Cracking up in Traffic [On the Contrary] Jul27

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Cracking up in Traffic [On the Contrary]

What is the one constant in life? It’s not friends and family, it’s not career and it’s not death (which technically would be the end of life, so hardly a constant). Don’t even bring up taxes—they’re always there, but there are plenty of ways to cheat on them or ignore them until the IRS comes after you. No, nearly everything in the world can be cheated but one thing. Traffic. The ultimate equalizer. The punishment for all of the convenience of our modern lives. If Dante were writing INFERNO today, one of the circles of hell would have to be a traffic jam that lasts for eternity, during which your car’s A/C goes out and you have to pee.

As an apartment dweller in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, I spend a sizable amount of time sitting in traffic in order to make it to a job, which I have simply to pay for said Valley apartment. Vicious circle, no?  At times, I can spend up to three hours (an eighth of a day) just trying to get to, or from, the office. And while that can give me a sense of righteous indignation for my sorry lot, I realize there are those who commute much further. This is actually infuriating because these super commuters never seem to complain, diluting my self-image as a traffic martyr. I can only assume they have much nicer homes than mine. They must have, right?

I really have no cause to complain. I choose to live in Los Angeles, and when you do that you simply have to accept that traffic comes with the territory, just as rain comes with Seattle, wind comes with Chicago, and a strong odor of garbage comes with New York City. What I do find interesting is the very specific response I, and other people, have to traffic. What I find is, it’s not how fast or how slow it goes, but when the traffic is unpredictable that is most frustrating. There are days when it can take an hour and a half for me to make it across the city and it doesn’t bother me. There are other times when I fly through light traffic and still feel like the Michael Douglas character in the movie Falling Down.

I’m thinking that we all have a traffic threshold, distinct to each individual. It’s just like the amount of sleep we need—some people can happily get by on 6 hours a night, while others feel exhausted if they don’t get a full 8 hours or more. The same is true with traffic. Some people don’t mind sitting for a half hour or so, some can’t stomach more than 20 minutes. My father’s tolerance seems to peak at 5 minutes. My range is between 45 minutes to an hour. Much more than that and I start to get punchy, but less than that and I feel like something is off, and that I could have just left later than I did. I carry an iPhone loaded with podcasts and audiobooks, so a traffic jam is not always an unpleasant or unproductive time. So long as there is some movement.

The key to surviving traffic seems to be predictability. So long as I’m not blindsided, I can usually suck it up and accept the situation as one of those things you cannot change. Unpredictability pushes me off the cliff. Recently Los Angeles prepared for an expected “Carmageddon” of traffic, when for an entire weekend one of the major freeway arteries was completely closed to traffic while construction crews tore down half of a bridge. Everyone in L.A. lost their minds and stayed off the roads, making it a wonderful weekend for traffic, with little congestion. This has been well documented.

What people haven’t been talking about is that following the reopening of the freeway, there has been a shit storm of slow traffic. Why? Because people are slowing down to look at the portion of bridge that the Carmageddon construction has taken down. And it doesn’t look like anything, other than a bridge. This epidemic of rubbernecking has pushed my commute beyond my threshold by no more than 15 minutes or so; yet when I get home I’m like a Vancouver Canucks fan after Game 7. It’s only 15 minutes—what is that? Apparently a lot.

Traffic is more than sitting in a line of cars and being delayed from our destination. It’s the theft of time. Throughout life, there are countless things we must endure that suck away our time and energy—things that are completely outside of our power to end. Traffic is simply the most obvious physical manifestation of this, so how we deal with it is really a testament to our patience in any number of other aspects of life. If you can keep your cool, while jerkily starting and stopping in a line of traffic for two hours, you are a very patient person who can probably handle much worse. We all have our breaking points, our traffic thresholds, but as this summer grinds on, here’s hoping you don’t hit yours.

featured image credit: kizette

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