The Road Trip

We were somewhere near the Tennessee-Virginia border in early April. Night was falling, and I was at the wheel of our minivan. We’d been driving for most of the day, having left Arkansas a little before noon.

My son Julian was in the passenger seat, queuing up music on his phone to play this new Canadian artist he’d recently discovered. I was trying not to lose sight of the other car in our caravan, the black Chevrolet with my other son and his girlfriend. The interstate was hilly here and with their taillights not working properly, it was easy to lose track of them.

Julian had driven until we switched drivers somewhere near Knoxville. We’d run through a variety of conversation topics, and the scenery rushing by outside had kept our attention. But with dusk and a change of drivers came a change in mood, as we continued to roll into the night.

The coronavirus pandemic had only recently become a reality, and it had been three weeks since I’d begun working from home every day.

As the music played, I asked him how community college was going, now that they’d moved classes online.

“I’m not going to class anymore,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m going to enroll in the fall.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Being online isn’t working for me,” he said. “And I think this coronavirus thing is only going to get worse.”

We listened to the music for a minute.

“You’ve been staying in your room a lot,” I said. “Some days I hardly see you.”

“I need my space,” he said.

It was hard to be optimistic about the coming months. Anything I could think to say would sound hollow. I nodded in agreement, but realized he couldn’t see that in the fading light.

“What’s your plan, then?” I said, throwing the topic back to him.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “What’s the use anyway? It feels like the whole world is a shit show right now. Everything I expected for this year isn’t going to happen.”

I glanced over at him. His dimly-lit face gazed out at the highway ahead while he got quiet again as the music played. He leaned forward to turn up the volume.

That night, I had no way of seeing just how bad it would get, both in the world and in Julian’s life. The weeks and months to come would be filled with awful news, the shutting down of normal life, the cancelling of so much, and Julian being fired from his job, retreating further from his mother and me, leaving the house to go smoking, getting drunk alone in his room late at night.

But we had a long way to go still until we could get home to relative comfort and some sleep.

The Better Path

There is a fairly famous poem called “Desiderata.” You may have seen it before. The first lines are “Go placidly amid the noise & haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

Desiderata

I found a large framed copy of this poem recently as I was packing up my mother’s apartment. A little over a year ago, my mother had a stroke that requires her to live full time in a nursing home from now on. I remember this framed copy hanging in the house I grew up in, so it meant enough to Mom to have kept it for a long time.

My mother is a person of many contradictions. She can be both generous and cold. She is often critical and just as often accepting. She is relentlessly critical of some people but is capable of acceptance and forgiveness.  She voted for Trump but also has spent an unknown amount of money to support children in developing countries and also children with developmental disabilities in this country. She has done many things in her life but complains that she’s not accomplished anything.

The poem exhorts us to be the best version of ourselves and not worry overmuch about what might have been. “You are a child of the universe,” it says, “no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

And maybe that’s why mom has this framed copy, as something to reflect on when it all seems too difficult, as a way of reminding her to stop once in a while, take a deep breath, and try again. Perhaps we all have things that we put in place to remind of to strive for better and not succumb to the darker impulses. It might be a poem, a book, or a song. It could be rosary beads or a religious artifact. It could be a special picture or movie.

The thing is, even though the poem was parked in my mom’s closet and not hanging on a wall, the fact that she still kept it tells me that she is, at 84 years old, still in the process, as are all of us I suppose.

I’ve said before that knowing one’s parents is complicated, especially for those of us who have our parents in our lives for over five decades, and for those of us who have parents who have been difficult to understand.

So it can’t be said often enough that stopping once in a while, taking a deep breath, and trying again can lead us to the better path.

His Turban Was Magnificent

His turban was magnificent, a rich bluish purple. He came into my wife’s room and introduced himself.

“I am a neurologist,” he said, “and I would be happy to treat your wife, if it weren’t for the pregnancy.”

She had just recovered from a seizure less than an hour before. She had the worst headache anyone could ever imagine. She was nauseated and her vision and hearing were impaired. We didn’t fully know what was wrong yet, but something clearly was.

And our second child was at risk. Her pregnancy was only 33 weeks along, but the seizures were a threat to the growing baby.

I’d rushed to the hospital, seen the seizure, knew it was a complicated situation. Neurology was not something I had anticipated needing. Someone had to make a decision, and had to make it fast.

“It’s just that…since you are pregnant…I think it would be better to transfer to you a facility with more experience,” he said. I wasn’t sure how to feel in the moment. His warmth and composure was reassuring; his recommendation that she be moved made logical sense but was unsettling.

My wife said “My head is killing me; if you are going to make a decision, make it quick.”

It was done then. The neonatal team would perform an emergency C-section. My wife, still sedated, would be flown by med-evac helicopter to Baltimore, a city I knew almost nothing about.

The ICU doctor–also Indian–would give me a warm hug and tell me it would be alright in the end. And I got in the car with a friend and drove into the night.

He was right, the ICU physician. Things are alright, 16 years later.

But I never saw the neurologist with the turban again.

Measuring Life Dollar by Dollar

I saw the young man sitting on the bench. He looked scruffy, with uncut hair, tattoos and piercings. He looked like hadn’t slept well in a while.

To get where I was heading, I had to walk down the narrow passage between the two buildings and past the bench. It was unavoidable.

“Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat,” he said to me.

I made eye contact, so I had to stop. I briefly hesitated, then pulled out my wallet. The moment where I could have made a graceful exit had passed.

My wallet had no ones. The smallest bill was a five. I pulled it out and handed it to him. “You’re in luck,” was all I could think of saying.

“Thanks man. I really appreciate it,” he said.

Giving away money is uncomfortable.

I do it often enough–last year I claimed over $1,000 in tax-deductible contributions to charities–but these face-to-face encounters still leave me with a weird feeling: I have money and you don’t; you are asking me to give you money, perhaps embarrassed for doing so. I have the power to decide to hand over some cash and whether to ask for something in return, perhaps wondering how it would be if roles were reversed. It is a transaction, and not really a person talking with another person at all.

We give large sums of money unconditionally to family. We give small sums of money unconditionally to strangers. Everything in between is weighted with social awkwardness. How much are you asking for? What do you want the money for, and why do you think I can give it to you? Are you a blood relative? How well do I really know you? Is this a grant or do I expect repayment? If I give you this money, do I expect you to do something  in return?

Money talks, as the saying goes, and it can say both good things and bad. My mother has told me more than once that she gave “a large amount” of money to my sister, and that she expects it to be paid back. My guess is that it is in the several thousands of dollars. My sister’s past history warrants a cautious approach to money lending. She defaulted on a loan for which my dad was a co-signer, for instance, something he still feels stung by. She accepted gifts of money and stuff over the years that is now gone: spent, lost, stolen, sold for cash, or just destroyed.

So my mother has some justification. But we give large sums of money unconditionally to family, right? Perhaps not, after family has burned you once too often. I may still be naïve about such things; I hope I am never in the position to have to make that choice.

My mother doesn’t really need the money–it is on principle that she is asking for repayment. My sister doesn’t have it to repay.

It is a stalemate.

Meanwhile, I go to my job and give of my time; my company pays me in return. I give to charity, I give to panhandlers. I intend to ensure my children’s college is paid for. I worry about having enough money for retirement. Life is measured by a series of transactions.

To Be Young and Smart and Opposed to Driverless Cars

My 15-year-old son, like most boys his age, is growing interested in getting his driver’s license. So I asked him the other day what he thought about self-driving cars.

He thought they were a bad idea because, if everything were automated, “there would be no challenges left in life.”

See? Even kids know that the research into and development of driverless cars is a waste of time and money.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

It continues to be unclear to me what problem the developers of automated vehicles are seeking to solve–just as it is unclear to my kids and to most Americans.

One of the arguments put forward is that if you don’t have to pay attention to driving, it will allow you to do other things while traveling. This assumes that all driving is a form of drudgery that we desire to be freed from by robots.

But not all driving is drudgery. In fact, driving a sporty car along country roads on cool, sunny days with the wind in your hair is a hell of a lot of fun. Only commuter driving–where your time is sucked to oblivion by the traffic jams–is drudgery. And there are already solutions to that. It’s called public transportation.

Besides, what we want at the end of the day is to feel in control. We harbor fears of airline crashes because we are at the mercy of the pilot and the aircraft. At the same time, we discount the risk of automobiles precisely because we feel we are doing something while at the wheel.

But my son also was touching on a deeper point, one that has been discussed in an engaging way by the author Sebastian Junger. “Life in modern society,” writes Junger, “is designed to eliminate as many unforeseen events as possible, and as inviting as that seems, it leaves us hopelessly underutilized.” He goes on to argue that everything in human history leading up to this point has made us want more out of life than just having everything done for us, by robots or otherwise. Having some risk and excitement is healthy.

The automated car cartel is not talking only about safety. (There really is a cartel — click on the link. Really.) The Googles and Ubers of the world say they are pursuing innovation. My son pointed out that we could innovate in other, more useful ways that do not involve autonomous cars and still improve safety and provide other benefits.

For instance, a smart driver’s license could prevent a car from operating if you were drunk or if your license was suspended, two of the biggest safety hazards on the road today. I think this is a great idea, and it’s coming coming from a 15-year-old. Why has this not been done already?

And yet the driverless car proponents continue to live in their own echo chamber, pouring money into technology nobody really wants, and thinking they are improving the world for future generations.

Unfortunately, it is a world that my son has no interest living in.

Updated Oct. 21, 2016, at 11:05 a.m.