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postcard-from-l-a: Cutting strangers some slack (but not getting any when it comes to college loans)

The other day, a colleague overheard someone at the fashionable Brentwood Country Mart say: “I’m shipping her two McCarthy salads from the Polo Lounge on dry ice. Dorm life is hard.”

Perhaps the mom was being brilliantly satiric — I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. That’s my new thing now, to cut strangers slack when they appear to be doing outlandishly silly things. This college kid’s mom, for example. Or the yo-yo’s we all see on cellphones speeding through dangerous intersections.

Instead of anger, I feel compassion. “Probably a family emergency,” I tell myself of the cellphone users. “Perhaps someone is dying from a lack of McCarthy salads.”

So, this is working out — my suburban adaptation of Zen Buddhism. It replaces my natural emotional state: knee-jerk Irish anger, which used to generate a small narcotic buzz. But I realized recently that, with the rapid surge in stupid behavior, I needed to chill out a bit.

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In my new Zen state, you think the best of your neighbors even when they’re behaving in patently ridiculous ways.

Here’s an example: There’s this busy intersection where I nearly always get run down while jogging. There are stoplights, but no one pays them any heed; drivers seem to just blast through regardless. Yellow means speed up. Red means floor it. Green means “fly through the corner on two wheels, yee-hawwwww.”

You get the idea.

Every day, as I am nearly killed at this intersection — usually by people on their cellphones dealing with family emergencies — I grant them plenty of distance because I know how distraught they must be, even when they are laughing merrily into the phone. From what I hear, humor can defuse even the most difficult situations.

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I mean, no decent human being would ever endanger the lives of others for insignificant reasons. These drivers are just doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances.

Aren’t we all?

Well, you and I are, and many of our friends. At any given time, I estimate 60% of all people everywhere are doing their very best. Some of us will not do their very best every single day, but will be replaced by others who will. So, that 60% average is a number I stand by.

I also base it on a figure I read recently in an unemployment report. According to the Labor Department, only 63% of working-age Americans are working. That means a whopping 37% are not working, either because they can’t or won’t or have just given up. Nearly 90million Americans are now considered out of the labor force.

A tad troubling, right?

I no longer fear stock market crashes as much as I fear the unrelenting decline of the American standard of living. Mine in particular, but yours too.

There are jobs, but not good ones. Inflation seems under control until you try to buy a small house or a major appliance. Priced a fridge lately? Two grand, then a few hundred bucks to fix it every year and a half. My parents’ stove lasted 50 years. Our Viking range lasted five.

Meanwhile, the cost of college is frightful, and the inability of chancellors to rein in those costs is unconscionable. Used to be I wanted to storm Congress, or Wall Street, or corporate clown houses like Enron. Now it’s ivy-covered administration buildings.

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Our younger daughter is just now assuming some post-college debt. They often give kids with loans a grace period after graduation before pouncing.

In my new Zen state, I find that grandly generous. Instead of anger, I feel compassion.

In our case, I’m covering $1,600 a month of my daughter’s college loans, and she’s assuming the rest. That’s right, $1,600. Ridiculous, right? Our daughter will gradually assume more of the burden, or (as I’ve advised her) marry money and buy the university and forgive her own debt.

That’s the sort of best-case scenario I prefer. If we had our own university — or even just a small college — then the little guy could one day go. And I could get a PhD in comedy science and perhaps one day teach.

“ARRRGH!” as they say in the comic strips.

Parents beware. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, especially for young families. Save, save, save. Skimp, skimp, skimp. Resist that big-screen TV you have just got to have.

Maybe even skip that $33 McCarthy salad. Because, Mama, if you think dorm life is hard, wait till you start trying to pay for it.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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Twitter: @erskinetimes

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