Car Talk

If I had a hammer, I'd take it to those minivan movie screens

I watched a lot of football over the weekend, which means I watched a lot of car commercials. I kept seeing one for a minivan that has dual screens in the backseat, so the kids can occupy themselves with movies while they’re riding—and won’t even have to argue about which to see. This commercial makes me immeasurably sad.

Every worthwhile conversation I ever had with my kids took place while I was driving a car. It’s where we thrashed out thorny topics like why boys tell you they like you and then make fun of you. It’s where we dissected current events: the tsunami in Indonesia, the floods in Louisiana, the day the twin towers fell. We talked about teachers and presidents and football and grandparents dying; we talked about what we believed and how we felt. There’s something easy and natural about talking in a car. You feel at a distance from reality; you’re between places—home and soccer practice, say, or school and a sax lesson—so you’re not really anywhere, yet. And you don’t have to look one another in the eye, the way you do at the kitchen table.

When I was young, my dad used to lead my brother and two sisters and me in singing on long car rides—World War I songs like “Over There,” hippie songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” weird songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It sounds unbelievably corny, but we got pretty good at harmonizing, and it occupied us a fair part of the way from Glenside to Maine. I could never get my kids interested in group singing—the two of them didn’t create enough critical mass to overcome the embarrassment. But talk we did.

If they’d been born 10 years later, they’d have spent those rides glued to mini movie screens, meeting the Fockers instead of finding out what their dad thought of being an only child, or why I vote the way I do. When I see that car commercial, all I can think of is opportunities—for connection, understanding, involvement—sacrificed for the sake of … quiet.

A week ago, my youngest got his driver’s license. While Jake practiced for the past few months, I discouraged car talk; I wanted him focused on steering and the clutch. Our shared rides became the opposite of those easygoing earlier ones, fraught with tension and anxiety. Now that he’s legal, he won’t need me to chauffeur him. We’ll talk even less than we do. We’ll grow further apart—until, somewhere down the road, he has to drive me, because I’m old and frail. We’ll talk again then, sitting side by side, not looking at each other, about the big stuff. It’s something to look forward to.