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Why do I bother?

Today I had one of those moments of sheer emotional survival. The scene: a seven-year-old's birthday party, the parking lot of a gymnastics warehouse. I'm at the trunk with two helium balloons, chatting politely with the mom of one of Bryce's classmates. I tell Quinn to let himself into his side. Suddenly I hear an angry male voice, "DID THAT JUST HIT OUR CAR?" I walk around to Quinn's side, see his door has made definite contact with the back passenger door of the car next to us - the car of Bryce's classmate's next-door-neighbor, the car holding a young friend of one of Bryce's oldest friends. I flinch, I grab Quinn's door and move it, I see a scratch on their back passenger door and say, "I am SO SORRY!" I know it was an accident. I look at Quinn, whose eyes are wide and confused, I scold him and tell him to sit down and buckle up, we need to be more careful. His formerly happy eyes well up with tears and his face flushes with shame and fear: "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to! It was the wind - it was an accident. I was TRYING!" I am brought back to reality, to true priority, but the owner of the car isn't. I tell Quinn it's okay, I know it was a mistake, just buckle up, but the friend of the friend's mother is standing there yelling, "you've gotta be kidding me! I just got this car three months ago! OH COME ON!" while my four-year-old cries in shame. I look at her and apologize again, offer to give her my insurance information even against my own instinct. She scolds all of us again, "I don't know, I haven't even SEEN IT YET!" a clear indication that I am in her way. I push down my own desire to remind her that FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IT'S JUST A PAINT SCRATCH ON A HUNK OF METAL; PLEASE TELL ME YOU HAVE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO THINK ABOUT, AND IF YOU DON'T: PEOPLE ARE DYING AND BEING TORTURED RIGHT NOW, and I take my rage out on the trunk, where I toss the balloons and slam the door shut. I shakily and in shock and disbelief search for my car insurance information while she dramatically circles her car and undoubtedly discusses the unacceptable scratch with her husband, who has yet to make eye contact with any of us, but sits and stews in the passenger seat while my two children observe in confusion and fear -- there is no telling what his own child is seeing or thinking in the back seat of her shiny three-month-old punk skeleton sticker-covered car. Another classmate's friend walks out and notices me. I tell her the story while her own kids clamber into her car without thinking of the swing span of their car doors. She looks at me in disbelief: "It didn't matter that you were just at the same kid's birthday party?!" "Apparently not," I say. She looks up and whispers, shocked, "SHE JUST TOOK A PICTURE OF THE DOOR WITH HER CELL PHONE!" I look at her while I write the last three digits of my insurance policy number. "Yeah." I say. "I told you." Her breath catches in her throat. "I am sorry," she says, "I would rather have a mark on my car than treat someone the way she is treating you." "Me too," I say appreciatively.

The angry woman walks around to my side of the car and I hold out my information while I say, "I'm sorry this is so important to you that it makes you this upset. I apologize again for the scratch." She grabs it and, shockingly, makes her face look even more offended and entitled than it already did. "I didn't think I was that upset. But cars are expensive, and I just got this a few months ago." "Yeah," I say, walking around to my door, my obligation fulfilled. She continues in her huffy state, "don't you want my information so when I call you know who I am?" "Sure," I say. "I mean," she continues, "weren't you at the birthday party I was at?" "Yes!" I cry. "We were at the same birthday party!" "Well, yeah, we're C's next door neighbors." "Okay. Yes, cars are expensive. I've apologized, and I apologize again that my four-year-old accidently scratched your car door when the wind caught hold of it as he was getting in AFTER THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. Goodbye."

I make sure they pull out before I do. Behind them and silent for the first time since the ordeal started, I notice all the cartoon character stickers plastered on the back window and license plate. Oh yeah, presentation is definitely important to these people. A paint scratch on their car door would be a HUGE DISTRACTION FROM THE PUNK SKULLS.

I'm always telling my kids that it's all about the choices we make. I see today's event as another opportunity to point out how I made some difficult choices because they were the right things to do even in the face of a self-centered, petty jerk. But I also see the situation as something an older, more sophisticated child would (and undoubtedly will) point to as a way to prove me wrong. That ultimately there is no way to rise above the pettiness, that ultimately we're all petty survivors, we're all out for ourselves, we're all jerks out to prove something, even if that something is how "above" the petty people we are. As we drove home and I tried to explain to the kids why I was upset with the angry car owner's behavior, as I tried to use this moment as a teaching moment and an example of what not to do, I realized the most they were going to take from this pathetic ordeal was that I had called someone a jerk. What brought the realization home was when, as I drove along the highway listening to Bryce's constant question stream, he said he'd wished I had let him have a word in edgewise while at his grandmother's this evening, because he'd really been wanting to tell her that I'd "called that lady a jerk."