Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Driven to Tears

“Protest is futile; nothing seems to get through
What's to become of our world, who knows what to do.”
- Driven to Tears, music and lyrics by Sting

I am pretty sure that Sting did not write this song with teaching his daughter how to drive a car in mind, but the process of training my 15 ½ year old to handle 2,200 pound machine capable of traveling at high speed is driving me to tears.

I admittedly approached her training phase a bit na├»ve, maybe even more so than she was, and that’s saying something.  It was easy for me to overlook the fact that my driving skills and instincts were not as honed 32 years ago as they are now.  In my mind, I always drove with my current level of precision, safety, and innate feel for the road.  When I was 17 (the legal driving age in NJ at the time), I was dropped into the proverbial deep end of the pool, and rehearsed the art of traffic dodging in my 1973 Plymouth Duster on the mean streets of New York City.  In NYC during peak hours, the motto “Hesitation Kills” is not just an empty platitude.  It has real life consequences. 
 
I have some faint memories of my parents teaching me to drive as a teen.  My mom took a laissez-faire approach.  She would toss me the keys, and say, “You drive.”  Not wanting to disappoint her, I would.  We’d talk about all sorts of topics on those long drives, none of which were related to the task of driving that I remember.  It was mostly sports, current events and school.  I never remember her being nervous as she sat in the passenger seat, pre-shoulder strap seat belts and pre-air bag technology.  She probably would have been nervous had she given it any thought, but I was the 5th student to attend her family driving academy.  My siblings broke her in, and I guess broke her down.

My dad did not spend too much time alone in the car with me behind the wheel.  He must have the survival gene.  He did teach me one lesson I still remember.  He taught me to watch the car in front of the car that was in front of me.  “Look through the back window of the car in front and see what’s coming next through their windshield,” he would tell me in more colorful language than I have provided here.  Driving was all about anticipation, he taught.  That’s true.  Teaching my daughter to drive is all about anticipation…along with a healthy dose of dread and a dollop of trepidation.  That’s what I anticipated.

I went into my daughter’s instructional phase with a sense of calm, a calm that can only come from total resignation and acceptance of the reality of the inevitable.  I was calm because I had no choice.  She would learn to drive with or without me, so I might as well be the one.  It was not going to be my wife coaching her on proper driving techniques, and for obvious reasons, I will not share in this space why she would not be the trainer.  I’ll let you guess.

The first outing started with what I thought would be the most valuable lesson of all.  I would teach her to pump her own gas.  After all, you won’t get far if you can’t put gas in the car. 
    
“I don’t want to learn that,” she said.  I anticipated this objection.  Guess what my answer was? 
 
“Move to New Jersey or get out here and learn.”

She watched with intense disinterest all of the steps – swipe card, raise lever, select grade, remove gas cap, pump.  At least she stood outside of the car while the tank was filled, and we didn’t lose the gas cap.  It was a small victory.

Next I drove to the local church parking lot for a few simple pointers.  For this module of training, she needed to sit in the driver’s seat.  There are a few moments in a man’s life when he comes face to face with his own mortality.  His wedding day; the birth of his children; the day they start school.  Standing outside of the car looking at her in that driver’s seat was one of those moments.  From here, it’s a short trip to soft foods and angioplasties.  But I digress.

We went through the motions.  Adjust the seat, position the mirrors, review the dashboard and switches on the steering column.  I patiently explained the functioning of the intermittent wipers, the headlight high beams and the appropriate usage of the car horn (when you are cut off in traffic or to signal a friend to come over to your car).  Car in park, key turned, and we’re ready to roll.

“Which pedal is the gas?”

Inhale.  Exhale.  Serenity now.  Serenity now.

After 5 minutes of repetitive whiplash, a few panicked jerks of the wheel to prevent the car from drifting into the woods, and other white knuckle inducing moments, Marra felt ready to take the next logical step in her driving education.  After all, she had been driving at a sustained 8 mph for a solid couple of minutes.

“I think I am ready for some music now.”

Inhale.  Exhale.  Serenity now.  Serenity now.  I will teach her the value of preset stations and their role in preventing distracted driving on another day.  On this particular day, even though she was ready for music, I was not.  I needed quiet.  The roar of my life passing before my eyes was deafening.  30 minutes was enough for Lesson #1.

“So, can I try driving on the street next time?” 

If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry, but it’s tears for me either way.  The driver’s ed process may at times drive me to despair, but I am proud of my girl.  She’ll learn it.  She is growing up and getting mobile, and that is good and welcome.  One thing is for certain – she will have to pay for and pump her own gas along the way, at least until she moves to Jersey.

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