The comforts of home — on the road

There’s a commercial airing frequently for a Dodge minivan these days. Maybe you’ve seen it:

An unhappy family sits around their very nice home, all doing their best to ignore each other. The cynical teenage daughter is on the phone, asking her friend, “Did you see what she was wearing? Eww!” The youngest boy approaches the older brother with a football to play, and the older brother knocks away the football, immersed in a video game. The dad is at the computer, playing a football game.

Mom pulls up and yells out the window, “Hey, let’s go for a ride in the new car!” Everyone makes a bad face, and grudgingly gets up from whatever they were doing in their own separate worlds and makes their way to the new minivan.

Now they’re driving down a street — a very nice tree-lined street with sidewalks on each side — as they begin to explore all the nifty features in their new family auto. (sidenote: How come these commercials never show families idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the sprawling suburban strip like the San Antonio photo from a few days ago? I digress.)

Dad fiddles with the radio/GPS/on-board computer. The kids are all in the back, with headphones on, each looking at a different screen with a movie or video game, encased in their own separate activity.

And then the line is uttered by the narrator: “Bringing families together like never before. The all-new Dodge Caravan.”

On that note, there was a story in the Washington Post earlier this week about how cars, especially family cars, are offering more features and comforts to make those hours spent in the car each day more comfortable. Interestingly, one of the first people quoted in a story about cars is a guy who specializes in buildings and places made for people.

“We’re spending more and more time in our cars . . . and instead of addressing the terrible experience of commuting, we just do more and more pleasant cars,” said Andres Duany, an advocate for walkable communities and the author of the book “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.” “Cars are wonderfully comfortable these days,” Duany said. “They cocoon you; you can sit in them for hours and work from them. But it doesn’t address the fundamentals about why we need nicer cars. The issue is that we are spending too much time commuting and too much time driving.”

The story featured a particular family in the D.C. region, whose experience is not unlike the television commercial:

One recent Saturday, the Mangrums — Daniel, wife Sabrina, and daughters Danielle and Diamond — piled into their Dodge minivan outside the parking lot of the family’s church, Cornerstone Peaceful Bible Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, where the Mangrums are co-pastors.

Once they were buckled in, Diamond reached for the remote and clicked on the Disney channel. At the same time, she flicked on her portable Nintendo DS. She was soon immersed in the go-cart racing game Mario Kart. Danielle dialed classmates on the bright-fuchsia Razr phone that she calls “her best friend.” There was a mini-heartbreak situation involving a rude remark by a classmate that needed to be dissected.

“I was crying last night,” Danielle said into her cellphone. “Everyone was like, ‘You okay?’ I was like, ‘No.’ ”

In the front, her parents, separated from the children by a video screen, were quietly going over the day’s church service while gospel music streamed from the radio.

“This is family time,” Daniel Mangrum. But the Mangrums were already in their own bubbles — in their own rooms — by the time the minivan began sailing up the road.