He crawls the car out of the garage and backs down the driveway in the same amount of time it takes me to get out of our neighborhood and onto the main streets.
He stops and checks over his shoulder before he backs out into our street.
He looks down at the transmission stick and purposely slides it from reverse through first, second, third and into Drive like some slow-motion space movie launch sequence.
Then he looks up and presses down on the accelerator with his foot, easing the car forward almost painfully.
All of this is deliberate. Practiced, calculated maneuvers that he is committing to memory.
I’ve never taught someone to drive before now.
And I don’t remember when or how I learned everything I did.
It requires an inordinate amount of patience to sit here and watch a young person learn responsibility in real time.
But I’m telling you something you probably already know.
This weekend we took a trip to Sawyer, Michigan.
The boy needs hours, something like 50 daylight and 10 night driving hours to get his license, and I needed to get out of the house on a sunny day.
The wife and daughter wanted to ride along, so we opted to get lunch at Greenbush Brewery and pick up a growler for Sunday evening and the latest episode of “Game of Thrones.”
I rode in the back seat, because my wife tends to get a little carsick in the backseat on long drives.
When you are learning to drive, the adult riding next to you in the passenger seat is a second pair of eyes, a wise guide to merging onto freeways and watching out for lane-encroaching semis
As the responsible adult, I feel the purposefulness of my son’s learning experience. When he looks carefully over his left shoulder before changing lanes, I look carefully over my left shoulder.
From my place in the back seat, I felt everything more keenly.
The pace with which our journey progressed was painfully slow and deliberate. Without the nervousness and attentiveness of the co-pilot position, I noticed the other cars zooming up and around us.
People passed us with angry glares, as we puttered along at 60.
In Chicago, if you’re not doing 75, you might as well not be on the freeway.
I wanted to speed up, to fit into traffic. I don’t like to stand out or hold people back.
I desired not to piss off people who were in a hurry to get somewhere. To not pause too much at a right turn.
When he is undecided about where to park, he stops and waits for direction, no matter how many cars are behind him.
I am many things that are wrong. I’ve long accepted my broken nature.
I am not a backseat driver.
I went through a full range of emotions, feeling at once protective of my son and then embarrassed. I felt angry at other drivers, then I felt sorry for them.
But I realized something while we were out on that Sunday drive.
Life in these United States is lived at full speed. When you leave your garage in the morning and you pull out into traffic, you get into the flow of things. You join a pace that you didn’t set but by which you willingly abide.
My son doesn’t know that pace yet, because he’s still in high school. But he’s learning it a little more every day. Each test he takes tells his teacher whether or not he’s fitting into the pace. Each class teaches him that above all else, he must keep up.
And every driver’s education lesson he goes through, he understands that life is a race, and life in the slow lane is no life at all.
At some point between Indiana and Michigan, I realized that my discomfort in the backseat of our family SUV was my own making. My own decision to join the rat race and live life at full speed.
We all start out in the slow lane learning to control our lives for awhile so that when we pull into the our life’s lane, we don’t careen wildly out of control and cause delays for other people.
My son is a long distance runner. I watch him race, and though I don’t fully understand the strategies involved in running around in the woods after school and on Saturdays, I hear him talk about practicing at race pace. He and other runners tend to let someone go out and lead for a while, and the pack runs at race pace.
At a certain point, a point their trained bodies recognize, they turn on the afterburners and run all out for the last half mile or so.
But the person out front sets the pace. If he or she is running faster than normal, everyone may burn out trying to keep up. If they run slower than usual, racers are able to conserve energy.
This is not a good analogy of life, but it works for me.
We all have a front runner in our lives. It may be a brother, a sister, a co-worker, a person we look up to, a neighbor, an athlete or just about anyone who keeps a constant pace ahead of us.
We set our pace to theirs and follow behind waiting for the opportunity to pass them.
Never mind that there is no prize. Never mind that there is no finish.
There is no race.
And yet we live everyday as if our lives are a freeway entrance ramp, and we have somewhere to be.
After lunch, my son asked if I would trade places with his mom in the front seat.
“I just want to drive with someone who doesn’t freak out at me,” he said.
To be fair, his mother doesn’t freak out, she’s a very consistent co-pilot who does the same things to me when she’s riding shotgun.
She’s a mom who cares for all of her kids the same way.
So I crawled up in the passenger seat, showed him how to point the nose of our car back toward Chicago and leaned back in my seat to relax and enjoy the ride.
After a few miles of following a slow semi truck, our driver looked over his left shoulder, pulled into the fast lane, and accelerated around the big truck.
I didn’t look over my shoulder this time. After a few minutes, my son eased the car back into the slow lane and settled into a pace that was comfortable for him.
For a moment, I wished I could be back at that same moment in my life. At a time when I could purposefully not join the rat race going on around me.
As the sun sank down in Illinois ahead of us, I drifted off to sleep for a few minutes, enjoying life in the slow lane.