The word prompt this week is crowd.
For me this word has mostly negative associations. I am both anti-social and claustrophobic. Finding myself imprisoned in a mass of other human beings is bound to sabotage the restraining influence of my cerebral cortex. Waiting in a long line of people in front of a counter staffed by a cognitively challenged octogenarian makes me grind my teeth and curse under my breath. If by dint of ill fortune I find myself jammed into the back of a crowded elevator, I hold both my temper and my breath until the doors slide open and I can elbow my way to freedom.
Naturally I try to avoid these situations.
Take supermarkets for example. If I'm planning wisely, I'll always choose a weekday morning to shop. Sometimes, however, I forget an item and feel compelled to return at a less auspicious time. Often, in these circumstances, I find myself blocked in the middle of a narrow aisle by shoppers who are taking forever to decide between competing brands. The result is instant outrage. I imagine my shopping cart as a modern-day battering ram. Only the tiniest whisper from my suppressed superego prevents me from emitting a war whoop and launching my attack on the poor innocent shoppers blocking my egress.
Anticipating my loss of self-control, I have sometimes abandoned a cart full of purchases and left the store. It's a good way to save money, at least.
One of the positive aspects of living in remotest New Mexico is its (relative) lack of crowds and generous portions of open space. Uninhabited canyons and plateaus, dominated by sage and juniper, comprise the scenery between urban areas which, relative to the East Coast, are sparsely populated. My eyes feast on this expanse along with the dazzling enormity of blue sky. Where I lived before, in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was always the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, along with the plentiful county, state and federal preserves, to balance the burgeoning urban and suburban sprawl.
Sometimes I try to imagine how the North American continent looked before droves of Europeans arrived here to devour and breed.
No, I am not rejecting civilization or romanticizing the existence of hunter-gatherers. It's just the visual image of a swarm that seems aesthetically repelling. Bee swarms, ant swarms, swarms of locusts, mud swallow nests jammed together on the side of a building -- all of these make me shudder and look away. In my (albeit over sensitized) mind, a dense concentration of almost anything is physically abhorrent.
I have, though, at least one positive association with the word "crowd." I am thinking back to the year 1970 when the American people rose up and stopped the Vietnam War. I no longer remember which month it was. All I remember is a freeway in Seattle occupied by so many thousands of people you couldn't see the end of the line or the beginning. Opposition was no longer solely a radical stand. Liberals, quasi-liberals and even moderates had seen more than enough televised images of young girls catching fire and traumatized elderly villagers hobbling on the edges of rice paddies choked with corpses.
The occupants of the freeway sang, brandished signs, pontificated, speculated, and laughed because for this moment in time, our differences -- political, economic and social -- had been set aside in pursuit of a common goal. We were the force of reason, the implement of peace and we would prevail.
It was a crowded situation well worth tolerating.