There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to begin a sentence with a really bad cliche. This is one of those times. You see, words are not coming easy to me these days. And when I do speak, I seem to be talking in gibberish, running my words together in a strange new dialect:
"YOU’REGOINGTOOFAST!" I’ll say, seemingly at random. Or I’ll blurt out "STAYINYOUROWNLANE!!"
Or even, "WATCHTHECURB!"
And I’m talking louder than I used to, as if I were trying to alert someone far away. An ambulance, perhaps.
It’s just a coincidence, of course, that this only happens when I’m in a car being driven by my 16-year-old. While technically still a child, she has earned the right to drive our 2,500-pound minivan because she passed the District of Columbia’s grueling written test, a test specifically designed to weed out incompetent drivers through the use of such demanding questions as:
- What is your name?
- What is your address?
- Do you have $14?
By law, she cannot operate the vehicle alone. For the safety of others on the road, she is required to have a frightened and babbling adult in the car with her. And since I say things like "LOOK OUT!" with less emotion than my wife, the family has chosen me for this task. (Our thoughtful 14-year-old generously offered to take my place, so that we parents could "just relax at home," but we declined.) And so we drive, every day, through the nation’s capital, negotiating its mean streets, avoiding potholes and drunken diplomats (both of which are immune from prosecution), and, above all, trying to minimize the number of pedestrians we knock over in the crosswalks.
HAVING SPENT the past decade driving these two youngsters to school every day, the question for me is, NOW what am I supposed to do? When I was driving I was very busy, what with turning down the radio, jotting down notes for the day ahead, shaving, and occasionally trimming my toenails on the dashboard. But now I just have to sit there and cringe. Or mess with stuff on the door. "DAD! STOP PLAYING WITH THE DOORLOCKS. IT’S NOT GOOD FOR THE MECHANISM!" Okay, so I can’t do that anymore. Maybe I could get one of those Fisher-Price steering wheels (with its own horn!).
In fairness to her, our young driver has just about mastered the basics of driving (except for the part where you’re supposed to slow down when pulling over to the curb. And, of course, parallel parking. "Why couldn’t a helicopter just lower us down into the parking space? Is that too much to ask?!"). So I’m almost ready to begin teaching her the more subtle nuances of urban driving, such as:
Optional stop signs. Busy drivers are well-advised to take advantage of these traffic aids, particularly when they’re running late.
Directional honking (also known as "vehicle-specific" honking). When you’re a few cars back and the lead driver fails to notice the light has turned green, it’s your job to get his or her attention without disturbing the cars immediately in front of you. New drivers especially need to learn this technique, since it avoids misunderstandings that occur when the guy in front of you starts waving a pistol.
Sometimes it’s a bad idea to try to outrun police cars. It’s a judgment call, of course, but often it’s best just to pull over.
Speed limits are for comparison purposes only. How often have you asked yourself this question: "If George W. Bush is elected, will he be the first president who had a C average in college?" Obviously you haven’t been paying attention. But this often happens on a highway at night when the speed limit signs appear right when you’re trying to close your eyes for a couple miles to keep from falling asleep. Actually the best time to look at a speed sign is when you wake up with your car in a ditch. Then you can simply walk over to the sign and read it up close, carefully writing down what it says before calling the tow truck.
Be real nice to your insurance agent. That way, he’ll be equally nice to you when you explain that the six-car pile-up you caused wasn’t your fault at all. In fact, you didn’t even see it happen since, at the time, you were looking for chewing gum in the glove compartment.
ADMITTEDLY, there is a limit to what a child can learn from her father, so we will soon pass her on to a professional instructor to teach her the finer points of driving, just as soon as he learns English. And since children respond much better when taught outside the home, I plan to give the instructor a list of other things to teach. Including:
- How to put in a new roll of toilet paper (no one in my houses has ever done this except me).
- How to change the cat litter (see above), and why.
Spending time with an instructor also reduces the insurance premiums for the new driver. Other ways to reduce premiums include making good grades, being nice to your parents, and promising not to date until college. (Okay. So I made up the first one.) Our insurance agent also promised discounts if we whisper "Don’t crash" 10 times every night into our sleeping daughter’s ear. Which is no problem, since we already whisper "Don’t smoke" to our other sleeping daughter. And so far that seems to be working. (At least it’s working for everybody else in her room...except for the one bird who’s got yellow stains on his beak and this odd hacking cough.)
ED SPIVEY JR. is art director of Sojourners.