The Human Condition (BLOG)

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.


The Gift of Hope

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope. (Winston Churchill)

During the Yankees/Twins Game 2 of the AL Division Series, a pitch ricocheted off a Twin’s bat and came up hard under the home plate umpire’s chin. I mean it had the kind of force that threatens concussion and breaks jaws. In the space of a nanosecond, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez jumped up to check on the ump, holding the man steady until help arrived from the dugout. It was a beautiful moment—an utterly reflexive move on Sanchez’s part: Someone is hurt/I must help them.

It gave me hope.

Hope, the “thing with feathers.” The last and only positive item in Pandora’s box of horrors (a misogynistic tale in Hesiod’s original, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water). The tiny ripple Robert Kennedy spoke of, a ripple sent out with every act of kindness. I search always and everywhere for hope. At a time when much of the world and its fate rests in the hands of despots who make the Allstate “Mayhem” guy look benign, hope is much more than a nicety. It’s a necessity. This Turkey Day, I’d like to mention a few people who give me hope. I’m grateful for them.

José Andrés and World Central Kitchen

While TheRUMP was tossing out paper towel rolls to the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—to people without shelter, food, or potable water—one man was packing his suitcase and heading for the storm-ravaged island. Renowned chef José Andrés is no stranger to jumping into adversity and flying by the seat of his pants to help those in need. In the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, he organized World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing healthy meals when natural disasters strike.

Credit: Eric Rojas

While FEMA was fumbling for excuses about why they didn’t have enough generators and how it was impossible to acquire more (Seriously? You’re the U.S. agency in charge of disaster relief and you can’t get your hands on more generators?!), Andrés and his team of volunteer chefs established a communications network, brought in food supplies, commandeered every available space with electricity and water, including the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, and started serving nutritious hot meals. In four short weeks, they served over one million meals, more than the American Red Cross. 

Fast forward to 2019 and the total destruction of the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian. While Florida governor Ron DeSantis was making excuses, claiming no shelters existed in his state for Dorian victims—that was a federal concern, not his problem—and TheRUMP was sounding off on the need to be wary of allowing Bahamians into the country—they could be “very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very very bad drug dealers,” Andrés and his WCK team were on the ground in Nassau, setting up their kitchens and rolling out the meals for the 70,000 newly-homeless Bahamians. 

Under Andrés’s amazing energy and devotion, World Central Kitchen has grown from a small organization, with total assets of $119,000 in 2016, to one with total assets of $16.3 million. Along with other humanitarian orgs, WCK is now helping small farmers, ranchers, fish co-ops and other food-related businesses to rebuild Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy. Andrés wants to make the island more food secure and help it recover faster when disaster strikes.

Hope is not about everything going your way, but tenacity in the face of adversity . “WCKitchen has kitchens ready to go and shelters mapped out,” Andrés  tweeted as he prepared to feed Bahamians in the first hours after Dorian hit. “If kitchens are destroyed, we build one and cook in big paella pans!”

Greta Thunberg and School Strike for Climate

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Greta Thunberg told world leaders at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist doesn’t mince words when it comes to speaking truth to power: “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

Credit: Gastivists

Hard to believe now, but Thunberg came to world attention just over a year ago, after she started spending her days outside Sweden’s Riksdag (national legislature), demanding stronger action on global warming in the wake of widespread wildfires during Sweden’s hottest summer in over 260 years.  

Inspired by the student activists from Parkland, Florida who organized March for Our Lives in support of stricter gun laws (after a mass shooting at their school), Thunberg tried to convince the kids she knew to join her climate protest. Her initial efforts failed, but “nevertheless, she persisted” as the saying goes, passing out leaflets demanding the government reduce carbon emissions, explaining that “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”

The leaflets and the sign she carried “School strike for climate” began to attract other kids who took the protest to their own communities. With Thunberg, they also organized a school climate strike movement in Sweden, “Fridays for Future.”  In December, Thunberg traveled to Poland to address the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference, after which student strikes began occurring every Friday in locations across the globe.

Thunberg still spends Fridays on strike for her cause. On two of those Fridays, September 20 and 27 of this year, she was joined by some seven million people in more than 160 countries. La Repubblica reported that a million activists hit the streets in Italy alone, a claim I can believe because the 27th was the day Ed and I struggled to roll our suitcases through wall-to-wall throngs of protesters in Florence to reach the Santa Maria Novella train station. It was tough. And inspiring.

Hope is not a substitute for action. You can’t just keep tossing tons of plastic cups and bottles into the ocean while saying, “I sure hope climate change doesn’t end life on earth.” Hope must be an active verb. As the title of Thunberg’s recently-published climate action speeches stresses, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (Penguin Books, 2019). Unlike some self-aggrandizing characters on the global stage, the profits from Thunberg’s book are being donated to charity.

Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, Zaachila Orozco-McCormick, Natalie Hoffman, and Scott Warren

If you were to ask me what is the highest moral principle, I would say it’s this: You don’t throw another human being under the bus. You don’t turn a deaf ear to cries for help or a blind eye to the suffering of others. If you can do anything, you do it, and if you’re not sure you can, you still try.

That is what the five aid workers named above, all members of an Arizona relief organization No More Deaths, were charged with—putting humanity above the politics of TheRUMP’s war on immigrants—and four of them received sentences of up to six months in prison for leaving water jugs, food, and blankets in Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge shares a 50-mile border with Mexico, and No More Deaths says that at least 155 migrants have died there in the past 17 years.

The four women were also charged with failing to get permits for “expanded access” and going off the designated travel routes. In the judge’s view, they were guilty of violating “the national decision to maintain the refuge in its pristine nature.”

Seriously? “The national decision to maintain the refuge in its pristine nature”??? I sign a gazillion petitions every week to prevent our government from selling off pristine federal lands and national parks to their buddies for drilling and fracking. TheRUMP announced plans just this past month to gut protections against logging and road-building in the Tongass National Forest that will enable logging companies to bulldoze roads and clear-cut this old-growth temperate rainforest in Southeastern Alaska. Next to that, how much “damage” can a few jugs of water and a can of beans do??? 

The issue is bigger than one wildlife refuge. Increased numbers of armed border agents and more walls have forced migrants away from relatively safer crossings like El Paso and Nogales, into the vast, hard-to-navigate desert lands. It takes six days to walk through the Arizona desert, anthropologist Jason De León says. “There’s no way you can carry enough water.” Many who try die of dehydration and exposure.    

The fifth aid worker, Scott Warren, a college geography instructor, is facing up to 20 years in prison for providing medical assistance (as well as food and water) to migrants crossing that desert. United Nations human rights experts and humanitarian orgs around the globe have railed against this inhumane prosecution. At this writing, Warren’s fate is up in the air. His June 2019 trial ended with a hung jury. A new trial is scheduled for November 12.

In its complaint, the government notes that Warren was seen talking to two migrants near Ajo.

Such a crime.

The Unknown Train Passenger

Hope doesn’t just come from acts played out on a world stage. Often, it can be found in the people we pass every day—standing in line at the supermarket or sitting next to us at a café. Or, in this case, a fellow passenger on a train.

In prepping for our recent trip to London and Florence, Ed bought two round-trip train tix from the official Gatwick Express website. The train runs every fifteen minutes between Gatwick Airport and London’s Victoria station. On the way out, we had no problems. Using the barcode from the e-mail, we retrieved our tickets—both out and return—from the machine at the station. A Gatwick Express employee on the tracks, visibly annoyed at my question, “Is this the right train?”, nodded. “Yes, yes. Just get on.” Fine. We got to the airport without incident.

BUT, the return trip, three weeks later, definitely featured incident. About ten minutes into the half-hour ride, a ticket collector entered the car. When we handed him our tickets, he said, “Oh, you can’t use these on this train. This is for another train. A different company. That company doesn’t do Express trains. You’ll have to buy new tickets for this train.” (Note: The company on our ticket is listed as one of the three companies running the GE trains.)

What can you do at such a moment? We showed him our receipt. We argued our case. I believe I mentioned that things were a lot better before Thatcher privatized the railroads. We were not alone here. An Italian family with three children, and very little English, was getting the same treatment.

Ed was digging out a credit card for the new tix ($65), when a man two seats down stood up and addressed the ticket collector. “You do this all the time on this line,” he said. “Charge people twice. Look, your train’s more than half empty. These people have tickets. They’re choosing to come here and spend pounds in this country on their holiday and you’re harassing them.”

He and the ticket collector argued back and forth for several minutes, the man repeating that he’s witnessed this scam act regularly on the Express, and pointing out the many empty seats. Of course, we still had to pay, but I was deeply moved. This passenger, a British citizen, did not have to speak out. That he did, and so vehemently, gives me hope. I thanked him then and I thank him now.

 Hope is not a calculation of gain vs. cost. Not a person weighing up the situation, asking “What’s in it for me?” or “I’ve got mine Jack, so everything’s alright.” It’s about standing up for each other. It’s about standing together.

The Humane Society International and All Who Rescue and Protect Animals

As hard as climate change, industrial pollution, deforestation, and wars have been on human populations, I would argue animals have fared worse, and they lack any power to change the conditions under which they are being poached, starved, slaughtered, and brutally abused. I won’t go into the gory details of violence against animals that daily fills my Inbox, but the constant, senseless abuse of helpless creatures is both enraging and distressing. So I am especially grateful for the organizations and individuals who both rescue and give sanctuary to non-human creatures.

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I often post videos of animal rescue efforts. I figure we need to be reminded, in the midst of worldwide mayhem, that all is not indifference out there. That good people go into difficult situations daily to rescue and heal those without voice, without choice. I’ll share one of those videos here at the end of this post, a recent successful rescue carried out by the Humane Society International. It’s short, so be sure to watch to the end. I guarantee it will boost your spirits.

Hope is believing we can all do something to improve the lives of others and steer the world in a better, kinder, more just direction. Hope is being inspired by others and then passing that inspiration along.

Cast Ripples On the Water

In June 2013, Barack Obama spoke at the University of Cape Town. He reminded his audience that he was standing in the same spot where then-Senator Robert Kennedy had delivered his famous “ripples of hope” speech in 1966, speaking of the struggle against Apartheid (the speech I alluded to at the top of this post).

“[I came to believe that] I could be part of something bigger than myself,” Obama said, talking about his youth. “That my own salvation was bound up with those of others.

“That’s what Bobby Kennedy expressed, far better than I ever could, when he spoke here… He said, ‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’”

With stress levels soaring, the Amazon burning, families being torn apart, and insulin users dying for Big Pharma’s greed, we all need hope. We need to create hope. We need to share hope. It is the gift of life.

Great Expectations

The biggest problem in life is the image in our heads of how it should be. (Unknown)

Last December, anticipating an easy hour’s daylight drive to pick up my son from the airport, I was startled to get an e-mail from the ticketing agency saying: He had either missed his flight OR his flight had been cancelled.

Before I launch into anything else here, I would like to point out that one-contingency-fits-all, or more accurately, all-contingencies-fit-one emails are a bad idea. They leave far too much to the imagination and no clear thing the brain can seize on. Had the airlines cancelled the flight? Why? Would there be another? When? Had my son missed his flight? If so, had he been in an accident traveling to the airport? Slept through his alarm? Was he ill?  

Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “Why didn’t she just call him?” Well, my son conducts his life not on a smartphone but on a Nook tablet. Don’t ask why. He’s all grown up now, so I just smile and nod. To each his own.  

I did, of course, pen him an e-mail. Just as I hit send, an e-mail popped up from him. His flight had been cancelled and his new flight—whenever it left—wouldn’t get in to North Carolina in time to make the original connection to Hartford.

I was still reading this when I got an update from the ticketing agency saying not to worry, his new flight would arrive in time to make another connection. I could pick him up at 12:30 a.m! Yes, thirty minutes past midnight on wintry roads that had thawed during the day and were now rapidly re-freezing. By this time, my son was apparently on the boarding line with his Nook in airplane mode. Silence.

During this entire circus, I doubtless appeared very focused and busy with cyber-correspondence. Inwardly, though, my head danced with images of slick roads and onslaughts of freezing rain, as we risked life and limb to drive to an airport in the middle of the night to meet a flight that my son might or might not be on. And then, either way, drove back home in the wee hours.

To calm myself, I repeated, in mantra mode, two of Thomas Jefferson’s Ten Rules—the two I always invoke:

1. How much pain the evils have cost us that have never happened.

2. Take things always by the smooth handle.

 Effect: negligible.

Around 11:15 p.m., just as Ed and I were about to suit-and-boot-up for the mission, I received yet another update from the ticketing agency. My son’s new flight had missed the promised new connection. He was stranded overnight in the airport, waiting for the first flight out, and would arrive in Hartford at nine the next morning.

I was relieved. Laughed loud and hearty. Reminded myself that old Jefferson had nailed it. Paused to reflect that when I was 20, none of this would have ruffled me. We’d have hopped in the car at midnight—what’s a little ice and snow?—cranked up the radio, and gone, probably stopping for pizza slices on the way. Everything was an adventure then, scheduled or not.

In those days, I had few, if any, expectations.

Ay, there’s the rub.

Our Need to Control Outcomes

Several years ago, I wrote about the expectations we have for ourselves—how they tend to be stringent and unforgiving, so that even when we succeed in many areas, we have trouble forgiving ourselves for all the ways we perceive we fall short.

But what about the billions of everyday expectations we have for how things will go? That people or stuff will arrive as scheduled? That a vacation or holiday gathering will go as planned? That we’ll get ten pages done on our book today? That we’ll find the perfect present for our spouse/partner in time for their birthday (don’t worry, Ed, I’m still on the case!)?  

The greatest moment on the marvelous TV series House occurred when, after some fiasco or other, Dr. Cameron wailed “But that’s not how life’s supposed to work!” and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House piped up, “Life’s supposed to work?” Ed and I couldn’t stop laughing, and we still toss that line back and forth. But at some level, we also still believe it. I think most of us do. And it zaps our happiness. We’ve got enough bad actors in office all across the globe doing that. We don’t need to do it to ourselves.    

Let’s be honest. Life is uncertain. Worse, it’s unfair, meaning we crave certainty to ward off the unfairness. If I cross myself three times, kiss an owl, and turn to the full moon at midnight, everything will be okay. That will be $100 please, and you’ve been suckered.

We control very little: What we do and how we react. That’s it. And sometimes, things just go wrong. But what if we changed one word in that sentence? Sometimes, things just go differently.

The Grand Master Plan

Okay, let’s follow the strands of one classic set of expectations. I call it The Grand Master Plan. It goes something like this:

If I go to college, I’ll get a good-paying job in the field of my studies;

In the course of this job, I’ll receive periodic bump-ups in title and salary;

With a salary that keeps rising, I’ll buy a series of successively bigger houses, drive late model cars, and take exotic vacations, with ample savings left over for a comfy retirement.

Whew! Not expecting too much, are we?

I recently came across an interesting little stat. A survey of some 7,000 college students revealed that they expect to earn $60,000 in their first job after graduation. The reality, however, was a median salary of $48,000 for those with 0-5 years experience. Oops!

And what about that starter home, the first in a line that leads to the 5,000 square-foot mansion with a home theater, built-in pool, and tennis court? Well, millennials are discovering there’s one teensy little problem, or more accurately three BIG ones, with that expectation: Affordability, high student debt, and less loan availability. Oh dear.

I cite these here to illustrate how, when it comes to this or any other Major Life Plan, we may get:

1. The whole shebang.

2. Some of the shebang.

3. None of the shebang. Personally, I wouldn’t put my money on #1. However it goes, life’s highly unlikely to follow the neat script of our expectations, which rarely takes into account impossible bosses, downsizing and layoffs, serious illnesses, nasty accidents, messy expensive divorces, unexpected children, or just plain realizing we HATE our line of work. All sorts of things happen on the bumpy road of life.

It Can’t Happen to Me and Other Hilarious Notions

Even if the whole shebang does seem to be going according to plan, we may be surprised by some of the “hidden costs” our expectations exact. A Bankrate poll found that 63 percent of millennial homebuyers (ages 23 to 38) have regrets about the house/condo they purchased. The biggest reason? They had no idea that owning a home would involve so much money (insurance, property taxes, repairs) or consume so much time (maintenance). All this in addition to the down payment and monthly mortgage which, incidentally, many of them took on a second job to afford. How to cope? Take on a third job? Rob a bank?

Sometimes, things just go differently.

We know this. We see it happen to other people all the time. But there’s something in our Homo sapien genes that just digs in and says It won’t happen to me. Call it denial. Call it stupidity. But it’s there. Googling stuff for my August post, I came across an arresting report about the number of Americans (a clear majority) who now believe climate change is real and will hurt their neighbors and family. Weirdly—and I had to read this twice—these same people don’t believe it will hurt them.  

It’s a short hop from expectations to a sense of entitlement. 

Life’s supposed to work…

And when, inevitably, it doesn’t, we hyperventilate, suffer disappointment, stress out, and feel we’ve been cheated. All of these are unhealthy happiness zappers. Even at the granular everyday level, and maybe especially there, we get knocked upside the head by the zillions of little things that happen differently from what we expected. Our weekend at the shore gets rained out. Our car breaks down during the morning rush on our way to a job interview.

But if you can keep your cool in the car breakdown scenario, and remind yourself this was a much stickier wicket in the days before cellphones, you could call that employer and suggest conducting the interview via Skype over the phone (while you wait for Triple A). If I was hiring, I’d give extra points for your calm and your spur-of-the-moment problem-solving skills.

For our sanity and happiness, we need to stomp out this “life’s supposed to work” myth. To be rocked by every little deviation from the expected, it’s like death by a thousand cuts. So, take a deep breath and pledge to ask yourself one simple question when things take a different turn: Would I be so unhappy about X if I wasn’t expecting Y? Short of life-threatening catastrophes, this question is powerfully effective at putting things in perspective.

He Traded in His Suit for a Truck: One Man’s Road to a Happier Life

Some years back, my first husband and I bought a house with an enormous garage—a good thing overall, but that garage was filled with a ton of junk, and part of the deal with the seller was that if we wanted the junk removed, we had to arrange it ourselves. So I combed the newspaper ads and called a kid with a truck. He was a pleasant kid in his mid-twenties, and as we packed and hauled several loads of stuff to the dump/recycling center, he talked about how he got into the moving business. Growing up, he had always wanted to work in a bank. He imagined himself as some sort of bigtime financier, maybe ending up on Wall Street. In preparation, he ticked all the boxes: Went to a good school, got the degree in finance, and was hired by a bank for a management position with solid future prospects.

He hated it. Hated the attitudes, the work, the whole banking ethos. Whatever it was he’d been expecting all his young life from the bank world, reality proved quite different. The upshot? He quit. Bought himself a used truck and started moving stuff for people. He expressed no embarrassment or distress at confessing that reality had not met his expectations. He did not apply the word “failure” either to the outcome or himself. In fact, he seemed very relaxed and happy that he had escaped that life and found something better suited to his temperament.  

That kind of flexibility is what we all need. And like this kid, we seem to come by it effortlessly when we’re young. As I said up top, everything feels like an adventure in our early twenties, but it doesn’t stay that way for most of us.

Hey Man, What Happened to the Joy?

So, where does all that joie de vivre, live-in-the-moment feeling go? Why do we seem to grow less tolerant of the unexpected (surprise!) as we age, and more insistent on everything going according to plan?

I tried googling this topic to see what insights the wizards of psychology might offer, but not much popped up, so I will give you my own ponderings

I think when we’re young and our independence is shiny and new, we focus more on the journey than the destination, a thing we may have only the vaguest of notions about at 20. We’re generally open to experimentation—what happens if …? After all, isn’t the journey—the side roads and the unbeaten paths—where all the truly great stuff happens, the stuff that inspires, that feels like living? Why do grown-ups, the kind with 401Ks and 30-year mortgages, tend to frown on going with the flow?

To be fair to, with all the stuff many of us are balancing at 30 or 40 or 50—spinning plates!—job, kids, house, it can feel like we NEED everything to go according to plan or it will all blow sky high.

But it can still blow sky high. Ask the USDA scientists who were told this past July that they had one week to move family and household to Kansas City, Missouri or resign. On top of the logistical challenge this order posed for many of the families, the scientists had to cope with what the American Federation of Government Employees has called an apparent “attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”

Being told you have one week to transplant your household across country or resign is a HUGE surprise. Fortunately, most of our “unexpecteds” are much less life boggling.

How Do We Live Without Expectations?

The short answer to that question is probably “much more joyfully.” More freely, more creatively. We could recognize and seize opportunities as they arise if we stopped insisting that something work exactly this way!

Say, you’re serving a sit-down dinner for eight——but then the stove dies, and you blow a gasket. Rant against the injustice of life, break down weeping, take a sledgehammer to the stove. All of the above.

You dreamed of dazzling your guests with your award-winning Beef Bourguignon Well, the reality is it ain’t gonna happen, so are you going to have a meltdown and cancel, or are you going to chill and order take-out pizzas OR run to the store for something you can throw on the grill OR take everyone out for a curry? And laugh with your guests about best-laid plans.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I bought a book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Great title. The authors knew they would corral about a zillion pregnant women with that one. But only now, many years later, can I give you the true answer to that question: Expect anything because anything may happen.  

I repeat: We control very little: What we do and how we react. That’s it. But within that, we wield enormous power. It’s not that everything “happens for the best.” It’s that things happen and we can make the best of them, or not.

As my pal Jefferson said: Take things always by the smooth handle.

You’ll avoid the splinters.