Imagine a sleek car, cornering a patch of asphalt in some place more beautiful than where you live. It glistens as your perspective pans and tilts with fluid motions, virtually caressing the vehicle through its circuit. The driver grips the leather bound steering wheel, and cracks a half-smile. He shouldn’t be having this much fun (and he probably shouldn’t be going this fast). He should be in a board meeting, under the thumb of a boss who probably drives an ugly, slow car. But for a $399 lease, and a little more in the small print, he’s been set free. Hence the smile.
Some of the best television commercials are the ones bankrolled by automobile manufacturers. They are simply amazing, artistic. And you really do feel the horsepower, and everything else that they are selling. I’ve been watching a little TV again. It’s a customary part of our cultural reorientation when we come back from Africa every few years. TV commercials are a window into the soul of a culture… for good or bad. One thing I’ve learned is that automobiles in modern America are much more than just machines.
My dad has always had an eye for a nice car. His 77 Mustang I mostly remember for the red vinyl interior. Twenty years on, he’s kept his affinity for red, but now it’s on the outside of his bright cherry Lexus coupe. When we were kids, there were a few occasions when dad would take us to an auto show, of which the largest was in New York City. Dad never really knew that much about cars: engines, valves, torque and the other many specifications important to only a few. He simply admired the beauty of them, and still does. And perhaps there’s something else he sees in the crisp lines and commanding performance of his little car. Maybe each of us is driving more than a car.
The makers of cars, I suspect, are selling more than machines. They are selling an image of some kind. Adventure, youth, freedom, power…
Dad really wanted to go the the auto show with me and my brother this year. Dad had been getting along pretty well as an outpatient over the weeks prior, and we thought it would be a great day out together – old memories and new. And it was. But my wheels were spinning the whole day. Thinking about our “culture of the car” with the curious innocence of a man who was last seen driving a 34-year-old Land Rover in a city whose streets would rattle my brother’s Jeep Commander to pieces. I brought a camera and prepared myself to be dazzled.
Dad’s been fatigued from his cancer, but otherwise has felt pretty good. So we picked up a wheelchair at the convention center and offered him a restful tour of thousands upon thousands of square feet of pure, glistening zoom-zoom. The New York auto show is really incredible. Huge, bright, loud, jam-packed, insanely rich – dripping with that burst of adrenaline you get in the TV advertisements: Control. Power.
It was interesting to see how cars have evolved in my absence these many years. We are, quite paradoxically, building automobiles toward two opposite ends these days. Greener, and bigger. Kind of like the engineering equivalent of the triple bacon cheeseburger accompanied by a small, guilt-free diet soda. Personally, I think the “green” thing is a sham. But no one really goes to the New York auto show to see the electric cars anyway. Among the dozens of manufacturers who showcased their latest models and breath-taking concept cars, I deduced a theme. A single adjective which could surely be read off the pages of every brochure in the building: Bold.
The cars were bold. The styling, the seats, the stereos. And as I slipped into the cradle of more than one leather crafted bucket-seat, ran my trembling palms over the black, smooth steering wheel, and pressed the clutch firmly while shifting through all six speeds… Bold was how I felt. Dad and I meandered from island to island. Whole worlds encompassed by a family of automobiles created by one builder or another. Worlds selling a particular image. All of them professing to be bold. I would sit in a few and imagine myself in that car. Owning that car. Possessing it and thus being transformed into the promise of the advertisements. It was intoxicating, and I think it was meant to be. This is how cars are sold. In the Jeep I was free, and ruggedly handsome. In the BMW, I was independently wealthy. In the Mazda min-van, I was a responsible adult who could appreciate both modest fuel economy and, of course, bold styling. (I think I fit best in the Jeep).
Dad didn’t join me much in the daydreaming. He would roll up next to each model and look at the craftsmanship while making thoughtful comments, nodding in approval, or not. At one point when I was lost in another leathery cocoon, my mind on an imagined stretch of curvaceous roadway – pursing my lips, feeling the power – I took a glance out the side window. There was dad looking in from a static universe. Unmoving from his wheelchair. Most certainly not feeling the power. Seeing him there snapped me out of the dream. And for the rest of the day I spent less time in the cars, and more time looking in as dad was.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but dad was catching quite a few looks as we wheeled around the enormous convention center. Most everyone was politely making space for the wheelchair to pass. But the glances were telling. It was as if we crashing a party. Weak things in the house of power.
We continued on to find a few models that dad was really curious to see. And as I made a path pushing his chair through the swelling crowds, around gorgeous cars, I saw a contrast. The allure of the show was to put you in those wheels. If you could imagine yourself in that car, it would somehow complete you. Fill some sort of hole in your life. I momentarily felt it myself. And made observant by a dose of reality from dad, I saw it on the faces of strangers as they slipped into the drivers seats of so many bold promises.
Of all the sets of wheels we can see ourselves in, we never see ourselves in the kind dad was sporting that day. His are perhaps too bold – Because the weakness inherent in a wheelchair speaks an unwelcome truth about us. The hole is too big for even the largest of SUVs to fill. But Jesus fits nicely.
Update on the family:
Dad is currently in the hospital with a touch of pneumonia. We had some great weeks together, but perhaps over-did it. He should be out next week, and sometime in the next month, doctors want to bring him back in for a bone marrow transplant. Renee and I are close to “home” in a missionary apartment at our home church. We are currently on a light furlough, trying to visit and share about our mission work while staying nearby for mom and dad. The future is uncertain for them, and thereby for us too. Our family is unsettled, a little lost even. But at the same time, blessed. We will keep this site updated with any travel plans as they fall into place. Pray with us for God’s gentle guiding hand these next couple of months. Thanks.