I knew it before his hulking, uniformed frame filled my passenger-side window. I knew it even before his patrol car crept quietly up behind me, centering itself in my rear-view mirror.
I had been speeding.
He clocked me at 80 mph in a 65 zone, but I was doing 90 before his radar locked onto my hastening Honda. I was late to fetch my son from preschool. Rather, I was about to be late, because late is not something I allow myself to be. I had left work in plenty of time but then, calculating an extravagant surplus of eight minutes, decided to first stop and pick up a prescription my other son needed. The errand took longer than I had hoped, and my cunning plan was to compensate for the tactical error by endangering countless lives on the highway.
God forbid my two-year-old should have to ask, “Where’s my mommy?”
There’s that highly charged 30-second window between the moment your tires come to rest on the road’s shoulder and the moment the officer says, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Options ricochet through your racing mind: How do you play this? Outright denial? Feigned ignorance? Unabashed groveling?
For the first time in my life, I chose contrition, straight-up. Even as I sat there, hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, humiliated by the “gotcha” grins of passing motorists, I knew I had earned the ticket and every inconvenience — fines, court appearances, traffic court — that it would cost me.
I deserved it. I was humbled by it. And despite what I may have involuntarily muttered about the cop’s manhood as I slowed my time-traveling torpedo to a schedule-stymieing, efficiency-impeding halt, I was actually (oh, it hurts to even type it) grateful for it.
Because the ticket I drove away with is more than a hastily scrawled traffic citation. It’s a bright yellow metaphor — and much-needed wake-up call — for the reckless pace of my life.
I could blame it on Santa Barbara’s high cost of living. Or my decision to work full time while raising kids. Or the flawed personality of an over-achiever.
But the truth is we all struggle with work-life balance these days. We all neglect our health to nurture our careers, and slight our friendships to make time for our families. We all act as though a minute not spent in pursuit of income, or in completion of household chores, is a minute squandered.
As busy and goal-oriented as we are, though, we can be shockingly lazy about our vices. We engage in foolhardy behaviors that help us through the day — chugging wine or mainlining coffee, scarfing donut holes, tearing through speed limits — figuring we’ll hit the brakes as soon as it gets “dangerous.”
When I was pulled over by the Highway Patrolman (whose name, according to his expeditious handwriting, is Officer MTcliH) my operating principle was productivity at all costs — and I’m lucky the natural consequence of my folly was a slap on the wrist rather than a body-mangling wreck.
I was late to pick up my kid from school that day, but I didn’t rush through the afternoon the way I normally would. In fact, something odd happened. Rather than checking email while my kids watched TV, or folding laundry while they did their chores, we actually played together. Finding ourselves plopped on the driveway beside a bucket of sidewalk chalk, we colored and scribbled all over the tires of my car. Tires that had earlier been pushed to their performance limit now sat idle, their only function to foster our amusement. Our togetherness.
I still find myself speeding some days, and trying to squeeze too many half-assed accomplishments into too few minutes. But I don’t want to spend every waking minute in the fast lane. There’s a freedom, really, in acknowledging life’s limits, speed and otherwise. I’m no expert at it yet, but I’ll get there eventually.
Better late than never.