Despite my best intentions, I have ignored my writing ambitions. My life is no more complicated than usual, it’s just that right now, attending to my eldest is sincerely, a matter of life and death.
He is learning to drive.
I am supposed to be the teacher.
I find, true to my form, that I am also a student.
It all started out manageable enough in May. Maybe June. He is older than most kids getting their permits and he’s been very good to himself: he hasn’t rushed this at all, and for that I am eternally grateful. Living where we do, outside Washington, DC, endeavoring to turn left is akin to thrill seeking.
Drive in a Driveway, Park in a Parkway
I gave him the keys to our MassiveMobile, a 2-ton, 2004 Toyota Sequoia, 4WD SUV. In its defense, it’s smaller than a Chevy Suburban… I mean, those things are huge. (I like to skate the thin ice when judging others…), and we sat in the driveway for about 20 minutes (yes…) as he learned to shift in and out of gears and release the brake, roll the vehicle, stop the vehicle and depress the accelerator to get the vehicle back into position. We didn’t even touch “turning the steering wheel” until about 10 minutes in.
I gave only pointers and tips. No judgements. I put on my yoga teacher personae and imagined myself as Jesus or Buddha, gently querying, “What would it be like if you sat up a little taller, took a deep breath, softened your jaw, and considered using the brake before stripping the transmission and gunning the engine only to stand on the brake within five seconds in this confined space of 20 feet by 30 feet?”
After 20 minutes, he was done. I patted him on the back and he rolled up the windows and turned off the engine. Reminiscent of a scene in a Disney movie after a witch departs, the local fauna returned to its natural curiosities: squirrels dashed from branch to branch, birds hopped along the roadways, that creepy-looking famished coyote tip-toed through the fence slats.
“Any comments? Questions for me?” I asked, hopeful for what I still don’t know.
“It sure is responsive, that car. I mean, it’s massive and knowing what I do about physics, it takes a lot of energy to move AND stop it. It’s sensitive and just hanging out in the driveway going back and forth, trying to land smoothly on the R or the D is a lot,” he said. “I’m baked.”
His cheeks were a little flushed, which is his natural complexion, but I could tell his brain was tired, it affected his body: he looked like he does after a playing a tough guitar piece again and again.
To me, that counted: that was 20 minutes behind the wheel, so I told him to add it to his phone app.
We did that drill about
three five more times, at his request, adding the steering wheel and more square footage to include going up and down our little private driveway as the incidences went on. He wanted 20 hours by the time school started. But he also wanted to drive every other day.
It gets boring and true to human nature, our imaginations and ambitions crave more, want growth. I knew this was a good sign.
But for whom?
Soon we ambled over to the local elementary school. It being summer, no one was there except the custodians and maybe a couple administrators. I wasn’t ready for him to drive to the school, because doing so requires driving in a dedicated right lane (I see now how white-knuckled I was about it all, but I also think it was appropriate, these roads are really crazy here) for about 300 feet with traffic to the immediate left easily doing 50 mph. So I shuttled us there.
To me, being a “teacher” means being honest with yourself and hopefully catching yourself in moments of hypocrisy, those “do as I say, not as I do” episodes. As teachers, parents, humans, we have to be willing to change (become a student) when we are forced to eat our own dog food.
I am human. Ergo, I am a hypocrite.
People don’t take a breath before they start the car. We are so automatic. I wonder what would happen if before resuming from every break or red light or stop sign that we would remind ourselves: Driving is a matter of life and death.
Around here, we are surrounded by entitled kids driving Mommy’s BMW X5 or Daddy’s Tesla, maybe even their own. Or worse: kids who are imagining that the 12-year-old Honda Civic with bald tires, blown shocks and hazy headlights are actually six-month-old Ferraris.
It being a D.C. suburb means we are also surrounded by immigrants, who are lovely people, but who likely learned to drive never, and have somehow sifted through the system of checks and balances that naive people like myself entrust to the audacious system of mutual road safety. And then there are moms, people just like I am. Distracted, breathless and barreling down the roads, sometimes not at all remembering how we got to the pasta aisle at Safeway, and not being able to find the car in the lot, yet somehow being mindful / guilt-ridden and programmed enough to bring our enviroBags to checkout.
I try not to say to him, “Everything you do on the road today can either help or hinder someone else,” even though I really want to. I try to say it to myself and then somehow synthesize it into a less Buddha-bullshit / more YouTube teenage way, in 140 or less characters.
I wish there was Siri in our car. Or some sort of rational, onboard computer voice, in a soothing maternal tone that says things like, “I wonder what it would be like if you decided to brake maybe NOW instead of your typical two seconds after now…”
When my mother was alive, I distinctly recall her making all sorts of “eeeeilllllllluughhhhh” noises when my father or brother (or likely myself) would take a turn aggressively or take a turn at all. My mother was a horrid driver. To punish or nauseate my children (I almost got Dad to york about two weeks ago in fact), I like to step back in time by starting “Driving like Mimi.”
My youngest loves it; it’s like an amusement park ride for him. But he’s only 11 and he can’t see much beyond the dashboard or the hood of the SUV because he’s still quite wee. My older kids beg me to stop. So does my husband, and then a fortnight ago, my dad joined in the chorus. But it was the two-year anniversary of her death, and I felt it was a nice little nod to her… especially because I believe my father rode with her driving only a handful of times.
After the elementary school parking lot in which I would intentionally panic about an imaginary squirrel or soccer ball or toddler or zombie entering the roadway (our pact was to gun it on the zombie), which we conquered five times in 45-miunute chunks, he was ready to take that dedicated right lane and merge into the speeding left lane traffic for another 200 feet and turn right onto out street.
We were both starting to feel the call of the “open road” — which is what he called the main road outside our little Hamlet when he was four. “Let’s go look at cars go by, on the open road,” he would say when he was very very small.
I am keenly aware of my emotional need to put off his driving. While I have never stifled it, and I love that he’s going to the beat of his own drummer, I would absolutely be absolutely telling an absolute lie if I said that I’m groovy with the signs of his independence and his God-given, right-on-damned-time calls to spread his wings. I will not clip them, but I’m in no rush to provide an updraft.
To say that he has been the easiest child to raise, would be another lie. He is not “difficult” in the way that he is constantly obstinate or unruly; to the contrary, he is a beautifully sensitive and smart and sarcastic and kind person. It’s into that little white lie, that “good” kids are easier to raise, that we are drawn. He doesn’t really know too much from error; he doesn’t really know too much from failure; he doesn’t really know too much from struggle. That’s not because I’m a helicopter mom, I’m not. He’s just one of those guys who is observant, smart, patient and … well … maybe a little cautious.
I blame my mother.
Ha! That was snide. But she was with him most of his waking hours for his first year when I went back to work.
And it’s also that he’s just my first kid, and he broke the mold, so letting him go out there, into that “big bad world” is hard.
One day, at the parking lot, I had him get out of the car and walk around it. Count the steps required to circumnavigate its mass. I then asked him to give an additional ten feet around the sides and 80 feet off the front because we can’t control the tailgaters. “Imagine eight basketball posts and hoops lined up end-to-end in front of the car. That’s the space you need.”
I’m so full of shit. I don’t give that space. I think I might give half that space maybe 50 feet. I don’t tailgate, mostly because braking around here is half the drive. But I’ve also been driving for almost twice the length of his life (sweet God is that true?!) and my reflexes are cat-like. Rationalize rationalize rationalize…
It’s a long time coming: he is a good driver, he is diligent about his lane changes, but he doesn’t turn his body to scan behind the rolling tank’s clearance into a lane ahead of the SmartCar behind or beside us. (I HATE SMARTCARS… I know this might sound hypocritical to those of you who know me personally because we just got a MINI Cooper for our fun buggy, but I am human. I am weak.)
So instead of saying, “You really need to improve your upper body flexibility and give yourself [AND ME AS A TERRIFIED PASSENGER IN THIS CAR] space, and look behind you — THROUGH the [God damned] windows so we don’t kill someone…” I say, invoking my therapist who often started confrontational work with me by saying, ‘I wonder what it would be like…’ “Gee, maybe sitting up taller and getting more clearance between you and your forward traffic would give you more time to turn your body and look behind you before you switch lanes…[breeeeeeeatheeee…]”
So I have blind spots of my own. I don’t turn enough to see the moments coming on, the moments when he decides to hang with his buddies (who are lovely kids too) after a game; eat a little faster at the dinner table and escape a little sooner to his room or the basement; text a little more on his iDevice, only to shut it off when I near the 10-foot energy zone surrounding him. It’s at those moments I sustain a blow to my emotional solar-plexus, and double over a little with bittersweet appreciation: I’ve done a good job, this is what he’s supposed to do… he’s his own man. So why does it hurt so much?
Co-Driving as a Sympathetic Crash Test Dummy
You’ve read it a thousand times? Here’s one more truth: there’s a worn patch in the passenger seat foot well of my SUV. It’s from the imaginary brake. The arm rests have indentations and oil stains where my hands have gripped and squeezed and pressed and pulled. I think my body fits beautifully into the form I’ve created with my pressing away from the windshield, like a nice little sarcophagus — a “carcophagus!” for me to live in. I should wear my night guard when I ride with him.
He laughs about it. He knows I’m biting my tongue. He knows I’m doing my best to not blast him or react. It’s good for both of us. He thinks I’m a little too nervous. I think I like the car just the way it is: lacking any major dents anywhere, save for the puckers, skims and dips from his brothers’ errant kicks of a soccer ball at the speed of light.
So that whole thing about not texting while driving…. Don’t text while your kid is driving either.
After the high school parking lot and my mandated into and out of parking spaces; driving on strange grades and uneven terrain; in the rain; and navigating tight spaces, it was time for the big road. He drove us home from his high school. He waited his sweet time at that first right out of the safety of the school property, and I LOVE that about him: no one is going to rush this guy.
That’s from my mom too. In some amazing ways, she got through to him: that while the world is populated, you have to take care of yourself. Now, in all fairness, she took that self-interest of herself for herself and by herself to extreme self-guided levels, but somehow it distilled to him in a kinder and smarter way. I’m a born codependent: when not self-aware, I will try to please others until I pass out. Not my eldest. He’s a great teacher, and so I hear myself say to him, because this is life and death, “You have all the time you need. Dial back, let the cars go and bask in the relative safety of that STUDENT DRIVER magnet on the back of our death missile.”
Because of his nature to observe and assess and learn before stepping outside the lines, he is methodical. At right turns on red, if you’re behind him, you’ll know it: he stops to a full body-lurching-forward-against-the-seat-belt stop and then goes. This is because of me. I told him, “A right on red, means you stop on that red. I’ve gotten burned for it. So, you stop, don’t roll through.” I know fully well, and I’ve explained to him, that in time he will develop his own style and with experience he will begin to cut corners, turn wider, and blow off or assume rules for himself.
Once he got to 12 hours behind the wheel with me, I promised him he could drive the Cooper at his high school’s parking lot.
He couldn’t contain himself. He said it’s like a go-kart. He loves it. It’s fast, it’s nimble. Everything you need to see is right there. “I thought the Sequoia was responsive… holy cow…” he said, doing his best to censor himself and refrain from enthusiastic and humbling epithets.
“Well, yes and no. They’re both responsive in their own respective and proportional ways. I’m letting you drive it because you will likely need to learn how. There could be an instance wherein Dad or I get a headache or feel unwell or have an injury and you will need to drive. Your driving this or any car, just like for me, is a luxury, not an entitlement.” (“P’shaw,” says my inner craven Mario Andretti.)
Driving home from that session in the high school parking lot with the Cooper, he waved to let someone in ahead of him while we were rolling. The Cooper lurched to the right because he used his left hand and then back to the left because he corrected. Thank God it’s a narrow little matchbox.
“HOLY GODCHRISTJESUS! DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN….” Like
a despot Joan Crawford, I dictated.
“WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!” he hissed, all full of himself as we coasted along, as vulnerable as a newborn kitten. I was SERIOUSLY doubting my choice to let him take us home and he was totally pissed at my reaction, something I’ve heretofore been pretty good at suppressing.
I paused. Took a couple breaths. Placed my tongue in the roof of my mouth and released my jaw.
Don’t fight with the kid behind the wheel.
“Something else. You’re to keep both hands on the wheel. It’s not even been an hour in this car, and you aren’t ready to ‘wave people into the lane…'” I said all huffy and eye-rolly and impatient. Not at all like Jesus. But Jesus didn’t ride with his son in a MINI Cooper in Fairfax County. “That driver will have to wait. You had the right of way. You were already in the traffic, moving along and you’re not Jesus… there was no one behind you, there was space for that car and while I think that driver was counting on it, you waved it in… When we are on our street, I will show you how to ‘double-flash’ a driver in ahead of you… by the way, the double flash is something I don’t think you’ll see in your driver’s manual; it’s sort of like a wink and a nod, a part of the driver’s patois… The beauty of it is that you keep both hands on the wheel…”
He’d checked out. I was the enemy for that instance.
There are assholes. Sometimes it’s me when I’m not like Jesus.
He encountered an asshole the other night. We were driving home from soccer practice pick-up. Because I prefer the Cooper, and I’m a born codependent, I let him drive the Cooper. This is where I have literally had to stop and examine my own head. “It’s not about what you want to ride in, Molly, it’s about what’s safest, Molly.” My husband the other night said, “The Cooper is a treat for him. Not a given…” and that was that. I thank God for my husband.
He stopped on red to take a right turn. The asshole behind us, likely came close to driving into us, stood on his horn. Turns out the asshole is a known asshole to my family and when we had the chance moments later, I stood my ground and chewed him up and spat him out. I was simply returning the favor from five years ago when he was an asshole in front of my children at the pool, and I reminded him by telling him he started it five years ago, and that vengeance was mine and right and just and OHHHH!! how the tables have turned…. I have a whole post written about that incident at the right on red and its ensuing carnival, but I’m not sure I’m going to share it on the blog. My husband is convinced this asshole knew it was my car because he remarked on it to my husband one night… I am feeling the pull to write more about this here, but I will ignore it.
No Better Teacher than Experience.
We can read all the Dr. Spock, watch all the Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Who we want and we will never be able to impart to others any wisdom we’ve gained therein. The only real teacher is experience. About three weeks ago, we were in the Sequoia and the road was slick and shiny from a recent rain. The clouds had parted, so it was also steamy and reflecting the low sun. We were heading west, into the sun, at about 6:30pm. I was doing my best to speak intentionally about the reflection, the glare and traffic lights being a nice idea, but when conditions are like this, you really need to watch the tail lights of the cars ahead of you.
I aggressively depicted the intersection we were approaching: it had SIX right-hand portals to either enter the main road or to exit the main road. Two of the six were actual streets, each with their own traffic light (yes, within 100 feet of each other); the other four in/outlets were for a gas station, a McDonald’s and two shared spots to enter the shopping center housing everything else. It’s a shitstorm waiting to happen and it needs some serious re-engineering, but that won’t happen because peeps gots to be getting’ gas and fries, yo…
In an instant, we were upon it.
“Back off the gas… coast…. Watch the tail lights… WATCH THE TAIL LIGHTS. COAST…. brrrrreaaaaaakkkk…..” I stopped talking. He wasn’t listening.
We were coasting in, all laaaa-deee-daaaa to our doom.
Something, like God knows what, had his attention. So I shouted, “USE THE FUCKING BRAKE, NOW….” and he said, “I was… I was… ” and I said, “MORE. PLEEEEEASE…” and he found himself standing on it.
The antilock brakes squinting their little eyes, turning away and bracing for impact… and we stopped.
About four feet from the bumper of the Mercedes in front of us, our SUV was diving and recoiling from its submission to Newtonian law. My son, that sweet angel with big green eyes, dimples and a smile to die for, looked at me and said, “Ok. Are you happy? We stopped.”
Ohhhhhhmmmmmmm Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo …. Aad Guray Nameh Sat Guray Nameh Guru Deveh Nahmeh…. Ra Ma Da Sa…. I went full-on Kundalini yoga: doing my inner chanting to spare myself, and the world, my fierce upset.
I breathed in, my nostrils flaring and pursed my lips, nodded and said, “Yes. You managed that well. That was intense. This is a death missile.” It was at this same shitstorm place where the asshole almost drove into us two weeks later. Irony? No.
Later that first night, he said, “You were right. I should have stopped sooner. I should not have relied on the traffic light. I should have been smarter…. You were right: nothing you say will teach me, it’s the experience…” Later that second night, he said, “You’re right. That intersection is a mess. It could have been me driving into someone else…”
I’m still popping Zantacs like they’re tic-tacs.
My son has waited this long to drive because he is aware of many things, the tension on the road being one of them, but most importantly because he hasn’t needed to drive to socialize. I read an article in the Washington Post recently about a trend depicting Americans falling out of love with their cars. Some suggest the trend is driven by gas prices, some suppose Über, ZipCar and the sharing economy, a trend toward living in cities, others confidently assert it’s because of hand-held devices and that our socializing is virtual and we don’t need to “see” our friends in order to hang with them.
Given my son’s predilections for his iPad at times and the ensuing bursts of laughter from chats he’s enjoying with this friends, I can totally concur with the article. Given my son’s pediatrician’s deep interest in my children’s’ appropriate need for an active and real and tangible social life, I can say that if my son is out on the road, he’s seeing other people. Even if we skirt the the “Avatar” film’s “I see you” see-you, it could be enough.
Logging hours. The Openometer
As I mentioned earlier, my son wanted 20 hours by the time school started. He’s at about 18 and we’ve been in school for two weeks now. It’s not easy to log hours around here because everything is quite nearby. However, the resumption of soccer season has required driving to and from practice, so it’s starting to add up.
The Cooper has something fun called an “Openometer” which is a gauge that measures how long you’ve driven the car with the convertible top down. We have had the car since the beginning of August, and have recently logged 35 hours of open driving. This includes a four-hour road trip to a beautiful wedding last weekend, but excludes an entire week we were away in Connecticut. I am the primary driver, so I can drive it during the day when the kids are in school.
But we are talking about fun little car to ride in; not a giant SUV to train in. What this means, is that in order for my son to acquire the hours he needs to engender his independence, I need to be less codependent, think of his safety and experiences rather than my interest to be in a fun car and have him like me more. I have to let him spend more time with him behind the wheel: when we get milk, for drives to the barber shop, to fill up the tank…. It’s very time consuming; I’ve literally stopped myself from jumping into the driver’s seat many times, just so we can “get there.” But this only foils his growth. He prefers the Sequoia over my husband’s car, a Toyota Avalon, something we affectionately refer to as the “Old Man Car.” He loves that he can see so much and feel much safer in the SUV.
So it goes… in order to let these kids become more of themselves, we have to let go of a lot of ourselves, and become a better person that we think we are. For me, that means becoming more like Jesus: a 21st Century female Jesus who is trusting and more gentle; who refrains from playing The Killers at a deafening volume while her son is driving, and who is just plain more patient.
This was a long post. I hope you enjoyed it.