The Passenger Mentality

 “From the margins, the world looks different.”

-Kim Addonizio

I have lived the majority of my mobile life with a passenger mentality.

Passenger Mentality n.:

1. The state of mind connected to riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle.

I never really gave a thought or glance to those who drove me or how they drove me (excluding instances of blatant errors or extreme recklessness). It only mattered that they were moving me, that we were going somewhere else. In the meantime, I kept to my windows and the world wandering by them, I indulged in the music and more often than not, conversation. I would ask questions and tell stories, quote concepts I had learned and stray factoids, always attempting to engage the driver in my ceaseless thoughts. Naturally, while blathering on and watching out the window, I would also try to share the sights I saw with these drivers. Of course, that usually merited the exasperated reply of “Lauren, I’m driving.” However, despite the frequency of that response, I have discovered that this state of passenger being also extends to licensed drivers when they themselves become passengers. My brother directs attention to peripheral skies while my mother motions to the shoulder buffaloes and exclaims, “Oh look! They’re out!” There seems to be something infectiously speculative about being a passenger, something so mentally encapsulating that it closes off any recollection of the driver’s seat and its rules.

Passenger Mentality n.:

2. A mental state of being in which a vehicle’s passenger asks the driver to look at, do, listen to, or understand one or more things while the vehicle is in motion, neglecting to recall the complex, involved, and focus-mandating nature of operating a motor vehicle.

What makes the phenomena so fascinating for me now is how thoroughly and even defensively, I embraced it. I knew there was a state beyond it, one more conducive to my natural demeanor, but still I refused to relinquish my seat and the skies that chased it. I am a perfectionist with exactingly specific standards and a near non-existent tolerance for any failure to meet them once they are understood. Yet, there I sat, contentedly absent any control, strapped into a metal cage careening down the asphalt at upwards of 65 MPH. Why was I okay with this? I suppose it comes back to fear, to a carefully crafted cowardice. Initially, driving was the adult thing, and like a job, I had no need to worry about it let alone do it. But gradually, it became a peer thing, a thing I was required for the sake of normalcy to do. Then suddenly, kids almost a decade younger than me were doing it, and their eyes quietly questioned me when my baby brother boated me about. But still, I did not want to do it, I could not do it; I did not want to give up the soothing psychological block, I could not give up the protection of my passenger mentality. If I wasn’t the one driving then nothing bad could happen, not when someone else was in control, not when I didn’t have to act or think. Like my parents who had made my world move for years, like teachers and babysitters, like engineers and civil servants, the Driver was an infallible guardian angel with safety net wings and unblinking eyes.

Passenger Mentality n.:

3. A state of denial in which the passenger loses touch with the realities of riding in a vehicle and relinquishes complete control to the driver.

The human brain is impressively fond of clinging to superstitious delusions for comfort. A locked door will only ever be unlocked by family members late at night. Sirens are never used by bad guys. Doctors know all the answers and never miss the mark. The driver of your car knows what he’s doing. What’s truly impressive in my case, is that this protective barrier of passenger belief survived one rear-ending, two black ice spinouts, one mirror-mangling sideswipe (with my window down), and countless collisions with snow banks. I clung to my uncharacteristically firm faith in The Driver like an Old World talisman. That is until, after a hundred visions of death and dismemberment, a thousand excuses, too many years and too little practice, I passed my driving test on December 7, 2012 and was forced to transfer that foundationless faith to myself. Needless to say, something that intangibly fragile did not survive the move. It dropped and cracked open, exposing how hollow it had always been.

Passenger Mentality n.:

4. The antithetical state of being of a driver.

It did not help that the test was dangerously simplistic. No driving on the highway, no U-Turns, no navigation, no parking (let alone parallel), no advanced maneuvers of any kind. After a two and a half hour wait (with an appointment) it was just ten quick minutes down the street, into a neighborhood and back again. I was as relieved as I was appalled. In a generational age of constant phone calls and tenacious texting, an age absent Driver’s Ed. in schools or adequate parental instruction outside of them, this was all the D.M.V. tested would-be drivers on? This was all it took to gain a license to operate high-speed, multi-ton machinery on a road with hundreds and thousands of other drivers every day? No wonder so many advocate defensive driving; the highway has become a battlefield of well-armed but poorly trained soldiers and friendly fire abounds.

Driver Mentality n.:

1. The belief of a driver that no one around him or her knows how to properly operate a motor vehicle.

Paradoxically, I have managed to take this in stride (mile markers). I have begun applying the same exacting perfectionism and control to driving as I do to the rest of my life, ritualizing it into reflex. Open the garage door, slip into the car, place purse on the passenger seat and phone in the cup holder. Turn engine on and simultaneously put seatbelt on, check gas level and tire pressure while releasing the emergency brake, and if it’s night time, turn on headlights. Glance in the mirrors and over a shoulder before backing up and continuing to look in the mirrors. Shut the garage.  A dozen tiny tasks woven repetitively into a fluid blanket of habit.

Driver Mentality n.:

2. The mental state of making a machine’s movements match the driver’s.

Practice breeds perfection. I am not a great driver, but I am a good driver who is getting better. I still can’t parallel park (even with a co-pilot), backing up is like going through the looking-glass in a hall of mirrors, and I require a two-car-sized cushion of empty space in front of me at all times. The tension is ebbing, though and it’s getting easier. I don’t make thoughtless mistakes that would make mother’s gasps turn to taut shrieks. I don’t forget the little things, like turn signals and checking both ways. I don’t grip the wheel so tightly that my fingers pulse when I finally release it. I don’t turn the wheel when I check my blind spots. But most of all, I don’t hate it. I actually like driving alone, thinking and moving alone. So long as I know the roads and which way to take them home, I don’t panic, I don’t fear, I don’t feel any differently that I did before I buckled up. Time is eroding my passenger mentality, making it into something more tangible, more fluid and adaptable, turning the rigid rocks of false belief into soft sands that can roll with the tides.

In a way, I think it’s fitting that my first completed goal, my first learned life skill, was obtaining my driver’s license. After all, driving is all about movement, about momentum, about going forward and controlling the car and yourself. So here’s to having the drive and knowing what to do with it.

Driver Mentality n.:

3. The mental state in which a driver takes control of the vehicle and uses its momentum to move towards his or her intended destination.