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The Boston Globe

Opinion

TOM KEANE

Desperate measures

Space-savers and Harvard exams — overreactions to life’s vicissitudes

Traffic cones are classic space-savers in South Boston.

Boston Globe photo/globe staff illustration

Traffic cones are classic space-savers in South Boston.

The custom of “saving” a parking spot you’ve just shoveled out is absurd and ridiculous — unless, of course, you’re the one who just did the shoveling. And getting panicked about having to take a final exam is certainly nothing new either — but if it’s you who is looking failure in the eye, desperate measures seem warranted.

But using a nail gun to shoot out all four tires on a Jeep Grand Cherokee because you’re mad that someone took the spot you just cleared? Or e-mailing in a terrorist threat so that everyone’s exams get canceled? Somewhere, it seems, a sense of proportion has been lost.

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South Boston got a good round of mocking a week ago after a few inches of snow were dumped on the city. Residents cleared their cars and then promptly put out their space savers — everything from chairs to cones to all manner of detritus — designed to signal that, having shoveled the spot, they were now laying claim. The neighborhood is hardly alone in this curious tradition; a quick drive around town will find space-savers everywhere: Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, even across the river in Cambridge. Boston isn’t alone, either. The practice is common is many northern cities, including Pittsburgh, Chicago,Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Those who decry space-saving worry about the private taking of public property. Residents mostly understand that, but they also need a place to park when they come home, and there seems a measure of rough justice that, having arduously worked to clear a spot, they are entitled to at least a couple of days grace.

Like many of these conflicts, there’s really no right or wrong answer. Particularly in cities where residents live cheek-to-jowl, daily life is routinely a matter of accommodation. The things other people do inevitably annoy you: They’re noisy at the wrong hours, they paint their houses off colors, they leave their junk mail lying around — the list is long and varied. The way to handle all of this is to develop a thicker skin, recognize that often the offenses others commit are unintentional, and remember that most of them are of little consequence anyway. You tolerate their foibles, they tolerate yours.

The nail gunner didn’t get that. The amount of snow he cleared really didn’t rise to the level of effort that justified a parking saver anyway. But even if the snowfall had been greater, the right response would have been a letter on the windshield — something polite, something that assumed the transgression was innocent (which, as it turned out, was the case: The space-stealer was unaware of the code of the snow).

Vandalism is a lousy way to create neighborliness.

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Nor are bomb threats a great way to handle exam stress.

Last Monday — the day after the nail gunner’s attack — Harvard student Eldo Kim allegedly sent out e-mails claiming “shrapnel bombs” had been placed in two of four Harvard buildings. His goal, according to the FBI, was to get out of having to take a test. There’s an object lesson here for us all, by the way. What you do on the Internet is rarely anonymous. Kim supposedly used anonymizer services to disguise himself, but apparently investigators were able quickly to figure out that he happened to be the only student on campus using those services. D’oh!

Given Harvard’s much-publicized grade inflation, it’s not clear what Kim feared anyway. Perhaps a B+ if he failed? And even if that outcome was too much to bear, surely there are other ways to get out of exams without risking jail time: feigning illness, for instance.

Granted, we all harbor deranged fantasies. I’m cut off in traffic, and suddenly I’m ramming my car into the culprit. But in real life I just give a couple of annoyed honks. One wonders about Kim, the South Boston gunner, and — in the news lately — those in Centennial, Colo., and Reno, Nev., who’ve taken out their frustrations behind the barrel of a gun. All of them share a common thread: an overreaction to life’s vicissitudes. Using destruction and death to get our way may be the stuff of TV and video games, but it’s no way to live.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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