My daughter Lucy is eighteen but does not yet have her driver’s license. For the past three years, when it might have happened, she has been away at boarding school, and in the summers she has had a rigorous schedule of working as secretarial help for our summer camp and working out with her ski team twice a day in the off hours. When she and I decided that a driver’s license had to happen this year, we determined that driving lessons could take place at either 6:30 AM or 8 PM.
It always amazes me that teaching our children to drive has fallen to me. I am a physically timid person. I do not ride roller coasters, watch suspenseful films, or do anything else the least bit scary. Yet with both kids I have buckled myself into the passenger seat of our car and feigned calm. In an effort to control my involuntarily shrieks and grabs at the wheel, it was at first my habit to grip the passenger armrest and silently recite in my head the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Unfortunately, too often that slid into: “Lord, I am riding in an instrument of death!” So I switched to the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.” This is the prayer I repeat over and over to soothe my mind when I wake in the night with nightmares.
It is apropos. Our town is not ideal for learning to drive. All the mountain roads are curved and twisting, many are narrow, and most are 55 mph highways. For six months of the year they are coated in ice.
Still, we have persevered. For the last couple of weeks, Lucy has been driving herself to and from her twice-a-day ski practices with me riding shotgun. She has improved a lot.
The next step toward attaining a license was for her to attend a five-hour driving course, a requirement in the state of New York. The only one available in our timeframe was an hour away. I drove us there yesterday.
I was perplexed as we followed directions into a tired-looking industrial complex of warehouses with few signs. Finally we saw a card taped to a light pole.
The grandly named Northern New York Driving Academy is housed in the back of a dirty, run-down concrete-block building on the far edge of the airport.
I had brought work with me — like Thoreau, always “anxious to improve the nick of time.” I’d pictured whiling away the hours (5.5 including lunch break) in a deep armchair in a college library or a waiting room, perhaps with wifi. I’d brought my laptop.
The “Academy” is a single room. The other lights in the building were not turned on. There were holes in the hall wall, and broken chairs stacked. In a large dirty bathroom there were four stalls and four urinals. A sign warned, ALWAYS LOCK THE DOOR.
Oh, dear. Change of plans.
Last Christmas I started work on research for a novel set during the American Revolution. All winter I gathered information from books, online resources, and historical collections. I had stacks of hundreds of photocopies from 18th century manuscripts and newspapers that I’d not had time to file.
Yesterday I set up my office on a grimy picnic table in the parking lot, and filed for five hours. Despite a wind that occasionally snatched pages from my hands and blew them around the tarmac, I created another forty folders and sorted all my papers.
It was very satisfying. There is still a lot of information on my computer that I need to print and file. There are a couple of dozen books I still need to annotate. There are a few holes in my knowledge I need to fill. But I now have an organized nucleus of research that will allow me to plot an accurate story.
Lucy emerged at 4 PM. Apparently the teacher had droned in a monotone for five straight hours and clicked through Powerpoint presentations so quickly that Lucy (a quick reader) could not read most of the slides.
Happily absorbed back in the 18th century, I’d obviously had a lot more fun than she’d had.