“Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don’t drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica as well as they would if they had sense.” — John Gardner, “The Art of Fiction”
In another career 30 years ago, I wrote a lot of fiction. I also read a lot about the craft of writing, in particular the work of literary critic John Gardner, a brilliant and sometimes caustic observer of writing and those who attempt it.
I took a lot of Gardner’s advice to heart, and tried to pass it on to my students — concepts like “psychic distance” and the “fictive dream.”
Gardner’s quote above about “second-class” behavior also stuck with me. Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about driving, which is a reflection of a couple of things:
One, we spend way too much time in our vehicles; two, our behavior inside those vehicles is a good predictor of how we act the rest of the time.
Are we courteous behind the wheel? Impatient? Aggressive? Do we proceed calmly enough to be mindful of other drivers? Or are we always in a Type A hurry, so move the hell over? Those patterns carry over.
That’s an oversimplification, surely, but I think it has some merit. Specific situations on the road can change our behavior, or we may be in a certain frame of mind before we start the engine. We might just be preoccupied, distracted by anything from a song on the radio to a problem at home.
I thought about this yesterday morning as I pulled into the parking lot at work. Another driver was just ahead of me. I watched her choose a space, then park on top of the yellow line on the passenger side and about three feet short of the line in front.
Effectively, she took up two spaces and possibly caused a problem for anyone who may have parked in the row behind her.
I watched her gather up some possessions, get out of the car and walk away. (I made a note to add her to the terminally distracted characters in my fictitious Irish family, the O’Blivious clan.)
Of course I didn’t say anything to the woman. It just wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things, and anything I would say in that situation might not have been well-received.
Trying to err in George Saunders’ direction of kindness, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The parking spaces in our lot are ridiculously narrow, so it’s conceivable that she couldn’t see the lines. Maybe she was just having a bad morning, or was worried about a loved one.
As she walked away, I recalled the wise words of a former colleague of mine, a fellow ink-stained wretch of a reporter. One day I cornered him to gripe about some annoying behavior by a meddling, micro-manager editor.
I was just getting warmed up when my colleague offered his advice.
“Let it go,” he said. “Let it go.”