.journal 2000.11.26
Finally getting my driver's license and the fear of success.

Now listening to: Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes
Now reading: Poppy Z. Brite, Wormwood
Now playing: Final Fantasy VII (Playstation)

Well, you all now have just a little more reason to be scared when you're on the roads this holiday season: yesterday I finally got my driver's license.

The battle to get my driver's license was a very long one, starting all the way back in 1992 and finally ending yesterday in Bowling Green when I finally passed my road test. So if you have to blame anyone, blame the state of Ohio for giving me the dang license in the first place.

Perhaps I should go back and explain exactly how this all came to be, how it was that it took me in excess of eight years to finally get my license, and what exactly happened all that time.

My father's always been into classic cars and car fixing; he helped finance his college education by buying used cars, fixing them up and selling them at a profit. Back when I was younger, we'd go to the odd classic car show around town (sometimes even out of town, up in Michigan), but just like all his other hobbies, his love of cars seemed to fall by the wayside once he started his own business. To this day, though, whenever we're out on the road and a real old car passes us, his memory of makes and models never fails to amaze me. "You see that, that's a 1956 ... no wait, the rear taillights are curved in two millimetres, that's a 1957 Pontiac."

I never really picked up on the whole car thing, it never caught my interest. Then again, back when my father was growing up he didn't have video games or computers, so cars probably were how he satiated his puzzle-solving inclinations. I just don't particularly care how a car does what it does: I just want to turn it on and go.

And, in truth, by the time I reached the age of 16 (the state minimum for obtaining a driver's license in Ohio), I didn't even want to do that. I've always been fairly a fairly anti-social person, but the school I was going to made me about ten times worse in that regard. I didn't hang out with anybody, from school or otherwise, and Toledo's a dead town to start with, so quite frankly I didn't really see a reason for me to have a license. I got to the stores I wanted to get on a regular basis, my folks got me to the other places I wanted to get to reasonably well enough, and being able to drive myself simply didn't open up that many avenues that interested me.

Coming back to school for my junior year, though, I was immediately confronted with the fact that over the summer Chantelle Marshall had gotten her license and was driving herself to and from school. Now, I'd like to tell you the story about me and Chantelle, but I only have 150 Megabytes of space here. For now, let's just say that all of a sudden I felt a real need to get my license and I'll leave the rest of the story for a later date.

Ohio requires all potential drivers below the age of 18 to pass driving school before taking the test, so the first thing I had to do was go to driving school. Of course, my private school was far more concerned with teaching me every single detail about every culture in the world than with practical issues such as driving, so I had to take driving classes outside of school. But that was no problem, since the imagniatively-named Toledo Driving School was halfway between home and work. I paid my fee, and for that got a guarantee of the state minimum 16 hours of class time and 8 hours of road time, along with all the extra road time I needed in case I wasn't a competent enough driver at the end of 8 hours for them to graduate me.

Now, the classes were four-hour jobs, but they were fairly low-impact fare. I'm a quick enough learner, and I already knew most of the important stuff, it was just the detail stuff I had to learn. There were plenty of breaks in the four hours, of course, and I couldn't help but notice that on every break, of the forty or so students in the classroom there would be two or three of us who would stay inside, and everyone else would go out to smoke cigarettes furiously. I have no illusions about my neighbourhood being the "good part of town," but a display like the ones the other students were giving me outside the classroom window was certainly eye-opening.

During one of those courses the instructor actually took us out to the parking lot, and despite being on classroom time they had us practice the maneuverability part of the driving exam. Ohio's driving exam is divided into two parts, a road test and a maneuverability test. The road test is just the standard "at the next intersection make a right" type of thing, thankfully with the added proviso that the examiner isn't allowed to tell you to do something illegal, such as making you turn the wrong way down a one-way street. But the maneuverability test more than makes up for that by giving you all the glories of parallel parking without all the mess of actually hitting other cars by substituting tiny little orange traffic cones for cars to work around.

Anyway, everyone lined up against the wall outside (and most of them did light up, thanks for asking) and took their turn, and everyone did the test with little difficulty. Some of them messed up once or twice, but the instructor always got out, set the cone back up and let the student complete it correctly. I'm guessing the reason the other students had no problem is that they either already had their temporary permits, or else they'd gotten in some other form of practice.

As I told the instructor as I entered the car, the last student to take the test, I hadn't even gotten my temps yet, which I am fairly sure meant that it was illegal for me to be behind the wheel, but the instructor didn't care less. It was literally my first time behind the wheel, and I had no idea what I was doing. I lost count of how many times I screwed up, but I had to keep doing it until I got it right. I'm surprised another instructor didn't take the rest of the class back into the classroom to continue the other lessons. Finally after some of the longest minutes of my adolesence, I managed to back through the cones correctly (probably with a good deal of "help" from the instructor), and as if my goofs hadn't embarrassed me enough already, a sarcastic ovation came up from the other students as I finally completed my first humiliating attempt at operating a car.

I waited until after I completed the class time before getting my temps, since I wanted to be sure I had everything memorized for the written test needed to get a temporary permit; in truth, I could have probably passed the written test blindfolded. But after that I finally got my first road time, and as if by some cosmic signal, despite the fact that Chantelle lives more than a half-hour away from the driving school, my first real driving time came going down her street, as the previous tester lived just down the street from her and he dropped himself off at home just before I got behind the wheel. So you can imagine how those first few moments of driving felt for me.

So I finally get out of Chantelle's residential neighbourhood and onto some "real" streets to drive on, and, well, I suck. I mean, I really, really suck. I can't keep the car in its own lane, I have no clue how much to turn the wheel when making a turn, how hard to press the pedals - I was braking with my left foot for the first hour or so - I was totally clueless. Thankfully driving instruction cars have two brakes, one on the passenger's side, so what pretty much ended up happening was I applied the gas, the instructor reached over and grabbed the wheel and did the steering while I just held on limply and let him do all the braking.

Finally I started to get a bit better and I really established a decent reparté with one of the instructors, but then he left to start his own driving school and my new instructor pretty much shattered all the confidence I'd built up in two hours of driving time. I completed my eight hours of driving quickly enough, but there was no way I was going to graduate with as poorly as I was driving. Thankfully I now had some "free" driving time coming to me, and in the next few sessions I got a bit better, but I didn't feel I was ready to be graduated.

Despite that, though, at the start of one session the instructor said he was going to try to graduate me that day. We had to stop by the driving school for some reason, so he had me turn into the street that leads to the back of the driving school, in a residential neighbourhood. And as I turned I saw that a bit down the street there was a kid playing with a ball a bit down the road in his lawn, but close to the road. And I can still remember thinking to myself, "Oh no, he's not gonna ..." But I discarded that thought out of my head and just tried to drive as best I could, trying not to be Little Miss Pessimist.

Well, the kid did try to chase his ball across the street, and he waited until I was right in front of him. And it was the instructor's brake that stopped us inches from that boy's tiny little skull; I was still too tentative on the pedals, there was no way I would have braked in time. The kid dashed back into his own yard as the instructor put the parking brake on the car, got out, got the kid's ball and gave it back to him, undoubtedly telling him I was just some blonde ditz who didn't really know how to drive and he was just trying to help me learn.

The instructor got back in the car, and when we got back to the driving school he told me to come in with him. Now, at this point I'm fairly sure he's going to chew me out for damn near hitting the kid, and at that point I really wouldn't have minded that because there was no way he could a better job of that than I was already doing to myself. But instead he reaches into a drawer, pulls out a diploma, fills in my personal information, signs it and hands it to me.

Now, I may not have been that quick behind the wheel, but it took me zero time to figure out exactly what the message here was: I was being told I was a lost cause. I wasn't ready to drive, there was no way in hell I should have been graduated, but they couldn't afford to keep letting me drive around town on their buck. They'd rather just let me fend for myself on the driving test than continue working with me. I didn't think I could feel much worse than I did after damn near running the kid over, but somehow the instructor managed to do just that.

And, I mean, it's not like I was that comfortable behind the wheel to start with. You know, that's well over a ton of steel that you can propel to tremendous velocities and take wherever you want with just the smallest movements of your hands and feet. And you go around at those velocities with other ton-plus masses parallel to you, some moving in the same direction as you, some in the opposite. And then you throw in things like drunk drivers, icy roads, machine failure ... it's pretty damn scary. Thankfully I haven't been involved in any serious traffic accidents in my life, but at least if I wasn't behind the wheel when one happened I could say it wasn't my fault. More than something happening to me, I was worried something would happen to someone else, something that would be my fault, something that no financial settlement could ever make up for. Who needs that?

I did half-heartedly try the test a couple of times before I went to college. The first time I actually passed the maneuverability test, but failed the road test on the spot when I didn't turn out onto the first street fast enough. That first time was in Lucas County, though, where the testing location is right smack dab in the middle of some serious high-traffic areas, so the second time I went down to Wood County where things were a lot more quiet and tranquil. Not only did I fail the road test by not catching a stop sign that was well-hidden behind a tree, I also failed the maneuverability test.

After going to college, I just pretty much forgot about getting my license. It was a whole bunch of potential aggravation, and fear, for something that I really didn't need. I don't drink or smoke, and I use my debit card whenever I go out, so it's not like I even needed a photo identification card. My father would bother me about getting my license every now and then, but as with all his other annoying bleating I just zoned him out and didn't let him affect me. Not that he didn't try to affect me, of course.

But then earlier this year, as I mentioned earlier in my journal, L. came back into my life and turned me onto Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and I underwent a creative recovery and really started feeling good about myself for the first time in a real, real long time. And I guess somewhere in there getting my driver's license became important to me again. I mean, it would be nice for me to be able to run to the store whenever I wanted and not have to rely on other peoples' trips, and since I'm a lot more comfortable about myself maybe I could try going out and socializing. I'm not really sure what it is that possessed me to get my temps again, but I did.

Driving the folks' minivan was still not exactly all that fun to me, though, and the thing is just too damn wide to be trying a maneuverability test in. But dear, sweet Jeff was gullible, er, nice enough to let me go out in his car to get in some road time and take the test. And after the first couple of hours or so, I really started feeling comfortable behind the wheel. I wasn't in testable shape by any stretch of the imagniation, but I was feeling a lot better than I did six or seven years ago.

And as I got more road time in with Jeff (and even with the folks' minivan), I got more and more confident, and I started to think I was ready to try the test. In part because I felt I had the skills I needed, but more importantly because thanks to L. and The Artists' Way the prospect of failure didn't bother me so much. If I failed, I'd just take the test again, no sweat. And if I had to take the test over and over again, well, so be it. Eventually I would pass, and along the way I'd probably pick up some driving tips and learn a bit about myself.

So my first scheduled exam date drew near, but as the date neared Jeff realized that the test would really present a strong conflict with an acting gig he'd taken, and the only way I could take the test that day would be to really inconvenience both him and my mother. I wasn't about to do that, so I told him to reschedule me. The second date came, and that time we got all the way down to the station, but we were massively late and they couldn't test me that day. Well, silly me, I fell for that "third time's the charm" nonsense, and sure enough I ended up sleeping through the third test when I miswrote the testing date on a scrap of paper.

And that takes us to yesterday.

The first thing I do when I get up (after not all that good a sleep) is to check the radar, and sure enough there's a nice little band of ice that's scheduled to hit northwestern Ohio around the time my test is. Ninety minutes before the test Jeff calls me and tells me that at his mother's recommendation, he's actually going to bring his brother's car up since Jeff's car might not pass the vehicle inspection. I'd never driven this particular car before, mind you, and Jeff said it was wider than his which would make the maneuverability test real fun, but at least we gave ourselves so much advance time for this test that I could drive down to the testing station.

So I get in the car and thankfully things have warmed up enough that the band of ice just turns out to be rain, but Jeff's brother's car has its windshield wiper control on the dashboard, as opposed to every other car I'd ever driven where it was on the turn signal lever. I'm also massively sleep-deprived, and have a hard time keeping my lane when looking behind me to change lanes. I'm not really noticing speed limits, either, instead relying on the traffic around me to dictate my speed (and that is so not a good thing).

Finally we get to the station with ten or twelve minutes to spare, so I'm left to stew in my own nervousness. I'm not quite sure what drugs you would have to take to achieve the same sensation caused by sleep deprivation, nervousness and adrenaline, but I'm fairly sure it would cost several hundred dollars and would have a fairly high mortality rate. On the way down to the station Jeff had been reading from Roger Ebert's book of bad movie reviews, and since he brought it in to the station to read while I was out, I just plain stole it from him and tried to quiet my brain, which was going ten times faster than any posted speed limit in town, by reading from it.

So the sweet lady who will be my examiner leads me out to my car so she can perform the vehicle examination, and boy do I get off on the wrong foot. Jeff brought in the registration for the car in case I forgot the license plate number to tell my examiner (hey Jeff, I still remember it -- if you know only one thing about me, know that I am really good when it comes to remembering those kinds of things when I have to), so I had to spend an extra couple of seconds putting the registration back in the glove compartment while my examiner's out in the rain and the cold waiting for me to start the car and test the turn signals and brake lights.

After that lovely little episode, she got in the car and chided me for my gaffe, then instructed me to the maneuverability cones. Now, I had gotten in a good chunk of road time with Jeff and the minivan, but I had not actually practiced the maneuverability test. I hadn't even tried it since the last time I took the test some six years ago, and half of the test involves backing up, my worst weakness as a driver. And as I pulled up to the cones, I began to appreciate what Jeff said about the car being wide, because I'm genuinely surprised I didn't knock down any cones just pulling up to them.

But I pulled up alright and went through them in forward gear fine, although I had to turn the car wider than what Toledo Driving School had previously taught me. So after that I have to back up the same way I went in, and as soon as I shift the car into reverse I am in trouble because I'm not sure which way to turn the wheel; for some reason, my intuition sometimes tells me, when I'm going in reverse, to turn the wheel the exact opposite of the way I should be turning it. There is just so much I don't understand about cars, how with all their internal circuitry their speeds are still affected so much by inclines and declines, how the steering wheel knows how to turn itself into the right space after a turn, and I just obsess over it sometimes. If I am going to be controlling so much weight and force with such little effort, I should at least know something about how it operates, you know?

But I really have to stop there for a second and think to myself, "Okay, it'll look like I'm turning right but I need to move the wheel left." And I get past the first set of cones, no problem, but I can tell I'm on course to hit one of the second set. You're actually allowed to stop the car and pull forward during this part if you think you're going to hit something, but if you do that then you pretty much have to get a perfect score on every other element of the test because it's a real point-deducter. And in practice, you don't even think about it, you just think about getting through, but here I am about to get an automatic failure and I need to adjust and I'm not sure which way to turn the wheel to correct myself. So I let my intuition take over, move the wheel, and all of a sudden I see I'm not in trouble anymore. I remember thinking to myself as I pulled through that second set of cones, "No ... no, I didn't." But I did. One part down, one to go.

Actually, somewhere in here I ended up with a minor deduction on the road test because I didn't have my windshield wipers on. It had been raining a fair deal on the way down to the examination station, but by the time I got down there it wasn't really raining at all, so I thought I could do without the wipers, but I guess it must have started spitting enough that the instructor needed to remind me to turn them on somewhere during this period, and for that I got a point deduction, not all that much but in the state I was in I wanted to conserve those points for the mistakes I was going to make on the road. And the fact that I don't remember where in here the deduction took place should tell you exactly how bad I was sleep-deprived.

But after the maneuverability test came the road test, and I remember it being just like driving with Jeff. The only real problem was that the wipers of the car were making a loud, low squeaking noise as they went across the windshield, which made it hard to hear her commands at times. The possibility of icy roads had worried me (that was something I had absolutely zero experience with), but the roads were fine. And I was worried about there being a lot of traffic because of the holidays, but the opposite ended up being true (I'd forgotten how much of a college town Bowling Green is).

The only real worrysome part came as I was pulling back into the parking lot, and a car from a nearby restaurant started to back up towards me despite me clearly having the right of way. The way the Ohio driving exam works, if you're involved in an accident while taking the test you automatically fail, regardless of whether or not the accident was your fault or even in your control. I thought I had done okay, but wasn't too sure, and it would have just been so typical for me to have passed the test, then gotten smacked at the very end by some idiot and had all my hard work go to pot. Thankfully the car stopped itself when it was what it was about to do, and I was able to get back in front of the examination station and park the car unabated.

I put the parking brake on and stop the car, and all this time I've been hearing the lady mark things down on her clipboard, but from previous experience I know she could have just been taking down notes or something, and I avoided the tempation to glance over at her pad while stopped to see if I'd been marked down for anything. I just look straight forward, trying to figure out how I'd managed to drive so well despite not feeling particularly alert.

The first thing the examiner said was, "Well, you passed maneuverability." That wasn't really a shock to me; unless the car stops or you knock down a cone, there's almost no way you can lose enough points in the maneuverability section to fail. Then she said, "But the driving part, I'm not so sure ..." And I'm thinking to myself, "Great, now she has to add everything up to see whether or not I made it. As if this situation could possibly use any more tension ..."

"Just kidding. You passed!"

Even typing that just now, more than twenty-four hours after the fact, I gulped. I didn't believe it then, and to be honest I still don't believe it now. It turned out I did have one other deduction because I made a double-stop at a four-way intersection so I could clearly see the road to the left of me, another tactic which, surprise surprise, I was taught at Toledo Driving School. But I could have had double the deductions I ended up with and still passed the test.

After she explained the deduction to me, she asked me if I had any questions. I went, "Yeah, how the heck did I do this?" Actually, the question I wanted to ask her would have replaced the first two letters of "heck" with something else, but after all that I didn't want to mess myself up by pissing her off with profanity. I'm also sure I didn't want to tell her about the incident with the kid seven years ago, but that was probably what was in my mind more than anything else at that point, how somehow I went from that to finally passing my driving test.

I was the last test of the day, so the instructor went and put the maneuverability cones in the trunk of her car, leaving me to go get Jeff in the station. I gave Jeff a big hug, one which, mind you, he did not return. I let him drive me home because I'd already been driving under sleep deprivation, adrenaline and nervousness, and I didn't want to try adding shock to the mix quite yet. On the way back we talked about things, some related to the test, some not, but I was ... I don't know.

The only real thing I can compare to the way I was feeling -- the way I still feel -- is a trip I took about six weeks ago. This trip was real important to me, it was a real test of myself and all the new confidence I'd gained this year. It involved a good chunk of risk-taking and doing a lot of things I wouldn't have even dreamed of doing some six months before, but I knew if I did it that it would be one of the greatest experiences of my life. But even though I knew exactly what would happen, more or less, on the trip, I was still majorly nervous about it, and I just kept getting less and less sleep in the days leading up to the trip until finally when I did take the trip, I was just out of it. I basically reached a trance-like state where I was awake, and my brain was sending commands and my body was performing them and I was aware of my surroundings, but it was almost like I wasn't really there, like I was somehow out of my body but still doing everything I normally would.

Getting my license isn't quite the step that the trip was for me, but the trip was at least something certain: excepting a real wide abberation, I knew x, y and z would happen, and they happened. Passing the test was no certainty yesterday, and despite my tendency to be a real pessimist, I did not honestly believe I had greater than a 20-30% chance of passing the test. And I still feel like I'm living outside of my body, that I didn't really pass the test, that the other shoe has yet to drop on this whole situation.

The family's reaction was varied to say the least. Heather was nonchalant about it, seemingly more concerned with the financial implications of me getting insurance and what this meant for all the shopping trips she wanted to make. My father was so damn enthusiastic when I called him at work that I thought he was going to blow one of my eardrums. Mom was middle-of-the-pack, although I'm surprised she didn't shed a tear about it. Then again, they all really tend to blow off the story about the kid I almost ran over, they don't really seem to know how much it's affected me these past seven years. It still scares me now.

But you know what's even more scary? The fact that I did it all. The fact that I succeeded. It's so easy for others to make you believe you don't deserve success, you don't deserve happiness, and for so many years I allowed people to manipulate me like that. And even though I've come so far in that regard this year, I still have a long, long way to go. The old patterns can be addictive. Failure can be addictive. The idea that I'm doomed anyway, so why don't I just keep on doing what I'm doing, even if it isn't what I really want to do, so at least I don't suffer the shame of failure any more than I already have in my life.

But now suddenly I'm finding what success means. The success of leaving a bad situation behind and allowing myself to do the things I really enjoy in my life. The success of finally finding out how to lose weight and losing one hundred pounds in twenty-five months. The success of overcoming tremendous psychological stress and haunting memories to get my driver's license. There are more successes out there for me to attain, successes infintely more meaningful and profound than the ones I have already experienced, the ones which already seem so heavy to me. It might not sound logical, but it seems like "What if I fail?" isn't as scary a question to me as "What if I succeed?" What kind of Pandora's Box have I opened by getting my driver's license?

Of course, this isn't the end of the whole driving thing. Right now I have a "certified temporary permit," which I need to give to the DMV sometime this week to get a real photo ID license. I also need to get insurance, since Ohio has these draconian penalties for uninsured drivers in their laws. And then, of course, there's the matter of getting my own car. Good thing I got my stereo last week.

There's also the question of where I will go once I have my plastic and my insurance and my car, but somehow I get the idea that that question will solve itself. The previous questions will keep me occupied enough these next few weeks. But I definitely have a lot more possibilities open to me now. And I have the courage to take them. I'm still getting used to that feeling, but I'm sure it will come to me more naturally with the passage of time.

I'll see you around. And for once, both on the road and in my life, you may see me in the driver's seat.

- Sean