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That's Absurd


This is an impatient world. People are irritable, volatile, ready to erupt at the smallest provocation. And there are plenty of provocations to go around and plenty of frustration built up because of them.

One could argue rightly that frustration can largely be defused by reverting to old standards of civility and the good manners parents used to instill in their children, that mixture of respect, kindness and consideration that smooths social intercourse. But I think there is an ancillary antidote to many of life’s irritations—a recognition of the sheer absurdity of many of the situations we encounter.

A case in point. Recently, my husband and I were at our rural house in Maine. He was working on the house, replacing the deck and tackling other tasks that needed to be done. I, on the other hand, had to return to work in Connecticut. So, very early in the morning, we arose for the hour-and-a-half drive to the nearest bus station. The bus was due to leave at 5:55AM and we arrived at the bus stop, located at a convenience store, at 5:40. I approached a young man behind the counter and explained that I needed a ticket.

“I can’t sell you a ticket until 6 o’clock,” he said.

Nonplussed, I said, “But the bus leaves at 5:55!”

“Sorry, can’t sell you a ticket until 6,” he responded. “They want you to buy tickets online.”

I was armed with my computer, so I booted it up, not sure how I would print it out to prove purchase. That point was made moot, however, when the computer declared it was too late to buy a ticket for this bus run.

Eventually, the driver confiscated my driver’s license and held it all the way to Portland where he presented it to the ticket agent who cheerfully sold me a ticket. The ultimate absurdity came when the agent sold me a ticket from Portland to Springfield, rather than from my starting point in Waterville!

Sometimes technology has no part in the absurd. When I was in business, I was eager for every sale and would open early and stay open late. But that does not seem to be the current standard. Perhaps the most egregious example of this that I have encountered occurred when we pulled into Lerwick Harbor in the Shetland Islands last year. We could have had an early breakfast on the ferry but we were new to town and had no idea of what we were getting into.

Having secured our car we took off in search of food. In general, the Scots seem to eat breakfast later than we do in the States, but Lerwick is, by far, the most leisurely. We asked the GPS for restaurants but found none that were open. Finally, someone told us that we could get breakfast at the Shetland Arts Trust’s building, which is a music, cinema and creative industries center. We found our way back down to the shore and took a seat in the café. And there we sat, and sat, and sat … .

It was about 9:20 when we arrived and we were told the café did not open until 10. The servers were behind counters filled with pastries. The coffee was brewing and about 20 patrons were waiting, but nary a cup of Joe or a glass of orange juice could be had until the clock struck 10. I didn’t understand it then and I can’t fathom it now.

Life is full of boondoggles such as not being able to buy a ticket until five minutes after your bus leaves or a cup of coffee until the clock dictates it. A friend tells of the circular thinking of the federal bureaucracy, which requires that his family farm submit workman’s compensation forms monthly. “The form says specifically that you cannot duplicate it,” he related. “We were about to run out and I called the office to get more forms. They said they were out of them and I said I would duplicate the one I had.”

He was told that he could not duplicate the form. “I said, ‘Then I can’t submit the form this month.’ ‘No,’ she responded. ‘You have to submit it.’”

He solved the problem by ending the conversation and duplicating the form. He never heard a complaint.

Who hasn’t been frustrated by computer malfunctions? I can’t count the number of times when, with my server unresponsive, I have called the provider’s support number only to be told that I can find the answer to my problem by logging onto their website. Nice trick if you can do it—kind of humorous when you look at it dispassionately—but beating your way through the maze of telephone prompts and listening to the garbage music that is surely designed to drive waiting callers away provokes irritation that I can’t seem to laugh away.

A computer meltdown of another kind provided yet another lesson in absurdity this past winter. This time, the computers that our vehicles have become shut down our brand-new minivan in the center of Winsted. The vehicle was completely stuck as the battery failed and the computer system locked the car in Park. We could not even put it into neutral to push it out of the intersection.

The malfunction was irritating enough but the absurdity kicked in as traffic piled up behind us, creating a snarl in the center of the town as drivers tried to pass us. We called for a tow truck and had contacted the dealer that sold us the van and then sat there as drivers negotiated around us. We could see the police station a half-block from us but no one emerged to undertake traffic control.

Eventually, a man noticed my husband’s veteran’s license plate and decided to try to help a fellow vet. He parked illegally and crossed the road to offer any help he could give. Almost immediately a cop appeared—not to help us, but to give the Good Samaritan a parking citation!

And thus it goes in a world increasingly “convenient” and increasingly uncooperative. Edward Albee was right, it is The Theater of the Absurd. But, as impatient as the rest of the world, I still find that a sense of that absurdity can soften the passage.