We Have Only One Rule at Our House

Jocelyn Pihlaja essays

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A few years ago, on a frigid winter’s day, I went out for a run on my city’s paved exercise trail. This trail is wide enough for foot and bike traffic to coexist—although it gets considerably narrower after months of snowfall, when snow-clearing machines have cut a line down its middle and packed rectangular drifts high on either side.

That day, because it had been a hard winter with multiple heavy snowfalls, I felt like I was running through a chute of snow, flanked on either side by rock-hard mounds. The sun was shining, and I was engaged in full internal conversation with the callers on the podcast as it piped through my earbuds. Advice-seeker after advice-seeker dissected relationship problems, wished for weight loss, detailed problems with in-laws, or worried about money, only to end the litany with, “It just seems so hard. I don’t know what to do.”

Suddenly, I was yanked out of my reverie by the voice of a man running up behind me, shouting, “GET OFF. GET OFF THE PATH. GET OFF NOW. HE’S COMING, AND HE’S NOT STOPPING!”

For the briefest of milliseconds, I thought the real-life man was part of the conversation going on inside my head—an all-too-common problem, really, sort of like when I think my friends from high school know my friends from college, and I wonder if they’ve had a falling out because they never get together any more. When the shouting man tapped my shoulder and pointed behind us, though, I was jolted into reality.

A few hundred yards back, on the snow-locked path, was a speeding jeep using the exercise trail as its private highway. Behind the jeep were five police cars, lights flashing. The scenario had the studied speed and focus of the notorious O.J. Simpson chase; this one, however, was taking place mere feet from the edge of Lake Superior and was held to its course by a chute of snow.

Horrifyingly, the jeep was heading straight for us, eating up all open real estate. We had only a couple of seconds to get off the trail, and the options were limited. With only one choice, we took it.

Daunted by the shoulder-high wall of snow, the other runner and I jumped up, clawing our gloves into the ice and jamming our feet into the side of the mound, hacking out stair steps with our toes. Just as we heaved our bodies up onto the top of the heap, the jeep barreled over the spot where we’d been standing.

As the police cars flashed past us, two things flitted through my mind: “Oh my. I saw that jeep driver’s face. Something ain’t right in those eyes” and “What if my friend Chrissy had been out here for a walk with her three little ones? She would have had one on foot and two in a double stroller, and how could she possibly have gotten the kids unstrapped and tossed up on the snow, much less gotten herself hoisted up, before that maniac plowed over her still-swaying baby buggy? I mean, mama adrenaline can do amazing things, but a single 120-pound woman could not have grabbed a double stroller and thrown it to the top of a mountain of snow while simultaneously boosting a preschooler and herself up it.”

A fair bit freaked out by the close call, both real and imagined, I sat for a minute with the man who had gotten my attention. We exchanged relieved “What the hell was that?” small talk until our heart rates slowed, at which point we slithered back down to the trail, planning to plop ourselves in front of the news that night.

It turns out the man in the jeep that day had stolen the car, was mentally altered by a mixture of substances, and was chased by the police through the city and down the exercise path until he ultimately crashed the car into the side of a building, a development that made the snapping on of handcuffs infinitely easier for the pursuing officers.

For the man in the jeep, that day was a life changer. For me, it provided a reminder of the randomness of everything; of the need to keep the volume on the iPod relatively low; of thankfulness for a body that could climb; of the kindness of strangers; of having brushed up against danger. It provided me, in short, with an object lesson that I still trot out for my kids on occasions when a little drama is needed to get their attention.

Since I’m not so much into heavy-handed parenting, I generally use references to that incident to convey one of my sparse parental morals, so I end my recounting of Near Death on the Exercise Path with the words:  “…and so, all I have to say is: Don’t be that guy. That’s my one requirement of you. ”

As the adage goes, we pick our battles when it comes to raising kids. For me, provided they’re not the guy in a stolen car, about to crash it into a brick wall, I can hang back. I know this will get more complicated as they get older, and we have to deal with the complications of maturing in a raw world, but for now, I’m only pushing that single rule.

The beauty of this one rule, of course, is that it encompasses a thousand smaller expectations: follow laws; lead with kindness; live by the social contract that binds us all; care for fellow human beings; control personal decisions; understand the impact of behaviors; game out all possible consequences; don’t be a dipwad.

So long as my kids aren’t drunk behind the wheel of a stolen car, and so long as they treat the people in their lives with care, and so long as their every move is governed by the awareness that their lives are not solely about themselves, I will stay out of their faces.

Instead of lecturing them endlessly on the minutiae of their behaviors, I’ll be over on the bed, reading Keith Richards’ memoir

…speaking of drunks behind the wheel.


About the Author

Jocelyn Pihlaja

Jocelyn has been teaching writing at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting "silence" when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, .

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March 2015 – Simplify
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