The Human Condition (BLOG)

It Is What It Is

There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing. (Robert Burns)

April, being my birth month, is the time I usually regale you with the Big Stuff I’ve learned travelling life’s bumpy road in my eternal quest for grace—which I define as that ability to remain calm and carry on no matter what. And without overdosing on the antacid tablets.

This year, I’m focusing less on the bumpy road and more on the GIGANTIC pothole that threatens to swamp us all. I think even Thomas Paine would agree we don’t lack for soul-trying times. As The Nation headlined its March 13, 2020 issue: “Our Worst Crisis Since 2008 … and We Have an Idiot at the Helm.” No **** Sherlock. Which is an apt comment, as I sit here penning this in March, because the Corona virus madness has made toilet paper the new holy grail. You may search far and wide without finding a single roll.

 Could someone please pass the antacids?

Anyway, I was driving along the other day, immersed in concerns of pandemic proportion as well as my own pathetic little pile of personal troubles, when the Eagles’ Take It Easy came on the oldies station: We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. Instantly, my heart lightened. I’m alive. I’m OK. And this is the day I have at hand. Don’t muck it up worrying about stuff beyond my control. As I pulled into a Taco Bell parking lot to jot down that transformative line, something like grace descended.

We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. The winning part’s easy. It’s the losing part that poses the challenge: how to cope in these troubled times.

Perspective is Everything

While researching my WWII novel, I came across an arresting story in one of my sourcebooks, London 1945. Author Maureen Waller describes a scene in a north London cinema. Though 28,000-pound V-2 rockets had been falling in the area for three days and nights, the locals still flocked to see the new film. As a revolver fired onscreen, one of the actors cried “What was that?” A wit in the audience responded, “Only a bloody rocket!” It made me laugh. It made me think. The tenacity of life—the green shoot that rises from the slender crack on a granite cliff in a barren landscape. Over 80,000 Londoners were killed or seriously injured in WWII. Every night, they went to sleep not knowing if a bomb would fall on their house. Not knowing if they would ever wake up again. And yet, life, however changed and rearranged, continued.  

If you live in North America or western Europe and were born after 1940—which is most of us reading this—you have lived a life relatively free of disaster on a grand scale. Not in a war zone or under some violent regime. Our tragedies have largely been personal, and though that doesn’t minimize the pain they caused the people who experienced them, the scale has been one of the individual, not the universal. As Humphrey Bogart famously said in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Well, now we’ve got much more than the problems of three little people (though it is, indeed, still a crazy world). Now, we do have to keep calm and carry on, as all those Brits did in WWII England—minus the congregating in cinemas part—because, literally, what else can we do?

Chuck the Crystal Ball That Never Really Worked—It’s Still Not Working

In mid-March, I was trying to calculate whether or not we’d be able to take a planned mini-vacation to Portsmouth in May. Would my son be able to safely fly here for a visit in late July? Could we even count on finding laundry detergent when the current bottle ran out in two weeks? And then I stopped. Because no one knows.   

The bottom line is: We have to stay in the here and now. The here and now is all we have. It’s all we can rely on. It’s actually all we ever have, but pre-pandemic life gave us the illusion we could make plans and have reasonable assurance things would unfold accordingly. Well, now we can’t. Trust me, for someone who dots all her Is and crosses her Ts, who mentally fast forwards to consider every contingency and prepare, this does not come easy, but there simply is nothing ahead any of us can know with certainty.

And that includes the pundit alarmists out there who predict the virus will go on for years, erupting again and again. That our country and the world will never be the same. Our way of life is gone. Forever! While there’s no denying, TheRUMP and his profiteering pals have mucked up the rollout of everything from test production to desperately-needed masks and ventilators—resulting in a huge spike in COVID-19 cases and needless deaths—forever is a very long time, and history is proof that even the awfullest awful disasters come to an end. Bubonic plague. The flu pandemic of 1918. The Great Depression. World War II. Ironically, we tend to overlook the big lesson these dark moments impart because we see everything in the past as over and done, but living through a disaster in real time is always the same. For those who suffered prior global catastrophes, there was no certainty in the present. There never is.

As for the doom-and-gloom about our way of life disappearing, the world is always changing. Our way of life is always changing. The noun “crisis” comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” A moment when things could get worse. Or better. Opportunities arise at such crossroads. Out of the Great Depression came the Social Security Act. After the 1918 flu pandemic, many countries adopted free universal healthcare. Though (sadly) the U.S. did not do so—opting instead for employer-based insurance plans that left many uninsured—it did consolidate the field of medicine to include the sociological as well as the biological and experimental. The concept of public health was born and, with it, epidemiology which studies the patterns, causes, and effects of disease.

This is a crisis, and with it comes the opportunity to rethink the way we live.

Joan’s Theory of Relativity

A good friend from my younger days used to talk about her mom, Joan. If you complained about something in your life, Joan would remind you of all the people who had it worse. My friend called it Joan’s theory of relativity. It made us laugh back then, but it underscores a valid point.

If you’re healthy and have no symptoms of COVID-19, you’re having a wonderful day. Go read a book. Or write one. If the weather’s good, take a walk. Do some gardening. Whatever the weather, dance in your kitchen, bake chocolate chip cookies, take up the bongos.

And do something for a better future:

1) Protect the 2020 election by writing or calling your U.S. reps and senators. Let them know you support voting by mail in all 50 states;

2) Join an online group to protect the environment. Many orgs are now working with activists through the Internet, advising on how to take effective actions from home;

3) Money is uncertain for many of us now, but if you have $5 or $10 to spare, there are numerous good causes out there: Feeding America; Direct Relief; The American Red Cross; Team Rubicon (an NGO service organization that puts veterans to work providing disaster relief); United Way Worldwide. (For full descriptions of these and other charities, checkout this WaPo article.)

The Humane Society International could use your help, too. Hundreds of thousands of pets have been abandoned around the world in the mistaken belief they can pass on COVID-19. Both the CDC and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department have issued statements that no evidence exists that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19. 

If you’re doing a self-quarantine because you’re feeling a bit squishy around the edges, you’re maybe not having such a good day, but hopefully you can draw some comfort from listening to your favorite music, reading (great time to reduce your TBR pile), binge-watching old movies you love or streaming new series, and connecting with loved ones by phone or social media. Do take very good care of yourself. We need you.                                   

If you have COVID-19, you’re probably not reading this, but if you are, know that we are all pulling for you. That millions and millions of people across the globe are rooting for your full and speedy recovery. You have every right to be angry—the White House’s mishandling of this pandemic is cruel and inexcusable—but anger is a poor healer. Get well and take your revenge at the ballot box in November.

And that’s Joan’s theory of relativity.


Giuseppe Argenziano

The only place I venture out to these days is the supermarket, where I try to buy enough to last a full week. Or put another way, I go weekly and whatever I forget, we do without. When I went last week, the store was in full insanity mode. Aisles stripped bare of every basic as people piled their carts high with multiples of whatever they could grab. I kept thinking They must all have a platoon of giant chest freezers in the basement. You know, the kind where they discover the victim’s body on murder mysteries.

But things were calmer today (although for some inexplicable reason, butter and yogurt are still on the MIA list). Gone was the frenzy, and in its place, a new patience, bordering on generosity, had descended. People acknowledged each other with a nod, a smile. Maybe we are realizing that we really are all in this together. And that we can’t know when this will end or exactly what shape it will take in the months ahead.  

David Veksler

Ahead of me in the self-checkout line was a woman with two small children. The children were being, well… children, so the process of emptying her cart and bagging her items was something like watching paint dry. I told her to take her time, no stress. We all have enough stress. And I realized I wasn’t just being polite. I meant it. In this new world, what is the rush about anything for anyone who’s healthy? As I watched the kids, excited by a pack of modeling clay they were getting, my heart went out to them and their mom—to have young children or an infant at this time has to have its scary moments. Like may be a lot of them. My kids are grown and I’m still concerned. As professor and author Elizabeth Stone famously said: To have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. 


So, my annual birthday cake and champagne bash for the neighbors won’t be happening next week. The incredibly delicious cake Ed usually orders from our local bakery (lots of frosting!) won’t be happening—we’re limiting all outings to the supermarket and pharmacy for now. But I can always bake one from scratch. And we can hold the celebration when all this is over. Whenever that is. We’ll see. 

Is that grace? Maybe. I only know that my job—our job—in this difficult hour is to endure.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably run across my “mantra”, the Rumi quote that hangs by my desk. It is especially apt in these times:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to. Don’t try to see through the distances, That’s not for human beings. Move within, But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

Winston Churchill put it even more simply: If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Until the moment you’re not here, you are here. Whatever the circumstances, this day, this hour is your life. It is precious.

Stay well. And live.     

Sitting Here in Limbo

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. (Paul R. Erlich, biologist/author)

On a wintry day, temperature hovering just above freezing, leaden skies overhead, I found myself sitting with about 150 other people in my regional Social Security Admin office. Waiting. And waiting. The little slip of paper with my customer service number growing damp and creased in my palm.

In setting up access to an SSA online account the week before, I had encountered a disconcerting roadblock: We have no records that match this information. Try again. So I did. Again and again.To make a long, extremely frustrating story short, every which way I tried—former hyphenated surname (marriage #1), current unhyphenated surname, birth date with zero preceding a digit, birth date without the zero —failed. We have no records that match this information.

Oh yeah? Then explain to me, please, why I’m sitting here with the annual notice you sent in 2018, reporting every year’s social security deductions from my earnings for decades!!!      

Ah, modern life.

This Facelessness We Face

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. (Albert Einstein)

Thirty-five years ago, the movie Brazil, brainchild ofMonty Python’s Terry Gilliam, painted a Munch-ian (think The Scream) portrait of near-future life that is as terrifying today as it was then. A well-oiled featureless orb of a bureaucracy with no edges, nothing one can grasp. An impervious, slippery thing that eludes our efforts to interact with the institutions that shape our lives.

We’re pretty much there:  

Phone bots demand we “say or enter” our answers to pre-determined questions, which often fail to address the reason we called. When we attempt to respond, these bots rap out a snappy “I didn’t quite get that. Can you try again?” And then hang up on us.  

Emails direct us to links that don’t work. When Microsoft took over Skype, I had a $10 phone credit—not a lot, but I need the dough more than Bill Gates, so I clicked on the link the Microsoft message assured me would allow for the transfer of my money to their new Skype system. Another long story short: the link made no mention of transfers or phone credit. No further link to customer service, no phone number. Bye-bye ten dollars.

Online support systems launch our requests for help into deep cyberspace (we used to call this the “circular file”). Three years ago, when my email account was behaving erratically, I left Google a message on their “support” page, you know the one that invites you to “Describe your issue or share your ideas.” Never heard back from them.   

The utter facelessness of modern life often renders us voiceless. As the Ghostbusters theme song asks: “Who you gonna call?”  

How Did We Get Here?

Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences. (Lewis Mumford, historian and sociologist)

By the time I was born, the post-war (that’s WWII for the Gen Z crowd) economy of labor-saving gadgets was in full swing. Dishwashers. Automatic clothes driers. Frost-free refrigerators.

On a larger scale, technological advances made commercial air travel not only possible but relatively affordable, paved the Interstate highway system, and boosted healthcare for the entire planet with the mass production of antibiotics and the development of the polio vaccine.

Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the march of progress continued on. Color TVs. Touch-tone phones. Copier machines. Heart transplants.

And on… Word processors. Flip phones. Affordable PCs.

Innovation. It’s a beautiful thing. Up to a point.  

If you can recall life before Facebook. Before bots supplanted flesh-and-blood customer service reps. Before every transaction of life—except possibly a trip to the loo—could be accomplished by a text, a tweet, or an app. If your memory stretches back that far, then you probably recall chatting regularly with your neighbors (all of whom you knew by name), exchanging pleasantries with the (real people!) tellers behind the counter at your bank, the butcher at your local supermarket, salesclerks, your postal carrier.     

In that misty, distant past, virtually all our interactions took place face to face with other humans, or at the most remote, with a real live service rep over the phone, not an algorithm designed to address the most common problems, but almost never your specific issue.

My headbanging experience with the Social Security Administration website illustrates this slippery slide into the faceless technological abyss, which was resolved only when I trooped down to my local SSA office and after half a day’s wait, spoke to a real human being. Ten minutes later, problem solved.

Humans avoid the computer error.

Cyberspace: Not-Your-Mother’s Neighborhood

Each of us is now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. (Dan Brown)

Several months ago, a person I’m connected with on Twitter created an informal poll asking how much time people spent daily on social media. I was amazed—and let’s be honest, somewhat appalled—to learn that 6-8 hours a day was “typical” for many respondents. We’re not talking teens here. This group of several dozen Tweeters has a median age of about 45-50. Most hold full time jobs and many have families still at home.

How do they do it? Since the day drives a hard bargain—24 hours, not a minute more!—something must be sacrificed to get that 6-8 hours of social media. That something, I suspect, is face-time with other people—neighbors, friends.

According to a Pew Center Research poll, 29% of American adults know only some of their neighbors by name, and another 28% know none, whereas the average number of friends someone has on Facebook (2019) is 338. And the average number of followers a Tweeter has is 707 (2016), a number that’s up 340% from 2012.

While these FB friends and fellow Tweeters are real people (with the exception of the occasional bot), it’s likely most of them don’t live in our community. We probably didn’t go to school with them, or raise our kids in their neighborhood. They’re not likely to come to our 50th birthday celebration. We’re not likely to attend their wedding. We click on a heart emoji to respond to their post about their child’s cute photo, then go about our day—our RL (real life)—without giving it or them another thought.      

Even family—perhaps especially family—suffers from members orbiting cyberspace. Couples dine out in total silence, both partners texting through the meal. Parents take kids to the park, to the store, to a café, where no one speaks while Mom or Dad check their notifications. Sometimes they bring a screen to keep the kid busy/quiet.

Ian Bogost, writing in The Atlantic, describes his experience with the social network service Nextdoor, an app (oh irony of ironies!) designed to counter the effect of all those other social networks that take us into cyberspace and away from our neighborhoods.

So, what do neighbors chat about on Nextdoor? Do they discuss their day at work? The kids’ experience at the local school? Who’s looking like a winner for the Yankees? The funny joke they heard on Colbert last night? According to Bogost, his Nextdoor neighbors have reported a fallen tree blocking a major road, someone seeking belly-dancing classes, lost cats and dogs. They also complain about a variety of things, especially the sending of “urgent” alerts by other neighbors in the wee hours.

Nextdoor’s VP of policy, Steve Wymer, told Bogost that pretty much the same topics arise everywhere: Service requests/recommendations and real estate discussions make up about 50% of the buzz. Noise complaints are another hot topic, and more disturbingly, the sightings of “suspicious” people, i.e., people of color in white neighborhoods.

Though one may learn the actual names of their neighbors on Nextdoor, it seems a poor substitute for a personal relationship. Regular face to face contact. The shared laugh. The visible smile. The sympathetic hug or pat on the shoulder. A neighborhood barbecue. The annual block party.

The Impact of Technology on Our Humanity

Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it. (Max Frisch, playwright and novelist)

In my first “real” post-college job as an editor, the industry journals I read were white-hot about the coming thing, the revolution in the wings that would render us one happy globally-connected world: The Internet! How exciting to think we in the States would soon be able to “talk” to people in India, in China. What no one envisaged back then was how much we would stop talking to the people around us—the people we pass on the streets of our neighborhood, in our local park, the town beach. That while “chatting” to thousands of strangers on FB, we would avert our eyes and zip our lips when passing the actual people in our neighborhood, our community, avoiding all contact as if we were all continually riding a crowded subway car in Manhattan.      

Much has been inked about the spike in our stress levels and its possible sources: threats of gun violence, environmental poisons, climate change, racial and social/political divides. All this is very real, but I believe the biggest single stressor of all may be the social isolation we experience in Real Life.                   

Ask yourself: How much energy is consumed in NOT looking at or speaking to people we pass in our daily life?

Of course, technology is just a tool, and like all tools it can be used for good or bad. A hammer, for instance, can repair a broken fence. Or it can bash in your skull.

James Surowiecki, writing in the MIT Technology Review stresses that contemporary criticism of technology is not so much about specific technologies but about the impact of technology on our humanity. That “technology is central to the increasing privatization of experience [my italics], which in turn is creating a fragmented, chaotic society, in which traditional relationships are harder to sustain, community is increasingly an illusion, and people’s relationships to each other, mediated as they often are by machines, grow increasingly tenuous.”

Increasing privatization of experience. Our hectic skeds (would they be so hectic if we weren’t spending gobs of hours online?) create a ready market for convenience services. Daily Harvest, one of many such services, brings food right to your door: “No shopping, chopping, or prepping.” Similarly, supermarket chain Stop & Shop offers two “convenience” options: Food ordered online is either delivered to your door or ready for drive-by pick-up at one of their “click-and-collect” locations. But no shopping means you won’t run into old friends and acquaintances: your child’s former teacher or the woman who coached your daughter’s softball team.    

In his book To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov argues that we must take control of technology—make decisions and set limits as a society—rather than allowing it to control us. It’s a valid and important argument, but in the seven years since Morozov published his book, our society, our world has splintered further still. While demanding (and voting for) some kind of accountability from Big Tech, we need to start talking to one another again. Go out into our neighborhoods, parks, and town centers to rediscover and reconnect with the people behind the faces we pass by every day.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important. (Fred Rogers)

Growing up, during my family’s annual pilgrimage to visit relatives in Ohio, my Aunt Marg often took me to the park, a short bus ride away. Each time we boarded that bus, she greeted the driver. “Hey, Oscar, how’s the family?” or “Oscar, did you catch the Reds’ game yesterday?” I liked that she knew his name, knew he had a family, knew he enjoyed baseball. It made me feel like we were part of something larger than two people on a bus, that we were part of a community with everyone on that bus.

At age 5, I was not a stranger to this kind of bonhomie. In my small Michigan town, neighbors chatted with each other while mowing the lawn or raking the leaves or taking a walk. They also banded together in emergencies. During one terrible winter storm—snow drifts to the top of our back door, impossible impassable roads—my dad and our neighbor, Wally, took my Flexible Flyer sled and headed into the sleet for the store a mile away where a helicopter was delivering emergency basics like bread and milk.  

It was neighbors I sold nickel subscriptions to for my first “newspaper”—a weekly two-page rag full of local “scoops”: Who’d just had a baby, who was painting their house a new color. When my best friend Mimi and I put together an acrobatic show (all the latest gymnastics we’d learned at school), it was neighbors who bought tickets. As Mimi and I tumbled rather gracelessly about our yard, I remember the women sitting in lawn chairs, chatting happily, pausing only to applaud our efforts. I later babysat for many of these families. They knew me, knew my parents, knew that in an emergency my parents would be available.     

This was my model growing up. You interact with your neighbors. You talk to people. And even if you don’t know someone, you nod and smile as you pass each other in the coming and going of daily life. It was a model that extended seamlessly into my early adult life. Our family was part of a neighborhood babysitting co-op who swapped childcare favors, held neighborhood potlucks, barbecues, and New Year’s Eve parties. My kids attended the family daycare of our neighbor, Judy, across the street. On a sub-zero Saturday night in January, when our furnace broke down, her husband Bob came over and helped me get that cranky old heatbox re-lit. The night severe gastroenteritis necessitated an ambulance ride to the ER at 1 a.m., it was another neighbor, Paul, who came over to stay with my one-year-old son. When Nina, one street over, traveled, we fed her cats.

In recent years, it has been disheartening to see how fewer and fewer people respond to a smile or a “hello” in passing, but the ones who don’t respond seem more puzzled or startled than annoyed. So I keep smiling, I keep saying hello. Because I don’t want to live in a faceless world. And sometimes the human beings behind those glazed-over “masks” respond in delightful ways: The day after Christmas, I was taking a walk on the bike path with my daughter, her partner, and my son. We encountered a cyclist and when I commended him for braving the ice-encrusted pavement, he laughed: “So far, so good.”  He later caught up with us at the cross-light. “It’s an amazing day, isn’t it,” he said. “More like late-March than December.”

We just feel better when we talk to one another, when we acknowledge each other. Even in that cattle pen of the social security office, once I started talking to the folks next to me, several more people joined the conversation and suddenly everything felt better, the time went faster. It returned our humanity to us. And when my number was called, I was grateful to explain my problem to the real person at the service window. After we got it straightened out, I thanked her. “You do your job very well,” I said. She smiled. A short ten minutes in which we shared a bit of human helpfulness, human kindness, human gratitude.

A small exchange. And a vital one.

How Can We See the Sky & Other Mysteries

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
 Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5)

[NOTE: Yes, this is not new, but then who among us is? So, enjoy the opp to revisit this immortal post and let yours truly go lie on the beach for a few weeks, with nothing more pressing to worry about than the fate of the characters in the book she’s reading and the amount of rum punch she’s consuming.]

Alert readers of this blog may recall a post (“Everything Takes as Long as it Takes”) where I shared a sample of the stuff I scribble on scraps of paper which I then leave all over the house. That particular scribbling noted that One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.

Observations like this take up not inconsiderable real estate in my head. I call them “mysteries.”

I thought it might be a nice diversion from the current journey we seem to be embarked on—going to hell in a handbasket—to share some of these musings with you. Also, I’m packing for a trip and penning advance blog posts at a rate Stephen King would envy. I MYSTERIES writer working harddon’t have time to research, say, the validity of Einstein’s theory of relativity or to follow up on a CNN article Drinking more coffee leads to a longer life, two studies say. I’m willing to take CNN at its word. The press in NOT the enemy of the people, and coffee is our friend.

Excuse me, while I get a refill.

Okay, I promised you mysteries.

Mystery #1: How Can We See the Sky?

I was sitting out on the lawn at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in July, sharing a picnic with Ed and listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. As it was early evening in high summer, the sky above me was still amazingly blue, feathered with clouds that looked like someone just ran a comb through them. Cirrus clouds, I think (I’m a writer, not a scientist). They arced overhead, a perfect dome, the sky meeting the ground in a complete circle around the Tanglewood lawn, our chairs at the exact center. How cool is that?

It’s rare to have such an open vista without buildings or other debris clogging up the sightlines. I hadn’t quite realized before that wherever we are, it’s like we’re inhabiting part of a snow globe. That Earth appears to be a ball inside another ball (the sky) which encompasses it completely. MYSTERIES Skyball CROP

Actually, we never experience Earth as a ball. More like a plane, bisecting a sphere. (To clarify this gibberish, see illustration.)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra moved on to a Tchaikovsky symphony (the Fifth, in E minor—I was paying attention, more or less) while I jotted a note on my program: How can we see the sky?

I pondered this through the Andante-Allegro movement and soon realized that, like Pandora’s Box, this question opens up a slew of thorny conundrums:

If Earth is a ball inside the SkyBall, why can we never touch the sky, even with a very tall ladder or, say, from the roof of the Empire State Building? We can’t even touch the sky where it meets the ground at the horizon because, like a pesky older sibling, the horizon taunts us, moving away as we move toward it.

MYSTERIES ladder to sky photo-1504257365157-1496a50d48f2
Samuel Zeller

And where oh where is outer space? How does this blue, cloud-scraped sky—a visually opaque ceiling—obscure the cosmos of stars and planets that glitter and spin on a decidedly black background?

This is not as stupid a question as it may first appear. Recall the photos of Earth from outer space—there is no “sky barrier” in the way. Maybe a wisp of cloudy looking stuff but you can still see Earth—the oceans, the continents.

MYSTERIES image of earth from space vSrCIE__                                   By the Finale (Andante, Allegro, Moderato), the SkyBall had vanished, leaving me to view a sprinkling of stars light years away. Where did that opaque blue barrier go? Is there a day-to-night transparency button somewhere operating on a timer? And when the night is overcast, does that mean the transparency gizmo is out of juice and needs new batteries?

Like I said, it’s a mystery.

Mystery #2: Are We Right-Side Up or Upside Down? 

Okay, gravity is the stuff that keeps us sticking to the earth—our feet squarely glued as sure as Newton’s apple to whatever patch of turf we’re standing on—but are we right-side up or upside down?

Like most of us, I grew up with those cartoons of little kids holding hands encircling the globe, so popular on UNICEF holiday cards. Being from the northern part of North MYSTERIES children standing on the globe people-2129933__340America, I wasn’t too worried because Michigan was fairly high on the top side of the EarthBall. But those kids in Algeria are living at a perilous slant, and the ones from New Zealand and Patagonia have blood rushing to their little skulls 24/7.

As my age advanced to double digits, I began to question such two-dimensional representations. Was north always up and south always down? Up compared to what? Down from where?

We are citizens of the universe, a multi-dimensional space without end, as scientists tell us (and questions within questions—how do they know this?). So, what exactly is “right-side up” in outer space? Does it change with the movement from day to night, the seasons, the place where we live?

MYSTERIES UP credit the mag G7NReCTW_400x400

And if there is no right-side up in space, are we always upside down or only sometimes?

Is it this constant switch in equilibrium that creates the need for Excedrin, Prozac, a lobotomy? Or just these constant questions?

I don’t know. Do you?

Mystery #3: How Do We Go to Sleep, and How Do We Get Back?

The word on the street is that even the most exciting things—chocolate, sex, bungee jumping—lose their allure, their mystery, if they are repeated routinely.

Well, it’s hard to find a more enduring routine in life than sleep, and yet sleep remains a great mystery. How do we get there? How do we get back? What exactly is there?

If you think this is just me inventing puzzlers in an effort to slap a blog together so I can get out of town on time, try this experiment: 1) Place a notepad and pen by your bed. 2) Tonight, write down the exact time you “go to” sleep.

Not as easy as you thought, eh?

MYSTERIES asleep on keyboard 273995We don’t consciously relinquish our consciousness. It just sort of “happens.” Like walking backwards unawares toward a steep drop-off. That last step… We don’t know what hit us. And we don’t know we aren’t awake wherever it is we “go to.” Except once in a while we realize, “Hey I’m in a dream. I can behave as badly as I like and it doesn’t count.” Which realization is almost as weird as going to sleep itself (though it does show a marvelous talent for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities).

When we’re in dreamland, how do we tune out the burps and beeps of the real world around us? While we sleep, life certainly continues on its merry, noisy way. Thunderstorms thunder. Fire engines siren past. But nothing registers unless it’s REALLY LOUD.  Like the time I was awoken by the bedroom radiator CLANGING in a way it had never clanged before. The sweet oblivion of sleep dropped away in a heartbeat as I realized geysers of boiling water were shooting up from that radiator, at 5:14 a.m.MYSTERIES woman woken up 2751E1EE00000578-3027308-image-m-27_1428317578871

Do you know how hard it is to get a plumber at five in the morning? Those 24-hour emergency services listed online? Just phone check-ins that contact a plumber when he or she rises at a more civilized hour.

We surrender our consciousness each night never doubting it will mysteriously “return” in the morning. Now that’s the kind of deep faith most religious proselytizers would envy.

But how is it we do “return” to the real world each day? And why don’t we fall out of bed in our sleep? We certainly move around in our sleep, so why aren’t we hitting the floor in great numbers, regularly? This has never happened to me, but it did happen to Ed once when we were taking a weekend in NYC. Believe me, it was frightening—waking up suddenly to see him tumbling over the edge of the bed, with a nanosecond to hope he didn’t take his eye out on the corner of the nightstand (he didn’t, though he did suffer a nasty cut on his cheek).

Sleep—there’s a Gordian knot of mysteries involved here.

Mystery #4: How Do Cats Know Where to Go?

As mentioned in my August post (“I Always Wanted an Orange Kitten”), I have had many cats in my life. Most of them were indoor/outdoor creatures, which means there came a day in their young lives when I opened the back door and allowed them to explore the wide world beyond. Without exception, they all returned after a few hours. No one got MYSTERIES cat reading 10e232cb9fc5893a8bee5bccc7cbcdc1--reading-books-cat-readingconfused about which house was theirs—the mock Tudor in need of a paint job, or the Cape with the sagging steps and the rusting swingset?

How do they do it—how do cats unerringly zero in on their house wherever they’ve wandered? I mean you wouldn’t want to try this with your three-year-old.

This mystery deepens as I recall an afternoon in my college days. I went with a carload of friends to a party, a cookout hosted by a couple who lived in the university’s married student housing.

Several hours into the event, my hosts asked if someone would ride down to the convenience store six blocks over to pick up some more drink mixers. They offered the use of their bicycle. I volunteered and off I went. Finding the Mini-Mart was easy. It was up on the main drag. Finding my hosts’ house again—that was the challenge.MYSTERIES houss all alike suburbia

Like cats released into freedom for the first time, I was operating on limited information. Having hitched a ride to the party with friends, I hadn’t bothered to check the house number. Or the street name. Married student housing was laid out in nothing resembling a grid, and all the houses were identical. All 500 of them.

I rode around for a while, Cokes and tonic water warming, bagged ice melting in the bike’s basket. I would probably still be riding if one of my hosts hadn’t chosen the moment I was circling his circle for the hundredth time to set out an empty keg on the front porch. I have rarely been so glad to see anyone.

Cats. Mystery is their milieu. The Egyptians held them sacred. Believed they guarded Egypt from invaders. Next time you see a cat, bow your head in acknowledgment of the inexplicable powers they hold, including the ability to always find home.

 Mystery #5: What Are We?

Okay, one more.

Some years back, a friend invited me to an art exhibit at Smith College. I can’t recall exactly what the theme of the show was, but it included a photograph of the poet Tennyson taken after his death.

In the photo we see Tennyson’s head resting on a pillow, eyes closed, a peaceful expression on his face, as if he were just napping (recall Mystery #3). But he’s dead.

MYSTERIES Tennyson ca40b7888a890424a1a96e5807c0ad52-alfred-lord-tennyson-famous-poemsI stared and stared at that still face. Looked at some more of the exhibit. Returned to Tennyson. There he was—head, shoulders, torso—all of him except the thing that was him. The “Tennyson thing.” The thing that was a poet rather than a cab driver or a hip-hop artist. The thing that preferred Skittles to Milk Duds, or favored the Yankees over the Mets. Okay, I’m improvising here—well, fabricating wildly—but the question is: Where did the mind-personality-heart that was Tennyson go? How was it there one moment and—poof!—gone the next?

I relate all this as background to the greatest mystery of all: What are we?

The startling glimpse I had into this most amazing of riddles came while I was visiting London twelve years ago with my daughter. As well as enjoying galleries and museums, parks and pubs, Lauren was talking to admissions people at several UK universities. This particular day, she was talking to someone at King’s College London about studying microbiology (she wound up majoring in public policy in the States, but that’s a completely separate mystery and nothing to do with the topic at hand).

While she was chatting with the admissions folks, I wandered around and discovered a little anatomy “museum” on one floor. A kind of 19th century exhibit of spare parts—like a Victorian penny dreadful. Among the displays I recall were stomachs and brains, lungs and large intestines, hearts and kidneys. There was even a set of fetal Siamese twins. All floating in some murky preservative in voluminous glass jars.

It brought me smack up against all my assumptions about the species Homo sapiens, and changed my head 180.MYSTERIES body parts Front_View.jpg24e6c945-1e2a-4404-af25-36828fb41797Original

Up to that moment, I thought of human beings in the lofty, ethereal way you might expect from a lit major/writer/daydream believer. We were ideas and dreams, philosophical meanderings and heart-throbbings. But as I stood, gazing at these jars of stuff that looked nothing so much as a lot of cruddy dilapidated hot water bottles and crusted tubing, I had to admit: That’s us.

And when that junk stops working, the game’s over.

The mystery is how something as mentally and emotionally complex, as creative and resourceful as us emerges from what appears to be about five dollars’ worth of spare parts.

You can see how a Hitler or a Trump might come out of this muck, but a Tennyson or a Van Gogh? A Nelson Mandela or a Frida Kahlo?

And yet it is the truth of us.

Mysteries. Life is full of them. I embrace them. I like the way they keep my brain on a Socratic buzz—asking and answering questions, which then generate more questions—as I puzzle out the oddities of this world.

It all comes down to this: When the SkyBall goes transparent tonight, giving way to a universe of stars, I’ll be thankful that whichever way my head is facing, I don’t fall off the planet. And when I come back from the land of sleep tomorrow morning, however that happens, I’ll be grateful for another day, crossing my fingers that the mucky parts and crusty tubing keep on ticking.

If Not Now, When?

“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.” (Seneca)

Years ago, watching some movie, a scene occurred which both amused and haunted me. A man tells his analyst, “I’ve always wanted to do such-and-such while I’m alive,” and the analyst says, “Well, yes, that would be the time to do it.”

It’s funny because we all recognize it. It’s haunting because, well, we all recognize it. Procrastination.

That thief of time, as poet and philosopher Edward Young famously noted.

Our favorite form of self-sabotage (author Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby).

Our default mode (Me).

Understandably, we procrastinate over tasks with a high yuck factor or an Einsteinian degree of difficulty, but why do we so often put off doing the things we really want to do, the stuff that makes us happy, the stuff we love, that which puts the J in joy?

Let Me Count the Ways

When my son was in high school, I gave him a tee shirt one Christmas that said:

We all had a good laugh about it, but in the years since, I’ve gotten to wondering what are the reasons I procrastinate? Why do I so often think about pulling out my guitar, limbering up the fingers on a few tunes—and then do nothing? What prevents me from taking up découpage again—an art I both love and have the tools and materials for? Why do I vow to read the user’s manual for my Nikon “this week” so I can discover all the creative, fun stuff my camera can do—and then let “this week” become a month, a year, two years?

Why do I put off my own happiness?  

Okay, I’ll have a go at filling in the Top 10 reasons I procrastinate—well, nine of them anyway. You can’t totally makeover a procrastinator at one go.

Maybe you’ll recognize a few.

1. I get wrapped up in the humdrum of the daily to-dos. Laundry. Groceries. Meal prep and clean-up. Weeding the garden/raking the leaves. Appointments. Workouts. Tidying the worst of the dustballs and flotsam that threaten to bury us alive.

Ed and I share most of this load, but it’s still a load. The monotony of the daily-to-dos—lather, rinse, repeat—leaves me both uninspired and desperate for something that is not emptying the dishwasher. I often think it would be wonderfully rejuvenating to drive out to the Quabbin Reservoir with Ed and aimlessly wile away an afternoon in that amazing wide-open space—living in civilization, you really do forget how BIG the sky is—but that would mean getting off my rusty dusty, digging out my hiking boots, driving an hour there and another hour back, possibly having to stop for gas… I get tired just thinking about it.

Hiking? Maybe once I’ve had a good nap.

2. With only a scant 24 hours in the day—can someone please do something about that?—I feel like a commitment to one more activity will be the blowtorch that ends up vaporizing me. As mentioned up top, I’ve been thinking for months, okay years now, that I should get back to my guitar. I love my guitar—an exquisite old Martin. I love playing guitar. I used to write songs. I love music—I know the lyrics to virtually every song written since 1961, for godsakes. So why don’t I pick up the guitar and work the calluses back into my rusty fingers? Why don’t I visit the music store downtown and see who’s giving fingerpicking lessons. I’ve always wanted to improve my technique. But lessons involve a commitment to practicing. Regularly. Should I give up reading (impossible!), showering (inadvisable)?

3.  Following on the time crunch of Reason #2 is the need for expedience wherever I can find it. I love to cook, I really do. We have enough spices to stock a small specialty store, and a collection of cookbooks that span our travels and culinary likes: Greek, Italian, Sicilian. Curries, minestrone,  tajine stews. I could lose myself in a Moroccan veggie tajine… if only it didn’t take so long. All that slicing and dicing. All that simmering and sautéing and roasting.

I keep thinking, “Next week, I’ll clear some afternoon hours, crank up Phil Spector on the kitchen CD player and make something fabulous.” But every week, that “some afternoon” gets pushed into the next week by an avalanche of must-do stuff where it’s a squeeze to manage a bathroom break, until I’m so overwhelmed by guilt (guilt for not doing something I like doing—teleport me to the nearest shrink couch, please!) that at long last I haul out Taste of America and prepare Shrimp-stuffed Eggplant, a dish that has 11 steps and involves chopping up several thousand vegetables. With each whack of the knife, I remind myself This is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what…

4. Speaking of food, I put off doing what I love because I’m a prisoner of the old dictum You must eat all your veggies before you get dessert. The “veggies” aren’t really the issue here—I could do without housecleaning (as an inspection of the premises any day will prove), but I’m focused and disciplined in my writing and I like working out at the gym. No, the problem is not the vegetables of life. The problem is I too rarely get to dessert. And my favorite “dessert” is to go places and do things with Ed.

We do spend large quantities of time together, doing the daily stuff of life, but the dessert thing is where I say, “Screw it, I’m not going to query any agents today or work on revisions or research markets for my latest short story. We’ll just jump in the car and drive north to Vermont or east to Boston. Spend the day combing bookstores. Visit the MFA. Relax and not count the hours.” That’s the crème brûlée I too often put off. Until X gets done, or Y is over. As we all know, X and Y never really disappear. They just mutate into new life-sucking forms from one day to the next. Life is short. Eat dessert first. And savor the crème brûlée. That’s where the memories are.

5. Some aspect of the thing I want to do feels uncertain, and this haziness quickly assumes the proportions of Mount Everest in my head. A couple of years ago, I got all fired up to sift through and recycle, donate, or—if all else failed—trash what we no longer needed in the attic, which I estimated to be about 90% of the junk up there. Okay, okay, I hear you: She dreams of cleaning her attic? Man, she needs to get out more. Yes, I do need to get out more, but stay with me here a moment. I like space. Uncluttered space. My experience has been that when the stuff we like or need is buried beneath an avalanche of the broken, the outdated, and the just plain ugly (What was I thinking when I acquired that?), we don’t get to it/use it/enjoy it. Add to that my tendency to hang on to a pair of shoes for 30 years (they’re perfectly good and still look great), and you get why clearing the attic might be something I really want to do.

Anyway, I was steaming along full speed ahead. Filling up boxes of books to donate to Reader to Reader. Loading cartons of clothing, CDs, kitchenware duplicates, and kids’ board games for the Salvy Army. Wrangling cords, computer monitors, and other outdated digital hoo-ha to drop off at Staples. When. Suddenly. I was confronted by five LARGE plastic tubs of American Girl dolls, their clothes, their accessories, their little bio books, their stilts and basketball hoops. I mean, these dolls come with a complete world of their own. They also cost, collectively, about a jillion dollars, so I was hoping to get a few bucks return on my initial investment. Something to sustain me in those twilight years ahead.

BUT there was just one teensy snag: I had never sold anything on e-Bay and hadn’t the foggiest how best to proceed. So I closed the tub lids and went downstairs and wrote a novel.

Last summer, I thought I will tackle this. I can do this. I’m the girl who jumped into her VW with all her worldly possessions and drove cross-country to live in a city she’d never seen. How hard can e-Bay be?

I got as far as reading the “How to get Started” section and making a list of all the things I needed to do: Clean up the five dolls, do my best to fix their hair (my daughter was a hair stylist of the 25th century), separate out which outfits, shoes, accessories go with each doll, steam all the badly wrinkled clothing, take a sample doll-and-clothes package to the post office for shipping estimates, make sure my PayPal account is up to date, check comparable AG doll offers online, decide on prices, then write the copy and post on e-Bay.

I stared at this mindboggling list for several weeks and then resumed researching and querying agents for the novel.

6. Some piece, some part is missing without which I cannot do the thing I want to do, and that means getting in the car, driving to whatever store that has the missing piece/part, then driving back home to install it—if it’s possible to install, if I have the necessary tools.

Sometimes this is simple, if the part is camera batteries which I can buy from Stop & Shop—an easy five-minute walk from my house—but sometimes it’s trickier if the needed thing resides in a store two towns over—the town past the town on the other side of the bridge that spans the Connecticut River, on the road that always crawls and comes to a dead stop from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. On a Friday, you could read all of War and Peace on that journey.

When that occurs, it’s a matter of strategic planning. Can I carve out time to stop and get Part X on the way home from my next hair appointment (every five weeks)? Can I manage to track down the needed thing after my eye appointment (once every two years)? These are the times I can definitely rely on being in the town two towns over. I try to make those trips count.     

At the moment, I have a pile of artwork—prints from galleries in London, Paris, Florence—waiting to be hung, standing at the ready to lend elegance to my humble abode. The problem: The shop where I get my frames (big selection, good prices) is across that damn bridge, on the outskirts of the town two towns over. Last week, I finally managed to get a print from the Tate Britain matted, framed, and hung—I celebrated with a snifter of cognac—but the queue of prints is alarmingly long. Plus, we don’t really have wall space for all of them. Ed has suggested a rotating gallery approach. That sounds good. At least, possible. I’ll get to it soon. Really.

7. Technical glitches that mess with my head (which is most technical glitches). Last Christmas, I took a group photo of our blended family. Got out the Nikon (too many folks for any kind of selfie that didn’t have that fishbowl look). Set it up. Got out the tripod. Set it up. Screwed the camera onto the tripod. Set the automatic timer. Took a series of photos. “I’ll send you all a copy,” I promised everyone. That was a year ago.

Buoyed up by working on this post, I got out the Nikon. Predictably “batteries exhausted” flashed on the viewfinder. Not a problem! I located the recharger, plugged those babies in and reloaded. Not a problem! The photo I wanted to upload to my computer came right up. Feeling capable, powerful, CAN DO, I plugged in the camera. Nothing happened. Nothing uploaded. Undaunted, I googled the situation—maybe after such a long hiatus, I’d forgotten a simple step. I followed the online instructions. Nothing. Beginning to feel a tad daunted, I put everything away and promised myself I would dig out the instruction booklet that came with the camera. Soon. Because I want to print good copies to give everyone this Christmas. And I will. I hope.

8. What I want to do requires making arrangements with others via something I call “Calendar Roulette.”  Say, I want to meet up with a friend or friends for coffee, drinks, a day at the races, a night at the opera (a nod to all you Queen fans out there). We all toss the dates and times we are free into the ring, hoping the stars will align in some joyous constellation. But it gets complicated. A is leaving next week for a month of hiking in the Alps, B can’t make it this week but has an open day three Tuesdays from now, and C is only available when 1) her mother-in-law arrives; 2) the kids are at camp; 3) any month that has a Q in it.

I have a dear friend of many years standing—from the long ago days when our kids were in elementary school together. I really enjoy talking to Elaine, but other than random, brief sightings of each other, we hadn’t sat down together for, well, way too long. Until last January, when swearing undying determination, we bargained times like poker players at a high stakes table and—at last!—located a two-hour slot on a Wednesday for lunch. It was great to see her, talk to her, laugh over old times and catch up on what’s new. But I don’t imagine we’ll manage it again until sometime in 2026 when the moon is full and Sagittarius is in the 7th house. 

9. It will take forever to do the thing I want to do. This brings us back to Reason #2 and my pathetic inability to PICK UP MY GUITAR AND JUST PLAY IT, as the Nike ad says.

Actually, I did pick up my guitar one afternoon about six months ago. Trotted out a few of the old standard tunes. And boy did I suck. My fingers throbbed, making the chords sloppy and my picking, fumbly. In short, I, who have played guitar for, well, let’s just say decades, and two or three times in actual public places with an actual audience—though I admit, they certainly did not come to see me—I was like some hamfisted cartoon character with unarticulated pancake circles for hands.

The crazy thing is that I went through all this at age 12, when I saved up my babysitting money (at 50 cents an hour, it took a while) and bought my first guitar. Then, like now, I fumbled through chords, stumbled through simple songs, and toughened up my tender digits. But it was exciting. I was (slowly) improving! Where is that sense of joyous challenge now?

 More to the point, so what if it takes forever? The most challenging session with a guitar is still way better than doing my ten millionth load of laundry.

10.  You tell me. What keeps you from doing the things you most enjoy in life? From spending more quality time with the people you love? From developing a new skill? Reviving an old one?

As Ben Franklin, that wise and witty Founding Father, observed, “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”

“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’,” Martin Luther cautioned.

“A year from now you may wish you had started today,” author/artist Karen Lamb reminds us.

So this year, let’s do it. All those things we dream about. Let’s make a pact to:

Play hooky more often with the people we love.

Follow the pursuits that engage us.

Try something new that intrigues us.

As James Michener joyfully noted: “Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today because if you enjoy it today, you can do it again tomorrow.”

Carpe diem. Let’s eat dessert. 

All the Unopened Gifts

If I were not African, I wonder whether it would be clear to me that Africa is a place where the people do not need limp gifts of fish but sturdy fishing rods and fair access to the pond…   (Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed over 600 musical works. Symphonies, operas, concertos, string quartets—whatever the form of music, he nailed it, starting at the tender age of five.  

Not a Mozart fan? Don’t tune out just yet. This post is not about the mighty Wolfgang or Shakespeare or Isaac Newton, though they will all be mentioned. This post is about something much bigger, much more profound, and when I say something is more profound than Will Shakespeare, you know IT MATTERS.

But back to the five-year-old Mozart, composing his first works. His sister, Marianne, remembered her baby brother standing rapt at her side as their father, Leopold, taught his daughter the keyboard. So attentive was the young Mozart, that Leopold began to teach him minuets. Marianne recalled the child picking out tunes on his own.


By age six, Mozart was performing for European royalty on a series of world stages. A three-year concert tour took him to Vienna, Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, and The Hague. On the road, he was introduced to many musicians and composed his first symphony. Joseph Haydn said of his musical contemporary: “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.”

That Mozart’s music endures and his influence has been profound is, of course, a product of his genius. It is also a result of the access he enjoyed to develop and mature that genius.

This was possible because he was already competent at both the keyboard and violin. He was competent on these instruments because his father, Leopold, was a minor composer and music teacher. Music was in the house. Instruments were readily available.

This was possible because his father played violin in the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg’s orchestra and so had the necessary introductions to various courts.

This was possible because the family was able to travel for extended tours and made it a priority to do so.

That the 8-year-old Mozart could compose a symphony was possible because his father was able to transcribe what the child played.   


Will Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays and 154 sonnets, many of which have set the standard for excellence in literature. He also penned several narrative poems that achieved great popularity during his life (Venus and Adonis was reprinted 15 times before 1640; The Rape of Lucrece enjoyed eight reprints in the same period). His works have been translated into every major language and quite a few not-so-major languages—more than 100 in all, including Esperanto and Interlingua.  Four-hundred years after his death, his plays live on.  

The Globe Theatre, London

Much has been made of Shakespeare’s lack of a university education (Marlowe, for example, studied at Cambridge) to discredit his authorship, but class and status—like the variable spelling of his day—were both more and less fluid than they are now, and differently assessed. By any measure of the time, Shakespeare’s family was comfortable. His father was a landowner and a glover with his own shop, a respected citizen who enjoyed a string of appointments to various offices in Stratford, including High Bailiff—or mayor, in modern-speak. His mother’s family was even more illustrious, prominent citizens of Warwickshire dating back before the Norman Conquest. John Arden had served in the court of King Henry VII, and the Ardens had connections to the Stanleys, a family with some claims to the throne. It was in Ferdinando Stanley’s theatrical troupe, Lord Strange’s Men, that Will Shakespeare made his debut on the London stage.

Even without an Oxbridge degree, Shakespeare’s education at the Stratford grammar school would have introduced him to Latin and its renowned authors: Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, Horace. His plays and the sources he used for them display a thorough familiarity with these writers. Perhaps most significantly, he grew up within easy distance of Coventry where he saw the popular mystery and morality plays that traveled the country. That his imagination was sparked by these theatrical productions is clear in his own use of language, themes, and characters.

But, what if Shakespeare had been born a girl in a time when only daughters of noble birth enjoyed an education, and then only under the direction of a tutor in the “safety” of home? What if he’d been the son of a poor laborer instead of a middle-class official, and thus apprenticed as a child to a tanner or feltmaker? Perhaps most significant of all, what if he’d lived too far from a major town to witness the traveling mystery plays, or had no adult to take him, or no free time to spend in leisure?  


Isaac Newton was born just months after Galileo died, the man whose ideas about motion Newton would expand on to form the foundation of modern physics. Newton also laid the groundwork for modern physical optics with his discovery that white light is composed of seven visible colors. Hoping to improve the refractive telescopes of his day, Newton developed a reflecting telescope that impressed the hell out of the Royal Society (the UK’s national academy of sciences) and made possible much larger telescopes without chromatic aberration. There’s a lot more one can attribute to Newton, but suffice it to note that his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) remains one of the most important works in the history of modern science.  

Newton’s early life is far sketchier than Mozart’s or Shakespeare’s. His father, a prosperous but uneducated farmer, died three months before his birth, and his mother remarried two years later, leaving her young son with his grandmother while she moved to another village to raise a new family. For almost a decade, until the death of her second husband, Newton’s mother had little to do with him. His anger over her abandonment is succinctly noted in a list of his sins the young Newton recorded: Threatening my [step]father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.

When his stepfather died, the 10-year-old Newton found himself living with his mother and half-siblings, but the reunion was brief. He was sent to lodge with a pharmacist and his family in Grantham, five miles down the road, where he was enrolled in a grammar school. Having shipped him off, his mother soon recalled him to home to manage her estate, a job Newton hated and had no talent for. It had none of the interest or excitement of the Grantham pharmacist’s chemical library and laboratory where Newton had built mechanical devices to entertain the family’s children.

Whether or not Newton’s clumsy managing of the estate was a brilliant strategy of sabotage, an uncle persuaded his mother that Newton should return to school and prepare for university. When he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, his mother refused to pay, so Newton took a gig as a servant to cover his tuition. There, he studied Aristotle and Descartes before enrolling for a master’s degree.

Photo: Bithin raj

When an outbreak of plague interrupted his studies, he continued to pursue his own ideas in math, physics, optics, and astronomy, developing what would become his three laws of motion. (The story that a falling apple suggested the idea of gravity to him appears to be true.)

When the university reopened, Newton quickly finished his master’s degree. Impressed by his student’s amazing abilities, his mathematics professor recommended Newton replace him when he took another job, a post Newton served in for a quarter century.

Isaac Newton enjoyed access to an excellent education because he had an uncle who intervened to get him back in school, and because it was possible to pay for that education by working part-time as a servant. Without that possibility, without that uncle and that education, Newton might have tossed aside the apple that bonked him on the head, never giving it a second thought. 

Access, as it turns out, is everything.

The Accidents of Life

The accidents of life—what we cannot control—can be divided into two camps: the advantageous and the not-so-advantageous. Some of these “accidents” are straightforward. Being born healthy, for instance. Or the relative position/class of one’s family. One doesn’t have to be born into great wealth to pursue one’s talents—Shakespeare’s family was solidly middle class with rising aspirations, as was Newton’s—but a certain financial and social stability offer advantages to developing children.

Though money was more of an issue for Mozart’s family, what the family lacked in bankable assets was made up for by Leopold Mozart’s connections to royal courts throughout Europe—connections he pressed to the max to launch his son. Connections that paid off because the young Mozart’s talent quickly gained wide fame, and the money the boy earned on the road helped sustain the entire family.

More variable, but equally if not more powerful in determining one’s odds in life, are where and when one is born. What are the prevailing attitudes about gender, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack of it), and education at the time of and in the place of one’s birth? What is the political situation—stability and general prosperity or social mayhem and war?

Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton—they were all men. In the Europe of their birth, women did not have access to opportunities that would help them discover/develop their true talents.

Mozart’s sister, Marianna, the one at whose knee Mozart gleaned his first understandings of music, was a talented child. She received the same musical and academic education as her brother in childhood, and played for royalty on that first European tour. She often enjoyed top billing. So, what happened?

According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “from 1769 onwards, Marianna was no longer permitted to show her artistic talent on travels with her brother, as she had reached a marriageable age.” (She was fifteen.) While her brother continued touring the world, composing new works and meeting the great musicians of the day, Marianna stayed home, married the man of her father’s choice, and had children.

Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton—they were all native-born and white. In the Europe of their birth, people of color largely existed at the margins of society. And though some black men practiced trades or were musicians at court in 16th century England, Queen Elizabeth I issued proclamations complaining of their numbers, writing in 1596 to the lord mayors of the larger cities that there were “of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here to manie…” She ordered that such people “should be sente forth of the land.”

Ethnicity mattered, too. Animosity toward immigrants didn’t begin with TheRUMP.

“Would you be pleased to find a nation of such barbarous temper that, breaking out in hideous violence, would not afford you an abode on earth … What would you think to be thus used? This is the strangers’ case, and this your mountainish inhumanity.”

With these words (from The Book of Sir Thomas More), Shakespeare spoke out against the hostility toward the French and Dutch Calvinist refugees who immigrated to England in the late 16th century to escape religious persecution from Catholic home governments. Denounced by English locals as “aliens” and “strangers”, these newcomers were suspected of immigrating to steal their jobs.

Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton—they were all educated. Though neither John Shakespeare nor the senior Isaac Newton could write their names, their sons grew up in an England which was becoming keenly interested in educating its young (the boys, anyway) to compete in a world of increasing technical invention and colonial bent. Without education for the middle classes, Hamlet would never have been written. Newton could not have conceived his three laws of motion.

Where we are born, when we are born, and the prevailing attitudes about the worth of people “like us” matter. They determine whether or not we have access. Whether or not we have a shot at developing our natural talents, the opportunity to fulfill our potential.

Or whether we are doomed to remain an unopened gift.

Nothing Happens in a Vacuum: Human Intervention   

Many of us, perhaps most of us, would not achieve the brilliance of a Mozart or Shakespeare or Newton whatever our family circumstances, education, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or favorite ice cream flavor. But then again, who knows? So much of the world’s population has never had the opportunity to even try. Despite Donald Rumsfeld’s claim that “stuff  happens,” it doesn’t. At least not when it comes to encouraging human potential. It’s up to us to engineer access for all children in the world. Those of us who enjoy access must extend it to others. We must oppose laws/actions/candidates that deny or repeal access to anyone.

But what does that mean exactly? What is it all children need to explore their potential? A short list of the essentials includes:

1) Healthcare. This means not only access to doctors, hospitals, and medicine, but also clean water, nourishing food, and healthy living conditions both in the home and in the larger environment. I’m putting this up top because without good health, it’s difficult to survive let alone thrive.     

2) Education.  Globally, more than half of all school-age children cannot read, write, or do simple mathematics. Those children—617 million in all—face a daunting future. Many, if not most, doors will be closed to them. What is open to them is often unsavory in the extreme, both dangerous and deadly: Sex-trafficking. Slave labor in factories, mines, and workshops. Unpaid servitude in the private homes of the rich. Cannon fodder in this war or that. Many of these children are kidnapped. Some are sold by their parents for the price of a couple of movie tickets and a bucket of popcorn. If this sounds atrocious, it is, but desperate people do desperate things

Almost 50 years ago, the UNCF, (United Negro College Fund) rolled out one of the most famous slogans of any campaign: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” It is as true today as it was then. To prevent that terrible waste, all children must have access to high-quality education from pre-K through university or trade school as they choose. To quote today’s UNCF home page: “We can’t simply believe in equality in education. We have to create it.”

3) Materials. You do not become a Mozart without access to instruments. You can’t be a Van Gogh if paints and brushes aren’t available. The scientists and inventors of tomorrow need access to tools, computers, equipment. And everyone—not just the Shakespeares—needs books. On the shelves at home or from a well-stocked library or downloaded onto a digital device. Through books, a world of knowledge literally comes into a child’s grasp.   

4) Enriching Experiences. The more we see of the world, the richer our points of reference become, the more profound our insights. Travel, music festivals, art galleries, museums, exposure to other cultures, different views of the human experience—they feed our imagination, expand our sense of what’s possible, increase our understanding of the world as it is, and as it could be.

5) A Safe Environment. I hesitated to add this to the list, as the conflicts—wars and genocide—of other countries are often outside our control unless our government is directly aiding and abetting the violence (as the U.S. is now doing in Turkey and Yemen). But we can try. I’m from a generation that stopped the war in Vietnam. We can try.     

This post grew out of a question I’ve been asking myself for some years now: What about all the Mozarts in the world who will never see a piano?

Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton—none of them were born rich or of the ruling class, but they had the access they needed in their times, in their societies to explore, develop, achieve.        

We must provide that access to all children. We must nurture the scientists and teachers and doctors and artists and farmers and bridge builders of tomorrow. They are the architects of our future. The child who will find a cure for diabetes or Alzheimer’s. The child who will discover a method to regenerate Australia’s Great Barrier Reef , thus decreasing the risk of widespread ecological collapse. The child who will write the books/paint the pictures/compose the songs that reach deep into our frightened, hopeful hearts to reveal what we’re so scared of exposing—that we are all human and therefore terribly vulnerable.

These children. That child. She/he/they could save us all.

Access. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

NOTE: Quick update on human rights activist Scott Warren, who I wrote about in last month’s post “The Gift of Hope.” On November 21, an Arizona jury found Warren not guilty on all counts of “harboring undocumented migrants” levied against him by federal prosecutors after the geography teacher provided food, water, and shelter to two men traveling through the desert in 2018. Click here for details of the story. Happy holidays, Scott, and to all people of conscience and good will.