When I was 16 and first learning how to drive, my father took me out to an empty Sears parking lot where he could teach me the ABCs of steering, accelerating, and, probably most important, braking. I passed my road test — parallel parking included — on the very first try. But that’s not to say that the road leading up to it was smooth — at least not in that Sears parking lot.
I also took Drivers Ed in school (alas, a course that is no longer being offered in most schools). The Drivers Ed cars had two brakes — one for the student driver and one for the instructor. Our family car, however, had only one (surprise, surprise). Which would explain why, when he felt I wasn’t slowing down soon enough, my father would attempt to step on the brake. Which wasn’t in front him. Hence, sometimes his right foot would slam against the floor on the passenger side during our lessons. Okay, maybe more than sometimes.
After a few Sundays my dad turned over the reins of my driving lessons to my mom, who had learned to drive with two feet — one on the gas, one on the brake — much the way New York City cab drivers drove. (Which probably explains why she was more successful at keeping her cool during our practice drive time — that and the fact that she was known to cut off a truck driver or two in her day like any good NY cabbie would.)
But not before he gave me a valuable piece of advice — one that served me well in my early days as a driver, before applying the right amount of pressure to the brake became instinctive. And that was this: squeeze your toes.
I tried it, and it really did help me to slow down gradually. It’s like a nuance versus a hit over the head — which makes sense if you consider the difference in the way my parents drove (and communicated in general).
The interesting thing about the squeeze play is that it has much broader, global implications (aside from the fact that it’s also helpful for picking a dropped pencil up off the floor). It also works when I find myself in a situation where someone is testing my patience. Taking a beat to squeeze my toes is sort of like slowing down to count to ten. Without the math. Or, when I find myself getting anxious about something (“Is this dental procedure going to hurt? Is it? Is it?”), squeezing my toes brings me back to the here and now, and lets me slow down my racing mind and put it in “calm” gear.
Sometimes life is about squeeze plays, sometimes it’s about line drives. Sometimes it’s about shortstops, sometimes it’s about stopping short.
Don’t forget to check your brakes.
ⓒ 2017 Claudia Grossman