Obstinate Patience

It's not always what's on the inside that counts. Thankfully.

It’s not always what’s on the inside that counts. Thankfully.

I’m impatient by nature. And nurture. I’m also obstinate. Dumbass, thick-headed, frustratingly obstinate. It’s not exactly the world’s most coveted combo of characteristics: impatience and obstinance. This could be considered bordering on cantankerous, or curmudgeonly.

But years of being a teacher, a profession where patience is tried and tested on a daily basis, helped me realize that if I ever wanted to make it out of the day alive (or for that matter let half the students walk out of the room with their heads still cleanly attached to their shoulders), I would have to find a way to develop that quality I lacked. And so I set out to turn my obstinance against my impatience. Two wrongs may not have made a complete right, but it didn’t go too awry.

I’ve developed what I might refer to as a very obstinate patience. Really it’s just me internally arguing myself into elongated moments of inaction, allowing what others might call patience to reign, but which I know to be little more than a seething cauldron of impatience kept just a notch away from a full-on boil over. It’s the notch that makes the difference.

Case in point:

After waiting in line for coffee in an overly crowded café, already paid and ready to quickly doctor my drinks and dash, I casually pull up behind a small woman who is comfortably taking up all the real estate at the milk counter. Now this counter, like New York, doesn’t have a whole lot of real estate to start with, so when someone is holding a monopoly on the milk, the wooden stirs, the sugar, the lids, people tend to get a little antsy. Well, I tend to get a little antsy. And impatience begins kicking without ever really looking.

What the hell lady?

An observer might notice a man calmly waiting his turn to pour some milk in his coffee, as a smallish woman delicately pours cream in her cup, waits, inspects, and awkwardly pours a little more.

Seriously? You could place your cup six inches to the left and we’d all be better off and on our way. At least I would. Six inches!

The observer might notice the man shift slowly to his right and glance over the woman’s shoulder, his sunglassed eyes revealing little, but his face a serene smile as the woman sets down the cream and reaches delicately for the cinnamon.

Damnit. What’s the malfunction up there? How hard can this be? You all thumbs?

One shake. Two shakes. The cinnamon slowly settles on the coffee. The woman moves to return the shaker to the shelf, ever so slowly, like it’s volatile.

Now get a lid and get moving!

She slowly reaches back for the cream.

It’s at this point that the heady, heated interior monologue turns to argument. Impatience starts wrangling with obstinance. Just say excuse me, jostle in, do your thing and leave. This is ridiculous, waiting like this…We’ve waited this long. What’s the difference if we wait a little longer?…My foot in her ass. That’s the difference…Well we’re not moving because we started to wait and now we’re going to finish waiting…This is taking forever. There’s no reason not to move her over, get what you want. She doesn’t even care you’re behind her. She’s concentrating on that coffee like it’s brain surgery…That’s not the point. The point is that we’ve started waiting and we’re going to finish waiting. Period…You’re an asshole…So are you. I know, they’re both very eloquent in argument. 

Of course the observer hears none of this, notices the woman finish checking her coffee to cream ratio for the third time, and maybe sees the man shift his weight from one side to the other, maybe sees him take a slightly deeper breath.

I’m going to move her out of the way, with a hard elbow…We’re going to stand right here like we started and see this through.

The woman is now slowly lifting the sugared water bottle and sweetening to taste. And taste. And taste again.

Continuing to stand here and do nothing is the dumbest idea you’ve had all day. And you saw “Iron Man 3.”…We’re not done with the wait and we’re not leaving until we finish what we started… You could have been out the door by now, down the road, on about your business…Still waiting!…The voices often reach a fevered pitch inside my head as impatience froths at the mouth like a gremlin fed after midnight and obstinance pushes back with blind, brute force. (This is the same internal struggle I would have at times in the classroom after some idiocy or other had me pondering the fate of mankind and the next forty-five minutes of class.) You see? It’s this kind of self-absorbed “there’s no one else in the world but me” action that makes people go on about their lives considering only themselves. She’s the Lehman Brothers of the coffee counter…That makes no sense… If you don’t step forward and claim the space and place that’s rightfully yours, people like this will continue to steal your time and you’ll die standing in line, waiting for your turn like a complete…That’s all well and good, but we’re not moving. We started standing here and we’ll fucking finish standing here.

At this point, noticing the length of time the woman has been trying to find a lid that correctly fits her cup, four completely different attempts to make it work (there’s only two lid sizes available, you do the math), our observer might even comment to himself, under his breathe, regarding the crookedly smiling, still unmoving man in the glasses, “Nice guy. Patient.” He might even think quietly, “I should try to be more like that.”

Get the fuck out of the way!

Sometimes arguing yourself into inaction, into a sort of perverted patience, has its benefits.

As the woman turns to go, she reaches her left hand across her body to discard the straw’s paper. Finally! The last act of a too long play of inconsideration. And now I see clearly: two stubs for digits clutch crumpled white paper and the rest of the hand is an empty space where fingers used to be. Oh. So that’s why…She gently pats the lid of her drink one more time to make sure it’s secure, picks up the cup by squeezing it between the palms of clearly damaged hands, smiles, and goes her way about the day.

I step forward, slightly embarrassed. Two silent voices ringing in my head.

Sometimes, even though you’re a dick and despite your worst intentions, you can appear slightly better than yourself. A little patience goes a long way. Barring that, faking it once in a while sure doesn’t hurt.