Thursday, April 11, 2013

Backs to the Wall

I’m in Cambridge, MA, sitting in a coffee shop at table near a window. I’m facing the window, with my back to the crowd, because the bench on the other side of the table is too low for typing. Almost involuntarily, my chair is migrating, inching around the table until, at last, I am on one side of the table, with my side to the crowd. From there, I can see everyone in my peripheral vision. That’s good enough. I stop fidgeting, mentally and physically, enough to write this piece.

For as long as I can remember, in any room, in any situation, if at all possible I sit with my back to the wall. I don’t like to hang out where I can’t see who might be coming at me. It’s as reflexive as smiling at cute children or avoiding groups of loitering men on dark nights.

At lunch yesterday, a good friend of Meg’s, Jenn DuChene, who runs a preschool in New Hampshire for four and five year olds, told stories about her children that reminded me that I’ve probably always had these instincts. She said that with the boys every stick on the playground is a weapon (for play). The boys can be kind and nurturing, too, she said, but competition is their default mode.
Jenn’s boys make me think of Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is, in many ways, still a boy himself. He’s got his rocket stick and he’s waving it around. It doesn’t seem like he is playing. Darwin is whispering to him, and no one has taught him to control his atavistic instincts. He needs a little time in Jenn’s class to learn to play well with others.
He’s not going to get that, at least not from his sycophantic countrymen. I don’t know if the U.S., or even China, can give him a time out to make him think twice about his bullying. We’ll see.
Personally, I’ve been thinking lately, as Kim ratchets up his bellicose rhetoric and positions his missiles, that we ought to just whack the idiot. Why wait around for him to carry out his insane threats? I guess we don’t want to be the ones to start a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. But still, it does make me wonder how much threat a civilized world ought to have to accept before it acts preemptively. Look where appeasement got us with Hitler. Bullies seem to need to test limits, to see just how weak others are, how much lunch money or land they can take before they are punished.
Is Kim just acting out un-socialized instincts? Is he a sad little man who needs a hug? Maybe. But when he’s wielding bombs, hugs are hard to give. What do we do now?
Jenn probably knows the answer. Or Debbie Roth (the female Mr. Rogers who was Chris’s and Nick’s kindergarten teacher). Or my sister, Elizabeth Page, who ran a preschool for poor children in D.C. for many years. They spend their days helping boys learn to manage their aggressiveness. Our prisons are full of young men who didn’t have their gentle emotional shaping. Nations are rocked by the violence of men who never had their guidance.

I don’t know what to do about Kim Jong Un, but I do know this: we need more Jenns and Debbies and Elizabeths in our children’s lives. Without them, we would all be spending a lot more time with our backs to the wall.


  1. A wonderful, insightful piece, Mac!! I think this one too should get a spot on NPR! It makes me feel hopeful about people's aggression having the possibility of being "shaped" and redirected. This is so crazy, the waving of such big sticks by North Korea. Yet of course our country has an excess of aggression/hostility too. I applaud you for addressing these intractable questions.

  2. Psycho-analysis of Kim is nice, but we invite this bravado when we convey to the world our own self-doubt.