April 22, 2015

We usually expand our capacities without changing our lives.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar (for The New Yorker)

The Driver's Seat
By Adam Gopnik

I first read this on a flight home from my Savannah/Charleston/Nashville trip, where I logged approximately 15 hours in a car but 0 hours of the driving. (Many thanks to my friend Christina who graciously offered her car & driving skills when we first decided to do this trip.) I got my license when I was 17, the day before I graduated from high school. I had no real intention of using it often -- at least not then -- but I wanted to get the process of getting one over with. (I'm glad I did--I have friends who still haven't received theirs & it would be a bitch for me personally to try and do it now.) But still today, I don't entirely consider myself a driver. This is the lamest of all things, but I still haven't really driven long distances (or on high/freeways) without the assistance of a driving instructor. Currently, I don't feel like I need it. But when I take trips such as the one last month, it hits home-- it's a skill I should have and I should start building the confidence to be able to do so regularly, or at least at a moment's notice. I took refresher courses when I moved back home after graduating college. And last year when my mom went abroad for three months for new job training and I became the temp head of the household, I drove frequently (locally) to get things done. It was nice. I enjoyed the freedom and power being able to drive a car gives you. But as soon as my mom returned, I happily resigned myself to the passenger seat.
This is all to say I really loved this essay about a middle-aged man's experience of learning how to drive. And I want to be a better driver!

"The discrepancy between difficulty and danger is our civilization's signature, from machine guns to atomic bombs. You press a pedal and two tons of metal lurches down the city avenue; you pull a trigger and twenty enemies die; you waggle a button and cities burn. The point of living in a technologically advanced society is that minimal effort can produce maximal results. Making hard things easy is the path to convenience; it is also the lever of catastrophe. The realization of how close to disaster we were at every moment helped press my panic button, and, while Arturo's singing and commentary reduced the panic some, I tried to find other ways to overcome it as well."

"My not driving was, in some sense, a response to his driving all the time. We make ourselves in our father's sunshine but also in his shadow; what he beams down we bend away from."

"I put the license away in my wallet and have not had a chance to use it since. We usually expand our capacities without changing our lives. People go off to meditation retreats and come back to their Manhattan existence; on the whole, they are not more serene, but they are much more knowing about where serenity might yet be found. People go to cooking school and don't cook more; but they know how to cook. Dr. Johnson was once asked why he always rushed to look at the spines of books in the library when he arrived at a new house. "Sir, the reason is very plain," he said. "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." Almost all of our useful knowledge is potential knowledge.
The potentials may serve merely as vicarious experience, but almost all experience is vicarious: that's why we have stories and movies and plays and pictures. It's why we have drive-in movies in summer towns. We expand our worlds through acts of limited empathy more than through plunges into unexpected places. My father's "Now you know how to drive" had wisdom buried in its simplicity. The highlights of life are first unbelievably intense and then absurdly commonplace. I am now a licensed driver. But almost everybody is a licensed driver. Having a child born is a religious experience. But everybody has kids. Everybody drives, and now I can, too. That's all, and enough. Now I can drive straight across the country, without a stoplight. I don't think I ever will. But at least I know I can."

"There is a postscript to the story. My father called in early January to say that, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, he had been forced to take a driving test.
“But it wasn’t a driving test—” my mother interrupted, not for the first time in their sixty-some years together.
“I’m getting there,” he said, sounding unusually testy with her.
It had been a very Canadian test, he explained, a vision examination allied to a reading test, conducted in a friendly spirit—but its dagger end was present. One of the eighty-year-olds tested had had his license taken away, never to drive again. Social life involves being sorted by a few others who have, by the rest of us, been given the power to sort. Our illusion is that it ends on graduation, from one school or another, when one teacher passes us, and then passes us on. But it never really does. We go on being driven and sorted, until at last we’re sorted out, and driven home."

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