The drive wasn't that long, as road trips go . . . an hour maybe, crawling along the 405 to LAX from the San Fernando Valley.
I was in the driver's seat, ferrying my friend and her two daughters to catch a plane. Kim and I didn't mind the traffic jam. There was plenty of time before their flight; we passed the hour on the road chatting amiably.
But I couldn't help but notice the sighs of boredom floating up from the back seat. "How long?" the little one asked, as we headed up the hill, barely out of the Valley. "Are we almost there?"
I realized then how primitive my car must seem to them . . . how utterly un-entertaining. Unlike theirs, mine has no Nintendo. No VCR. No TV.
They have been hot sellers since their debut last fall, these rolling family rooms with the comforts of home.
They are minivans outfitted like limousines, with tinted windows and leather upholstery, separate climate zones and reclining seats. And a built-in VCR and television screen.
No longer must children settle for the typical road trip amusements of our youth . . . the endless games of "I Spy. . . ," the tally of out-of-state license plates.
Today's in-car entertainment has gone high-tech. So mom and dad can groove to Natalie Cole on the radio, while the little ones are watching a movie or playing Donkey Kong, and the teenager is reclining in her third-row seat, hooked up by headphones to her Lauryn Hill CD.
Forget enjoying the scenery; we don't even have to acknowledge one another's existence.
One friend is horrified by the prospect. She cannot imagine "anesthetizing" her two young sons with television during what can be a great part of their day--the time they spend in the car together.
And that is, indeed, the party line among my social circle of soccer moms: "We fight daily against the scourge of television," they proclaim. "We're not about to let it invade the last bastion of family sanctity!"
It seems the hours we spend chauffeuring our children have become the kind of "quality time" the experts say our children need . . . in the absence, at least, of the quantity time our busy schedules do not allow.
We may not be around for mid-morning snuggles or milk-and-cookies in the afternoon. Evenings are crowded with homework, piano lessons, soccer practice, plans with friends. . . .
The car is the one place we're forced to be together, distraction-less, to reconnect as a family; to slow down, despite the bustle of our days.
Still, somebody is buying those entertainment centers on wheels, and they're not all derelict at parenting.
Count my friend Victoria among them. She's a therapist who makes her living counseling broken families. She's big on talking things out, on quality time, on communication as a family creed.
But she traded in her Explorer for a van equipped with a ceiling-mounted flip-down TV. "I just thought of all those hours I spend on the road, driving the kids to basketball tournaments and gymnastic meets, and how somebody's always whining in the back seat."
She didn't consider her purchase a "cultural commentary, just something to make my life a little easier."
But now she finds herself flipping down the screen on the way home from the grocery store, when she's tired and her son's asking too many questions, or there's a rerun of "Frasier" that her daughter wants to see.
"It is seductive," she admits, "for them and for me. It seems they can't get into the car anymore without expecting to be entertained."
They're easy to sell, the salesman told me. About half the minivan customers at his Oldsmobile dealership come in asking for "the one with the TV."
"Sometimes they're just curious . . . they've seen the commercial. But you get them in for a drive, pop in a tape for the kiddies and everybody falls in love."
I admit it felt good to settle into that plush leather seat and imagine a road trip with my kids without a constant string of nagging questions and petty gripes.
I thought of our upcoming trip to Las Vegas, a five-hour ride along desert freeways, with raspy country music on the radio and little more to look at than cactus and the world's tallest thermometer.
It would be nice to pop Austin Powers in the VCR, to hear laughter from the back seat instead of "She hit me. . . . Did not . . . Did too."
But then, knowing my kids, they'd wind up fighting over what movie or television show to watch.
And then I might miss the kind of quirky questions that only arise when my kids are locked in the car, with nothing but other traffic to see.
Like "Why do all the cars on our side of the freeway have red lights and the cars on the other side have white lights?"
That's the kind of thing you don't notice when television is in the way.