I had spent all week in the drivers' seat, going full-speed ahead. Now it was Friday evening and I was boarding a train that would take me out of New York City. Because I was going to be a back seat rider for the next couple of hours, I could watch the night settle on the passing countryside, completely disconnected from phone and email.
The train's first passengers had already taken their places next to the windows; I walked the aisle shopping for an empty seat. Reading books by their covers, I saw a woman ahead in a skirt suit, dark curly hair, teachers' glasses, and sat down.
She appeared to sleep for the first hour; I read a novel I'm in love with for the second time, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. I became lost in his world. An hour or so into the ride my neighbor stirred, reached into her handbag for her iPod, leaned back again, closed her eyes, set her ear buds, turned on her music full volume and thus put an abrupt end to my serenity.
What was happening here? Wasn't the whole point that you could listen to your own music in the privacy of your own head? Well, it's a myth, and it reminded me of the great Simon and Garfunkel lyrics:
I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island.
In a densely populated city or town it all spills over, and it appears that in this city at least - which IS an island, nobody's an island.
A friend of mine tells the story of being at theater watching a play while the woman next to her spent much of the two hours texting on her cell phone. Little beeps indicating incoming messages. The light from her phone...it all culminated into a real disturbance. At one point my friend leaned over to ask her neighbor to please turn off her phone - she received a growl in return, and no consideration as she continued her virtual conversation. It spills over.
Listening to her music choices was so revealing -- her music was much harder than she looked. I was giving this way too much attention, and I began wondering (to my great dismay) what she morphed into when the petite black skirt suit and glasses came off. What kind of men was she attracted to, where was the tattoo on her body, and what was it of, and for that matter where was her Harley parked? I had this special little insight into her and I didn't even know her name - a complete stranger. I felt a bit like a peeping tom, like a voyeur and suddenly the story in my book wasn't as interesting as the story unfolding next to me. In that three hour train ride I experienced a microcosm of several important social trends, right there between our two seats.
Our need to shut down. In our constantly connected world, we probably both had the same wish on the train that night: to disconnect from our 24/7 world. Me with a book, she with her music. As we know, the 9-5 workday has completely disappeared for most of us, and with it, a major calibrating element of our lives. There used to be distinct times to be off and to be on. Now, as it seems we are expected to always be on, we find ourselves forced to strategically find our own time to shut down.
Unexpected rage. Since this shut down time is so rare, it becomes incredibly precious, which probably explains my reaction to my neighbors' music. You see, I wasn't merely angry that I could hear her music. No, I skipped anger and shot right to rage. I was shocked and ashamed at the severity of my own reaction, especially when she hit replay on a particularly hard-rocking tune three times in a row. It was all I could do to not reach over and throttle her. I could feel my connective neck tissue morph into a solid steel rod, ramming into my brain as this went on and on and on. I never have experienced road rage, could never empathize with it, but I sure did that night.
Voyeurism. We live in a voyeuristic time. It's been well-documented and widely discussed. From Facebook to glass houses to Google Earth to celebrity weeklies - we like to watch, and then we like to wonder. Who amongst us can't admit to spending way too much time wondering about the state of Britney Spears' mental health as a result of being accosted by images of daily play by play, outfit by tragic outfit drama unfold?
That night on the train funnily, the perfect antidote to her iPod would've been an iPod of my own. All I had to do to stop listening to her music was pretty simple: listen to my own. Spill over on the spilling over? And so the vicious cycle continues.