Anger Management in the Civilized World

Commentator Jon Miller lives in a college town. A recent altercation with a student in a SUV made him realize they both needed a lesson about what it means to live in a civilized society.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Our next piece is another story about college students and gridlock. Commentator John Miller used to report for NPR from the Philippines and Peru. Now he lives a slightly more domestic life in Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell University.

JOHN MILLER: If you've ever lived in a college town, you know they can be some of the most civilized places on earth. At least until the students come and gum everything up. You don't need a calendar to know when they're back. You just wait for the SUVs with out of state plates to start rolling through the stop signs and charging onto the one lane bridges out of order.

So I was driving my ancient Civic going to pick up my son from his piano lesson when a college kid in a big red SUV with New Jersey plates rumbled through a four-way stop out of turn. And I did what any peace-loving, well adjusted, middle aged guy in a tiny beat-up car running late to pick up his kid from his piano lesson would do. I shot into the intersection and cut him off. I guess I thought he'd say yo dude, my bad, and back off.

But he didn't. So we stopped grill to grill and stood there like a terrier facing off with a horse. After a minute I got out of the car and shouted, "At a four-way stop you've got to wait your turn." Then I got back into my car and waited and the traffic backed up in every direction. We were officially gumming things up.

So I rolled down my window and yelled, "I'm old enough to be your father." I don't know why I thought that would move him and of course it didn't. After both of us ostentatiously took down each other's license plate numbers he finally did back up but just a little and I squeezed through in front of him and went on my way.

So, I won but every time I remember it, my ears go red. I mean, what was I thinking? That by confronting this stranger in a busy intersection I could teach him about the golden rule or the rule of law or, I don't know, fairness and justice and the very foundation of civilization as we know it? Or that in a small town no one I knew would see me there shouting, holding up traffic and think I was being a little bit ridiculous?

I guess that's a problem with picking fights. It's hard to back down. You say to yourself, I could stay the course or I could cut and run. I stayed the course. Now every time I go out I'm wondering what the kid in the SUV is going to do if he sees me. I'm not used to living with this kind of fear.

I can't tell you how important it is to respect four way stops but there's got to be a better way to make the point. Yo dude, my bad.

NORRIS: Commentator John Miller lived and drove in South America and Asia before moving to the mean streets of Ithaca, New York.

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