Supposedly we live in an incredibly affluent, prosperous, happy moment. You've seen the numbers. Income is up, unemployment's down. Stocks are off the charts. Santa's cutting down on carbohydrates and is looking mighty svelte. And yet despite these many salutary trends, our society has also seen an alarming, indeed potentially disastrous, rise in Per Capita Aggravation.
In the history of the world there can't have been a more aggravating moment than this one. I'm sure you agree. Or maybe you don't agree. Maybe you're one of these people who never agree with anything but withhold judgment, pending further analysis. I find it highly aggravating when people are unable to perceive instantly that I'm right.
You may ask, what is "aggravation," exactly? The answer is, it's the general response to specific insults to the nervous system. It's not just mental, it's physical.
It is not a reaction to a singular provocation. Rather, it's an elaborate, systemic and visceral response to a stimulus that is implicitly associated with numerous other aggravating stimuli that have collided with you throughout your life. Aggravations build up in your bloodstream like carbon monoxide.
Everyone has his or her personal Aggravometer. My Aggravometer red-lined just the other morning when I went to Starbucks. I've personally kept Starbucks in business in this town for the last several years; this column is frequently Starbucks-generated, and if those people had any decency they'd become official sponsors of Rough Draft and pay for my coffee the way Armani has picked up the tab for my wardrobe.
Anyway, I was at Starbucks and there was a long line and I was waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and finally got my coffee, and then as I was about to fix it up I noticed someone offering to buy a homeless guy a cup of coffee, and I had one of those spasms of guilt, realizing how obscenely rich I am compared with 99 percent of humanity, and remembering that I hadn't done anything remotely charitable since the time a few weeks ago when I agreed to read my youngest child a book, and so I said, "Here." And gave the dude my coffee.
I got back in line.
"Excuse me, sir," came a voice. It was the manager. He chastised me. He said that the homeless guy had come into the place before and stolen stuff, and that if I intended to do something like that ever again, I should talk to the management first.
So I was publicly scolded, still didn't have my coffee, and I could feel the Aggravometer surging, and this sensation was compounded by a feeling of, quite frankly, despair--a generalized depression about the difficulty of doing good in an overly corporate world, and finally I just walked out and went to Firehook Bakery and got coffee there.
I told that story because, in doing so, I purged the aggravation from my system.
And now one more story about a Connecticut Avenue aggravation.
My wife and I walked into Dragonfly, a swank bar where the decor is entirely black and white, very stark, ultramodern, with lots of metal and leather and mirrors, as though through sheer force of decorative energy they could make some New York models walk into the place. Every table was empty. But every table also had a little card in the middle saying "Reserved." We tried to take one of these empty tables and were told that unless we ordered dinner we'd have to sit at the bar. I felt a slight twinge in the hinder regions of my scalp, the first sign of aggravation coming on.
So we sat at the bar. The music was what I'd call techno-pop. It was purely instrumental, synthesized, up-tempo. Most noticeably, it seemed strangely repetitive. It sounded like the same dozen notes played over and over and over. Indeed, it sounded like the CD was skipping. But of course I assumed--and this was an aggravating thought--that this was another example of how I'd become catastrophically uncool. This was surely the kind of music young people who go to Dragonfly find enchanting. This was the Now sound.
The same notes kept playing.
The needle on the Aggravometer crept toward the Danger zone.
Finally, I screwed up the courage to suggest to the bartender that the CD was, in fact, skipping.
"No, if you listen carefully, there are slight changes," the bartender said confidently.
I'd been shot down, right in front of my spouse, who was cringing slightly. More minutes went by, we drank our cocktails, but it was harder and harder to concentrate, because the techno-pop simply refused to change, it was the same dang notes over and over and over and over and over, and finally I called the bartender back and asked him to check to see if the CD was skipping, and he did, and he came back and said: "You're right, it was skipping."
Well you can just imagine what I did. I threw my arms in the air in the classic TOUCHDOWN! gesture. I wasn't an old fart after all! Take that, hyperfashionable New York wannabes!
For a brief moment it was hard to imagine ever being aggravated again.
Joel Achenbach's Rough Draft column appears three times a week--Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays--in the PM Extra edition of washingtonpost.com.