Excuses! Excuses!

Recently, it occurred to me that teachers no longer hear the excuse “My dog ate my homework.” What they hear now is, “I don’t know what happened, but after I added more RAM and inserted the graphics card, 1 turned to say something to James and my hard drive crashed and erased everything!” 1 know they’re hearing that because the other day 1 heard it from my son, who had just come home from school without the history notes he’d dutifully taken in class. Or at least that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.
Actually, 1 do not doubt him. But the level of detail he provided—James, graphics card—reminded me of the excuses 1 make when something goes wrong. They are just as long and detailed, and sometimes I listen to myself as I make them and think, What an interesting story, why am I telling it?

Not too long ago 1 needed a few extra days to finish some work and asked for an extension on the deadline. Typical enough for a writer or anyone else, but instead of just saying, “I need more time,” 1 said, “I’m so sorry, but midnight Monday I had a computer problem, and then 1 got a pain in my jaw. So I took the computer to the shop and then went to the dentist, and he says 1 need emergency root canal. And you know, 1 said to both the computer guy and the dentist, ‘Why did this happen?’—actually to the dentist, with a rubber dam in my mouth, 1 said, ‘Wah dih dis hahpuh?’—and both of them leaned back and said in the same perplexed way: ‘I don’t know.’ And then 1 come home to a call that a close friend’s mother died. And then …”

Now, all these things happened. And anyone to whom they had happened would need an extension. What puzzles me is why 1 didn’t just say to my editor, “I’ll have it for you Thursday.” Why did 1 have to recite a whole drama?

And 1 know I’m not alone in doing the “If I Failed, It’s Because of Fate” thing. A lot of us believe we have to establish that only something really, really bad can keep us from coming through. But if we’ve been reliable in the past, why would we need to establish that? As for the story-telling part, I think we see it as one part the offering of evidence,• and one part sheer pleasure; we want to share a narrative—to make a connection and hear the other person say, “Oh no!” and “You’re kidding.”

That’s not a bad impulse. It’s better than the other excuse-making style—“If I Fail, It’s the Other Guy’s Fault.” You bring the car into a garage because it keeps breaking down. The mechanic pokes around and sees that the transmission is completely shot. He shakes his head and says, “The last guy who fixed this was an idiot.” Meaning: “I hate to tell you, but this is going to cost you a lot and I’m not sure I can do it right—but it’s not my fault; it’s the other guy’s.”

You hear it from plumbers: “He put in a plastic pipe?” means “You’ll be without a toilet for a week. Are you friendly with the neighbors?” Hairstylists do it too: “Oh, he cut it all wrong for your face!” Meaning, “You won’t look good when you leave here, but what do you want, you don’t have any hair.”

Perhaps this is just human nature. There’s a thing inside us that says that somehow our work won’t be recognized as good unless the other person’s is seen as wanting. (The author Gore Vidal touched on this when he said, “It’s not enough that I succeed—my friends must fail.”)

But both styles of excuse-making—”It’s Fate!” and “It’s His Fault!”—seem to me to be outer showings of an inner lack of faith in the fairness and generosity of the person to whom you’re making excuses. To say nothing of a lack of faith in yourself.

I know what I should do: Stand up straight, stop cringing, and say, “I’m not done, but I’m working hard and you’ll have it soon. I’m sorry.” And what the mechanic should say: “The car’s in bad shape, but I’ll do everything I can to get it running quickly.” We should take responsibility, and let someone else do the commentary.

In any case, finger-pointing doesn’t work. It won’t make people think you’re good at your job when you say it’s the other guy’s fault; it will make them wary of you. I know. Once, when I was criticizing someone, an old man I respect shared an observation with me. “When you point the finger,” he said, “there’s one finger pointing out and four fingers pointing back at you.”

Honey, It’s Not Personal!

One of the interesting things in life is the number of facts we know to be true but forget each day. For instance, we know that accidents happen, that you never know what fate has in store for you. But still it comes as a shock when the man down the block falls off the roof while cleaning the gutters and is left unable to walk for the rest of his life. We think, How could this happen? And then we remember, Oh, yes, we never know what. fate has in store for us.

Wee are constantly rediscovering the obvious, but recently, I had a breakthrough in this area. I experienced a moment when I realized that I had finally absorbed what I know. It was wonderful. What was this fact I knew? That old bit of wisdom: “It’s not personal.” We all know it’s not personal.

When the clerk at the Safeway is rude, it’s not personal. It’s not that she doesn’t like you. She doesn’t even know you. You are customer 137 on a busy day. This morning she had a fight with her husband, the school called because her son is “underperforming,” and when her shift is done and she’s completely tired she can’t even get out of the store because she’s got to get the food for the week.

She is having a bad day. It’s not personal.

All right, here is my recent triumph: A stranger said something truly hateful to me. It was terrible for about three seconds. Then I took a deep breath, and started to laugh, and waved good-bye in a jolly way as he slunk out of the room.

It wasn’t personal. It was politics. I have written a book called The Case Against Hillary Clinton, which may give you an idea of what it’s about. It’s a controversial book. People are arguing about it, which is lovely. It’s good to be the subject of debate, as Scarlett O’Hara knew, as all spirited people know.

But the great thing about my encounter with this man is that I realized—in seconds four and five and six—that I’d finally absorbed what I know, that it really wasn’t personal.

What a relief. It’s not personal. It’s business, or office polities, or politics. Politics is run by impersonal forces. It has to do with who’s winning and who’s losing and which team you’re on. And if one team thinks that going at you will improve its chances of winning, it’ll go at you. And so what?

I have learned to think, at least in this one small but key area, like a man. And it’s good.

Men love controversy and love being attacked.

They fight back with gusto, and they laugh and plot on the phone. But they tend to see life as a team endeavor, and teams by definition compete, and competition by definition is rough, or should be.

But I am a woman who never played on a sports team any longer than I had to, who spent most of high school field hockey hoping no one would pass me the ball.

These days I get strange letters from people, and sometimes they’re a tad over the top in their. .. let’s call it aggression. And I read them and tape them to the wall of my office so when my friends come over they’ll see them and laugh. To me, they are like medals. They are proof that I was in the war—a war with meaning.

I don’t know how I finally absorbed that it’s not personal. I think it may come with age. Maybe it’s the important lessons of life you remember as you grow older, as opposed to where you put the keys, which you do not remember.

But it’s hard for women—isn’t it?—to know that aggression isn’t personal. Because we didn’t grow up in locker rooms and come to understand life through locker-room conversations. At least older women didn’t. Younger women are on championship basketball teams. They think everything’s a game, to be managed, and they are anticipating the next girl’s moves and trying to defeat that girl’s team. It would never occur to them that it’s personal. There is something so clean in that. Weird, but clean.

So, here’s to the young women who elbow one another as part of the game, without malice, like pros. And here’s to the older ones who don’t always understand it, but who really enjoy it, and who had to work to know that in life, as in basketbal1, it ain’t personal, honey, it’s business. Or politics. Or life.

Resolutions Big Enough for a New Millennium

I am happy and buying Champagne, and enjoying the fact that I am lucky enough to be alive for something so huge and extraordinary as the changing of the millennium. I actually think it makes us all more important in that it makes us historical figures: We are now, forever, the people of the earth who experienced and reacted to the second great millennial marker since Western history began.

2000 ResolutionsBut after my delight, I find myself mildly preoccupied with a thought and a question. The thought is that the coming New Year ends in the numbers 00. As in Oh, oh. Or, Uh-oh. This leaves me a little nervous around the edges. Does it you? They seem odd, those two zeroes, like something old-fashioned. I imagine rocking on a porch in my old age, in 2027, and bragging to the young people: “Why, back in ’00 we had to type to send e-mail. You couldn’t just have a thought and say, ‘Send.’” The 00 also seems like something that isn’t quite there. A few months ago a man I know was giving his credit-card number over the phone and when the person asked him the expiration date, he looked at the 00 and said, “It isn’t there!” He thought the company had forgotten to put it in.

We’ll get used to 00 and get used to a decade that I guess we’ll call The Oh’s. But before we do, there’s the question I mentioned. And that is: What kind of New Year’s resolution can you come up with that is big enough for a new millennium? Losing five pounds, learning the tango, joining a book dub—these aren’t worthy. They don’t have enough size.

As I think about this, I am going to open my Champagne early.

There. It is bubbling in my hand. It is fresh, I can hear it as much as taste it, and it smells like something joyous. I will have a glass as I ponder the fact that focusing on yourself at a time like this seems silly, small-time. I’d rather think of something big and important, like America. Like resolutions for my country. No, resolutions by my country.

I can think of a few right away:

I would like to see Americans vow never again to say, “I’d like to share,” but say instead, “I’d like to tell you.” And we will never again say, “Do you have an issue?” but instead, like a normal human, ask, “Do you have a problem?” And never in the next century will we use the dreadful buzzword closure, unless we’re talking about doors.

But while these may be true and maybe even necessary, they’re not big enough. Here are some that are. I would like to see, I think, America make these resolutions:

I resolve that I will always honor the Constitution’s teachings on the distance between church and state, but I further resolve to stop turning that distance into animosity. Church and state are not enemies, but friends. They live in different houses but share the same block, and in that happy neighborhood all will be allowed to show and celebrate the signs and symbols of their faith and belief. Put the crêche in the town square. Put the Ten Commandments on the courthouse door.

I resolve that I will act each day on the knowledge that our physical environment is a great thing we can never replace, and so before I build an office complex or pave a highway r will make sure I’m harming nothing and making things prettier.

I resolve to remember that our culture is an important part of our environment too. And so I will create entertainments that will inspire and challenge the young rather than hurt them.

I resolve that the presidency of the United States become again a place of trust and respect, with a man or woman of whatever party leading us not for personal glory but for our nation’s benefit.

And I resolve, finally, to remind my people every day that with their rights come responsibilities, and that the first is: We must be good to one another. And be nice to neighbors. And help people in trouble. Amen.

I just realized this isn’t a resolution but a prayer. And just as I wrote that, I thought: That’s exactly how I should begin the new age, with a prayer. I pray you do the same.

And that these prayers be as big as the times, and as big as all of our needs.

Amen.

Asking For A Sign

I start my new year with a memory of autumn, and that horrible day.

I have just moved back into the city from the suburbs. I am in my apartment, which is not an apartment really, as apartments are where people live, and no one could live here. There are no bathrooms, no kitchen, and no air-conditioning because I am afraid to plug in anything since the new contractor (who replaced the fired contractor) has noticed that when you hit this wall with your hand, all the electricity goes off and we may have a wee, new, costly problem.

It is late morning, damp and dark; a storm is coming. I walk around opening boxes to see if this makes me feel better, which it doesn’t because there’s no place to put anything away, and anyway I don’t need an eggbeater at the moment. I sit down on a box of sweaters and sag to the floor as a whoosh of plaster dust settles on my loafers. I am alone, awaiting the arrival of my son, who’s been on a trip with Dad before school starts in two days. And I am in a full spew of self-pity, a full stew of selfpity, a thick bubbling mass of sorrow.

Peg waiting for a signI put my head in my hands and I say, “Oh, Lord, I am sad and frustrated and angry and scared, and everything has been a failed struggle for months. I am not sure I have done the right thing, I am not sure I am in the right place, and my son to whom I’d promised the house will be ready by school time is about to see that it won’t, and will now return to his old school not from a stable place with his pictures on the wall and new khakis folded in the drawer but from plastic bags of wash in a busy, buzzing, low-rent hotel where there is only a little rickety desk for him to do his homework on. And I need a sign. I need a sign that we’re in the right place and I did the right thing and things will get better. Plus, it’s my birthday. Thank you.”

The next day, a friend I hadn’t spoken to in five weeks called me, and his first words were exactly this: Your move has been ratified by both God and nature.

What?

You don’t know, he says. Your old house-there was a storm in New Jersey. And there’s a tree in your old family room. God and nature’s way of saying your family room should be somewhere else.

I call my oId neighbor, and she says no one is hurt and the tree’s not actually in the house but leaning against it, and it wasn’t just any storm, but a tornado. With lightning. And thunder.

Well. That would be a sign. And just two hours after I asked for it.

But then, the morning after the flying tree, the better, more important sign came. First day of school, my son up and at ’em early, jacket and tie on, looking tall and handsome. And with excitement and trepidation he gets to school, where there’s a big line of kids waiting to shake the headmaster’s hand. And my son approaches and sees someone he knows and joins him. And another friend comes, and someone says, “There’s Will!” and he’s surrounded, and his old friend Tyler is looking at him with broken-faced joy. And my son is standing there laughing, bashful, and full of delight.

And suddenly I thought: his fantasy! He had told me six months earlier that he had a secret wish that one day he would return to his old school and someone would say, “There’s Will!” and he’d be surrounded by his friends and they’d all be laughing and happy together, like old times.

Well. It is a rare thing in life, a truly rare thing, when you get to witness your child’s fantasy exactly come true. And that’s when I knew: I did the right thing. And that’s when I said: Thank you .

The moral being . . . well, this, I think: We all constantly make decisions, big ones and small ones, and so often we’re leaping in the dark, flying blind. And you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing, and sometimes it takes years to know. But now and then you get a definitive answer.

It’s rare that you get such a moment. But I did. The lesson for the coming year being, I guess: Do your best, try your hardest, make your decision, hope for a break and if it doesn’t happen, make a plea, ask for a gift. Keep your eyes open. Look for signs. Both the ones that roar in like tornadoes and the ones that enter softly, on the feet of bashful delight.

The Treachery of Time

Diana, Princess of WalesI got word from a newspaper—the same way many Americans did—that Princess Diana had died. That morning, I got up and went out to my front lawn to pick up the thick hunk of Sunday papers, plastic-wrapped against the dew, and there was the picture and the headline, and I realized with a start that I was holding terrible history in my hand.

I felt what a lot of Americans felt: shock, of course, and then sadness, and then shock at the depth of my sadness.

Later that morning, at church, the priest asked for mercy for the souls of all the faithful departed. He named local people. At the end, he added, “And Diana, the Princess of Wales,” as if she were another woman in our community. Which, of course, in a way she was.

It’s odd to be so sad over the death of someone you didn’t know you cared about. To me she was mostly a beautiful blond blur, someone who wore spandex shorts to the gym and went to psychics and vacationed on yacht,. But she also had a lovely tenderness toward those who needed protection. She had beauty, and the consciousness of her own beauty. She married power, and not boring power, but glamorous power. Yet she was unfinished. She would have been an interesting 50. That was part of our sadness, that she died before she could become the person she might have been.

One thinks of her children. You could tell in pictures that Diana loved her boys, that she was delighted by them, that she was one of those mothers for whom children arc not only a gift, but also a vocation.

Do you remember the first photo of Diana the world ever saw, the one published as rumor spread that a young nursery school teacher had been picked for a wife by the Prince of Wales? She was round-faced with big waiflike eyes, and securely on her hip she held a child. You could see that she had a genuine affection for the child . . . and a genuine talent for the camera.

She grew up in public. She was a teenager when she became engaged to Charles; she was still in her 20s when her marriage unraveled. By then her power was not something she’d been given, but something she’d won. She wielded it with real daring. By the time she took on the House of Windsor, she was about as waiflike as a tank. She said she was fighting to win for her boys childhoods that were warmer than the Windsors believed in. If part of maturity is knowing what to fight for, then she was maturing well indeed. All she needed was time.

And that is why people are still feeling the wound. We all live as though we have tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Most of us go through our days in a distracted fog, ticking chores off our lists. But the essentials—loving people, knowing them—are never on these lists. We forget that surprise is the essence of life, that there are no guarantees, that we may run out of time.

I imagined this scene: A young couple is laughing and holding hands over dinner on a summer night in Paris. And then a robed and hooded figure carrying a scythe walks up to their table and announces, “In an hour your lives will be over.” They would reasonably reply, “That’s not possible. We’re not at the end, but the beginning. We still have time.”

As we all, of course, think we do. As Charles no doubt thought he did. Time to make things clearer and better between him and Diana. Time to help their children absorb the fact of their divorce, to make them secure in the world, to show them love.

But they didn’t. They were fooled by life. This happens to everyone, and you have to try to guard against it. By knowing that you must live life right now, that you have to do the essential things, the big things, right now. We know this, and yet we forget it all the time. We live each day as if it were an unbroken thread, endlessly unspooling when, as we were all so tragically reminded, the unspooling can stop at any time.

A friend mused, Do you think her children will ever get over it? People are like trees, I said. You can cut off a big limb and the tree will survive, but it is forever changed. It won’t have the same shape it was supposed to, and it will blossom in different ways, with an unexpected flowering here and empty spaces there.

And so with those boys. I suspect the only thing that will make mourners feel better is knowing that Charles is devoting his time to his children, giving them the time they will now not have with their mother. And here is a horrible irony: We will probably witness it in a series of photos taken without the subjects’ knowledge by the long-lensed cameras of the paparazzi.

After Anita Hill

I have a scoop: u.s. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the longtime woman in his life, Ginni Thomas, were married recently in a small, private ceremony in a steak house in Tysons Comer, Virginia. Clarence & Ginni Thomas Well, actually, they were married long before they got there and were, in fact, out to celebrate their anniversary. He handed her a small box containing a ring, a perfect duplicate of the wedding band he had placed on her finger exactly ten years before. He put the thin gold band with the diamond chips on her finger and said, “With this ring, I thee wed. Will you marry me all over again?” She said yes.

They toasted with zinfandel (hers) and water (his). Now she wears both rings together.

Most of America doesn’t see Clarence Thomas in such private moments. We last saw him six years ago, during one of the most public and controversial political hearings in American history. He was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court and quickly accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. During the murky welter of charges leveled, I believed him and not her. They both described different realities in their personal and professional relationships. Having heard the testimony, I came, in time, to an almost paradoxical conclusion: that he was telling the truth, not she, but also that even if I were wrong, her charges did not warrant the end of his nomination.

Since then, Clarence Thomas has settled in on the court and Ginni Thomas has settled in as a powerful presence on Capitol Hill, working for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). And Anita Hill has a new book out, a memoir of the hearings and her life.

I first met Ginni Thomas 12 years ago when she was still Ginni Lamp. I always liked her, and though I haven’t seen her in five years, she strikes me as exactly the same. When I ask Ginni if she dreads the Hill book tour and the spate of interviews and editorials that will appear, she says no; she will be focusing on other things, like having more time with Clarence now that his son and her stepson, Jamal, has left the house for work and school.

As Ginni looks back on the hearings now, she says that the trauma of those days strengthened her faith and deepened her marriage. Pain, she learned, doesn’t have to be a destroyer. It can be a character builder. Will she ever forgive Anita Hill?

“Yeah,” she says softly. “I’ve forgiven Anita Hill. I’m still optimistic that one day she will apologize to my husband.” Still, she says, “If I lived my whole life consumed by an injury, I wouldn’t be able to live fully the life God wants for me.

“Talking about it can make me cry,” she continues. “I remember crying to God, ‘Why doesn’t justice prevail?’ But now I’m glad. He teaches you patience, He teaches you character. And you wait for justice. I came to Washington far too naive. But the real battle is holding on to your idealism in this town.”

Is she still an idealist?

She smiles. “Some days more than others.”

She once thought she’d run for office. (In 1986, as Virginia Lamp, a Washington, DC, attorney, she was chosen as one of Good Housekeeping’s 28 Young Women of Promise, and she dreamed of running for Congress.) Does she still? “Probably not. The cost is too great.”

By that she means the new brutality in politics-the muckraking that goes too deep into the muck, or invents muck. She takes no comfort in the Paula Jones scandal, gets no satisfaction in seeing the Democrats bruised by the same furies unleashed during her husband’s hearings. Whatever the truth in the recent scandals, she says, “from a broader point of view, you have to be concerned about what is happening to our government. As a tool of political power, to make false accusations against innocent people-the toll is enormous.”

She worries, too, about race in America. Too many people, she feels, “are speaking out of fear and ignorance.” Her own perspective is very personal. “I don’t see my husband as black. I’ve never put up barriers in my life that don’t make sense. When we met, I was so drawn to his integrity, his values, his intelligence.”

In spite of all she’s been through, she still considers herself a lucky woman. “I think Clarence is the best man walking the face of the earth. I’m so happy when people meet my husband and see the truth of him.”

Kids are born conservative

Like a lot of people with children, I find dinner to be a challenge. If my son ran our house, every single night of our lives we would have Kraft macaroni and cheese and a can of Coke for dinner. Then, after homework is finished and we watch TV, we would have powdered doughnuts and milk.

I try to be a mother. I say, No, we must have protein and vitamins. I say, If you eat carbohydrates all the time, you will become a large white doughnut, rolling down the street, and no one will let you on their hockey team. You need muscles. You need height. To make your bones and muscles grow, we will have baked chicken, a potato, and broccoli. This is, to him, not desirable, but acceptable food. So is spaghetti with clam sauce, spaghetti with meatballs, and hamburgers. Nothing else—at least nothing else that’s good for you. He cannot eat fish because once at school a bone got caught in his friend Andrew’s throat, and he had to be taken to a doctor. He cannot eat steak because it has blood or is tough. Carrots are too hard except when they’re too mushy, and peas taste funny going down.

If I say, Let’s eat out, he says, Oh, can’t we stay home?

I say, We haven’t eaten out in a month, let’s do it. He says, Okay, the hamburger place. If I say, No, let’s try something new, he says: But we like the hamburger place.

So naturally we go to the hamburger place. Where my son says, I’ll have number six: chicken fingers and fries. I say, Whenever we come here you have number six, wouldn’t you like to try something new? And here he blinks, uncomprehendingly, which translates to: Why try something new when you already know what you like? I say—helpfully, with false bonhomie—Don’t you want to experiment and try new things?

And he blinks again, with a kind of wonder: No. I really don’t. Why would I want to experiment?

I’ve been thinking about this, in terms of food and other things. And I’ve concluded that: Children are natural conservatives. And: They have reason to be.

You know what was in my son’s eyes as he blinked? This: I’m 10. All of life is a new experience. Everything’s new, and challenging, too, and sometimes scary. Chorus is scary because you have to remember all the words, and then when you stand up and sing, everyone stares at you. Teachers, coaches, tests, who’s popular, the way lightning hits in a big storm, the neighborhood bum on the street corner who sometimes smiles but sometimes howls—it’s all new to me. It’s all an experiment. So why would I experiment with dinner?

It’s actually a lot like the difference between an adult’s palate and a child’s. The adult, having sampled many different foods, is in search of subtle tastes and surprising combinations. But the child’s palate is inexperienced and requires nothing unusual; it’s very happy with vanilla ice cream and American cheese.

The world is old to me, and so I seek out stimulation and discovery. The world is new to him, and he has quite enough stimulation and discovery every day.

My friends and I, so eager to be good parents, read books that tell us to stimulate our children. And we do, with trips to museums and plays and the symphony and space camp . . . and these things are good. But the books should also tell us, Don’t forget to be boring and predictable. Because children like that. I read something a few years ago that so touched me, and only now do I truly understand it. A little boy was asked what upset him most about his parents’ divorce. And he said, “I miss walking down the street with my father.” The interviewer said, comfortingly, “But you can still walk down the street with your father.” And the little boy said, “We used to walk down the street every Saturday morning to get doughnuts.”

And suddenly that didn’t happen anymore—not the same street, the same doughnuts, the same way every Saturday. Children prize sameness the way grown-ups prize variety.

Which brings me back to food. It occurs to me that when I am stressed or burdened, I seek out comfort food, which for me is pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese. It makes me feel better. For kids, all food is comfort food. I’m going to keep this in mind as I continue to use every wile to help my son expand the definition of comfort, of sameness, to include, say, the stray pea or leaf of spinach. If I don’t, he will not grow, and I—for I eat what he eats—will become a large white doughnut, rolling down the street.

Daydream Believer

I am daydreaming about daydreaming. This is for me delightful, as I don’t have time to daydream anymore. I am a mother, a worker, a friend, a daughter, and a sister. People rely on me for, to narrow it down to the essentials, love and work. There is no time to sit back and allow my mind to float aimlessly from here to there.

In this I am not unusual. I am merely modern. I live surrounded by bells and beepers and buzzers. If I just sit back and stare at the wall—and this is a good thing to do, for you’ll see a crack that reminds you of a stream that reminds you of a river that reminds you of a steamer that reminds you of a picture you saw when you were five—the reverie is soon interrupted by the rattle and hum, by the beeps and bings and buzzes. The fax, the computer, the call from the car pool …

Sometimes I blame technology, which was supposed to make communication easier, and has, but has also made it more prevalent. I used to have a fantasy:

I would leave my life and go to Africa, on safari, to the deepest heart of the jungle, where no one could find me. I lost this fantasy when I heard of a woman who’d been beeped while in a Jeep surrounded by lions. They can find you anywhere.

Sometimes I blame feminism, which was supposed to make us workers in the world, and did. Workers respond to bells and buzzers; that is their job. But remember all those novels from the sixties about those wasted suburban lives, those poor women with nothing to do, no profession, just going to the country club and drinking too much and falling into tawdry and meaningless affairs? I used to think: Those poor women. Now I think: Those were the days!

Those women got to daydream. Then, of course, they passed out, but still: They got to think about nothing. Which means they got to think about everything.

All this sturdy purposefulness we now have has affected even our children. They are so busy, so scheduled. When I was a kid, a summer day consisted of two possibilities: going out and coming in. Afternoons were spent lying on the floor of my bedroom and staring at particles of dust as they swirled silently in shafts of sunlight. My mind would playas a child’s plays, going from dust to dance. And when your mind plays, there is always a benefit because your mind is smarter than you are and does more surprising things, such as seeing the connection between the leaves on a tree and the spokes on a bike: turning, turning . . .

I once read that when director/producer Steven Spielberg was a child, he liked to sit on his bed and stare. He had little toys and dolls, and as he stared at them, they would talk to each other and do surprising things. Years later his imagination had grown so strong, it came to fill the minds of generations of children.

But now we don’t let kids waste time. For many reasons—ambition, the knowledge that the world is more competitive, a desire to keep them off the mean streets. We schedule our children within an inch of their lives. Now after school they have violin lessons, Chinese class, hours of homework …

A while back I noticed my son held his book bag like a briefcase. He was only eight and yet he had a demanding life. One day I overheard him on the phone arranging a play date. “Monday’s no good for me, how’s Thursday?” So I asked him how he’d feel about doing less. And he said that sounded just fine.

Now there is religion class on Tuesday and otherwise: nothing. When he comes home from school, he just . . . comes home. He throws his book bag on the chair and himself on the couch. Sometimes he reads. Sometimes he stares. Sometimes he plays with his 2,346 action figures. I have peeked in and seen him watch the sunlight swirling. And I think this is good.

Years from now it may make it harder for him to get into a good college, for he will not be fluent in Chinese computer hockey skills. But perhaps his mind will be more creative, less exhausted, more playful; and he will have had a childhood. This seems to me a worthwhile chance to take.

Now I am working on me. I complained to friends recently that I have no time to think about nothing, and one suggested learning meditation. She goes to a clean and spare apartment of a yoga instructor who teaches her to empty her mind.

Do I want to pay someone to help me do what I used to do easily and for free? Sure I do. Like a purposeful nineties person, I think: If I schedule daydreaming and pay for it, maybe I will do it. I will sit in a lotus position and stare at the wall and notice a crack that turns into a stream that turns into a river that turns into—bzzz, bzzz, beep—sorry, can’t finish that thought, got some e-mail, gotta go.

The Realest Show on TV

I read a newspaper article recently about the various TV sitcoms and dramas that have been criticized in the ongoing debate about eroding family values. I read it with the kind of half attention people bring to the subject, for it is a confused and confusing one that, for most of us, is decided by common sense. Does Friends undermine parents’ teachings when its glamorous young stars sleep with each other? Sure. It, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, and others like them, exist to send bad messages—that if it feels good it is good, that materialism is normal and benign, that sex is a moral issue only in terms of whether or not it is “safe.”

But is Homicide bad because it is raw or NYPD Blue because it is profane? No. They’re for adult sensibilities, and they don’t carry messages suggesting it’s good to murder or steal. They’re about normal people struggling in dramatic circumstances to live lives of meaning. (It’s odd that the later in the evening you go the more moral the TV shows get. Melrose Place tells you: Be a slob. ER tells you: Be a hero.)

The SimpsonsAt any rate, on the list of criticized shows is The Simpsons. My Simpsons! The show my son and I have been watching every night in syndication for years now. It is, for us, “appointment TV,” and it’s the best family values show on television.

On the extremely off chance that you have never seen it since it went on in 1990, the Simpsons are: Homer, the father, a big fat ignorant lazy corner-cutting dunce; Marge, his wife, a tall-haired woman with the bemused sweetness of an unintelligent saint; their son Bart, a chip off the old block who schemes nonstop to shirk work and cut school; daughter Lisa, a lonely idealist and drama queen; and baby Maggie, a round lump who sucks furiously on a pacifier and often gets left in odd places by Homer.

The Simpsons has garnered criticism because Bart swears and Homer’s attitude toward life could be called cynical—if he were thoughtful enough to be a cynic. But these criticisms miss the larger point, which is that the Simpsons are a functioning family held together by good things. Homer loves Marge, and despite all reasons to the contrary, they are a unit: She knows and never doubts it; he barely notices and yet is faithful to it. Second, in their weirdness and weakness they are like all of us some of the time and like some of us all of the time. Who would have thought the realest show on TV would be a cartoon?

But for all their flaws, the Simpsons are trying. And because they are, the show provides consistently helpful messages. Once when Homer had a chance to cheat on Marge with a country-western singer, he didn’t, and only partly because he’d rather order room service. When Marge got a chance to run off with a man with a French accent, she didn’t, and only partly because of what the neighbors would say.

The neighbors, by the way, include the Flanders family, the Christians next door, whose portrait is humorous, teasing, and twitting, but not in the usual Hollywood “people who are believers are wicked hypocrites” way. Ned Flanders is a sweet and generous goofball; his family is similarly lovable. There’s no sense that they believe the wrong thing, only that their belief is an unusual thing. It is the most liberal portrait of a religious family in all of television.

Springfield, the town they all live in, is a multicultural universe with whites and blacks and browns and yellows. The Indian who runs the convenience store is dizzy, but no more or less silly than anyone else. There are no subtly patronizing counterstereotypes: The town doctor is black, a good man who is as dopey as everyone else; the mayor is a posturing fool with a JFK accent. And the message being sent out to children through it all is this: It is a rich and varied world out there and the richness is a gift. Don’t even consider bigotry unless you can find someone jerkier than you, which is impossible because we’re all jerks.

My son and I are not only fans of The Simpsons, we are grateful for it, because it’s something we can watch together that makes us both laugh out loud—albeit at different things. My son laughs when Bart aims his slingshot at the teacher’s behind; I laugh at the asides of the morbidly daffy Principal Skinner.

People don’t usually send Hollywood their thanks.

But now and then Hollywood deserves it. And so, James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and all the other creators: Thank you for a family that sticks together through thick and thin in a good and imperfect place called America. You have left a lot of parents and children watching TV, and laughing, together. And what could be more pro-family values than that?

Hooked on Horoscopes

I have a vice that is actually more in the nature of an embarrassment, or maybe I should say a compulsion. When I mentioned it to some friends recently, my shame deepened because they didn’t see it as a vice, and thought I was just being prissy. The vice? Astrology. I read my horoscope every day. In, um, three newspapers. And, um, in whatever magazine happens to fall into my hands. Plus those I subscribe to.

“So what?” said my friends. “Other people do vodka therapy or shoplift. You read horoscopes—some vice.”

But it is a vice. And I know it. And I do it anyway.

To make matters worse, I think astrology is stupid. (Someone once said we should have our doubts about a science in which Shirley Temple and Adolf Hitler have the same sign.) I don’t even believe it, mostly. And yet I always want to know if my moon is in the seventh house and if Jupiter’s aligned with Mars. I always want to know if this is a good time for financial speculation, and if I had better invest now in those gold pearl-drop earrings. And if Capricorns are feeling grouchy, then it’s not my fault he lost his temper.

I read it even though when my horoscope says Saturn is in my third house and family troubles will follow, I know it means the other people who share my sign, not me.

Here’s why I feel it’s a vice and not just a weakness: I think astrology is at least slightly demonic, a doorway through which the devil’s imps can dance. (And yes, of course I believe in the existence of the evil one. You have to be as stupid as an intellectual to live in this world and not know there is evil, and that the evil has a source.) I strongly suspect demonic forces use astrology to affect our expectations and decision making. And this detaches us from reliance on God.

One of my friends said, “Well, God made the planets—maybe astrology reflects part of His plans.” I used to like to think that. But there is a problem: The Bible—every word of which I believe to be literally or metaphorically true—tells us to keep away from such things. In Isaiah, astrology is false; in Leviticus, it’s dangerous. In Acts, sorcerers who find God burn their scrolls. In Deuteronomy, the warning is clear: Put not your trust in those who practice divination, interpret omens, who are mediums and spiritists.

I believe this is all true and wise. So it’s funny that I once asked the late psychic Jeane Dixon to, um, do my chart. (She did, in a jolly three-page printout that asserted with striking confidence that I was “a writer” and would make my living as “a writer.” And I was so impressed by this that I forgot to notice I’d already written a book, which she’d read.)

Here’s the part that most ashames me: It’s not just that I don’t believe in astrology and yet constantly consult it, which is an intellectual embarrassment, it’s the inner voice that nags when we know we are hurting somebody, and not just ourselves. Trust in me, says the Lord, trust in me. There is a plan and it is mine, fear not.

When you turn to horoscopes and not to Him, you show you don’t trust. You betray an inappropriate anxiety. You distance yourself.

I do have trust and faith. And it makes me happy. It makes me see the humor in things, in myself and others. It gives me a feeling of deep satisfaction.

So it’s odd that I feel good because Joyce Jillson in the Daily News just told me Venus is conjunct with Mercury and love is in the air.

Actually, I can claim genetics, a family tendency.

My grandmother was a big, broad Irish peasant, a poor girl who came from a family where they sheared the lambs in the house. She was a plain and modest woman who loved her church and her faith. But she had this funny little habit of, um, reading tea leaves. And when the priests would come to call, she and her friends would run around hiding the teacups from which she was divining the future.

But she was from mystical, spirit-filled Ireland, where as a child she actually saw fairies frolic in the glen. If you saw fairies, you’d read tea leaves too.

I have no excuse. I am a rational American with a cell phone and a fax machine. And now I see my son, a bright, strong American boy with bright white teeth and thick sandy hair curling over the collar of his bright white button-down Gap shirt . . . and he has picked up an astrology magazine that somehow made its way into my house . . . and I overhear him saying to his friend John, “I’m a Gemini. Do you know your sign?”

Aaaarrgghhhh. I must stop. For the next step, I know, is, “Why shouldn’t I marry her? She’s a Libra.”

I will stop. I know I can. I am strong and have faith. All Virgos do. Aaaarrgghhhh.