Consider Bob. Bob wakes up at six a.m. when his alarm goes off. He doesn’t want to wake up. He stayed up all night playing poker. He was up a hundred bucks at the beginning but ended the night with pretty much the same amount he brought to the table. Kind of the story of his whole life. It’s the price to pay for friendship. His wife will later accuse him of being greedy and trying to win it all, but there’s no way she’ll ever understand the social taboo of winning your friends’ money then leaving without sharing a few drinks. They would deride him for putting money over friendship, as if money had nothing to do with poker night. The point is, he’s pretty bitter about not being a hundred dollars richer, and now the alarm is hammering into his head. He has a choice. He can go back to sleep and miss work, or he can get up and get ready. Or he can take the middle rode and hit snooze, making a sacrifice with each press of that oversized button: first the breakfast, then the coffee, then the relaxing shower, then the careful shave. And if his flailing arm becomes so automatic in its slap of the snooze that he’s not even consciously aware of it until it’s 7:25 and he has to be at work at 8, then he might have to skip the shower and shave altogether and opt for a greasy swipe of deodorant instead. Today he gets up on time as if he’s a puppet of obligation.
By 7:30 he’s on the road. It takes him longer than he thinks to get out of his neighborhood because there’s only one way in and one way out. But since he’s moving at the speed limit he doesn’t get the absurdity that even though the main road passes directly behind his property, it takes him seven minutes to exit the neighborhood, loop around the block, and make it to the main road. While another access point to the main road would open his neighborhood up to thru traffic, that’s the last thing he needs when he has two kids who like to play outside. Once he meets the main road, rush hour traffic is a bitch. There are no shortcuts. Apparently, others don’t like thru traffic through their neighborhoods either. The city planners are idiots, he thinks. And does every mom need to spoil her kids by driving them to school instead of making them ride on the buses, which are running half empty? He convinces himself that if he lets that red Mazda cut in front of him, that that is going to make the difference on whether he is late or not. He squeezes the gap, but damn that bitch to hell, she cuts in front of him anyway. Everyone seems to be conspiring against him to make him late.
Didactic aside. The truth of the matter is that commute times to and from work have been consistently about 30 minutes on average for the last 4000 years, as if that’s the threshold to which humans can endure without going insane. Once, Prehistoric Joe probably thought it would be much easier to live right next to the river, but after one good flood washed away their clubs and hides and especially after the subsequent tongue lashing from Prehistoric Jane, Joe knew better than to settle so closely to their water supply. Even Roman planners built their cities with a 30-minute commute in mind. The outskirts of a Roman city could not be more than 30 minutes away from the center. As we move faster our cities have grown bigger. When that interchange Bob and three hundred other angry motorists complain about is completed, it will only facilitate more growth in the area and traffic will swell once again. The half hour commute is here to stay, but we won’t tell this to Bob.
He gets to work, which, even though it makes him stressed by the end of the day, isn’t that traumatizing in the grand scheme of things. He likes to flirt with Wendy. Of course, his wife wouldn’t approve, but it’s not like she (his wife) can see him. He’s a free man when he’s at work, unless he slaps Wendy on the butt, which he’s really itching to do, but he’s worried doing that might get a sexual harassment claim levied at him. Damn those frivolous lawsuits and feminist laws that prevent him from just being a man. Once a year, he and every other employee at the office have to attend sexual harassment awareness meetings and sign off that they’ve read the information pamphlet carefully and promise to abide by company procedure or else face disciplinary action or even termination. Rules, rules, and more rules encroach on his freedom to reach out and meet that sumptuous tush.
Meanwhile, Wendy is the first of three generations of female workers in her family to be able to go to work free from the abuse and degrading behavior of her male coworkers. She’s not a liberal feminist and hates when people label her as such. Nevertheless, she goes home angry that her boss can be so hardheaded and that she’s been passed over for a promotion when she’s clearly more qualified. She knows the real business, as far as the internal politics is concerned, goes on after work when the men hit up the neighborhood bar and share a few drinks before going home. She’s never invited…anymore. She was invited once, but since she’s not a drinker, she ordered a lemonade. The others teased her before settling into an uncomfortable period of awkwardness where they weren’t willing to relax and talk until she took a swig of some real stuff. A co-worker tried to buy her a shot. She politely pushed it away, and he reacted as if she’d just slapped his momma on the face. Damn social entrapments. But she’s an independent woman, thirty-five, and still in her entry-level job. Today on her way home, it’s Rush hour—Rush Limbaugh. He’s making her angry—in a good way, she thinks. She’s being enlightened. She works her ass off and these socialists in power want to give her hard-earned money to people too lazy to work. Her husband calls just as the show is getting interesting.
“Hey, hon. I’m just getting off of work, but I’m going to stop at the supermarket before I get home. How was your day?” he asks.
“Fine,” she answers, as if she could say anything else. She’d like to tell him how crappy her day was—he’s her husband for God’s sake—but the times that she’s tried this, he’s slowly retreated into a secret tunnel inside that cave that is phone silence. Neither of them feels free to ask anything that might penetrate their wall of security. She can’t ask him where the money goes, because he might take it that she doesn’t trust him. They don’t trust that the other can handle inquiring questions without becoming defensive. So, they don’t talk anymore. Really talk. To each other, they’re just safety belts that come into use only in case of an accident. One day, unless an accident saves it, their marriage will collapse on itself. Maybe she secretly hopes for this. Bob at work seems to be interested in her. “Damn those lazy socialists!” she yells after she hangs up the phone. She’s almost home when she remembers that she’s out of dog food and she’s mad at herself for not telling her husband to pick up some at the store. Whatever. Let them eat steak, she thinks, but Steve her husband will volunteer to go back to the store and buy some food, making her feel guiltier in the process. She turns around and detours to the pet store.
Steve returns from the supermarket, and his wife is still not at home. Did she go drinking with the guys again? He went to a company party once and saw how Bob looked at her. Is something going on? Is she with him? He can’t stand the thought. At first he’s saddened, then he’s angered. He calls her again, but she doesn’t answer. Since he lost his career job when his company went belly-up, he’s been working at the Shoe Palace selling ladies’ shoes. Doesn’t pay well. Better hours though. But he senses Wendy’s resentment at their lower lot in life. He’s tried to be a better husband. More helpful. But the truth is she’s the breadwinner, and that’s just not acceptable to his family, especially his brothers who tease him mercilessly. He’s also ashamed when they go out with her friends from the office. He feels small. Each day that he tries to be a little more helpful to his wife, he feels a little more empty and depressed. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. “The man is the head of the household,” his pastor said, but he sure doesn’t feel like it. What else can he do? Where is she? That slut. Oh, the love of my life, he thinks. We were happy once, right? Stupid banks. Stupid financial crisis. Stupid deregulation. Why doesn’t Wendy see that it was the Republicans that caused this? She’s so cold-hearted and fixed in her ways. Maybe Bob’s a Republican and is in to that free trade crap. Free trade my ass. It had a lot of costs. Opened the doors to cheaper imports costing American jobs, my job. Why doesn’t she answer the phone? He’s feeling desperate. He was going to cook dinner, but now he doesn’t feel like it. He goes to his bedroom, but their happy wedding pictures on the wall make him feel even more depressed. He goes into the bathroom. Locks the door. Here, he’s free.
A moral? In our day-to-day lives we are free—and responsible—to make choices and accept the consequence of these choices. We isolate ourselves in protected neighborhoods. We hide in the anonymity of our cars where we feel free to unleash our anger. While we are bound by some rules that are intended to protect the freedom of others, we are free to attack these rules as being to loose…or too strict. We are free to tangle ourselves in our own abstract fantasies until we become victims of our own minds. We are free to blame the government, though it has always struck me as odd that in one string of thought we can view the government as hopelessly dysfunctional yet still believe that this same government has the ability to manipulate our lives as if it were their personal agenda to make us miserable. We are free to let our own fears and suspicions get the better of us even after we experience time and again that the cost of distrust is greater than the pain of betrayal. Yet, we also are free to choose the things that will fulfill our lives. We are free to consider that perhaps the things that anger us most are the things that really affect us the least. Or we can stay angry. We are free to embrace humanity, including our faults and missteps, instead of running from it. We are free to perceive the world as we wish.
We are free to enslave ourselves.
We are free to escape.