One of the reasons people hate the fact that times change is that they have to change with the times, lest they become literally crippled by past perceptions. This is particularly true when it comes to understanding why things happen the way they do. One of the ways I cope with inconveniences and things I don’t like is by trying to understand them. Understanding something is not the same thing as liking it, but knowing why and how something happened is a bit like knowing how something works. If there is a huge line of cars stretching on for miles, even if you’re trapped and cannot escape, it always feels better once you know what happened, and why. Some explanations are more emotionally satisfying than others, and this varies according to the individual personality.
To stay with the traffic example, there might be a tree blocking the road, a dead cow, a stalled car, or a road crew. Then again, the explanation might be simple “congestion.” I can’t speak for everyone, but I find the fallen tree or dead cow more satisfying than an asshole who should have known better than to run out of gas and who lacked the simple ability to pull over, and as to the road crew, I find it infinitely more satisfying if I see them doing emergency-related work than if they’ve closed down two lanes and held up rush hour traffic so that a few juvenile delinquents can pick up trash. “Congestion,” of course, is the least satisfying explanation of all.
Then there are bad drivers. What often helps me “cope” (for lack of a better word) is seeing an explanation for the bad driving. I’ve written about this before, but my anger is always calmed down when I discern the nature of the culprits — especially if they can be reduced to humorous stereotypes:

2. Elderly drivers who wear hats. I don’t know whether hat-wearing causes bad driving, or merely evidences the personality of this driver, but elderly hat wearers tend to hug the middle of the road, and go much too slowly, often gripping the steering wheel with both hands at the top of it, while peering over the dashboard with a blank stare. Scary. Don’t get behind them.
3. Drivers with more than twelve stuffed animals arranged on the inside ledge of the rear windshield. This type is also slow and erratic, and often in a bizarre and unpredictable manner. Not sure why; perhaps there are medication issues.

Mean regionalist types might add “any car with a New Jersey license plate” to the list, but that might verge on bigotry, so even if I were to entertain a thought like that, it might be wiser to keep it out of this blog.
But none of this is rational, and these stereotypes are supposed to be funny, right? If the film “Borat” can stereotype Kazakhs and feminists and frat boys, then what is the great evil in having a little fun with a license plate?
No, I still won’t do it. I’m still feeling guilty about stereotyping Subaru drivers, and I want to return to the topic of changing with the times. So New Jersey license plates get a break.
Back to my point. There are few things more irritating than those things which resist easy explanation and stereotyping, especially if the stereotypes are invoked as a mental coping strategy. If you’ve been driving as long as I have (36 years), you tend to think you’ve “seen everything” and you’ve tended to compile a long list of stereotypes to be plugged in as the need arises.
Enter cell phones. These days, the number one bad driving offender is someone who waits too long and drives too slowly for no apparent reason. I hate the fact that I have had to add a new stereotype to my hate list, but the fact is, when all other stereotypes fail (no age issues, stuffed animals, mental illness, intoxication, or type of car), almost always I see that the driver is talking on the damned phone. What that means is that he or she (invariably the former tends to be an “asshole” while the latter something less polite) is doing two things:

  • driving in an impaired manner, because he is clearly incapable of using the cell phone and driving at the same time;
  • making a public statement that his personal issues are more important than his fellow drivers’ time or even safety.
  • This does not mean that I would outlaw using cell phones while driving. But impaired driving or obstructing traffic should always be an offense, so I think the rule should be along the lines of “at your own risk.” Some people can handle it; others can’t. If you hold people up by not proceeding at a green light because you’re on the phone and weren’t looking, that should be a citable offense. So should weaving around and crossing into the next lane as you enthusiastically discuss last night’s Eagles game.
    But it’s a new thing. A brand new stereotype. There are many more of what I can only call “those people” driving around than there used to be.
    Because times change.
    To a lot of people, the answer is to blame the cell phone, and target that as if it is the cause of its own misuse. That makes about as much sense as blaming cars for traffic, or guns for crime. But that’s what people do, and it is also a relatively new phenomenon. When I was a kid, people weren’t as likely to blame guns for crime, or even for tragedies. Even if irresponsible parents left guns lying around for their four year old, that was the parents’ fault and not the guns’.
    This blaming of objects reaches absurd heights. Attempts have been made to ban all cell phones in bathrooms because a tiny minority of sickos have misused them, and Ipods have been blamed for the fact that they were stolen. Cell phones “kill” too; ask any “victim” of a cell phone driver or cell-phone-activated terrorist bomb.
    Times change, and it sucks because your thinking has to change with it. In order to cope with what might otherwise appear to be insanity, the list of explanations grows and grows.
    But still, just as I’ll never see cell phones or cars as evil, I’ll never see guns as evil. This makes voting for Republicans part of my coping strategy, for most of the insanity about these things emanates from leading Democratic politicians. While it seemed that the conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party had shifted for the better (and gun control was seen as a losing issue), I’m seeing evidence that the pendulum is swinging the other way. A particularly horrendous example is that Tennessee mayor (“Tennessee mayor” doesn’t sound quite right, and I’m not sure why) who wants to be governor of one of the reddest state but who has allied himself with the gun grab program of the very “blue” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
    Maybe the conventional wisdom of gun control being a losing proposition is fading, because only this morning, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell came out against the use of tiny guns as Christmas tree ornaments, in language which could have been written by Sarah Brady:

    It is meant, the retailer says, as an “ironic twist” on the holidays.
    “Twisted” is more like it, said Kate Philips, Gov. Rendell’s spokeswoman. “The governor doesn’t find it humorous or clever to display weapons that are responsible for taking hundreds of lives each year as if they are decorations,” she said.
    (Emphasis added.)

    Governor Rendell is the former Chairman of the DNC, and has been rumored to be a possible presidential contender. For him to assert that the guns are responsible for crimes committed with them is a very unfortunate sign of the changing times. (As if I needed to read it this morning, I also see that there’s possibly evidence that even President Bush might be developing Bloomberg tendencies.)
    I should look on the bright side. At least no one has yet objected to toy cell phones
    When I was a kid, there were realistic toy guns, that looked like this, and like this — both of which are “currently not available.”
    While there are still places like this which sell realistic toy guns, they warn that “it’s getting more difficult to find good toy gun weaponry today,” and that “all toy gun items sold on this site will have a permanently attached orange tip as required by U.S. law. And community organizers like this call toy guns a “scourge” and of course advocate banning them entirely.
    As I say, it’s tough coping with change.
    What I can’t decide is whether stereotypes are evidence of mental health, or a lack thereof.
    Doesn’t that depend on whose stereotype is at issue?
    Hmmm…
    Should I have said “at risk”?
    UPDATE: Speaking of guns, Dr. Helen just reminded me that potato guns are still for sale at Amazon. But apparently they’re a major offense in Canada.
    You can’t be too careful.