Swiss Army SUV (Nick Shell’s Turtle Shell): 2004 Honda Element

If I was an action figure, what would my accessories be?

My wife always goes to sleep before me.  Sometimes, when she’s lucky, I sing her a lullaby to help her transition into dream mode, to coax her into visions of happy clouds and riding unicorns.  Of course, I only serenade her with original songs that I sing as I compose them, on the spot.  Last week, with Avatar fresh on my mind, I sang to her in my finest Styx performing Mr. Roboto voice:

“Nothing can prepare you for the unicorn ride of your life

So put on your purple jump suit and watch a pterodactyl fly by

Because nothing can prepare you for the unicorn ride of your life”


Then she asked, “How can I prepare for the unicorn ride when you just said nothing could ever prepare me?”

She made a good point.  The only disadvantage of having the ability to make up and sing Grammy award winning songs on the spot, is that sometimes I forget the lyrics I’ve already sang earlier in the same song.

Ironically, I was the one who wasn’t prepared.  As for the rest of the time, in everyday life, I am prepared.  Because from 1st grade to 5th grade, I was in Cub Scouts and one of our main mottos was Be Prepared”.  Evidently, that has become a law of life for me.

Take my car, for example:

Honda Elements have been compared to a lot of things: a boot, a shoe, a toaster, a box.  And I’m okay with that, because after 4 ½ years of owning one, I am still in love.  And when the day comes to get a new vehicle, my plan is to simply buy another Honda Element.

I have transformed my already versatile duckbill-platypus-like SUV into the vehicular equivalent of a Swiss army knife.  It’s time to take a tour of my Honda Element and see what I keep on hand at all times, just in case I need it…

Typically I keep one backseat always folded up so I can have my mountain bike with me.  It stays secured between the wall and other seat.  The blue t-shirt helps prevent scuff marks on my seat from the bike and doubles as an emergency back-up shirt.

The way I got that shirt was way back in the summer of 1998 when I went on a mission trip to Ecuador.  One of the old t-shirts I had packed for the trip was one that I got from a church youth conference from the summer of 1993.  It was a white t-shirt with the phrase “JESUS IS FOR NOW” on it.  And that’s all it said.  (In Junior High, my classmate Scott Rothell joked with me: “Jesus is for now; Satan is for later”.  He was a funny guy.)

So when I was in Ecuador, a guy my age (17 at the time) saw me wearing the “Jesus is for now” t-shirt and said he liked it so much that he wanted it.  Because I have developed a friendship with him that week doing skits in city squares and painting schools, I negotiated a t-shirt trade.

He let me look through the old t-shirts he brought along, and the blue one was the one I chose: “Con Amor de Tennessee a Temuco, Chile” (With love from Tennessee to Temuco, Chile”.  Which was the official t-shirt my friend got from a previous mission trip.  It remains a comfortable t-shirt after the 12 years of me owning it.

Behind my passenger seats is where I keep my helmet.  In the cubbies on the sides, I have an old atlas I stole from work, a bandana (for days I don’t feel like wearing a hat but want to cover my head- works well in sweaty or rainy situations).

This is also where I keep my bike maintenance tools and restaurant coupons (which I’ve made several copies of on a color copier so I can reuse them).  As well as flyers for selling my house.  And an atlas in case my GPS stops working.  And windshield defroster spray.  Plus a back-up t-shirt just in case…

In the backseat that is not folded up I keep a black fedora.  Because this kind of hat will instantly make me look classier if need be, even if I’m wearing a t-shirt and jeans.  Plus an old baseball cap I got in 11th grade (1997), as well as a new stylish hat that my mother-in-law mailed me on my birthday.  The right hat for the right situation is key to being a model citizen.

Underneath the seat I keep my Birkenstocks (Christmas present from my parents in 1999).  They make the perfect back-up shoes in case I’m wearing nice shoes and it starts to rain.  In the rear side doors, I keep two books at all times.  Just in case I need to kill some time.  One is about speed reading, the other is about “reading people”.

In between the two front seats, I keep some musk incense I bought at an Indian grocery store, to help keeping my Element smelling like a forest.  I received the toothpaste and toothbrush from my most recent dentist visit- always good to keep around.  And of course it is vital to always have nail clippers handy.

The plastic cup remains empty.  Maybe I’ll end up in a place where there’s water but nothing to put it in.  Then the cup saves the day.

I put Velcro on the back of my iPod (with an FM radio receiver so I can listen to it through my stereo speakers) and my steering wheel so it’s always right in front of me.

In the hidden cubby next to my steering wheel, I keep a few spare wedding rings (made out of hemp) just in case I ever forget to wear my actual one.  Next to some papaya supplements to aid indigestion (for my pregnant wife).

Up in the front passenger dashboard caddy, I keep sugar-free gum, business cards (mainly so I can write my website on them to give to people I meet who after talking to me, are curious about my website).  And a bendable Pink Panther- just because he is awesome.  He is my animal cartoon role model.

There are also some pictures from my wife and I from exactly a year ago when we met her aunt in Chattanooga.  The felt letters say “amp” but they used to say “camp”.  But the “c” fell off and I never found it.  I just wanted to enhance the “camp” theme of my car.

Lastly, in the passenger seat of my Element, I keep my Gap one-strap bookbag.  Inside are my laptop, earphones, camera, Bible, and whatever the main current book is that I’m reading at the time.  I usually bring the bookbag with me when I take my mountain bike for a ride so I can be prepared to entertain myself if I need a break.

With the exception of my TV and my Wii and guitar and my clothes which are in the house, the things I keep in my Element are my earthly possessions.  My Element is like an overnight bag.  Like a turtle’s shell.  My action figure’s accessories.

And one more thing… Now that you’ve read my take on Honda Elements, why not read my perspective on being a dad?  That’s right- parenting from a dad’s point of view.  I have been documenting my thoughts as a dad since the week we found out my wife was pregnant.  I formally invite you now to read my “dad blog” by clicking on the link below:

dad from day one

People are the Meaning of Life: The Rich, The Poor, and The Loved

There are three types of people in the world. The rich, the poor, and the loved.


© Peter Menzel from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

I recently watched the deleted scenes from the holiday movie Love Actually. The camera zooms in on a poster of two African women in the hot desert. They are carrying baskets full of corn on top of their heads – a scene that would cause many viewers to assume they live a difficult live. As their camera gets closer to the shot of the women, the picture comes to life.

Through subtitles at the bottom of the screen, the viewer learns that these women are indeed quite happy. They are simply carrying food from their garden as they do each day, talking about their husbands and their children. The scene closes with one of the women with her husband, looking out across their small plot of land. They lived a simply life, but were quite content. They had each other and had enough to eat. Though it wasn’t a feast.

A few weeks ago I viewed a slide show called “What the World Eats”. Each slide featured a family from a different country pictured in their kitchen with all the food they eat in a week’s time. One of the poorest families featured was from Ecuador. Their kitchen was simply a corner of their hut. They only ate vegetables, I’m sure not by choice. But they sincerely looked happy in the picture. They had each other and enough to eat. Though it wasn’t a feast.

Here is a link to that slideshow I saw :,29307,1626519_1373664,00.html

While much of the world experiences constants civil wars and famine and corrupt governments, not all “poor countries” are suffering. They just live on a lot less than us. And are happy. Not all cultures require a family to own a large house and a minimum of two cars.


© Peter Menzel from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

Subconsciously, I have been pitying every foreign country poor enough not to have their own national brand of vehicles or their own equivalent to American Idol. But perhaps, they have been pitying me, the Capitalist. Living in a land where it’s easy to end up focusing on chasing money for an entire lifetime.

My church has a ministry where they take in refugees from northern Africa, Iraq, and Southeast Asia. The church helps them to find jobs and an apartment to help them “get on their feet”. Some of them have expressed that life in America is not as easy as it has been romanticized.

While it is the land of the free, it is also the land of the working. Many are surprised by how many hours Americans must work a week to support their families and keep up the maintenance of even one car, which is all but necessary in our culture.

Obviously they are glad to be here instead of imprisoned in a refugee camp in a country plagued with violence, racism, and religious discrimination. But to be an American typically means a person must work the majority of the hours of the week.


© Peter Menzel from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

From what I’ve been hearing from people outside this country, something Americans are known for is being obsessed with their work. But I don’t know. I’m not an outsider.

I do know I only have about 3 quality hours (at very best) each weekday with my wife. Because she’s in her Master’s classes all day Saturday, the only day we really have together is Sunday. And by then, we’re exhausted from the work week. I’m realizing I envy families who actually get to spend time with each other.

My wife has said several times that she would have like to live in the pioneer days of covered wagons and schoolhouses in the West. Not me. Too hot. Too cold. Too easy to get sick. To easy to die. No thanks.


© Peter Menzel from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

However, this is the only life I know. If I never knew the comfort of an air conditioner in a house or road trip in an SUV with a CD player, then I wouldn’t know what I am missing.

I thank God for my life in America in 2009. Such a blessed country.

But in my time of seeing happy, simple families in poorer countries I have traveled like Trinidad, Ecuador, and the northern mountainous villages of Thailand, I became aware that I wanted what they had.

A big house and trendy clothes and new cars mean working more to keep up with the high overhead. I try to imagine a life where the picture is so beautiful, even if the frame isn’t fancy. That’s the life I’m aiming for.