Chaos, Kindness, Vivian Landis, and Me

Yesterday I attended the funeral of Vivian Landis, mother of my long-time friend Lise Landis. Vivian was 98 years old when she died, and by all accounts had a wonderful and rewarding life. She also played a big part in mine, by doing what she apparently did routinely: being kind.

Mrs. Landis, along with her late husband Paul, were, by sheer chance, placed in the position of being the Chaos Theory butterfly in the Amazon jungle that causes a momentous chain of events by flapping its wings. They exemplify to me why it is vital for all of us to strive to live using ethical values. We have often no idea what the results will be, but the odds are they will be more good than bad.

In 1972, I had been rejected by all of my choices for law school, though I had been wait-listed at Georgetown. However, it was August, the fall semester was looming, and no word from Washington, D.C. had reached me. Discouraged but resigned, I said the hell with it, and resolved to take a year off, perhaps to craft my thesis on character and the American Presidency into a book. In the meantime, I decided to join my parents and sister on what bid fair to be our last family vacation. Dad had planned one of his typical forced marches, this one through Reno, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, San Francisco, and Seattle.

I was having a great time, relaxing, enjoying the sights, when a ranger tracked us down on the Yosemite canyon floor. Our next-door neighbors in Arlington Mass. had sent a telegram forwarding a Georgetown telegram to the Marshall homestead: a slot for me had just opened up in the 1975 Class, but to claim it, I had to be at the Law Center to register Monday morning—and it was Sunday. And I was in California.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to law school at that point, but my dad was determined that I should take the opportunity. We cut short our Yosemite visit and drove to San Francisco, where I was deposited on a red-eye to Dulles. I had few clothes, and knew nobody in the District of Columbia or anywhere near it. Somehow, I was assured, my family would have a plan for me by the time I arrived. I was to call their hotel in Frisco once I had registered.

When I called, confused, dubious and a little frightened, I learned that my sister’s Harvard room mate, Lise, had contacted her parents in Bethesda, Maryland. I had never met them. They had volunteered to put me up in their home until I was able to find a place to live. As it turned out, they did a lot more than that. They let me sleep in their son’s (very nice) room (he was away in school), they fed me breakfast and dinner, they made me feel cared about and connected to a source of support while I was far from home for the first time in my life. Vivian Landis drove me 20 minutes to the first of my several public transportation connections every morning around 7 am, and picked me up every evening. In between were two horrible commutes  that sometimes stretched over 90 minutes: without Vivian’s gratis chauffeur service, it would have been much longer.

I had no luck finding a place to live. The Landises were stuck with me for almost two months, yet they never made me feel anything but welcome. Even so, the commute was killing me, and also felt guilty to be imposing, through no fault of my hosts, who acted like it would be find with them if I moved in permanently. I called my parents and said that if there wasn’t a housing breakthrough soon, I was coming home.

Two days later I got a second helping hand from an unexpected source. A college classmate, the room mate of several friends but not someone I would have described as a pal, called me at the Landises. He had heard about my plight by chance, running into my mom, who worked in the campus housing office. He was working for the Nixon campaign, he told me, and touring the country recruiting “Youth For Nixon.” Why not stay in his apartment at the Watergate?  He said he would be gone until the end of November at least. No charge, of course, and the subway ride from the Foggy Bottom to to the law school was about ten minutes. I jumped at the offer.

Well, the rest is history. I’m still living in the D.C. area, met my wife of 38 years here, made many of my best friends, established my professional satirical musical group and  the Georgetown Law Center student Gilbert & Sullivan theater company that is still going strong (untold number of romances, wedding and offspring coming from that), started my ethics business, guided The American Century Theater for two decades, adopted a wonderful son. Yet none of it would have happened, in all likelihood, had not Paul and Vivian Landis been so generous, trusting, compassionate and kind to me, a stranger.

Chaos is among the two concepts (along with cognitive dissonance) that I find most invaluable in thinking about, championing, and analyzing ethics. When people are ethical and their ethics alarms are in working order, good things tend to happen, sometimes completely unpredictable good things, and more of them than anyone could have predicted.

Paul and Vivian Landis helped teach me that—well, them and “Jurassic Park.”

I will always be grateful and in awe of these two wonderful human beings who, through no effort of mine, came into my life when I needed them most. I intend to spend the rest of my own life trying to do likewise for others.

31 thoughts on “Chaos, Kindness, Vivian Landis, and Me

  1. Jack, all those times you have asked yourself why you bother, this is one of those reasons why. Despite how much humanity disappoints, it is people like Mrs. Landis that give us hope. I’m sorry for your loss.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story, it’s such an honor to know people like that.

    Sorry for your loss.

    Although our circumstances were vastly different, I too had a family that stepped up in my life when I had a great need and I know for sure that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the kindness of their entire family. They gave me a home, encouragement, and I learned some good/needed life lessons while I lived with them, that was my home for just over a year (1975-1976). In Memory.


  3. Great story about great people. It doesn’t take much for the right butterflies to flap theirs wings to make a better world.

  4. “Chaos is among the two concepts (along with cognitive dissonance) that I find most invaluable in thinking about, championing, and analyzing ethics. When people are ethical and their ethics alarms are in working order, good things tend to happen, sometimes completely unpredictable good things, and more of them than anyone could have predicted.”

    This is a really awesome story which is why I don’t want to argue, but I really don’t think there’s karma (in it’s traditional sense)…which is what you’re essentially arguing via this “chaos favors the ethical” idea.

    I think, ethical people generally congregate and associate, therefore ethical people are more likely have avenues of support when they hit tight spots. I also think, unethical people, may very well have the same opportunities available (insomuch as they know people who have the ability to help them) but that those opportunities are generally less inclined to help unethical people.

    That is, in alternate universe, a young Jack Marshall lacking the ethical lifestyle of this universe’s counterpart, may be in the same fix needing housing, and the Landises have a room available, but they also know that alternate universe Jack Marshall is an ungrateful lout who complains about things given in generosity, leaves loaned things worse off than he received them, and is a rude and selfish conversationalist.

    These Landises choose not to help out that Jack Marshall.

    I don’t think that’s chaos.

    • I don’t believe in karma. I believe that all actions have unpredictable consequences, but that ethical actions are more likely to have good consequences, predictable or not, than unethical actions….which is just simple logic and common sense. Yes, now and then Bones dooms the free world by preventing a truck from running down a lovely woman…

      Do you disagree with that assertion? The opposite of my position is the one that argues that without a belief in God, there’s no reason to be good.

      • I don’t know. No good deed goes unpunished. But generally, I think you are right. It is my experience for people who receive kindness, respond to it.

        As a Christian, I find don’t find it hard to see why anyone would be good without God. If we apply game theory, we do it just to better ourselves. I think there is something be said about what we owe each other in society and people not willing to follow those social contracts tend to make things worse.

        I think Christianity and ethics have similar goals in mind when they call us to better people.

          • I suppose it boils down to what level of unpredictability qualifies as characterizing a system as chaos.

            I think, as I thought I alluded too, that ethical people tend to associate with other ethical people at levels high enough to increase the likelihood that they will be recipients of the ethical actions and extra-ethical actions of others.

            That seems more predictable than not.

            • Yikes. Human affairs along with weather are the epitome of chaotic systems, along with warfare. That’s why we can only judge ethical or unethical actions on their intent, their immediate results and the manner in which they were decided upon. It’s “Sliding Doors,” all over, every day. How do I know whether deciding to stick with law school actually interrupted a scenario that would have had me using my (mostly under-utilized and trivially employed) talents and abilities for something with momentous, humanity-wide benefits to the world? My father was supposed to be in D-Day. He wasn’t because a moron—literally—pulled the pin in a hand grenade that blew him up and my Dad’s foot. I may well be here at all because of that act of incompetence. The New York Times sold US Magazine just as it was going to publish a feature on my satirical performing group. We were going to get an agent. It could have propelled us, or any of us, into show business. There were so many, many examples in my life and career. No doubt: ethical associations and life decisions should work out best for everyone. But there’s no guarantee.

              • I get the angle. I just don’t think chaos is the right term for describing a system in which changing certain variables generally results in predictably similar outcomes each time the variables are changed in a similar way.

                I think human affairs are generally unpredictable. I don’t think it’s chaos. I am mostly certain I can always rely on the same people almost all the time I rely on them. Yes, sometimes it doesn’t work out, but for the most part it is predictable. On the same token, I am mostly certain that the people I cannot rely on will, true to form, be completely unreliable.

            • Also, as an addendum, you will recall that the most ethical role model in my life, my dad, had as his lifetime best friend a sociopath. I believe I wrote about him in “The Julie Principle.”

  5. There is nothing new under the sun.

    “As a man sows, so shall he reap.” -Galatians 6-7

    “This has all happened before, and will all happen again” -Pythia

    “Sow an act reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny.” -Buddha, paraphrased (?)

    Life is chaotic, Jack. But on the whole, good behavior reaps reward. Life seems to be built that way.

    • Bottom line, slick, good behavior makes you feel good about yourself, which, I think, is reward (consequence) enough.

      • The opposite of my position is the one that argues that without a belief in God, there’s no reason to be good. JM
        people who receive kindness, respond to it.
        . . . [We do it just to better ourselves. . . . [It is] what we owe each other in society

        Bottom line, . . . good behavior makes you feel good about yourself, which</b, I think, is reward (consequence) enough.</b d_d

        Rare, but it happens: Jack loses an argument. On several more grounds, not least the overriding logic of the uselessness, other than the joy of debate for its own sake, of arguing anything based entirely on belief. It is unarguable, much as both deist and atheist find their stands to be “sides.” There is no “opposite” to a Belief, or faith, as such: it becomes an (unsupported) opinion, one way or another. Behavior acting on belief is something else again.

        And that is My belief.

        It is past time to wish you a Happy Father’s Day, Jack, so I will simply grandfather-in my message, namely, Happy Fathering unto as many generations as you can manage.

        Just one little thing: . . . Reno??

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