For about eight months, my garage workbench was buried beneath a pile of furnishings that my teenage son Will bought for a house he didn't have yet. And so my tools disappeared beneath a red love seat with no legs on it and a black chrome table with a mirror top that would have been perfect for Tony Montana's house in Scarface.
I finally got to clear off my workbench a few days ago – it was time to move our son back to university (and into the first house he has ever lived in without my wife and me). I had mixed feelings. I'd miss Will, but I did want to see the top of my workbench again. Parenting can definitely complicate the life of a car guy.
Although Will bought the furniture at Goodwill for next to nothing (the table was $14), I was ticked off at him because we didn't have anywhere to store it. But now we were reaping the benefit – we'd be able to furnish his university house for next to nothing.
Then came the Thousand Dollar Day.
Unlike the fully furnished Guelph University dorm room where he lived last year, Will's shared house had nothing in it. He needed a desk. After hunting through office supply stores, Wal-Mart and Sears, we decided to fall back on Ikea, the Swedish furniture supplier and cash extraction machine. The desk and a matching shelf unit would cost about $550 with tax. But first, we needed a truck to carry it. I borrowed my friend's Ford F-150 pickup, a behemoth that would easily swallow the desk and everything else we had to schlep up to Guelph. We also had a Ford Ranger, which belonged to Will's buddy, at our disposal.
The F-150 was not the ideal vehicle for an Ikea parking lot on a busy Saturday – fitting it into a parking slot was like docking a Carnival cruise liner at a local boat club. I located the desk, and the salesperson assured me that all the tools required for assembly were packed in the cardboard boxes. (He was wrong.)
My wife and I headed to Guelph, laden with everything from carpets to an office chair to a crate of dishes and a slow cooker. The F-150 barely felt the load, which didn't surprise me (it's designed to carry a ton of construction materials, after all). I glanced at the gas gauge – was it my imagination, or could I actually see it moving?
By early afternoon, I was at Will's new house, surrounded by cardboard crates, desk parts, and maddening Ikea instructions, which are designed by people who pride themselves on never using a single word of text, instead relying entirely on graphics that show exploded Sniglar changing tables and Sultan Lade beds. (I was dealing with the Hemnes desk, which appeared to have several hundred parts.)
Problem One: no tools in the boxes. We got back in the F-150 and hunted for a Canadian Tire, where I bought a set of tools, plus several items for Will's house (laundry hamper, dish detergent, kitchen devices, etc.) The bill was nearly $200. On the return trip, I noticed that F-150's gas gauge had sunk a little lower.
Back at Will's house, I returned to assembly duty. As a former Porsche-VW mechanic, putting together a desk should be easy, but Ikea's runic instructions made me feel like an archeologist trying to decode the cave wall drawings of a lost society.
As this went on, a university party was gathering steam in the house around me. A beer pong table was being unfolded, and girls were arriving. I heard bottles clinking on the floor above me. Distracted, I accidentally put a part in the wrong place. Now I needed pliers to get it out again. Back to Canadian Tire to spend another $15 and watch the relentless sweep of the F-150's gas gauge.
As the sun fell from the sky, I was still assembling. My wife ran out to buy groceries and further house supplies, abandoning me to my one-man hell of Ikea parts and mystifying diagrams. My wife returned, having spent another $75 or so. An hour later, I was finally done. (The desk looked great, and my son loved it.) It was time for my wife and I to eat dinner.
We climbed aboard the F-150 and headed out in the night, only to learn that every restaurant in Guelph was now closed. (It was nearly midnight.) We pulled into the McDonald's drive-through, ate in the truck, then headed east to Toronto.
The next morning, I filled and cleaned the F-150 for its return. The car wash was $25. The fill-up was nearly $150. (I didn't know they made gas tanks that big.) In a period of less than 24 hours, my wife and I had spent more than a thousand dollars on what had appeared to be a minor mission.
Of course they never are. A couple of years ago, a smart friend of mine told me about "burn rate," a term used by business types to describe negative cash flow. As a parent, I understood the concept only too well.
According to a Statistics Canada figure I once read, the average cost of raising a child in this country is $18,000 a year. Based on that, my wife and I have spent $792,000 so far – the price of about eight Porsche 911s. (Which explains why we don't have a Porsche 911.)
If the financial life of a middle-class Canadian parent were charted on a graph, it would probably resemble a submarine journey into the Mariana's Trench. The graph would begin with the gradual slope of your twenties, when your income and expenses are minuscule. Then come childbirth and the ear-popping descent into the financial abyss – daycare, hockey school, video games, graduation trips, school tuition. And then there are the impossible to predict yet inevitable disasters – like the day my son launched a test car through the garage door.
Someone said that life isn't about getting there. It's about the journey. And Thousand Dollar Days are part of the ride. So I intend to enjoy them. My plunge into the depths will end soon enough.
CLARIFICATION: Moving Will Cheney's stuff to university involved two pickup trucks, a Ford F-150 and a Ford Ranger. The Ranger was initially incorrectly identified in the picture.
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