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/