Thursday, August 7, 2008

Thoughts From Brighton Beach

I went with my son yesterday for his automobile licence road test. He passed, thank G-d. Waiting in line for the test was relaxing. The road was right next to the water. It always reminds me of the days when America's immigrants came by ship instead of by airplane. As we were waiting in line, a large sea gull was tearing at a plastic bag with the leftovers of a happy meal inside it. The bird could clearly smell its lunch through the bag and used its intelligence to tear through the paper inside at the scraps of food. Smaller birds of other species waited expectantly as it struggled with the sack. They pecked at the small crumbs that escaped the attention of the seagull. It is always interesting to me to observe the thought processes of other species that do not structure their thoughts in human language. It is also touching to see other creatures derive some of their sustenance from the presence of humans in their vicinity.
The day was hazy and humid. The sun seemed to quiver behind the haze as it rose in the morning sky. The Verrazano Bridge arched over the water in the distance, visible only as a shadow.
Fog has always appeared to me as a metaphor for approaching difficulty. Far away, it appears opaque and impenetrable. A cloud viewed from a distance always looked to me like a heap of snow. As you approach it, it looks more like a ball of cotton and in the midst of it, you can see in front of you. Learning in particular is like that, especially when it involves learning a new alphabet. That which appears dense and impenetrable reveals what is within it as you approach it. It's like walking into fog.
When my son went for his road test, I stepped out of the car. The intenseness of the morning heat was multiplied by its contrast to the air conditioning in the vehicle. It is such moments that remind me of the limits of human mastery. We set up skyscrapers and electrical grids. We master the knowledge necessary to conquer diseases, but ultimately, the sphere in which we enjoy any measure of control is like a bubble in a champagne glass. The totality of our collective knowledge remains submerged in a vast sea of terra incognita.
The gentleman who administered the road test was from the West Indies. People from Jamaica, Haiti and the United States often look as different from each other as do Americans from German, Irish and Italian background. What is interesting about the West Indies is how it is comprised of a group of small countries that were once colonies of Britain. Someone who is from a Republic of 50,000 people thinks more often of the world beyond his shores than does someone from a vast and large country. Most of the countries in the West Indies became independent in the 1960's and 70's. They became independent in a less turbulent manner than did America. The last generation that experienced American life as colonial subjects lived almost 250 years ago. It is interesting to observe countries that split from the mother country much later and under different circumstances.
It is much different riding in a car than riding on a motorcycle. In a car, you pass through a neighbourhood. On a motorcycle, you put your feet down at every traffic light. At night, you feel the emanations from the pavement of all the rays of sunlight that have been absorbed by the asphalt during the day. With a passenger in a car, you are sealed into an enclosure. It is like a movie that you dub with your own soundtrack. On a motorcycle, conversation is squeezed between intervals of quiet, like notes passed in school. The difficulty of conversing shapes the conversation into short bursts. Though you are close to your passenger and tilt together when turning, you are like strangers in the distance.
As I grow older, I become more grateful for the common tasks that put me in proximity to my grown children. The road test that gave me a morning with my son fades into the background of my memory . A lot of life is what happens when you are doing something else.

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