It's quite possible my 1992 Miata—faded reddish paint, worn driver's seat, cloudy plastic rear window and all—saved my life. Not in the way that cars are supposed to, with airbags deploying and crumple zones crumpling and lots of drama. It was much more gradual than that, slower and quieter and mostly internal.
That car saved me, or more specifically my sanity, by being a place I could think.
It's hardly news that the average member of modern society is ill-equipped to be alone with his thoughts. We became far too connected way too fast. Drivers went from tape decks to cellphones as our major distraction in about half a generation.
A mobile phone used to be a status symbol for a specific kind of ambitious go-getter. Now everyone has a multifunction pocket computer, and it's a fancy, shiny leash. There's nothing prestigious about giving bosses, co-workers, and telemarketers the ability to grab your attention anywhere, at any time. And is it really that much better when it's your friends? We're all constantly writing the personalized online version of People magazine that is Facebook, and it's messing with our heads. We're losing sight of what it is to simply be ourselves.
The most connected, busiest person I know, a man with the unlikely name of Baratunde Thurston, is one of the only people who I believe truly understands the meaning, and even purpose, of the Internet in general and social media in particular. In the last 18 months, he's authored a humor book dealing with race in America, written a monthly column for Fast Company, and founded Cultivated Wit, a company that helps businesses use comedy to improve their products. (Yes, really.) His insane productivity comes at a cost, though; he's pretty much connected all day, every day. Or he was, until he decided to take a month off last winter and unplug from everything electronic.
"I didn't isolate myself, but I was digitally disconnected," Baratunde said. There weren't many late-night drives to clear his head—he's a typical New Yorker—but the theory is the same. "We've become hoarders of unnecessary sharing, of empty communication ... It was good to get off my computer and bring my brain back to baseline.
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"I'd forgotten the value of silence, and that silence doesn't always have to be filled. I stopped trying to fill it, and I had much deeper thoughts."
People need a little solitude, to hear themselves think and consider their thoughts. Cars are good for that. They used to be better, before the Wow This Is Really Far Too Much Information Age, but they're still good. When you occupy a decent chunk of your mind with the constant low-level input driving requires, the rest of you is free to contemplate. It's why people come up with ideas in the shower. But as nice as showers are, you can't stay in them for long or stop for some beef jerky in passing. For that, you need driving. You have to do the right kind of driving—your daily commute isn't a great time for reflection, and you won't get a lot of thinking done at the track.
Just going out for a drive, though? Perfect.
Back to my Miata. I did a lot of just-going-for-a-drive driving in those days. I was living in Brooklyn, it was the middle of winter, and it took a couple hours in stop-and-go traffic just to get out of the city. In other words, I must have really needed it.
Suffice it to say that it wasn't a good time for me. Because of some common crises I won't bore you with, I was in pretty bad mental shape. I bought the car to distract me from how badly I'd screwed up my life. What I got despite myself was a meditation chamber with an airbag light I couldn't shut off and a cracked plastic rear window that let in the piercing cold.
I'd intended to buy a hobby car, something to work on and maybe autocross a little. What I wound up doing was driving: no destination, no intention of accomplishing anything.
In the car, things were different. Not better, mind you, but freed from distraction, my mind worked on my problems at its own pace. Something about taking simple control of the car, letting the vibrations and the road noise and the hum of the engine soak into me, let my brain stop spinning and actually deal with the problems of just being me. Even though, it must be said, a 1.6-liter Miata four is running about 3600 rpm at highway speed, which is less of a hum and more of that spinning-madly stuff I was trying to avoid. But hey, whatever works.
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And I discovered something pretty important, something I wasn't surprised to hear that Baratunde also found out. After he got off the Internet, and after I'd been indulging in long Miata trips, we found ourselves able to give people more attention, able to make deeper connections. And that goes a long way in any life. Soon, you find you want to fill your car's empty seats with other people—ideally, people who are okay with just being themselves.
Car as therapeutic tool? Sure, why not? Miata as meditation chamber? Well, maybe with a hardtop next time. A Fortress of Solitude carved from ice may have worked for Superman, but I'm just me.
John Krewson left Brooklyn when the beef jerky got artisanal.