Summertime gives me time to think, and more and more, when I allow myself to think philosophical thoughts (which is not that often) I come to the conclusion that:
"there but for the Grace of God go I."
I generally use a steady stream of podcasts, music and books to avoid this kind of summertime thinking (thanks Podkicker and Google Play, for staving off anxiety and depression!) although I will have no choice but to delve into the abyss of profundity soon enough-- twice a day, in fact-- because I teach two sections of Philosophy class this coming semester. But once class is over, it's over . . . because if you think to hard about this stuff, it makes you crazy.
I'm not religious, so the only way I can rationalize the state of my life is by providence, fortune, and luck, and I often wonder-- in the vein of David Byrne-- how I ended up in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife, with two well-maintained cars (that have working cupholders) and two healthy kids and a fantastic dog . . . and when I think deeply about this, I come to the conclusion that I'm responsible for none of it. I'm entitled to none of it.
None of it was my doing and to think otherwise would be quixotic and foolish.
The current crisis in Aleppo locomoted my brain along this train of thought, and a few other examples immediately came to mind. I am going to exorcise them here, and then never think about them again.
1) When my wife and I lived in Damascus, we associated Aleppo with good times and good food. The medieval citadel, the Ottoman architecture, the Beit Sissi. We stayed at the Baron (where Agatha Christie began her mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express) and explored the Byzantine era olive-oil cities on the outskirts of town, we climbed to where the stylites fasted, and then stuffed ourselves on kebabs.
The Beit Sissi has burned and the people of Aleppo are under siege from various forces. Two million people are without running water, and the future of the city is exemplified by this picture of this wounded five year old boy:
2) During our stint overseas, one of our favorite places to visit was Thailand. We went there several times and travelled all over the country. Christmas of 2003, we found ourselves camping in a little tent on one of the Similan Islands. The Similan Archipelago National Park is known for incredible snorkeling and scuba-diving. By day, we'd get on a boat and ride to a spot between the islands, the boat would stop, and the Thai guide would yell,"You are snorkerring!" We'd jump off the boat and observe sea turtles, sea snakes, groupers, and all sorts of reef activity. At night we slept in our little tent by the beach.
Exactly a year later, December 26th, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a giant tsunami, which devastated the island. There were bodies in the trees. Southwest Thailand reported 5,400 deaths and 3,100 people missing. Our other favorite tourist spot, Khao Lak, was completely destroyed.
We were back home in New Jersey, starting a family. Good timing. Pure luck.
3) When I was nineteen, I met up with a couple buddies in North Haledon, New Jersey for some Memorial Day Partying. My friend went to William and Patterson (and earned a zero point zero) but he lived off campus, in a fairly sketchy neighborhood.
We got hammered on schnapps and then made a foray out of doors. We were too young to get into a bar, drunk, and had no particular plan. We stole a baby-pool. We ran through some backyards. I climbed into a boat parked in someone's driveway and tried to start the outboard engine.
Then there were lights. And police.
We did the only rational thing: we booked (it was 1989, so you could still book).
The police chased us. We hid in the bushes. They flushed us out, guns pointed at us. They cuffed us and took us to jail. My friend Rob wasn't wearing shoes.
Apparently, there had been a spate of robberies in the neighborhood, and the police were doing a stake-out. They were really really pissed at us. They told us to never, ever run from the police in North Haledon. They told us we could have been killed. Now I realize what they meant. If we were black, they would have shot us.
Once again, pure luck. The color of our skin saved us. They still cuffed us, tossed us over a chain-link fence (while we were cuffed . . . ouch) and made us spend the night in jail. We attempted to use our PBA cards, but the officer on duty said, "Too late for that." We still had to deal with some serious charges (especially eluding the police) but my dad-- Director of Corrections at the time-- was able to get them dropped to something lesser . . . professional courtesy. It was chalked up to silly college hijinks, underaged inebriation, and general teenage stupidity.
But if we were black, it might not have ended that way. Again, pure luck.
Those are a few personal examples, but if you start to think this way, you won't be able to stop noticing others that fit the theme . . .
Try listening to the new Radiolab episode: The Girl Who Doesn't Exist. It's about a girl who doesn't exist. Her parents were weird Texas religious nutballs who had nine children off the grid.Their children don't have birth certificates or Social Security numbers or baptism documents or school records or anything to prove their citizenship in the United States. She finally escaped (with the aid of her grandparents) but she couldn't get a job or go to school or get a driver's license or even get a judge to acknowledge her existence in America. As she says in her video, "I didn't pick this situation for myself."
I was born in the suburbs and my biggest concern was rabid squirrels.
The Netflix original that Mark recommended, Last Chance U, also explores this theme. How do you overcome growing up in rural Mississippi, both parents killed in a wild murder/suicide when you were five?
How do you escape Aleppo? Or a bizarre cult-like family upbringing? Can you ever leave these places behind, even if you do escape? I think not (although I still enjoy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).
I wake up each morning in a house with clean running water, air-conditioning, and internet. I live in a nice, safe neighborhood, in a walking town. My children roam the streets and parks from dawn to dusk. Yesterday, my kids joined a dozen of their friends and played "Nerf War" on a quiet street next to mine. They were running through other people's backyards and driveways, wielding menacing Nerf weapons, shooting the fuck out of each other. No one complained. No one shot them.
I don't think I've done anything particularly out of the ordinary to deserve this good fortune. I was just born in the right place, at the right time, with the right color skin, and the right genes. As Woody Allen said, "80 percent of life is showing up."
So maybe I'm twenty percent responsible for this post, but it was the easy twenty percent . . . the twenty percent that was fun to execute. The rest was just good fortune. I'll try to remember this as the new school year starts and I have to go back to work, and-- horror beyond all horrors-- eschew my daily afternoon nap.