Courtesy is Not a Word on the Road


ARI FELD TOLD me about his bike ride home from work, the Santa Cruz pier shimmering miles ahead. He’d sliced down the hill and the air moved over him, cool then warm, and as he bombed past a stop sign, some dude in an enormous turbo-stroke diesel pickup job with a lift-kit and tires hollered, “Run that red light.” Ari felt like he was good at loving the speed, at accepting it, at being thrilled by it, at dodging the potentially brutal tumble ahead and then pedaling harder.

When he got home, Ari put his bike away, walked to buy some beer, and called his best friend Nart, who was in the middle of giving his infant son a bath. “Sit down while you play with your weenie,” Nart told his son, and mentioned to Ari that on Facebook there were some picture of Nart and Ari in what Nart called “a compromising position.”

“What did we compromise on?” Ari said. “Hopefully not quality.”

On Wednesday’s episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” a TV show about women who force their daughters to dance sexily for strangers, a mom named Melissa said of her daughter, “I feel like her and I are the same person. We live the same life and we are best friends and I just feel like that is me on stage,” and then this afternoon when Noy Holland picked up her daughter at school, she made plans to go to the movies tomorrow night with her daughter and three other 12-year-olds. Did Noy have to come with them? her daughter wanted to know. Could she just drop them off? Could she at least sit in the back of the theater? Sure, yes, Noy remembered all that. When your parents are around, you begin to feel as if you are doing an impersonation of yourself.

A stressful thing about children was how much potential they had, and how much new and conflicting research there was about how to enable them to best realize that potential. You couldn’t beat them into practicing the clarinet, not anymore, so many parents simply watched their children more than their own parents had watched them, to make sure the children’s opportunities for enrichment were not being squandered. These parents were likened to helicopters.

Many people today circulated an Onion article, “Cool Dad Raising Daughter On Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out Of Touch With Her Generation,” in which the father presses Miles Davis LPs on his daughter and throws her a Danger Mouse-themed birthday party, and today the blog STFU Parents called for an end to parents’ Facebook postings about their children’s potty training progress such as, “On Monday J made stinky potties in the potty, on Tuesday J made stinky potties in the potty and TODAY J made stinky potties in the potty… now if we could add wet potties, we might be on our way to training him.” They also called for an end to photos of their children on the toilet, and especially an end to photos of the poop itself.

Ari came home with the beer in a good mood and looked, according to his wife Sara, quite handsome.. He was so confident today. Sara considered putting down her book and taking off his pants, but waited instead until after dinner, a shepherd’s pie-like dish called rumpledethumps, a traditional dish eaten in the Celtic British Isles for the festival of Lugnasa. Basically, you mashed potatoes mixed with steamed leaks, cabbage and broccoli along with lemon thyme and butter and a cheddar cheese topping, broiled. Legend had it that after the first bite of this dish all in attendance were supposed to shout, “Death to the Red Hag,” thusly warding off the specter of starvation.

As he cooked, Ari blasted All Things Must Pass, the George Harrison triple disc. When Ari was in college and Harrison died, Ari’s mom had sent him the record on vinyl. Harrison was the Beatle Ari most identified with—the quiet one, the yearning one…

Wait. No. Hold on.

Harrison was last night. Tonight, Sara put on the Black Keys record, Brothers, which sounded like a hip-hop or R&B record with serious I’m-a-man white-boy urban-blues vocal stylings and songs with names like “Never Give You Up” and “Too Afraid to Love You.” This was a major record. It made you feel sexy and sad at the same time, like the first five minutes of a beer buzz on an empty stomach.

And when I asked Ari what he was most worried about, he said, “Fuck, man, make that your book right there. My worry centered on my ability to perform as a teacher, a partner, and a creative being. The vicissitudes of such worry draw out more vicissitudes and let’s just say that it coalesced into a sort of bowel-frapping generalized worry that when combined with caffeine can induced a sort of manic high, but mostly made it feel like I’d been applying oil based paints to a poorly-ventilated basement apartment.”

Cambry Pardee meanwhile left theology class with nun and fellow student Sister Nelida, who was looking for a new apartment, and Cambry suggested she check Craigslist, which she’d never heard of. After they parted, Cambry second-guessed his wisdom in having recommended Craigslist (“Dom feeder looking for eager throat”) to a nun, but if she stuck to the right pages she’d likely be okay.

Today the heat in Phoenix, AZ rose to 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the Dow Jones industrial average fell almost 400 points, the broader S&P index dropped 37.20 points or 3.19%, the big banks were expected to report third quarter losses, fewer people were using FedEx (one of those ominous indicators), the VIX “fear gauge” got up to 18%, it seemed that maybe another recession was bubbling, and on this day in history, Coronado died bankrupt in Mexico City having slaughtered hundreds of Native Americans and never having found a single one of the Seven Cities of Gold. We were in what the New York Times called a “global economic slowdown.”

As the world market tumbled, international investors bought dollars, so the dollar rose in value while everything else declined, even gold. (That’s the phrase reporters kept using: “even gold.”) Gold tended to rise in value when markets were down, as people put their faith in something shinier and more tangible, but this time it was just the opposite. “In a perverse sort of way, [the drop in the price of] gold is showing why you buy it—in case of an emergency to raise cash,” said James Steel of HSBC.

In a conversation with Jon Stewart, Ex-Governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm said a big problem with the American job market was that each state (and each state governor) competed with the other states to attract corporate business. “That’s not a very good national strategy,” she said. “You’re just moving businesses from one state to another—all through tax incentives. You’re really racing to the bottom inside the country rather than competing and inviting the globe to invest in the United States.” Granholm told of multinational corporate CEOs who said they loved to do business with the Republic of Singapore. Why Singapore?

Singapore has got an economic development strategy where they’ve identified their strengths as a nation, they are targeting foreign investment companies to come to build off of those strengths so that people can be hired. They say, ‘When you come here, we’ll give you streamlined permitting, we’ll give you access to capital so you can get your technology and your equipment in the ground, we’ll link you up with a supply chain so that you’ve got a cluster around you.’ They have a strategy.

For America to be globally competitive, Granholm argued that there needed to be a partnership between the states and the federal government. “In Singapore,” she said, “it’s called the Golden Triangle, where they…” Stewart clenched his jaw and grinned, and Granholm, without missing a beat, said, “Stop it,” and got a big laugh. To the audience, she said, “You know where he’s going, right?” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Singapore, a nation of 63 islands off the coast of Malaysia, bore the title of The Most Densely Populated Nation in the World at a concentration of 7,315 people per square kilometer, yet Singapore had the lowest infant mortality rate in the world (0.231%) and boasted the 5th highest life expectancy (avg. 82.14) while the US held spot #34 at 78.37, and the #1 spot went to Monaco with an average age of 89.73.

Many of Singapore’s legal provisions were considered, by American standards, to be fucked up, which Urban Dictionary item-writer Dawn defines as, “something that’s messed up, or something that didn’t go right” (Examples include: “That’s really fucked up!” and “You completely fucked up this time!”), such as the criminalization of littering, jaywalking, gum-chewing, porn, gay sex, and failing to flush the toilet.

And by European standards, it was considered fucked up that an illiterate Malaysian named Yong Vui Kong had been sentenced to death at the age of 19 for being found in possession of 47 grams of heroin. Today, he remained in prison, waiting to die, having completed a series of 12 letters in which he expressed regret, acceptance, and appreciation, as well as bafflement over the inner workings of the court system that put him on death row.

I already knew of Vong’s story, having read up on his arrest, though I could not say just how my web travels led me to him. Likely I had simply followed a link to another link to another, allowing for a pleasant drift of information that far more resembled a lazy river inner tube ride than the wave “surf” now used largely ironically to describe the experience of web consumption (see also: Information Superhighway), though it had yet to be replaced by another, less self-consciously cool word. And although I lacked the reach to take a good idea viral, it seemed to me that we ought to call the experience web munching.

Today, the blogger Taza of “Rockstar Diaries” posted a series of photos of her family, including several photos of her and her baby, and one photo of her husband, Josh, in a meditative pose and asked her readership, “how impressive is josh being all centered doing yoga?” She explained, “i was practicing some yoga poses and he was all, ‘let me see if i can do that.’ he makes me so proud! love him.”

Her readers replied, “Precious!!!!!!!!♥♥”

and “Precous”

and “So precious and beautiful”

and “to adorable for words!”

and “so cute”

and “Too cute!”

and “Completely adorable!”

and “I’m totally in love with your family! You’re all so cute and wonderful”

and “oh my goodness. you look so happy”

and “I love the beauty that is your life”

and “wow, he is on his way to becoming a yoga master”

and “That is seriously impressive that Josh can do that yoga pose!”

and “aw. geez. too sweet for words. i’m envious”

and “you’re such a lucky person!”

and “if you wanted to meet up for a little lunch or dessert, i would love it! but i know you are so busy and totally understand if you wont be able to:)”

and “your wood floors are so dreamy!”

and “these pictures make me want a baby”

and “Babies as cute as your baby make my ovaries ache”

and “i can’t wait for one day my husband and I have our baby in our arms”

and “I can’t wait till I have kids myself ^^ But I guess I’ll have to wait some more :p”

and “I need to start doing yoga, then maybe I could have as good of a bod as you”

and “Naomi, you have a perfect life. Hands down. And you probably have the cutest and prettiest baby on the planet!”

This morning, Lesley Yalen got an email from her husband Brian that linked to a news story, “Man to Feed Exclusively on 162 Gallons of Wife’s Breast Milk.” The couple, Katie and Curtis, were to post their findings onto Today (Day 3 of the experiment), Curtis wrote, “I am really enjoying the milk now and am always surprised how each glass tastes different.”

Later while eating Mexican food, Brian read a New Yorker article about fashionable bulletproof clothing. It begins with the writer, David Owen, getting shot on purpose while wearing a suede jacket with bulletproof panels in the lining. “The jacket felt a bit heavy,” wrote Owen, “but pleasantly so—like a dentist’s X-ray apron,” and Brian thought he wouldn’t mind getting shot like that.

Today, both “Machine Gun Preacher” (29% on Rotten Tomatoes) and “Dolphin Tale” (83%) were about to be released to theaters, and their distributors, Alcon Entertainment and Relativity Media, worked to pitch the movies to Christian audiences while playing down the Christian themes in mainstream advertising.

To preachers across the country, Relativity sent suggestions for “Dolphin Tale” sermon tie-ins such as “The birds and the fish point to God as the creator of all.” To reach Christian homeschoolers, Relativity provided a curriculum guide so parents might work “Dolphin Tale” into their lessons, and pitched the movie to guys like Nathan Clarkson of the Homeschool Movie Club, who insisted his readers “make a statement to Hollywood to rally behind movies that  ‘get it right’ and tell great stories without all the junk, twaddle, and moral compromise!”

In an LA Times article about the campaigns, the marketing teams, careful not to come off as cynical, stressed inspiration and universality, while the Times’ inside headline read simply, “Niches are targeted.”

The bestselling book of all time is an anthology of stories, essays, rules, lists, and letters called the Bible, which was officially compiled by a council of 255 men and no women in Italy in the 16th century, then was declared holy by the Catholic Church. The Bible begins with two conflicting accounts of how the world began, and the second of the stories focused on God’s creation of the first two humans, Adam and Eve.

On NPR’s Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan asked guests just how integral the Adam and Eve creation story was to Christianity, particularly now that DNA evidence proved that there was no way for humankind to have the genetic diversity that exists if we’d all sprung from the same two people. “We can’t possibly get the original population to below about 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history,” said religion correspondent Barbara Hagerty,” and so some Christians were now saying that okay, maybe Adam and Eve were not the only people around, maybe they were the king and queen of a bunch of unmentioned people, and their poor decision in the Garden of Eden ruined things for everyone.

A caller, Peter, was unthreatened by science’s complication of the Christian creation myth. “You want to know the who and the why of creation, read the Bible,” he said. “If you want to know the when and the how, read a science book.”

Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (the one considering dropping “Southern”), disagreed. A far-right fundamentalist, Mohler believed that the Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faiths were “demonstrations of demonic power,” that it was a “shocking reality” that some Christian couples believed it was okay not to have children, that birth control was an “early abortion,” that Christians should avoid yoga, and that Christians who defended homosexuality were “pathetic.” Mohler explained to Neal Conan that the story of Adam and Eve needed to be literally true because “the apostle Paul twice grounds the story of the Gospel in the linkage between Christ as the second Adam, understandable in terms of why he came and what he did for us.” In other words, if we take Adam off the table, we lose Jesus too.

The Bible was Albert Mohler’s favorite book, and he insisted that neglecting to defer to the book on every matter was an affront to God. And so science, like Islam, did little but get in the way of a higher truth. “You’re either going to accept that the Bible gives us the authoritative word concerning the entirety of our understanding of things relative to who we are as human beings, what God did in creating the world and what God did for us in Christ.” He did not offer an “or” to his “either,” but instead continued, “If the Bible is not the authoritative source for that and instead has to be corrected by modern science, then the Bible is just there for our manipulation, and quite frankly, the Gospel is there for constant renegotiation.”

Liberal Bible scholar Daniel Harlow got so mad at Mohler while on the show that he kept compulsively interrupting, then apologizing: “Oh, I’m sorry, okay. I was getting carried away.”

The most popular Christian symbol was a death penalty-by-way-of-torture device called a cross, and people wore the cross around their necks and hung it on their walls, and often enjoyed pointing out that the contemporary equivalent would be the electric chair, and wouldn’t it be interesting if we wore that around our necks? But this symbol too was outdated, as the electric chair had been replaced with the lethal injection, and unfortunately for the cross-section of execution and fashion, a syringe would be symbolically muddled because syringes were administered by junkies for fun and by doctors for health.

The second most popular Christian symbol was a fish composed of two intersecting curves, and today the Earth was over two decades past Peak Fish, the point at which the fish of the world could not repopulate fast enough to catch up with human demand, and later tonight I called in an order at my favorite sushi restaurant and ordered for myself some raw tuna and salmon. My order was an example of what economist Alfred Kahn called the tyranny of small decisions, in which individual people (or businesses or industries or nations) make decisions that are seemingly in the individuals’ best interest but lead to an outcome nobody wants.

When I later drove to claim my fish at the sushi restaurant, I first tried to park in the lot beside Northampton Brewery, and as I turned right into the lot, a group of four middle-aged women was about to cross the street from the left. I saw the women and eased into the lot by what I considered a wide berth, but one of them, likely buzzed from the brewery, shouted at me as she and her friends passed behind. From inside my car, windows up, it was all just syllables to me, but the message was that I should have stopped and cheerfully waved them on. Her friends smiled, embarrassed, though maybe they felt as entitled as she did, maybe they’d just toasted a couple rounds of Mean Green IPAs to celebrate the completion of their treatise, In Defense of Pedestrianism.

Northampton was, after all, a pedestrian city. People just stepped out into traffic and expected cars to stop, and the cars nearly always did. This local policy was wrapped up in an eco-consciousness that roughly translated to: Why would walkers stop for cars? Cars were the problem; feet were the solution. Bikes too. If you had the funds and desire in this town, you could hire young people on bikes to pick up your garbage and tow it behind them to the dump.

Still, the policy was taken too far, I felt, when drivers, caught up in local pride and driver’s guilt, would come to a sudden halt at a Main Street crosswalk if on the sidewalk there was a pedestrian who was even considering crossing. The driver would wave cheerfully at said pedestrian and would bid—urge—the pedestrian on, holding up traffic for two blocks.

I could have ignored the woman and proceeded into the lot, but instead I stopped my car as the woman spoke and locked eyes with her, nodding slightly. What I wanted my stare to communicate was, Look, lady: Don’t even play like I was going to hit you.

Earl Trongeau remembered in the St. Petersburg Times an era “when cars used their directional lights,” “when the cars would drive straight in their lanes,” when you could drive through an intersection “without thinking a car would go through the red light and hit you,” and “when truck drivers were the best and kindest drivers on the highways.” Today, Trongeau concluded, “courtesy is not a word on the road. It’s gone!”


About Gabe Durham

Gabe Durham's debut novel, FUN CAMP, come out May 31 from Publishing Genius Press. Pieces of the book have appeared in over 25 journals and magazines, including The Good Men Project, Corium, and Necessary Fiction. Gabe lives in Los Angeles, tweets @Gabe Durham, and holds it down at Gather Round Children.
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2 Responses to Courtesy is Not a Word on the Road

  1. Pingback: New Essay Up at the Weeklings: Courtesy is Not a Word on the Road | Gather Round Children

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