It’s been a while since my electronic friend Carolyn has sent me more than the occasional “like” or “I’m still trying to figure out why I don’t have more time to”. I was pleased, therefore, to receive the following longer text, and just in time for the new year. (Click for the pdf, or, to find previous texts of Carolyn’s, see the end of this post.)
When I began working, several decades ago now, there was a graduate student, Michael, who received some work-study money for pretending to be of use a couple of afternoons a week. The first to volunteer for any task, and seemingly good-heartedly, he would with similar good cheer go right off to do the task, and then nothing would get done. Someone was needed to reshelve all the journals. “I’ll do it,” he’d say, bumping into people in his eagerness to get out of his chair, and as he was leaving for the day, he’d say, “I’ll finish up tomorrow.” I’d happen to walk by the shelves where the journals had been stored, and as far as I could tell not a volume had been moved. And sure enough, the next week, my boss, with her kind of wince, would ask if I could help Michael with the task, which was to say move all the volumes myself. As I recall Michael was studying to be a dentist, or to get into dental school. I wonder how that worked out.
The other day someone from those old days, that old job, passed through town, and we had lunch, and she—a woman with a cackling laugh—recalled another aspect of Michael’s behavior that I had completely forgotten (and indeed still cannot remember). Apparently he was (for an American) an early eater of tofu, a great believer in and proselytizer for tofu, which tofu made him fart loudly and, of course, also led to there often being a certain odor in his neighborhood.
As I said I do not remember this, but it would seem to fit with another Michaelism that has gotten stuck in my mind. One day he confided to me that his psychotherapist was trying to get him to stop saying “I’m sorry”—to stop apologizing. (Was she trying to help him improve his self-esteem? As far as I could tell, given his capacities or lack thereof, his self-esteem was about as high as it could possibly be.)
It’s a mystery to me why this bit has stayed in my mind, but for some reason these memories connect with a sense I’ve been getting while driving on our highways (America’s highways). In my outmoded part of the country, the Interstates are, as a rule, two lanes each way. One slow lane and one fast lane, you might think, but it seems that in fact there are very few drivers who fit in either category. What’s that line from Prairie Home Companion—all the kids are above average? Except that doesn’t quite describe what’s going on on our highways. The problem is that if you stay in the right lane you actually have to do some work, some driving, because that’s the lane involved in exiting and entering, and where, if you should actually come upon a slow driver, one of our more senior citizens, you might well wish you could find a way to make your way safely into the left lane in order to pass. And of course that’s always nerve-wracking: trying to look in your mirrors and make judgments and decisions and remember to turn on your turn signal and not to turn too sharply, and all at 65 mph. And as if all this weren’t already somewhere between a lot and too much for your level of human being, . . . I mean, after doing all this work to get over to the left lane, are you really going to risk trying to make your way safely back into the right lane so as to let faster drivers go past? Probably not. The work is one thing, but then there’s the tension too, and your doctor’s already told you you have high blood pressure. You need to be careful. (Your doctor may not have said that, but you did.)
At least when it comes to highway driving, it’s clear what the solution is—the easy way out, it could be called. Find a spot for your car and you in the left lane, set your cruise control at whatever speed appeals to you, turn on the radio and relax. If you don’t look in your mirrors, your neck muscles won’t be strained and you won’t see faster drivers creeping right up on your bumper, flashing their lights, making waving motions and obscene gestures, trying to get you to move over to the right lane so that they can get past.
I have an idea that some of the left-lane zombies, as my daughter calls them, pride themselves on how they are enforcing the speed limit. Thanks to “my” car clogging up the fast lane, how many lives have been saved! (We might make that a question: Thanks to you and your car clogging up the fast lane, how many lives, do you think, have been saved? Do the math. Use pen and paper if you like. Guestimate. One life? If I could think that thanks to all the years I’ve spent on the highway, going to and from the mall, to this or that concert or play, taking my daughter to and from her ballet lessons—thanks to all this driving, and thanks to doing it in the fast lane with my cruise control set right at the speed limit, or perhaps 5 mph over if I can still remember the last time I had sex—thanks to all this I have been able, not only to frustrate overstressed mothers who were late to concerts or ballet lessons (and can remember all too well the last time they had sex), but if I could also save even just one human life, . . . Well, wouldn’t that, couldn’t that, shouldn’t that, make my life worthwhile? No? How about all the tofu I eat? My always being the first to volunteer?
Nasty stories. I must not be in a very good mood this week. I wonder why that could be? The guy I met online and then met for a cup of coffee? Perfectly sweet guy, not the least belly or oily comb-over, and positively bookish besides. He claimed that he could just about recite the entire Great Gatsby by heart. I might test him if I wanted. If I wanted I could come over to his house for lunch on Sunday and I could test him on Gatsby afterwards. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since”—that’s how it starts, he reminded me. He didn’t say any more, let’s say, but I had the sense he would tell me soon enough that he was on some mix of Xanax and Abilify and had been in and out of mental institutions for much of his life.
I think people think of me as a nice person. Not such a nice person that you would say “What a nice person!” Or, “Isn’t Carolyn sweet?” But on the right side of the tracks, let’s call it. One of “us,” the nicer people, the people with the lighter skin who imported all those other people to do a little bit of our work for us, but that was so long ago and they were glad to have the work and get free passage to the land of liberty in any case. (And now big government is trying to get us to pay for their health insurance! Or is it for our own? If my memory were better would I remember to tell more people that I can remember what a great country this used to be.)
I’m starting to wonder, too, if my goal in life isn’t to get one person besides my daughter and my late husband to recognize that I’m not really that nice. “Have you seen the tongue on that women!” Something like that. “Snakes wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”
I’ve heard it’s important to have a goal in life and to get involved in community activities, volunteer. I’m starting with the first one (the goal). For the moment I don’t see how it’s going to leave much room for the second.
For more from Carolyn
- My Best Friend
- A dream is the fulfillment of a wish
- Between walls and heads
- Of hunger, tricycles and continuing education
Knit tofu image is from The Craft Army blog.
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