Friday, October 02, 2009

Bumper sticker bozos

Like a lot of kids, I had a dog growing up. Her name was Sandy, after Sandy Koufax, and we brought her home from the Humane Society when I was seven years old. In those days -- by the way, is there any other phrase as damning as "in those days" to confirm that you are moving well past middle age into AARP territory? -- there were no leash laws where I lived, so dogs were free to roam the streets. Our neighborhood was full of dogs, and, as best as I can remember, they came and went -- and sometimes crapped and went -- as they damn well pleased. My dog, at first, was less social than most of the others -- shy, withdrawn and fearful of people not familiar to her. We were told when we adopted her that she had been abused -- hence, the limp -- and I wanted to give her a home where she would feel protected and loved. Sandy turned out to be a great dog -- smart, curious, loyal and friendly. She even buddied up to the cat my sister demanded after I refused to share custody of Sandy with her, insisting that she was "my" dog in the same way that my sister claimed that our mother bought the Count Chocula cereal for her and not me, and that if I ever thought about eating any she would tell all my friends that I used to practice my pitching motion in front of the TV in my footie pajamas, which wasn't completely true, but neither was it completely false.

As much as I loved my dog and, admittedly, my sister's cat, it never occurred to me to pester my mother to put a bumper sticker on our car informing all other drivers, pedestrians, meter-readers, construction workers and gas station attendants -- yes, "in those days," no one pumped their own gas -- that we (a) owned a dog; (b) owned a dog of a certain pedigree or (c) owned a dog of a certain pedigree that was smarter than dogs of other, presumably lesser pedigrees or (d) owned a dog that was smarter than a human being, much less an honor student at a nearby public school. Asking my father was absolutely out of the question, since he already had two huge magnets advertising his business on the driver and passenger-side front door panels of our Chevrolet Kenwood station wagon. Riding in that car was embarrassing enough, so there was no need to compound the humiliation we already felt when confronted by strangers and friends with the entirely reasonable question of why my dad's clothing stores were named "Out of Sight" and "The Cat Bag." And, no, I still don't have an answer, other than it was the late 1960s and early '70s.

Nor, despite spending the years between the ages of 8 and 18 playing baseball, football, street hockey, soccer, basketball and tennis or running cross-country did we ever have a sticker or magnet of any kind on our cars sharing my modest sports accomplishments with the broader public. No magnets with an outline of a pitcher holding a runner on, no sticker with a black runner striding through the woods against a white background, no sticker with my name and number framing the community sports organization to which I belonged and absolutely no sticker or magnet that proudly defined my mother or father's adult identity as a "BASEBALL MOM" or "CROSS-COUNTRY DAD."

Thinking about this not even a little more, we did not have any publicly displayed proof that we vacationed in exotic places, belonged to an exclusive club of some sort, thought that people, not guns, killed people, that my sister and I attended our local public schools (which we did) and excelled in them (which we didn't), or that I was loved unconditionally despite not excelling in school. And this was not just us. Bumper stickers of any sort were a rare occurrence when and where I grew up. Growing up, I knew my fair share of good athletes, honors students, cat and dog owners and people -- although not many -- who vacationed in places more than 15 miles from their houses and were generally loved and supported by their parents. I just never knew anyone who felt compelled to share their children's activities and accomplishments through bumper sticker boasting. To this day, I still don't get it.

Take, for example, a car that I sat behind at a stop light last week in the affluent Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, where I live. Not one, not two, not three, but four -- FOUR -- bumper stickers adorned the back of the driver's car testifying to his dog's brilliance ("smarter than your honor's student"), athleticism ("faster than your soccer player"), attractiveness ("hotter than your girlfriend") and, finally, political prospects ("Greyounds make better presidents than people"). Frankly, I don't even get why a Black Lab owner needs to place a "WOOF" sticker on the rear window of her car. Silly, yes; creepy, no. But a grown man with four stickers on his bumper going on about his dog's perceived academic abilities and hotness quotient? That's just plain bizarre. There was part of me that wanted to follow him to see where he worked to make sure that if I ever came into contact with him in any professional context I would know to just get up and leave. Regardless of what he did -- fix my car, prepare the meal I ordered in a restaurant or lead the triage team in the ER closet to my house -- I don't want some guy so hung up on his damn dog that he thinks is smarter than me or more attractive than my wife having anything to do with me.

Vanity license plates are, to me, an extension of bumper sticker exhibitionism, which is, of course, a further extension of the real American exceptionalism, which is the constant need to engage in child-like, "look-at-me" behavior just to let anyone who might be watching know that, in a nation of 300 million people looking to stand out from one another, you . . . "LUV GLF," or "LUV WINE," or have "GRT KIDS," or believe in "NO YNIN," or have multiple degrees, "PHD JD," or have morphed from a "PTY GRL" into a "MILF," or feel the need to confirm publicly that you love your children or husband or wife or dog or gerbils by placing their initials on your license plate (I've often wondered if these public displays of affection are linked to family therapy of some sort, or the need to convince a reluctant parent/husband/wife that, yes, you do love your children and your spouse -- perhaps akin to the more recent alternative punishment movement of having shoplifters wear sandwich boards in public that say, "I STOLE FORKS FROM MACARONI GRILL").

And on and on it goes. Years back, my family spent an extended vacation driving through Eastern Canada, and the one thing I noticed right off the bat while navigating the roads and highways of our cleaner, more polite and generally more enlightened northern neighbor was the complete absence of bumper stickers and vanity license plates. My guess is that the Canadian aversion to self-promotion and braggadocio has more to do with the absence of this visual pollution than any law banning their use.

But I must confess that there is some social utility to these misplaced cries for attention. Any time either of my children misbehaves or does something to piss me off, I always come back with the same threat, "Do you want your name and number on the back of the car?" or "Do you want us to put one of those stick-figure families on the back of our rear window?" Shuts 'em up.

Every single time.

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