Chris Erskine: Human beings are so overrated. But the good ones make up for it

The meal kits arrive weekly on the porch and contain all we need, in pre-measured portions.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

I miss beer and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and late-night comics everyone discussed the next day.

White Claw (and other millennial moonshines) are now putting breweries out of business, Ninja Turtles are mostly used to make chowder, and no one watches the same monologue.

Now I understand that L.A. County is doing away with traditional polling places — firehouses, churches — in lieu of “voting centers.”

If you enjoy the DMV, you’ll probably like those as well.

Me, I liked my church polling place, with the retirees hunched over the tables, looking up your address with a ruler. It was yet another reminder of how indispensable old people are. As an aspiring old person, I found it reassuring.

Look, what do I know about anything? When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a corrupt congressman, and that never quite worked out, even though I was from Illinois, where they teach corruption in the schools — embezzling, money laundering. The thinking among state educators: Those are handy skills, no matter what you end up doing.


Unfortunately, I never achieved my corrupt dream. Turns out I had all the advantages and none of the luck. Looking back, I think I tried a little too hard, which is a character flaw with me.

Shrug. Life goes on. We like some things as we lament the losses. Put a quarter in the carousel. Take another spin.

Of course, our lack of mutual joys is a growing problem. We live in prickly times, and civility seems a recessive trait. There is also a dearth of sly and funny television, almost to the point of national crisis.

I’m actually digging the social media swirl, though. Honestly, I think Twitter and Facebook connect us, as other digital advances threaten our very existence. No bookstores, no record shops … soon no stores at all.

In particular, I miss the record shops, where you could thumb through old albums on rainy afternoons. A good life isn’t all first kisses and game-winning touchdowns. A good life is a trillion little joys — chance encounters, overheard conversations, newspapers.

My pal Flanagan put it well the other day, capturing the essence of America in midwinter. “Do you hate almost everything, and with a weird intensity?” she tweeted.

“But do you also have a stirring, exultant, almost fiercely maternal love for a seemingly unconnected collection of books, movies, ideas, people and historical events?”

The long answer: Yes.

(As an aside, I could marry Flanagan just on the basis of that one brilliant tweet; though I am far too young to be married, I would marry her anyway.)

I sit in Starbucks as I write this — my laboratory of modern life — sipping my half-caramel, half hibiscus Al Pacino ($5). As I watch, customers duck in and out for their preordered coffees without having to interact with anyone.

Human beings are overrated, sure … I’ve met a bunch I don’t really like. But the good ones certainly make up for it. I’m thinking of my buddies, Bittner in particular, but Miller and Siskin too. Even my attorney, Billable Bob, has outstanding moments now and then, though he overcharges for those.

Very soon there won’t be smiling baristas at hangouts like this. Very soon there will be robots mixing your lattes and delivering packages to the house, and you’ll no longer get a smile and a wave from human beings as they hop back into their truck in those odd brown shorts.

Point is, we rush through everything, and before you know it, we’ve rushed through life, lamenting lost opportunities and the lack of meaning. We rush through coffee, we rush through work so we can rush home and fall asleep on the couch.

Worst of all, we rush to judgment. As my new fiancée Flanagan likes to say: “The truth bats last.”

In the meantime, the boy and I have been making these prepackaged meals his lovely and patient older sister ordered us. It was the perfect Christmas gift for a couple of dolts who’d considered dinner to be ginormous bags of spicy Cheetos.

Now these carefully curated meals arrive a couple of times a week, and we assemble them into fresh feasts: ginger chicken tacos, honey thyme pork tenderloin.

Not only do we get a variety of yummy meals, we are also picking up cooking tips — how lemon zest can flavor a bowl of couscous or how a big smear of cream cheese on Parmesan chicken salvages a bland, midwinter day.

For us, midwinter used to taste like ChapStick.

Best of all is how the boy cook and I operate side by side in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, stirring, mixing. Through one online order — and the generosity of his techie sister — we’re discovering something fresh and fascinating.

That’s the takeaway, I suppose: For most every loss, there is some magical gain.

And life remains a trillion little joys.