and no one got hurt

On Sunday, I ate pecan pie for breakfast. Yep. Be impressed.

I almost didn’t do it. I almost stopped myself before I said the words aloud to the waitress, thinking, “But I’m acting like a child. I shouldn’t eat dessert for breakfast — it’s unhealthy,” while also thinking, “But I like eating dessert for breakfast, and I haven’t done that in a really long time,” while also thinking, “But I’m fifty-farting-two years old, and shouldn’t dessert for breakfast be a thing of the past?,” while also thinking, “But doesn’t pecan pie at least have protein in it, for God’s sake? It’s better than a doughnut or even a muffin!,” all while inaudibly screaming, “Childish! Childish! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” until I finally, firmly took hold of myself and asked: “What would Mama do?”

Indeed. WWMD.

Mama had a saying. (She had lots of sayings.) It was wise. (She was always wise.)

It was one of a few she would say while I was agonizing over something that probably didn’t merit much in the way of agony, but such was my way, and such was hers to respond with pithy maternal aphorisms. This particularly pithy nugget took the form of a question: “If it gives you pleasure,” she’d ask, “and it doesn’t hurt anyone, what’s the harm?” Of course, “anyone” included myself, which automatically excluded things like binge-drinking while skiing and running with the bulls in Pamplona, but did not exclude things like amassing pointless plastic “Star Trek” doodads and winging a baseball against the house until I’d broken three, count ’em, three first-floor windows.

So the other morning, going out to breakfast with family in Vermont, I was tempted to order something nutritious and grown-uppy, like, I don’t know, some boring-ass fruit parfait or oatmeal with sawdust or farm-fresh free-range quinoa. But my eye fell on the specials for the day, and there it was: MAPLE PECAN PIE. Mmmmmmmmm. Instantly my inner child, the one that amassed all those doodads and broke all those windows, said: I need that! I need that NOW, behbehs! I said some version of this aloud and my family responded, bless their souls: “Do it, Ames! Order pecan pie for breakfast!”

After some discussion, I decided on the pie with an egg on the side, because, well, breakfast. The egg would make it feel legit. When the waitress arrived and took our orders, I waited my turn with some anxiety, girding myself for the worst. Would she scowl with disdain? Choke back phlegm with disgust? Would the other diner patrons point at me and laugh? Would someone call 911, anticipating a cardiac event? Even worse: Would I chicken out and order the dry wheat toast?

But when she turned toward me with her bright eyes and pointy pen, pad at the ready, it all went swimmingly.

I’ll have the maple pecan pie, I confidently declaimed. And an egg. Over medium.

“Okay,” she said, and neither scowled nor choked in the saying. Instead she wrote it down with a smile, adding: “Would you like whipped cream with that?”

God bless her.

Yes, I said, and smiled back. Yes! Pecan pie with whipped cream and an egg! I’ll do it! No fear! Stop my heart and ready the paddles!

It came. I ate it. And it was yummy.

I’m tempted to close with some profound lesson gleaned from my high-caloric breakfast escapade, something more than the tastiness of treats and the foolishness of my fretfulness and Mama’s Enduring Wisdom. I could easily go on about the brevity and capriciousness of life and its aggravating, unpredictable habit of veering suddenly off course or, worse, skidding to a halt. Carpe diem. Eat dessert first. All the usual cliches, baked to sugary perfection. We roll out of bed and head off to breakfast never expecting the day to end before dinner, much less lunch, but it always could, right? Well before dessert. Long before you think of ordering the pie. May as well eat it. WWMD.
pie for breakfast

the queen of dupont circle

The woman was troubled, odd, possibly homeless. She was standing on crutches at a median near DuPont Circle, screaming and crying.

“They won’t open the train! Please! Open the train! Somebody hear me! They won’t open the train!”

I was in D.C. and out for a walk. It was early Sunday morning, and not many people were up and at it. I regarded this woman, somewhere around my age, maybe a little older – mid-50s, maybe? – with her thin blonde hair cinched up in a little-girl bun.

Her voice had a little-girl innocence to it, too. High-pitched and confused. Hoarse and rheumy with spittle. Beseeching.

“Please! Please! Somebody open the train!”

A man strode past. She pleaded with him; he ignored her. She spied another man about half a block up. She pleaded with him; he ignored her, too.

Finally, still crying, she turned her attention to me. “They won’t open the train! I need them to open the train! Please!”

Not having any power over the Washington, D.C., subway system, I smiled and shrugged philosophically.

Well!, I said. I’m sure they’ll open it soon! Ha!

Which, as soon as I said it, I regretted. It was mere lazy, shitty quippery — and an utterly pointless and hollow promise — at the expense of a distraught stranger.

Couldn’t I do any better? Help this woman somehow? Go into the Metro stop, determine whether the trains were, in fact, running? Volunteer to track down a transit worker? Engage her in conversation, ask her where she needed to go, maybe even help her get there? I could have put her in a cab and sent her on her way.

Apparently not. As I said, it was early. I was dumb. And she gave me the reply that I deserved.

“Oh, precious lady!,” she squealed. “Thank you so much! I feel SO! MUCH! BETTER!”

She had nailed me, justifiably so, and in that moment the power relationship between Troubled Odd Possibly Homeless Person and Average Callous Passerby had pulled a 180. I admired the swiftness and fierceness of her sarcasm, the brightness and blueness of her eyes, the exaggerated sweep to her arm — still gripping a crutch — as she gestured expansively in oh-so-faux gratitude.

Without a moment’s hesitation or a hint of doubt, she had asserted her superiority over me. We both knew she was the better one, the sharper wit, the queen to my dunce and the Sunday-morning rambler in unequivocal and splendid control. I might not have helped her open the train, but at least I gave her that.

talking about guns (and listening)

The debate, if that’s what it is, over gun control and gun massacres and gun rights and guns guns guns rages with little hope of anything like consensus. The Americans who support regulation paint those who oppose it as gun nuts. The Americans who oppose regulation paint those who support it as second-Amendment-rescinding liberal wackos.

In the midst of all this painting, I recall a conversation I had 10 or 11 years ago with a total stranger, a pilot heading home, who sat next to me on a flight to Houston. For some reason, maybe it was my Yankee accent and my squishy nimbus of liberalism, he sensed that I held political and social opinions markedly different from his own. For some other reason, he sensed that I’d be open to discussing these opinions with someone who held opposing views. And so, over the course of about three hours, he drew me out on a variety of subjects — most memorably, gun control.

He said he was a responsible gun owner — and that owning and using this gun responsibly made him safer. I asked him why, exactly. And he told a story of waking one night, alone in his home, to the sound of a break-in. He calmly took his gun. He calmly crept downstairs. He calmly pointed it at the would-be burglar. He calmly told him to leave and then, after the criminal booked into the darkness, he calmly called the police and told them where to apprehend him.

“And they did,” he said. “They arrested him and took him in. And that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have a gun. Law-abiding gun owners make our homes and streets safer. The more of us who own guns for the right reasons, the better off we are.” gun-pistol-clipart

I listened to this, grateful for the chance to grasp a point that had always eluded me. I had never understood this bedrock faith, so widely held by gun owners, that the weapon makes them safer — and that the more guns there are in the hands of good guys, the more protected we are from the bad guys. To me guns don’t mean safety; they represent violence, disorder, death. To this decent and well-spoken stranger beside me, guns represented order.

You must be a really rational person, I said.

“I am,” he said.

Really responsible and cool-headed.

“I am,” he said.

You never lose your head with anger. You never pop off impulsively in the moment.

“I don’t,” he said.

Good. You’re obviously the right person to own a gun.

“Thank you.”

But you don’t want me to own a gun. You don’t want me near one. Because I am not always a rational person. I am not always cool-headed in the moment. And I don’t want to kill anyone.

He looked a little startled. I went on:

I’m not saying I’m crazy or criminal; I’m a decent, law-abiding person who struggles at times with anger and impulses. Just the thought of having that power in my hands in an emotional moment terrifies me. I don’t want it. I shouldn’t have it. I support gun control because of people like me, not people like you.

“That had never occurred to me before,” he admitted, then looked at me squarely.

Again I went on:

If what happened to you happened to me? And there was a break-in, and let’s say my kids were in the house, and I’d had a gun? I wouldn’t have been rational about it. I wouldn’t have been able to calmly wave the guy away and then call the police. I might have lost it. I might have killed him.

I stopped and considered the man beside me:  Just as I had never truly understood the perspective of gun owners who say ownership makes them safer, he had never before considered that some people, even upstanding and otherwise reasonable people like the nice lady sitting beside him, might be psychologically ill-equipped.

We had each given each other something in that chat at 30,000 feet: a glimpse of each other’s point of view. We had also given each other a reason, perhaps even a resolve, not to demonize the other. Amid the latest sturm und drang in the wake of the latest shootings, I keep thinking of that sensible, articulate man and the importance of conversation between people who disagree. He wasn’t a gun nut. I wasn’t a liberal wacko. We were just two Americans on a flight to Houston, doing our best to understand.

Why can’t we do that as a country? Why can’t we find some neutral place, all of us — politicians included — and talk about gun violence in a way that engenders listening? Why can’t we swap perspectives and find some middle ground, some shared beliefs that don’t backslide into mockery and cant?

We’re all in this together. For love of our country and our children, we all want the massacres to end: we can agree on that. But how can we end them if we don’t talk? How can we learn if we don’t listen?





young enough to know better

“I just turned 23, and I don’t like it,” the young woman told me. “I really don’t want to be old.”

I blinked at this fresh, lovely thing with her perfect hair and unlined face, so many years away from anything so jarring as a wrinkle.

But but but, I sputtered. But you’re so young. You’ll be young for decades.

“I just wish I weren’t getting older.”

Look, I said. Look. I’m 52, almost 30 years older than you, right? And I can’t let myself feel old, because if I do, then in another 10 years I’ll beat myself up for not enjoying my younger days.

“I don’t know,” she said, clearly skeptical.

You can’t feel old!, I said. It’s a waste of time! See, I look back on my 40s and think, I didn’t realize how young I was! When I was in my 40s I looked back on my 30s and thought, My God! I was a baby!

She still looked skeptical.

Seriously! When I’m in my 60s, I’ll look back on my 50s and think, I was so young! I had no idea!  So if I’m always looking back and realizing how young I was then, whenever then was, then maybe I’m never actually old, right? If I’m always getting older, then that must mean I’m always young. So I may as well enjoy being whatever age I am now. May as well not bother feeling old.

I stopped when she shot me another glance that said mmmmyeeaaahhhh-no-I-don’t-think-so, at which point three realizations smacked me hard. One: SHE THINKS I’M REALLY OLD. Two: WHEN I WAS THAT AGE, I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT I WAS REALLY OLD, TOO. In fact, when I was that age I owned a cane handed to me on graduation from Hamilton, and I remember staring at it and thinking: I’ll never need this. I’ll never be old. NO NO NO NO NO.

IMG_2026Three: I’ll never be old. No no no no no. It hits me often, this disconnect between my chronological age and how I feel inside. Inside I don’t feel 52; I feel around 12, maybe 16 in my more rebellious moments, although I should stress that I’m using “inside” in the non-literal sense and not in any way that suggests that my joints, eyeballs and assorted sagging organs function exactly as they did 40 years ago. That “inside” is in constant, unfortunate flux. But even so, I know that it’s in better shape now than it will be 10 or 20 years hence. So why sweat it? Why fixate on what can’t change (the march of time) and what inexorably does (my age)?

Anyway, I do love getting older, which gives me license to say what I think and not give a mission fig what others say and think in response. I wish I’d had that liberated mindset and unleashed mouth when I was younger, but it took me a few decades to nurture and unfetter them both. And losing my sister Lucy to suicide 23 years ago only made me more grateful to be alive, more determined to laugh and love and pucker and age for the both of us. She can’t. I must.

In the meantime, I may as well embrace the aging process, because it might last a while longer. Maybe a long while longer. Decades. Generations, even. What if I hit 100? Will I look back on my 90s and think, Ya damn fool whippersnapper! You should have enjoyed your youth!

I’d best shut up and listen.