Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Stacked Up

When my children were young, I was a philosopher, a moralist, a humanist. Now I’m a laundry-room consultant. Listen, if that’s what they want from me, I’m there. I’ve given advice to them for so long that now that they are all grown and on their own I’m seriously having withdrawal symptoms. I go up to random children on the sidewalk and tell them not to get too close to the curb, causing their mothers to take their tots’ hands and hurry away. If I see teens in a coffee shop with homework spread out before them that is being ignored, it’s all I can do not to point to their books and suggest they get back to work.

My son Grant called today to say that the laundry room in his new house is too small to even open the door after installing the washer and dryer. He and the developer are about to come to blows. Stack them, I suggested. Great idea, he said. After he hung up, I imagined him going online to search for stacking brackets and I felt a surge of the same warm satisfaction I used to have when I watched him play on the beach with sand toys I had given him.
That’s all we want, isn’t it? To be helpful. Well, also to be acknowledged as being helpful. And wise. Wise is very good. I was wise when they were young. I took it for granted, so it was a shock when I suddenly became a cretin. That lasted a few years, but wisdom is on the horizon again. It appears I will not return to the status of philosopher king, but that’s okay. I’ll take what I can get. Just knowing some little thing that helps is good enough.

I’m off to look for washer-dryer stacking brackets now, just in case Grant has trouble finding one.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


I was sitting at an outside table, eating a sandwich, watching the pigeons and children, when a cute little girl with a tangle of brown curls caught my eye--and ear. She was not happy. She threw herself against her brother’s legs and wailed until he gave her his bag of chips. She sulked behind a post when her sister denied her something. She slapped her hands against the wood and cried and looked up to see what effect her performance was having, and when it seemed the answer was none, she carried on with greater lament. I was smiling as I watched her and eventually she began playing peekaboo with me before charging after a pigeon who needed a good chase.

Watching her, I naturally thought of terrorists.
We know that young children have undeveloped neurology. With too much stress, their brain circuits overload. Meltdown; clean up in aisle three. Mostly, their tantrums aren’t their fault. They can’t help themselves. Which is why it makes us so mad when we see some oafish parent giving their child a case of nursemaid’s elbow as he drags him away, the parent as red-faced and out of control as the kid. Sure parents’ have stresses, including the ones sobbing at their feet, but they’re supposed to be able to control themselves. They’re supposed to be patient. They’re supposed to gently show their children the way to get along in the world.
Terrorists are not children, of course. Some, like Osama bin Laden, are calculating and cold-blooded. When he planned the attacks on the World Trade Center, bin Laden wasn’t having a tantrum, he was acting out his narcissistic impulses without the burdens of conscience that restrain most of us. Men like him (and women, too, I suppose, although there seem to be fewer women in the terror game) are sociopaths. Most of the rest of us aren’t. But we do get very angry sometimes, especially when our lives are rotten. We get frustrated and start looking for someone to blame. We have a tantrums. Sometimes we get together and have mob tantrums.
When we’re lashing out that way, in angry concert, I think we’re more like three-year-olds than sociopaths. And we will respond to the same things toddlers do: patience, encouragement and--yes, it’s true--the adult equivalent of lollipops and ice-cream. Like a toddler, and unlike a sociopath, we can be distracted long enough to recover our emotional equilibrium.
The biggest difference between angry children and angry mobs is that most toddlers, the ones you see in the grocery store having a fit over skittles, anyway, get to go home to decent lives. Most angry young men bent on violence--whether gang or jihad--do not. A lollipop isn’t going to calm them down.
So what should we do? The most obvious thing is try to improve their lives. Do what we can to ameliorate the dreadful conditions that fuel their anger. Poverty is the biggest driver of hatred, followed closely by repressive government. Those are two tough nuts to crack on a global scale, but we should keep trying. Compared to the Middle Ages, we’re making progress.
What we should not do is respond in anger. We should not be the creepy abusive parent we all despise. It’s tough, I know. They say they want to kill us. They’re firing real bullets. It’s hard not to want to whack them in self defense. But their threats, while more dangerous, are not so psychologically different that those of the youngster screaming that she hates you. With children, we look past those moments. We give them another chance--and another, and another; as many as it takes. It seems to me that would be a good way to respond to angry mobs lashing out at the Great Satan.

In our daily lives, with our families, we’ve shown we can respond with compassion and restraint. We’ve shown that we have bountiful stores of patience, wisdom and kindness when we understand what is needed from us. Given the way the world is filling up, and the position of the United States and other rich countries in it, the poor and disposed of other lands (and our own) are no longer strangers. For better or worse, they are our children. And they will grow up to be the way we teach them to be.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Full Stop

Night slipped over the runways as we waited at Dulles airport in DC to see whether our flight to San Francisco would be cancelled. We had boarded, only to be taken off when the Asiana jet crashed on landing at SFO. Our group of eight, formed solely by physical proximity in the gate lounge, had been brought together, it seemed, to consider unexpected tragedy, to understand it, to adjust to it.

There was the guy who worked at the San Francisco airport. He had colleagues on the phone who were out on the runways looking at the accident to see how bad it was. Two people had been killed, he told us, but he thought that was not the end of it. The tail was gone and the front half of the fuselage was charred. The airport was closed. It looked bad, he said, and we all understood that he meant both for the Asiana passengers and for our prospects of going to San Francisco that night. He wore a dark purple shirt and tie. Who knows what I would have imagined him to be if I had only seen him in passing. He turned out to be sensitive and compassionate, and to know a lot about airports and airplanes.
It’s hard to hold onto tragedy. We didn’t have many facts. It was a plane crash, and we were all trying to get back on another airplane. Perhaps some part of us, of me at least, didn’t really want to know too much. While we waited we did what people waiting together, people who are locked together by troubling circumstances, do: we asked about one another. As if studying x-rays of our mortality, everyone wanted to know everything about the others; everyone wanted to the others to know about her.
There was the couple from DC who were going on a group expedition to Yosemite that was leaving from a hotel in SF at eight the next morning. They had trip insurance, so they had decided that if the flight didn’t go tonight, they would just stay home. He had sold a chain of service firms he inherited. I don’t think he wanted to sell, but someone made an offer he couldn’t refuse. I especially liked them because they laughed at my corny jokes.
There was the man from Helsinki who was on his way to speak at a big conference in SF on solar energy. He was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts and outrageously yellow sneakers he had just bought in Milan. He had a little goatee and looked more like a hipster than a scientist, but he knew a lot about solar. We talked about the Chinese push in solar. He thought that other countries were going to be able to back the Chinese off their aggressive dumping of solar panels. He was funny and irreverent. He made me want to go to his conference to hear him speak.
There was the charmingly modest couple from Indonesia. He was a lawyer and she a book publisher. They were on the way home and still had a long way to go. We talked about the kinds of books she likes. I told him my grandfather had been with the Ford Foundation in Bangkok in the sixties and had traveled to Djakarta often. He knew the Ford Foundation well, the man said, and the way he said it, with warm approval, made me feel we were connected by the efforts of so many men like my grandfather over so many years to help others.
We followed each other from announcement to announcement, from ticket agent to ticket agent, like college freshmen at orientation. After four hours, our flight was cancelled. The couple on their way to Yosemite collected their bags to go home. We all said we were sorry they had to miss their big adventure. For the rest of us, the scramble began in earnest. We had been allied in our waiting, but now it was every man for himself.
There was a long line of ticket agents. The one Meg and I got told us the soonest we could get out was in three days. The solar guy scored a flight at six the next morning. I thought of the Yosemite couple—they might have been able to catch up with their group if they had gotten that flight. Meg and I were looking for hotel rooms, thinking of making the best of a forced visit to museums and monuments, when Nick, our (practical) son who was with us, suggested we might get out sooner if we split up. He had just been on a tour of DC with his glee club, so he had seen all the history he needed to see for a while.
I got back in line and was talking to a nice agent who was tapping away on her reservations computer--as fast as she found a space, someone else took it--when Meg called me from where she was sitting with our bags and said that another United flight scheduled to leave at the same time as ours was still showing online as not cancelled. What about that? I asked the woman who was helping me. I don’t think so, she said, but then she checked and, I’ll be damned, it was still going and there was space. It’s at the other end of the airport, she said. You’d better hurry.
I about had a heart attack running to check us in, then a big slowdown---like slow motion in an action movie---while the gate printer broke and the gate agents checked us in by hand-writing seat assignments on old boarding passes. None of our new friends were with us. I felt like a traitor, getting out on the last flight through sheer dumb luck. I found out later that DC representatives from the NTSB may have been on the plane, on their way to investigate the crash, which, if true, was no doubt why it took off when others didn’t.
The next morning I woke up thinking about our airport comrades. We had been close for those few hours, almost intimate. It made me wish I could find out how they were doing that morning. It made me wish we had time—or could somehow make time--to better know the people we sit next to in coffee shops or ride beside on subways or pass on the sidewalk. The world—at least my world—would be the better for it.
Good luck, friends. Come back to Yosemite. Bring us solar energy. Give us new books. Keep us safe as we travel.