Car Rides: Reflections on Speeding Up and Slowing Down

When I look back on the different stages of my life, I see countless vivid flashbacks of the daily car rides I took growing up.

This is probably telling of how much time an average Filipino spends in traffic. While other people visualize a montage of childhood memories inside their houses, I see my young self sitting inside a cramped sedan with the nauseating scent of citrus car fresheners.

I’ve lived in Shaw Boulevard all my life but have always gone to school in Quezon City. This means I’ve spent a lifetime braving the morning rush hour traffic from Mandaluyong to Quezon City, and the end-of-the-day rush hour traffic from Quezon City to Mandaluyong.

My earliest memories of those car rides were those I took back when I was in preschool.

I don’t recall the car rides going to school, except that my dad was the driver. I must have been groggy and inattentive in the morning, because I remember car rides going home with so much more detail.

My mom would present a laminated fetcher’s ID to the school guard. We’d then walk from the gate to the car hand in hand while she talked to me about the seatwork, homework, and lessons for the day. She would sometimes ask me if I’d lost any of my pencils and erasers, and if I had finished all my baon. By the time we got to the car, she already knew what our one-on-one afternoon tutoring session would cover.

These tutoring sessions were intense. School had nothing compared to my mom! She wrote handouts and practice exercises for me. When I didn’t perfect the practice exercises on my first try, she made a new one. We didn’t have a printer or a photocopier then, so she made all of the handouts and reviewers by hand. Her handouts and practice exercises were so effective, my classmates’ moms asked her to fax them copies.

But back then, I didn’t appreciate all of these. I saw my mom as a strict perfectionist who kept me from playtime and television. When you are in preschool, having fun is all you think about.

In fairness to my mom, she did try to explain to me why she was hard on me. She tried to explain how I wasn’t like any of my cousins or classmates. Unlike most Chinoys in our circle of friends, I didn’t stand to inherit a stable family business. We weren’t as affluent, and I didn’t have a fallback. My education was all I had.

That was why she went all-out in all those tutorial sessions, which often extended to dinnertime.

Because of this setup, the car ride from my school to our home was my only playtime during the day. I didn’t sleep in the car, because I didn’t want to waste playtime by sleeping.

In elementary, my mom wanted me to be more independent with my academics. She often left me alone in my desk to review my own notes. She checked in on me once or twice a day to test me for my upcoming seatwork and quizzes.

Everytime our teacher returned any of our quizzes, I had to show them to my mom. She kept a record of all my grades in an index card. But there was something more important for her than my grades. Whenever I didn’t get a perfect mark, she explained to me what my errors were and quizzed me until I finally got everything right.

I slowly developed my own study habits and became familiar with my own learning patterns. With this new-found independence, I finally found a new use to all that time stuck in the car: I studied my notes and readings. With something productive to do while stuck in traffic, there was even more reason not to sleep in the car.

High school was so much busier and more competitive. Our school had the Intensive Program once we reached freshman year. It’s a fitting name for the program, because we had to endure intense Math and Science classes. Our books and teachers were different compared to the rest of our batchmates.

I never applied to be part of that program. Based on my grades and performance from elementary, my school just placed me in it. I never even enjoyed Math and Science. I started to have all-nighters, and my close peers were just as busy. Being busy and sleepless became the norm for us. I slowly developed a notion that sleeping in during weekends was only for the lazy, underperforming students.

Sometimes, my dad berated me for always sleeping late. Occasionally, he also praised me for working so hard. During the car rides to school, he often told me to catch up on sleep. But if I skipped sleep the previous night to prepare for an exam at 8:00 am, there was no way I was going to sleep in the car only a few minutes before that fateful exam.

Before stuffing my school bag in the trunk, I always grabbed my notes to review it on the way to wherever we were going. It didn’t want to waste my precious time sleeping in the car.

In college, my dad taught me how to drive. He sat in the passenger seat as I drove to school and to our house. He barked orders to slow down, turn left, speed up, signal right. He was worse than a backseat driver because he was right beside me. And he was always screaming! Ironically, driving to school was more trying than school itself.

Through my dad’s persistence (and a number of miracles), I eventually turned out to be a safe enough driver. My dad trained me to always assume that an asshole would cut my lane, or a stray chicken would cross the street, or a giant truck would topple over. I never lost my temper, and I gave way to drivers who seemed to be in a rush.

For a while, I was perfectly happy with these solo car rides. I no longer had to sync schedules with the rest of my family. I felt independent and infinitely more productive. I was able to schedule meetings and library sessions more efficiently.

But old habits are hard to change, and driving meant I could no longer study in the car. I was responsible for my own life and the lives of people driving around me. I knew I had to be fully focused on driving.

But how long was that going to take?

Traffic became worse. The hour-long drive slowly became two hours, and I was averaging three to four hours on the road every day. I was bored and attentive at the same time—on my toes and trying not to fire up my email or review my notes or finish my paper while stuck in traffic.

One night, I left school and drove straight into a horrendous standstill in Quezon Avenue. I broke down. I dug my nails in my face. I banged my head on the stirring wheel. I cried and screamed in the car.

It must have looked really comical, and I didn’t completely understand why I was breaking down in the first place. Millions of people suffer in traffic, but you don’t see them banging their heads on the stirring wheel or digging their nails in their faces or screaming and crying while waiting for the cars to move.

Once I got home, I spent a quiet evening alone. I put my phone on airplane mode, took my journal out, and tried to find a solution to my dilemma. Being unproductive during my car rides was unacceptable for me. I just needed to find a way to be productive, and then I’d feel ok again. I allotted a monthly budget for one or two audiobooks. I downloaded podcasts and audio versions of TED talks in preparation for the all the hours I knew I would spend in the car. This habit calmed me down. I listened to audiobooks and podcasts about writing, culture, politics, and psychology—anything I considered productive. Indulging in fiction seemedunproductive.

Eventually, my new lifehack stopped being good enough. I couldn’t focus on my audiobooks or podcasts with the nagging feeling of all the deadlines I had for the day.

It was clear to me that I didn’t need a new lifehack to make me feel productive. I needed to be okay with myself even when I’m not being productive. I realized throughout all these car rides that I panic whenever I’m not working.

One day, my best friend randomly sent me a virtual postcard that explained where all this panic was coming from. It simply said, You are worth so much more than your productivity.

That one sentence put things in perspective. I realized that I felt worthless without work, so I slowly tried to change that.

I decided to take only fifteen units every semester, even if this meant I would graduate later than expected. I turned down promising projects to prioritize rest and spending time with family and friends. I stopped bringing a notebook with me during weekend drives with my family.

Now, I try to sleep six to eight hours a day. Ironically, I spent my whole life running away from sleep. I may have successfully chased it away. Even when I want to, I still have trouble sleeping. I hate all that time wasted trying to fall asleep, so I occasionally take sleeping pills at night. I track my sleep quality and sleep length almost obsessively, partly because I read about sleep as the secret to productivity. Ironically, the only way I could justify treating myself to a restful sleep was the productivity benefits it could offer me. 

I think I’m improving, but I’m still in the process of learning and unlearning when to speed up and when to slow down.