wheel woman

Car rides are where it’s at, when I need to have a meaningful chat with someone in my life.

Many parents know this trick.  To get your kid to open up, usher him or her to the automobile for some sort of longish errand, sit behind the wheel, pull off a complicated left turn, and throw out a casual observation or question while seeming to be paying only partial attention.

The distance between front seat and back seat, the lack of eye contact, and the buddy-movie equation tends to get the conversation flowing. 

Going back a generation, my mom knew this trick.  I remember the 120 mile drive west on I-70, heading to Kansas City to buy new school clothes, an annual odyssey of August.  It was probably the summer before senior year.  Despite the fact that no boys had ever asked me out, and despite my conviction that I was a skinny freak who would never attract the opposite sex, she knew better. 

As I recall, when we crossed the bridge over the Missouri River near Rocheport, she began a meandering, awkward lecture about boys, their goals vis a vis girls, and the dangers therein.  I was mortified, of course, and don’t remember anything specifically, except for the euphemistic conclusion.  ”You have to be careful, Jennifer, or some boy will wrestle you to the mat.” 

I’m sure I grunted something noncommital, inwardly thinking “As if!”  Or maybe “If only!”  Still, her melodramatic pronouncement definitely sank in.  Chris loves this quote, which only adds to his appreciation for my mom’s often brilliant wordsmithery.

The monotonous lull of I-70 seemed to bring out cautionary lectures among parents.    That same summer, a group of innocent girls piled into a car driven by our friend Caroline’s father.  We were bound for Six Flags Over Mid-Missouri.  Grey-haired and  ancient, Caroline’s dad was gruff and protective of his 8th child and only daughter.  I was shocked when he lectured us about watching out for predatory boys.  He actually said “You girls mark my words, boys will try to get down your pants” – another phrase I had never heard before.   Muffled gasps and giggles met his words.  But again, I remember those cautionary words and that ride to this day.  And sadly enough, it was Caroline who got pregnant shortly after graduating from her Christian college.   She kept the baby and tabled her dreams – a life-altering event indeed.

When Ian was a preschooler and had just learned about death, he asked me a long barrage of questions on the subject in the car.  I remember it vividly – the town we were driving through, Ian’s struggle to articulate abstract concepts, the surreal juxtaposition of banal landscape and sublime workings of a child’s mind.  

And when I want to have a long talk with Chris, the car is usually the best place.  If you’re the driver, there’s nothing else to do except listen to the radio, or talk.   We’ve had long, meandering, meaningful discussions while the miles roll away beneath.

At home, we’re distracted by computer screens, phone calls, unwashed dishes, unfolded laundry, unmade beds.  Someone is always buzzing around doing something, because there’s always something to do.  But the siren song of the computer is especially tempting. 

I hate talking to someone and seeing their eyes darting to the screen while they say “uh huh, uh huh.”  You know they’re not really taking in what you’re saying, they’re trying to trick you so you’ll stop moving your mouth and go away, after which point, they’ll retain little.

This does not make me unique.  I have a friend who sometimes barks at her uber-wonky husband, “Take your hand off the mouse and step away from the computer!”   A woman I know who has a high-powered lawyer husband once whisked him away on a surprise trip to Martha’s Vineyard, because she heard that there was poor reception there and his blackberry would be stilled.  I hope they had a least one or two dinners featuring all human conversation.

Cheaper than Martha’s Vineyard is the family car, which also enforces stillness and focus.  If you can prevent all the other forms of intrusive technology that have encroached into automobiles from butting in,  it’s still – in my mind – the best place to have an uninterrupted talk.

Where do you have the best talks with your partner or kids?  Pillow talk?  Car talk?  Or neither of the above?
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