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Traffic Cones Are People, Too

Anthropomorphism is a huge word, and it seems even bigger than the six syllables it occupies when it hits my eyes, ears or brain. When I see or hear it (which isn’t often, to be honest), the first thing that comes to mind (wait, it’s the second, since the first is that I immediately judge the person using it to be a pompous ass – my issue, not theirs) is that I’m not sure I know what it means, and if I do, I probably shouldn’t because it’s a word reserved for people much smarter – and presumably, more pompous – than I. (Full disclosure: I was once called a “pompous ass” by my 9th grade band director in front of the entire ensemble. I don’t recall why, but back then, I’m sure I deserved it.)

If you don’t know what anthropomorphism means (and at the risk of appearing patronizing and best and as a pompous ass at worst), it is, according to the dictionary (or, at least, a dictionary), “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.”

There, now you can spend the rest of your life not using it, or if you need to refer to something of this nature, you can simply use the word “humanize,” which I will do for the rest of this piece and my life, since 1) I’m already tired of typing a-n-t-h-r-o-p-o-m-o-r-p-h-i-s-m, 2) it’s way more word than any of us needs in our daily life and 3) the whole “pompous ass” thing.

That said, I’m sure at times we’ve all humanized things (I might be reaching or simply looking for validation for my own strange behavior by using the term “we’ve all,” but just go with it), most commonly our pets.

I’m not sure what you do in the privacy of your home (and that’s not an offer for you to share, let’s be clear), but I tend to give voices to pets and other animals I observe. Our dog, Sadie (may she rest in peace), had a distinct voice, originated by and delivered through me, not only in vocal tone but also a “style” that reflected her personality and the pattern of her speech I presumed she’d possess if she had the power of human language.

While sharing that with you makes me feel only a little uncomfortable, what I’m going to share with you next deals with the humanization of something you may find somewhat bizarre. (OK, if we’re breaking down words, I’ll admit “bizarre” might be overselling; let’s go with “weird.”)

And what you may find even weirder is that someone would share it with the world. Here goes.

I’ve developed an interest in traffic cones, yes, those traffic cones. (Note: I explored replacing “interest” with words like “preoccupation,” “passion,” “hobby,” and “obsession” but they all seemed either too clinical or severe. I also thought about calling it a “passing interest” but that seemed too “punny.”)

Over the past few years, I’ve been getting much of my exercise by walking. Admittedly, it took a while for me to buy in to this form of exertion, as I’ve never considered myself a good walker (a story for another time) but after a few months, I started to enjoy it.

In my pedestrian travels (and given the constant state of residential and commercial development, road construction, the burying of high-speed internet cable and fiber, etc.), one doesn’t have to drive, pedal or walk far to run across an array of orange (or sometimes yellow, though that’s like coming upon an albino squirrel) traffic cones.

I wish I’d invented these things, and even more, I wish I had occasion to use them. They’re mighty handy: so easy to place, move and retrieve, which humanization notwithstanding, catches my attention because I love it when something so simple can so effectively do its job.

And when I stumble upon a set of orange cones during my daily walks (figurately stumble that is … well, most of the time, and this goes back to the “other story” about being a bad walker), I immediately begin to think of them as workers, on the job, barking out instructions to one another, talking about the weekend as they go about their day. Sometimes (especially if there are cones of different sizes), I see them as a family, on a vacation or a walk of their own, and I wonder what that dialogue might sound like.

When guarding a manhole on a playground or in the middle of the road, I think about how they’re positioned, what they might be feeling or what one group of cones might be saying about another. (If we’re humanizing them, there’s obviously tension within the ranks, right?)

Again, to be clear, it’s an interest, not a passion, obsession or any of those other words we discussed earlier. But what is it really? I’ll tell you exactly what it is: it’s a game. It’s a game I’ve recently conjured up and played by myself, like those I would have – and did -- when I was a kid, hanging around with my best friend/cousin Mike.

And the only thing that would make this game more gratifying would be for him to join me in it. Since we were kids, we’ve occupied ourselves with made-up games, gags and interests that we are certain only the two of us would be entertained by; things that might amuse others for a moment or two before they go off to talk to someone else or get on with their lives. Then, two hours later, when those same folks return to find us still playing the game we created on the spot at a wedding reception, holiday get-together or dinner party, they run – not walk, run – away as fast as possible, wanting no part of the game or us.

And we’re OK with that. We’re OK with making each other laugh without a care in the world if others understand or appreciate our antics. And as with exercise, I hope these games are keeping me young in mind and spirit as the rest of me grows older, gradually turning me from a runner to a walker and such.

I know Mike would not only play the traffic cone game, he’d love it. He’d love to give cones name and nicknames, create scenarios around the way certain cones are positioned around a sinkhole or crosswalk, and trying to recreate what happened to the one that got knocked over. And what we’d love as much or more than anything is playing a game like this when others are around, to observe their initial curiosity, interest and laughter turn in the snap of a finger to, “I can’t get away from these two quickly enough.”

I’m not positive, but I’m confident that if he reads this, Mike will start sending me photos of cones he’s seen with descriptions, dialogue and plot lines for each, now that he knows it’s a game, a game that only two of us will likely appreciate. Because just like the evolution from runner to walker, now we can’t run around the neighborhood to play this game or ride bikes all over town. We need to grab moments on our own and share them as we’re able, usually across text messages, but knowing someday soon we’ll be together at an event or party, and a new game will pop up out of nowhere, one we’ll run with as all others run away.

Maybe after the traffic cone game, Mike and I will create another that involves finding six syllable words that make people sound like pompous asses. (Spoiler alert: it’s most six-syllable words.)

You probably think this is all a childish waste of time and brain power. Maybe it is, and that’s OK. Mike and I will be glad to take your money when you order your copy of our coffee table book, “Traffic Cones: A Life” (working title).

© 2022 David R. Haznaw

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