Monthly Archives: June 2021

All for care

Another night of reading to the kids, another set of questions requiring research. On this particular evening, the questions included, “Do geese eat fish?” (they do not), “What does ‘defecating’ mean?” (that one I didn’t have to look up), and “What happens to the coins people throw in fountains?” This last query arose after we’d read a mini mystery about a boy stealing coins from a fountain, which reminded the kids of an interaction between the characters Mouse and Pig (I think) in the Amazon Prime show based on the book series beginning with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Pig (I think) was taking the coins out of the fountain when Mouse stopped her, saying that the coins are people’s wishes and so taking the coins is like stealing wishes. “That’s sad,” said Summerly, which compelled me to explore this a bit. I suggested that maybe the wish is really separate from the coin itself; the wish happens when the coin is thrown into the fountain but isn’t part and parcel of the actual metal disc. I hoped they’d buy into this interpretation because I had to point out that the coins do get removed from fountains periodically, and Liam agreed, citing the outdoor fountain in Barracks Road shopping center, which affably spouts water in the summer but is repurposed as a lovely evergreen and poinsettia-decorated centerpiece in the sidewalkscape outside Five Guys Burgers and Fries during wintertime. “Where do the coins go?” was naturally the next place this conversation went, so, like all devoted parents in the 21st century who don’t know the answer but do have internet access, I lay my hands on the hallowed altar of Google.

What I quickly discovered caught me pleasantly by surprise. I’d suspected that the money might go from the fountain directly into someone’s salary, like, say, the County Commissioner or one of the higher-ups in the Department of Transportation. I’d also considered the possibility that it might go toward lining the pockets of some executive who collects (what I hear is exorbitant) rent from the shops whose storefronts line those streets. However, and you probably already know this, the money from fountains in public places typically is given to a charitable cause. For example, the almost two million dollars (in USD) annually dredged from the Trevi Fountain is dedicated to the charity Caritas (a Latin word which means “care for all”) to benefit Rome’s destitute and homeless. Minnesota’s Mall of America donates its fountain currency to a number of charities, including the highly deserving Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It’s so nice to be surprised by goodness in the world, like seeing a bright coin flicking a fleck of sunshine back out into the world on a mostly cloudy day.

The next morning I circled back to this subject with the kids to tell them that I had an answer to their question. Then I told them that I’d changed my mind about the coin being separate from a wish. Even though it might not directly relate to the wish of the person who tossed it into the fountain, it is representative of a wish, a very real one. That wish is for a better world, a world with fewer people in need, a world with more knowledge directed toward healing. The money represents a Roman father out of work and struggling to feed his family, wishing he could offer them more. It represents a mother who quits her job to dedicate time to the care of her son, diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age five, and wishing for a less worrisome way of life. Those coins and those wishes are inextricable, as are they inextricable from the pervasive wish we all carry around like a weight: we want to make the world a better place. With that in mind, the next time we see a fountain I’ll up the ante and give each kid each a whole handful of coins. And I don’t know if I’ll ever visit The Mall of America, but if I do, you’d better believe I’ll empty my pockets of wishes, and every one will be for a cure for juvenile diabetes. That way, my wish and the wish my money could possibly contribute to fulfilling will be one and the same.

Thank you, Mouse and Pig (I think). Keep teaching the kids the right lessons, including the most important one of all: care for all.

Allegory of the manual transmission

As we were driving home after school a few weeks ago, one of the kids remarked that it must be scary to start driving uphill after being stopped at a light halfway to the top. I said it wasn’t really scary to me, at least in the kind of car I drive, which has an automatic transmission. I explained what that meant, and we reminisced not-so-fondly about my old Suburban that would sometimes fail to automatically shift into first gear, leaving us to coast in neutral for a few seconds while I pressed futilely on the accelerator, only to have the car jerk forcibly into gear with enough momentum to engage the seatbelt locking mechanism. Anyway, then I described what it’s like to drive with a manual transmission and told them all about learning to drive in my dad’s Jeep when I was fifteen. I mentioned how terrified I was to have to go from neutral to first gear after having been stopped at that same stoplight on the bypass heading east, almost exactly in the middle of a rather declivitous hill. I said that those few seconds, when I was trying to carefully calibrate my left foot easing off the clutch with my right foot depressing the gas pedal after shifting into first while the car was at a standstill pointing upwards at a roughly 45-degree angle, were hair-raising indeed. That feeling of limbo when the car is beginning to roll backwards in accordance with gravity, combined with the pressure of needing to coordinate my physical movements in such a way as to successfully move forward without stalling out, plus the distressful knowledge that there was a car directly behind me threatening the potential for collision should I fail to propel the Jeep gently into forward motion, is enough of an anxiety trigger that the very thought of it makes me break out in a sweat to this very day.

The memory led me to think about all of the times in life that feel a bit like that: when circumstances require you to orchestrate very specific interactive maneuvers (physical or mental or otherwise) in a time-sensitive fashion while worrying about the crash that could occur should you act too slowly or imprecisely. Alternatively, if you’re too hasty with your right foot or too abrupt with your left, if your actions aren’t in specific cooperation and alignment with each other, you’ll freeze up with a stalled transmission of sorts, which could incur unpleasant feelings in others (like all of the people stopped behind you after the light turns green while you jam your feet back on the clutch and brake to restart the engine and try again).

There are so many moments in life that demand this of us, that call for nearly preternatural proportions of fortitude and control, wherewithal and focused presence, all interplaying to produce a very particular harmonic. So many moments when we feel like if we don’t get it just right, we’ll stall into a kind of nonfunctioning paralysis, inconveniencing or exasperating those who are relying on us to push through, who then might misunderstand our plight and provide us with the kind of negative feedback that would only worsen the situation (think laying on the horn, fist-shaking (with or without the middle finger raised), rolling down the window and yelling). Or, worse yet, if you don’t act swiftly (but not too swiftly) and with careful conviction and proficiency, you could precipitate a destructive impact with someone else that would then require repair, if not reparation. That process can be complicated. Work will need to be done, and others might need to get involved. The stressful knowledge that these outcomes are possible only entrenches and intensifies the stress of the moment. And yet there are so many times like this, when life just stands there looking us right in the eyes, asking us to summon a symphony of strength barely one wavelength removed from magic.

I didn’t say these things to the kids, but I filed them away for use at a later time. Instead, I lightened the mood by telling them the story about when I pulled my dad’s Jeep into the garage for the first time and misjudged the spacing, scraping the passenger’s sideview mirror straight off the car and raking the Jeep’s entire right side along the partition between the garage bays with my dad sitting right there in the seat beside me. They laughed in horror at the jocular tone of my recounting, but after that conversation I’ll bet they won’t go looking to try driving stick shift for many years, if ever. Well, except for Arlo. He probably wants to try it tomorrow.