All I need to know I learned from my car

Corolla was dependable. She always started, no matter what the weather.

Some people look to Ouija boards for guidance. Others shuffle tarot cards or scrutinize tea leaves. They're so silly and misguided. Those folks should pay closer attention to what their cars are telling them, instead of just complaining about the money they're forking over at the pumps. My Corolla has provided all the counsel I needed on more than one occasion.

Even when she (a personal adviser is never an "it") was a young motor, Corolla was strikingly dependable. She didn't boast the latest gadgets, wasn't particularly sleek or sporty, and didn't cause heads to turn or admirers to whistle when we chugged through parking lots. But she always started, no matter what the weather. The message? Reliability earns admiration even if your outside packaging isn't as beguiling as you'd like.

Trauma struck during her middle years when Corolla, age 9, was stolen as she slumbered on the street in front of my house. In the morning, the police said, "Forget it. That car's a pile of spare parts by now."

"Probably stolen for a drug run," my husband cheerfully suggested. "The car could go five, 10 miles over the speed limit (not that your car could go 10 miles over most speed limits), and the cops wouldn't give it a second thought. Who would suspect anyone of stealing a junker like that?"

I ignored the insults and rented a red sports car, causing friends to think that Corolla wasn't the only one in a midlife crisis. The flashy sports model and I visited a few dealers, but my heart wasn't in the buying mood – and this vehicle wasn't offering advice.

Then, three weeks after the theft, police from a small Wisconsin town called. My car had been abandoned in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Did I want her back? Of course.

She was in bad shape. Wasn't I concerned about repairing a car in really bad shape? Certainly, but I still wanted her.

After a tow truck fetched her home, I paid for repairs that ended up costing much less than anything the sports car and I had spotted in a new model.

I emptied her overflowing ashtrays and opened her doors to air out the stale smell. Although Corolla was rust-specked and dented, she and I were back on the streets. The message? An obstacle might slow you down, but doesn't have to stop you altogether.

A few summers later, a hit-and-run Mercedes rammed Corolla – who was again innocently parked on the street minding her own business – and left a broken taillight and smashed bumper in its wake. In turn, the Mercedes' front fender was fiercely bent, jamming the right wheel until it could barely turn. When the police caught up with the driver, she wasn't in any shape to walk the proverbial straight line, much less steer a car.

Who would've imagined a parked Corolla going up against a speeding Mercedes? But odd things can – and do – happen. If the Mercedes had struck at a slightly different angle, the disabling damage would've been to Corolla. If it had avoided my car, it might have hit a pedestrian. So there were two more lessons: First, victory doesn't always belong to the strongest. Second, personal sacrifice (a few more dents and a broken light) can achieve a larger good (protecting somebystander from a much worse fate).

Corolla finally suffered a fatal setback. Although she still drove forward, she lost reverse and neutral – her transmission had gone kaput. I toyed briefly with the idea of keeping her. After all, how often do you need neutral? And while lack of reverse could cause occasional complications, I was a creative driver willing to try working around that inconvenience.

My husband gave me one of those "Have you flipped?" looks, so I reluctantly started the hunt for a replacement. Corolla's final message? Abandon both reverse with its regrets and disappointments and neutral with its inability to commit to any direction, and march forward, always forward.

My new Corolla is prettier, equipped with electronic windows and automatic door locks, but doesn't offer instructions on how to conduct my life. I'm afraid I'm on my own unless someone has a motor muse they're willing to share. I'd gladly donate a tank of gas, even at current prices, in exchange.

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