I firmly push the accelerator and grip the shift lever as the race propels me toward lap 2010. Still, before I make the final decisive move, I cannot help but glance into my rearview mirror to lap 2009. In contrast to the track ahead of me which appears smooth and full of promise, lap 2009 is a blazing mess. Twisted metal from collisions, smoke and ash from previous blow-outs, and the wreckage of intermittent smaller fires clutter the track making me think, “I may not be winning, but at least I survived.”

Easing into the next turn, I quickly rewind the videotape in my head to the same race, exactly one year ago. The view ahead is frightening. My memory footage shows me accelerating into lap 2009 at the same break-neck pace but with eyes closed, hands clenching the steering wheel, and continuously screaming my favorite curse word. I saw it all coming but there are no pit-stops in the race of life, are there?

Since I am just about out of car racing references, let me step out of my Super Charged 1978 Pacer for a moment to get to the point. As I get older, I find myself surveying the broader landscape of my friends and acquaintances more frequently. I’m looking for — and finding — life-altering events taking place among these folks. A death, a disease (“is it the Big C?”), a home foreclosure or a divorce are just some of the land mines placed strategically along the track. It is truly humbling to realize that the race has changed and some are left in the wreckage while others either cruise or limp along.

Having survived my own share of spin-outs over the past couple of years I am personally getting back to my cruising speed. Unfortunately, a couple of incidents stand out to me that illustrate the wreckage we all fear.

Last week a friend of mine was arrested in the middle of the night at his white-collar home. Until last week he had been a very successful trader on Wall Street. Rousted out of bed in his pajamas, he was taken away by several dark sedans full of various agents. His pajama-wearing wife, kids and in-laws watched it all through sleep-encrusted eyes. I don’t care what you have for breakfast — that’s not a good way to start the day.

Earlier in the year, a friend of my son watched his father get arrested outside his elementary school. That is, they tried to arrest him. When the police officer reached into the car to take his car keys, the guy put the car in gear, hit the gas and dragged the police officer a few hundred feet before sending him tumbling. Imagine the essays the kids wrote that week in English class. Eventually, he was arrested. As it turned out, he was wanted in several states for alleged fraud and other assorted cons. The fact that my son has been at his house for play dates and birthday parties hardly ever enters my mind.

Pondering both situations I am left shaking my head. In a million years, I never could have anticipated either of these. Both men appeared to be on top of their game and were well respected. I guess some things really aren’t as they appear. The lesson I have learned here is: Keep your eyes wide open. And then the less obvious lessons:

  • Sleep fully dressed in case the police have to drag you out of your house in the middle of the night.
  • Never reach through a car door of a suspected felon.
  • Always, always, always, wear clean underwear (that’s just good advice).

Usually I don’t dwell on this kind of stuff, other than bullet No. 3, that is. However, I can’t help but use that rearview mirror every now and again.

With the knowledge that things are not always as they appear firmly under our belts, my hope is that we can all go into lap 2010 with our eyes open to opportunity and mindful of road hazards. And to quote Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of one of my favorite TV shows, Hill Street Blues, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”