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The family asylum on wheels.

One of the big car manufacturers has been running an ad for a family van that comes equipped with a free DVD system. "Experience the joy of a quiet ride," says the copy above the photo of an apparently empty vehicle. The perspective of the photo puts the viewer in the back seat looking straight ahead through the front windshield at a dark ribbon of highway weaving its way through an undulating rural landscape.

There is no one pictured in either the driver's seat or the passenger's seat. And right in the upper centre of the windshield where you might expect to see a rear view mirror, is a small TV screen filled with a fancifully coloured cartoon image of an ostrich (or perhaps an emu) in conversation with a lion.

While such a getup might indeed appeal to some automobile shoppers, it gives me the existentialist chills. Must we always be within arm's length of our electronic distractions? And what a strange idea of 'quiet' it is which would exchange the chatter of one's own children for the canned inanities of a cartoon.

At our dad's funeral service last year, each of his four sons gave testimony in Jack's honour and I was flabbergasted when my brother Ted opened his talk with a reminiscence of family car trips, re-opening a whole rich vein of family lore I hadn't thought about in decades. With morn and dad having a priori claims on the front seat windows, competition for the back seat portals was pretty fierce. The worst seat of them all was middle back where you would be subjected to endless fraternal tortures and humiliations.

But middle front wasn't exactly a free ride either. But once you'd reached about the age of four, in the depths of your heart you knew there was something babyish, even sissyish, about sitting between your parents. While neither parent was likely to administer an unprovoked noogie on you, Jack would occasionally do this thing, particularly in the summer when you were wearing shorts. Right out of the blue, he would clap his hand around your left leg, just above the knee, and give it a painful, vise-like squeeze; not letting go until you were twisted up like a pretzel in agonized discomfort and begging for release. Jack was trained as a butcher and worked most of his life as a salesman for Canada Packers. In his talk, Ted asserted that this sadistic little quirk was reflective of Jack's "profound knowledge of meat."

I see the long family car-ride as a necessary challenge, an acid test that needs to be endured and met and overcome for a family to establish its truest mettle. Like a power blackout, it temporarily eliminates all of modern society's distractions and interruptions and forces each family back upon their own resources. Any flare-ups of temper and irritation are eventually resolved--if for no other reason than because we're stuck with each other, for hours if not days, and we simply have to find a way to get along. Once you break through that threshold where each individual's preferences and aversions must be set aside for the sake of a common good, great things can start to happen.

You can actually get to know, at a much deeper level, something about these people you usually take so completely for granted. Siblings who may not ordinarily be inclined to cut one another much slack, start devising games out of thin air involving passing licence plates or billboards or cars with one headlight. Such desperately contrived amusements eventually peter out, but have laid foundations that can soon lead on to more substantial exchanges. Looking back, I recognize that some of the most sustained and illuminating conversations I ever had with my parents and brothers, occurred on those interminable car rides home from Montreal or Detroit or Ottawa or New York.

And you can also learn the rewards of keeping silent for a spell, of cultivating your own thoughts and seeing where that leads, or of entering into prayer and drawing closer to God. Many Catholic families use their time in transit as an opportunity to recite the Rosary together. One visual artist I know traces his lifetime preoccupation with the iconography of maps, to bored family car rides. Starved for a little intellectual stimulation, he went rifling through the glove compartment one hot afternoon, unfolded this big tattered sheet all covered with veiny lines and suddenly became fascinated with the concept of representing the world in that way.

Of course long car trips can be aggravating and boring and will drive everybody sandwiched into that clammy rolling asylum right around the bend. And that's just the first 50 miles. But don't give in to it. You and your clan are actually being tested by God at such times. If you but knew it, new depths of individual and familial character are being forged as each new digit rises up into view on the odometer. Slipping on a mobile video of Disney twaddle to muzzle the kids is not an option that any worthy parent will consider. It is, in fact, an act of parental defection.

Herman Goodden is a full-time journalist. He writes from London, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:Columnist; family car trips
Author:Goodden, Herman
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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