Before we start tossing around words like “bunker mentality,” let’s review some recent encounters with my fellow homo sapiens.
Last Thursday, crawling out of my rural farmhouse for supplies, I must have driven over a nest of pick up trucks, the kind with gun racks mounted over the back window and bumper stickers extolling the benefits of motor oil and large breasted women instead of peaceful co-existence and “eat more veggies.” These types of encounters, albeit infrequent, are part of life in the exoskeleton of the tri-city area. At some point someone is going to try to run my arse off the road because they’ve got dual exhausts and more chrome than Justin Bieber’s Fisker Karma and all I’ve got is this dinky peace symbol cling on my bumper and a bad attitude.
Or how about telling me to move when I’m in your way. And don’t say it just once, be sure you’re voice rises with the hot air you’re exhaling. Don’t ask, just tell. Have you noticed I’m not moving? Don’t make me tell your momma on you.
Or how about you slamming your cart into my cart because you’re in a hurry and I’m just malingering by the potatoes. Or you park in a disabled parking space even if you aren’t disabled because you’re “just running in to pick up a few things.” Or maybe you tailgate me so closely I can see your nose hairs.
Or maybe you get to jigging on one foot and then the other and sighing and muttering when I hesitate before ordering at the deli because I know you’re in a snit and a hurry and it’s all about you and my life is dedicated to this moment of making your life hell at the deli and “Hey, can’t you read English?” It depends on who’s asking and how politely.
Here are a few facts brought to you by a curmudgeon: (a) there are too many damned cars on the road being driven too fast by adults acting like kids at a bumper car fun fair; (b) speed limits seem to be posted more as a guideline than a legal requirement to obey and when you get a ticket everyone within earshot hears you whine about how the universe hates you; (c) there are too many loud diners in restaurants shouting across the table at roughly the decibel level of a B-52 headed down the runway; and, (d) it’s hard to tell the difference between a drunk driver and somebody texting because both dangerous fools are all over the road. There are more letters of the alphabet but that’s enough to get you started.
Let’s take a side trip to Canada. I was a grad student at McGill in Montreal. I lived there for over a year not so long ago. There are no dinosaurs roaming the earth in this retelling. During my time there, the Canadians were all “please’ and “excuse me” and “thank you.” I found myself sitting up straighter, smiling more, making nice to shop keepers, and listening to chamber music in the Montreal subway. It was magnifique.
When my time came to return to the US of A, I realized I had been spoiled by civility. If I said “excuse me” someone would look at me as if I had burped or broken wind; if I said “please” it was taken as a request for pity; and, if I said “thank you” there was suspicion that I was about to ask for something more. We’ve come a long way from a time when it was okay to hold a door for someone, to offer a seat to someone, and to keep a voice at a decent level for conversation. I don’t think that we’ve evolved. I’m more inclined to think we took a nose dive somewhere along the way.
What happened to us? When did we get to be the self-obsessed rabble we feared? I’m not saying we’re one big pitchfork mob but we sure act like we’re about to light the torches on Saturday night. I did a little social research and what I found surprised me/not surprised me. Most of the folks I spoke with were worn down and worn out with the noise and anger, the craziness and the chaos of it all. There’s too much incoming. But they also felt that it was okay to respond in kind. And they blamed the other guy for starting it. Anger for anger. Rage for rage. Cheap shot for cheap shot.
As a nation, we’ve forgotten how to be civil to each other when we don’t agree. We’ve forgotten the meaning of “collaborate,” “discuss,” and “negotiate.” We take no prisoners if they disagree with our entrenched views. I’m right and you’re not. In the coming year or so we’ll see the toll it takes on our national health, our mental health, and our burgeoning addictions. I’m not painting a happy picture because I believe we’re in deep trouble here.
Which brings me to Mark Twain and I. He’s often quoted as saying, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.” I have a dog. And, yes, the more I see of where we’ve come and where we’re going, the more I like my dog.
If you’re a writer you get to spend many jolly hours talking to your dog, yourself, the birdies, muttering to yourself or shouting out dialogue and generally making your family wonder if maybe you’re not really writing anything and the boat has drifted out to sea. Having a few stories on the go can get you out of social engagements, justify your battening the hatches and pulling up the moat on a world gone mad with itself.
I think Miss Manners might be our only hope. In the April 30 issue of The Washington Post she indicated that “because etiquette evolves Miss Manners has to act as the impartial judge of which are legitimate changes and which are not.”
I don’t know if those over-heated boys in their chromed out pick up trucks would agree, but I think Miss Manners has the steel to make America stand up straight and tuck in its shirt tails again.
Photo credit: the author wishes to thank Demotivation.us for the use of their photo of Mr. Twain and his excellent dog.