Many years ago when I was in grad school in Ames, Iowa, a group of my fellow students and I drove to Kansas City for a film production workshop, a weekend affair put on by a big film processing lab. I had a Volkswagen van, so I offered to drive some of the group. The trip took about four hours. It was in January, and bitter cold. My passengers complained a bit about the lack of heat and, as the trip wore on, someone suggested we stop for a bite to eat. I began looking for a likely place, but I was so focused on getting to our destination that we arrived in Kansas City before I found a place to stop. We checked into our hotel and immediately went out for a meal. As we sat in a booth in the restaurant waiting for our food, one young man began to act strangely. He seemed to be in a trance, pantomiming the act of eating, his hand moving repeatedly between the table and his face. The fellow sitting next to him, a close friend of his, diagnosed his condition as probably an insulin reaction. He was diabetic and he had not eaten since we left Ames. The friend signaled the server and asked for an immediate glass of orange juice for him. Our food soon came, and he slowly returned to normal.
I realized that my own compulsive need to "push on" had probably caused the diabetic episode, and I felt awful about it. It wasnít the only time in my life that Iíve caused other people, and sometimes myself, to suffer because of this compulsion. Iím not sure what it is in my makeup that keeps me so focused on doing what Iím doing to the exclusion of almost everything else. No doubt in some situations it has benefits. "Getting the job done" even though Iím exhausted or hungry or bored is a positive thing in most work situations. When other people are involved, though, itís not always positive.
One time a female friend and I decided to attend a concert at Meadowbrook, an outdoor theater about a two-hour drive from where we worked. We just had time to make the drive after work and grab a quick meal before the concert started. Traffic was heavy, and I became tightly focused on getting us there. Both of us were hungry, and the decline in our blood sugar levels made us anxious and irritable. My friend asked if we could stop, but I kept driving, only half-heartedly watching for a convenient restaurant. By the time we arrived at the facility and settled ourselves in the little cafe there, we were both in bad moods, and didnít enjoy the foodóor each other. I donít remember the concert at all, and she and I didnít go anywhere together after that.
I have driven from Cincinnati to Seattle a number of times with my former wife, both before and since the Interstate System was built. It took about four and a half days, making a little over 500 miles a day. I did all of the driving. Weíd begin looking for a place to stop for the night about dinnertime, but it wasnít always as easy to find one in those days as it is now. Sometimes it would be dark before we pulled up, exhausted, at a restaurant. Those meals were usually like the one with my friend at Meadowbrook, but I didnít have the insight at the time to realize why we ended up arguing about trivialities.
I wonder if the stereotypically male tendency to not ask directions on the road could be related to this. Stopping to ask directions, or to get a meal or even just to rest, sometimes feels like a waste of time when the obsession with getting there is so strong.
In the famous movie The African Queen, when Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn were stuck in the reeds at the mouth of the river and there was no current to carry them out to the lake where they hoped they could find safety, Bogart got out of the boat into the shallow water and towed it by hand. His discovery that the water was full of leaches and that they were quickly attaching themselves all over his body caused him to climb back into the boat in a panic. Hepburn, of course, nursed him and removed the leaches while he struggled to control his disgust and fear. After he calmed down a little, they realized that they were still stuck, and that the only thing they could do was continue the towing. He swallowed his fear and descended again into the leach-filled water.
That wasnít the end of their troubles, of course, but it points up the other side of the need some people have to persevere, to push on, in the face of nearly every obstacle. Giving up is not a virtue in our society and, until recently at least, men were expected to keep going when the journey got hard, to take responsibility for women and children and other helpless creatures. We all know that men donít have a monopoly on perseverance. The travails of early settlers across the continent took fortitude and endurance by everyoneómen, women and children.
Iím not sure where the balance point is, or if there is one. Some circumstances require focused perseverance, perhaps even for survival. A vacation trip doesnít seem to be that demanding, at least on the surface. My inner needs donít often make themselves felt, but when they do, they are hard to resist. All I can hope to do, I suppose, is learn to be aware of the reality of each situation and to be aware of the urgings inside me. Itís not that I want to become totally ditsy and abandon all my early conditioning and discipline for the sake of spontaneity. I like my ability to concentrate on a task and stay with it in spite of fatigue or boredom.
I also want to know when Iím doing it, so that I have a choice instead of a compulsion.
Donald Skiff, March 28, 2003