Tell Me a Story

First, go read “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” an essay published today in The New York Times. (You have my permission to skim.)

Done? Good.

Now, I could talk about what I consider to be some missing connections in this piece (the loose definition of the word "value" and an odd unwillingness to specify values ascribed to certain scenarios), but truthfully, what I want to talk about is something at the very beginning of the essay, because that's where my attention got snagged. Right at the start, the author tells a (presumably true) story of himself: “I was driving home from work and a car cut me off. The guy was driving really slowly, and I wound up following him for half a mile…So I laid on my horn the whole time.”

He says that this story expresses this value: “I am not a person to be messed with.”

At this point, my mind wanders and I have trouble focusing on the rest of the essay. I try to imagine the road, the car, the other driver. My mind creeps to math problems from my youth: If both cars were traveling on a highway at 50 mph after the driver cut off the author, then the author was inconvenienced by this person for a total of 36 seconds as they traveled half a mile in tandem. If, on the other hand, they were traveling on a residential side street and the really slow driver was going 20 miles per hour, then the author leaned on his horn for a full 90 seconds.

In the first scenario, the author was slowed down for half a minute. For half a minute, he couldn’t go quite as fast as he wanted.

In the second scenario, the author audibly assaulted the other driver (and every human and animal within a hundred yards) for a really long time. Have you ever leaned on a car horn for a full 90 seconds? Go do it now. Go to your car (if you have one) and sound the horn for 90 seconds. Time it. I bet you can’t stand to do it. The noise is so obnoxious, so unnecessary, so completely out of proportion with anything that might have caused it in the first place that I bet you will stop well short of 90 seconds.

The essay is called “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” and so it's about how “reflecting on the stories we tell about ourselves might reveal to us other aspects of who we are and what we value,” and that this might help us break out of the limiting echo chamber many of us inhabit. The author further encourages us to listen more carefully to the stories others tell about themselves.

Hey! I can get behind that!

But I can’t help but think the author missed another really important intersection, which is The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Other People.

Here’s a story, and I promise that it’s true, to the best of my recollection.

I was twenty-seven, and I was driving in the congested center of a completely unfamiliar town on Long Island where my parents had moved recently. I was trying to get a prescription filled for my father who was newly diagnosed with lung cancer. We had just, within the hour, received test results that proved the cancer was inoperable. There were no more options. My father was going to die. He was 56 at the time.

I was stopped at an intersection, having just pulled out of the incredibly jam-packed parking lot of the strip mall where the pharmacy was. I didn’t know my way. I wasn’t familiar with the traffic pattern. I was driving a strange car. The sun was in my eyes. I was trying to make a left turn onto the main road that ran through town, but the traffic was bumper to bumper and no one was yielding the right of way. I was distracted. I was grief stricken. My father was dying.

I guess I missed my chance. There must have been an opening in the traffic, but I didn’t see it. The driver behind me (a middle-aged man about my father’s age) leaned on his horn and then, in a fit of rage, swerved around me, creating a lane that didn’t exist. He stopped, rolled down his window, and proceeded to pour forth a torrent of expletives the likes of which I’d never heard before—or have ever heard since, for that matter. He finished by shouting “You stupid ___!” (an insult I’m unwilling to print, but one that’s reserved for women), jerked his car in front of mine, and then shoved his way into the flow of traffic and took off.

Hmm. I guess he was not a person to be messed with.

And I don’t know the story he told about himself on that day. But I know for sure he wasn’t sitting in his car telling himself a story about me. He wasn’t asking himself what might be up with the young woman in a ponytail who seemed really hesitant about moving forward.

It’s been almost thirty years since my dad died. I miss him. We still tell stories about him, and not just the same old ones. New ones crop up. (I found out two days ago that he voted for Nixon in 1972! Seriously? I never in a million years would have guessed.)

So there are memories and new stories, and my father lives on and continues to inform and affect the person I am. For example, here’s one thing that is now woven into the fabric of my life. Whenever I’m on the road, whether it’s a highway or a residential side street, and someone cuts me off—as people do, especially in Boston—I find myself thinking, I wonder if that person just found out that his dad is dying. And then, to pass the time, I often begin to tell myself a story about the reckless driver and what he might be moving toward or racing away from.