In a matter of months we will swap out our rusty eight year old minivan for a hybrid model that plugs into our garage. We are patiently awaiting its arrival in the Midwest—eager to see if we like the idea of a plug-in, or the actual driving of one. These cars are flying off the proverbial shelves on the West Coast, but dealers here in the middle of the country don’t have it yet. I am fascinated that, in this day of on-demand everything, it is so hard for us to lay our hands on this particular car.
The timing of the minivan’s arrival is of the essence. Our summers are bookended by a trek across I90 from Chicago, IL to Utica, NY and into the Adirondack mountains from there. We make this trip, there and back, at least once, and often twice, in a summer. It is a road trip I have been doing my entire life, a kind of epic annual migration, in the spirit of the sea turtle.
The trick with any tradition that follows you from childhood into adulthood is to preserve what was great about it while still making it your own. However, even if exact replication were my intent, it would be impossible to recreate my childhood road trips. During my 1970’s childhood we rode free of car seats or seatbelts. I had a forest green corduroy pillow with armrests, oddly called a husband, which I would nestle against the side door. Behind me, in the way back, my sister would arrange a menagerie of no less than 20 stuffed animals.
For each trip, my mother purchased a book of paper dolls, and we would happily spend the first few hours punching out clothes, and then creating outfit-driven plot lines. When we tired of this, my sister would take a nap, while I snuggled into my husband with a book. Eventually she would awake, and a can of Planters Cheez Balls would make its way back and forth between the two of us, while we alternatively read and dozed.
Today’s ride is different for my boys who are confined not only by vehicular safety features, but also by the myriad cords connecting their headphones to their DVD players and iPhones. And therein lies the next difference: technology. My sister and I spent our childhood drives intermittently distracted and bored. We worked with Invisible Ink activity books, listened to books on tape, and read the traditional kind. When we were done with this, and looking for another distraction, it was not uncommon to hear one of my parents offer, “Just look out the window for awhile.”
My father typically put on the radio when the encroaching darkness removed the option of reading. One night, as we along the top of Ohio, my dad came across a local station playing a “Top 40” countdown from the 1960s. In short order my mother was singing “Leader of the Pack” to my father, hands clasped to her chest in mock despair. This amazing spectacle was followed by his crooning version of “Two Silhouettes on the Shade.” The music was magic, changing the whole alchemy of the car. My sister and I sat giggling in the back, fascinated by these entertaining people that had, until that countdown, remained latent in our parents. Alas, when we hit “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” at Number Four, the ratio of static to song become unbearable as we slowly lost the signal and drove out of range. I still have no idea what song topped the charts in 1965.
My boys are mystified by the fact that the radio is bound by space and time. On the radio, a song can only be happened upon, not selected. Nor can it be replayed, no matter how much you like it. The entire experience is the product of a specific time and place. The same might be said for those childhood car rides. For fifteen hours, we were a complete whole, made up only of the music, knowledge, ideas, jokes, experiences, sounds and smells that each of us brought into the car. There was no way to reach outside the car for more. We were finite.
In this way I am a bit wary of the new minivan. Its electric hook-up is, in fact, the least worrisome cord associated with this car. A closer look reveals that every nook conceals a USB port or screen. Which is to say that cars are, ever increasingly, looking to help you plug in and transcend. To break through the limitations of being a passenger, confined by space and time. New cars even attend to the driver’s need to be entertained. Interactive dashboard screens have replaced the only two things that moved on our old dashboard – the fluctuating speedometer and the faithful rolling odometer. The new car is full of distraction. My boys, unless otherwise monitored, could spend the whole 15 hours in individual worlds comprised of customized games and personalized playlists—and in so doing, never have the collective countdown experience of my childhood.
In recent years, I have drawn on activities from my childhood to keep us engaged and connected. We still scour passing trucks for license plates, aiming to spot all 50 states and some of the provinces before arriving in the mountains. We still read aloud from terrible joke books to pass the time. But I can’t help the feeling that the riddles and Twenty Questions are barely able to compete with Clash of Clans. Boredom is much harder to justify, “just look out the window,” a tougher sell. I will have to make my peace with some level of compromise.
Last year we found one way. Just before leaving I checked out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, all 17 CDs of it, from our local library. Harry accompanied us the entire way out to New York and back. We were all drawn in to the point of calculating rest stops to time with chapter breaks. Even my big thirteen year old in the third row capitulated, shedding first one ear bud, then the other, to join us as we cheered Harry past the dragons and through the maze. At the tail end of our trip, we pulled into our driveway just as (spoiler alert!) Voldemort returned to life. We looked at each other in disbelief. The ride was over; the book was not.
We tried listening to snippets as we ran errands, but short rides just weren’t cutting it, and one of us was invariably missing. So, week later, just before the CDs were due at the library, my husband dug a dusty CD player out of the basement and plugged it in. That night we gathered in our living room with final CD. All three boys brought pillows and blankets, and settled into the couch. We inserted the disc, forwarded to the right spot in the text, and then sat back to listen, not sure what to do with our hands or eyes. It was strange and awkward—and a little miraculous—like any anachronism. But as we listened to the closing chapters of the book we were there, together. We were finite.
This is part 1 of 3 of Susannah's series "Technology & Staying Present."
Read part 2, "Guesswork."
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