View from the Lawn: The Stars, the Son, The Suicide Bomber

It’s spring, and your diarist finds himself in a mood that is not so much bewitched as bothered, and bewildered.

I turn on the TV set and see the would-be Palestinian suicide bomber-all of 16 years old-shirtless and frightened, cowering in his underpants outside an Israeli checkpoint on the West Bank. His face is lit by sunlight, but I’m thinking about a darkened, dank room 20 minutes earlier. What kind of coward sends a child out to die? What kind of monster-with what lack of conscience-put the kid in the vest (“Lift up your arms”), secured the straps (“Hold still”), checked the batteries (“Just one more second”), then patted the kid on the rump, sending him off to his death? Did the bomb-maker smile? Did the kid feel the terrorist’s breath on his cheeks as the man leaned in and demonstrated how to pull the detonator cord? Is there some verse in the Koran that says, “Allah has spoken: You shall sacrifice your children, and murder other innocent children as well”?

Shaking my head, I change the channel and watch the partisan posturing at the 9/11 hearings. I study Richard Clarke’s face, and I can’t decide whether he’s the greatest patriot or the biggest self-promoter the Republic has ever known. The hearings seem hell-bent on getting to the bottom of nothing; there are so many contradictions and questions raised by Mr. Clarke’s testimony (i.e., attempting to mislead the committee by testifying that he is a registered Republican, but telling Tim Russert four days later that he voted for Al Gore), I’m left with one conclusion: They say the intelligence world is a hall of mirrors; I suspect a lot of them are in Richard Clarke’s mind.

Sighing, I change the channel again, bypassing the 2,000th replay of John Kerry saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it,” and land on George Bush, in a tuxedo, delivering an unseemly, tone-deaf and altogether inappropriate comedy routine about not being able to find weapons of mass destruction in the White House. Can you imagine Lyndon Johnson joking about “bombing the gooks in the White House mess” back into the stone age? No, I can’t, either. At first, I am heartened by Bush’s monologue, because it may serve to negate some of John Kerry’s recent gaffes ….

Until I change the channel again, and find Terry McAuliffe wiping his feet on a George Bush doormat outside his office at the Democratic National Committee’s new headquarters. This isn’t just infantile; in a close race, it’s self-destructive-inciting the right, alienating the middle and doing little more than playing to the choir on the left. Memo to John Kerry: Trust me. There are votes to be gained by promising to boot not only George Bush out of Washington in November, but Terry McAuliffe as well.

Finally, I change the channel one last time. Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg are announcing a plan to fund the West Side stadium with (among other things) an increased tax on hotel rooms. Pardon me, but haven’t we done this before-increased hotel-room taxes-with disastrous results for tourism and convention business? Maybe it’s time to remind our representatives of the three greatest lies of municipal development:

1) You can’t be a first-rate city without an N.F.L. franchise. False. The N.F.L. needs the New York market more than New York needs the N.F.L. Let them pay for it.

2) A football stadium creates employment. False. After the cranes and the construction workers are gone, you’re left with hot-dog vendors earning minimum wage 18 times a year. Put the money into schools. Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing the sky-box crowd.

3) Hosting the Olympics results in a long-term gain for a city. False again: Within a decade or so, Sarajevo saw civil war, Los Angeles race riots, and Atlanta all but went broke paying off Olympics-related debt.

Turning off the TV to get away from this madness, I walk out into the cool night air, and look up into the sky. And for a moment, under a slim crescent moon, I am struck silent. Due to a rare celestial alignment that won’t be repeated until 2036, there are five planets visible in the night sky on these first nights of spring. They’re like old friends. And as I find each, picking them out of the sky, I say their names:

Mercury. Venus. Mars. Saturn. Jupiter.

In my younger and less skeptical days, I probably would have described myself as a child of the Space Age. My first memory is of standing on the lawn outside our garden apartment in Maplewood on a cool October night-surrounded by neighbors and relatives-when my father hoisted me onto his shoulder, pointed up at a tiny white ball crossing the sky and said, “Sputnik.” The Mercury astronauts were my heroes; I’d feign stomach aches to stay home from school and watch the liftoffs. My 10th-birthday present was a telescope. I’d spend summer nights in our backyard, watching the planets, and memorizing the constellations.

And now, all these years later-after going back into the house, retrieving that same telescope and getting my 3-year-old son-I find myself on another lawn, with another young boy, pointing up at the sky. I show him the planets; I line up the moon in the telescope, but he keeps knocking it off the target with his fidgeting hands. I want him to remember this night, and I instantly regret saying, “Don’t touch it.”

Finally, clutching my son to my chest, I lower him onto the eyepiece. I see the white reflection of the moon on his eyelid. Suddenly, he cries out, “The moon! It’s the moon!” Then he breaks free, scampering into the house, yelling, “I want to tell mama the good news! I saw Saturn! I saw the moon! I want to go to Mars this weekend!”

Watching him leave, I hope he will remember this night in 2036, as the odds are I won’t be there. It’s been a moment of great joy for me, yet also terribly strange, as it brings up my own mortality.

Later, after he’s gone to sleep, burbling about Mars and Venus and Saturn, I go outside again to put the telescope away. I think about Sputnik, my first kiss under the stars and watching my first meteor shower.

If you spend enough time staring up at the heavens, sooner or later you can’t help but ponder two questions: Is there a God? Are we alone?

When I hear the sound of my children laughing, there is no uncertainty for me about the first. Yes, there is a God.

Looking through telescopes, I’ve always believed that somewhere, there’s intelligent life out there in the universe. But watching the news on TV these days, I’m no longer entirely convinced that it’s here, on planet Earth.