I think I’ve discovered a new type of distracted driving we should talk about.
We went on lock-down in our house on March 13, officially. There are four of us – all adults – who like each other.
We’re lucky. Having younger kids right now must be, to put it mildly, a challenge. I joked the other day that as a writer, I’ve been in self-isolation since 2004, and I wasn’t really kidding.
My mother grew up during the war in England, my father on the prairies during the Depression. It’s in my DNA to have food put by, just in case, all the time. Nobody had to run around trying to stock up much, at least for now.
I’m not a runner or a jogger, but I do have a sporty car in the driveway that I just bought, gas is cheaper than it has been in over a decade, and it’s still falling. And I’m not supposed to go outside.
In an age before video games and movies you could watch in your car (or even your home), we went for family drives. Dad would yell “Get in the car, kids” on a random Sunday, and we’d pile in the station wagon, he’d roll down his window, crank up CFRB, mash a piece of Wrigley’s in his mouth and off we’d go. The freedom and weightlessness of those drives stuck with me, and I’ve been a driver ever since.
Driving is when I do my thinking, my ruminating. I can’t solve the world’s problems, but I frequently solve my own. We all have a lot of problems right now. I got in my car and went.
I live about five minutes from empty, twisty, curvy roads. Sideroad after sideroad of tiny towns and big farms. Choosing gears, gauging corners and changing elevations, all of it connecting me to something other than worry and despair.
I wanted to write a column suggesting people stuff their kids in the car and go for a drive to get them out of the house, to unwind some of the steam and change up their world a little. I immediately knew I couldn’t, because we’re at a time when we can’t risk car crashes. Our hospitals are about to be overwhelmed, and if we’re not affected, our job is to stay out of the way. So, I can’t in good conscience suggest you do what my Dad would have done, and what I did.
I’d seen a few cars outside the city, but upon heading home, the grind began. I sat at a red light beside a Costco, a tight knot of an eight-lane roadway crossed by a six-lane one. As the advanced green arrow flashed in both directions, the car to my right simply drove across the red and through the huge intersection. As the car behind him went to reflexively follow, I punched my horn and he squealed to a stop.
We’re taught, way back in driver’s ed, to pause before we enter an intersection in case someone enters on a stale red. Most people are staring at the light, but that day, whoever was sitting in the opposing turn lane waited. I don’t know who they were, but I can’t overstate my gratitude.
If they’d simply made their turn when the light changed – perfectly reasonable, the intersection was clear – the two cars would have connected. The one behind the red-light runner would have plowed into them both. There was a hesitation before everybody started moving. It was slight, but it was there. We all knew what we’d just seen.
At the next light, I caught up once again with the car. Like most of us, I was curious to see who was driving.
Some flighty teenager on her phone? Some senior with fading cognitive skills? Someone like me, with a head full of worry?
It was a middle-aged man. There were two kids in the back seat. He was gripping the wheel and staring straight ahead. He looked terrified, and I knew he knew what he’d done. I didn’t want to honk at him, I wanted to tell him I’m glad he was safe, that he owed the safety of his kids to a patient driver, and that we all need that generosity of grace once in a while.
There is no way to not think about what is happening in our country, in the world. People we love are in danger, our jobs are changing or evaporating, and we are at war with an invisible adversary. We have to calm our children as our own anxiety ramps up, worry about isolated parents and understand most of our questions have no answers yet.
We are distracted. We also have to drive more cautiously than ever before. You know not to drive impaired, we’ve been begging everyone to put the phones away for years, but now we are facing down the biggest distraction of all: our own minds are the monster under the bed.