The Oxen are Slow, but the Earth is Patient

It was Sunday afternoon and we were waiting to turn right onto a divided highway. Vehicles kept coming in the right lane just frequently enough to extend our stay at the intersection.

“It doesn’t look like anyone is going to give us a break,” my wife said, “but we’re not in a hurry.”

“It’s a sign of the times,” said that voice in my head, the one that reads too much mainstream media.

The situation gave me pause to consider, and since I had the time to consider, sitting there at the intersection with my blinker on, I did.

If we only had a system for driver taxonomy, it might be possible to divide most drivers into two main families: Those who consciously contribute to the safe and efficient flow of traffic – and those who prefer to get where they are going before anyone else, by whatever means necessary.

I think there has probably always been such a division, even when the “drivers” were driving oxen to pull carts. “I have to get to the market before all the best goods are sold,” said one angry driver, laying the whip to his ox. “The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient,” said the farmer, shaking his head, bemused.

Not too many years ago, an observant driver seeing me waiting to turn onto a divided highway might have signaled a lane change and given me space in the right lane. The same driver, if he noticed he had a line of cars behind him going over the mountain, would have used one of the many turnouts available to facilitate such a courtesy. He wouldn’t dream of tailgating someone in front of him, especially when that driver was behind a line of cars impossible to pass safely.

But we all know that this kind of highway courtesy (and what is courtesy but another form of common sense) is increasingly rare, and those of us who have time to consider such things, might ask why.

“City folk,” says the voice, and he sounds just like the memorable line spat out by Jack Palance’s character, Curly, in the movie, “City Slickers.” The voice has obviously forgotten the number of years we spent living in cities, but he may be onto something.

If you have lived in a city, or spent much time on Interstate highways, then you are aware of the level of aggression on the roads there that is so common that it isn’t even considered aggression. When there are more people living in a given area, then there is less to go around of many of the things we value in the country. There is less space. There is less privacy. There is less time.

A friend from the city visited me for a long weekend. He spends several hours every day on 285 getting to work and back. As he was driving us to dinner one evening, I noticed that he attached himself to the bumper of every vehicle in front of us. When I mentioned this to him, I realized that he was totally oblivious (though he couldn’t understand why many of the cars in front of him were suddenly slowing down). He wasn’t in a hurry. He wasn’t angry; in fact, he was chatting away happily during the whole trip. It was simply that his behavior on the road was common, perhaps even necessary where he lives. (Tailgating can be a sign of impatience, but it also prevents the idiot whipping his ox from pulling his cart into the narrow space between you and the driver in front of you and causing you and all the drivers behind you to slam on the brakes.)

Life moves faster than it did, and not just in the cities. There are more of us everywhere, even in the country. Several generations now have been conditioned to expect a constant progression of “more and faster,” faster cars, faster computers, faster food. We are all a little fast and a little furious. A little courtesy would go a long way toward improving the flow of things, but the dominant paradigm, thanks to a culture steeped in marketing, is about competition, not cooperation.

“I think those drivers aren’t letting us in because they’re distracted,” said my wife. “They all seem to be looking down at something and not up at the road. They’re probably texting.”

She was probably right, and they won’t print what my “inside voice” had to say about that.

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