Monday, August 22, 2005

"Are We There Yet?": Wither the FSWRT?

FSWRT... that would be Family-Station-Wagon-Road-Trip....

Used to be families got to enjoy August as a full on vacation month, especially back in the days before schools were air conditioned, and no sane superintendent called the kids back to class in the summer swelter. Now, a/c and work-a-mania mean some kids start marching band practice in late July, and a few pass out in the heat. "Ok, kids, now guzzle that Gatorade since band has become a contact sport about as tough as football - and each of you's still got more brain cells to keep alive than all of your school administrators put together."

Families just don't seem to relish the family vacation like they used to. It used to be the family station wagon, a venerable vehicle, perfect for separating fighting siblings between the back seat and the "way back," or as we called it, "the deck." Back in the deck, we could create nests and sort of camp out in the car at 60 mph. We didn't have to wear seat belts back there, and so, of course, we could create more mischief or just get some solace and read or look out the back window of the big, wide tailgate as the highway slipped away behind us.

Now kids have to face forward and wear their seatbelts at all times, which is a good thing. But they also seem to want to face forward so they don't have to look out the windows at all, maybe staring ahead not at the highway at all (what's out there, anyway?) but at game boys or PDPs - Personal DVD Players.

Life seems to have gone the way of the FSWRT, from anticipation and motion and narrative and plot to shuffle-playing all the ho-hum days.

There's a huge generational difference here. I know people who are over 40 for whom looking out the windows of a moving vehicle is about as good as it gets - even on seemingly mundane stretches of the prairies and plains. Things don't have to change all that much; it's just that there is so much out there, so much there there, even in the proverbial "middle of nowhere."

I am still a kid in a car on any road I don't frequent. It could be a hundred miles from Oklahoma City or Guatemala City, Memphis or Madrid. I love looking out the window and thinking my own background thoughts of solace or current events, so much so that I can go a thousand miles 'forgetting' to turn on the radio or music. Just the sounds of the road, the car, and the air seem to be enough, like a comforting white noise of being someplace besides home, anywhere but there and the norm.

Maybe to modern kids, there's no abnormal out there enough to compete for their buzzy radar like the pyrotechnics of blaring music and movies. And we thought computers were the heart of the virtual life. No. At least a computer is a distraction from domesticity, not Wichita Falls or Souix Falls, Yosemite Falls or Niagara Falls.

I might have been born to a couple of particular and critical parents, and I might spew some critiques and crass remarks of my own, but still it seems the world out there is more than enough for me - and why not for most of us on a highway? Why have we sentimentalized the idea that it's the journey, not just the destination, and yet, as a culture, we seem to want to arrive as soon as we've just started out.

Do kids all over the world ask "Are we there yet?" in that voice that so strangely (and tellingly) juxtaposes being spoiled and being boredom at the same time?

My parents were the valedictorian types (and downright Victorian in a few ways, too), but they actually thought it was their job to impress upon us kids that the world was ripe with smart people, inventors and explorers and those of daring do - and even a few heroes - and that we might oughtta get in the old Mercury Colony Park tankasaurus, loaded up with 30 gallons of leaded, and hit the highway to go see stuff.

I hope that even as some band members melt out there on the practice field and as most others dive back into Back to School shopping sprees to make sure they're mod enough for the first day of school, that there are still a few million families still out there, on the road, loping along, ambling here and yon, seeing this and that, taking time out for quirky museums and kitsch and byways and detours. You know, is it really so old-fashioned for parents to actually coach their kids into the Real World of Paying Attention and Expressing Wonder and Interest in All Sorts of Stuff? Don't they know that "How Things Really Are" is KEY to our American birthright, the keen-eyed "Pursuit of Happiness" (which, btw, ain't the same thing as the vaunted "American Dream"...)

I hope for a few weeks or even a month, there are a few million left out there who've turned off "Reality TV" and turned on "Reality Mobility," up close and personal.

The Real World - even the outback of Kansas - is a pretty amazing place.


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