Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Wolf of Conditional Love

           The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes.
            --David Brooks, NYT

In his column yesterday, "Love and Merit," David Brooks warns us not to link our love for our children to their achievements. On the most obvious level, few would argue. A few examples of bad parenting:

"A minus! A minus! You are no son of mine." 

"If you marry that girl, you are dead to me."

"Say that again and I'll smack you."

So, we all agree on that. What Mr. Brooks is talking about is more subtle. He says:

"Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.

Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college."

Guilty! And proud of it. Indeed, I would be even more proud had I used only smiles and praise to reinforce behavior I valued, as opposed to the odd threat or swat on a young bottom.

Let's examine the words that strike such terror into Mr. Brooks' timorous heart: "the wolf of conditional love."

Wolf: a fierce and cunning survivor. Raised Romulus and Remus.

Conditional: You can have this if you do that. Examples: you can stay at the dinner table if you don't throw food at your brother; you can have your allowance if you take out the trash; you can not be grounded if you come home on time.

Love: In the case of children, affection and protection.

Of these three, love is the trickiest. It has taken on so much secondary meaning that it is hardly recognizable. Boiled down to it's Darwinian basics, it means this: In the case of lovers, lust that morphs into affection. In the case of parents, protectiveness that morphs into letting go.

Letting go means releasing children to survive in the wild. It's hard to let go. Terrifying. But all of us know that our job as parents is to prepare our children to live on their own. Keeping them out of traffic in the street morphs into keeping them away from drugs, which morphs into making sure they can get a job to pay their own rent. A Nobel Prize would be good, but probably not absolutely necessary.

Brooks concludes:

"Parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

That sounds great, but what does it mean? Most households don't live in states of grace. They live in lightly controlled chaos. Parents are not saints. They are guides. Loving, nurturing guides, to be sure, but first and foremost guides. That's their job. Anyone can hug a child. A parent has the harder job of helping him become a well-adjusted, high-functioning adult. Unconditional love is a nice concept, but in practice, it is baloney. Hugs are not love. They are comfort. Frowns at bad grades are not a withholding of love, they are guidance. 

Love for your children is what you feel inside. It is the flood of joy when they run to greet you. The ache when they are gone. The fear that you have not done your best. Self-doubt in the parent/child relationship goes both ways. It's just a fact of how we are wired: a parent's protectiveness colliding with a child's need for independence. Both parents and children feel a little guilty now and then about how they navigate these emotionally treacherous waters. The answer isn't to shy from the conflict but to contend with it vigorously, rowdily, flexibly, messily, empathetically. This is what makes us strong. As parents and children. As people.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Storming the Castle

My father sent me off to college with plenty of money. What he wouldn't give me, his executive assistant (called a secretary in those days) did. She wrote all his checks. Apparently I wasn't ready for all that freedom, personal and financial, because it wasn't long before I found myself wandering through a variety of academic institutions on my way to entering law school with a wife and two kids. By then, I think Dad had decided I needed some skin in the game. So I wrangled a little scholarship money and about twice that in student loans and rolled into L.A. for my new job at a law firm with fumes in the gas tank and plans to feed my family at all-you-can-eat buffets until my first paycheck.

My kids also went off to college with plenty of money. I'm happy to say that none of them wasted their time the way I did. I don't know why. Good mothers, I think. So my personal experience teaches me little about the virtue of struggle, or the curse of wealth. Some of us try harder. Some of us find ourselves sooner rather than later. I know of plenty of wasted lives at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.

It is with this in mind that I have been lately thinking about income inequality. The rich have a head start. No doubt about it. That seems unfair, and in some general way I suppose it is, but it's not a sin that can be preached out of us, it's just a fact. 

It bothers us, though, and lately we are again wondering out loud whether inequality threatens our way of life. Can we be the America of our collective mythology, the land of opportunity, if we have such an un-level playing field, if the bottom rung of the ladder of opportunity has been raised out of reach of most?

We don't seem to think so. Although it's worth pointing out that there was a lot of immigration to America during the Guided Age. So opportunity is relative.

But the Gilded Age is not a time we long for, or not most of us anyway. And now that economists like Thomas Picketty and Joseph Stiglitz are writing that we are headed back in that direction, it has become popular to talk about beefing up that old by-product of the Gilded Age: the estate tax.

I believe in robust social welfare programs. To a point, I am a redistributionist. But I'm also a capitalist. I believe that free enterprise is the economic engine of increasing productivity and broadly improving living conditions. The estate tax is like a narrow wall I walk along from which I see below on one side green fields and plenty and on the other fallow land and scarcity. The trouble is, I'm not sure which side is which. I'm not sure whether the estate tax helps or hurts in achieving our objective of a just society with opportunity for all who are willing to do their parts in making successes of their lives.

There are generally two stated objectives of the estate tax: raise money from the rich to fund social welfare programs; and prevent political domination by plutocrats. I'm not sure it does either very well.

Inherited wealth gets wasted quickly: seventy percent by the second generation; ninety by the third. This has been true for so long that many cultures have an expression for it: shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations; clogs to clogs; barn to barn; rice paddy to rice paddy.

Two or three generations isn't long for a political dynasty. Plus, Bernie Wooster didn't care about politics any more than any other rich wastrel. And as to helping the poor, if the rich are plowing almost all their inherited wealth back into the economy in two or three generations, that's a pretty good economic stimulus program.

There are other ways to raise tax revenues to support social welfare programs. Income taxes have been much higher in the past. Dividends and capital gains today enjoy almost hallowed low-tax status. We don't need the estate tax to fund the government; last year it contributed less than one percent of federal tax revenues.

There is a lot of Puritan in our DNA. And we love Pete Seeger songs about labor unions. The rich are an easy target. But what do we get for going after them? What are we saying about the kind of people we want to be, the kind of state we want to have?

Class warfare is not a good idea, going in either direction: see, eg, slavery on the one hand, the French Revolution on the other. But the national psychological problem with the estate tax is even deeper. You can't be a nation of great opportunity if you don't let people keep what they earn. In that scenario, we are all only renters. (Which may be true philosophically, but we're talking economics here.) 

I don't care how much you want to help others, the notion that the government is going to take a big chunk of your property when you die grates. That's what dictators do. Communists. We rebel at that, even if we aren't the ones being looted. It goes against deeply ingrained views of property rights and justice.

The other thing is that many of us don't have much confidence in government to be a good steward of the money it confiscates. Government may have good intentions, it may be the only practical resource for helping many of the poor, but it is not that good at it. It's inefficient in the best of times, corrupt and wasteful in the worst. So when it proposes to take money from someone who has proved to be just the opposite, someone who has been efficient and productive in amassing her fortune, it seems a particularly foolish policy. Maybe the heirs will just blow the money, but that's not a good reason for the government to take it. Indeed, it's good reason for it not to.

As to the political dominance of the plutocracy, the estate tax is a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is needed. We don't need to dismember estates, or metaphorically chop off heads, we need to keep their money out of politics. Having money is not a sin; using it to buy political influence is. That is the problem that should be addressed. The fact that we have failed to do so, at all levels of government, including the modestly paid Supreme Court, apparently means we aren't serious about it. Maybe we secretly like being told what to do by men like Lord Grantham. Who doesn't like a man who is so nice to his dogs?

In Baker v. Carr the Supreme Court established the principle of one man one vote. If we're standing around letting rich men and women essentially buy the votes of others, we have some collective soul searching to do. But I don't think it's necessary to burn down the castle.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Things I Didn't Do For My Mother

I didn't fly back to be with her in her last days. I shipped her off to another state when she needed skilled nursing care. I didn't let her lend my sister twenty-five thousand dollars. I made her do what I thought was best for her. I was like my long-dead father in that way, minus the yelling. Okay, maybe I even yelled once.

It's complicated. 

Maybe it's not complicated. Maybe it's just me that's complicated. Fucked up also comes to mind.

When I was a boy, Mom was, how shall I say it, vaporous. My father was El Jefe. He brooked no dissent. My solution was to escape to California. Mom could not do that, so she escaped to within herself, an anxious place of fierce imaginings. She and Dad were fifty when he died. A psychiatrist treating her, with Thorazine, so that I hardly recognized her on the phone, said I just had to accept that she would never be normal.

So, one good thing about me, I'm not so good at accepting hopelessness. I flew back to Tennessee and got her a new shrink and she began her long road back, a road she walked alone. Her parents lived in town nearby, she had friends, but in a way that is hard for anyone who hasn't survived it to understand, including me, she was profoundly alone.

But she was strong. She did crummy jobs just to have something to do, and to make a little money, since my dad left her without much. She came out to see me once in a while. We had nice visits, but she always seemed emotionally shaky to me. I worried about her, but I didn't know what to do for her, so mostly I did nothing. I wouldn't say I avoided her. But that might well be the truth.

Then events took me back to my hometown, the one to which I had sworn never to return. Thus began my reintroduction to my mother. She was her old self by then. The person I remembered from my early childhood. She was still anxious, a condition I had only vaguely sensed as a young boy, but all the gentle wit and wisdom had come back to her, like a spring bloom. For eight years I breathed in the scent of her blooms, smiled at their beauty, wondered now and then how they had survived her long winter.

That was a lovely time. She got to know my wife and young children, and they her. They loved her gentle kindness. I got to know her too. You don't know your parents when you are a child. When I got to be with her day in and day out as an adult, I understood so many things so much better. Among those, frankly, was what a bastard the man I adored, my father, was. He was a revered doctor. Everyone loved him. He saved some dark side of himself for my mother.

When I moved to California, I sent Mom to a retirement home near my sister in Virginia. That didn't go well. For one thing, Mom said she never fit in with the other women at the lunch tables. They dressed up. They had to invite you to sit with them. It was like middle school. She and my sister had a few issues too, for which neither was really to blame. It was too much change for Mom. Within six months, she was heading back down the rabbit hole of xanax and klonopin. After a phone call that reminded me of Thorazine days, I moved her to California. In a matter of days. Like a rendition.

We had a good five years together out here. At least I want to think they were good. She said they were. We had some fun. I saw her often. She came for Sunday brunch most weeks. But she was lonely. I knew that, but I didn't know what to do about it. I told myself I was doing as much as I could. Thanks to a bequest from her parents, she had enough money to almost certainly live out her years comfortably, but I had heard the horror stories about huge medical bills in the last years of life and I was obsessed with not letting her run out of money.

So I didn't want her to lend money to my sister. She didn't really need it anyway, that's what I thought. But for many reasons, Mom wanted her to have it. It was just a financial decision for me, but I understand now, and maybe even did then, that for her it was like I was telling her she couldn't love her daughter. 

When the time came that assisted living couldn't meet her daily needs, when she needed skilled nursing care, the only places I could find nearby that were remotely affordable were ones where she would have had to have shared a room. A curtain might separate the beds. Bring three comfortable outfits, sweatpants kinds of things, from Target, one told me. That was all she would need. No more family portraits. No more antique furniture and silver. Just sweatpants.

In my brother's hometown, Louisville, KY, I found a wonderful place with reasonable prices and spacious private rooms. She'd love to have some time with my brother, Mom said. When I flew her there, even though I knew my brother would be good to her, I felt like I was abandoning her in the woods.

Over the course of the nine months she lived there, I went to see her a few times, the last a few weeks before she died. On that trip, I authorized hospice care for her. I feared it would be our last visit. The day the nursing home called to say she had died was a Sunday, the day we had shared so many brunches. In what struck me as a horrible, deliberate neglect, when the phone rang I was walking in the door from brunch with my wife's parents.

I'd like to think I was a good son. I'm certain I could have been better. Even as I was doing what I did for her, I wondered if I was doing all I could. Was I being selfish not to visit her more often? Should I lighten up on the financial frugality? Was I treating her like a child? The way my father had.

Scott Simon has a new book out now about the time he spent with his mother in her last days. He tweeted lovingly, achingly, from her bedside. I didn't do that. The last time I saw Mom I pushed her around outside in her wheelchair and talked about the birds that we saw. We listened to their songs, even sang ourselves. But I didn't sit by her bedside for weeks. I went home. 

And now, seven years later, not a day goes by that I don't wish I could hold her hand one more time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Working Capital

Everybody needs working capital. That's not something you build up on your resume, it's the term businesses use for cash on hand to pay bills. Many a business with a bright future has failed because it couldn't meet payroll or pay for its raw materials. The business world is pitiless.

In that way, in that vulnerability, everyone is a business. Working families have to have cash on hand to buy groceries or the kids go hungry. Up and coming young adults have to pay the rent or they end up on the street.

When businesses run low on working capital, they borrow from banks. For six years now, the Fed has helped them by cutting interest rates to zero. This has enabled many businesses to weather the tight times of the Great Recession. Not only did they survive, but they grew and added jobs and helped the economy get back on its feet. Had it not been for the Fed's making money easy to get, we might still be in recession. Certainly many small businesses, and some big ones, wouldn't have made it.

Families and individuals haven't been so blessed. The easy money for businesses did not trickle down to personal loans. Banks, still feeling the (somewhat self-inflicted) pain of sub-prime mortgage defaults, did not make credit broadly available to individuals. Bushinesses were put on Fed welfare, if you will, while individuals were forced into austerity. Like Greece. 

When they run out of money, many working people turn to payday lenders. These are the Shylocks of the lending industry. They'll give you what you need to carry you through until your next paycheck---$100, $500, $1,000--but they charge such high rates of interest that if you fall behind you might never catch up. A payday loan can sink you. And even if it doesn't, it takes an obscene cut out of your income.

Elizabeth Warren made her bones railing against this practice and others like it. Nobody likes payday lenders, but like cockroaches they manage to survive extermination. Part of the reason is that they provide, even though at an exorbitant price, something people desperately need. Unless the Fed can figure out a way to make banks pass along to individuals with less than sterling credit histories the easy money it gives them, or government shuts them down, payday lenders will continue to be a last resort for struggling families and individuals.

Many of us give to charity; and there are many good causes deserving of generosity. I've begun to wonder whether increasing working capital for hardworking people living paycheck-to-paycheck might not be another good cause. I think of micro loans in Africa, where investors with a charitable bent go into a village and identity the woman (and it's usually a woman) who is something of the village matriarch and give her small amounts of money to start local enterprises: weaving; water purification; whatever the village needs that human capital can leverage if it has seed money.

Micro loans are meant to make money, but at their heart they are save-the world projects. Catalysts for entrepreneurship. Grease to lubricate the potential of people. 

How about grease for the working-capital needs of workers living on the edge? To keep them afloat. To keep them productive. Like African micro loans, that kind of investment would be meant to do good, in that it would help people, but it would also be economically farsighted, in that people would stay productive and benefit the economy in general.

Donors would identify a person in a struggling community--East LA, Southside Chicago, Ferguson, MO, plenty of towns in the South--and give him or her a small amount of money to lend to people in need for very short periods: a week or two, maybe as much as a month. No interest, the borrower would be told. Just pay it back. If times get better for you, maybe you'll put a few dollars in the pool so others can benefit as you have.

What do you think would happen? How many would pay back their loans? How long would the pool last?

Those are good questions. The pessimist in me thinks this is a really stupid idea that will result in free money to a few and a lending bank account that drains as fast a backyard wading pool with a hole in the side. Maybe. I'm not sure how much good a lot of my charitable contributions do in any event. To me, they are more like hopes. Hopes that my donation might help a little, even though the problems we try to address this way are vast and perhaps intractable. Still, we try.

But what if my pessimistic side is wrong? What if our local godfathers and godmothers have the moral suasion within, and practical knowledge of, their communities to keep the money going out and coming back in. Think of the good they could do. They would be the neighborhood Fed, increasing the money supply, but not just for businesses, not just for the well off. For regular folks working hard to make ends meet. For most Americans.

This isn't a money-maker, so private capital isn't going to be interested. Maybe there is a way for government to help, but I don't think so. Government, even at it's best, is inefficient; at it's worst, corrupt. There is so much room for corruption and abuse here, that I think government would almost certainly fail to pull this off. It would take people finding the people they trust, people they believe have the respect of their community. Those personal connections are what would make this work. Maybe that means it could never get to be very big. Or maybe it just means it would have to build slowly and carefully. Not a bad thing. Quick solutions are almost never durable

I have a friend who would be a great candidate to be one of the people to look after and dispense this kind of funding. She came to this country with little and is now a citizen who runs a licensed day-care business in her home and has raised three wonderful children, two of whom will be the first in their family to go to college. She and her husband work hard, not just two jobs, but many jobs. She says she doesn't know why everyone comes to her to resolve their problems. But I do. It's because she is, in Sonia Sotomayor's words, a wise Latina.

I asked her what she would think if I gave her $1,000 to lend to people in need, people she knew and trusted. She said people in her community do that. They always ask for a little interest, she said. "You borrow $100 for a month, you pay back $110."

That's 120% a year, I told her. She understood the number, but not the point. It's just the way they do things. And maybe that's best. Maybe you need the interest to keep people serious and responsible. Or maybe if you're lending out of your own pocket you just need to make it worthwhile. "Everyone's got to make money," she said.

I asked her if she thought she would get the money back if she lent it at no interest. I asked her if it would be too much trouble, too much pressure, to be the one to decide who would get money and who would not, and to make sure it came back. She was enthusiastic, if somewhat incredulous. I'm not sure she thought I was serious. Or that anyone would be serious about such a thing as free loans.

Little wonder. In the world of predatory payday lenders, when even your pals charge 120% annual interest, free money, on trust, just because you need it, would take some getting used to. Like clean water and electricity. Like so many of the things introduced in the last century that we now take for granted. The fact that we take them for granted, that one day we might take these kinds of community lending pools for granted, does not diminish their importance to making us a prosperous country where individual effort is rewarded, and where a helping hand is there when we need it. Not just when the Fed cuts rates for the financial industry. For everyone. For the people who do the work and pay the bills and buy the products that make our economy work for all of us.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Man Seeking Woman, Have Dishwasher

Like a frog in slowly heating water, I've just realized that I'm a fully cooked feminist. Thank you corporate America. Thank you Planned Parenthood haters. Thank you religion. Thank you ISIS. All of you had your hands on the heat controls of my simmering awakening. And thank you most of all to my lover, who was patient with me and didn't laugh at me as I groped my way.

I've also realized that the other thing that has been warming in my slow pot is my interest in evolutionary psychology. I don't do field studies, only thought experiments and a lot of Googling, but for a while I've been fascinated by the possible evolutionary roots of our behaviors. Particularly the terrible way we treat women. 

In much of the world, women are still little more than property. Even in developed countries, they don't have the same opportunities as men. Here in Silicon Valley--even here, in the land of the bluest of the blue--women in tech can't get a break from the men who control the industry.

What I did not know until recently is that those two warming parts of me, feminism and evolutionary psychology, have at times enjoyed an uneasy co-existence. Some feminists don't like it when evolutionary psychologists trace the roots of bad behavior in men to evolution. Their complaint is that such explanations may be seen to let men off the hook: "Hey, baby, my genes made me cheat on you."

Not that men would take such a cheap way out. Would we? 

One article I read recently, "Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism" (Buss and Schmidt, 2011), answered the feminist concern this way: "Is" does not mean "ought." No matter the origin of bad behavior, the question must be, "What can we do to change it?"

One evolutionary theory of patriarchy--men's dominant control of resources--is that women preferred men who could take care of them. So an adaptive mating strategy for men became competing with other men for the resources that would make them attractive to women. This resulted in men duking it out and ultimately controlling virtually all resources. When they favored women with them, this made the mating relationship essentially transactional: resources (home and comfort) in exchange for sex. Little wonder that, in that environment, men began to think they owned women. And women began to feel like property.

So what do we do about that now? How can we use this understanding of how we evolved to help us go in a different direction. Evolution doesn't preordain an outcome (well, not a behavior), but it strongly favors it. Often without much conscious thought on our part. Once we realize what's going on, what can we do? Is there an antidote for evolved traits?

Yes, but it's not fast acting. The antidote is awareness and commitment to change. In this sense, the evolutionary psychologists have to pass the baton to activists. Both groups can see the problem, the bad behavior. One group has come up with theories about how we came to behave like that, but it falls to the other, and to all of us of like mind, to call out the misconduct and insist it not be tolerated. To say, "Genes be damned, this is wrong."

The evolutionary psychologists also hope that in tracing behaviors back to their roots, clues can be found about how to change them. I'm a little less certain about that when it comes to mistreatment of women. Could women just say, "Baby, I don't want your money, I just want you to do the dishes."? 

That works with me, even though soapy hands and dripping plates aren't fantasies of mine. But my lover and I live in a resource rich environment of equal opportunity. I don't know how much of a dent that approach would put in the way ISIS and other crazy fundamentalists (including some none of us like to mention: you know who you are) treat women. We'll have to go deeper for that. And there is a chance, one that should not be completely dismissed, that armed with an understanding of how we how we picked up our worst habits, we can devise new ways to break them.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


He came into the school, and he could not understand anything they were saying. They weren't speaking a foreign language. He recognized the words, but he couldn't make sense of them. They came to him and left as quickly, without making an imprint on his consciousness. He had had a cold and he thought maybe his ears were stopped up and that was upsetting his equilibrium. He went into the bathroom and blew his nose and splashed water on his face. He could hear the splash of it on his hands and in the sink, a sound as recognizable and familiar as ever. He went back out into the hallway.

The kids were going into classrooms amid a clatter of squeaks of rubber soles on waxed tile and banging door bars. He heard and understood those sounds, and he heard the words they were saying to one another, and the tone of them, light and joking, too loud in that high-school way, but he did not know what they were saying. 

He sat on a bench and watched the hallway clear. In the classrooms, behind the closed doors, he could hear teachers and students speaking. The sound was muffled and far away so that he wouldn't be expected to understand what was being said. It was comforting to hear and not understand when he was not meant to understand. He thought that when the doors opened and the kids came back out, as they got closer, he would be able to understand them again, as anyone would in such circumstances.

He heard the sharp footsteps and looked down the hall and saw the woman approaching. He just watched her. She came to where he sat and stood looking down at him, as if deciding whether to offer him a dollar or two, the way you would a homeless person.

"Are you hear about the janitorial job?" she said.

He was so surprised to know what she said that he did not answer. He might as well not have understood. Perhaps he didn't. He decided to wait to see if she would speak again.

"The job?" she said, quite clearly. 

"Yes, ma'am. That's right." 

He tried not to let the relief show on his face. She would ask him what had been the matter. If he told her, he surely wouldn't get the job. She would think there was something wrong with him. Or maybe that he was crazy.

She showed him the janitor's closet and told him that the principal would tell him more about the job later but for now could he clean up around the picnic tables in the courtyard. The kids had left it a mess after lunch. She'd told them and told them to pick up after themselves, but they were a bunch of spoiled rich kids and thought they didn't have to do anything they didn't want to. He got the broom and mop and she took him outside and left him.

It wasn't too bad. There were a few sandwich wrappers and napkins up against the fence and some soda cans on the tables. Someone had left an apple. He put it in his pocket for later. In a spreading oak tree a gang of blackbirds was making a racket. They sounded just like the kids. He recognized their sounds but could not understand their meaning.

He got the area cleaned up and sat at one of the tables. The woman had not told him what else he was to do. The class bell rang and he could hear the kids inside the hallway. The door to the patio banged open and a half dozen came out and sat at the tables nearby. He did not get up. He felt invisible.

"Can you believe it?" one boy said to another.

Oh, thank god! He could understand him. Whatever it was had passed. He watched the boy gratefully.

"That old fool assigned a term paper the same day we have our AP mid-term. He acts like his is our only class. They all do."

He felt uncomfortable listening to them complain, even though his presence did not seem to bother them. They didn't even seem to notice him. He thought he'd better find the woman and find out what was expected of him. It wouldn't do to be sitting down on the job on his first day. He went back inside and found the principal's office.

"I've come to see what I should do next," he told the woman behind the desk. She had a heavy face a red eyeglasses. She said something he did not catch.


She spoke again. He thought he heard the word “work.” The others words were there and then they weren't, as if blown away by a wind as they came to him. He couldn't very well say he didn't understand her. She would think he was stupid.

"Can you tell me where I can use the bathroom?” he said. 

He knew where it was, but he thought if he paid close attention to how she told him he could learn to decode her speech. She said something he did not understand and pointed back out into the hallway. He nodded as if he had understood and bowed his head and said he would be right back. The way she watched him as he left made him uncomfortable, but he could hardly blame her.

There were two boys in the bathroom. One said something to the other. He could not make it out. He pretended to use the urinal and waited for them to leave. He looked the same in the mirror. His eyes did not look cloudy. There was no swelling in his face. His ears were not filled with wax. There was nothing to say he could hear but not understand. He returned to the principal's office.

"The principal will see you now," the woman with the heavy face and red eyeglasses said.

This time it did not shock him that he could understand her. He went into the principal's office. She was talking to a man dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He wasn't even dressed well enough to be a janitor. He must be a teacher, the janitor thought, surprising himself. Only a teacher could get away with looking like that. Teachers couldn't be fired. He'd heard that and he believed it, especially looking at this one.

"We can't be expected to do this," the badly dressed man said to the principal. “That goddamned website is a nightmare. The extra work isn't in our contract."

"It's for the kids," the principal said. "Give it a try, please."

"No promises," the man said.

He walked past the janitor as if he weren't there.

When they were alone, the principal sat behind her desk. She did not say anything.

"I'm here to see about what you want me to do," the janitor said.

She just looked at him. Maybe she couldn't understand him. Maybe his words were coming out like gibberish.


"There's a teachers’ union meeting down the hall. I want you to go run them out of here?"

Well, he heard that. 

"I could sweep them up," he said. 

He thought it was nice little joke. She smiled.

“You ever know someone who won’t listen?" she said. "No matter what you say, no matter how reasonable you are?”

“I had a dog like that once.”

She smiled again.

“What did you do with him?”

“I just left him alone. He was no good, but he didn’t hurt anything.”

“What if he’d been pretty good, but every once in a while he bit you? What if he was a little lazy and when you tried to get him to do what he should do he sometimes growled at you and you thought he might bite you again.”

“I might take a dog like that for a long ride and let him out to sniff new territory. If he didn’t get back in the car right away, well…”

She had closed her eyes and was either about to go to sleep or cry. He felt sorry for her, although he wasn’t quite sure why. He didn’t know her. Maybe she was the problem. Maybe those teachers were meeting down the hall about her. Maybe she was the dog who bites you once in a while.

She opened her eyes and said something, but she did not get up.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, although he had not understood what she’d said. Not a word.

Some of the kids were in the hallway again. In front of a row of lockers, one girl was getting out her books. Her pale cheeks were splotchy and the skin around eyes was red. A friend had hold of her arm, as if to help her stay on her feet. 

“It’s okay,” the friend said. “We’ll talk to Mr. Travis.”

The girl just shook her head. “I can’t do both. I’ll do bad on one of them.”

“No you won’t.”

The janitor was feeling self-conscious standing there eavesdropping. He went to the janitor’s closet and got the mop and brought it back to close to where the girls were standing and made out like he was mopping up a spill.

The girl who had been crying was leaning back against the lockers now. She looked like she was about to slide down to the ground. The janitor had half a Snickers bar in his pocket. He wondered if she would like it. Everything looked better after a Snicker’s bar.

“Wasn’t it on the assignment website?” the friend said. “Didn’t he see it. He knows you can’t do both.”

“He told us he doesn’t have time for that. He says our schedules are our own problems.”

The janitor heard himself speaking before he even realized he was formulating the thought. “You can’t work for two bosses,” he said.

The friend looked at him. She seemed a little annoyed.

“When that happens,” he said, “it ain’t your problem, it’s theirs. You got to tell them to make up their minds what they want you to do. Then you’ll do it. But nobody can do two things at once.”

The friend took the crying girl’s arm and led her away, as if to get her out of danger. The girl who was so upset looked back over her shoulder at him and he nodded to her and she held his gaze as her friend led her away.

He’d been on the basketball team in high-school. The teachers hadn’t cut the team much slack, and neither had the coach. You couldn’t study for a test while you were playing a game in another county and didn’t get back on the bus until after midnight. He did the best he could, which wasn’t good enough. When he left school without graduating, he didn’t have any way to get by that was legal and he ended up in jail. When he got out, he had a rough time, some dark thoughts, but he wasn’t drinking as much now. And he had this job.

He went down the hall to where he thought the teachers the principal had been talking about might be meeting. He didn’t knock. He just opened the door to the classroom where he heard the sounds of their voices. It was the same again. he saw their mouths moving, heard their words, but couldn’t understand them.

“I’ve got something to say,” he said.

They stopped talking and looked at him.

“Ya’ll need to take care of these kids. They’re depending on you. You can’t give them more than they can do. That won’t help nobody learn anything but how to be angry and sad.”

They were staring at him. They were not speaking.

“You understand me?”

A couple of them looked down into their laps, as if they were ashamed to be lectured by a janitor.

“You pay attention to what I’m saying,” he said. “You’ve got those children’s lives in your hands.”

One of the teachers put a cell phone up to his ear.

“You need to send someone over to the high school,” he said in  a low voice, almost a whisper. “There’s a man here talking nonsense.”

He paused, looking up at the janitor, then spoke into the phone again.

“No, literally nonsense. We can’t understand a word he’s saying. The sounds make no sense. He’s upset, though. Agitated. I’m worried he might be a danger to the kids.”