It was the Saturday morning just before Election Day, and I was eating my breakfast in a motel restaurant just before speaking several times that day at a conference in Sacramento, Calif.
Backed up to my booth in the restaurant was a table that was occupied, as best I could tell without turning around and gawking, by two couples and four children. They were not loud and boisterous, but neither were they particularly discreet. We were so close it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.
What I heard both shocked and troubled me. One of the fellows was telling, altogether too triumphantly, about a visit he and his teenage daughter had made to the Target department store just before this trip to California. "You wouldn't believe it!" he exclaimed. "The checkout clerk must have been terribly new or terribly dumb. We had eight pairs of slacks, six shirts, and a few other items-and even though she ran them all by the scanner, almost none of them registered. She didn't even notice, and ended up charging us something like $17 for the whole cartful, when it probably should have been at least 10 times that amount." Everyone's laughter seemed to be taken as approval, and for a few minutes the conversation was a little muffled.
But then the second fellow changed the subject, reporting on his summer of coaching a little-league team. What started off as a miserable season turned around, he said, when his team was able to recruit an outstanding young shortstop whose family had moved into the area from Costa Rica. There was a problem at first, he said, because the boy was 12 years old, and rules for that team set the maximum age at 11. No matter. He had a lawyer friend who knew just what needed to be done to produce some appropriate paperwork, and the over-age shortstop had made their season. "Wow!" I heard one of the children respond, "that's pretty cool."
After all this, I was hardly surprised a few minutes later to hear the first fellow tell how close he had come during the summer to being "nailed to the wall" by his ex-wife, but how he had managed to persuade the divorce court that he was "maxed out" in terms of what he could pay in alimony and child support for a family he had left behind.
I'm not sure which of the two (or was it three?) wives it was who then launched into a tale about her teenage daughter who had not been able to get into the dorm she most wanted at the state university where she had enrolled as a freshman. "Apparently enrollment was just way beyond what they expected," the mother said. "But Amanda," she reported with a bit of pride in her voice, "is not one to give up. Her boyfriend already has a room in that same dorm-which is why she wanted to be there, of course-and since there was some mix-up about his roommate's coming back this fall, Amanda has just moved in with him. It's technically against the rules, but nobody seems to care."
Let me confess that I was a wimp. Boiling over inside, I still couldn't muster the gumption to challenge this band of outlaws on the spot. Maybe you readers can tell me how I should have responded and what I should have said.
Some will respond by saying that this was an exceptional situation, and that the breakfast table behind me was in no way representative of our nation today. I wish I could believe that-but I worry what store owners, little-league umpires, divorce judges, and the resident directors of college dorms would tell us has become the norm.
I do know that a society whose people live by such a value system doesn't have a long life expectancy. When parents talk that way without embarrassment in front of their children, and when they don't seem to think anyone listening in will be overly surprised, the fiber that holds a culture together has already unraveled.
We're not talking here about graduate-level morality. We're not asking whether this society has what it takes to discuss sophisticated ethical issues. We're not even suggesting that our culture in this case swear an allegiance to our version of biblical morality; we're looking for little more here than an elementary understanding of the Golden Rule. These are kindergarten issues-and if we can't master them, who on earth do we think we are talking about the ethics of stem-cell research, just-war theory, end-of-life issues, and abortion?