CHAPTER FIVE: Good Drivers
I was twelve years old and riding in the back seat of our family’s station wagon when somebody cut us off in traffic. My father hit the brakes pretty hard, and everybody gasped, but he didn’t say anything. He just kept driving. A minute later, as we passed by the offending vehicle, I rolled down my window and raised my middle finger toward the driver.
“What the heck are you doing?” My father asked, angrily. He must have seen my gesture in his side view mirror.
“What?” I responded, surprised that my father was mad at me. “That guy cut us off. He deserves it.”
“No he doesn’t. Don’t ever let me see you do something like that again.” He said sharply, bringing hot tears to my eyes.
My grandparents were in the car with us, and I was embarrassed at being reprimanded. I was also mad because I thought it unjust. Here this guy had cut us off in traffic and all I had done was flip him the bird, something I had seen other people do many times in similar situations. He was the bad guy, not me.
When we got home, I went straight to my room to mope. After an hour or so, my father came in and looked at me lying face down on my bed.
“Are you going to spend the rest of the day in here?” He asked. “Your grandparents would like to see you.”
“Well, I don’t want to see them, or anybody else.” I replied.
“Is that because I yelled at you in the car?”
“You didn’t have to do that!” I said, sitting up on my bed angrily. “I don’t understand why you did that. It’s not fair.”
Ignoring my anger, my father asked me calmly “what does the middle finger mean son?” I started to respond, but then stopped. I had never said that word in his presence. I was ashamed to say it out loud.
“I, uhhhh . . ., well you know.” I stammered.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “But I want to make sure that you do. What does it mean?” I didn’t answer. My father asked me again, “what does middle finger mean son?”
“It means ‘fuck you’,” I finally answered, dropping my head and mumbling it, barely audible.
“What’s that?” He asked, cupping a hand to his ear. “I didn’t really hear you.”
“Fuck you,” I said, a little more loudly, “it means fuck you.”
“And what does ‘fuck you’ mean?” He asked, which startled me as I had never heard him say that word before.
I was stumped as well as startled. I knew the word was related to sex somehow, but I only had the vaguest prepubescent sense of what that was. Obviously, I also knew it could be used as a curse, but what it meant in that context was unclear to me. Now that my father was asking, I realized I had no idea. Did it mean that the person should go have sex? If so, why was that a curse? Wasn’t sex supposed to be a good thing? My friends with older brothers all seemed to think so.
My father watched the gears in my head mash around for a bit and then told me “it means ‘drop dead’. When you give a man the middle finger you are telling him that his life is meaningless, so he might as well drop dead.”
“I didn’t know that.” I said.
“I know you didn’t know that. That’s why I’m telling you.”
“OK,” I responded, “but why is that wrong? Wasn’t the guy who cut us off pretty much saying the same thing to us?”
“Maybe,” my father answered. “Or maybe he’s just a bad driver. Either way, what he did doesn’t make it OK for you to do what you did. If it did, that would make it OK for him to do something else back to you in response.”
“But I’ve seen a lot of people do it, grown-ups.” I responded, perplexed.
“Well, they shouldn’t do it.” He said. “And while you may have seen some people do it, you haven’t seen everybody do it. If everybody did that, the world wouldn’t work very well.”
“So, what are you supposed to do if somebody drives like that, just cuts you off in the middle of the road? You have to do something don’t you?” I asked.
“No, you don’t,” my father said, “if a guy cuts you off in traffic, you just act as if he hadn’t and keep driving. You be a good driver even though the other guy is a bad driver.”
“But why Dad? Why do I have to be a good driver if that guy doesn’t care? That’s not fair.”
“Fairness has nothing to do with it son. You have to be a good driver because there aren’t enough good drivers on the road. If you let a bad driver turn you into a bad driver, there’ll be one less good driver out there. If that keeps happening, eventually there will be nothing but bad drivers on the road and the world can’t work that way.”
Thirty years later I was representing a defendant in a mediated settlement conference. My client had made a reasonable settlement offer, which the mediator took to the plaintiff and his lawyer in the other room. We didn’t expect them to accept our offer, but we anticipated a reasonable counteroffer in response.
But that didn’t happen. When the mediator returned, he shook his head wryly and said, “they’ve come down one dollar from their previous position.”
“What bullshit!” My client snorted.
“Yeah, what the heck Bob?” I asked the mediator. “I thought they wanted to settle this case.”
“I think they do, but there are some difficult and emotional personalities in that room.” Bob said, meaning both the plaintiff and his lawyer.
“Well, screw ‘em both.” My client said angrily. “We’re not moving again until they make a reasonable offer. In fact, we ought to just get up and leave right now.” He was pretty hot.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Bob responded. “If you do that, you’re guaranteed not to settle the case. Besides, I’m the mediator and this doesn’t end until I say it does.” Bob was smiling when he said that, but I knew he was serious. He wouldn’t let anyone leave until he was ready to declare the mediation at an impasse. I had used him as a mediator before, and I knew that he never gave up that easily.
“So, what do you want me to do?” My client asked.
“Make a counteroffer.” Bob said.
“OK,” my client responded, “we’ll move the same freaking dollar that they did. Take that back to them.”
“I could do that,” Bob said, “but what do you think will happen if I do?”
“I don’t know,” my client said. “But at least they’ll realize we’re not taking any more of their crap. We need to send them a message.”
“What do you think will happen Dave?” Bob asked me.
“They’ll move another dollar in response.” I said. I’d seen that play out before.
“Exactly,” Bob said. “They’ll move a dollar; you’ll move a dollar. That will go on for two hours and then I will say the heck with it and impasse this thing and you won’t settle it.”
“OK fine,” my client said. “That’s what they get for being pig-headed.”
“But isn’t that what you get too?” Bob asked. “I’m not saying you’re being pig-headed. I’m just pointing out that you will both end up with the same consequences of not having settled a case that is clear to me you both want to settle.”
“Yeah,” my client admitted, “I want to settle it, but I’m not just going to pay whatever that son of a bitch demands. He’s got to meet me in the middle somewhere.”
“You aren’t at the middle now, are you?” Bob asked him.
“Well, no. We’re still pretty far from there.” My client admitted.
“So why not make the move you would have made even though the plaintiff hasn’t made the move he should have made to meet you there?” Bob asked.
“Why should I do that?” my client demanded.
“That’s not my question. I’m asking why shouldn’t you?”
“Because that would send the wrong signal.” My client responded. “They’ll think we’re weak over here.”
“Are you weak?” Bob asked.
“Then what do you care what they think?” Bob asked. My client had no answer to that question.
“So, what are you recommending?” He asked instead.
“Act as if the plaintiff had made a reasonable counteroffer and move the distance you would have moved if he had done so. Just because they are difficult and emotional in that room doesn’t mean that you have to make bad decisions in this room.” Bob said.
“So just keep moving, regardless of what they do?” My client said.
“Toward your goal, yes. Ignore the assholes and keep moving toward your goal. You can stop anytime you want but make that decision yourself. Just because they are bad negotiators doesn’t mean you have to be a bad negotiator too.” Bob said.
“What do you think?” My client asked me.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t like it much either, but Bob’s right. Your goal is to settle this case, and we’ll never get that done if we act like they do.”
So, we didn’t. Instead, we made the move we would have made if the plaintiff had responded reasonably. It didn’t work right away, but ultimately we settled the case that day pretty close to the number my client had been willing to pay when we walked in the door. On my way out of the office I ducked my head into the other room to say goodbye to the plaintiff and his lawyer.
“I’m glad we were able to settle it,” I told them.
“Me too,” they both exclaimed in unison, and then looked at each other laughed nervously. I noticed that they each had the same look on their face as well, a mixture of relieved exhaustion—like they had just received word that the governor had stayed their execution. Man, they really had wanted to settle this case.
“This one didn’t need to be tried,” the lawyer said.
“And I sure as hell didn’t want to sit through the trial,” his client added. “To be honest, I think it would have just about ended my marriage.”
I nodded my head and went on my way, wondering why if they felt that way they had risked it not settling by making that one dollar offer. It didn’t make much sense to me. If they wanted to settle, they should have made a reasonable offer from the outset like we did. Although, I had to admit, our reasonableness hadn’t lasted very long. As soon as they acted unreasonably, we were ready to do so as well, and would have if Bob had not persuaded us otherwise.
Probably, I realized from seeing them afterward, they were afraid to make a reasonable offer because they had the same concern that my client had expressed, that doing so would send the message that they were weak. They were afraid that if we knew that, we would run all over them. So, their posture of unreasonableness was actually a defense mechanism. The problem with that (I had learned the hard way practicing law for ten years) was that you cannot negotiate effectively if you are doing so defensively. It’s a bad way to negotiate.
But was I really any better? I had taken the plaintiff’s one-dollar offer as a middle-finger rather than a sign that I was dealing with a bad negotiator, which had led me act like a bad negotiator as well—even though I was generally a good negotiator. That is why Bob had said “just because they are bad negotiators doesn’t mean you have to be a bad negotiator too”. It had seemed like he was talking to my client, but he had really been talking to me. I was the lawyer, so my client was going to follow my lead.
It was like what my father had told me about bad drivers thirty years before. If a guy cuts you off in traffic, you can take that as “drop dead” and respond in kind. Or you can just assume that he is a bad driver and keep driving reasonably. If you choose the former, that means that you too become a bad driver and may provoke another negative response from him. A good driver wouldn’t do that because it might disrupt him from getting to his destination safely, which is the whole purpose in driving, to get where you are going in one piece.
That memory led me to another realization. When my father was cut off in traffic that day, he wasn’t driving by himself. He had his wife, children, and his parents in the station wagon with him. He was like Clark Griswold at the wheel of his Family Truckster with his passengers (as Francis Bacon had put it) as his “hostages to fortune”. To my father, we were “impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief”. His adventure was compromised by his responsibility for his family. He probably wanted to flip the guy off just like I did, but he wasn’t free to engage in mischief because he was the driver not a passenger. Unlike me, he wasn’t a boy, he was a man.
When I first became a man, I didn’t understand that. Because my adventure had yet to be compromised by my hostages of fortune, I was free to chase great enterprise and engage in mischief along the way if the spirit moved me. Despite my father’s admonishment, I considered myself at liberty to respond to bad drivers with some bad driving of my own—and often did.
But my attitude began to change in the Army when I became responsible for thirty men as a platoon leader. The first time I took them to the field, my company commander told me to train hard but that I had better bring “his men” back safe and sound. That gave me pause because I had been thinking of them as my men. But I was wrong. He was the commander, the centurion, so they were still his men even though I had been appointed for a time as their leader. They were his hostages of fortune, not mine, because he had ultimate accountability for their welfare, and he couldn’t delegate that to me or anyone else. Only later, when I was a commander myself, did I understood what it felt like to be a centurion.
When my time as a solider was over I became a lawyer. Initially, I saw my my clients merely as customers to whom I was to provide a service, in the same way that a hardware store sells hammers and nails. But I quickly saw that this was not so. With their liberty and property at stake, my clients weren’t like shoppers who, if they bought the wrong hammer, could simply return it, and buy something else. I wasn’t just responsible for their satisfaction; I was accountable for their welfare—which is something entirely different. They were to me as my soldiers had been, hostages of fortune whose interests I had to put before my own. Although I had laid down my arms when I left the military, I continued to be a centurion.
As I was still later when the Lord had blessed me with children to raise. On the road of my compromised adventure, with my three daughters strapped into the back of my minivan and my wife at my side, I may have been impeded from great enterprise (who knows), but I really didn’t care. By then, I had become a full-blown Minivan Centurion, complete with the coffee-stained cargo shorts and sense of fatherly purpose that any child or mother could instantly recognize even if I couldn’t see it in myself.
It was like my daughter had said to me that day in Freedom Park, “of course you’re a daddy. Just look. What else could you be?” She was right. And because that is what I am, what God made me to be, I am not free to be anybody else.
Which is why the Minivan Centurion is always a good driver, regardless of how anybody else drives. Because of whom he is, he is not free to be anything else. The world won’t work that way.