Stephen Stills wasn't thinking about cars when he penned the lyrics, If You Can't Be With the One You Love, Love the One You're With. But his song ran through my head last week as I returned a new Porsche Cayman R and climbed back into a 2002 Honda Accord.
Both cars were green. Both had four wheels. And that's where the similarities ended. The Cayman R was a Victoria's Secret model with headlights. The Accord was the girl next door - the one with the decent personality and zero sex appeal. I wanted to be with the Cayman R. But the Accord is the one I'm with.
After the lightning-quick Cayman, the Accord felt like saddling up a Jersey cow. But it's my automotive life partner. So I need to love it. But how?
I pulled into Starbucks - a skim-milk latte always cheers me up. And that's when I had my epiphany: as I slipped my coffee into the Accord's cup holder, I realized that it put the Cayman's to shame. The automotive Gods had finally shown me how to love my car. The Cayman might be fast and sexy, but the Accord's cup holders were the marrying kind.
The compensation of age is wisdom, which allows you to appreciate what you have. And I have a car that can carry a cup of coffee really well. I'd always taken the Honda's cup holders for granted. Now I was studying them as industrial paragons. Honda's engineers had designed a near-perfect beverage holder, mounted exactly where your right hand falls, and located low in the car, reducing the chance of spills.
The Porsche's cup holders, on the other hand, were like a schizophrenic supermodel - stunningly attractive, but cursed with flaws that make your life a living hell. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you appreciate when you are in the courtship phase: only after marrying the underwear model or buying the super car do you realize that the cocaine addiction or the lousy cup holders may be a problem.
When I first tried the Porsche's holders, I was amazed - they emerged from behind a secret panel in the Cayman's dash like a pair of carbon-fibre mantis legs, and ratcheted open with the satisfying click of an expensive fishing reel.
But the honeymoon ended when I loaded them with a cup of coffee. Because they're mounted at dash level, the Porsche cup holders force a coffee cup to travel through an exaggerated arc of motion as the car pitches and rolls. (It's like standing high on a ship's mast of instead of staying down on the deck.) And that carbon-arm design might look cool in the showroom, but when you hit a bump, it turns into a miniature trebuchet - there's a good chance that your hot coffee will be launched into your lap like the flaming oil sacks the Romans used to subdue the Germanic horde.
So my Accord was superior than the Cayman! Or at least that's what I tried to tell myself. Truth was, I had played the old silver lining trick on myself yet again. Dealt a bad hand, I looked for the upside, and found one. It's a human survival mechanism. The first time I recall using it was in freshman year at university, when I scored a few dates with Christina, the most beautiful woman on the University of Maryland's Munich campus, only to be ditched in favour of a guy who was her male equivalent.
A week later I was with Sarah, who was slightly less beautiful (make that way less beautiful) but had a pleasant, balanced demeanour and a new Smith Corona typewriter that she let me borrow to type my essays. As Christina cat-walked past with her new, much better-looking boyfriend, I told myself that I'd lucked out - who wanted to be with the hottest woman on campus?
And so it was with the Cayman R. It was stunning to look at, and incredible to drive. I spent hours staring at it, and even more hours railing it around my favourite on-ramps, marvelling at how many Gs I could pull. The engine sounded like a 310-horsepower saxophone. But I had to give it back, so it couldn't be that great.
Or could it? The life of a car columnist is a strange variation on the Cinderella story - you are offered an endless series of glass carriages, only to be returned to your own dented steel pumpkin. But there are compensations - it's a great relief to learn that a lot of expensive cars aren't worth it (at least to me). But the Cayman R is the kind of machine that insinuates itself into my heart - light, quick and elemental, yet comfortable enough for a week long trip. The only problem is the price tag, which is equal to about four years of tuition and board at a Canadian university (by way of coincidence, I have a son with four years of university still ahead of him). And so, at least for now, my Porsche is not to be. I am resigned to loving my Honda and its awesome cup holders. And yet love cannot be based on resignation. So I looked deeper into my automotive heart.
My relationship with our Honda goes back a long way. It was originally purchased by my mother-in-law back in 2002 when she traded in her last Chrysler K-car. She loved her new Honda, and it gave her some of the best drives of her life. In 2007, she died in a fall at the age of 82 - she tripped walking into the garage, striking her head on the Honda's left front fender. The dent is still there.
And so when I look at our green Honda I see many things. I see thousands of miles of trouble-free driving and family trips with the kids laughing in the back seat. I see my mother-in-law, who I loved deeply. And I see her daughter, Marian, the woman I married back in 1984. (As women go, she is a Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini rolled into one, yet absolutely reliable.) In this green Honda I see all the rides I've taken with my wife, through blizzards, summer days and everything between. And I see the dent my mother-in-law's head made in the fender, reminding me to live every single day to its fullest, because each could be the last.
And then there are those great cup holders. As Shakespeare wrote: "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind."
Love the car you're with.
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