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Friday, January 12, 2007

Lost and Found

I'm trying to work from home, after flying back early to beat the ice storm. The youngest boy is in the next room with his belly on a big recliner that can spin 360 degrees. He is racing around and around it to make himself dizzy. He doesn't have any pants on. One of his favorite things now is to close his eyes and walk. He likes to be surprised by whom or what he bumps into.

He dashes over to me, climbs onto my lap, and plops his frigid little white behind onto my hands. He gives me a fierce hug. He suspects that I am eating candy -- which, for the record, I am not -- and so he jams a grubby little hand into my mouth. He is a dentist now, telling me to go "ahhh." Another fierce hug. Some bouncing of the cold little hiney, followed by another hug. He takes my face in his warm hands and squeezes it. A wet kiss. And then he is off, fast-walking across the house with his eyes firmly shut. A thud. An "ouch." A giggle.

I take a draw from the plastic bottle of water I bought in the Atlanta airport, at a cost of approximately a hundred dollars. I could almost stomach the monopoly price if not for the surly service. People think New Yorkers are rude, but were I one of those people who revels in being mistreated, Atlanta would be my fantasy vacation spot. I've been to Atlanta at least 20 times in the last year, and I can count on one hand the number of interactions with service providers who were not indifferent, if not outright hostile. And come to think of it, the only exceptions all sounded as if they were born in other countries. Perhaps they haven't been assimilated into the rudeness yet.

But back to this water bottle, which bears an irritating trait increasingly common to airport water bottles, in that it has this strange twisty nipple attachment, as opposed to a screw top. The result is that all we thirsty travelers are forced into an infantile posture as we squeeze and suck at germ-laden plastic nipples in order to get a slug of water. And once you're in the air, in the pressurized cabin, opening the bottle causes the water to spurt a good three feet. Perhaps someone conducted a focus group, and found that the majority of air travelers like the new nipple thingy. Nobody asked me, though.

Delta broke my luggage. There must be some specialized machinery with sharply angled hammers to break our bags in the manner that airlines manage to break them. I wonder how much those special luggage-snapping machines cost. I wonder if, had Delta not invested in an abundance of them, it would have been able to cover the multi-billion dollar pension obligations its former -- now rich and retired -- CEO incurred, and which its current -- rich but not yet retired -- CEO recently foisted onto the taxpayers.

I didn't like Delta before they broke my luggage. I don't like organizations headed by executives who load themselves with perks and pay while using the government to insulate themselves from the consequences of their poor decisions. U.S. Airways wants to buy them, and Delta's executives are trying to get Congress to intervene, no doubt because they will be fired, which means they will have to search for some other organization willing to pay them large amounts of money without assessing their performance.

Delta sent me an email -- because I am a loyal customer, you see -- urging me to sign a petition to "Keep Delta my Delta." The email explains how important it is for me the consumer that Delta remain a separate company. Flexibility, more competitive rates, and so on. Yesterday I read that Delta's executives have been secretly discussing a merger with Northwest. I suspect that deal promises a heftier executive buyout.

My wife is on the phone with an agent from our insurer. She's trying to convince her to pay for something her company promised to cover when we gave them money. They're creatively defining our problem so that it falls into one of the non-covered categories. When they courted our business, we were customers. Now they seem to view us as the enemy.

Eli is sitting in a chair beside me now, just watching. He's holding a water bottle that he got from the cabinet and filled, after he saw that I was drinking from a water bottle. He's sitting in the chair, drinking from his water bottle, and he's just . . . watching.

These boys watch me a lot. I want to tell them to find someone better, but I'm the one they watch, and so every day I have to figure out how to be better than I am, because every day they are becoming something like me.

I think about the children of those airline executives and insurance officials. I wonder if their children sit and watch them, too, and if somehow their children are learning to be just as duplicitous and self-centered as they. It makes me think that maybe Isaac has it right, with his blind fumbling and bumbling, learning the world with his eyes tightly shut. Maybe our children would be better off if they didn't see how we behave. But they are always watching, and learning how to be in the world. I wonder if we would all behave better, if we kept that in our minds all of the time.

Maybe that's why we have them, because they make us better. They make us better because they make us forget about ourselves, or at least they make us put our own needs second. In a way, and only ever for brief intervals, they liberate us from slavery to the petty god of the self.

So I'm fine with the overpriced water bottle and the rotten airline and the unreliable insurer, because I'm home with these little ones, and it's cold outside, and for a while we will be alone in our own little world. And thankfully, in this world I am temporarily dethroned. It helps me understand the strange promise, that somehow, in losing one's life, one gains it.

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