Driving Lessons and the Marvel of Consciousness

If, as the old maxim goes, the best way to learn something is to teach it, I am now advancing rapidly toward my Ph.D degree in Advanced Driverology. Yes, my friends, that would mean I am teaching my 15 1/2 year-old daughter how to drive a car. Pray for me.

Want to know what is most striking about the experience? (Besides the near violent pitching forward of my body as Beloved Daughter works out the finer sensory details of applying appropriate pressure on the brakes.) The astonishing array of rapid-fire stimuli that human consciousness can absorb and act upon in the course of its otherwise mundane comings and goings.

Get into that passenger seat in an instructive mode with a beginner and you suddenly see, in a way that you simply don’t even notice anymore yourself, how many fast-moving, whack-a-mole stimuli keep popping up, competing for your attention and requiring immediate response as you navigate a 3,000-pound steel and plastic enclosure down a narrow lane next to countless others doing the same thing (a truly appalling number of whom are fiddling with cell phones and applying mascara).



In short order one confronts:

* A car pulling out (too slowly) from a driveway in front of you

* A squirrel darting suddenly into the street just ahead

* A mother and child set to step off the curb at an approaching crosswalk

* A cyclist avoiding parked cars by riding within inches of your passenger side door

* Not one, not two, but three cars accelerating through an already red light

* A blinking school bus a block and a half up the road

* Rain on your windshield and the wipers slapping back and forth

* The song on your radio if you dare to turn it on (we don’t’)


We can only wonder: How is it that we do not go catatonic or fetal in the face of all that bombards us in this life?

All this can easily happen within a few seconds. Multiply it times the rest of our drive and the countless other background stimuli—the mental map of our destination, the coffee gurgling in our stomach, the strained tone of the conversation with our spouse as we departed, the relentless chatter of our everyday monkeymind—and we can only wonder: How is it that we do not go catatonic or fetal in the face of all that bombards us in this life?

The question is not just about driving and other everyday activities, either.

Because the other seeming miracle is how most people in the world, most of the time, manage to be pleasant, polite, caring, industrious and functional against the deeper backdrop of internal stimuli, many of which— strained social relations, porous identity, the struggle for meaningful work and personal meaning, the battle against (or acceptance of?) physical ailments, heartache and grief—can be discouraging and injurious if not downright debilitating.

Yet still we keep on, insistent and ever resilient, like our computer’s hard drive whirring away in the background and holding us steady while the software puts the best possible face on things.


 “We’re all carrying a bag of rocks,” longtime Broadway actress Elaine Stritch told NPR’s Scott Simon in a recent interview. She was actually quoting her late husband, who, to judge from this line alone, was an obviously wise and tender-hearted man. The rocks may vary slightly in size and shape and contour, but if I listen closely when you tell me about yours, I will likely nod knowingly and recognize a great deal of my own bag’s contents in your words.

My daughter was all over getting down to the Department of Motor Vehicles to secure her learner’s permit the very day she turned 15 1/2. At first, she was highly enthusiastic about getting out on the road. But after a few sessions, a bit of reticence began to creep in. On several occasions, she quickly slipped in through the passenger door before I could hold the  keys out for her to get us going. Expressing full confidence in her steady progression, I asked her what was up with the sudden hesitation. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking,” she replied.

“You’re doing fine and it will get easier and easier,” I assured her. But I also understood. She’s right—it is nerve-wracking if you haven’t already done it 10,000 times. It’s all new and busy and incredibly demanding of all your faculties of concentration and adaptation. Practice being the incredibly powerful tool that it is, we get so good we barely give it a thought as we laze down the road at 70 miles an hour, deeply absorbed in music or conversation or the gurgling of the baby in the back seat, our “driver consciousness” almost on autopilot. What a feat.

These brains sitting atop our shoulders are surely the eighth wonder of the world. To which I would add the all-encompassing, all-feeling, all-powerful heart as the ninth.

The best thing after a harried drive is some unharried music, of the type played by the late and under-appreciated Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo—enjoy!

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Salutations to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos and sad man photo courtesy of  Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Colorful driving photo courtesy of Peter Nederlof, Utrecht, Netherlands, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterned/

City driving scene by Grace Kat , Australia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g_kat26/

8 comments to Driving Lessons and the Marvel of Consciousness

  • Gerry  says:

    You are a braver man than I, Gunga Din! I was petrified to take my granddaughter out to learn to drive (there are no brake pedals on the passenger side!), so we started in the deserted high school parking lot with basic manuevers -still plenty scary. We ended up enlisting a driving school for a few lessons – worked very well.

    Good luck, friend!


  • loweb3  says:

    I had to replace the clutch on my two kid’s practice car, and they had already taken driver’s ed in those days.

    I still have nightmarish memories of the first time the driver’s ed teacher let me get behind the wheel on a busy street and I couldn’t figure out how to push the gas pedal down without making the car lurch forward, and, of course, letting off the gas, and that was over 50 years ago.

    I can definitely empathize with your daughter.

  • candied  says:

    Just wait until she drives off on her own, for the first time. Another challenge, right around the corner, but “ain’t life grand”!

  • Don Shrumm  says:

    Gabor Szabo?
    I loved it! Never heard of the guy…Hungarian jazz guitarists being slightly under represented on my iTunes collection. Really tasty! And loved your comments about your precious daughter having/getting to have you as instructor!

  • Tamara Stanley  says:

    Oh my – you are bringing back many memories. I can remember my dad teaching me to drive. He, like you, was so supportive and I was so nervous to not do it right. Throw in the fact we had a stick. Then fast forward to when I taught my daughter — and made her drive a stick — I was even more appreciative of my dad’s patience. Thanks for bringing that back. Good luck to your little girl— and you!!

  • irrevspeckay  says:

    yes, Andrew, yes. Having now taught two children, I am amazed at how different the experience of moving rapidly through space in a tin can is when one is not in control (at least, relatively). And to watch each of them surprise me with what respect and caution they brought to the process. And how I was not as terrible of a teacher as I expected to be. Well done.

  • mary  says:

    perfect music to end a new driving day. Kudos to Dakota for sitting in passenger seat! good call. I did this 3 times and it is never one bit easier.

  • Moon MAlin  says:

    I made a big mistake when I first took to the road with my daughter. She thought the car was like those at Autopia in Disneyland, that is, letting off of the accelerator acted as a brake. She slowly glided into the side of my house, not realizing the car had a brake pedal. So, the takeaway of this story is: two (or three as the case may be) pedals exist for a purpose.

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