Category Archives: essays

Latchkey Kid

It occurred to me this morning that in October of this year, John Lennon would have been 80 years old. That is, twice as old as he was when he was killed at age 40 in 1980. It’s strange to think that I am nearly 8 years older than Lennon was when he died.

The reason this was on my mind was because of a tweet by Anil Dash addressed to Gen Xers:

As a Gen Xer, and former latchkey kid, I considered this and decided that I was either 8 or 9 years old when I walked home from school with a key hung on a string around my neck. The variability (8 or 9) is due to some fuzziness of memory. Two events stand out in my mind, and I may have conflated them, but here they are:

  1. I remember walking home from Cedar Hills Elementary school on a mild afternoon, on December 8, 1980. I had to call my mom at work when I got home to let her know I was home safe. I remember the specific date because my mom was crying, and that was when I learned that John Lennon had been shot and killed.
  2. A few months later, on a much warmer day on March 30, 1981, I walked home from school–with my younger brother, I think–and learned that President Reagan had been shot.

I think I have blended these two events together in my mind, but in trying to answer Anil’s question, the best I can do is to say if I was a latchkey kid when Lennon was killed, I was eight, and if I was a latchkey kid when Reagan was shot, I was 9.

Regardless of when I became a latchkey kid, the fact is I was one. I had an actual key on a piece of string tied around my neck. When I got home from school, I walked into the kitchen and picked up the wall phone and dialed my mom’s office to let her know that I had arrived home safely. I don’t remember what time I got home from school, and what time my mom or dad arrived home after. I’d guess I got home around 3 pm and that one or both of my parents was typically home around 5 pm or so.

I did homework, I ate a snack. I’m not sure what else I did early on, but after the summer of 1981, one thing I know I did was flip on MTV and watch music videos.

I do think about this sometimes, with respect to my own kids. My son and older daughter are both at least the age that I was when I was a latchkey kid. But a lot has changed since the days I was a latchkey kid that makes it easier for them to avoid being latchkey kids themselves. For one thing, we can, for the most part, work from home, so that there is no need for them to be latchkey kids. For another, if the kids are home alone, they have phones, they can use to text us, or call us, wherever we are, a luxury that didn’t exist at the time when MTV was born. (We had phones, of course, but not mobile devices that we carried with us.)

Some of the implication here, I suppose, is that latchkey kids are somewhat more self-reliant than kids of a similar age today. I couldn’t say. For me, I never really thought much about it beyond the iron-clad rule of calling my mom’s office once I got home. I wasn’t doing much more than what I would have done if my parents had been home when I got back from school. And I could, at times, engage in questionable behavior when my folks weren’t around. Just ask my sister about the time I convinced her to jump off some railroad ties along our driveway, and the resulting bloody mouth she ended up with–all while I was supposed to be watching her while my parent’s were out.

To hold being a latchkey kid as a point of pride over “kids today” seems rather mean-spirited and pointless. It was as fact of life, that’s all. Looking back, I think I would rather have had that extra couple hours a day with my parents around, and I am grateful to have that time with my own kids. I don’t think it made me any better than kids today who don’t have to be latchkey kids. It just helps me empathize with those that do.

A Warm January Day

The weather cooperated with us this year. More often than not, when we leave for Florida in December, the weather here is cold and nasty. By the time we cross the St. Mary’s River from George in to Florida, the skies are clear, and the temperatures are warm. I open the windows to soak it in. The reserve is usually true on the way home. We leave Florida’s sunny, warm January weather and arrive home in sleet and cold.

This time was different. We did, indeed, leave Florida with blue skies and warm weather. But we arrived home with almost equally warm weather. It was 72 degrees here in Arlington, Virginia yesterday!

Our house backs up to the local park, and when I took a walk through the park yesterday afternoon, it was flooded with people; more people than I think I have ever seen at one time. Each of them had dragged out their New Year’s Resolutions and were making their way around the park, walking, jogging, biking, skating. Dogs owners obediently followed their charges. My ducks were out in enjoying the warm air. Squirrels were everywhere. I saw one petrified squirrel trapped in the middle of a playground full of children. It ran one way, and halted, its path blocked by a toddler. It ran another way and found another toddler blocking its way. It hid under a slide, until identifying a clear path and making its way to a tree.

According to this morning’s paper, yesterday’s warm weather did not set a record for this day in January. The record was 75 F and we only reached San Diego weather of 72 F. Still, for us thick-blooded Mid-Atlantians, it felt like an early summer day.

It was so warm that Nature was fooled, and I saw buds in the trees.

Buds in the trees in January.

It rained overnight. I woke up around 2 am and it sounded like an ocean crashing down on our roof. But when the sun came up, the sky was clear and blue and the temperatures were still in the mid-60s. It made for a pleasant morning walk.

We spent 3 weeks in Florida between December and January. We swam in pools, in the Gulf and in the Atlantic. It sort of spoils you for the cold weather when you spend that much time in winter in warm weather. So it was nice to come back to weather that helps to ease the transition.

It will cool off over the next few days, but it will by no means be cold. 56 F tomorrow, 53 on Tuesday, 60 on Wednesday, 54 on Thursday. Next weekend it looks like it will return to normal around here.

When I lived in New England as a kid, I remember an occasional warm period during winter and it was always a treat. I’m grateful that the Internet didn’t exist back then, and that HBO (in its very early days) played Star Wars over and over again. I’d seen it 20 times. It meant that when the weather was unseasonably warm, we were outdoor, playing in the woods, or in the frames of the unfinished houses being built in our neighborhood. Only reluctantly would we return indoors, drowning our sorrows in MTV videos of Duran Duran’s “Rio”, Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” and the Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

I shudder to think that was nearly 40 years ago.

The Long Road Home

View from our hotel room on the last full day of our vacation.

We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.

The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.

But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.

It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.

I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.

Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.

860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.

The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.

Decades

Decades are interesting milestones. For one thing, they are rare in the course of a lifetime. For much of human history, the average person lived to see only three decades pass. Today, we might see, seven, eight, or even nine decades, but still that is only seven, eight, or nine events in the course of an entire life.

It is for this reason, I suppose, that decades are so often celebrated as major events. Even so, you can’t flip the calendar page without stirring some controversy. There will always be people who argue over when a decade actually begins and ends: Does the decade begin in 2020, or 2021?

If you are lucky, you were born on a decade boundary. It makes the math a lot easier. For instance, Isaac Asimov used January 2, 1920 as his birthday (having been born in a small town in Russia, he was never quite certain of the date). That makes it easy to figure that he would have been 100 years old on January 2, 2020. My grandfather was also born in 1920. I’m envious of people who are born in a century year: 1900, 2000, etc. It is impossible to forget how old you are if you were born on January 3, 2000, and today is January 3, 2020.

The first time I was consciously aware of the change of decades was in the fall of 1979. We had recently moved to New England, and there must have been buzz in the air because I remember thinking that soon, the 70s would be over and it would be 1980. I thought 1980 sounded very science-fictional.

By the time the next decade rolled around, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I don’t recall as much of an internal drama about the change of decades at that point. But I do recall going to see L.A. Story–still one of my favorite movies–with my brother in the summer of 1990, before heading off to college. It was billed as “the first great comedy of the 1990s” so even the studios were riding the decade’s coattails.

The next decade was special, not just because it was a new decade, but a new millennium. There was no way that I could be unaware of the year 2000: a big part of my job in the 18 months leading up to that milestone decade was to make sure that the various computer systems that my company used would not be affected by the Y2K bug. On the evening of December 31, 1999, my company threw a big party and at midnight, the party suddenly paused as we all scampered about, making sure that all systems were still up and running.

What is remarkable about a decade is how much things can change between one decade and the next, In 1900, there were no airplanes but in 1910 there were enough planes flying to allow for the first mid-air collision. In 2000, I was trying to make sure the company computers weren’t going to crash, but in 2010, I was fawning over our 6-month old baby, who, yet another decade later, is suddenly 10-1/2 years old.

I graduated from high school in 1990, a nice even decade, making it easy to figure out that this year will be my 30th high school reunion. A friend recently pointed out that 2050 is the same distance in the future as 1990 is in the past.

I was lucky to have been born late enough in a century to allow my life to span across two centuries. I was born in the 1900s and have made it into the 2020s (so far!). It is unlikely I will see another century. But my youngest daughter, born in 2016, has a very good chance of watch the hoverball levitate down the facade of a building in Times Square as the clock counts down to yet another new decade, January 1, 2100.

End of Year Surprises: Robert Iger’s Book

The biggest reason that I wait until January 1 before writing my “best reads” of the year post, is because I never know what book might catch me off-guard and really surprise me. Often, in late December, I’ll read a book that turns out to be one of the better books I’ve read all year. This has happened on a number of occasions. Among the best books I read in 2018, for instance, was the second volume of Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, which I didn’t read until late in December.

Yesterday, I needed a break from WW-II. I’d torn through the first 2-1/2 volumes of Rick Atkinson’s massive “Liberation” series of histories about the Second World War. I’d been through North Africa, and Italy and was now on the verge of crossing into Germany, but like those solider push the Germany army back, I needed a break. I had, at some point, picked up Robert Iger’s memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and decided to give it a try.

I couldn’t put it down, and before I went to bed last night, I’d finished the book. It was unexpectedly good, so much so that it has created what I call a reading vacuum–a period in which I feel a desperate need to read something just as good, but have difficulty finding something to fill the void.

I’m fascinated by the job of Chief Executive Officer. Like President of the United States, I don’t believe it is a job someone can properly prepare for through formal education. Iger’s moves up through the ABC structure, and his on-the-job education seemed like a model for how one trains to become a CEO. The one CEO that I know personally seems to have followed a similar path (though not in the entertainment world) and has similar qualities to what I saw in Iger’s book: a hard worker, dedicated to the mission of the company, unusually smart, a gifted communicator, a natural leader, and someone with empathy and a genuine concern for the people who work for him.

As it happens, there is a chance I’ll finish another book or two before the year is out, and in that case, there are still some opportunities to be surprised again. So anyone interesting in knowing my best reads of 2019 will have to wait a few more days.

Thrones of Bones, and Other Problems with the Modern Toilet Seat

As I get older, certain changes become more noticeable. Take toilet lids, for example. Overnight, it seems that good, solid lids have been replaced by these flimsy plastic imposters. Sitting on them courts slapstick disaster. Where did all of the good, solid toilet lids go? I imagine some young, up-and-coming business school graduate at Kohler or American Standard looking at the cost of manufacturing the plastic lid versus the solid lid, and selling their boss on the idea that the company could save millions by switching from one to the other.

Note that I specified young. A middle-aged innovator would never have made this suggestion. They would know, as I know, how useful the traditional solid toilet lid is. Every days, after emerging from the shower, the toilet seat is the perfect place to sit while I pull on my socks, something I can no longer do as easily standing up. It is ideal for sitting while tying one’s shoes. From a solid, sturdy toilet lid, I can sit and keep an eye on the Littlest Miss as she plays in the bathtub. It is much easier on my knees than kneeling on the floor. The toilet lid has served as an excellent step-stool when changing a lightbulb or cleaning out the fan.

Our old house had nice, solid toilet lids in each of the bathrooms. The new house has these flimsy things that creak inauspiciously under my weight when I perch them. I find myself sitting only on the edges, slightly off-balanced when pulling on my socks or tying my shoes.

I’ve noticed this trend in hotels across the country, a particular disappointment, because a toilet lid is a convenient place to sit and read while everyone else in the hotel room is sound asleep.

It seems that toilet manufacturers have replaced good solid toilet lids with what they call “slow close” lids. The “Slow Close” is a clever engineering gimmick to prevent reminding us of the satisfying THUD a solid toilet lid provides.

The names given to toilet lids are a mouthful. I was just looking at some to see if they give any sense of heft or solidity. Here are a few examples:

  • BEMIS Slow Close Round Closed Front Toilet Seat in White
  • American Standard Cadet Slow Close EverClean Round Slow Close Toilet Seat in White.
  • Brondell LumaWarm Heated Nightlight Elongated Closed Front Toilet Seat in White

Toilet seat names are longer than peers in England.

How about this one:

  • BEMIS Affinity Round Closed Front Toilet Seat in Bone.

Bone? Is there a demographic of people who desire throne made of bone? Or at least appear to be made of bone? Please let me never be a guest in their house. If my choice is between plastic and bone, I’ll take plastic. But what I’d really like is the nice, solid lid that used to cover all toilet bowls.

I try to embrace change, really I do, mostly. Kind-of. But I draw a line at plastic toilet seat lids, and so should you.

Quiet Places

A quiet place in Vermont
A quiet place in Vermont

With all of the noise we are surrounded by every day, I have been thinking about quiet places. They seem hard to come by in metropolitan areas, but when I look hard enough, I can’t occasionally find them. I feel as if I should start a collection of them, listing them out carefully so that I don’t lose them, and have access to them when I feel the need for quiet.

There are some basic requirements I have for quiet places. The first is that they have to be naturally quiet. I’m not talking about places where you can pop on your noise-cancelling headset and listen to quiet. A quiet place shouldn’t have to be artificially enhanced. The best quiet places are natural quiet.

Second, a quiet place does not have to be silent. Silence is the complete absence of sound. Quiet, on the other hand, is when only soft, natural sounds intrude on an otherwise peaceful environment. The sound of winds through trees or the rustling of leaves is quiet in my books. The low whir of a ceiling fan is quiet. The distant sound of a baseball game on the radio, pleasant though that is, is not quiet, nor is the rumble of distant traffic. Birds singing at first light is not particularly quiet, while the occasional bird song in the middle of the day is quiet.

Third, a quiet place acts as a natural deterrent to intrusion. It is a place where, if you are spotted by someone else sharing the space, they will be unlikely to intrude on your quiet.

With these requirements in mind, I have started a list of quiet places. It is a short list at the moment, but I am hoping to grow it over time.

  1. An empty church. This is an excellent quiet place. I discovered this last week when we arrived at our church an hour before the kids’ Christmas pageant in order to get front-row seats. There was only two other people in the church when we arrived. It was quiet, and very close to silent. Not long after we arrived, someone began to play the piano, getting warmed up for the pageant, but in those first few minutes, I thought how nice the quiet was. The noise grew exponentially louder as more people arrived.
  2. A cemetery. Cemeteries seem almost ideal for quiet places. There are often benches scattered throughout the cemetery and I almost never see anyone sitting on them. I suspect cemeteries creep out a lot of people, but if you are looking for a quiet place, you can’t get much better than a cemetery. Not all cemeteries are equally quiet. The bigger ones are often near a busy road, and nothing destroys quiet as quickly as traffic noise. Old cemeteries built with stone wall, with large trees growing among the scattered headstones are much better suited to quiet, although these often lack benches.
  3. Libraries. Libraries have a pleasant quiet about them, but there is often a hushed murmur that ripples through them at times, a kind of constant background noise, not unlike the hum of a ceiling fan. I sometimes fantasize that the ideal quiet place is a library after it closes. I used to imagine getting locked in the library overnight, and the utter quiet of the place, and the delight at roaming the stacks of books, knowing that I could choose any one I wanted, and find a comfortable couch and read uninterrupted until clink of keys in the door the following morning.

My collection is meager, as you can see. Some places that seem like they should be quiet often are not. Parks seems like good quiet places, but too often unwanted sounds intrude. Our back deck is occasionally a good quiet place, at just the right time in the early morning or late evening, but only when the wind is rough and the sounds of it through the trees masks the low rumble of traffic from a few blocks away.

Our house, despite its many good qualities, is not a particularly quiet place. The kids are often running around. A TV is often on somewhere. It seems that the dishwasher is running when the house is otherwise quiet, or that the washing machine or dryer are humming along. If I want a real quiet place, I have to rely on the deck, or one of the places I’ve listed above.

As it happens, the place where I am writing this is unusually quiet. Or it was, until the Little Man asked Siri to play some music that I now hear thumping away on the other side of the house.

Automobiles

The open road

I have owned four cars since turning sixteen and getting my drivers license. I got my first car, a used Ford Taurus, after graduating from college. Since then, I have bought three more cars, all of them new: a Saturn, which lasted me 14 years, a Kia Sorento, and most recently, a Kia Sedona. Each car has been a step up from the one before it, each adding more features and comforts that help offset the frustration one feels from sitting in traffic.

My grandfather called movies “pictures” and he called cars “automobiles.” Automobile is a better word than car, just as railroad is a better word than train, archaic though they both may be. Automobiles give you a freedom that few other forms of transportation can offer. As a youngster, new to driving, I remember thinking how I could get in the car and go anywhere I wanted. There was always a road that would take me to where I was headed. I never took much advantage of it then, but today with my own kids, our primary mode of travel has been by automobile.

In the summers, we pack up the minivan and drive up to New England. In the spring and winter, we drive down to Florida. These are long drives, but they are comfortable. There’s nothing like climbing into the car on a cold winter’s day, sealing yourself in and heading for the freeway south. Early in the morning, especially south of the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, the traffic is light. I can set the progressive cruise control on the car, and not have to touch the gas or brakes for hours at a time. Everyone has a comfortable space to sit. Kelly has a bag of snacks, juice and water if anyone gets hungry or thirsty. The kids stare out the windows, or play on iPads. I listen to audiobooks as a I watch the countryside roll by.

On these trips, we never worry about how much we have to pack, or how much it will cost to bring out bags along. There are no baggage fees and what we need aways fits into the back of the minivan. As we drive, we can pull over if we see something interesting. Sometimes we do. On our trips down to Florida, we routinely stop at new places on the way down or back home. We’ve stopped in Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville Beach, the Kennedy Space Center, Kingsland, Georgia.

On our drives to New England, we’ve stopped at many places along the way as well: Albany, NY and Saratoga Springs, Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, Sturbridge Village, Warwick, Rhode Island (to visit my old house), Freeport (to visit the L.L. Bean store) and Portland, Bangor, and Acadia. We’ve also stopped at many roadside places, little ice cream shops, and big barns with hand-painted signs with two of the most alluring words in the English language: “Used Books.”

A map of the country shows just how much our cars lets us get around. Kelly got me this map for our 10th wedding anniversary. It came with a tin of pins that we use to mark places we’ve been together, or as a family. Every single pin you see along the east coast from Bangor down to Fort Lauderdale and as far west as Nashville, Tennessee, we’ve visited during one of our many roadtrips.

A map of our travls

Automobile travel isn’t always fun. When I lived in Los Angeles, I commuted from Studio City to Santa Monica, a 20 mile drive. Traffic was terrible. If I left the house at 5:10 am, I would be at the office around 5:30 am. If I left the office at 5 pm, I’d be home, on average, at 7 pm. I did this for eight years, and when I moved back to the east coast after that, I didn’t drive into my office again for another 6 years. I took the railroad.

Traffic in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area is bad. I don’t like driving around here during rush hour. But once we are outside of the area, the roads open up and the scenery quickly changes. I love it when we head down to Florida in the winter. It is either very cold, or gloomy and damp, sometimes snowing as we make our way onto the Interstate to head south. The traffic is often bad from Arlington all the way down to Fredericksburg, about 45 miles south. That can be mitigated by taking the HOV lanes, if they are open, and if you are willing to pay the surge pricing. I’ve sat in enough bad traffic in my life that I am usually willing to pay.

As we drive south past Stafford, the traffic begins to thin out, and past Fredericksburg, the roads open up. The weather changes as we head south. We stop for the night at a halfway point in southern South Carolina. The next morning, as we cross the border into Florida, I usually open my window to feel the warmer air on my skin. It’s a wonderful transition. Of course, we experience the opposite on the drive home.

Sometimes it rains, and even downpours, while we drive, but being in a car while it is raining out is comforting. You can hear the rain pelting down, and watch as it is whisked away by the wipers, but you remain dry and comfortable.

There is a pleasure to driving that I just don’t get flying by plane or riding the railroad. Part of it is being in complete control of where we are going and when we decide to go. Part of it is being close to one another as we travel. And part of it is the joy of the open road and where it might take you.

Trains

A train in Florida

Whenever I watch White Christmas, I am always entranced by the scenes that shows trains and train travel. One of my favorite E. B. White essays is “The Railroad,” published in 1960. Compared with air travel today, trains seem an ideal alternative. Of course, seeing trains in old movies and reading about them in essays from the 1960s is to view them through a lens of nostalgia. I’ve ridden on trains myself, however, and I those experiences have all been good ones. I hear people say “I’m taking the train,” but I prefer a different, older phrase. “I taking the railroad.”

I once took the railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, traveling with my grandparents. The train left L.A. in the late afternoon and arrived at Salt Lake early the following morning. We entered the desert in the evening, as the sun was setting, and the scenery, as I recall it was beautiful. I felt like I could reach out and touch the landscape. I never feel this way looking out of an airplane window. The experience stuck with me for a long time. Indeed, it led to my writing a poem for a creative writing class, which in turn resulted in the single worst criticism I ever received. But it was worth it to ride that train.

In 2003, I took the railroad from Oxnard, California to Seattle, Washington. We left Oxnard around noon and arrived in Seattle the following evening. The train made its way up the Pacific coast and watching out the window, I saw the scenery change from coastal views, to forests, and then mountains. There was something pleasant about the rumble the train made through the night, although in retrospect, I might have sprung for a private berth where I could stretch out a bit more.

I’ve taken the railroad from L.A. to San Diego, and from Washington, D.C. to New York, and Boston. I’ve ridden the rails from Grand Central Station to Albany, New York. I commuted on the Washington Metro system for six years, riding the railroad to and from work each day. I’ve navigated the New York Subway system countless times. I’ve ridden the L in Chicago, and the L.A. subway, such as it is. I’ve ridden the Tube in London, and the subway in Rome.

The railroad is more casual than the airlines. Where airline behave as severe grade-school teachers, the railroad acts more like the casual gym instructor. He wants you to make it to gym on time, but doesn’t mind getting started without you and letting you catch up. There is space to spread on a train that seems regal compared to the austere airlines. Unlike the rigid airplanes whose seats all face forward, the seating in trains varies, with some seats facing forward, some backwards, some to the side.

Getting somewhere on the railroad takes time, but they are prepare for that. Instead of a small wedge of plastic that folds over your lap, there are tables you can sit at and work, or converse. There is no need to stay in your seat while the train is moving. Indeed, the design of trains encourages movement. There is often a club car in which you can get food and drinks. On the longer train rides I’ve been on, there’s been dining cars in which you can eat in relative style. The restrooms are spacious. And if you prefer a quieter atmosphere, some trains have “quiet cars” for just this purpose.

I’d love for the railroads to be in the position of the passenger airlines today, and vice versa. The airlines wouldn’t be gone, but they would be used only where the railroads couldn’t reasonably reach. Maybe the travel by rail would help to slow down the pace of life in general.

Railroads have been in decline for more than half a century. They were in decline when E.B. White wrote his somber 1960 essay. It’s too bad. From descriptions I’ve read of the railroads, and from what I’ve heard from people who rode them in their heyday, it seems that the railroads were the best possible compromise for long-distance travel. I would love it if they were somehow resurrected. I suspect it was the car, and not air travel that did in the railroads–and specifically the Interstate highway system.

One of the saddest things to see is a long dead set of railroad tracks cutting through the landscape. There’s one near my in-laws in Florida, overgrown with weeds. Whenever we cross it, I look up and down the deserted tracks and always hope that maybe I’ll see the lights of a train in the distance. Maybe this time? I think as we bump over the tracks. It never fails to cross my mind. And yet I know these tracks are dead, buried beneath the growth of decades of disuse. In my mind, though, they are alive and I want to hop the next train and see where it will take me.

Planes

Clouds above Los Angeles

There is almost no experience I dread more these days than flying from one city to another. It isn’t out of a fear of flying. It is out of a deep sadness for the loss of what used to be a fun and exciting way to travel. Air travel has found its lowest common denominator and from what I can tell, no one is happy.

I had an unusually busy travel year. I made six work-related trips by plane, five of which took me from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. Air travel, these days, is all about attempting to minimize stress and anxieties. How hard will it be to find a parking place? How busy will the airport be? How much time do I need to leave to get into the airport proper? If you think that last is a silly question, talk to people traveling out of LAX, where the line of cars trying to get into the airport resembles the lines of cars on the 405 freeway at rush hour. How long will the lines be at security? Should I cough up the money to check my bags or roll the dice and hope that there will still be overhead space left in the plane by the time I board?

As far as I can tell, the airlines are doing nothing to improve their service or reputations. I can recall a time when even coach seats were relatively comfortable and spacious. I remember traveling on a DC-10 in the late 1980s when there was a lounge up front. Passengers looked as if they were setting about on some great adventure, bright teeth gleaming within smiles wherever you looked. People talked with their seat-mates about where they were going and what they were doing.

The airlines have changed all of this. I rarely see passengers talking with one another. Instead, they isolate themselves within the cocoons of their noise-cancelling headsets. No one ever bothers to look out the windows any more. Indeed, on most of the flights I was on this year, most of the window shades were shut, and the cabin was dim and gloomy, like a medieval prison.

Baggage limits and the cost to check bags breeds a poisonous competition, where passengers angle for the the earliest possible boarding on a plane in order to get prime overhead space. I’ve seen arguments break out over the inability of a passenger to fit their bags into the overhead.

You pay for every extra. And those with more means than others can buy advantages others can’t afford. You can pay to check your bags and avoid the stress of fighting for overhead space. You can pay for more leg room at your seat. You can pay for Internet access to distract you while you fly. You can pay for food and drink if you are hungry. You can even pay to move through the faster “premium” security lines. All this seems to do is annoy those who can’t afford to pay for these additions. It doesn’t seem to make those who do pay any happier, probably because they’ve already handed over a pretty penny for their ticket.

I’ve taken advantages of all of these amenities. As a frequent flier, I’ve upgrade my flights to first class, and I have access to the airline lounge. No one I see when I head to the airport looks happy, no one I see on the plane looks happy. No one in the airline lounge looks happy. Like me, they all look resigned to their fate. They are all anxious to get where they are going. It is all about the destination. We want to forget the journey.

The best parts of flying these days are those rare times when I have a window seat (I prefer an aisle seat ) and can spend time with my window shade up, observing the country as it passes below. This lasts until the flight attendant taps me on the shoulder and asks if I wouldn’t mind lowering my shade so that the glare won’t disturb the screens of the other passengers. I took the photograph above early in one flight. Those clouds cover the Los Angeles basin, not long after takeoff early in the morning.

The airlines have made flying extremely safe, which is a good thing for which they deserve some credit. They have also turned around their businesses from bankruptcy, or the brink thereof. They have achieved this rather remarkable turnaround by removing all of the glamour and pleasure from the experience.

I miss the way air travel used to be. I can’t stand the way it is today, and for many years now, I only travel by air for work. When we take our vacations, they have been exclusively road-trips, often taking us more than 2,000 miles roundtrip. We drive up to Maine in the summers. We drive down to Florida in the winters. Traveling by car has improved at least as much as traveling by plane has declined. We don’t have to worry about luggage. We have plenty of room in the minivan. We don’t have to pass through airport security or deal with long lines. We have comfortable seats, and these days the car practically drives itself. We can come and go as we please. We see the country up close. If there’s something interesting that catches our eye, we can stop.

It takes more time to travel by car than by plane, but it is immeasurably more pleasant, and less stressful. Sure, at times we hit traffic, but we can usually time our travel to avoid it. And besides, these days, the navigation software in the car knows about traffic and can re-route us around the bad stuff.

Driving also saves us a ton of money. It could cost anywhere between $1,000 – $2,000 to fly five of us from Washington, D.C. to Florida. Driving costs us about $500 in gas and hotels (we usually make one overnight stop each way), and meals. That’s anywhere from 50-75% less than what it costs to fly. But the costs of savings in terms of stress, anxiety, long lines, and canceled flights can’t be measured.

Honey, I Forgot the Kids

Because we both work, we have a routine for school drops-offs and pick-ups. Having five school days a week makes this routine unnecessarily complex, and I implore the schools to cut back to a four-day school week to allow us a somewhat less complicated routine. Our routine is this: Kelly handles drop-offs and pick-ups on Mondays and Wednesday and I take Tuesdays and Thursdays. For Friday, we alternative each of us taking every other Friday.

The school is 4 minutes from the house by car, and drop-off/pick-up doesn’t take very long, so it is not a burden in anyway. In the six years the Little Man has been attending the school, I estimate I’ve made 570 drop-offs and pick-ups, and I never forgot to it even once.

Until last week, that is.

It started with a trade. I was supposed to go to L.A. for work last week. It would have been my sixth trip to L.A. this year, and I was worn out from the travel. Instead, I decided to run the meetings remotely. It means I needed to be on video calls on Tuesday and Thursday at the times I would normally be picking up the kids. To resolve this, Kelly and I traded days, as we sometimes do. As part of this exchange, I took Wednesday.

I almost never do pick-ups on Mondays or Wednesdays. The problem with Wednesday is exacerbated because the kids get out of school an hour early. On Wednesday afternoon this week, I had everything under control, and felt good about it. I got my youngest down for a nap, attended a meeting, and around 2:30, not long before we’d leave to pick up the kids, I warmed up the car so that it would not be freezing when we got in there.

Five minutes after warming up the car, my phone rang, and I saw that it was our friend, Raquel calling. My first thought was that she was calling to ask me to pick up her kids, and I was a little worried because I had a 3:30 meeting and picking up her kids in addition to mine would mean I’d cut things very close.

Then I saw a text from Raquel that said, “I am bringing the kids home.” Kelly hadn’t told me that I didn’t need to pick up the kids, that they were going to Raquel’s house, but okay. That made things easier for me. Then my phone rang again. This time it was Kelly, and as soon as I saw her name on the display, I knew what I’d done wrong.

“Honey,” I said, “I forgot the kids got out early today. Raquel has them and is bringing them home now.” Everyone thought it was funny. The kids were nonplussed about it. It was the first time in 570 pick-ups that I’d forgotten, a 99.8% success rate.

The whole incident reminded me of the importance of checklists, something ingrained in me when I got my pilot’s license 20 years ago. The value of a checklist is to make sure you follow all of the steps even when the routine changes. The problem in this case is that I’m not sure a checklist would have prevented me from forgetting the kids, unless the list explicitly said that ON WEDNESDAYS, THE KIDS GET OUT AN HOUR EARLY.

I am often making fun of Kelly for forgetting things: keys, phone. I tease our friend Raquel about little things as well. It’s all in good fun. Now, they both have something to tease me about. I wish I could guarantee this would never happen again, but given my past history, I expect to forget picking up the kids in another 570 pick-ups from now, right around the time the Little Man is a senior in high school.

A Completely Ridiculous Amount of Homework for a Fifth-Grader

Tell me if this sounds normal for fifth grade:

  • An average of 2-1/2 hours of homework and study each day–often including Saturdays and Sundays;
  • Anywhere from 5-7 tests and quizzes per week.

At first, I thought this was just a way to get the students back into the school year after summer. But we are approaching the end of December and this relentless schedule has persisted undiminished. Indeed, it seems that nothing can alter this regiment. Discussions with the teacher at parent-teacher conferences don’t seem to make a difference. A meeting with the principal has not yet resulted in any notable changes.

As I see it, there are four problems with this much work for a fifth grader:

  1. It does not encourage learning, but instead teaches them to know what they need to pass the test. The Little Man gets very good grades for his hard work, but I’m not sure that, if tested a week later on the same material, he would do as well. He’s learning to pass a test, not learning to learn.
  2. It breeds competition for time. With so many tests and quizzes each week, and a limited supply of time, each test competes with the other for study time. That means making deliberate decisions about what to study and what to ignore. This adds stress to someone who wants to do well on everything, but can’t because there just isn’t the time to keep up.
  3. It is disheartening to the students to get to the end of a week of hard work, only to realize that they still have to study over the weekend for the tests early the following week. It’s an unforgiving schedule that makes the students feel as if they are never quite caught up.
  4. It creates havoc with work-life balance. Our kids have to start their homework as soon as they get some from school and have a snack. With all of the work and study required for fifth grade, the Little Man gets started around 3:30 pm and is rushing to wrap-up by 6 pm, and often is continuing to study while we are eating dinner.

Granted it was a long time ago, but I don’t recall having nearly this much homework and study in fifth grade. Indeed, I don’t recall having this much homework and study in high school, until I got to my senior year, when AP physics homework took a long time. I’ve read of a rough standard of 10 minutes per grade, which means 50 minutes of homework/study for fifth graders. Our fifth grader is averaging three times that much each day. With a school day that is already over seven hours long, this additional work gives him nearly a 10-hour day.

The value of homework has been questioned in K-5, and indeed, some schools around here don’t assign homework in those grades. I have no opposition to homework, and fifty minutes sounds perfectly reasonable to me. But with so many tests and quizzes competing with one another for study time on top of the homework, it seems almost certain the the law of diminishing returns is at play. Student might do well on a test, but how much are they really learning?

The silver lining to this, I suppose, is that it prepares these kids for the real world. Homework is a part of life in many jobs. Learning to find a balance between work and home life is a valuable skill. It just seems to me that fifth grade is too early to be learning this skill so abruptly.

Kelly jokes that she has a second, part-time job, doing nothing but helping our fifth grader study. I’ve been at a slow burn for what seems like months now, seeing how hard the Little Man has to work each day. What really gets me is when I leave the house around 3:30 pm or so, and arrive back home two hours later only to find the Little Man and Kelly still studying and working on his homework.

Perhaps I’m just thrown because the amount of homework increased very steadily through forth grade–and then jumped dramatically this year. Still, it seems to me that the amount of work and studying the Little Man has is a completely ridiculous amount of homework for a fifth-grader.