Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Fog.

A woman rushes into my store shortly after four P.M. on Saturday. She is short and mildly obese, dressed in fashionable office attire. She is in the fog. The fog is a place where we all go sometimes, but some of us live in it perpetually at our own expense. Her eyes are up and to the left, indicating that she is using the conceptual portion of her brain, and probably sees almost nothing of what is transpiring immediately around her. Her breathing is rapid and shallow, signs of hurry and panic. She never once looks at me while tersely barking her order for a pack of cigarettes and a prepaid sum of gasoline. She is miles and days away from here, in a place where she would not even remotely be able to describe the experience she is presently having if asked about later.

I have been playing a game at work, a fun and fascinating exercise that I like to call “prophet.” It is a simple game that anyone can play: it involves quietly, calmly staring at the people in front of you, taking in every bit of information that you can possibly observe about them, drinking in the modulation of pitch and tone in their voices, carefully monitoring the movements and directions of their eyes, perceiving the pace and evenness or unevenness of their breathing. The astounding thing about this game, if one has the patience to play it without distraction, is that the thing, or even the kind and category of thing, that people are going to do next sometimes leaps into the conscious mind before they do it. It’s a bit frightening the first time it happens; after that, it’s kind of a rush. Prophecy: this woman is going to do something harmful or inconvenient to herself before she leaves my station, through her lunatic hurry and inattention.

She heads out to pump three, stabbing wildly at the buttons to find the correct sequence to begin fueling. She is looking away the entire time the gas is pumping. Following thirty seconds or so of this, she suddenly looks toward the nozzle with an unpleasantly surprised expression, hangs up the pump, and comes back into the store. I already know what she is about to say.

“Do you have some paper towels? I just spilled gas down the side of my car.” She has managed to overflow the tank, even though the pump shuts off automatically before this happens, probably because she kept squeezing the handle, refusing to believe that she’d overpaid and would have to come back inside for change.

“There’s a sink with a towel dispenser above it over there to the right,” I reply. “You can use it to wash your hands as well.” She does, before taking extra towels, her change from the prepay, and fleeing out the door. She wildly wipes off her car with the towels, when she could have done so much more effectively with the squeegee right next to her, before heading off into traffic. I would be wholly unsurprised if I found out later that she was involved in a collision on her way home. She is a menace to society in her fog.

Humanity’s capacity for abstract thought is a wonderful ability, one that allows portions of the brain storing memory to combine previous stimuli and imagine new ones, to create prospective new situations from old ones. It is probably the very gift that allows us to be the animal that invents, that creates based upon real and anticipated needs. The potential to imagine, to be somewhere other than where we are, is probably why textiles and power plants and skyscrapers exist. The fog of distraction is, when used properly, not such a bad place to be.

But that fog needs to get checked at the door of the house, before people carry it off into an ephemeral, sometimes dangerous world which deserves and demands full attention. I do everything in my power to shake folks out of it when they come into my store, to give them a hand and raise them from the quicksand: I look into their eyes, ask them questions about their days, their jobs, their families, their clothes, their choice in purchases, their plans for the evening. I want them to turn off the TV in their brains and talk to me; I want to drag them out of the fog so that they can see that the present is a pleasant, air conditioned shop with an interested stranger who sincerely wants to know more about them, and not an invisible point on the line from A to B.

Sometimes I succeed, getting a smile and a confession of what they were busy musing about. Sometimes they have sick or hurt relatives, and need a bit of sympathy, a word of kindness. Sometimes they’re late and think that their hectic, distracted silence will get them somewhere faster than their calm attention will. It won’t, but they believe it will. But mostly I want to help them understand where they were so that they can be here for a moment, and realize that here is nothing to be scared of or averse to, nothing to be avoided but something to be engaged and enjoyed—the Buddhist concept of the past as memory and the future as fiction, with only the now as real.

And sometimes, inevitably, I fail. Two more young women come in later in the shift, chattering excitedly to each other like monkeys. Their bill totals at $11.18. Woman A hands me a 20, ignoring my conversational overtures and looking at the floor, then abruptly decides that it is important that she give me eighteen cents to get an even dollar amount in change. She hits up woman B for coins, and the two of them fish through their purses, digging like dogs mining under fences, while the rapid, meaningless chatter continues and they pool three nickels and three pennies. Woman A’s dancing eyes begin to move toward the door before she hands me the coins.

Prophecy: she is going to try to leave without getting nine dollars back.

By the time I have hit the “cash” button, and procured a five and four ones, she has turned and taken a step toward the exit. I could easily let them both stroll out of here, and let the donation of nine dollars to my drinking fund be her punishment and hence her lesson.

“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME.” I get her attention with the loud one. I hold aloft her change. “Did you want this back?”

“Oh yes I’m sorry I forgot all about it,” she chatters at me rapidly, not hearing or seeing anything that’s happening because her mind is spinning like a red-lined rotary engine, before disappearing with her friend out the door, into the fog.

I hope that there is no Jack the Ripper lurking out there, in that fog. Neither of them would stand a chance.


At Sunday, August 21, 2005 2:56:00 PM, Anonymous Smoove D said...

Huh. I've never really paid enough attention to people to notice The Fog. That would explain a lot of the shitty driving that goes on around here.

At Sunday, August 21, 2005 3:43:00 PM, Blogger Hawaiianmark said...

Guilty of fog infused living at times, am I. Tend to do the same 'game' at both my employ's, at one, it figures to be the result of vacation-itis, where the party is fogged for relaxation purposes. That has some interesting conversations, as yours. The firehouse job tends to be more hunt & peck to get a diagnosis - are they drugged, menatally unstable? Most non-critical conversations take the same distracted tones -"uh, what?" and the like.

Sometimes I wonder what they are like when that fog lifts.

If ever.

Well said.


At Sunday, August 21, 2005 8:58:00 PM, Blogger Stacey said...

So amazingly true. Why is it that some of us with that personality type, don't so much LIVE our lives as just rush through it. Sad.

I've been thinking of this alot this week. Thank you.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 3:03:00 AM, Blogger Twinklestar said...

I wish we had a gas guy like you at the store in my burb!

Nice reminder to live more in the now, thanks! Twinks

At Monday, August 22, 2005 3:40:00 AM, Blogger Sluggie said...

Nice Blog... Keep up the good work. We can all use some more humor in our lives.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 11:26:00 AM, Anonymous mamabear said...

Your take on this phenomenon is far more generous than mine has been. I always passed "the fog" off as a symptom of intellectual laziness or perhaps of an inflated ego that simply doesn't see the person behind the counter as important enough to interact with in a cordial manner. I think there is probably alot of truth in your interpretation. Thanks for the perspective.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Nightcrawler said...

You hit the nail on the head with the "Jack the Ripper" comment. Most people who are victimized by criminals (rapists, murderers, muggers, etc.) could see it coming if they weren't too absorbed in other things. Perhaps if they paid more attention to their surrounding (the man following them into the dark hallway of their apartment building or lurking behind their vehicle) we would see fewer victims and more foiled crimes.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 1:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I were talking a little about this just this morning. Perhaps you were peering into your prophetic crystal ball to the far-flung reaches of SW Florida at the time. Who knows.

The issue of "the fog" as you called it seems to be two-fold. One - people mismanage time. They don't count on the fact that something is most likely going to throw them off the rails and screw with their day. And the axiom appears to be "the more important it is that you get somewhere or do something, the better your chances are of having it screwed up by something unforseen". The antidote is simple, however. Leave the house early. Wake up fifteen minutes earlier. Whatever. The little bit of time you scarifice early pays off in spades when you are able to relax from the "O My God I Gotta Get There" routine.

The second side of the coin (IMHO) goes like this: If you give yourself a little extra time, it allows you to experience little things in life that would otherwise be very easily missed. Maybe it is a social interaction with someone who could use a little extra attention (even a stranger). Maybe it's getting to take a second to wonder "what the Hell that bird is doing", or whatever. Maybe you get an extra second to daydream or come up with a new patent that'll make you rich.

It's the smaller things, and being able to appreciate them and give them attention, that lend life some of its most meaningful blessings.

And that is just about enough out of me about that. Love the writing. I'll be back.

p.s. - you've been linked.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 1:35:00 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Gadzooks! You've hit upon why I named my blog "blog in the fog"! At first I actually was making a reference to the weather at my locale (san francisco), but then I realized that there's more than one kind of fog here... yesseree, bob!

At Monday, August 22, 2005 2:27:00 PM, Blogger momma of 2 said...

As a Momma of 2 little kids, I am guilty of being in the fog... no excuses, just happens... love the blog...

At Monday, August 22, 2005 5:13:00 PM, Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

Your perceptions are sharp and right on. The fog is everywhere. It's why people kill other people on the highways. Their inattentiveness can be deadly for others, as easily as it makes themselves victims of jack the ripper lurkers.
My fantasy, if I came into your shop, is I would look you in the eye, and be precisely in the moment. It's a practice like zen.
Great post here. I'm going to look around your blog some more. I read your disclaimer, I'm not planning on bringing my political correctness with me!
By the way, I got here via The Taming of the Band Aid.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 6:05:00 PM, Blogger lotus said...

Dude, two words... Blackstone Brewery.

At Tuesday, August 23, 2005 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Ham said...

ya know...;
this is just a really great post.
Not just because the topic is ethereal enough to allow for exposition, or eerily imaginable so as to let the reader place himself in the moment (which just so happens to be the focus of the tale to be told!), but just so damn well written.

Thanks for writing it.

[and I didn't mind typing in 8 extra letter at the bottom to prove the above wasn't gen'd by a bot.]

At Tuesday, August 23, 2005 11:10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I breezed in here from a link given by the J-Walk blog. My second ever job was running a petrol station (as we call them in England) and I didn'y enjoy it, but I worked around them since I was about 14.

Even here in the 70's as this was, without the drugs and the drive by shootings, you still saw "life" and sometimes up too close. Your well written journal has prodded me to come up with some of my own stories from my gas pumping days at the Sturdy Soapbox


At Tuesday, August 23, 2005 3:30:00 PM, Blogger Bar Belle said...

You, my friend are a fantastic writer with an uncanny insight into the human psyche....

I linked here from Waiter Rant and will now be adding a link to your blog on my blog....

Thank you and keep it up....

At Tuesday, August 23, 2005 10:35:00 PM, Blogger e_journeys said...

Got here via The Taming of the Band Aid. Great post. I like the concept of engaging people in conversation and away from distraction: a public service, as it were, whether or not it works.

I'll be back.

At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 7:20:00 AM, Blogger Doug said...

I found your blog after the 'Southern Appeal' blog recommended it. I'm a columnist for my local newspaper and I think your writing is mighty fine! I, too, have bookmarked this blog for future reference.


At Wednesday, August 24, 2005 3:31:00 PM, Blogger Dublin Saab said...

Fog, eh? I know of what you speak. Thanks to Ebay I have spent a goodly amount of time in line at the local Post Office. While I never have thought to make a conscience effort at the observation, through repitition I have reached the point where I can spot the person who is going to spend 20 minutes in line only to be told the form they in asking for is, over there, on the wall, under the sign reading "insert name of requested form here". Each time I am humored that they can stand in what is a rather small PO for so long without once seeing where they are.

At Wednesday, September 07, 2005 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Bernard Brandt said...

Hi, I'm Bernard, and I'm a fog walker.

I've been a fog walker for most of my life. I only started to realize when I was 20 that that is what I was doing. Largely, it was a process of focusing far more on my interior dialogue than in what was going on around me. Most of the time it's actually more interesting than watching out what is going on outside. This is rather along the lines of the person who can read while he is walking. Most of the time there is no problem. There are those potholes, though. . .

At twenty, two things happened to change matters. The first was that I learned that I could shut off the inner dialogue, and watch and listen to the world in silence. I found that so beautiful that I spent hours doing that and nothing more.

The second was that I also learned that I could hear music internally, either that which I had listened to before, or that which I imagined. Think of it as a built-in stereo headset. I found this to be so important that I would indulge in it when I didn't have to put my attention to matters of living (like paying attention when I was walking, talking, driving, etc.)

Now I'm trying to develop the ability to do with sight what I have with hearing, and to visualize clearly. It's an interesting venture, rather the reverse of the progress of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

Nonetheless, it is cool actually to listen and see people. To focus and believe that the gas station attendant or the grocery clerk is just as human as I am, and might have something worth teaching or saying. As the Master, Kung Fu Tze (or as most of youze guyz know him, Confucius) actually said: "Of every three people who are walking around, I can learn from at least one of them." Bingo!

So I try listening to everyone I can. One times out of three is good odds. That's how I found this weblog.


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