Sunday, June 08, 2008
STOP! Red Light Moments
By John Paige
I hit the brake pedal and coast to a stop. I start to get annoyed but tell myself not to bother. It’s a red light and I’m in a car…only one thing to do: make the most of it. I close my eyes for a second and try to imagine what the protagonist in my latest story would do in this banal situation.
After conjuring a scenario or two, I settle on an answer and in an instant, unbidden, an insight whirls into the back door of my brain and suddenly I understand why I was stalled with my hero’s progress. How could I not have seen it?! The light turns green and I move ahead. And so too, now, can my character.
And so it occurred to me today that in our mad, madcap, million-mile-an-hour world, full of errands and tasks and multitasks and work and leisure time that feels like work, there remains only one moment when we as human beings are fully and guilt-free justified in sitting on our duffs and dreaming: in our cars at a red light.
Think about it: isn’t it really the only time we’re forced to sit with no company but our stray thoughts for a collection of seconds without actually wasting time? Dentist’s chairs don’t count – too stressful. Trains? Planes? Too much downtime to qualify. On trains and planes you can read, work, sleep, blog, eat, and do everything else you can’t do in a car at a red light. No comparison. Even waiting rooms don’t count – we’re usually too busy feigning interest in last December’s Special Grappling Hook issue of Climbing Quarterly. The charm of a red light is its immediacy; its suddenness and speediness to change present those sublime instants of possible insight and wonder.
Red lights aren’t long – no more than a minute or a minute and half. You can’t read a chapter of your spy novel in that time or do a Sudoku. Even at those long, multi-stage batteries of lights at highway junctions you’d be hard pressed to snatch up your iPhone in time to check your stock portfolio. That light could change at any second! Gotta at least pay enough attention to avoid a cacophony of irritated honks behind you should your eyes wander too far for too long. Maybe you’ll fiddle with your radio dial, but not likely in this age of pre-set hot buttons and MP3 jacks.
So what is a red light? I humbly submit that it’s a few seconds of pure bliss. It took me a long time to understand this. Red lights used to enrage me like any impatient person too concerned with Points A and B without thinking about the space between. But I see now that red lights grant us any number of random moments of duty-free downtime. With a little practice I discovered even 20 seconds of sweet, sedentary nothingness can yield mental and psychological gold. The trick is to use those seconds to stop thinking about the wheres and whens of things and more about the hows and whys. You can use these red light moments to do just the right amount of dreaming to produce some amazing results.
At some recent red lights I have successfully recalled the monikers of all the seven dwarfs and the entire list of prepositions I had to memorize in eighth grade. I thought up names for two characters and a villain in a story I’m laboring over, contemplated the beauty of ice rings forming around the moon, thought up a rhyme to complete the last stanza of my latest poem, remembered where I left my lighter, and finally figured out why I don’t like Colin Ferrell. Waiting at a red light outside a public school recently, I conjured the perfect analogy finally to defeat my boss in our ongoing argument over the economy. I came up with a title for a story that has been title-less for over a year. I recalled a hilarious joke I hadn’t told since college involving a bear and Don Henley’s song, “The Boys of Summer”. I settled on my top five favorite wines of all time…so far.
The point is, it got easier every time. I forgot about my destination and just thought about “how?” and “why?” and occasionally even “what if…?” I learned to use and even exploit these serendipitous pauses in my day. And, I’m grateful for the opportunities a steady stream of green lights never would have afforded me.
Don’t get me wrong: there are times when red lights are a nemesis. Your wife is in labor in the back seat. The best man took a wrong turn and you’re lost on the back roads to find the church. You’re late for that big presentation. The train is leaving and you’re not on it. In these moments red lights don’t serve us well. But they’re the exception. The rule is that red lights give us moments – moments to think about all the stuff in-between; those 20-second subjects that get lost in the noise of the everyday.
As kids, we had lazy summer Sundays and late afternoons to put life on hold and just drift and float and wander and think. As adults – ages 16 and up! – we have none of that. Even out on the deck in the early evening with a nice Sancerre at hand, we still feel obliged to plow through that 14-day loaner from the library or scrawl a To-Do list for the week. But those red lights on the road force us to be alone with ourselves – if only for a few seconds – and that should offer solace when too often it invokes only annoyance.
So when we grit our teeth and press on the brake for the sixth or seventh red light of the trip, we shouldn’t stress. Nor should we regret. We’ve been given a gift here, a chance to stop – something we simply don’t do anymore – an opportunity to think, listen, ruminate, ponder, dream, and drift – not for long, though. The green light is coming, and all that lies beyond is motion.
Writer John Paige, of Albany, New York, is a freelance writer who pays the bills selling wine. He is currently at work on two short stories and, in his words, “some hideous leviathan that may very well turn into a novel.”