Wit’s End: Deborah Paul On Common Sense
It comes in handy, especially when judging the actions of others.
As a young child, I awoke one morning with a painful lump under my left ear and a splotchy red rash that spread ominously across my chest. My self-diagnosis was instant. “I have the measles and the mumps,” I announced to my parents. Even at a tender age, I was known for what in Yiddish is called sechel, or common sense. My warning was believed and, later, confirmed.
Sechel has since defined my personality. What I lack in math skills, geographical references, and knowledge of European history, I make up in common sense. Such a gift comes in handy, especially when judging the actions of others.
Let’s start with a can of prune-plum filling. This may not sound important to you, but it is to me. My father was born in 1900 on the Jewish holiday of Purim. He was one of seven children, so his mother could not be blamed for forgetting the exact date of his birth. She knew only that it fell on Purim. For all of his 94 years, Dad’s birthday was celebrated on this holiday, no matter when it fell on the Gregorian calendar.
As a tribute, and especially since his death, I bake hamantaschen, a triangular cookie-dough pastry with prune-plum filling. It is delicious, and Dad loved it. Trouble is, prune-plum filling is hard to come by. I find it locally at one Marsh supermarket, and usually stock up for spring. As the March holiday approached this year, I knew I would find myself in Florida, so I tossed a can into my carry-on as we began our airline trip south.
Long story short, a TSA agent confiscated my unopened, factory-sealed can. It obviously was not filled with a noxious gas or explosive powder. It said right there on the label: prune-plum filling. Seriously. This thievery flew in the face of common sense. In the aftermath, I was reduced to using raspberry jam, which leaked all over the cookie sheet.
How is it even remotely possible that a man who heard voices in his head telling him to kill, and visited jihadist chat rooms, was not only permitted to own a 9 mm handgun but was allowed to check it—as well as ammunition—on a plane to Fort Lauderdale?
Speaking of misguided airport personnel, let me tell you about my friend Jane, who is pretty peeved herself. She has been traveling with her 10-year-old, 14-pound shih tzu, Leo, since the pup was three months old. Jane buys Leo a $125 airline ticket and places his carrier under the seat in front of her. Occasionally, she partially unzips it so Leo can poke out his head to make sure his owner is still there.
On a recent trip, an airline ticket agent in Washington, D.C., advised her that to be allowed onboard, a dog must be in a carrier in which he can stand up and turn around. Leo wasn’t concerned about either. He just wanted to interrupt his nap every once in awhile to pop out his head. Breathing, Jane added, is important to a shih tzu. At any rate, Jane, who is also blessed with common sense, left the airport in a huff and drove to Florida.
Turning to more grim infractions of common sense: How is it even remotely possible that a man who was once committed to a psychiatric facility for evaluation, heard voices in his head telling him to kill, and visited jihadist chat rooms was not only permitted to own a 9 mm handgun but was allowed to check it—as well as ammunition—on a plane to Fort Lauderdale, where he went on a shooting spree at baggage claim? The gun case did not raise a red flag to anyone in security, yet they took my prune-plum filling and insisted Leo stand up in his carrier. Seriously? Common sense wasn’t just compromised, it was missing entirely.
On a lighter note, I do not understand how any coffee house, and by “any” I mean Starbucks, could institute a policy whereby decaf is not brewed after noon, unless a customer asks for it. When else but late in the day would any sane coffee drinker request a decaffeinated beverage, so as not to interrupt a good night’s sleep? Who needs decaf in the morning? (Note to self: Do not accept Caffè Americano as a substitute. It is a fancy name for brown water and not worth the three bucks.)
Common sense could not possibly have played a part in the trend of reserved seating at movie theaters. I ran into this policy recently and observed old people stumbling around in the dark, scrabbling inside their pocketbooks for glasses to read the seat number on tickets, and complaining loudly as the previews played. I myself wound up next to a surly woman in the wrong seat who, rather than scoot down, cursed like Lil Wayne. This required a manager to reseat not only the woman in question, but all of her cohorts, who were each over one seat too far. One friend of mine in Atlanta, a fine and literate fellow, calls such policies “a cure for no known disease.” Seriously, just let us walk in, choose a seat, and sit down. This is not La Traviata at the Met.
I won’t even address the legality of texting and driving, labeling school buses as to the minority religion of their passengers, or Donald Trump insulting past presidents within earshot at his own inauguration and disallowing certain immigrants despite their personal situations. Some ideas (and people) are just hopeless. Bottom line: Book learning is fine, esteemed lecturers are to be listened to, high-tech skills are to be lauded, and NPR is astute radio that deserves its audience. But there is no substitute for common sense, the most valuable commodity of all in a complex and often mixed-up world.
Editor emerita Deborah Paul’s personal reflections on culture, society, and family have graced the pages of IM since 1981.