Civilization and its discontents:

Sitting on runway at La Guardia, Eastern Shuttle pilot says, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'll estimate that we got a short delay here, so I'm going to turn off the no-smoking light and you jes sit back and relax . . ."

Half an hour later still relaxing in the same place.

Cowboy-accented pilot drawls we are now No. 7 for takeoff. "You can jes count 'em off for yourselves," he says.

Which, of course, we could if they were moving. Right now there is "partial failure of the New York Center radar." Wisecracks; name of free world's leader taken in vain.

No-smoking light still off . . .

Arrival is two hours and 40 minutes after scheduled departure. Duly noted on flight board: Next shuttle still on ground in New York.

In parking lot at National, car has flat tire. And one of the lugs is stripped -- result of overenthusiastic pneumatic lug wrench. While trying to solve problem, manual lug wrench breaks. Much rage. Cab hailed for appointment -- 20 minutes after the appointment. During ride Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis announces on radio that Air Traffic Control System is working more smoothly than before strike. Pepsi bottle aimed at radio, then regretfully put aside in foolish moment of rationality.

So far cabdrivers are $30 richer on this overcast Tuesday.

Back at work phones go out for half an hour -- awesome silence in the city that won't shut up. Cab back to National, with newly procured lug wrench. Lug still won't budge. Incredible rage: Parking lot attendants for once look shaken.

Consequently five minutes late for personal appointment. Announce it's been a tough day. Are told we are five minutes late. Walk out of personal meeting. Fetch steadfast lug wrench.

Return to scene of flat tire. Try to remove the sucker for one solid hour. Second lug wrench breaks. Rage beyond man's ability to comprehend. Overcoat covered with grease.

Parking lot attendants use body language reserved for dealing with madmen and lawyers. Bus to Dulles, halfway point to tranquil country home, is missed. Another $30 enriches the city's cabdrivers.

At Dulles, find out no more buses are heading toward the homestead. $40 cab ride has atmosphere of quiescent volcano. Cabbie is quiet; he speaks no English.

Fifteen hours after leaving New York, nothing has been accomplished, other than spending $110 on cab fares and returning rented set of tails that are one day overdue.

Kindly tailor had waived the penalty fee, and on this reflective note of benevolence it seems an ice cream sundae might provide some sense of tranquility.

The freezer opens easily . . .

It is warm, and a trickle of melted Baskin-Robbins French vanilla describes a slow downward arc that settles on our shoe.