Take it or Leave it: A SIGN OF CIVILITY in a WORLD GONE MAD …by Jim Stiles

“With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewals, the world continues to deteriorate…give up.”

“Deteriorata.” National Lampoon. 1972
Jim Stiles
Jim Stiles

So a couple months ago, when I heard that for the first time in recorded history, TWO tropical storms were simultaneously developing in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly on their way to hurricane strength, and expected to strike the Louisiana coast with unprecedented destructive force, I thought to myself…

What? Only TWO? Surely we can do better than that.

Eventually, only one of the storms made hurricane status. “Laura” (named, I am certain, after an old girlfriend) became the most powerful hurricane to strike that part of the Gulf Coast since 1856. Damage was in the billions. And yet,  I wondered if our Cajun friends got off easy.

Since then the people who name hurricanes realized they’d used up their entire list for 2020, and had to resort to letters from the Greek alphabet, as the storms kept coming…. After all…it’s 2020.

I still remember Roseanne Roseannadanna’s always applicable admonishment:

 “Well…it’s always something. If it isn’t one thing, it’s something else.”

The eternal COVID-19 pandemic, race riots, lootings, shootings, raging wildfires, a dismal economy, an embarrassing choice of presidential candidates, skyrocketing unemployment, hurricanes, and let’s not forget…no dine-in! Americans are ready to KILL each other over the contentious issue of masks, for pity’s sake. Where do we draw the line and say, “Enough is enough?” 

With most of the world teetering at the edge of the Apocalypse,  is it any wonder that a sense of hopelessness and despair permeates the battered spirit of any human who takes the time to actually think honestly about our dilemma? 

Does it feel as if nothing ever gets better?

Recently I picked up a copy of LIFE magazine and turned to its table of contents. The editorial for that issue was titled: “Palestine–Will we ever find a solution?” The story recounted recent acts of senseless violence and wondered if political maneuverings on both sides could ever result in a peaceful outcome. A few pages later, a reviewer criticized the inane and violent aspects of recent media fare. “Have we reached rock-bottom when it comes to bad taste and displays of physical horror?”  the writer asked.

The answer to both questions was–NO. The particular issue of LIFE magazine I’d perused was published in…1948. Seventy-two years ago. 

So…here we are, almost three-quarters of a century later;  trying to resolve almost any crisis, be it global, national, regional, or local,  is even more elusive, to the point of intractability, than it was then. 

In the banality department of our 2020 World…where does one start? I recently came across a reality TV show that depicted beautiful young women eating horses’ rectums. Horse rectum “Likes” were off the scales. 

Facebook continues to be, with some exceptions—like the Zephyr— a 24/7 source of stupidity, lies and provocations. People claiming to abhor conflict in one moment, post incendiary memes the next. And then express shock and outrage when anyone dares to disagree. The facts were lost, by both sides,  long ago.

Honest, non-partisan, “where the facts may lead” research is dead and buried, a relic of the past…which is odd, because for all its faults, the internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to look for, and find the information one needs to form  intelligent judgements. It’s all out there, if anyone bothers to look. And nobody does.

As for twitter, no way. I won’t even look at it. There lies a mindless, amoral morass of dumbed-down drivel. The world is fast becoming an inescapable sewer of mediocrity and meanness. I’m sick of it.

* * *

So is there any place on this planet that offers an escape from conflict? Is there any tiny corner of our Earth where resolution comes easy, where our differences are set aside? Where we all stand equal in each other’s eyes? 

Once I knew of such a place and it was right under our noses…I experienced it daily and took it for granted. Now I savor these precious moments…I’m referring to the four-way stop. (now often called the “All-Way Stop”)

4 way stop. Photo by Jim Stiles
4 way stop. Photo by Jim Stiles

If you think about it, this long under-appreciated institution is truly a last vortex of civility and decency in a world-gone-mad. Every day, every hour, every minute, total strangers, who could be savage adversaries in another venue, come together at a four-way stop and resolve what might otherwise be a hotbed of chaotic confusion. It doesn’t matter if the other three participants in this Great Experiment are of a different race, or political persuasion, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter what kind of car they’re driving or what their economic background is. We are not only all equal at a four-way, we are incredibly and consistently respectful of each other. We know how the four-way stop works and we live by that creed of civility.

So I’d like to believe that even the likes of Ted Cruz would yield to  Beto O’Rourke at a four-way.  And vice versa. Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow could find resolution there.  Or Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Governor Kristi Noem? Trump and Biden? Call me a dreamer.

Photo by Jim Stiles

Of course there has always been the occasional deviant, who fails to abide by the rule, who takes someone else’s turn in the rotation, but even that aberrant behavior has a bonding effect on the others. When such a rare event occurs and a violation of the code is observed, note the all-knowing glances that the other drivers give to each other. “That poor fool,” their eyes say to each other in quiet nods and gestures. “He is not a member of the House of Civility.” But even then, they generally forgive the offender and go on.

I admit there have been more troubling setbacks lately.  I was visiting friends back East, when I read that two drivers simultaneously arrived at a four-way stop. Unable to determine who should go first, one of the men drew a semi-automatic pistol. So did the other guy. When it was over, one of them was dead and the other in custody. This occurred before 2020, so I’ve been worried that our high levels of stress may put my civility test into disarray.

But an even greater long-term threat casts a troubling shadow over my beloved four -ways. With astonishing speed, many cities, smaller communities, and even rural highway departments are abandoning the four-way and replacing them with roundabouts. This European phenomenon has been slowly infiltrating highway intersections for years, but in the last decade, their spread has accelerated. 

While I concede there are advantages, what it means is—nobody ever stops. No one pauses to acknowledge their fellow traveler. Instead it’s a race again, to see who can get to the roundabout first, without ever coming to a complete stop. It’s Madness I tell you, and it deprives us all of that one last opportunity to be kind and generous. To yield, not just to another driver, but to the better angels of our nature.

Still…many thousands of four-way stops remain across this great land of ours. Rejoice in them. Savor the opportunity to be kind to someone who probably doesn’t deserve it. We may quarrel endlessly and kill each other and lay waste to the planet and show utter disregard for everything worthy of respect. But if you ever despair to the point of giving up hope, get in your car and find the nearest four-way stop and rejuvenate your spirit.

It really is the place where “we all can just get along.”

Jim Stiles is Founding Publisher and Senior Editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

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7 comments for “Take it or Leave it: A SIGN OF CIVILITY in a WORLD GONE MAD …by Jim Stiles

  1. Tom Patton
    December 1, 2020 at 11:19 am

    Well funny you should mention…the last time I was at a certain new Mecca in the desert of side by side (UTV) enthusiasts, I stopped at a 4 way stop and let the guy to my right (in said UTV) take his turn to make a right turn. Then the 12 UTV’s lined up behind him (apparently his riding buddies) all went right after him without stopping. I guess that’s how it works now! Silly me thinking that along with the required licenses plates, turn signals on UTVs would come the requirements to follow motor vehicle laws. Common courtesy? Sorry Jim, I lost most expectations for that a long time ago. All the more reason to plan better and either not stop in Moab or find another way to where I’m going.

  2. Will Mahoney
    December 1, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Jim, imagine if we could only apply the courtesy and logic of 4-way stops to some of our most pressing problems like the COVID-19 pandemic!

  3. December 1, 2020 at 2:32 pm

    not surprizingly, you make the 4-weigh stop something to ponder. more than i have previously. but, yes, an interesting concept when pondering the “larger pixure.” thanks, again ~

  4. Sue Cauhape
    December 3, 2020 at 8:51 am

    Thank you, Jim, for this insightful article. I’ve always wondered why certain friends of mine find roundabouts reprehensible. They hate them. Then again, they’re the same friends who don’t like to knit because it involves counting. Thus, I came to believe that those who don’t like roundabouts just don’t have the band width to learn how to navigate them safely. To a degree, the same rules of pause and yield apply, but you straightened me out. It IS about the ability to be courteous, to understand that the rules of the four-way stop are not just about safety but about civility and sharing the road, and indeed the world, with other people.

  5. James E Milton
    December 5, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Now that the current occupant has had a taste of what it feels like to blow through intersections, regardless of configuration, all bets are off. I’m expecting a conspiracy theory to emerge over traffic controls any day now.

  6. Bob Krantz
    December 7, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    A slightly different take.

    At a relatively quiet intersection, a 4-way stop does not represent civility as much as institutional authority. Even when not necessary, everyone must stop! An unintended consequence (which we should always consider but seldom do) is teaching many drivers to coast through stop signs.

    At a busy intersection, a 4-way stop is a cheap way of dealing with traffic flow, usually at an intersection that should have an expensive signal light. Cities save a few bucks but drivers suffer.

    Now a truly civilized intersection, where people have to both think and use spontaneous courtesy, is one without any stop signs. Perhaps more dangerous but definitely more polite.

  7. Tom Patton
    December 28, 2020 at 9:19 am

    Plus I always found roundabouts great entertainment in tourist towns. Kind like just being a spectator at the bullfrog marina on Memorial day. Then I went travelling to Inverness Scotland where I rented a car and had to navigate roundabouts galore going the other way and I di the really dumb tourist thing and went the wrong way in one.

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