Category Archives: Holidays with family

The Clown Car

We were already running late; we had a seven hours drive ahead, and I was feeling a need to get going. The family would be away for only three days, and we had gotten good at packing light. However, each of us wanted to have our space-occupying suitcase.  

I started to pack Rosie, our red Ford Flex. First went the suitcases. On top of them, I carefully placed Tupperware containers that held the snowman cupcakes that Grace, Will, and I made. We had decorated them the night before by piping buttercream icing on vanilla cupcakes and making snowman heads out of marshmallows. We then added mini M & Ms for buttons and pretzel sticks for snowman arms. They were attractive, and I wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be destroyed on the long trip to Minnesota. I found a nook next to the Tupperware for Julie’s Almond Pound Cake. She found the recipe for this dessert in a church cookbook 25 years ago, and it has become a Christmas staple in our house. Next went a bag of Christmas gifts. On top of the entire assembly, I placed four pillows, one for each of us. We would be sleeping at the Peterson’s, and I thought that having something familiar would add a little comfort. 

Grace, Will, and I made snowman cupcakes.

When I drive to Minnesota in the winter, I like to be prepared, and so I tossed in two sleeping bags on top of everything. The bags were tightly wound like Swiss Roll cakes but squishy enough so I could squeeze them into two tight spots. Next, I added additional emergency travel items. Finally, I put our car-food bag in the front passenger seat. The car-food bag concept is Julie’s contribution to our family travels. This time it contained various chips, pretzels, and a few sweet treats for interstate munching.  

I went back into the house and ground Dunkin Donuts beans and made a pot of coffee in our Braun drip coffee maker. I poured coffee into my reusable Starbucks travel cup and some into my little S’well thermos. Now back in the car, both items found spots in front seat cup holders.  

car-food

I started the engine and pressed the on-screen buttons on the Flex’s control panel to adjust the heat. I activated the fan button, and nothing happened. I reset the car’s computer and tried again…nothing! I had just replaced the heater’s fan, and it was malfunctioning again! We could not drive the Flex to Minnesota for Christmas without a working heater. It would not only be uncomfortable, but it would also be unsafe. Our other travel-worthy vehicle, Violet, the campervan, was not a possibility as she only has two seats, and we had four passengers. The prospect of seeing our family for Christmas was looking grim. 


Cars don’t hold much romance for me, but at times I have succumbed to their advertised hype. When I grew up in blue-collar Chicago, most people drove used American-made cars, Fords, Chevys, Plymouths, and the like. However, there was a house in my old neighborhood that had two Mercedes Benz sedans parked in the back. A friend told me that these were luxury cars and very special. Somehow that message has stayed with me into my adulthood. 

I usually buy functional cars; however, there have been a few notable exceptions. When I finished my medical residency, I bought a speedy Mustang convertible. It was a fun car in good weather, but utterly treacherous with the slightest bit of rain or snow. After a few years, I sold it for something more practical, a Ford Explorer. Other rational cars followed the Explorer, that is until I turned 50. 

By that time, I was an established physician, and there was a part of me wanted to show off my success. I had an urge to buy a Mercedes, but it seemed like a wholly wasteful purchase. I delayed my desire for over a year, but I finally could not resist my childish wish. I bought a hunter green Mercedes sedan with a tan leather interior. I remember the feeling that I had when I drove out of the dealer’s lot. A blue-collar kid from the south side of Chicago has arrived! I felt like the world was watching me and giving me a nod of respect. Despite knowing that my feelings were ridiculous, I held onto them. Why? Because they felt good.

In reality, a Mercedes is just a box on wheels, and my hunter green one wasn’t a very reliable box at that. The car made frequent trips to the dealership for repairs that ranged from disconnected door handles to defective computerized displays. In the beginning, these repair trips were OK, as I would always get a new loaner Mercedes to check out. However, this joy ended with the conclusion of my warranty. Post-warranty it wouldn’t be uncommon to bring the car in for a simple oil change and leave with a $1000.00 repair bill. My Mercedes went from being a classy status symbol to a financial anchor around my neck. 

Fast forward to 2008. I was in the process of getting a new job in far off Rockford, and I wanted a car that was both reliable and economical. My radical move was to buy a Fit, Honda’s smallest and cheapest car. I can’t imagine that many people trade in a luxury car for a Honda Fit, but that was precisely what I did.

As compact cars go, the Honda Fit is very…compact. Its tiny engine sips gas at 40 MPG, and its small interior tries to eke out extra space with fold-down seats. At 6’3,” I fit into the driver’s seat, but I wouldn’t call the experience spacious. 

The Honda commuted me for many years to my Wheaton private practice and my job in Rockford. The 80 mile trip to Rockford could be treacherous in bad weather, and so I had equipped the little car with all of the survival basics, jumper cables, a first aid kit, a sleeping bag, a change of emergency clothes, and even a towing strap. Being a solo traveler gave me plenty of packing space despite the car’s diminutive dimensions.  

I loved the Honda and thought it looked attractive, but others felt it was too tiny for a man of my size. One case in point was my brother-in-law. He referred to the Fit as my “clown car.” The title referencing the tiny autos that are used as circus gags. A clown car would pull up in the circus’ center ring, and from its claustrophobic innards, six or more clowns would emerge. How they packed them in there, I will never know.

Five years ago, I drove my daughter Kathryn from Chicago to the University of Arizona in the Fit. We had pushed down the rear seats, and with precision packing, the Fit successfully transported the two of us and all of Kathryn’s college belongings to her freshman dorm at the U of A. 

I was solo on the trip home, and the roads were plagued by an enormous amount of road construction. New Mexico was especially bad, and the highway would frequently transition from double lanes to a concrete barrier single channels. Large signs would announce, “Construction Speed Limit Strictly Enforced,” at the start of these channels. So I would set my cruise control to the appropriate speed limit to avoid getting a ticket. 

I was driving through one of these construction channels in the middle of New Mexico. Suddenly, I had a strange feeling of danger overtake me along with a physical tingling feeling at the back of my neck that forced me to look up and towards the rearview mirror. What I saw horrified me. All I could see in my rearview mirror was the giant grill of an 18 wheeler. The truck was so close to me that I was invisible to the driver who was gaining on me. If I had not looked up at the very moment, the 18 wheeler would have run over me in the next 30 seconds. I could not escape the lane as the road construction channel was cordoned off. Honda Fits are not known for their powerhouse acceleration. Still, I had no other option, so I stomped on the accelerator. The car started to pick up speed but at an agonizingly slow rate. By this time, I was sweating, and it felt like my heart would jump directly out of my chest. I looked up and saw that I was now going slightly faster than the truck. I was pulling away. 

Eventually, I cleared the barriers and pulled into a different lane. I looked back to see the truck in my rearview mirror. He was staying far behind me as he was now aware of what almost happened due to his distraction. 

That incident stayed with me, and for some time, it felt like a PTSD experience as I would go into a near panic when I was surrounded by trucks on the expressway. I had to overcome my fear as I needed to drive the Fit to Rockford every week. So I eventually convinced myself that driving it was safe. However, I never took the Honda on long road trips after that, as it was just too stressful, and I was too fearful.

Cars don’t age well, and over the 11 years that I have owned the Fit, it has gained a bit of rust, and its paint has seen better days. Now with almost 130 thousand miles, the Fit has become our spare/kid’s car. It remains a perfect “around-town” vehicle despite its loss of beauty. I now mostly drive Violet the van, and we have the big Ford Flex for our other needs.

Our 11-year-old Honda Fit is showing her age.

“The heater/defroster fan isn’t working. It would be dangerous to take Rosie to Minnesota.” I announced in a solemn tone. I scanned the living room to witness a sea of wide eyes and dropped jaws. “The fan sometimes comes on when you drive her a little bit,” Julie offered. “That’s not reliable enough. What if we were stuck in a storm on the way and had no heat or defrost air.”  

It was clear that everyone was very disappointed. What were the other options available? The only reasonable one at that late time was to drive the Fit. And although a solution, it was a pretty terrible one.

The Fit is fine for a lone driver, OK for a single passenger, but miserable for four adults that included two males who are both over 6 feet tall. Also, we had luggage, presents, food, and emergency items. I checked the weather for Minneapolis, which indicated that on our commuting days, the temperatures would be above freezing. We could probably forgo our emergency gear.  

I mentioned the possibility of taking the Fit on the 7-hour journey, and there was a general nod of agreement. All of us unloaded the Flex and loaded the Fit. We left behind many items, but the hatch area was still very tight.

I also had to face my fear of driving the Fit on a long interstate trip full of 18 wheelers. I did my best to implement some self-CBT, took a deep breath, and plopped myself into the driver’s seat. Julie sat opposite me, and the kids each took spots in the tiny second row. We were off.

There are some desolate stretches along the way.

To keep ourselves sane, we took a few extra rest-stops on both the destination and return trips. I wanted to be as alert as possible, so I made sure that I drank my coffee. I keep my attention high when faced with construction zones, and made sure that we had plenty of gas. These were all small things, but they helped ease some of the stress.

Stopping at a random restaurant along the interstate.
Having a full take of gas gave me a sense of security.
Interstate rest areas allowed us to stretch our legs.
I always have to check out rest stop vending machines despite the fact that they typically contain the same items.
We like to stop at Culvers for our mid-trip meal. Nothing says love like cheese curds.
Culvers chili and a half-eaten bag of cheese curds.

The trip was challenging, but we accomplished our goal because we faced our problem with a realistic and positive attitude. None of us complained; we all did our respective jobs. So why didn’t we just cancel?

Simple…

If you want to do something, you find a way.

If you don’t want to do something, you find an excuse.

Those two lines give you our answer. You may want to think about them the next time you need to make a decision, or wonder what another person’s real motivation is. 

Safe arrival to our family in Minnesota.

Happy trails,

Mike