word for so long?  Where had I been all my life?

What kind of an English teacher was I?

Twenty years later—this morning after breakfast—I was driving myself home through highway traffic too heavy for me.  I was safe and confident, but not particularly invested.  When something smaller than a baseball but bigger than a walnut hit the windshield right in front of my eyes, it happened so fast, it was over before I had time to react. 

I just kept driving and nothing else happened.  No glass splintering.  No other cars adversely affected by this careening object. Feeling a little lucky and surprised at the favor, I became particularly fond of my windshield in that moment, and all of its protective powers.  

I’m sure it would be good with the wind chill, too.

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