Having lived in a coupled world for most of my life, I have always enjoyed thinking about “perfect” couples. Who goes with whom.  Living and dead.  Real or imagined.  I can imagine Shakespeare and the great wit, Dorothy Parker, in a long, wine-filled evening trading quips and bon mots.   The two Georges, George Eliot (author of my favorite English novel, Middlemarch) and George Clooney: both big-hearted and entertaining.  Mandy Patinkin and Virginia Woolf: both wildly talented and both cranky.  (The “perfect” part sometimes comes with the pair’s flaws fitting each other, as much as their good qualities being complementary.) Ernest Hemingway and Madonna.

The other night, dozing through another night of so-so tv, unexpectedly, I found such a couple:  The woman in the commercial for advanced depression (she’s the one who carries around a little ping pong racquet with a sad face drawn on it, in case we don’t get the gist of her story), and the man who teaches young homeowners to avoid becoming like their parents by insulting them (in yet another ridiculous insurance company ad). There they were, and my bored mind saw immediately that they belonged together.  Let’s call them Harriet and Herm. Here is their story.

Harriet bumps into Herm on the way out of her doctor’s office.  Her trembling fingers are holding a prescription for Happinex,  the new pill that will boost the old pill and pull her out of her depression.  The collision with Herm wrenches the script from Harriet’s hand, and it drifts dangerously groundward, heading for the storm drain that is conveniently nearby.  Herm grabs at the paper with his right hand, while steadying Harriet with his left.  Harriet’s heart almost stops. She gasps,  then snatches the precious, life-saving piece of paper from him.  She mumbles something that sounds to him like “thank you” but is, in fact, a much earthier and less grateful phrase acknowledging the part he just played in her almost-losing her prescription.  She hurries off to fill it.

Herm, just out of a seminar in which he has undoctrinated a room full of much-too-cheerful forty-somethings from the horrors of middle aged home ownership, is invigorated by the collision.  It feels real.  She felt real.  He thinks about her later in the day.

What a surprise, then, to see her sitting in the front row of his seminar a day later, almost like a wish fulfilled. 

  Actually, Harriet is there by mistake.  She believes she is in a seminar about genealogy, called Up Your Auntie.  (One of the side effect of the new meds is blurred vision, so she has misread the sign in front of the hotel ballroom).  Their eyes meet.  He knows immediately that she is not a homeowner like the others. Afterward, they go to Applebees and find they have a mutual love for the Grilled Chicken Ceasar. Before long they are sharing the 2 for $22 special, alternating taco bowl and classic burger with bacon burger and spicy wings for the entrees, with the steadying constant of fried onion rings for the appetizer.

  They have been together for a year now.  Harriet is no less depressed,  but her mood dovetails perfectly with Herm’s sour take on life, so she no longer needs Happinex, or even craves happiness.  They buy a house together, so Herm has to give up his seminars.  Instead, they wander the imperfect world grumpily, but together.  

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Making Faces, Filling Spaces

When I was a child, if I ever made a face about something – an ick face for something that didn’t taste good, a grrr face for a playmate I was mad at– my mother would warn me (with the kind of authority mothers had in those days) not to do that, because my face would freeze that way. I didn’t believe her (yet a little bit I did and was willing to take the risk).  When I was a teen, I made aggressively awful faces just to annoy her.  (Two fingers hooked inside my cheeks stretching my lips sideways, squinty eyes, tongue curling up to try and touch my nose.). 

People say I do not have a poker face, and  you can always tell what I’m thinking and feeling by looking at my face.  I consider making faces 20th century emojis.  It’s always been a value-added expression to what I choose to say or do.  So, it should come as no surprise that I am very aware of the faces other people make, especially the ones that they don’t know they are making.  

You’ve seen it: a stray eyebrow lift, admitting disbelief or doubt, while the rest of the face holds it together; nostrils flexing their little muscles while the nostrils’ owner is busy suppressing what she’d like to say. Of course now, with half our faces covered most of the time when we are in public, all the action is around the eyes.  

But in the privacy of our own spaces, we still react to situations and events we are not even part of.   For example, I remember my father, an otherwise strongminded man, could not help himself from opening and closing his mouth if someone else at the dinner table was taking a spoonful of soup. He did this without being conscious of it, and if I had ever had to nerve to tell him, I don’t think it would have changed a thing.    As if we can’t hide our reactions even when we want to.  He was hungry. I have seen people watching an animated conversation between other people, and if someone says something outrageous, the watchers wince, or close their eyes to shut out a horrifying thought.  

Since the pandemic, in the privacy of my own space, this tendency has escalated into a full-blown syndrome.  While I’m watching a show streaming on cable, a whole show is happening in my solitary room, consisting of my winces and gasps and flinches and ouches, those pre-verbal reactions to whatever is going on on the screen.  And lately, I’ve heard myself say, “Oh no you don’t,” and “Back off!” and “You’re gonna be sorry,” and “She’s gonna find out!”  If a contestant on Jeopardy makes an unfunny joke, I make a sheepish smile and shrug.  If the emcee laughs, a fake laugh comes out of my mouth, too.  

I write this down to make note of an interesting human reaction, and to make you laugh.  But beyond that, I realize I am talking about adaptation: in the absence of faces we read eyes, and in the absence of people we read images of people, because most of us have the indefatigable urge to connect, to reach in and be part of the human condition.

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I recently noted that Influencer is the official name for someone whom people listen to and follow the advice of on social media.  It struck me at first as just an awkward way to describe someone who is influential, by someone who couldn’t come up with synonyms like “authority” or “power” or the more figurative “string puller” or “dominatrix.”  But then I thought it might not be a bad way to zero in nicely on the essential meaning of “wielding influence.”  I conclude it is a sharp,  streamlined expression, especially as we express ourselves on a device.  Like “thinker” and “stinker,”  it works.  

With that in mind, I took a look at some other words that have taken on new meanings as a result of social media, which I have been looking down my nose at, to see if there was something to rethink about them.   Some are  slightly amended words,  that, with the modest addition of an “-er, like our influencer, or a “-un” like  unfriend,  you get a powerful and influential new meaning.  (If you have ever been unfriended on a social media site, you’ll know what I mean).  One of those is the addition of “-ie” to self , which has realized the enormous, ego-feeding world of photos of your own face, and even produced special long-handled facilitators,  called selfie sticks, which you can buy for less than $20. ( In fact, the longest selfie stick has made the Guinness  Book of World Record, at a little more than 59 feet. ) 

The hashtag was once a lowly symbol indicating the word “number” before the actual numbers in a document or a postal address, as well as the musical symbol for the word “sharp,” indicating a raised half-step in tone on a music sheet.  Now it is the mighty indicator of a whole world or topic or focus around which others may gather.  #Metoo. Need I say more?

Share went from a basic description for splitting the banana in perfect halves, to therapist jargon, to kindergarten teacher-speak, and now, finally, in cyberspace it has grown up, out of its long touchy-feely roots into a harder, sharper focus,  meaning the transfer of your document or file to someone else’s computer. It is a perfect storm of specificity in the ether of cyberspace.  You can’t see it, but it happens. And its original meaning is still intact, because your file (your banana) is still yours while also becoming mine or theirs. (Or almost, because, come to think of it, shouldn’t the word be “duped” rather than “shared” because the whole thing is still yours, while becoming mine or theirs?)

 Troll  is someone who provokes you on social media with deliberately nasty and negative comments.  Whoever thought of this had to be a lover of fairytales, because this takes me right back to the Grimm Brothers and Rumpelstiltskin.  I love the reach of this word, from the distant past to today.

Emoji (singular and plural the same word, like fish and fish) may be new to English speakers, but it is not to Japanese speakers. Roughly translated as “pictogram” or “ideogram,” it is meant to fill in some emotional content to the brief typed messages that often pass for communication in the world of social media.  In its entry, Wikipedia quotes Oxford Dictionaries, that in 2015 the emoji “tears of joy” was the most popular word of the year. This kind of gives me pause.  I mean, it’s more positive than “pandemic” and more hopeful than “divisiveness” – but couldn’t we dig a little deeper?  Into “compassion” or “resilience” or “bravery” or “survival?” 

A lot of these neologisms in social media and the cyberworld in general are made in an effort to take up less space, fewer bytes.  And that’s practical and a good thing, since new words always expand the language. But  at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if it will impoverish the users of the language.  If we forget about nuance, the danger is real.

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         I misjudged the weather this morning, and wore a sweatshirt to walk Pete, when a tee shirt would have been enough.

I have always assumed that ”Fall,” the synonym for “Autumn,” was a riff (jazz-speak for “reference”) on the downward trajectory of the leaves.  Wikipedia agrees.   But looking out the window, I see that the trees are still fully attached to their branches, and, lit by the sun, they still sparkle green. Then why, I ask myself, does today have such an autumnal feel?    

         Partly, I guess, because it is Labor Day, the official end of summer, which puts me in such an autumnal state of mind.    But more than that, it is the unmistakable everything that summer has delivered to us.  Fires, floods, tornadoes, and just plain rain, rain, rain, falling endlessly (And mostly on weekends, as the working people among us can attest).  Bad news all around: the rise of the new variant of Covid, the worrisome breakthrough of infections, the resistant strain of citizenry who still refuse to get the vaccination; catastrophic news from Afghanistan, with loss of life and chaos for Afghanis and Americans, both.  Another Haitian earthquake.  

         The early arrival of the Jewish New Year may be another reason I feel so acutely and prematurely the arrival of Fall.  It certainly  echoes it.

         I usually set myself the task, in these little essays, to find (for myself, and for you) a positive, or at least philosophical way of looking at whatever is thrown at us, in the hope of finding hope by seeking it.

         But Pollyanna is taking a day off.  I will just say that all that has befallen us this summer has been harder than hard, and sometimes unbearable.  It makes me want to hurry up and end the season, jump the gun, pull the trigger on autumn, and get on with it.  That’s it, summer.  Goodbye.  Get lost. You’ve done your worst.  Now I am putting my hopes on the melancholy, sober – sided, and painfully beautiful Fall.

         Being a writer, I have always been moved by the wish voiced during the period which includes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: may you be written down in the book of life for another year.  I wish that for all of you, no matter what your faith. And I also wish that next year will be nothing like this one.  

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Routine: The Shape of Days

Each week is divided unevenly, by its majority of days and its much briefer ending; and the week’s ending is when we concentrate on religious observance, fun , and leisure.  The bulk of the week is the productive part, when we go to school or work. 

During the pandemic, the physical places we went to during our week changed, and we learned to work from home.  But by and large we kept the way we apportioned our time, because routines are important to the way we live.

As we age, our routines change. The long-standing divisions of our time may no longer apply.  We may not work or go to school anymore, which represents an enormous change, one we have to get accustomed to. The Sunday night blues becomes a memory. 

The pandemic intensified the difference, because we could no longer fill up our once busy weekdays with seeing friends, volunteering, and all the other things people who don’t have regular responsibilities do. Yet, though the adjustment was significant, we were making it alongside everyone else who was in isolation,  so it felt entirely do-able.  Now, as many people have resumed their normal routines, the significance is more visible, and to some, it may seem like something is lost.

And it got me thinking how really crucial routine is.   Even without the demarcation of each week, we live routinized by days. Nights are for sleeping and regeneration, and days are divided by mealtimes, doing the laundry, answering the mail, paying bills, walking dogs, emptying litter boxes,  exercising: the “jobs” of living. 

If all those divisions and tasks were gone, the shape of the day would be gone, too, and each day would be a big blob of time. Without the habit and repetition of even the most minor routines, the day would go slack, like a waistband that’s been through the wash too many times.  No wonder retirees and older people in general commonly complain about insomnia.  Just when we need sleep to gobble up all those unfilled hours, the weight of the unfilled hours and lessening of expended energy makes sleep harder to earn.  

Often well-meaning people, who want to make life easier for us as we age, relieve us of a lot of our routine chores.  I did it for my parents, and my children offer to do it for me. And I must admit, it is a relief to know that they are standing in the wings, ready to take over what I can’t do.  But when things are done for you often enough, you lose the motivation to do them yourself.  

I take my work to bed with me.  So last night I dreamed about meeting a woman waiting to take the ski lift at Hunter Mountain.  She said she was one hundred-eleven years old, and when I asked her to what she owed her longevity and good health, she said, “Doing the wash, baking chocolate chip cookies, paying the bills keeps me alive.  Routine. I don’t sell it short. It’s my way of being in the world.”

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Late Night Review

As usual, I had plans for an entirely different subject for this week’s essay, when something else hit.  So this is hot off the top of my head:

I saw a show on Netflix last night with a favorite actress, Sandra Oh (which is why I watched it all the way through, despite my reservations). It’s titled “The Chair” and it’s a comedy/drama about the first female English Department Chair of a small second-tier ivy league college.  Having taught in a college English department myself for a lot of years, I thought it would be fun, with the inside jokes and insider knowledge I was sure to find there.  Hmm.  Well.  Not so much.  Aside from the setting, which was, okay, collegiate, and the familiar routines, like boring department meetings and classes in progress, it was painted with a pretty broad brush.  Everyone was a stereotype.  Professors were types – old fogeys or young firebrands.  Students were girl-groupies or political activists.

The story centers around the title character, the Chair, and her long-time friend and love interest, a charismatic but troubled, recently widowed fellow prof, who  makes a bad joke by adding a “heil hitler” gesture to his discussion of fascism, and it goes viral on social media, with the attendant, out-of-control interpretive “fixes” the students put on it, like a fake hitler moustache on the professor.  The administration of the college immediately goes into damage control and the “arc” of the story quickly becomes the out-of-control process by which all the students turn on the professor (who had been their north star before that) with slogans and picket signs, and the administration, which turns on their tenured “star” and dismisses him.  There are no thoughtful students who think things through, and no thoughtful professors who balk at the college’s actions.   And my English Department writing-teacher voice is screaming, “Is there something redeeming in this story?”

Well, no.  And the worst of it was the portrayal of the older professors.  They were doddering and arrogant, a fatal combination, since no one was signing up for their classes and that put them in jeopardy for their jobs, despite being tenured.  They just didn’t understand their young students, and kept trying to interest them in Moby Dick and Chaucer in all the wrong ways, while the young firebrand professor(supposedly at the mercy of her dissertation advisor, the same over-the-hill Moby Dick prof) not only gets the students, but gets Moby Dick, too. While the old folks just can’t learn. And if that isn’t clear enough, there is a scene in the old Moby Dick prof’s home where he is coaxed by his wife into wearing an obviously necessary adult diaper.  “Just overnight,” his wife says. Why is that scene there? To humanize the villain? Or does it suggest that the boundary/barrier between this guy and his students is an incontinent-al divide? 

Yet, there is an element of truth here, in it’s recognition of the black and white, politically correct, throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater mood we are in, where no one listens to anyone else, and half-expressed thoughts are enough to ruin lives, and empathy is a one-way street.  I just wish it had not made its point so sloppily, by drawing cartoons rather than characters who struggle and occasionally make sense. There are students out there who are thoughtful.  There are professors my age who understand cultural context, and meet their students where they are, whether that means knowing that modern rap has its roots in West Africa and the  griot(storyteller) tradition, or that Moby Dick is, at heart and beyond its language, a story of hate and love and revenge as much as it is a Famous Book.  We need entertainment, but we also need, maybe more than ever, some real heart in our art.

I don’t usually write reviews here, but this hit me where I live. I don’t want to make you not watch it, but to watch it for what it doesn’t say as well as what it does.

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Looking Forward To Looking Back

Not everyone is as susceptible to the charms of nostalgia as I am.  I could attribute it to my storytelling mind and leave it at that, but I think it is more. For me, it is often about confirmation that something  really happened. ( For example, Mr. Kane, the vice-principal caught us smoking outside our high school one sunny April morning and, instead of “writing us up” he trained his eyes across the street, which was presumably beyond his purvue, and announced, “Lord and Ladies of the Castle, please escort your cigarettes across the street.”) So nice to have such an unlikely occurrence seconded by someone who witnessed it too.

Nostalgia is also about continuity, that something led to something in a way that may not always be logical but is historical (for example, how I was assigned to J as my teaching mentor when I began teaching at Queens College, and how that accident led me to one of my closest friends).

And nostalgia is most definitely about community, because it takes someone else to remember with you or for you to tell it to, to make the memory live.  

This week, I’ve had a bellyful of nostalgia, all at once.

First, one of my oldest friends visited for an overnight, and, as usual, we sat in the cool, dimly lit living room while the heat shimmered outside, and talked the day and night away, telling each other stories we missed the last time, or maybe forgot we had heard before.

The next day, another old friend and I talked on the phone for an hour after a hiatus of many years, and the sweet ease of our conversation filled me with happiness and sadness, for all the lapse of time in-between.  How had I not remembered how closely we were attuned?! 

Then, yesterday I attended the 85th birthday party of dear old friend and neighbor, and saw his children, whom I have known since they were toddlers, and enjoyed meeting their children and watching them share stories with my daughter (“unofficial cousins” they call themselves) and felt the deep roots of our knowledge of our lives, which branched out into my friend’s old friendships, too.  It was a bonanza of “Do you know…?” and “Whatever happened to…?” And “I can’t believe you know…?” And “Remember the time we…?” I came home feeling full, sated, well-connected.

Today, this afternoon, I am meeting a person I went to elementary school with, who is travelling to my neck of the woods with his wife for a small vacation.  I have one specific memory of this person, aside from the clear picture of the street he lived on, and the sight of him walking up that street one afternoon.  I will be sure to name his street.  I will be sure to mention my specific memory.

I had a dream the other night, that on the other side of my closed bedroom door a crowd of people were waiting.  When I woke up, I realized it was a dream and that I was alone, but I didn’t feel alone.

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More than the successes, which are celebrated and more quickly gone than we might have imagined…

More than the failures, which prick our egos but eventually comfort us by being finished, done, over, in life’s rear view mirror…

The Almosts live on.  Almosts can be heartbreaking or life-changing.  

Almost, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as: Very nearly, all but, mostly all. ( This cancels out such assertions as “I almost sang at the Met and danced with the Bolshoi” or “I almost slept with Albert Einstein,” much as I might be tempted to make them.)

What’s worse, almost made it or almost didn’t?

Some almosts are narrowly-avoided bad things that came so close they have remained sharp in my memory and changed me.  

For example, I almost had breast cancer, and went through all the preliminary terrors of going for further tests and waiting for the results, of finding a surgeon just in case.  Though all tests came back negative, it never settled, and it reaffirmed the deep belief I have in life’s ambushes and the importance of self-examination.

M changed his flight plans from Paris to N.Y. once, and the plane he  almost took crashed later that day. Sometimes I add the years from then to the day he died, and feel lucky.

We almost slid off the road in an ice storm on the N.Y. State Thruway coming home from a wedding in New Jersey.  I never again agreed to go someplace just because there was a place card with my name on it.

I have won things and lost things, but the two times I almost won, stung worse than not winning it at all, and have a sharper deeper space in my memory than the times I lost or the times I won.

But the  almosts that interest me above all, are the open ended ones, because therein lies the mystery of life.  

I almost went to out-of-town college (but ended up at Hunter downtown).What if I had gone to someplace like Syracuse, become a sorority girl, cultivated the undergraduate lifestyle?  Would it have made me more of an insider?  Would it have acquainted me with life in some important and different way?

 I almost didn’t go to the party where I met M.  What might have happened then? Would I have married that other guy?  Lived another life?

We almost bought a house in the suburbs, but didn’t,  remaining residents of the city for more than sixty years, and then we skipped the suburbs and went straight to the sticks.  What if we had made an offer on that house we liked?  What if we had opted for the life we thought we were missing? 

These are the almosts that stud my life and make me wonder, and write fiction, and think, think, think.  

What are your almosts like?

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Turtling: I thought I had invented the word. Then I looked it up. It’s been a word since the 15th century, picking up new meanings as the years rolled by.  So I’ll settle for having discovered it for myself, and added another definition.  

 Of all the meanings, from literal (hunting for turtles) to figurative (a rather scatological slang activity I won’t go into here), and several others, none have the meaning I have assigned to it:  poking our heads in and out of the world, re-entering social activities and life itself after a year and a half of isolation during Covid-19, and then drawing our heads back in as news of new variants arrive and infection statistics rise.

So many people I know have been turtling during this summer season.  In real time, that means  going to the outdoor markets unmasked, or even going unmasked in indoor spaces, trying on clothes in newly opened dressing rooms,without thinking about not touching the handles of the cubicles or putting their clothes down on unsanitized surfaces, sitting indoors at restaurants, attending indoor theater or movies…and then hearing something disquieting and regretting the move outward, and pulling back in.  

We’ve gotten on planes and declared it not-bad, but in the light of some new information,  decide not to go on a plane again.  Until we see.  Let’s wait and see. We’ve booked tickets for a cruise in December.   Fingers crossed.  And our turtling not only consists of what we do, but what we think — we’ll make it, no we won’t, we’ll be in the thick of it, again, no, we’ll definitely make it by the fall.  Or the winter.  Or next spring.  Or definitely a year from now.  

While some people are waiting for CDC and WHO guidelines, others are writing their own guidelines, based on their levels of comfort.  But of course, nothing about it is comfortable. Doing things feels free but fraught.  Not-doing things feels fraught but safer.  So we turtle on.

 And the discussions among us have become ever more tense with disagreement and minute differences.  Some of us have lost confidence in the “experts” because they are turtling, too; others think their turtling is justified by changing data.

And as all of our feelings are driven by our fear, I am thinking it is even more important now not to let that fear of the unknown prejudice us against other people’s opinions and decisions.  And that includes the governmental agencies, all of whom, I believe, are trying to make decisions on a slippery slope of facts that keep changing (even though the realities do not).  It’s like patting our collective head while rubbing our mutual belly.  But make no mistake, we are in this together, and there is hardly a way to separate us from one another, even as we turtle, and go back in our shells.  

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 I’m watching the frozen smile on the face of a reporter who is  coming to me ‘LiveIn Tokyo! At the Olympics!

At the moment he is talking about the American women’s basketball team and their French counterpart. I watch them run onto the court, empty stands carefully hidden behind them. They fist-bump and hand-slap one another and all I can think of is the droplets of sweat that have been transferred from one to the other right then.   Because, as of yesterday, 127 Olympic athletes have tested positive for Covid-19.

My mind goes back to the frozen-smiled reporter. I imagine his off-camera shudder and his post-report life, which, I suspect, takes him straight to his assigned hotel where he stays until his next on-air moment. Maybe he showers in this luxurious prison.  Maybe he has a room service meal. He tries to FaceTime his wife.  The connection fails, but five minutes later he gets a text from her, saying she is at his mother’s house with the children, and will call him later.  He feels a surge of homesickness. He’s been to Afghanistan and Iran without such feelings, but he has them here.  And then he feels a surge of gratitude that his wife decided not to come. But soon enough he will have to strip off these thoughts so they don’t show on his face when he goes back on the air.  He redresses his face with another beaming smile, as he tells us how great the opening ceremony was, how the exciting, EPIC events are unfolding inside the stadia.  He doesn’t say, “while angry and frightened local people demonstrate in the streets for the Olympics to go away, to have never happened in the first place.”  

But I am trying, these days, to put myself in other places, other minds. 

Have you ever started something BIG before you realize it is a disaster and you might have bitten off more than you can chew?  That you have stepped in a big hole and can’t see a way out? Maybe it was on your way down the aisle to someone you just figured out was the wrong one for you?  Or, getting positive pregnancy news at the very moment you realized you were not parent material?   Or quitting a job five minutes before you thought it through?  Or relocating for a job or a person that you almost immediately know to be bad for you? 

We’ve all had those moments of truth when there’s no turning back in life, when the only choice is to move forward.  What do we do?  Some of us invest our energy in denial, countering doom with extravagant testimonials to the rightness of the situation.  Some of us go into tailspins.  Some of us practice quiet acceptance by trying to make the best of things.  I think of all the possibilities, the one that seems and sounds most liberating is the one least applied: breaking the barrier, and doing the impossible by just stopping and saying “No.  Whatever it costs, I won’t make this mistake.”

Of course, I can’t imagine the International Olympic Committee saying that, can you? The logistics would be monumental. The money, the contracts, the buildings, the media.  The jobs and careers in the balance.  That’s what I think about when I see the Tokyo Olympics.  I can imagine the collective sinking feeling, probably months ago, when they knew they had made a mistake by pressing on, yet knowing they had to press on.  

But any impulse I have to be smug about knowing that it was the wrong decision is squelched when I think of all those last-chance, long-sacrifice, against-all-odds athletes who trained so hard.  Though my cynical mind says logistics and money were the greater considerations, the greater cost would certainly have been the human one.

So, I’ll put my doubts aside, look past the fake enthusiasm and root for the athletes. Even though I know that in doing so, I perpetuate the myth/truth that “The Show Must Go On.” Because really. Does it?

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