“You’re in a mess, and in excess.”  Billy Strayhorn

I am a person who cares very deeply about the planet—how can I not? It’s my home. I also have a great fondness for humanity. As Ruth Gordon so aptly put it in Harold and Maude: They’re my species. I love cats UNSUB Global hands-600497_960_720and dogs, elephants, tigers, and the giant panda. I even have a soft spot—at a respectful distance—for the bees that pollinate the crops from which so much of our food comes.

Because of these various and numerous carings, I am the recipient of a staggering quantity of e-mail petitions and donation requests. Three-hundred is a “good” day, but a closer average is 500. More than that and you can hear me whimpering softly into my keyboard Please, let me have a life.

Well, problems demand solutions, so I have recently decided to weed through the druck and click on that little life-saver Unsubscribe Me. (I should have done it years ago, but I was too busy … answering e-mails.)

I’m not doing a Thoreau here and disappearing into the woods. I realize these are desperate times, and as such call for desperate measures. Or at least a quantity of $5 and $10 donations, and a daily dozen of signed petitions. So, how to separate the wheat from the chaff? Well, I believe there are situations whereUNSUB stacks of dollar-499481_960_720 our democracy needs lawyers on the ground, sometimes hordes of them, so I won’t be axing the ACLU. Likewise, I won’t part company with Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, Democracy Now, the Union of Concerned Scientists, or the World Wildlife Fund. And I want to reassure the Humane Society that I’m still going to donate my lovely 2001 Ford Focus. I just need the use of it for another six weeks.

But, not all that screams READ ME THIS INSTANT is gold. So, gone is the magazine I declined to renew back in 2009, but which continues to send me weekly come-ons. (Read this woman’s lips: No means no.) History, too, are the BIG! SALE! NOW! adverts for clothing, designer cookware, and high-tech gadgets from companies I’ve never patronized.  It’s also arrivederci to the guy who’s always yammering on about tinnitus (I can’t hear you anymore.)


And though it pains me, because I think many of them are very good people, it’s time to be honest with myself and confess that I cannot possibly fill the campaign coffers of all 187 Democrats in the House on a writer’s income. (Democrat #188, Rep. Fattah  from Pennsylvania, saved me the trouble by resigning in June after being busted on corruption charges.)

Don’t worry Lizzie Warren. You are my hero, and you will always have my heart, my vote, and whatever spare change I find beneath the sofa cushions.


This purging of my Inbox is no small task, but already I feel wonderfully exhilarated. It’s made me consider what else in life I might unsubscribe to. A sort of thinking outside the (in)box. So far, my wish list of things I’d like to vanquish with the click of a mouse includes:     UNSUB dirty-dishes

1)Any repetitive task involving cleaning—washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, mopping floors, sieving the cat box. Bye!

2)Junk mail consisting of credit card come-ons, solicitations for “free” dinners to discuss investment strategies for the 401K I don’t have, and ultra-posh catalogs ($275 for a pair of shorts? I’ll think about it when I stop laughing).

3)All yardwork that involves heavy weeding. We have—and I want to emphasize this—a very, very small yard. We chose our house with its wee lot because we DO NOT LIKE yardwork. We like writing and reading, bicycling and enjoying a gin-and-tonic on the deck. Yet, despite the terraced garden I created to cover the front lawn, and the pavers we laid down for a patio to cover the back yard, I still dig and clear 35-40 giant bags of what our landfill correctly labels “yard waste.”

Credit City of Cincinnati
Credit City of Cincinnati

How is it possible that palm oil deforestation is wreaking havoc on half the world and here in my puny 4,000 sq. ft. lot, a jungle abounds?

4)Speaking of havoc in the larger world, unsubscribe me from TV, radio, and print pundits who just spout whatever outlandish drivel comes into their heads for the sole purpose of ramping up their ratings, while sowing discord, escalating tensions, and mongering fear (I’ve always wanted to use monger as a verb!).

5)Related to #4, I would like to cancel the 24-hour news cycle, period. Possibly the worst innovation to come out of the media explosion cable TV introduced, it leads otherwise reasonable newscasters to say things like, “Michael Jackson will only die once.”

6)Also high on my list of things to delete is that phone-answering set-up where an improbably zombie-like computerized “woman” asks you questions, then insists you speak your answer into the void. No matter how slowly and clearly you enunciate, “she” never quite “hears” you.


Sample “conversation:”

Zombie woman: Are you experiencing any fever? Just say yes or no.

You: Yes.

ZW: I’m sorry. I didn’t quite understand your reply. Could you repeat that?

You (perspiring heavily): Yes! My temperature is 104!

ZW:  I’m sorry. Can we try that again?

You (swooning): 104! My temperature is 104! I’m burning up!!!

ZW: Let’s try a different question.

You (dead):

7)And last, but certainly not least, please save me from any political “debates” where candidates compare the size of their hands, ears, nose to any other part of their anatomy as if it had any relevance to world hunger, global warming, or the desperate needs of refugees.

I mean, seriously, Beam me up, Scotty!

Paramount/Everett/Rex Features
Paramount/Everett/Rex Features

The Thing That Cannot Be Changed

And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past. . .
(“Fountain of Sorrow” Jackson Browne)

Sometimes, it’s something we truly earned—and didn’t get. The career-making job that would have launched our dreams. Sometimes, it’s something we never had, but always craved. Parents who could love us. And sometimes it’s just one terrible moment: The car we failed to see in time. Whatever it is, in most of our lives there lurks The thing that cannot be changed. It’s the moment, the decision, the situation that all our effort and talent and endurance cannot alter or undo.

Successful writers and actors, business people and ballplayers, if they’re honest, often mention the role luck played in their achievement. Along with the hard work and long hours, they confess to being in the right place at the right time. No one mentions the opportunities that went to someone else, the love that never materialized, the awful accident of standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

THING fantasy-1275253_960_720And that’s the hardest part about The thing that cannot be changed. It’s almost never the result of our own doing. Perhaps that’s why it looms so large. It lies outside our control, and people like to control their own lives. When someone else denies us our most basic needs, tramples our dreams, we experience it as an injustice, and injustice bites deep. Its grip is tenacious.

Yet, we must learn to live with The thing that cannot be changed. Thrive in spite of it. Not let it swamp us internally or accept it as a judgment of our own worth. There’s a myth that only losers suffer from The thing that cannot be changed. That successful people simply leave adversity in the dust. Would that it were it so easy.

“The Places That Failed Us Before”

Tennessee Williams was a two-time Pulitzer prize winner and hailed as one of the greatest dramatists in 20th-century American theater. Decidedly a brilliant writer and a great success. But he was never able to stare down The thing that cannot be changed.

 For Williams, The thing was twofold: The abusive, alcoholic father who disdained and bullied a son he considered weak; and the controlling, puritanical mother horrified by all things sexual. Williams heard their message loud and clear: “You are wrong as you are.”


In one particularly harrowing incident, his father hauled him out of the University of Missouri after he failed a military training course in his junior year, and put him to work in the factory of the International Shoe Company where the senior Williams was an executive. Tennessee hated the daily grind and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

After he recovered, Williams enrolled in another college, and later studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City. Speaking of his early days as a dramatist, collaborating with others on a play for an amateur summer theater group, Williams wrote, “The laughter … enchanted me. Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it’s the only thing that saved my life.”

The hope in that last sentence is moving; its subtext, haunting: If I just work hard enough, long enough, I can write my way free of my pain. But he never did. Despite using that pain to create some of the most memorable characters on the stage (Big Daddy, Amanda Wingfield), he remained trapped within The thing that cannot be changed. Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’s plays said, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”

In 1939, with the assistance of his agent, he received a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a play he was writing, Battle of Angels. The play foundered when it opened, but Williams was on his way. And yet, a poem he penned that same year reveals how badly The thing that cannot be changed dogged him. Cried the Fox speaks of an animal, running in ever-narrowing circles—frantic, desperate, lonely—always coming back to the places of past hurt and doubt.

Williams once remarked that “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.” But the undertow of those experiences finally claimed him. He died of asphyxia, an accident related to the quantity of alcohol and drugs he consumed over the last 30 years of his life. His obituary in The New York Times (February 27, 1983) paid homage to him as “a master of dramatic moments who created lost, tortured characters struggling for dignity and hope in a world that often denied both.”                                                                


Beyond Her Own Pain and Anger
Helen w/ Annie Sullivan
Helen w/ Annie Sullivan

Helen Keller became acquainted with The thing that cannot be changed at 19 months, when a severe illness left her blind and deaf. Imagine the terror of that. Your world goes dark and silent, and you are too young to even grasp why. By all accounts, Helen spent the next five years in a rage, rejecting every attempt to reach her. It was only when the young teacher, Annie Sullivan, at last broke through that dark silence and communicated with her, that Helen understood there might be something beyond her own pain and anger.

As an adult, she used that discovery to help other people afflicted with blindness. She joined the American Foundation for the Blind. For 40 years, this organization served as her global platform to advocate for people with vision loss. She saw to it that state commissions for the blind were established, rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to children without sight. She also championed the rights of working people and women’s suffrage.

It is a hard thing for us humans to accept, but the bottom line is this: We cannot control other people and we cannot change the past. We can only control our own actions and responses. So when The thing that cannot be changed brings us to our knees, as it sometimes will, we must learn to breathe with it. As Helen Keller discovered, it is one aspect of our personal story, but it is not our whole story. So we own it, and then we rise up. And carry on.

THING summer-1458129_960_720