Predicting the Unpredictable

Last week my youngest told me that if he could go back in time, he would find the terrorist headquarters and blow it up – he actually said he would sacrifice himself – so that 9/11 would never have happened.  That’s the lesson he brought to this day.  When I told him that we can never quite know what might have prevented that day ten years ago, he found that answer wholly unsatisfactory and I don’t blame him.  I didn’t like it either, but I also know that my childhood was laced with an understanding that we weren’t expected to control our futures, only to prepare ourselves to lead the best life we could with the blessings we have.  Among the many disillusionments of the 21st century, this responsibility to control everything in life that we are imposing on our children, and its attendant assignment of blame for every mishap, is the biggest one.  What was once the ebb and flow of daily life has turned into a lady or the tiger conundrum every single day.

Now more than ever, it seems we are trying to predict the future and we are still surprised when we are wrong.  With the 24 hour news cycle, smartphones and iPad apps, the media devotes so much time and space to people saying they know what the future holds interspersed with other people trying to say they saw the most recent disaster coming followed by a systematic and relentless assignment of blame.  What is wrong with this picture?  How do we calculate our success rate in preventing catastrophe?  Most of the time the people who saw it coming – if there are any – cannot be found on CNN, Fox or the Huffington Post, that’s for sure.

There was a time when the most we could expect to warn us of disaster was the tornado siren.  What we have now that earlier generations did not is a bombardment of information that gives us the illusion that whatever happens, we should see it coming.   We spent days preparing and watching hurricane Irene blast up the coast only to have her ravage inland rivers – apparently, no one warned Vermont.  All of the tsunami sensors in the Pacific did not dissuade Japan from placing a nuclear power plant on the coast.  And all of those big banks got hoodwinked by the ratings agencies and never noticed all of those bad loans they were underwriting.  It’s no wonder we scratch our heads and wonder how we missed it because as time goes by our mistakes seem ever more stupid and obvious.

Pick a topic – our health, the economy, or the weather – there are any number of solutions to it that are just a click away.  And yet, the flow of disasters almost seem to speed up rather than abating with all of this new knowledge and the ability to communicate it.  If we leave the TV and the internet on, we are fed, ever so smoothly, the myth that we can prevent bad things from happening when in some respects the bad things are perpetuated by us sitting in front of the screen.  And the more preposterous and untenable the theory, the better – we reward the wing nuts:  I watched the movie Network last spring and it could have been a documentary. 

The moment of revelation in youth that people do terrible things for reasons we cannot understand is one we never forget, and a certain part of our lives is indeed devoted to trying to avert the personal disasters we have known in the forms of death, illness, poverty and pain.  Those moments stand juxtaposed with the more collective events for which we don’t feel any personal culpability but then feel compelled to do something about:   My parents had Pearl Harbor as a defining moment (and that came on the heels of the Great Depression), the following generation had the death of President Kennedy (followed by the Viet Nam war and Watergate), and we have this day (followed by two wars and a financial meltdown).  What one generation does in response to its challenges defines the generation that follows, and I don’t pretend to know that that means for my children – I’m not getting into the prediction business.

Many years ago my cousin was dying of cancer, and she removed every newspaper, magazine and television from her home so that she could focus on her art and on helping others (she offered free financial advice to retirees).  I admired her focus but recall thinking that I would never shut myself off from the world the way that she did, even in those circumstances.  Now, as I watch the towers fall yet again, I understand, and yet I watch, hoping to think of something good we can do with my son’s time machine.

Empty Skies

The days that followed September 11, 2001, were uniformly sunny and warm as if even the weather stood stock still in the wake of that morning.  And when we walked each morning down to get the paper in those first days following the attacks, the skies were noticeably empty and quiet as every commercial plane in America sat idle somewhere on the tarmac, waiting to hear that the coast was clear.

The skies are quiet now again, I noticed this bright morning as I walked out from under the canopy of trees into the open field at the end of the drive, but now it is the economy that emptied them.  Airplane fares are high and far fewer planes are in the air.  A friend who travels extensively and who finds himself stranded in airports time and again, noted, “Now, very often, you really can’t get there from here.”  The idea of catching the next flight is no longer a matter of hours but sometimes days, even to major destinations.  Luggage that must be scanned and checked requires more time to clear, extending the time required between flights – last spring we ended up renting a car and driving home from New York because 90 minutes would not allow us enough time to make our connection – the next flight home would have been 24 hours later.  It was a three-hour drive – this is why people carry overstuffed carry-on bags and heave them into the overhead compartment.

Fewer planes in the air is not necessarily such a bad thing, but I have to wonder if I will ever stop assessing the collateral damage of that day – whether it distracted our institutions from proper stewardship of our economy, whether it fostered more hate than unity among us, and if my love of a clear September day has been  hijacked permanently.

Signs of the times

This section of Ayer, Massachusetts, abuts the former Fort Devens.  The area has been struggling ever since the U.S. Government closed the base in the 1990s.  While the Devens Redevelopment Authority (it still has an Army Reserve Unit which houses lots of desert camo hardware – trucks and tanks and the like) has had some success in drawing businesses and a charter school to relocate or build there (with major tax incentives and subsidies from the state) the recession has nonetheless taken a continuing toll on the surrounding communities, which built their infrastructure throughout the 20th century on the population of soldiers and their families who lived near or on post.

Distracted Eccentric

There aren’t any sidewalks in our area of town – people walk on the side of the road, and because New England roads are ridiculously narrow, I usually get a good look at the pedestrians I try not to hit.  One person in particular catches my eye more often than others.  G. wears a baseball cap and a windbreaker with a logo on it, a weathered look to go with his smile and nod as I drive by.  His graying hair curls out from under the cap, a little longish, his mustache, too, a little full.  When I first knew him fifteen years ago G. had a fresh from the barber haircut and clipped mustache, starched button down shirts, blazer and a late model Volvo.

G. is not a victim of hard times, but then again maybe he is.   He is a respected professional who surrendered his license for ethics violations – hubris and nemesis as writ in the early 21st century.  I am nosy; I read the public file on the case.  He was never indicted so it is impossible to say for certain whether he was guilty of poor judgment or something worse, but he made decisions that permitted illegal, sometimes dangerous activities.  It didn’t surprise me completely; he had always seemed bizarrely flip and distant.  He gave strangely vague answers to specific questions:  “What time should the kids be home?” “Whenever you get tired of them just send them back.”  Things like that.  It rankled me enough to tell my own children that they could only go to his home to play if his wife was there.  He didn’t come off as creepy, just as a distracted eccentric.

His sartorial evolution from professional class to working class reminds me that no life has a steady upward trajectory.  I empathize with him even though I am fairly sure he is oblivious to what anyone has ever thought about him.  His peaks and valleys are plain to see, but we all have them and we all try to spin them or hide them in one way or another as best we can.  Some people have the luxury of keeping their travails private, but like G., we cannot – we have a child with a disability, and in order to get him what he needs, we need to tell people more than we want to about our challenges.  It is maddening to have to sit across the table month after month and ask people to lower, raise and rework expectations for a mercurial child; to know that they think you can do better but that they are reluctant to do anything differently on their end.  They probably think I am a distracted eccentric.  The expression of fear mixed with pity is enough to send you to bed for a week.

But G. didn’t go to bed and neither have I.  He found something else to do with his life, and so have I.  Sometimes it means fielding looks from people who will never understand, but sometimes it also means wearing more comfortable clothes.

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