First, the gas tank indicator needle starts to move towards Empty. Twenty or 30 miles later, the warning light goes on. Then, as if that isn't enough, an electronic message tells me how many miles I have until I run out of gas --- 60 miles, 50 miles, 40 miles. Instead of being reassuring, all these alerts make my kids nervous. They chime in: "Time to fill the tank! Time to fill the tank!" The last 100 miles of every tank is a multimedia spectacular, a sound-and-light harangue about how I'm about to run out of gas.
I've decided to do it. Just let the car run out of gas. The kids need to be with me when this happens so they can see it's not the end of the world. It's hard for them to believe this, but people survived for decades with cars that didn't give any warning; the needles quietly moved toward Empty and the cars sputtered to a halt. We cursed and got out of the car and trudged to the nearest gas station. Somehow, the species survived and, I believe, we're all the stronger for it.
A little controlled emergency would address two concerns I have about my kids, and by extension, my country. We are surrounded by so many devices that make life easier to live, softer to sit on, and warmer to the touch that I fear we're not just losing our ability to brush off minor inconveniences; we're losing touch with reality. Our clocks can withstand blackouts, GPS systems guide us around town, and thermostats know when to run cool and hot. God forbid we have a moment of confusion or downright discomfort.
As a nation, we've decided to feather our nests and ignore the rest. A recent poll reported that few Americans list poverty as one of their top concerns. But when asked directly about it, we agree it's a growing problem. And yet for years we voted for tax relief for the wealthy and, to avoid confronting difficult truths, swallowed euphemisms and accepted embargoes. The fed's recent report on hunger in America, for example, replaced the word "hunger" with "food insecurity." Sounds like something you could clear up in a few sessions of psychotherapy, doesn't it? And the media embargo on photos of coffins early in the Iraq war fed into the mentality that Americans shouldn't even have to be aware of suffering.
When we place so much importance on our own creature comforts, we neglect to consider the bigger picture. It may be a stretch to bring up the corporal mortification crowd, the Opus Dei types with their hair shirts and cilices (the spiked metal chain strapped to the thigh). Adherents who wear these say the pain heightens their awareness of the suffering of others.
I'm not proposing some kind of mass self-mutilation, but I am advocating, at least for my own family, a bit of friction in our lives: a bump in the road, a sputter in the gas tank. I think that would make us better people, more aware of the reality of life in America, and in the world.
Of course I'm always trying, in inadvertently embarrassing ways, to teach my kids these lessons. Recently my 5th-grade son and I spaced out and missed his guitar lesson. When we showed up the following week, I tried to pay the teacher for the missed lesson. The guitar teacher said it was okay, but I insisted. I launched into my rant about having been stiffed as a waitress and ripped off as a babysitter and about how people who are not backed up by corporations (who, in turn, are backed up by the government) rely on honesty in verbal contracts, et cetera.
My son, holding his killer blue electric guitar, said something like, "Mom, it's fine." In retrospect, I see he might have just been trying to silence me in front of his rad soul-patch-type guitar teacher. But maybe he really thinks it's fine. He's 10 and he owns an electric guitar, fer Chrissake!
In fact, most kids have no sense of the value of money; my son's little friend recently told me that his new amp cost "only $70." And how would my kids know anything about scraping by on guitar-lesson fees and waitressing tips? They live in a real house and have no memory of when we were unable to cough up the $15 co-pay at the pediatrician's office and the asswipe receptionist wouldn't take a check. They don't know that some people buy gas in $5 increments. My kids, unlike the swelling ranks of the very poor, don't know what it's like to be scared all the time.
Okay, so staging a gas-shortage in our car won't even begin to address my children's naiveté about poverty and need. But a bit of discomfort can't hurt. Plus, the moxie and confidence they'll gain from conquering the problem -- schlepping to the gas station, carrying back the big scarlet jug of shame -- will serve to help them when they, too, are scraping by as impoverished young adults. These skills could help them in their most desperate times, for example when they are dying to get their hands on the latest Wii games but can only afford, tragically, the used ones.