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This Great Society


Illustration: Mark Gunderson

Following Distance” Personal Reflection by Robert King
Illustration: Mark Gunderson

My father's driving terrifies me. It isn't merely that his eyes are dimming, his feet less firm on the pedals and his hands slower to react. Worse than any physical degradation is his mental distortion: he doesn't believe in traffic jams.

"There's no reason for this!" he'll cry out, slamming his hands on the steering wheel and his feet on the brake as he tails the car ahead as closely as possible. He calls out for a god he doesn't believe in to damn the other drivers surrounding us. "Why don't people learn how to drive?"

At one point years ago, when I was young enough to think his questions were genuine, I tried to instruct my dad on the concept of "following distance." This had worked very well for a friend of mine who was learning to drive at the age of thirty-two, and who likewise alternated between gas and brake to maintain the minimum distance between himself and the next car on the highway.

"You don't have to follow him so close," I told my friend.

"I don't?" he replied. Then he gave the car ahead some space and discovered that he could relax a bit, not being in imminent danger of impact at every moment. My friend gave me a giant grin, and said, "Thanks!"

But my dad rejected any such suggestion with more profanity. As he sees it, the highway is a raceway. Everyone out there ought to be driving at maximum speed and efficiency. If there's a crash, sure, slow down a little to avoid it; but if there's nothing in front of you then hit the gas and go, damn it! If everybody just drove like him, there wouldn't be any traffic jams. Everyone would go faster, and nobody would get in his way.

I haven't yet found the courage to point out to him that, in my experience, most people do drive according to exactly that philosophy. Maybe that's because I find even myself driving that way more often than not.

Sometimes, when I'm cursing the cars around me that keep me from driving as fast as I want to go – usually when I'm late for an appointment, and it's my own fault, but I'd rather not admit it – the thought occurs to me that I'm hurtling along in a tonne of steel at seventy miles per hour, surrounded by other juggernauts at least as massive as mine. Each of us has a different destination, each a separate goal, so I'm struck with awe that we so rarely collide. I remember that only a tiny portion of my own tonne of steel is stretched around me. A thin skin of steel and plastic, and empty space: all that separates me from the man-made maelstrom of the highway.

That's when I slow down and give the car ahead of me a full two seconds of following distance. It's also when I remember to use my turn signals when changing lanes and to wave my thanks to cars that let me in.

It's when I remember that there are people in those other cars, people like myself, with families and friendships, with responsibilities and desires. It's when I realize that, just by sharing the road with them, I have entered into relationship with them. The very space that separates us also unites us, binds us into a communion focused on our mutual survival while we each pursue our own separate conveniences.

So why do so many of us treat it like a competition? Why do I act, from time to time at least, like I'm in some kind of Grand Prix? Do I really think that everyone else out there is trying to take some trophy away from me?

For me, I think my attitude on the road comes from a kind of forgetfulness, a forgetfulness that pervades too much of my life. Whenever I shut the door, or hang up the phone, or log off from Facebook, I think of myself as being suddenly alone; I forget that those relationships I'd been enjoying (or regretting or working through or whatever) still exist and are still acting on me. I forget that my actions, even in "private," still shape my relationships with others, still affect my friends and family, and even the strangers I meet at random.

I forget that the surface of a door, or the body of a car, is like the skin of my own body. It is an enclosure and a defense, yes; but it also is my point of contact with the world beyond. Any separation from other people is also a dynamic medium of communication: the way I use the space around me tells other people a great deal about my intentions toward them. The fluctuation of space between us tells the story of our relationships.

Remembering this, I realize that I have to give my father some space as well. If I slow down myself when I'm sensing a possible collision, that communicates respect and care for his safety. If I use the two-second rule, if I stay with my dad, but not too closely, then sooner or later we'll arrive at our destination. We could arrive together. We could find a place of meeting, where we step out of our cars and – because we're not moving so fast or in different directions – can touch and even embrace.



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