When weekend frustrations build, I wash the car and feel better.

Whether I soap up behind the house, or have it done at an automated operation, cleansing the car is therapeutic for me.

It gives me the feeling that I have accomplished something. That the forces of dirt and disorder have been dealt a setback, if only for a few days. That an area where grit and bird droppings once presided has been returned to the province of glistening chrome and metal.

Unlike many other household chores, car washing lets you see the results of your labor for several days. The car that I wash on Saturday will still shimmer on Sunday, will glow on Monday and, the Lord and the local starlings willing, will remain presentable until the next weekend.

It is easy to wash a car, and that too is part of the appeal. Expensive tools are not required. Just a hose, a bucket, some car wash soap, some soft rags -- diapers are terrific -- and a chamois to wipe the excess water. Under ideal circumstances, the chamoising is done with the windows rolled down so you can hear the ball game on the car radio.

It is so straightforward a task that the kids can join in -- and do. They don't always stick with it, of course. The 9-year-old, who once was a regular at our car-wash sessions, has moved on to other interests. But his 5-year-old brother, who began several years ago as a wheel washer -- the only part of the car he could reach -- has since worked his way up to holder of the hose.

The 5-year-old now regards car washing as a joint operating agreement between him and me. So much so that recently when he returned home from an outing to find me washing a car without him, he went into a rage. He accused me of violating our labor agreement. Car washing was his jurisdiction. As punishment to me, he shut the gate that separated the parking pad from the yard, and locked me out. Eventually our labor relations returned to an even keel, but only after I promised never again to wash cars without him.

Car washing stirs emotions in me too, often nostalgia. On a warm Saturday afternoon as I rub the chamois over the hood, I remember similar Saturday afternoons in Missouri when I was a teen-ager readying the car for my Saturday night date with Kathy Hinckley. Back then my car-washing sessions tingled with a sense of anticipation. I couldn't wait for night to fall. Now that sense of anticipation has been replaced by anxiety. I just want to get the job finished, and everything put away before it turns dark.

While I don't usually think of myself as a persnickety person, car washing brings out the finicky in me. Given the chance I will spend all afternoon cleaning the car. I don't merely wash it, I touch up the scratches in the paint, I wax, I clean the vinyl, then I polish the vinyl.

I used to think vinyl polishing, especially the steering wheel, was the most pleasing part of car washing. The polish transforms the steering wheel and the --board into silky smooth surfaces, free of lint, litter and drag. More than once I've thought of spraying vinyl polish on all my problems, and then just slipping through life.

But recently I found a new car-cleaning thrill: spraying the crevices in the trunk with an air hose. I pulled up to a gas station air hose, and for a mere 25 cents, I got to blast Christmas tree needles out of my trunk. Some of them had been hiding there for three years.

I believe all the tenets of conventional car-wash wisdom. I believe that cleaner cars go faster and burn less gas than those weighed down by dirt. I believe that having a clean car, like having polished shoes, is a sign of proper upbringing. And I believe in victory at all costs over road salt. I will fight it on the bumpers, I will fight it on door jambs, I will fight it in the wheel wells. I will never surrender.

Sometimes my assault on road salt requires that I go to an automatic car wash. This is not my preferred method of bathing a car. Automated car washes do an OK job cleaning the car, but strange things happen there. For instance, once a plastic cover for one of the car's parking lights didn't like the blow-dryer one car wash used. So when I wasn't looking, the plastic cover just took off. It cost me $36 to replace it.

I prefer washing my car myself, by hand. It is similar to bathing your kids, when you've got them in your hands, you take inventory of scars and scratches. Then you fix them up, keep an eye on their recovery.

All this hand labor has an effect on you. Once you washed, polished and pampered something, it can be harder to let it go.

A few years ago, for instance, when the kid who now can wash the roof was only hubcap high, I sold the family car. When the new buyer came to pick the old car up, he gave me a check and I was elated. But my son was heartbroken. He burst out in tears. In his eyes, some strange man had taken our car, the one he and I had just washed.

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