Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

By Day 2 of the Snowtober power outage, we were all feeling a little ragged, and apparently the three-year-old Baskinette had taken note.

“Amy Gutman, listen to me” she said authoritatively. “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

It was close to the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard, and I was a little bit stunned. Who are you and where did you come from? I remember thinking.

As I later discovered—and if you have kids or teach them, you probably already know this—the saying is a standard part of the preschool repertoire. But I instantly knew that it needed to be a standard part of mine. (The 16-year-old Baskinette kindly transcribed it, and it now has a prominent place on my refrigerator.)

Of course, there’s nothing new in the basic idea—we’ve all heard it zillions of times in zillions of different forms: Want what you have. It is what it is. Take life on life’s terms. And my all-time favorite formulation from Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber “[T]he alternate reality in which everything is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists primarily to torture you.”

Moreover, such insights are backed up by hard data. Research suggests that people who want what they have are actually happier than others.

And yet—like so many obvious truths—it’s one many of us seem to have a hard time grasping. This crossed my mind the other day as I listened to a friend angsting over a single less-than-perfect development in a pretty terrific life. I found myself thinking—in the nicest possible way—“You really need to grow up.”

Now it’s just possible there was a tiny bit of envy and resentment there. From where I sat—more than two years into a job search with its attendant financial pressures—my friend’s worries seemed pretty minor.

But I also think my reaction spoke to a larger point. Something happened to us here in the United States over the past few decades—at least to those of us who began with winning numbers in life’s lottery: We started to believe that we were entitled to perfect lives.

This thought came back to me again while reading Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, which deals with the stunning aftermath of her daughter Quintana Roo’s death. There’s no doubt about it: Didion endured an unimaginably painful stretch of loss, with her daughter’s death coming shortly after the death of her beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne (itself the subject of her best-selling The Year of Magical Thinking). Still, for all the very real tragedy, I was jarred by her recurring refrain that this was never supposed to happen.

Make no mistake, Didion’s baffled outrage isn’t limited to the deaths of her husband and daughter—it’s pretty universal, extending to the fact of her own aging, including a frustrating inability to continue wearing (at age 75) her favorite red suede sandals with four-inch heels. In Didion’s worldview, these things were (apparently) not supposed to happen to someone who could look back and write: “There had been cars, a swimming pool, a garden . . . There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile. There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair. . . .”

In sum, Didion devotes her considerable gifts to marveling over the shocking fact that she, like the rest of us, is vulnerable to life.

What struck me as odd wasn’t the awareness itself but rather how it seemed to come as an unexpected blow. It seemed so, well, childlike—this notion of a personal exemption, coupled with the implicit expectation that we readers would share her astonishment and chagrin. (Which may go to a separate, if related, point. In her mesmerizing piece on Didion in the current issue of “The Atlantic,” Caitlin Flanagan quotes one critic describing Didion and Dunne as having possessed “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”)

Tellingly, it’s a perspective that has long been mined for dark humor. “You know, funerals always make me think about my own mortality and how I’m actually going to die someday. Me, dead. Imagine that,” Elaine Benes marvels in one of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes. More recently, Sarah Miller made the same point in her witty and insightful send-up of the New York Times’ much-ballyhooed magazine story about the dangers of yoga. “You can’t expect the Sort of People Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Molesters,” she writes in “The Awl.” “About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word ‘fact’ is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fucking Die.”

Indeed.

At several points in Blue Nights, Didion seems to recognize she’s at risk of losing her readers. Her response is defiant. She resists the notion that she (with her 13 home telephones, none within reach when she took a fall) and her daughter (with her 60 baby dresses) lived lives encased in privilege. “’Privilege’ is a judgment. ‘Privilege’ is an opinion. ‘Privilege’ is an accusation,” she writes.

But privilege is also something else: An observation, a statement of fact. And because we are all human and mortal, it is also always temporary.

Good news? Bad news? Who knows?

Question mark

A few years back, while still working at Harvard Law School, I heard this story:

After weighing her options, a soon-to-graduate student turned down lucrative offers at prestigious law firms to accept a low-paying fellowship with a non-profit organization. This did not sit well with her family, who expected her to “do something” with her Harvard Law School degree.

Flash forward a few months: The Great Recession has hit. Both of her parents have lost their well-paying jobs. Classmates who’d thought their post-graduation lives were set are now seeing their law firm offers postponed or withdrawn. She alone, among her friends and family, is untouched by the crisis.

I’ve thought about this story a lot–and what it says to those of us navigating Plan B Nation. As I see it, the take-away is this: We never really know for sure where our choices will take us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to plan. It does mean that we are well-advised to keep an open mind about what events “mean.”

The past two years of my own life are a case in point.

After my Harvard Law School job ended in the wake of the Great Recession, I embarked on an exhaustive (and exhausting) search for paying work. At the time of this writing, I’ve long lost count of the dozens (hundreds?) of jobs for which I’ve applied. You see, my resume is impressive, but it’s also quirky. I’ve published suspense novels, written speeches for a Harvard Law School dean (now a U.S Supreme Court Justice), and designed a program to bring public school teachers to rural Mississippi. At the same time, I’m not a whiz with Excel or PowerPoint. Basically, I’m a writer, and as smart and talented as I may be, I don’t easily fit into an identifiable niche.

But here’s the thing. If I’d gotten any of the jobs I’d applied for (and believe me, I did my best) I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog, or the pieces for Huffington Post and Salon that paved the way for it. And these essays that I’m writing now—they feel important. Hard as the road to this point has been (and you’ll be hearing much more about that), right at this moment the life I’m living feels deeply meaningful.

One of my meditation teachers told this classic story:

There once was a poor rice farmer, who had a very small field just large enough to feed his family.

Then one day a herd of wild horses came running through the village. They ran into the farmer’s rice field and got stuck in the mud, and since they couldn’t get away, they were his.

His neighbor came running over and said, “This is good news! Such good fortune! You are rich, this is amazing!” And the rice farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A few weeks later the farmer’s 12-year-old son jumped up on one of the wild horses for a ride, only to be thrown off and have his leg broken. The neighbor comes running over and says, “Oh no, this is such bad news!” And the farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A week later a Chinese general is marching through the farmer’s village on the way to war. On this march, the army is conscripting every healthy boy over 10 years of age. So they took every boy in the village except the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.

The neighbor comes running over and says, “Yes! This is wonderful news, how lucky are we!” And the father replies, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

And the fact is we never do.

Failing at something you don’t really want—even if you think you do—may be a step on the path to a wonderful life you can’t even imagine today.

Good news, bad news, who knows?

Since we can’t know what the future holds, why not keep an open mind?