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Jewish World Review July 27, 2001 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5761

Bob Greene

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You'd hate to see Abe on the Lincoln Highway -- THE Abraham Lincoln-road rage connection is one you may not have considered, but stick around. There's something to this.

Lincoln, a century and a half after his death, is back in the news again. This time it's about pills; researchers are saying that Lincoln may have suffered from sudden mood swings because of mercury pills he reportedly took for depression.

There always seems to be new news about Lincoln; all this time after his death, stories periodically pop up in the press about his life and political career. Widely considered to be perhaps the greatest president, Lincoln continues to fascinate people even though there is not a single snippet of videotape of him holding a press conference, not one archived piece of footage of him appearing on a television show. He's off there in the mists -- and because we can't see him, can't hear him, he becomes paradoxically more compelling.

If the reports of mood-altering pill usage were about, say, Richard Nixon, or Jimmy Carter, we would be bombarded with TV special reports showing volatile moments from those presidents' administrations. Their facial expressions would be zoomed in on; their gestures would be played and replayed. Within days we would think we knew the whole story; the show would be old. We'd move on.

We never move on from Lincoln, because his mystery lies in his distance. It's not because of any choice he made; were Lincoln to come along today, he would probably be as ubiquitous on television screens as George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. We'd have him down cold, or at least we would think we did, the way we think we have every public figure we can see and hear down cold.

So where is the road rage connection?

Road rage is a product of the same set of technological circumstances that have allowed us to have political men and women delivered into our homes the way Lincoln was not. Road rage -- and all of the other current rages -- emerged because we became conditioned to having whatever we wanted at the moment we wanted it. It did not start with cars -- road rage on the highways was just the ultimate result.

We once had to wait for things. Mail, for example; if someone mailed you something, you would know about it when you received it -- a day or two days or three days later. The instant nature of e-mail was nonexistent; we weren't impatient about waiting for something to arrive, because incoming correspondence, by definition, took time.

The same thing with all kinds of information. If you wanted some research done on a certain subject, it was going to be a fairly time-consuming process. You'd have to decide what you were interested in, submit a request, wait for someone to look up the answers and prepare them and send them back to you. . . .

And in between, you'd do other things. Life would go on.

Now, expectations have been fundamentally transformed. If that e-mail you were expecting isn't here in the next minute, you begin to fume a little bit. If you type a word into a search engine, wanting results, and the screen is slow in loading. . . .

Well, you may feel like heaving the computer through the nearest window. Mere seconds have passed, but you feel your blood pressure rising.

Road rage is one result of this. In all areas of our lives, we have been taught that we have the right to be the masters of our worlds, and have what we want right now, on demand. Tap a key, and it's there.

On the roads and highways -- which are not computer screens -- we bring the same expectations with us, even though they don't apply. A road is not a computer chip; a car is not a modem. Yet when there are delays, or if someone slows us down . . . .

The headlines are full of what can happen. Fifty years ago, if a motorist was dawdling along and blocking the way, the driver in the car behind him might let out a sigh and say: "Sunday driver. . . ." Today, if the driver behind the errant dawdler was incensed enough, he might pull out a gun. His world is not supposed to be this slow; he is not supposed to be held back or inconvenienced.

Back to Lincoln. In our sounds-and-pictures-in-an-instant era, he might be quite common. Not his qualities, but our perception of them. The speeding up of everything, the easy availability of images, makes nothing and no one, in the end, very special. Speed, and the promise of it, makes us at the same time feel lazily entitled that the world be delivered to us in a blink, yet blithely dismissive of all that is delivered. And angry when we have to wait for the delivery.

Lincoln couldn't survive that; no one can. His ace in the hole is that he lived when he did. Because we can't reach him, he will grow ever larger. Good thing that, when he was popping those mercury pills, there wasn't a car waiting for him out in the garage. He might have been a handful on the highway.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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