Sunday, May 16, 2010

Serenity Now!

I have never been much of a sightseer. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the great wonders of the world…it’s that just staring at something can only keep my interest level for so long. I take a few pictures. I skim over any plaques or dedications. I pretend to be amazed.

And after about 10 seconds, I say to myself, “Okay…now what?”

So when I moved to Washington, D.C. a year-a-and-a-half ago, I was hoping to find a way to combat this. I knew this was a special place, filled with historic landmarks and American lore, and I wanted to try to take advantage of having such easy access to it all.

With a full-time job and an unquenchable thirst to do nothing, though, I quickly realized I often had little desire to play tourist. Just going outside was a significant Sunday accomplishment. The weekends began to pile up, and I still hadn’t laid eyes on a monument.

And then I discovered the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a scenic highway in Northern Virginia that traces along the Potomac River. Not only does the drive give you a sense of the natural beauty of the region, with its rolling hills and wooded terrain, but there’s one stretch where you can take in the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capital building, the Jefferson Memorial and the Pentagon, all from the comfort of your car. It was the perfect one-stop-shop solution for someone who once slept through an entire bus tour of downtown London.

But on a recent Saturday evening, not even this Cliff’s Notes summary of the city could hold my attention.

I had just exited I-495 onto a mostly-empty Parkway when I came up behind a slow-moving sedan in the left lane. Complicating matters, there was a car to my right going approximately the same speed, leaving me boxed in with no place to go.

Doing my best to stay calm, I shuffled through my iPod and tried to think happy thoughts. But ten minutes and five ignored “Slower Traffic Keep Right” signs later, the guy still hadn’t gotten over, and there was now a string of taillights in my rearview mirror reminiscent of the closing shot in Field of Dreams.

With my blood at a full boil, I threw my hands up in a fit of what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-this-dude disbelief. I started banging the steering wheel and shouting every cuss word I could think of. I strained against the back of my seat like I was trying to break free of a straight jacket.

And it was in that moment, as I irrationally berated this faceless human being, wishing that he would crash through the guardrail and plummet to an unfortunate fate, when it finally hit me:

My name is Brent Stoller, and I have road rage.

I know I’m not the only person who suffers from this affliction, but that didn’t make accepting it any easier. I have always prided myself on being calm and even-tempered, and in every other area of my life, I like to think that I do a good job of not letting the unimportant stuff get to me.

But for whatever reason, when I get behind the wheel of a car, something changes. Constantly on edge, my patience is shorter than Mini-Me, and the second I see a person with a phone to their ear instead of their eyes on the road, or I nearly die merging onto the freeway because somebody is going too slowly on the entrance ramp, my laidback nature dissolves into a cauldron of impatience, rage and downright hatred.

The funny thing is that I am not an aggressive driver. From the day I got my license, my parents have stressed to me that a car is a deadly weapon, and that I should always assume that every other person on the road is drunk.

The only concession they ever made was that it was okay to go up to five miles per hour over the speed limit, reasoning that this allowed you some cushion to accelerate if you needed to get around someone or find a bathroom if your bladder were about to burst.

So I’ve never been one of those nut jobs who weave in and out of traffic like they’re driving a go-kart. But few things set me off quicker than when – under benign road conditions, in a normal flow of traffic – people drive slower than the speed limit.

I know, I know…this doesn’t seem fair at first blush. After all, the word “limit” implies that this should be the fastest you should drive, that it should be the ceiling, and you should be free to go whatever speed up to that mark that makes you comfortable.

But I believe it should be the floor.

Theoretically, the speed limit is the speed that all cars can drive on a particular road while still ensuring a safe ride for everyone. So outside of balancing something strapped to your roof or keeping a low profile because of the dead body in your trunk, why drive slower than that?

And government officials didn’t just pull this figure out of thin air, right? Surely they did some research. Surely they studied traffic patterns and analyzed street conditions and evaluated the surrounding neighborhoods to come up with it.

But what they definitely didn’t do was factor in the chaos, last-minute lane changing and middle finger flipping that is caused by somebody treating a 40MPH stretch as their own personal school zone.

Luckily for me, the route between my home and office is infested with more of these drivers per capita than any other place in the country. Even the cab drivers are guilty. I swear, I have never blown by so many people doing the posted number in my life. By the time my commute is over, with my voice practically hoarse from repeatedly screaming “GOOOOO!!!” and “THE GAS IS ON THE RIGHT!!!”, I have to take a few deep breaths to keep from opening the house door by ramming my head through it.

It’s just so frustrating when getting somewhere takes longer than it has to. And it is not only these sub-speed limit snails who are the problem. I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten stuck at an intersection because the person in front of me doesn’t move when the signal turns green. They just sit there, sending a text message or fixing their makeup, oblivious to the fact that they’re up to bat. All the while the sand is pouring through the hourglass, and I have to decide how long I have to wait before I can honk without being a jack#$*.

Inevitably, the clock runs out, they sneak through on a yellow, and I’m left to fume while enduring another light cycle.

And dealing with the evil twin of these drivers isn’t any better. They’re the ones who overanxiously enter the intersection before they can get all the way through it. So what happens? They end up in No Man’s Land, blocking traffic, creating gridlock in every direction.

But hey, at least they weren’t inconvenienced.

I just can’t comprehend how people can have such a blatant disregard for others. My only guess is that when we’re in our cars, we feel like we’re in some sort of protective bubble that shields us from the normal rules of society. Plus, not having to deal with anyone face to face makes it that much easier to screw somebody.

I mean, if you were going to the movies, and the line was wrapped around the building, would you walk past everyone and jump in at the ticket counter?

Of course you wouldn’t. The thought of doing so has probably never crossed your mind. Yet you see drivers all the time cruise by backed-up exit traffic and merge in front of everybody else.

Yeah…because I WANTED to wait 20 minutes to get off the freeway.

(And while we’re here, why does anyone let these people in? I’ve never understood that. You are not being polite…you’re validating their selfish behavior, like if Elin Nordegren had seduced Tiger instead of chasing him down the street with a 9 iron.)

And as much as I want everyone on the road to just get out of my way and not bother me, it is this inconsideration that lies at the heart of all of my frustrations. People are lost in their own little worlds, with their own needs and their own personal agendas, and that is the only thing they care about. Most are too busy or too self-indulgent to simply raise their hand and wave “thank you” after you let them in.

So in a way, maybe my road rage is a blessing in disguise. Maybe it serves as a constant reminder to be mindful of others, to be courteous and to always be aware that everything I do can have an effect on those around me. Because no matter how busy I get, or no matter how important I may think I become, I hope to never lose sight of that fact.

I just need to figure out a better way to handle all of this anger. With so many unstable drivers out there, I rarely express my displeasure with anything more than a “turn and look,” because I don’t want to end up on the strangled side of a chokehold. So the tension keeps building up inside of me, and if I don’t come up with a new coping mechanism soon, I’m going to be forced to get off my couch and do something radical:

Head downtown with the rest of the tourists.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?