Warm-ish for February, the snow hadn’t frozen on the windshield until late in the day. So the note, together with its author, had gone undetected — until it (note, not author), now soggy and rent in pieces, waved at me from the tip of the wiper blade, belatedly grabbing my attention. I managed to salvage enough to pick up the gist. Allegations of my self-importance, lack of consideration, and general insensitivity to the needs of other drivers — or, more properly, other ‘parkers’. Seems a few parking lots earlier, I’d managed to straddle the line demarcating the limits of my entitlement and my neighbor’s turf. Hmm.
Standing alone, I might have shrugged off the communique (and quietly wished the anonymous writer a fate similar to that of the flayed note). But it had a companion, face to face this time. Mid-afternoon and anticipating a solitary coffee and bickie in my office, I’d brewed a single cup of dark roast from the ‘one cup’ machine I’d added to the staff kitchen on my recent arrival to our group practice. I sensed her presence before she spoke, unbidden, but evidently summoned by the finishing gurgle of coffee maker. ‘Read much about those things?’ Once I’d established ‘those things’ were in fact the ubiquitous ‘K-cups’ — too ubiquitous it would seem — I owned that I hadn’t. (Not entirely true, of course. As a self-confessed coffee snob, I’d researched my options relentlessly.) ‘They’re an environmental disaster. Choking landfill sites — no end in sight’. (I suspect the pun was unintentional.) The ‘hmm’ this time was audible — and all I chose to say on the subject before repairing to office for said solo treat.
Apparently things haven’t changed much in the intervening near quarter century since this August 1991 cover appeared and etched itself into memory. It touched me as much then as now. Lance Morrow, a Time columnist puts it rather succinctly, if pointedly:
‘The busybody and the crybaby are getting to be the most conspicuous children on the playground. The former is the bully with the Ayatullah shine in his eyes, Gauleiter of correctness, who barges around telling the other kids that they cannot smoke, be fat, drink booze, wear furs, eat meat or otherwise non-conform to the new tribal rules now taking shape. [He / she] has begun to infect society with a nasty intolerance — a zeal to police the private lives of others and hammer them into standard forms. In Freudian terms, the busybodies might be the superego of the American personality, the overbearing wardens.’
And so when my wife queried ‘why so prickly?’ (and elephant-memoried!), it gave me pause…and the need to revisit some thoughts on boundaries, empathy, and mutual respect. Living in community, whatever the ‘population density’, has one certainty attached: sooner or later someone will step on your patch; and just as inevitable, you’ll tread on someone else’s. The typically and compulsively Canadian ‘I’m sorry’ is the universal signal that a) you’ve done it again and b) you’ve acknowledged your fence crossing — be it physical (a bump in the street) or ‘meta-physical’ (whatever unseen, incidental hurt you fear you may have delivered). My irritation, then, was not triggered by the ‘bump’ — but by the intention. This was no accidental or incidental jostle. These were calculated and purposeful stampings down of the fence line. These were all about teaching points.
Rose Seaton Public sat square and imposing, mid-block on the street immediately behind my childhood home. Two choices were available for the walk to school — twenty minutes around the block; or, the option wildly preferred by us residents clustered at the midpoint of Highland Ave., jump the fence, thru’ the neighbor’s veggie garden and a quick scoot across Emerick. Three minutes tops. I still recall the visit from Mrs. Shisler with whom my mother barely communicated beyond the occasional wave when they both happened to be at the rear of their respective properties. ‘She’s asking that you boys don’t use her yard as a short cut to school. She’s saying her garden is a mess.’ First time I’d given it a thought. Her yard, her garden. What’s this to do with me? I knew the fence had taken a bit of grief over the years. But beyond taking care not to snag your jacket on the top wire, once cleared, the rest didn’t matter much. Sure. Whatever.
Perhaps as ten- or twelve-year olds, we might be forgiven for the egocentric stance we’d been refining for most of those senior elementary years. With adults, I’m not quite so generous. The coffee cop and the parking proctor are, as Mr. Morrow prophetically points out, incapable of adopting a position other than their own pedantic and painfully myopic perspective. Much like the short-cutting kid, not a moment’s consideration for a posture beyond their own. The ‘moral high ground’ adopted, banner held aloft, out come the wire cutters and the lecture commences.
Aside the absence of empathy and interpersonal respect — not insignificant issues in their own right — there’s the little matter of receptivity (to said ‘message’). Is anybody really listening? Does anybody really care? An interesting analysis of the impact of ‘warning labels’ pasted on gas station fuel pumps (in Vancouver, in case you’re interested), cautioning against the use of fossil fuel and detailing its effect on the planet might be instructive. A researcher points out that the customer rolling up to a pump, with tank on ‘E’ (and no easy alternate option at hand — bike in the trunk, longboard on the roof), may be a rabid environmentalist under other circumstance. But at the moment, that priority has likely been bumped from preeminence, and so the wrist-slapping, consciousness-raising effect is, shall we say, non-existent.
You want me to pay attention. Or, God forfend, change! Don’t kick in my front door and rant. You’ve already lost me. In this case, the medium really is the message — be it a frozen note or a dressing-down on coffee etiquette. I’m already focussed on the inappropriate affront — not parking between the lines.