When I popped open the old laptop, the Geek Squad guy said maybe I should dust it off.
He slid a canister of Endust toward me. “Spray the cloth,” he said, “not the machine.”
I started choking on my sense of humiliation. This poor baby was covered with dust. How could I be so careless and lackadaisical toward the technology at the center of my life? And I hadn’t even realized the extent of my indifferent maintenance until the computer crashed and I had to rush it to the tech doctor.
I had been in the process of writing a column. I was researching the Central American refugees recently tear-gassed as they struggled toward the U.S. border. They were fleeing the violence and hopelessness in their countries, traversing 1,000 miles or more on foot, often with small children in tow, to find … something better.
I had wanted to reach into the core of this situation, reach into the barbed wire and tear gas canisters and the words of Donald Trump, who saw them as perfect scapegoats for the nation’s problems: the enemy of the moment, bedraggled, desperate and hungry. Terrorists, keep out! He would protect America from them.
Then my computer crashed and I realized I was just a guy alone in his cluttered, dusty study. Then I was a guy in his car, heading west on Pratt Boulevard to the closest Best Buy. I was thirsty. I stopped at a convenience store and bought a bottle of water and — because I deserved it — a bag of Skittles.
I was still negotiating through high-tech America, consuming gasoline and plastic, rubber and steel, to accomplish the goals of my ordinary day. I was still — I slowly began to realize — insulated from my own raw need and humanity. I wasn’t trudging into the bitter December afternoon on foot, feeling the wind scrape my face as I clutched my dust-coated 5-year-old, trying to reach a doctor. I had no hostile borders to cross, no armed hatred — no tear gas — to endure. I just wanted to get back online ASAP and continue writing about the wrongs of the world.
But the sense of insulation from what I wanted to write about wouldn’t go away. I was free of hunger and cold and able to get somewhere in a hurry, shrinking distance without effort in my dependable old Toyota (while listening, if I so chose, to a CD of Bob Dylan singing “Shelter From the Storm”). What do I actually know beyond this safe, techno-convenient world, which allows me to write in comfort about the cruel wrongs beyond its borders?
Suddenly I thought about novelist Ariel Dorfman’s fleeting memory of George H.W. Bush. After Bush’s death, Dorfman wrote an essay about a brief encounter he once had with the 41st president. By random chance they were staying at the same hotel. And one day the novelist, from his balcony, happened to see Bush and his entourage walk past. At one point Bush snapped his fingers and the man behind him quickly stepped forward and handed him a tube of suntan lotion. Bush lathered up his neck and arms. They walked on.
That was it: a rich man’s show of entitlement. And I couldn’t separate myself from it. My crashed computer felt like the equivalent of a disobedient manservant, denying the master his suntan lotion the moment he wanted it, skewing his day into inconvenience.
Lurking behind these involuntary musings was a big “what if”: What if the world’s refugee crisis and poverty crisis were somehow shared, or sharable? What if every human being’s life on this planet stretched from security and comfort and control to utter homelessness — to hatred and tear gas and, ultimately, disposal?
What if Donald Trump (and every other U.S. president) could spend some time in his own crosshairs?
Or so I reflected on a disrupted, inconvenienced day: thoughts, awareness and dust in my computer void.
I offer these words with the hope that they can push beyond themselves: that we can hear our own fingers snap the next time we demand our entitlement of the moment; and that, as we gasp for breath while the tear gas dissipates, we can offer help and compassion to the orange-haired man next to us.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound,” is still available. Contact him at [email protected], visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.