Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our poor mothers and others

The two good things about being freaked out over finances while also living in a mean, mean age pockmarked by war and poverty is that you may suddenly know niceness when you see it, and you may see the potential for poverty being a virtue.

Two things happened recently that served as smelling salts to my disheartened self. The first, a nice guy died. The second, my mother came for a visit.

Be nice. We demand that of our children. When they ask why there are wars, we explain to them that it’s because some people aren’t nice and that these mean people are fighting over money and power.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The stuff hyphens are made of

Upon the very moment we are deposited from the super-comfy womb of our mothers into this super-freaky world, we are handed a hyphen.

Dutifully preceded by the year of our birth, our hyphen – our life – will eventually smash head-on — bam! — with the year of our death. And no matter how much it fancies itself an em dash, no matter how disproportionate it is to its huge responsibility, a hyphen is a puny piece of punctuation.

Which brings us to the movie "Space Chimps."

Two weeks ago, on a Friday, my wife (1965-) and I (1968-) asked our son (2002-) what he did in school that day.

"We watched 'Space Chimps,'" he said.

Hmm. Couldn't his educators bend a little and allow the students to amuse themselves with something super fun like mathematics?

Anyway, I had to travel to D.C. last week on business, and wishing to make the best use of his hyphen, I pulled my boy out of school for two days and took him with me. I promised him we’d go to the Air and Space Museum. We rode the Amtrak out of Hudson. He was psyched.

Which brings us to Able, the female rhesus monkey, who, along with Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, became the first living thing to return to Earth after traveling in space.

So get this: Did you know Able has been preserved for posterity? Me neither! Did you know she's the star of a popular exhibit at the Air and Space Museum? Me neither! And, hey, did you know Able looks like Ham III, the star in "Space Chimps"? To prove it, check this out:

"Hey Dad," my boy said, "Able looks like Ham III from 'Space Chimps."

So there you go. Please don’t push and shove. There’s enough irony here for everyone.

Which brings us to the United States of America (1776-).

With our train leaving in two hours, my boy and I stepped out onto the great, green swath known as the National Mall, pulling our travel bag in the direction of Union Station. The Mall, of course, is lined with the grand buildings of the Smithsonian Institute. They sit stone-faced like old men leaning forward, waiting to see what happens next in the great hyphen of humanity.

It dawned on me, from 50 miles up – an altitude explored by Able – the National Mall must, itself, resemble a giant hyphen, born atArlington, dead at the U.S. Capitol. Bam! But gloomy editorializing isn’t what a father can justifiably inflict upon his son on a fun, mutinous trip inspired by “Space Chimps.” Besides, this whole adventure was about to leave a permanent mark on our hyphens.

In Union Station, we passed a homeless man slouched against a wall. His gaze seemed to ricochet against the world and back into the ellipsis of itself. He looked haunted. We don’t see faces like that where we live. We spoke with him. We gave him money. I can’t call it an act of charity. It was more an effort to push back at the horror that can hijack a hyphen.

Still rattled, we boarded the train. “Always give to people who are in need,” I told my boy. “It’s a requirement. Plus, kindness always comes back to you.” He nodded. He understood.

Which brings us to our dead car battery.

Our train thump-thumped back into Hudson at 2-something in the morning. In deference to a world asleep, we walked as if on padded paws to our pickup. We discovered the battery was dead. We did the only thing you can do in such circumstance. We walked.

Soon, we saw a young guy walking an old bulldog. We called to him.

“Sorry, but do you happen to have a car nearby?” I asked. “We’re stuck. We need to charge our battery.”

“Oh, man,” he said, sympathetically.

Five minutes later we rendezvoused at our pick-up, he in an old Volvo. We got the truck up and running. We shook hands. His name is Chris (I think). He runs Solid Tree, a coffee roasting company at the train station.

“See?” I told my boy on the ride home. “That man at Union Station needed help, and we gave it. Then we needed help, and we got it. That’s the way it works.” (And really, that’s the way it works.)

Which brings us back to the hyphen (1455-). Whoops! Not the punctuation mark itself, but rather the Great Hyphen of History. It began with the Big Bang (14 billion BC-) into which we’ve been pointing jet-propelled spacecraft with a trajectory so astounding as to intersect the horizontal plane of history. And when you intersect a horizontal plane, it conveniently (for the sake of my argument) resembles an addition sign.

So on the smaller scale, a hyphen (our lives) need not be a puny piece of punctuation (or worse, merely air and space). It has the potential to be addition sign created by the propulsion of kindness, something exponentially bigger than its part.

In the long run, it turns out my boy’s teacher wasn’t in the wrong. My boy has learned the most important lesson of mathematics in a roundabout way by means of “Space Chimps.”