She had the worst case of driving jitters I've ever seen. Both hands clutched the steering wheel of her beat-up old Dodge in a white-knuckled stranglehold. She looked unseasonably pale and her body, stiff as a pole, was bent forward as if from gas pains.
A classic case of incipient petrification induced by Washington's rush-hour traffic. And she was stopped at a red light.
That's an extreme example of how uptight everybody gets during the rush-hour foolishness. And there's no need for it. Over the years I've picked up a few simple rules that could help turn your commute into a Sunday drive. Here they are:
Leave home early. A bedrock rule for a serene commute best appreciated by looking at it the other way around: Leave home late and you fall victim to a perverse and immutable law about driving that says the later you leave, the further behind you get, viz., the tire blows the day you oversleep. Everything goes inexorably downhill once you get behind schedule, so skip the paper, the second cup and the goodbye kisses.
Scrape the dew off all car windows. A minor act you will later appreciate when you can see what the traffic around you is doing. Prevents goosebumps when changing lanes.
Buckle up. Knowing you won't go through the windsheild if the fates are unkind speaks for itself. Anybody who disregards the soothing-cum-life-saving merits of body restraints should seriously consider a frontal lobotomy.
Adjust your attitude. For some unholy reason, nearly everybody turns instantly combative whenever they slip behind the wheel. They strap on their Chevies like a six-gun, ready to fight. Timid souls become absolute terrors and the Golden Rule goes out the window. Work out your aggressions on your mate or dog, not on the road.
Lay back. I mean way back. Driving instructors say one car length for every 10 m.p.h., or a two-second interval, but that's enough only if you're paying strict attention all the time, which ain't gonna happen. You'll feel better knowing you have an extra margin of safety for mistakes -- yours or theirs.
Wait out a traffic light. Time to check the gauges and enjoy whatever wonders nature has to offer. A little rear-view-mirrow voyeurism also makes the time fly. (Occasionally you'll wish the light hadn't changed.) Kill the engine if it looks like a long wait; just the sound of all that humming horsepower waiting to be unleashed can get you feeling antsy.
Don't try to beat the competition. Let the other guy have his rights, and all of yours, too. Take what the defense gives you, as they say. You'll soon learn to feel smug, not beaten.
So much for rules. For those drivers who would like to contribute to the serenity of others (while enhancing their own), herewith some tips:
Don't come out of a side street into fast-moving traffic with a totally cold engine that does not respond to your outrageous demands for power. People behind you will go bananas and call into question your sanity and parentage.
If you are in the median strip of a divided highway waiting to pull into the high-speed traffic whizzing by just inches from your front bumper, do not make even the subtlest move forward, lest a certain lady in a beat-up old Dodge comes along and . . .
Do not consider your car a rolling apartment. The place to drink coffee and primp your hair is back home.
And now for one of the ancillary pleasures of a serene commute: It can save you gas. For example, by laying well back from the car ahead you can come off the accelerator early and glide to a stop. That's a drop of gas saved. Likewise, when you accelerate slowly to get positioned well back from the car ahead, there's another drop saved. Multiply two drops by every red light you hit in one week, and it starts to add up. Multiply that by every car in America and that's umpteen million drops. Take that, Ayatollah.
Some of you, of course, will try these precepts and think they aren't working. Just when you're beginning to enjoy the flowers along the way, something will happen and you'll lapse into one of those wildly irrational fits of old. That's okay. There are some things that would drive a saint to sin. (Waiting in a two-hour gas line or dropping into a two-foot pothole are two things that come readily to mind.)
Forget the relapses and remember: When the day comes that somebody makes a really dumb play and you smile rather than honk, you've arrived.