Lorne Daniel: Auto Arousal

marathonlitreview —  February 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

 

1959: Dad and three of the four boys are at the little yellow linoleum table in the
kitchen alcove of a tight but tidy post-war bungalow. Mom is pregnant, not daring to hope
that this fifth child will be a girl so she can call it quits on carrying babies, twisting her hands
into the frayed apron around her waist, starting to straighten up in the kitchen as she always
does while the guys dig in. Where is Lorne, she asks. The quiet one, easy to overlook. The
pork chops and mashed potatoes are going fast and if he’s not there soon, well – the gravy is
almost gone already. It’s hard to make much gravy from pork chops. She sends the eldest, the
one on the end of the dinner bench who can slip out, to go fetch his baby brother.

It’s not a lengthy search, down the short hall, behind the closed door of the shared
bedroom.

“Hey Keeker Weaker, dinner.” No response. He pushes the door open. “Keeker!”

I’m standing over a newspaper spread, arms flailing, making intense buzzing,
sputtering sounds. Gears grinding, pistons firing, the thunk of a door. My arms windmill
wildly. Laid out in front of me is today’s newspaper – a full page ad from McFarlane
Goodacre Motors – the full lineup of 1960 Mercurys. But I am not there, not in that room.

I have already turned the key, slipped a 1960 Mercury Comet into reverse, backed out
of the driveway, thrown the long shift lever with its white knob up into D, spun the red
steering wheel with half-moon chrome horn to the left and pulled into traffic. Down the street,
right at the corner, a rolling stop at Knudson’s corner, pointing the chrome Comet hood
marker through the neighbourhood, down the hill past the Paramount Theatre, window rolled
open, elbow on the door, one hand on the wheel, cruising …

“Keeker Weaker!” My brother’s shout finally cuts through like a truck horn. It’s a
wonder I didn’t have an accident, so startling was the interruption.

Decades later, I look back in wonder at that car buzz – how far it took me, how
strongly it took me. Where did it come from? Brain researcher Yvonna Reekie writes about a
possible ‘brain disorder’ in her work on autonomic arousal. Autonomic as in automatic, not
rationally thought through. The theory, in my limited understanding, is that certain stimulus
triggers are acted on by the amygdala (our instinctive brain) without having to travel to the
prefrontal context for more complex consideration and debate. This is good when you need to
pull your hand away from a flame or flinch to deflect an object flying at your face.

But there can be other, atypical, triggers. For me, it seems, the mere sight of a car
elevates the blood pressure, narrows the visual field, essentially reduces me to the level of
Pavlov’s dogs.

Over the years, I learned to minimize the merciless teasing from baffled brothers by
sneaking into the basement or turning on the taps in the bathroom behind a locked door. Like
a schizophrenic who learns not to voice his visions, I found ways to bottle the buzzing, to grip
my fists together so tightly that the arms couldn’t fly off in their car-powered arcs. The veins
in my arms bulged, blood not circulating; my hands built calluses.

I was possessed. It was religious possession, it was time and place transcendence.
And only the layering of 50 years of living have kept me somewhat intact, in place.

* * *

Summer 2009, on the high plateaus of central Mexico. I didn’t come here for the cars.
I came seeking sabbatical, including sabbatical from thinking about cars.

Back home, I lead a citizens’ group battling, educating, meeting, talking, presenting to
shift the balance on the streets of my city in western Canada. It’s about cars – and more. Our
rapidly growing group asks the community to rethink it relationship with cars – to broaden its
definition of streets – to include the way that people on foot, people sitting on a bench, people
on bikes or wheeling a wheelchair create a richer, healthier urban tableau.

City politicians and traffic engineers are starting to say the right things: “transportation
alternatives,” “pedestrian-friendly,” “human scale streets.” But it’s been three years of taking
photos, schlepping my laptop and PowerPoint around the service club circuit, posting other
cities’ fine examples on the web, sending newsletters and, damn it, the sidewalks still end
short of their destinations, short of reason, while the bleak black lanes of asphalt dedicated to
cars continue to widen and multiply.

So my wife and I have landed in Leon, bound for San Miguel de Allende, and to my
dismay I’m noticing cars. Our shuttle driver slides us into a big-shouldered black Yukon,
starts it up and leaves us (air conditioning running) to help another passenger search for
missing luggage. We stretch out, cool off, make small talk with fellow passengers while I
ponder the significance of sitting in a Yukon, idling away on a high dry plateau thousands of
kilometers south of the real Yukon territory in northern Canada, where the glaciers recede at
record pace.

With the search for luggage abandoned, we are just nicely away from the airport when
the driver veers off the highway into the ditch, careening towards a corrugated metal Quonset.
Whoa! Interesting. This seems to be an intentional ditching. He drives the Yukon straight into
the shed: junk food immersion. The walls are terraced with jalapeno chips, limon nuts,
cookies, coolers of Cokes and Fantas, and of course cervezas: Caronas, Sols, Modelos.

We bump back up onto the highway happy – happy to be driven, to be on the last
stretch of a journey. The other passengers in the front two rows, my wife and I in the back.
This is good– I can strap on my seat belt, sink into the cavernous leather darkness and leave
the conversation to others, including my wife, who knows my quirks, my craving for
restorative solitude.

As always, the vehicle windows turn the outside world into a TV screen, a passing
entertainment. I’m the only one, I’m sure, to notice when we slide by the GM assembly plant
at Silao, just south of Leon – 1.2 million square feet, idled by the recession of 2008/09. This
Yukon likely came out of that plant – it and its cousins the Suburban, Escalade and Avalanche
(another good Canadian image) were assembled here.

The two-lane asphalt to San Miguel and the semi-arid terrain is not dissimilar to twolaners
running through Arizona or New Mexico, but when we enter San Miguel de Allende,
things change quickly. Courtyard walls close in, narrow walks at their foot, tight cobblestone
colonial streets – the Yukon like a naval cruiser navigating narrow creeks, passages out of a
different time and different place.

We disembark into a flood of mechanized sounds, surging up and down the winding
city canyons. Grinding gears, rattling loads, a small bore motorcycle’s whine, the rumble and
thrumb of engines. High electronic beeps signal something, somewhere, backing up. The
streets are a-buzz.

Suitcases stashed, we join a walking tour. My legs thank me. In recent years, I have
rediscovered perambulation with a vengeance. Walking, biking, running = sanity. I sometimes
think that my brain and legs have been hardwired with a certain dependent circuitry. Must
move, must get outside, outside myself. Calming through movement.

“When I was a child,” our guide Jesus says, “we played soccer in these streets.”
Imagine children chasing balls down these cobblestone canyons. Now, tires squeak on
polished stones as drivers negotiate tight corners, reverse, try again. A steady stream of green
and white Nissan Tsuru taxis, VW bugs in various stages of repair, reclamation and
customization wind past parked vans, scooters, tiny cars and hulking SUVs.

A small pickup grinds past, bearing the burden of two massive megaphones on its cab
and a bed full of campaign signs featuring a handsome candidate. Behind that, a dapper
copper-skinned man with silver hair, wearing sharply pressed tan shirt and slacks – driving a
fire-engine-red quad. A little hatchback passes, its (count’em) eight occupants bouncing and
swaying on an overloaded suspension, then a white Isuzu pickup with black Policia markings,
flashers on the cab and two uniformed officers riding shotgun in the back, holding the flasher
bar for balance. Behind them, a woman steers a small scooter, one sweet faced little girl
standing on the its flat little floor between her mom’s knees, an older girl on the seat behind,
holding on. Not a helmet to be seen.

Pedestrians, pushed to the sides on narrow stone ledges, bob in and out of the stream
with a patience that speaks of experience, resignation, adaptation. Though filled with
pedestrians, these streets are far from ideal for anyone with mobility problems. The stone
walks are uneven, curbs sharp, power poles and other barriers frequent. A wheelchair would
be impossible here. Stone and adobe walls butt up tight to the walkways, here and there
swinging open to reveal calm courtyards beyond. Behind a 17th century carriage door (just
slightly ajar) a man is dipping a sponge in a bucket and lovingly wiping down a bright white
late model Toyota Camry.

To my Canadian sensibility it’s a tangle of contradictions – what’s that red off-road
quad doing on the road? – don’t the police realize it’s unsafe to ride in open pickups? – where
is a functioning headlight on that old beater?

But the aspirations, the relationships between people and their vehicles are no different
here than in the U.S. and Canada. I see it in the smoked black-out windows of the Ranger
pickup and the shadowy man behind, the old VW bug with the customized yellow wheel
wells, the man in the cowboy hat with the truck he has kept running for half his life. The
vehicle becomes the identity.

I have come to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with its narrow winding calles and
colonial edifices in no small part to be in a walkable city. To live where people commute on
foot, where frutas are at a stand three doors down, not at a supermarket a 20 minute drive
away, where life slows to a human, not automotive, pace. Yet cars fill my brain.
I am anxious; it may be an anxiety disorder. I am anxious about things that other
people appear not be anxious about. There are many ways in which I think myself outside the
stream of humanity.

I am anxious about the cars. Yes, ordinary cars. The taken-for-granted motorcade of
metal that streams across every continent (save Antarctica) day after day, night after night,
growing louder and more common by the moment. I don’t think we really understand cars.
Or maybe it’s just that I don’t understand cars. Or, no, maybe I understand cars but don’t
understand my car anxiety. The uncertainty makes me anxious.

Perhaps it’s addiction. Dependence and resentment. But if so, if I need help, who
would I turn to? I know of no professionals, no specialists, for my concerns. And I can’t be
the only one who needs help.

Cars are everywhere. Cars and enablers. We are all in this together.

* * *

On-air and online, the world is consumed with trepidation about the future of the
automobile. Hands are wringing over the loss of 100,000 automotive-related jobs in the
United States in the past year – and another 36,000 in Canada. We learn that three million
American jobs are dependent on the industry. The U.S. Department of Transport is promising
$12.5 billion to upgrade the aging American highway infrastructure. It’s as if we have no
options, no choice. The heartbeat of America has skipped a couple beats and all we know
how to do is administer economic defibrillation?

We want the car industry to revive so that we can add to the 17 million people already
killed in vehicle accidents? Fire up more carbon monoxide, 90% of which in metropolitan
areas is car-created? We want to gear up again, to continue evangelizing cars to the
developing world, so that China and India like us will sport three cars for every four people.

Think of it: China would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars (more than the current world
population of 795 million cars); India alone would have 660 million by the year 2050. The
land required for highways and parking for those cars would approach that now planted in
rice.

But no, we are terrified because General Motors eliminated 2,641 dealerships in the
US and 260 in Canada in 2009. We are concerned that new vehicle sales fell by 49,000,000
in 2009.

Are we suicidal? Like the heroes in Bruce Springsteen’s anthem Born to Run, “In the
day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream, At night we ride through
mansions of glory in suicide machines.” Suicide on the highways being romantic because a
great rocker sings about it; less so, the ragged stories in garages across America where sad
figures pursue suicide by vehicular hypoxia (breathing car exhaust).

We drive on. Destination unknown.

* * *

We remember our first cars like we remember favourite Christmas gifts, the deaths of
famous people, and our first sexual experience. Sometimes all of the above are woven
together. My first car was more satisfactory that my first sex, so I’ll tell you about the former.
It also lasted a lot longer. Cost a bit more. OK, they’re not really comparable.

Tank was my 1954 Chevy four-door sedan. Bullets could not penetrate its panels. Red
with white roof and palomino patches of black here and there where the paint had peeled.
Inside, you could get lost in the deep, sweeping and musty grey seats, big as mom’s couch.
My college buddies and I could pound the heavy metal dashboard with impunity. Few of the
gauges worked. The massive yellowed steering wheel was primordial, as if excavated, not
ivory but some sort of plastic compressed through eons of pressure. At six feet tall, I was just
able to peer over its arc and reach the tiny pedals hidden way down on the distant floor, where
dust puffed up from gravel roads.

Tank moved ponderously. Cornering took some serious pre-planning. You couldn’t
wheel it casually into a parking lot while smirking at the girls. It required labour, attention.
Tank wasn’t cool in any sense except the way that anything a young, poor, university student
owns takes on a certain ironic cool. My best friend from childhood, Davey Christensen,
drove a truly cool car – a customized orange 57 Chevy with those sharp tail fins, a round tach
sitting up on the dashboard like a rifle sight, fat tires and “mags” as we called chrome wheels.
Davey had earned my eternal loathing at age 14 by turning our whole little walk-to-schoolAuto
together-and-look-bored group against me. Four years later, somehow, owning a car that was
the antithesis of his souped-up Chevy became my self-declared badge of honour.

I eventually let old Tanker go because the brakes were getting squishy – coasting me a
few feet past stop signs – and the brake shops didn’t have parts. Had I known, then, about
junk yards, I would have realized I could have found 54 Chevy brakes cheap and kept Tank
running.

Each car since has become shorthand for a life passage. The beige 66 Chev sedan was
a transition vehicle. After university, married and with our first child on the way, we loaded
the Chevy to the roof with liquor boxes of books, pots and pans, and handmade hippy clothes
and headed six hours north to my first ever “permanent” job. Then came the 1976 Dodge
Aspen station wagon, Robin’s egg Blue, hand crank everything. A tall stick shift like you
would find on a tractor or 1940s farm truck. It was my welcome to higher finance, loans, adult
money anguish: a harrowing purchase process, the greasy sales guy vs. me, with my hippy
hair shortened into some kind of gawdawful mullet and my doubts about my expedition into
adulthood dripping off every fringe of my shaggy soul. No contest.

Later, with two pre-schoolers, we moved to the lake and I was working in the city, so
we downgraded from the Aspen wagon to two older, iffier, units. Perhaps that vehicular split
foreshadowed our marital split. A couple of years later, I packed the kids and their clothes in
the hulking deep green Fury II and left my soon-to-be-ex with the Ford Cortina. Built in Great
Britain, I think. A wimpy excuse of a car.

This is how badly, how sadly, I can care about stupid little car things. Just after the
divorce, I was down and out and my big brothers (who must have felt a sort of pity for my
lack of worldly common sense) bailed me out. Brother Pat – already well on his way to the top
of an impressive corporate pyramid – “sold” me his late 80s Zephyr stationwagon with the
plastic woodgrain paneling for a price considerably below market. I bused down to Calgary
to pick up the Zephyr and the only thing, the only thing, on my mind the whole ride down and
when I walked into their suburban split-level and made small talk with my sister-in-law was
headlights. Square or round? Talk about geeky. Round was old school, quaint, dated. Squared
was what was happening, squared was a new world that said ‘hey, headlights can be a
different shape’ and I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether this particular year of
Zephyr was the last of the rounds or the first of the squared.

Pitiful. But damn, I was happy when we stepped through the side door into the garage
and the headlights squinted at me in all their squared glory. I’m a little different, I realized
then – and whenever the buzz hit hard. Because the buzz was still humming down there
somewhere, hidden below all the accommodations of adulthood.

How did I get here? Oh yes – Keeker buzzing over the sheer dream of a car, and the
self-created mythology of Tank. My little motorcade of memories. What ever happened to
motorcades, anyway? I sometimes imagine my life as a modest little motorcade, led by Dad’s
60 Olds, followed by the various incarnations of me riding in Tank, the Aspen, the Caravan
that came with my hockey dad era, a couple Maximas. It wouldn’t draw much of a crowd, that
motorcade.

* * *
Cars changed us.

Cars moved right into our lives. Now we build them special little homes, or annexes to
our own. They sit with us, move with us, consume with us. They inhabit our lives, our
dreams.

We created many tools, many appliances, many assistive devices in the past 200 years
but none has become our muse, our identity, like the car. What about humanity has not been
changed by cars? Our sexual lives, our families, our urban planning, our careers and
employment options, our eating habits, our economy, our popular culture?

For a recent example, it is instructive to look at the Starbucks brand. In its early days,
Starbucks pursued an identity as ‘the third place.’ Founder Howard Schultz had been
impressed by the coffee houses of Italy, where people socialize over a cup of espresso or
cappuccino. The coffee bar is the third place after home and workplace. When Starbucks
built its first drive-through, it was (unknowingly?) throwing in the towel on the ‘third place’
brand claim. Our third place is the car. Having given up on the ‘place’ strategy, Starbucks
has since sought to become the purveyor of exotic choices in hyper-personalized coffee
concoctions.

Drive-ins are popular because they don’t force us to leave our beloved cars. Initially,
companies and planners thought that restaurants with major drive-through business required
smaller parking lots than eat-in diners. People take their purchases and head onto the
highway or head home, right? Wrong. Research found that many of us purchase at a drivethrough
then pull into the restaurant parking lot and eat in our cars. What is going on here?
Are we really that lazy? Sometimes, yes. More typically, we are saying that we prefer the
ambience of a paved parking lot and a view of a concrete wall broken only by giant trash
cans, over the ambience of the plastic booth, where we have to watch / hear / pretend-wedon’t-
notice the unruly tribe next to us.

At least in our cars, we say, we can play our own music and generally be ourselves.
The addition of DVD and other built-in child pacifiers in large SUVs and vans adds further
incentives for harried parents to stay put in their rolling home.

The car is ours. A restaurant is not. The car is us.

* * *

What is rational? Does rational matter?

In my home town, I have taken up with religious zeal the cause of pedestrian and
cyclist rights. With millions upon millions of our tax dollars going into ever-wider
expressways and intersections to serve the cancerous spread of big box stores, where are the
sidewalks, the bike paths?

Cars create the ability to move great distances quickly but, ironically, they soon create
the need to move great distances. The downtown theater closes and a big new one is built in a
fringe retail suburb – so that it can have acres and acres of parking for cars. Historic
sculptures are moved so roads can be straightened and narrowed. Pedestrians are prohibited
from crossing the broad multi-lane streets for “safety” reasons.

* * *

Another take on the chasm between Tank and Davey Christensen’s 57 Chevy. Flash
forward to late 2001, early 2002 and I find myself in therapy. Clinically depressed with, as my
therapist noted calmly, a suicidal bent that was uncomfortably close to being a plan for action.
She was a charm, my therapist – like someone handing me a simple flashlight, down in the pit
where I had been digging, digging, for months. She saw, too, that I was meant to move, that
depression starts with stasis, with a hunkering down – literally and psychologically – that I
needed to get up on my hind legs. Move my body. Rediscover the childhood joy of running,
running for no reason.

I sat in those sessions, feeling a gradual lightening, a return of breathing room, the
lungs able to fill with air. Becoming less weighted, less freighted. I walked out of the
therapist’s office one evening, out onto the street, striding past the parking meters and angled
cars for a few moments before realizing that I didn’t know where mine was parked.

Turning, looking. Then remembering that my wife had dropped me off, that I didn’t
need to find the car, didn’t need to drive. My heart jumped at the prospect of letting my legs
stretch out and just go.

Writing today, with the distance of years, I can clearly see the self-defeating behavior
that started, in adolescence, with Davey and the previously friendly gang of kids he literally
turned and ran with – away from a dumbfounded formerly happy-go-lucky me. I saw my
adolescent self and the ability to turn, to look in different directions. To change not the event,
not them, but me.

Cars aren’t about mental health. Or are they? All I know is that, walking my way
back up out of the open pit mine of depression, I had learned two things: it helps if you can
stand back from a problem and shine a bit of light on it; and for every negative situation that
arises there are a variety of possible responses. We don’t always have the knowledge, skills
and inclination to choose alternate routes, but they are there.

And on a more person level, I should learn to move without a car.

In retrospect, Tank was more symbolic than I ever dreamed at the time – my modest
and perhaps perverse pride in its uncoolness a highly healthy thing. I didn’t have rich parents,
wasn’t a mechanical car-tinkerer and no fairy was going to drop a hot rod into my backyard.
So I would just drive an old beater, drive Tank, as if it was cool.

* * *
The market is said to have lost its confidence in the auto industry. It’s sad and it’s not
sad that, in the past couple years, cars have taken a double-whammy: a jackknife rise in oil
prices led many to park their wheels or significantly cut use; the American mortgage and
banking crisis pushed the teetering GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy.

The big American car makers I have no sympathy for. Between greedy unions and
absolutely dumb design (what the hell is a Pontiac Aztec trying to be anyway?) to an inability
to follow the Japanese model of continuous improvement (no, we didn’t need something
different than a Ford Taurus two years after it topped the best selling vehicle lists, we just
needed a better Ford Taurus, year after year after year, like Honda does with the Civic) to the
frankly unconscionable rolling cruise ships called Escalade and Excursion (advertised,
inevitably, despoiling a pristine mountain outlook somewhere in Montana), well, I rest my
case.

The Japanese manufacturer Nissan makes the most popular car in Mexico, the Tsuru.
A sturdy little compact, it is the taxi of choice in Mexico City and here in San Miguel de
Allende. Tsuru means crane in Japanese. Native Japanese cranes were thought extinct in
Japan in the 1920s until a flock of ten were discovered and carefully nurtured back to
numbers that have taken them off the endangered list.

Cars, like real estate developments, are often named for natural resources that are in
peril, or are even being threatened by their namesake development / vehicle. Predator Ridge
golf course, near my home in Alberta, chases the last wild predators further into the
mountains, becoming a playground for predators like investment advisors.

Mustang cars and open range for horses… Dodge Rams and decimated mountain
sheep. We buy the mythology, don’t worry about the reality.

* * *

The only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. And cars start their
claim on our young very young. Check out Delta Enterprise’s “Cars Theme Room-in-a-Box”
– an automotive fix for the infant who has barely left the teat: “A room’s decor can now be
filled with your child’s favorite Disney Cars.”

Over my decades of birthdays and Christmases, I received and therefore collected an
idiosyncratic cluster of car toys – a red Mercedes with operable gull-wing doors, Robin’s egg
blue 58 Chevy, an old Model A with operable engine crank. I couldn’t geek out over toy cars
with the same abandon as in my childhood, so I did the middle aged guy thing and start
cruising classic car shows and auctions. I was curious, initially, to see if there were any
perfect matches for the cars of my childhood – like the 57 ‘Plodge’ – the Canadian Dodge
Regent, which was really an American Plymouth with a Dodge grill. Dad owned a red one.
With pushbutton automatic tranny on the far left end of the dashboard. I could give you more
details, more than a normal person wants to know.

Over the years, car show followed by auction followed by classic cruiser night,
curiosity grew into obsession. Where were those cars I remembered? I needed to find them,
and I needed to have one. Preferably a 1960 Olds Dynamic 88. Dad’s glory car. Not the most
popular car of the their era, they are few and far between. This extended my search, show
after show. The search, the planning, I kept mostly to myself until one day when my wife and
I had one of those full and open marital conversations that most guys hate. The bottom line is
that she made an incredibly rational case for children’s education, travel and about 49 other
priorities coming before a collector car. I agreed but, fuming inside, went away and collected
all my toy cars. I was going to stop this car obsession. Now. I piled all the cars in a cupboard
back in the corner of the basement work room.

No one noticed but me. No one cared but me.

The cars sat in their dark cupboard. Days went by, weeks, months.

And there came a day when I was down in the work room, opened the cupboard
looking for a tool, and realized that I had forgotten my cars.

* * *
Where did it really begin, the infatuation, the adoration? The transcendence. Henry
Ford famously proclaimed that he wanted to “democratize” the automobile, not quite
inventing but certainly refining the very idea of the mass production factory, for the express
purposes of selling a Model A or T to every American (read: North American – we Canadians
and the Mexicans, bookends to the American auto narrative epic, are different-but-the-same
when it comes to cars). Is it democratic for us to be dupes?

Ford’s democracy, like the other democracy, started with men. Attend any car show
(ladies) and you will find a universe 80% populated by guys. A significant proportion of
whom are wearing T-shirts with smokes rolled into the left sleeve.

Yet women are the decision-makers (or key influencers) in 80% of vehicle purchases.
The exception is that band of hard-core car guys who rarely consult a woman on a car
purchase and (in my anecdotal experience) are perfectly willing to test the strength of the
marriage bond by bringing a ‘new’ antique or fixer-upper, unannounced, on a summer Sunday
afternoon.

Whether they are hands-on at the dealership or online or not, women are the ultimate
arbiters for most purchases. As a rule, they are less passionate about style and power but no
less than men see the car as an extension of themselves and an extension of their living space.
And even if car addiction and obsession is just a guy problem, it’s still a problem, isn’t
it?

* * *

It’s mid-March 2005 and the orange sun is relaxing towards the tops of the dusty San
Jacinto mountains as the stream of vehicles begins forming a structured flow along the broad
black streets of Palm Springs, east into Indian Wells. The air feels like good fortune – such
warmth, amid the explosions of blossoms and banks of golf green roadside grass.

My wife and I certainly feel blessed to escape the dark north and fall into this smooth,
shining line of cars winding along wide streets lined with explosive spring blossoms to slip
into smooth lanes. Feeling the comfort of certainty, the calm of deliverance from difficulty.
Expansive expensive racing tires turning onto a flat gravel parking lot, a controlled and gentle
crunching. A regiment of attendants in sharp clean vests, each with a fluorescent green X back
and front, wave each car into place with practiced precision. The line never stops moving, the
cars slide into their grid on the open field, and patrons emerge for the modest walk. Here and
there you hear the gentle hum of a motorized convertible top going up.

Up and down the rows, this could be a European and Japanese luxury car show:
Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Lexus, Land Rover, Jaguar, Infiniti. The colour palette leans
heavily to polished metals – titanium, slate, bronze. Half a dozen of those, then our bright
blue Ford Focus with an orange Budget rental sticker. I step away from it, stand next to the
black Porsche while my wife gathers her things.

The conversations are quiet, contained, as clusters of two, four, six people make their
way to the spacious entry gate, up the broad walkway and into the stadium. Inside, the most
expensive seats at courtside are the last to fill. In the upper reaches, the white concrete
terraces and blue seats are taking on the checkered variety of humanity.

A tennis audience is polite, controlled. Murmurs and nodding heads between points,
near silence during points as the players grunt into the thwack of balls, sneakers squeak on the
court. When the match is over, Belgian Kim Clijster having politely dispatched American
Lindsay Davenport, there is an orderly and unhurried return to the lot, where the beeps of
security systems and winks of tail lights signal remote controlled locks opening. As expected.
No surprises. These are the comforts that money can buy. It is a world apart and it is
comforting, the soft retreat into fine and capable cars, responsive cars that absorb and cradle.

As I use the key to unlock our rental (as if anyone would steal a Ford Focus, in this
company) I’m thinking I might as well have saved the admission and just walked the rows of
cars for two hours. Two months later, I buy in. I buy a BMW.

* * *
In my Dad’s latter years, I wanted to buy him a big, loaded Olds. Ads in the 80s and
90s said “Not your father’s Oldsmobile anymore.” What was wrong with being my father’s
Oldsmobile?

The Olds was Dad’s glory car, in my mind. Earlier, when I was preschool or early
elementary, he sold cars himself, bringing home a ‘tester’ many days at noon. He would take
me for a spin around the block before returning to work. Packard, Hudson, Mercury, Pontiac.
Those dashboards, gear shifts, dials, chrome. For some reason the push-button controls of the
54 Dodge automatic keep coming back to me – the lever he threw up to take it out of park, the
magic of just pressing D for Drive.

Then came the seven years he was away, living out west with my grandparents, trying
to sell the hotel they co-owned but nobody wanted, the very first Pembina oil boom already
bust. And somewhere in there he landed the Olds, bought when our next door neighbour, who
had no kids and therefore more money for cars, traded in his 1960 Dynamic 88 for a 1962.
Dad dashed to the dealer and brought home the big blue boat with horizontals fins and the
scrolling speedometer that gave me such a buzz when it crept above 60 and turned from green
to orange. I always wanted him to push it into the red – over 70.

He drove it back and forth on his bi-monthly visits, arriving with a big bag of junk
food from the struggling hotel he managed, taking me for a spin around the block. Then over
the years, after he moved back home, he switched to newer smaller cars. Always, I could tell,
he would have wanted the big Chrysler 300, not the little Dodge Demon. Or maybe I just
wanted that for him. He never had extra cash to throw around, nor did I.

I wanted better cars for him and now I realize it’s because cars were about all we had.
I was the last boy, after the thrill of putting together a baseball team or curling foursome with
the older guys was fulfilled. I was the one whose adolescence happened a few hundred miles
away while he was busy stocking the tavern, slinging beers, sweeping up.

Father, son, car. Or maybe father, car, son – the car being the bond, the connector.

I have repeated the pattern, haltingly but not without some knowledge of what I was
doing. My glory car was recent. They call it the ultimate driving machine and, sure, that’s a
marketing line. But I had scouted BMWs for years, driven them hard and soft and finally,
with online searches and multiple phone calls, closed a deal on a sweet little 330XI located,
providentially, out on the coast in Vancouver. Which would necessitate a two-day drive home
through the Rockies. This, I needed to share, so I flew out with my adult son Eric.

Eric lived with his mother through his teen years and in the years since we have found
few touchpoints. Sports is one. Cars might be another, I thought, so I concocted the road trip.
At the end of the drive, we are cruising down main street in the tourist town where he lives,
sun roof open, windows down, the lake shimmering in front of us. Rolling slowly, Eric
driving, enjoying the moment. On the sidewalk, a couple young guys walking toward us,
noticing the Beemer, admiring. One of them calls out, “Cool wheels.”

“Thanks man,” Eric answers and his pride is palpable. In a rush of parental desire I
wish I could instantly will to him everything represented in the moment – success, admiration,
easy luxury, and a finely crafted German driving machine. Something like a father-son-car
advertisement, only real. The machine, the moment, my yearning for a certain father-son
bond, inseparable.

As with my own father, I want it to be about more than the car. But I wonder.

* * *

The American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) and the World Health Organization
(ICD-10) list seven criteria for addiction; a person exhibiting three of the seven is considered
addicted. Here, loosely adapted, are the questions – for me, for you:
1. Tolerance. Has your usage increased over time?
2. Withdrawal. When you stop using cars, have you ever experienced physical or
emotional withdrawal? Have you had any of the following symptoms:
irritability, anxiety, shakes, sweats, nausea, or vomiting?
Auto Arousal 21
3. Difficulty controlling your use. Do you sometimes use cars more or for a longer
time than you would like? Do you sometimes drive just to drive?
4. Negative consequences. Has your use of cars had negative consequences to your
mood, self-esteem, health, job, finances or family?
5. Putting off or neglecting activities. Have you ever put off or reduced social,
recreational, work, or household activities to spend more time with cars, or
thinking about cars, or with car-related media?
6. Spending significant time or emotional energy. Have you spent a significant
amount of time obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from your
use of cars? Have you spend a lot of time thinking about your next use? Have
you ever concealed or minimized your use? Have you ever thought of schemes
to avoid getting caught?
7. Desire to cut down. Have you sometimes thought about cutting down or
controlling your car travel, car use, or time spent with a car? Have you ever
made unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control your use?

Psychology, of course, deals with individuals, families and small groups. It offers no
perspective on whether, by exhibiting the criteria, a society could be considered addicted,
considered mentally ill.

* * *

My newfound holier-than-thou / not-a-car-addict stance snuck up on me. Some days I
find myself walking or biking to working and wondering, ‘where did my Beemer go?’
To tell the truth, my wife has a Machiavellian streak and it may have been her plan all
along. If so, she moved her pawns strategically. First, she said she wanted a new car, to
replace that 95 Maxima that was really quite a decent car but by now a few years old. I was
half way to the string of car dealerships down at the south end of town before she added the
but. But, she would first sell the Maxima at the start of her upcoming work sabbatical and we
could get by with one vehicle while she wasn’t working.

Sounded like a plan to me. Gave me an extra few months to research and – best of all,
too cool – test drive just about everything within our time zone.

The trick was that, by the end of the sabbatical, “we” (in marriages it is often
reasonable and sometimes necessary to speak in this way) realized that we were getting along
quite fine with one car. Problem: our one car was my Beemer. My sweet treat. And it simply
wasn’t practical. There is, despite all the dismissive critiques, a certain amount of utility in a
‘Sports Utility Vehicle’ and that’s the direction my searching sent me. Towards a BMW
SUV, of course. As always, the test driving was worth it – whether or not we ever made a
switch. In the end, though, prices that climbed up to double or more than a ‘regular’ vehicle
kept me in check. We bought a very nice 2007 Toyota Rav4. It is, really, a very good
vehicle. Excellent. Everything I thought it would be.

It is not a BMW.

* * *

First man, then machine. Built for the road ahead. Land Rover: go beyond. For boys
who were always men. It’s how the smooth take the rough. More horses, fewer
seconds. Different rituals, same spirit. Beyond rational. Get the feeling: Toyota.
Think, Feel, Drive. Put the fun back in driving. Drive = Love. Have you driven a Ford
lately? The real question is: when you turn your car on, does it return the favor?
Driven by passion. Designed to improve your performance. Size matters. More feline
than ever. Unleash a Jaguar. You’re due, definitely due. Dodge: grab life by the
horns. Have kids; keep your style. Chevrolet: an American revolution. Driving is
believing. Shift expectations. There is no substitute. When you get it, you get it. Oh,
what a feeling. It’s a miracle but we’ve made it. Engineered to move the human spirit.
Lexus: the passionate pursuit of perfection. What a luxury car should be. What a
luxury. Everyone dreams of an Audi. There’s only one. Creating a higher standard.
Imagine yourself in a Mercury now. Mean but green. Like always, like never before.
The heartbeat of America. The ultimate driving machine. Accelerating the future. The
art of performance. Dream up. Open your mind. The power of understatement.

* * *

Sandwiched between the TV ads tonight, a brief CNN item on the death of a promoter
at a Monster Truck show in Madison, Wisconsin. The county sheriff calls it a “freakish
accident.” Eight days earlier, a boy at a show in Tacoma, Washington, was killed by flying
debris. The coverage tonight includes a five second bite of condolence to the family of the
deceased promoter. There is no further commentary on the concepts of our society’s
‘monsters,’ our freakish entertainment, the screaming absurdity of lining up vehicles in a
stadium and then gathering, in the thousands, to applaud larger, more brutish vehicles
crushing them. Oil on the ground like the blood of slaves to the lions. Our world of cars has
become so. Cars have redefined our normal.

Like you, I am unable to say where this will go. You might think the 2009 collapse of
GM and Chrysler signalled a change in our relationship with the car but if anything it’s the
opposite. The leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada united in declaring the central
importance of automobiles to our economies, our societies, our lives. If anything, as nations
and as societies we are becoming more enmeshed in the auto tangle, not less: the U.S.
government owns 80% of the “new” GM, while the Canadian government owns another 12%.

In the coming decades, cars will proliferate throughout Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The
emissions issues may be addressed with new technology, when we finally start running out of
petroleum fuels, though it’s also possible that we will be far too slow to respond and will find
that our little hothouse planet is increasingly uncomfortable for us.

Even with low-emission improvements, even if we achieved cars that ran entirely on
electricity or other power, there are still the issues of resource consumption in the vehicles
themselves. Over 12% of today’s car parts are plastic, and that percentage is growing as
manufacturers aim for lower weights for fuel efficiency. As our world population grows,
where will carve out more and more room for highways, streets, parking lots, garages?

In the meantime, I will have decisions to make. Do I find an excuse to buy a fuel
efficient little BMW Mini to tuck into the garage of our new second home out on the west
coast? Do I continue to learn to rediscover the bicycle and public transportation? Can I
satiate my needs at cars shows, pacing the rows in a reverent daze, or do such activities make
it worse? Not many AA meetings are convened in pubs.

I don’t suppose I can really psychoanalyze myself. I have, though, learned some tricks
and picked up some tools. Recovery is never a straight road.

And I don’t suppose there is much chance that a society bound up in the auto
adoration addiction thing is going to design itself a clear and simple little path to a placid
pasture where we all dance around with unicorns. Should I worry about what’s next? We’re
all in this together.

There are a variety of routes. There are choices.

But you don’t just turn off the buzz.

 

Poet and non-fiction writer Lorne Daniel lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. He is a past winner of the Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Prize (Alberta).

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