“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Franz Kafka

Busy Signals

Mark McGuinn

Mark McGuinn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a ton of music on my computer. I love music, and listen to it while I work or play. But I have so much, it’s difficult to navigate sometimes. I rarely need to hear THAT song, so my solution is to order the songs alphabetically and play that way. Straight through, A to Z. Or A to Busy in the last couple of months in my case…I told you I have a lot of music. Playing the music in order does more than satisfy my latent OCD tendencies. It’s a way to shuffle without getting lost. I never know what I’m going to hear–reggae? classical? pop/rock? country? jazz? international? So it stays fresh, something I’ve noticed doesn’t happen with playlists. At a certain point, kind of like with most commercial radio these days, you already know what the next song is going to be.

Anyway, I bring this up, because I just heard a song–“Busy Signal” off Mark McGuinn‘s 2001 debut album–and it struck me, well, two things actually struck me: first what the heck ever happened to Mark McGuinn? but secondly, and more important for my discussion here, does anyone under the age of 30 even know what a busy signal IS anymore? It seems fairly obvious to me the answer would be a resounding no.

I would also argue that losing that busy signal has cost us something as a society. (Insert creaky gramma voice here: When I was your age…) Seriously, those of us who grew up with a busy signal learned a lesson that the subsequent generation has not. While I’m not willing to lay the death of civilization as we know it to call-waiting, there is something to be said for the power of the busy signal. First of all, it taught that the latter caller was not the end-all, be-all of the universe. Guess what? Someone else was first, you have to wait. I have noticed, over an almost thirty-year career of working with the public that this has manifested itself outside the realm of the phone. In a previous era, when engaged with one customer, the second would walk up, stop a certain distance away that let me know that s/he needed something while at the same time being a respectful distance that let me know, they were politely waiting their turn. Today? Not so much. You can be obviously engaged with a customer or employee (I’ve observed this from both sides of the counter) and another person will walk up, and without so much as a sheepish look, start spouting about their needs.

I’ve developed a way of handling this, from both sides of the counter. If I am the employee, I smile as brightly as I can and explain that I was helping this customer who had arrived first and would be with the interloper shortly. Being on the other side of the counter is waaaay more fun. “Oh, I’m so sorry, how rude of me to have been here first. That was so inconsiderate on my part. Please, by all means interrupt, I just know that YOUR time is soooooo much more valuable than mine or anyone else’s. No really, you are obviously so much more important than a mere mortal like myself, take my time and my sales associate. It’s only right.” I can’t tell you how many (not always surreptitious) high-fives I have shared with frustrated sales people.

I realize this makes me sound like a crank. I also realize that EVERY generation thinks that the one that comes after is a bunch of ill-mannered ingrates. However, this behavior is cross-generational. I’ve seen it from the X-, Y-, Z- and whatevertheheckthey’recalledthesedays-generation as well as the “Greatest” generation. It seems to have infected the society from top to bottom. Cure? Who knows…I don’t see the busy signal making a comeback anytime soon. And since we still insist on giving everyone a trophy, everyone thinks they’re special. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, except that even though everyone gets the same trophy, everyone still thinks that they are MORE special…

Moving Violations

I had an unusual experience on the road recently. Was driving along minding my own, when a large SUV flew out of a parking lot and cut me off, causing me to slam on my brakes, etc. Sadly, this is not the unusual part. As the SUV turned into the lane, they had to slam on THEIR brakes as there was a truck stopped in the lane to turn left. Not in the turn lane mind you, but the lane lane. Again, not the unusual part. The SUV driver, of course, availed themself of their horn. Once all was clear, we got to the next intersection, which has two left turn lanes, which allowed me to pull alongside the SUV. Rather than pull all the way forward, I stopped to express my displeasure with the driver. Again, sadly not unusual. I did not use hand gestures (ok, that IS unusual, but not my point), but simply mouthed the now-ubiquitous “REALLY?!?” Get this. The driver rolled down their window. And APOLOGIZED. No. Seriously. It happened. She made some gesticulations which translated that she was late getting back to work from her lunch and…APOLOGIZED again. I made gestures indicating acceptance of the apology and then…WE. BOTH. MOVED. ON. Crazy, huh?!?

There’s a lot to be said for an apology. If sincere, and I do believe the other driver was sincere, as was my acceptance, it does a lot to diffuse a situation. It also allows for that moving on process. Something that no one in Washington seems willing to do. Of course, it’s not just Washington, better scribes than I have described the me-first-gimme-gimmes in which an entire society is now entrenched. In the immortal words of Louise Sawyer, “you get what you settle for.” The chicanery in Washington is no more and no less than a reflection of the people who produce it. Uneducated voters produce uncouth representatives. And just to be clear, by uneducated, I mean about the candidates and the issues, not unschooled. Most voters FEEL so rushed that they will vote for the loudest ad or, worse yet, straight party line. I say FEEL rather than ARE, because it’s just that. We all still get twenty-four hours in each and everyday, but our choices in how we spend that time impose (sometimes) great restrictions.

This rushing has helped to create a society in which everyone feels that their time is more valuable than anyone else’s. We’ve all seen the results: whether it’s the person who cuts you off in traffic or the one who cuts in front of a long line with “I just have a question,” as though that is not the reason everyone else is in line. I’m not sure, but I almost feel as this may be some kind of competitive impulse. It seemed to arise around the same time that NASCAR became more than just a pastime for under-toothed, over-sauced rural enthusiasts. I’m not ready just yet, however, to blame Jeff Gordon for the downfall of American society as we know it. Kyle Busch, perhaps, but that’s another story…

So, regardless of how we got here, the question remains: how do we get back to civility? How do we culturally get back to a situation in which a heartfelt apology is a sign of strength, rather than weakness? Our friends from the East might have something to say about this (no, not NYC, THE East). There is a lot to be said for slowing down and living in the moment. Such as when one does receive an apology, don’t blow it off with a flippant “no problem” or worse yet, “whatevs”. Take the time to listen to the apology and actually accept it sincerely. In simplest terms, that’s called positive reinforcement. If we start sincerely accepting the apologies given, and actually allow the healing of egos that comes along with that acceptance, we may start to see more apologies. If one takes the time and effort to sincerely apologize, they become more mindful of their actions. One who is more mindful of their actions, is less likely to do something for which they need to apologize.

So try it. If someone gets mad at you for something you did, apologize. And mean it. See where that gets you. Perhaps it will get you to a conversation in which anger is diffused and true communication can occur. Something not possible with a middle finger or four letter words, no matter how good that might feel at the time…