When Cars Come Alive

The pediatrician told us to go to the emergency room. My son's asthma attack wasn't so bad that we needed an ambulance, but the doctor didn't have the magnesium sulfate that an emergency room would. So--it was so many years ago, but still fresh in my memory!--on an icy narrow one-way seat in Queens, I buckled my toddler into his four-point harness, as a row of cars honked at me. I filled with rage. But I stayed focused. I drove ahead. When we reached the service road, the car behind me screeched, pulled alongside me, and I saw a middle finger through the foggy glass.

I try not to honk. For one thing, I wonder if the person in front of me is going through a private struggle in which one honk of the horn may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I sometimes make it a contest for myself: How long can I hold out until I press that horn? I've gotten pretty good at it. I consider it a badge of honor that will filter down to the way I run my business. The way I run my life. On the good days.

My commute has diminished tremendously in the past few years, and I am healthier for it. Still, I find myself in my car every day, many times a day, and I can't help philosophizing. Don't so many cars' tail lights and bumpers make the most amazing anthropomorphized Kabuki expressions? Those "faces" on the back of cars seem to turn angry when they stop short. And I laugh to myself thinking, when a Jeep is tailgating me, "Oh, ya gonna get up in my grill?" But, when I'm driving in my neighborhood, I am doubly conscious of my behavior, because, what if I'm a jerk to someone I actually like?

People are so often their worst selves in their car, maybe because the technology becomes a buffer and anonymizer that allows us to dehumanize the driver and just see an angry-faced steel adversary (would things be different if cars were made entirely of unbreakable non-reflective glass?). Louis C.K., in his "Oh My God" HBO special, had a memorable bit about how his values change in his car. That he shouts things he would never say to another human being, except from his car. Which, as he points out, is a dangerous weapon.

When I don't honk my horn, when I don't tailgate or cut off another car, I celebrate later. I hope that little victory means that, should I receive an alarming phone call or email that causes me anxiety, I am in control of my emotions enough not to send an angry message--text, tweet, blog article, email--without thinking through the ramifications of my actions. And I counsel clients to do the same. Business, other than on Wall Street, almost never requires lightning reflexes and an immediate phone call or social media response. 

Rationality, restraint, reflection win the day.