We’ve all gone crazy lately. ~Elton John
He was repeating the tired cliché to himself again, as he drove down the familiar and brutally cold stretch of interstate. How was it already the first day back to work after the holidays?
Time didn’t just fly, it seemed to blast forward, barely visible, like a starship moving at warp speed in one of those space movies everyone couldn’t get enough of, but which he could barely sit through. (He liked them well enough, he supposed, but they were too long. Who had the patience, not to mention the lack of nerves in their glutes, to sit in one place for over 3 hours?! If he was going to be unmoving in one place for that amount of time, he would be horizontal, or at least deeply reclined, and the smart money would pick him to be sound asleep.)
Shifting his position on the seat slightly, he flexed his still-cold hands against the steering wheel. As he stared at the sparkling streaks of brine just visible in the lanes ahead of him, a signal that what passed for a winter storm in this part of the country was expected, he thought of a photo he had taken 14 or so months earlier. It was one which, for some unknown reason, kept popping up every time he opened his online photo storage account. He liked the photo very much, and couldn’t offhand think of another photo he’d RATHER see each time he logged on, but the fact that “Big Data” used some algorithm to determine what photos he would likely want to view irked him. Regardless of the fact that they were usually right. Like most people these days, he had a tolerate-hate relationship with these companies.
In the photo, his then-4-year-old son lay next to their Christmas tree in near-darkness, the only illumination provided by the tree’s multicolored lights behind the boy. While he was far from a good photographer – and this photo, as per usual, taken with a several-versions-behind smartphone – the lights of the tree were enchanting, and the pose and repose of his son, lying on his side and looking at some toy or other, his bony frame silhouetted in the darkness against the tree’s red and green and yellow lights, a sort of bored resignation on his barely-visible face as he waited for Christmas to REALLY come, made for a truly stellar shot.
At least in his mind. But, what did he know? He knew only slightly less about the art and science of photography than he did about the actual science upon which he had built his career. Which is to say not much at all.
He remembered clearly taking that photo. Thanksgiving it was, the year before last. He recalled with equal clarity thinking, as he looked at the photo for the first time on his phone’s screen, that another holiday season was upon them, that is was likely going to blast on by, and that, try as he might, he was not going to be able to slow it down enough to enjoy it. A sort of resignation began to creep in, and looking back, he couldn’t be sure it ever really left him in the time since.
And, here he was, with not one but two holiday seasons in life’s rearview since that realization, and both such a blur that he neither enjoyed them or loathed them, but was simply present for them.
Being present in his own life seemed about all he was capable of lately.
A smattering of red lights in front of him signaled a bottleneck in traffic, one typical for this stretch of road. There was no reason for the predictable slowdown, not really. Just a few entrance and exit ramps grouped in relatively close proximity. If people knew how to merge – REALLY knew how to merge – there would be no slowdown here, even at peak traffic times. He suspected that half of all traffic issues in the United States would be alleviated if people just knew how to merge. Maybe more.
Of course, while he wouldn’t consider himself an overly stellar driver, he did have a good driving record. And, perhaps with some or even much irrationality – he’d be the first to admit – he liked to think his clean driving record was largely due to his ability to merge. It was one of the few life skills he gleaned from his grandfather.
His grandfather. Talk about time flying.
As he began to pass through the bottleneck, he and his fellow commuters picking up speed, he glanced at the clock on the dash radio and briefly considered what might be awaiting him at work. Besides roughly a thousand emails, there would be the required and customary chatter about how the holidays were, about where people spent them, about what gifts they gave or received, what fun things they did with their kids, how much food they gorged themselves on, etc, etc, ad nauseam.
And despite how uncomfortable this little social dance made him, he knew he’d participate, and, in many cases, initiate as well.
“Happy New Year, Julie. . .How’d the holidays treat you, John? . . .You stay warm enough, Mike, hardy-har?! . . .Too short, as always, that’s for sure! . . . Chim, Chim, Cher-ee!”
To be sure, these were, for the most part, good people, and he DID care, or at least felt some compunction toward caring, generally enjoying their company. But he was an introvert, a “Highly Functional Introvert,” or something along those lines. He even had a recent employer-sponsored test report to prove it! (Those things should be criminal in the workplace, thanks very much. Not that anyone asked his opinion on the matter. “Step right up, don’t be shy! Just answer a few questions and voila! You’ll be assigned an emotional intelligence code and/or color, effectively placing you inside yet another tidy box! It’s not only fun, it’s mandatory!)
The dance. All part of the dance.
The dance was exhausting to people like him. He wished he liked it, wished he was energized by it like so many others seemed to be; life would surely be easier. But instead, it left him feeling tired and a tad resentful. And something else, something akin to inadequate, but not quite that.
As he approached his exit, he thought again of his grandfather and wondered at how his words of advice on merging had stuck with him through all of the intervening years. Perhaps it was that his grandfather rarely handed out advice, at least not actively or verbally, but seemed to believe that anyone who owned a Bible and who wasn’t a complete fool could understand how to live a responsible life; why did he need to say these things out loud?
Brilliant, Pop. Why indeed?
Sulking, unsure exactly where the current, rising tide of irritation was coming from, he sat hunched over the wheel as he approached the light at the bottom of the ramp. A group of impressive, deadly-looking icicles hanging from the roof of one of the many industrial buildings which were crammed into this section of town caught his eye. He reflected not for the first time that he had no earthly idea what the company who operated out of that building did. He THOUGHT they either manufactured mini-blinds or made some kind of additive for pesticides, but he had never been curious enough to find out. He made a mental note to Google the name on the side of the building, but even before he had repeated the name to himself in order to help in the recall, he knew he’d never look it up.
It didn’t matter what the company did, at least not to him. Like his own company, which also occupied one of these large and nearly-identical metallic monstrosities, it was surely going to be something he had no real interest in, and which would likely disappoint him if and when he finally did discover it. However, he was fairly certain he’d Google something like, “People killed by falling icicles” instead. Way more interesting.
His brief reverie was broken by the horn emanating from the car behind him. The guy – it was a guy, he could see in the rearview mirror, a middle-aged man in a red knit cap with a bird on it, some sports team no doubt, the man (and perhaps the bird as well) hunched in a groggy post-holiday posture he himself had adopted for the drive – was not simply honking, but leaning on the horn, blaring it, his hands raised in the standard “what are you doin’, ya moron?” gesture that was one degree separated from the other, more popular, single-hand roadway salute. Looking up, he saw the light was green. A split second later, it turned yellow.
Punching the gas pedal, his SUV darted through the intersection, three of the cars behind him doing the same. The irate-looking man who had blasted the horn at him blasted past him as well, throwing his hands up again as he passed, his irrational speed apparently his attempt to make up the twenty or so seconds he had lost sitting at a green light. Watching the man’s car retreat, he was tempted to make the infamous single-handed salute to the back of the guy’s head, but he resisted, and the compulsion waned. Like so many other things he was tempted to do, it “wasn’t him,” and had he given in to the impulse, it would have only served to further darken his mood.
Turning into the parking lot which serviced the series of buildings his company occupied, he tried to shake himself free of the vague-but-growing gloom hanging over him, a grey cloud he picked up who-knows-where, but which was certainly made worse by the frustrating commute. He couldn’t afford to start the week – the YEAR! – already annoyed; his experience confirmed that things would only head downhill if he entered the office in a funk.
As he walked down the long sidewalk from his car to the front entrance of the building which housed his office, he pulled his too-thin jacket tighter against the brutal wind, and his thoughts turned again to his grandfather. He suddenly imagined his face more clearly and accurately than he had in years, his round, weathered features always betraying little of what thoughts might be contained behind them. The fact that he was thinking of the man again began to worry him a bit. He had probably not thought of his grandfather half a dozen times in the years since his death, and now the man’s memory seemed greedy for his attention.
He wondered briefly at this, but his thoughts returned sharply to work as he approached the glass front doors, noting that the building, which by this time should have had at least the front lobby and a few of the front offices lit, was completely dark. And perhaps more germane to his current mood, as he got closer, he could see that within the confines of the small, darkened lobby, several of his co-workers stood in clumps, some with styrofoam cups, most chatting amiably.
Another power outage. And on one of the coldest days of the season thus far. AND on a morning when he’d rather retreat to his office before having to interact with others.
Sighing, he opened one of the glass doors and stepped inside.
Let the dance begin.