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RUSH-HOUR DRIVE BRINGS A NICE SURPRISE

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We left Palo Alto at 5 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, which - as any fool who has ever wandered the freeways of California will tell you - is not something you want to do.

Not unless you like sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, praying that the exhaustmobile in front of you keeps inching along, and the Sherman tanks on your flanks don't decide to switch lanes, and that big monster truck bearing down on your bumper has good brakes and doesn't pack a gun.We could have waited out the rush hour, left at 7 or so, and still made it home before dark, the self-imposed curfew among people our age.

But no, my husband just had to get on the road, even though the road looked like a parking lot. What was his hurry? There wasn't even a Bulls game on TV that night. I know, because I checked. I never miss a Bulls game. My new goal in life is to get a Dennis Rodman jersey.

Anyhow, slow as I am, I finally figured it out. My husband wanted to get home simply to get home.

We had spent most of the past two months at Stanford Hospital, moving as if in slow motion from his surgery and a rather rocky recovery, to several weeks of radiation and chemotherapy.

He'd had his fill of being away from home, and I couldn't blame him. On the other hand, I was the driver. Or the lurcher, which is what you do in rush hour traffic - lurch back and forth, gunning the gas, hitting the brakes, like a toddler learning to walk.

Two miles down the road, my husband gave up looking for a Giants game on the radio, threw his head back in a huff and fell asleep.

"Fine," I said, "I'll just enjoy the scenery."

It surprises me every year after the rain has stopped for the summer, to see how fast California's hills will change from lush green to golden brown. Once again, almost overnight, fire season was upon us.

That reminded me of the weeds around our back fence. They'd be waist-high and dry as tinder by now, if they hadn't already burned down the town.

I'd almost worked myself into frenzy - I can do that over a lot less than weeds - when I spotted the carpool lane up ahead.

What a great idea! All you need are two live bodies, even if one is snoring (pets don't count and cheaters are scum) and you get to leave the other lurchers in your dust.

I never felt so superior in my life, whizzing along with the radio blasting, waving at the non-carpooling drivers all lined up and looking glum.

We made it home in record time. And guess what. Somebody had mowed down all the weeds.

Who on earth, and why? Our children, who are growing up and getting so responsible? Yeah, right. A neighbor who is fond of us and knows that brush fires spread? Could be. Or the fire department, which wants to make an example of us, and will be sending us the bill?

Beats me. I'll assume, until I know better, that it was yet another kindness. We've seen a lot of them lately. It's one of the lessons of hardship, having to take when you prefer to give.

Life gets crazy sometimes, crowded and scary as a freeway at rush hour. But just when you think you can't go another mile, along comes a carpool lane and you start to laugh, suddenly remembering you're not alone.