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'You probably activated your turn signal about four minutes early there'

Columnist Steve Lange teaches his last kid to drive.

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Our youngest child, daughter Emma, will turn 16 soon, which means we have spent many hours over the past year riding with her as she practices for her upcoming on-road driver’s license test.

Emma is our third kid to go through it.

When our oldest child, Hadley, was 15 and learning to drive, I would sit in that passenger seat and find myself saying things like, “This feels to me very much like a time of day and time of year when deer could be on the move. If a deer were to jump in front of us right now, you should brake firmly and calmly and stay in your lane ... OK. WHOA! We’re now on a downhill, so just be aware of where that emergency brake is in case you were to experience catastrophic brake failure.”

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And that was just backing out of our driveway.

Hadley was a very good driver, and she took it very seriously. She wouldn’t even let us listen to music when she was behind the wheel.

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I would set up orange cones in the Cub Foods lot so Hadley could practice parallel parking and reverse 90s.

I desperately tried to be the cool, laid-back dad during Hadley’s driving practice, and regularly found myself saying things like, “You can probably make the left hand turn now. That car coming toward you is about two miles away.” And “While I appreciate your diligence, you probably activated your turn signal about four minutes early there.”

My body language, though, revealed the fear that comes with riding with a 15-year-old for the first time. From the passenger seat, I’m sure I looked like some mime pretending that he’s in a haunted house.

By kid number two, son Henry, I would sometimes find myself playing chess on my phone as he drove.

Now, Emma and I have parlayed her driving lessons into hour-long drives around Rochester and regular Saturday road trips to independent bookstores within a two-hour drive or so. And the area’s pie shops. And the area’s candy stores.

This works out perfectly for me for two reasons.

First, I love road trips. And second, I love explaining to my kids, in excruciating detail, my tried-and-true methods for various things. Like driving.

So now, over the four-hour round trips, I can leisurely point out all of my well-honed, behind-the-wheel techniques learned over my 35-plus years of driving.

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Like the way I only use the left lane to pass, even if that means accelerating beyond my cruise control setting in order to keep traffic flowing. And the way, whenever we reach a new roadway, I instinctively survey the road’s shoulders for emergency accessibility. And my mirror-scanning method.

There are more, but those are some of what I believe to be the highlights.

Here’s something: After our first trip (Fair Trade Books in Red Wing then up to Valley Bookseller and Candyland in Stillwater), Emma suggested that we play songs — alternative music from the 1980s and ‘90s, even — from Spotify for our subsequent drives.

“I’ll drive and we’ll just listen to Nirvana songs,” she would say. Or, “We’ll listen to The Smiths.”

Why, that’s my music!

After Road Trip II, I texted a few college buddies with similar music tastes and similar-age kids.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I wrote. “But my 15-year-old daughter just asked me to drive with her, and SHE ASKED if we could listen to all of the PIXIES albums IN ORDER! Looks like my World’s Greatest Dad mug may be accurate after all.”

It was only later that I realized Emma probably chose the music thing intentionally, to keep me from explaining my lane-changing system, which both clearly signals my intentions and smoothly transitions into a safe spot in the adjoining lane. And what I call my “two-car-ahead” viewing method. And my pedal technique.

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But, either way.

On an October Saturday, before noon, Emma and I left for La Crosse, and she practiced her highway driving as we made our way to Pearl Street Books, where she parallel parked before we spent an hour sitting in the upstairs reading nook.

Then she got some behind-the-wheel time on the back roads as we followed Highway 16 to Rushford for a late lunch at Creamery Pizza, then dessert at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan.

Then, we watched a beautiful sunset as we cruised through Amish country, and Emma worked on her night driving hours as we drove back up 52, listening to The Replacements, and The Velvet Underground, and the first three Blondie albums.

Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.

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Opinion by Steve Lange
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