Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Woman Who Bumped Her Head

So I was driving down the road the other day, and the sun is shining, and I’m thinking about lunch, and… 

Suddenly the car is moving sideways. I grip hard on the wheel as I hear the crunch of metal and I’m drifting up against the guardrail to a stop. This happens in a fraction of a second. The green smoke coming out of the dashboard and the airbags in the windshield make it hard to see. Whatever it was, I never saw it coming.

Luckily, I just scratched my leg. I've had worse cuts in the last year playing basketball. The other driver? She’s fine too. She bumped her head on the steering wheel, even though her car looked like it hit an oak tree. 

My car? The last time I saw it, the biggest forklift I've ever seen was carrying it away into a sea of broken vehicles. Two wrecks caused a scratch and a bump. That’s it. Surprisingly, at no point after my car was destroyed with me in it have I been angry. 

After being hit, my first thoughts had more to do with fear: “Did I just run a red light? Did I just kill somebody?” I think it was the sanest reaction I could have had, given I was totally clueless to what had just happened. 

But after kicking open my car door, and talking to two witnesses, turns out that I had just been driving down the road, legally, thinking about lunch. The woman in the other car ran a red light and t-boned me without so much as a tap of the brakes. I didn't know this when I was at her window seconds after the accident, asking if she was OK. 

After finding out what happened, you would think I could muster some anger toward her, but I can’t. None of it made me mad, even though she was driving illegally, with only a learner’s permit and no one else in the car. The single most important thing about her is that she isn't at the morgue, and that no one else is at the morgue because of me. I will remember her only as The Woman Who Bumped Her Head. 

For the few hours after the accident, I was at home, with lots of hugging and kissing, and thanking of God I wasn't hurt, and counting of blessings that it wasn't worse. Then, I talked to my insurance company. The woman assigned to my claim was very nice, totally on my side. She was trying to explain the process without confusing me too much. 

I was glad to talk to her, until she came to the part where she said "it was your fault, probably about 10-20% your fault, because you never saw the other vehicle." Huh? I’m partially to blame because I didn't see anything? It was in those moments spent on the phone, trying to comprehend, that I got defensive about my defensive driving. This is when I got angry. 

The reason it's my fault (at least partially) is a concept called comparative negligence, and even if you are dealing with the best employees of the best insurance company, willing to get you through an unpleasant process with a bare minimum of inconvenience, comparative negligence is one of the reasons why the insurance industry is so good at making people feel so bad. 

Comparative negligence is a way for the insurance companies to figure out who’s paying what when someone makes a claim. In certain situations, I can see its value. It likely wouldn't be on the books if the finest legal minds hadn't signed off on it. But there’s no way I could have avoided this accident, your honor.

Cars approach busy intersections all the time. That’s what makes them “busy.” Most of the cars stop, even though some of them are coming pretty fast. If I regularly drove as if every car that approached an intersection might run the light, I’d get hit by the cars behind me, regularly. 

Somebody told me that, under this statute, the only way I wouldn't be somewhat at fault in an accident is if I wasn't in my car at all, like a hit and run, or if the other party was an animal, like a deer. I guess the good news is I wasn't a deer running through that green light, or else it would have been 100 percent my fault. 

At the same time I’m wrapping my mind around that, I had to worry about the damage assessment dude giving me a fair actual value for my destroyed vehicle, or should I say, the value of the vehicle a split second before it became an $8,000 fixer-upper. I took the guy’s first settlement offer, and I picked up my check because I just wanted to move past it. 

What makes all of it so tiring is the process of assigning blame. I didn't want to blame anyone (least of all myself in this case). After tempting fate, the scratch on my leg and I wanted to go home and call it a day. Even if blame is parceled out in percentages, and recorded in legal documents, nobody ever wins. The blame game makes people feel bad, no matter which side you're on. 

Again, it’s all about moving past it. We all make mistakes, but the faster you can move past them, the better you feel, which might be the reason I’m not angry at The Woman Who Bumped Her Head. Would a psychiatrist come to this same conclusion, or would that person say I’m in denial, transferring my feelings of anger onto the insurance company? My wife’s theory is that I sustained an injury to the part of my brain that builds tolerance for corporate and legal bureaucracy. That lobe was weak and puny to begin with, so if it’s true, it wouldn't be any great loss. 

Will I ever be mad at the Woman Who Bumped Her Head? Even though I’m not a mental health professional, I’ll say it’s not likely. Will I ever stop being mad at the insurance company for telling me it was my fault? It will take some time, but probably. Will losing a car always feel exactly like the loss of my trusted blankie when I was five years old? I’ll leave that one to the shrink.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Don't Fear The Reader

I don’t read much. Not like I should. I’m not reading big, thick, heavy, complicated books of significance. I’m not reading the classics or the heady bestsellers, the books that make you feel like you've really accomplished something.

I read magazine articles – short magazine articles. I read snippets and sound bites and headlines and lead paragraphs. All this makes me interesting at parties, adept in short conversations, but if you corner me and ask about Russian literature, I may panic. I fear I lack depth. Is there a support group for this? Hello, my name is Jay, and I only read a book or two per year. 

I linger is what I do. I’m slow. I never have a bookmark and I overestimate my ability to remember what page I’m on. Losing my place means I lose interest and choose sleep instead. In contrast, my wife is a machine. She’s not a speed reader, but she chews through books, chapter after chapter. This is a smart woman with good habits I unfortunately don’t share. 

I use the party metaphor because I began worrying more about my literary deficiency after attending two parties. At party #1, at a friend’s place in St. Paul, I got into a discussion with a guy who was visiting from New York. He mentioned Isabelle Allende, and I naively asked, “Who’s Isabelle Allende?” He responded by telling me in a scolding tone that “Isabelle Allende is a VERY FAMOUS writer.” 

I responded with a silent, stern stare, but the little voice in my head said: "First of all, William Shakespeare is a VERY FAMOUS writer. Secondly, you’re pretty gutsy to be this insulting, with people you've never met before, on unfamiliar turf. If I were an obnoxious New Yorker, like yourself, I might have called you a &@!$% to your face, but I’m just a quiet Midwestern guy. Better I tell everyone at this party you have a communicable disease, and leave it at that. How ya like me now, Mr. Contagious?"

Isabelle Allende is a novelist from Chile, and the daughter of a former Chilean president, for all my fellow Midwestern hicks out there who wondered. 

At party #2, a guy I've known for years came up to me and asked me if I've read any good books. He talked at length about his reading list, and I scrambled to remember the last thing I read. While I managed to spit out something intelligible, I wondered why I was getting so irritated. Why on earth did this simple line of conversation make him appear so smart and make me feel so dumb? I’m sure he didn't mean it that way - the man was just looking for some reading recommendations. 

Clearly I have some issues that need attention, one of which may be that I should be reading more instead of going to all these parties. "If only I were a little smarter." How many times has that thought gone through our little heads? That’s what the desire to be better read is about for many of us, isn't it? 

Since we were kids, our parents and our teachers indoctrinated us with the belief that the smart kids were readers. Being told to read more was a warning meant to incite good behavior through fear, like "drink your milk," or "don’t crack your knuckles," or "stay away from those power tools." Not reading had harmful consequences. 

It’s undeniable that reading is a tremendous part of learning for children, but what about with adults well past their school years? Surely there isn't a direct correlation between adult reading and intelligence, no formula that states [(Reputable Novels – Romance Novels) x Age = IQ Score)]. 

Some people could read as a profession and not get any smarter or more interesting, and conversely, others don’t even read book covers and yet possess extraordinary minds. But, for many of us, that thought still lurks, "if only I were a little smarter."

Maybe that’s why there’s so much money being spent chasing the bigger, faster, smarter brain. Look at all the memory aids, omega-3 fish products and mental exercises on the market, all the speed-reading courses and supplements and snake oils exploiting our fears of dumbness…er, stupidity…whatever. 

The point is, there’s a lot of insecurity out there. I say let’s acknowledge it. Hello, my name is Jay, and I’m insecure! Let’s acknowledge it’s a competitive world out there, with a lot of pressure to be the best. But getting so worried leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. Remember that next time you watch an infomercial for Ginkgo Biloba Brain Enhancers on late-night TV. Instead of calling that number toll-free, tell yourself that a better financial position awaits, "if only I were a little smarter." 

This is the phrase that bears repeating – "smart is overrated." Those who went to college probably noticed that being smart helps you get by, but not as much as dedication or patience or doing something you love. Those who didn't go to college probably noticed the same thing in their chosen professions. 

Smart may be the necessary name of the game for students, when the GPA is the perceived yardstick of a young life, but it’s really not that important when compared to those other attributes. Past a certain age, smart will finish a crossword puzzle, and that’s about it. 

My wife and I have little readers now, and I hope lots of things for them. I hope they stay healthy, and I hope that they’re good to others. I hope they’re happy in the pursuit of their passions, I hope they work hard, and yes, I hope they’re smart as whips. 

But notice that smart isn't on the top of my list. Smart isn't the answer unto itself. Hey, I’m not saying don’t read more. Join the Book of the Month Club if it makes you feel better. Get ambitious and start your own book club. I’ll be right there with you, never completely comfortable that I’m reading enough books. 

But beware. John Milton (who wrote Paradise Lost, which I haven’t read) supposedly read so much he went blind. I can’t confirm that, but please read in moderation out there folks, just to be safe.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Serial Never Gets Stale

The week after our first child was born, my wife and I watched the entire first season of The West Wing on DVD. I tell myself we did it because our emotional vulnerability made us susceptible to a good drama. That, and newborns sleep a lot. Babies can, no lie, sleep 20 hours a day. Read Dr. Spock if you don’t believe me. 

We also have a son now, and I can’t remember if he was born during our viewing of The West Wing Season 4 or Season 5. After awhile, they all blend together and are hard to remember, aren't they? I’m talking about the TV shows, not the kids. 

The shock value of my son and daughter being born (nudity, bad language, adult situations, etc.) will not ever be forgotten. If we had it on home video, it would be rated NC-17. So why, when we admit with guilt what we were doing during those first precious days, are we not being chastised for our behavior? 

Instead of telling us we’re horrible people with out-of-whack priorities, people say things like, “Yeah, I've really been addicted to that new show Heroes,” or, “My son and I got caught up watching Prison Break last year,” and even, “I took time off work to finish watching the last two seasons of The Sopranos. Do you have coffee? Seems I forgot to sleep last night.” 

This collective insanity is the product of DVDs and Charles Dickens. Dickens, one of the most popular writers ever, released his stories in weekly or monthly serial form. The first installment of The Pickwick Papers was released in April of 1836, and the final installment of his last completed book, Our Mutual Friend, was released in November, 1865, 8 months before his death. 

It is said that American fans would stand on the docks in New York, waiting for his latest installments as they arrived by boat. Only after their serial release were Dickens’ stories compiled into books. 

Now, I’m not saying The West Wing is as good as Great Expectations, but doesn't this sound familiar? A very popular story is released weekly and is later compiled into a book. A very popular TV show is released weekly and later compiled on DVD. As a result, there are people waiting on front steps around the country for the mailmen to deliver the next Netflix, just like New Yorkers waiting for the boat to deliver the next chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Hollywood is the ultimate copycat. 

Let me confirm that my wife and I are not horrible people – we’re just like all the other sheep being sucked in by good shows in a really convenient format. People are suckers for a good story and always have been. The convenience factor makes it even harder to resist. There’s a lot of garbage on TV, but most of what’s being released on DVD is the best of the best. Notice the absence of any reality TV in box sets. 

I do worry that casual TV watching is dead. Unlike a basic sit-com, enjoying most of these new shows depends upon seeing the episode before it. The Sopranos, Oz, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Entourage, The Office, Prison Break, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Heroes; I've heard they’re great, but I can’t just randomly sit down and watch. I wouldn't have any idea what was going on. I might as well watch soap operas in Spanish, or worse, legislative committee hearings on C-SPAN. 

The categories are being redrawn. What kind of viewer are you? 

The Completely Obsessed Viewer - I watch when my shows air, rearranging my life to accommodate the schedule, never daring to break the routine. I camp out in front of Best Buy the night before any of the DVD box sets are released. I live for of the “bonus” or “extras” disks, and other than the trips to Best Buy, I don’t get out much. 

The Binge Viewer – I try to see the shows when they air, but I’m more focused on watching the DVDs in grueling marathon viewing sessions. I invite my friends, but most stop coming because they can’t endure it. Mail sits unopened. So do the window blinds. Appearance and personal hygiene during these sessions is a problem. 

The Casual Viewer – as stated before, moderation is no longer possible. 

The Non-Viewer - I give up completely because I have no idea what’s going on. I try occasionally to watch, but it is no use. I tell people that watching DVD box sets is a fad no different than collecting Beanie Babies, or following a low-carb diet, but people don’t listen. I live a normal, fulfilling life, and still, I feel left out. 

See? You’re either in or you’re out. You know or you don’t know. There is no in between. For us, I fear that our West Wing experience is a sign that our fate is sealed. Television has us in its clutches. 

Like the cast of Lost, we are in a strange world from which we cannot escape. Help us. We are afraid of what will happen if we don’t press the (play) button. We’re getting less and less interesting as people, less and less functional. Help us to live in the real world again. Help!