I confess to taking a sudden and unexpected interest in the BBC show "Top Gear" over the summer. And it isn't just the British humor and the inherent boyishness of car-obsession, but I am actually becoming fascinated by the cars themselves. This is troubling because (a) I am no where near affluent enough to collect cars, (b) as an English professor, thinking about cars is a huge distraction, and (c) the hosts of the show are virulently anti-environmentalist and hostile towards the very idea of public transportation. I've always liked trains, personally, and I'm pretty keen on the planet too, but for the first time in my life I find myself staring at nice cars out in public, like a perverted Transformer.
The other day, though, the family had just finished dinner, the kids had already done their homework, and we didn't want to miss the last daylight of another autumn day. So we piled into our minivan and took a family drive, exploring roads in our tiny rural town that I had never even noticed before, and finding ourselves on country roads that seemed to go on forever, without any GPS noise to distract us from the experience of noticing. It was quite clear to me then that my fascination with the car-show had little to do with the cars themselves-- my Dodge Caravan is a boring metal color, bruised in places, and for chrissakes it's a minivan-- but had to do instead with the mundane joys of "driving about," something I had known as an 18-year old maybe, but quickly forgot in the rush of getting-there, as un-missed and un-thought-of as a lost tooth. But because of the show, I kept feeling about in my mouth for the gap, and was surprised to find that particular missing tooth growing back.
I have never paid more than $3000 for a car. And soon, given the state of the van and the needs of the family, I almost certainly will have to. But I'm fortunate to have escaped the narrow obsessions of speed and power that appear to be the perennial fixations of car-culture. For I could have easily confused my love of travel with the love of traveling fast. I could have easily mistaken my family for extra weight, burdening a perfect machine that might otherwise have accelerated forever.