The Vanity Dilemma

Vanity plates can be a fun method of self expression. It is the vehicle's owner's way of introducing themselves to the world. You want to know who I am? Read my license plate. But there is a dilemma with using plates (and to some extent, bumper stickers) to describe yourself to the other drivers on the road. The implication is that you must live up to the message you deliver.

Sometimes these messages are contradictory, as if the car's owner has two distinct personalities that can't agree on anything. A test study in cognitive dissonance. I found one of these individuals in the run up to last November's election while following a beat up 80's era sedan. On one one side of their trunk was a coexist sticker - the type spelled with religious symbols like the Islamic crescent for the C, the Jewish star of David for the X, and the Christian cross for the T. The other side of the trunk had a sticker with Trump's Make America Great Again slogan.

Then there are cars whose decorations fit the stereotypes. Like the guy that always wears black; has a beard, long hair, and multiple piercings; and drives a car with plates that read "MTL-HED." In my apartment's parking lot, I often see a dented black sports coupe with the phrase "Send nudes" in white stenciled letters across his back window. Yes, I assumed "his" because I don't know a woman alive who would do that to her car. This coupe was around for months before I ever saw the driver, and when I finally watched him climb out of the driver's seat for the first time, I couldn't help but notice how he looked just as I imagined.

Finally, you have those drivers who portray personalities contrary to the themes promoted in their license plates or bumper stickers. How many times have you been flipped off by a driver who has a Jesus fish on their back bumper? Or observed aggressive driving from someone whose vehicle is adorned with stickers promoting peace and love? These are the persons who face the vanity dilemma. They elected to advertise an unsustainable cheeriness then fail to live up to their own self-imposed definition.

I encountered one of these motorists this morning. She merged into the lane behind me and she was clearly displeased with my adherence to the speed limit. When I looked in the rear view mirror, I observed angry eyebrows, lips twisted by a scowl, and a face quickly turning a darker shade of red. When she finally had the opportunity to pass me, she punched the gas and flew by me at a rate fast enough to earn a speeding ticket had their been a police officer present. As she sped by, her face was the textbook image of rage. After she passed, I read her vanity plate. It said "HAPPY3X."

My reaction was laughter. What else could I do? Here was a lady who wants you to know one thing about her. She's happy. Happy happy happy. Feeling snappy. Life is rosy, comfy cozy. Everything is sunshine and rainbows. She claimed to be jubilant, but clearly she was the opposite. Not singularly happy, let alone three times the joyous emotion.

Now, I'll give her some grace. Everyone is allowed to have a bad day, even the most cheerful among us. It's understandable to be grumpy at 7am. And I don't know the circumstances of her morning. She could have been late for work and I was an obstacle delaying her arrival. She could be a habitual lead-foot and I was nothing more than a pest cramping her style. Maybe she was driving her husband's vehicle and he is the perennially happy half of their relationship.

Yet she is a cautionary tale. When you slap a bumper sticker onto your tailgate or walk into the DVM to order a vanity plate, give it some careful consideration before you advertise yourself to the world. As soon as your message of choice is affixed to the back of your car, you face a dilemma. You must live up to the words you selected. Because people like me will laugh at you when you don't.

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