Rush hour traffic invokes a unique brand of cynicism. Human interaction is depersonalized on the road as each vehicle becomes a protective shell. Entitlement, aggression, and self-righteousness all find expression in traffic, insulated from shame. As a result, cynicism finds its fuel and takes on form—at best, a mildly antagonistic urban ennui; at worst, a twice-daily dark night of the soul.
Sometimes it’s hard to maintain an evolved perception of humanity when adrift in its commuter sea. But once in while, an irregularity pierces the monotony. My traffic snark has been soothed by the smallest things. Happy lady sings along with the radio, max volume, windows down. Hippy bus sports a Charlotte’s Web-themed paint job collage. In stopped traffic, a Chihuahua speeds along on a blur of tiny legs, passing between lanes of trapped cars; its longer-legged owner follows suit.
My first technical writing job, nine years ago. I had a brutal daily commute from the city into the suburbs. There was this random car on the highway with an obscure bumper sticker: “Ask Me About Punctuated Equilibria.”
Oh, I dearly wanted to.
I tried to follow it long as I could, intrigued. I yearned to pull over and discuss. Or maybe sidle up alongside at a stoplight, strike up an open-window conversation. Sadly, I lost the car and its bumper sticker to the whims of random traffic.
Not to time, however. I still remember it, nearly a decade later. I forget names, places, birthdays, even my current age—but hit me with oblique esoterica, I’ll transform it into personal poetry. At best, a far-flung metaphor lending light in the darkness of existential meaninglessness. At worst, a rambling analogy to be posted online.
Now, I’m no evolutionary biologist. Mention isolated episodes of rapid speciation between long periods of stasis, and I’ll say “Grog no understand” with minimal irony. But I am an enthusiast of cryptic geekery. I cultivate awareness of all kinds of disconnected discourse (mainly surface-level scratches, not enough to be dangerous). And I adore the poetic notion of punctuated equilibria, which is why it stuck with me all these years.
The notion came bubbling back to the surface of my mind about a month ago when I was bitten by a dog. I mean, I was just minding my own business. It was a nice day, I was outside. A little old lady with a massive shepherd dog let me know how sweet he was. A gentle soul. Would I like to pet him? Yes, Grog do.
Ask me about my punctuated equilibria.
This was a growling chomp, right on the arm. Being bitten by a dog was a shock to my routine stasis, perforating both my arm and my sense of normalcy. Beloved by all animals? Self-perception shattered. Old ladies know what they’re talking about? Long-held faith destroyed.
Such a punctuation event ushers in a new norm. A revision. Personal stasis, version 2.0. It’s a natural tendency, to overgeneralize based on anecdotal experience. A fear of dogs was already taking root in my mind, threatening a dog-phobic new norm. I’m trying to dig those roots out early, to beware of the tendency. Not all dogs are the same. Don’t give up on dogs. Could’ve just been a good dog on a bad day. A nervous breed. A protective beast who mistakenly expected danger based on early puppyhood experience.
However, at the same time, I can learn from my experience. I don’t have to pet every dog offered up.
Grog extrapolate. Not all people are the same. Growled at by a good human on a bad day? Bitten by a nervous breed? Don’t give up on people. “And why not?” you might ask, if only we could pull over together on the side of the road and discuss.
Human interaction will always pose some level of risk. Interaction can be painful – even a simple negative encounter, cold or angry, can hurt like a random dog bite. Hell, humanity as a species serves up violence, deceit, and death every day.
But then again… In the same moment with you, in the same small space with you: it could be someone good. It could be someone doing something amazing. Or maybe it’s just someone doing something small, but it’s just the right something. Just the right jumpstart for your personal evolution into the next new norm.
My new norm, for the record: loving strange dogs from a consistent distance, and keeping cynicism muzzled on a tight leash.