Time was, we'd develop elaborate theories to explain it: Traffic's always bad on Mondays -- more people sleep in; they're running late; they take the car. Or, the backup's worse on Fridays because everyone uses New York Avenue, and there's that construction . . .
Devious alternate routes were plotted: If we avoid the Woodrow Wilson Bridge after 3:30, swing by Duke Street, loop around the GW Parkway where they're doing that construction . . .
But the truth's become apparent. It's not seasonal, it's not the tourists and it's not the road repairs. It's not even temporary. Traffic jams are a way of life.
Washington's version of Trivial Pursuit has become trying to drive from point A to point B without having your car overheat, run out of gas or otherwise self-destruct.
So, instead of gnashing your teeth and cursing Henry Ford, Detroit and the cosmos, relax and consider the situation objectively.
Looked at in the right light, traffic jams can be viewed as a boon to society. They are, after all, the great equalizer -- where else but Washington can you get the satisfaction of glancing in your rear view mirror to see your congressman, trapped and sweltering on 395, just like you?
Take a few deep breaths, lean back against that vinyl headrest, and enjoy. It's not a two-mile backup, it's quality time. Some important survival tips culled from traffic-jam aficionados:
1) Always carry emergency rations. Include your favorite frustration food. Packing a cooler is not unreasonable.
2) Bring entertainment. Although fellow motorists are usually an unending source of amusement, it's best to have some alternative possibilities. Stock your auto with tapes, talking books, a carpool mate -- anything to make the time pass pleasantly. (Children under 25 not recommended.)
3) Be creative. Never enough time for those self-improvement projects? A good solid traffic jam can give you hours to yourself. The perfect opportunity to brush up on your French, begin dictating your memoirs or start plotting that murder mystery . . . The laid-back blond in the ebony Trans-Am revved her engine menacingly. She didn't look like a killer, but then neither did the wiry, bug-eyed guy behind the wheel of the UPS van . . .
4) Work out. Jealous of friends with lifetime spa memberships? You've got a lifetime of traffic jams that are made to order. Some popular beginner level routines:
The Beltway Belly -- hold your stomach muscles in until your seatbelt feels loose, exhale and repeat.
The Manual Transmission Tune-Up -- rotate your left foot in, rotate your left foot out, rotate your left foot in . . . and then shake it all about.
Wheelies (great for flabby upper arms) -- grab the steering wheel tightly, hold for 15 seconds and release. Repeat until your hands are sweaty.
And now, for those of you who are new to the area or who have developed an unhealthy dependency on mass transit, a rundown of some of the best local jams:
Cabin John Cruncher. Looking for a good jam of the four-lane-narrows-into-one variety? This baby's for you. Its Beltway location earns it high marks for those favorite demolition derby features: nothing to look at, nothing to do, no place to escape, and no amenities (port-a-john, food, gas stations, etc., within walking distance). Spectacular at night.
Wilson Bridge Wildcat. Named for its quixotic nature. An ordinary "gawk and creep" bridge crossing can turn into a monster tie-up at the drop of a muffler. What makes the Wilson special is that, often, the reason for hours of enforced idling is never known. This leads those of the more philosophical bent to ponder other such imprenetrables of modern life as: "Why do they call it 'rush' hour?" "What are those feather-things dangling from so many Camaro rear view mirrors?" "Why do most construction sites seem to consist of five guys standing around watching one guy dig?" "How can so many people afford BMWs?"
The Wilson Wildcat features excellent views, especially on weekends when sailboats litter the river, and a chance for frantic, last-minute escape attempts. (So what if you end up spending the weekend at Fort Belvoir?)
M Street Mauler. Favorite of the downtown crowd, M Street gridlock suits the more jaded palate. Unlike the stark, unrelieved boredom of Cabin John, M Street offers thrills aplenty. Watch harried pedestrians risk life and limb at 20th and L. See bicycle messengers go where no man has gone before. Feeling a little peaked? Street vendors can cater your carpool. Want out of the whole sordid affair? Just pull into a parking garage and for the equivalent of your home's down payment, you can abandon your car until order returns.
Rock Creek Razzle Dazzle. So named because trying to drive cross town on the parkway usually results in being detoured on to that primo vehicular hell -- Connecticut Avenue. Driving Connecticut Avenue is a little like skiing a grand slalom course -- uphill. This route also includes two of the District's most action-packed circles -- Dupont and Chevy Chase -- the punk and preppy of roundabouts.
Other local favorites include the Shirley Highway Hiatus, the Columbia Creep and Tyson's Trauma.