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Under ideal circumstances…

Posted by on Wednesday, April 4, 2012 in April 2012, Editor's Column.

I rode to school in 1967 with the Ryan family down the street: Mom Frances at the wheel, with kids Kay, Barbara, Jimmy and little Mike, who was too young for school but who rode with us anyway, usually still in his pajamas. Kay, the oldest, would ride shotgun and command the radio, and it seemed that 1340 WKGN would play “Daydream Believer” every morning. So, even now, when I hear it, I always remember being packed in that Chevy Impala with the Ryan kids, headed for whatever the third grade held that day, with the sweet voice of Davy Jones on the radio.

The minute I heard the news that Jones had died, that whole memory came flooding back. And within a couple of days, I was in touch with two of the Ryan “kids” on Facebook. They had moved away from the neighborhood and it had been decades since we had communicated. It was good to catch up a little.

When we’re caught in the day-to-day, it’s easy to lose the sense of amazement that ought to come standard with being alive: The friends we’ve had and have. The sight of the evening stars growing brighter as the sky goes from violet to black. The sound of a loved one’s laugh.

I had another experience recently that brought me to a deep sense of appreciation. It happened while I was reading along in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel “The Sign of the Four.” Conan Doyle is not really remembered for his description or his turn of phrase, but I was stopped by the way Holmes’s great friend Dr. John Watson describes a late 19th Century night in London:

“It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more.”

I read it for the vividness of the prose, for the rhythm of the words, for the picture of a typical evening in what was then the greatest metropolis in the world, and finally for the final sentence, which brings an existential metaphor to the light’s play on the passers-by. I read it over and over, and finally, I read it aloud just to enjoy the sound of those words. What a pleasure.

While we’re thinking about pleasure and appreciation of life and generally the way things ought to be, here are a few things that would occur under ideal circumstances:

  • We would be more appreciative of the fact that for about a dollar a day, which is less than most of us spend on—well, just about anything—we have clean water piped into our houses. There are billions of people who do not have this luxury, and millions of them die every year because they do not have access to safe water. We do, and, every time we turn on a tap, we should be thankful.
  • Every time a newspaper reduced the size of its reporting staff, it would be required to cut its subscription and newsstand prices. Under the current plan, the newspaper’s customers get less and less for their money as papers keep laying off veteran writers and investigative reporters, yet charge the same or higher prices. This plan would bring things back into alignment, where a big newsroom would bring the ability to charge more—because a good newspaper covering a city well is worth more.
  • Intensity of pain would be tied to danger. We all know there are things that hurt like crazy, but aren’t dangerous (a minor example is a paper cut), and things that can kill you (such as a quietly growing tumor), but don’t hurt. I would like to point out to the Universe: this is wrong.
  • We would appreciate how totally cool the worldwide system of aviation is. The airplane was only invented 110 years ago, but here we are with a system of airplanes full of people taking off, flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour six miles high, and landing safely and mostly on time. This happens thousands of times daily all over the world, and every time it fails, it makes worldwide headlines—because a failure is so rare. I am such a rube, but I find this amazing.
  • We would remember the words I first heard three decades ago from a pastor in East Tennessee: “Half the work that gets done in the world is done by people who don’t feel good.” For some reason, this wisdom becomes more resonant as I get older.

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