It had been a year since school ended. They’d let everyone back just for the morning but with masks. One fifteen minute recess
It was her last year of elementary school. Veronica had ridden by the school while it was shut down and saw upgrades and repairs being done on the school.
“It makes me sad,” she told her mom. “I would like to use those new art easels on the playground but I don’t think I’ll be able to go back.”
But here they were after all. Veronica didn’t mind the mask, but it was hard to know what to say to the other kids. They had to line up and have their temperature checked and rub hand sanitizer on with no parents.
This continued for a few weeks. And it got to seem usual, if not necessarily normal.
Then one recess she saw it. The dark spot in the hollow by the fence. It would have been hard for the teacher to see. She walked over to it, trying not to draw attention to herself. It was her discovery, only hers.
She finally got there and saw what it was. A black bird—a dead crow was in the grass. She got up closer—not too close—and saw it was lying there peacefully. But it was dead.
This was something that had to be shared. Veronica waved over to some of the kids on the edge of the playground. They came over.
“It’s a dead crow!” she told them. The other kids walked over. More started to come.
They began to discuss it:
“How did it die?”
“It looks so still”
One kid poked it with his foot.
“Ew!” Veronica said.
Now a kid was bringing a teacher over. Why did someone have to tell?
The discussion continued. “It couldn’t’ have fallen from the sky. There is a tree here. How did it get here?”
The teacher made everyone step back and then a janitor person came over with a bag and a grabby claw on a pole.
Everyone stayed to watch. Once the crow was lifted off the grass its head flopped to the side.
Everyone gasped. Its neck was severed almost completely. The formerly beautiful thing was placed in the bag and taken away.
The mystery had deepened. How had the crow been killed? What would cause its head to be cut like that?
But now recess was over.
You need to think about your choices.”
This was how the teachers and staff in grade school would reprimand my daughter. It’s not a phrase I heard growing up. But I think I like it.
All humans have choices to make. Every minute I can make hundreds of choices. These choices happen in the framework of other society. We have a social contract of what is acceptable and what is not.
Laws, rules and customs.
But that doesn’t cover everything. I am largely free to make choices not constrained by laws.
Freedom is a slippery work. It’s easy to make choices that are exactly the ones I made before, running on autopilot of choices or assumptions made long ago before I thought about it.
How free are my choices? Am I the agent of my choices?
Being the agent of my choice is using my own will and taking my own action. Those choices add up to consequences.
The basic consequence is the experience of the action. I experience the thrill of jumping rope. And the further consequence of repeating that choice is I get stronger and my body is more fit.
The experience of eating chocolates is a delicious one, and the consequence of that repetition is my body gets fatter.
These are my consequences. I cherish my freedoms and I try to think about my choices.
I’ll be honest. I choose things I regret pretty often.
It’s those choices towards a goal I don’t regret. And they get easier with repetition.
Making the choice to do the hard thing takes practice. I want to point my agency at the best target. All those thousands of choices are coming at me all day. I am trying to think about my choices before I make them.
I remember one Lakers basketball game from 2004. One of my favorite players, Derek Fisher, was in the playoffs against the Spurs. I’d watched him for a few years and he was a solid player with many championships.
In literally the last second of the game, he made a choice. His team the Lakers were down by 2. I watched, knowing that there was no way for my favorite team to win, with less than one second left in the game.
But Derek made a 3-point goal in the last .4 seconds of the game. The crowd exploded. Jaws dropped in front of every tuned-in TV. Everyone watching that game remembers.
It didn’t happen by accident. He had made all the choices up to that point. He used his agency his whole life to arrive at that powerful moment. The choice to grab the ball, just when everyone had given up hope—it was a long trail of choices.
That moment, that story, inspires me. I want that in my life. I want to make the right choice at the right time to have the experience that I want.
I don’t want to save those choices like a fancy china. I do want to use it every day. I will drop the ball—metaphorically. But I’ll also sink the shots.
If everyone has a chance to make their own deals, why not me? With practice I will likely reach the goal. I’m a free agent.
In my world, the biggest villain I knew about as a kid was the Devil. The bible told me so:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:
How terrifying! An enemy of God himself but he was very willing to pick on us regular people since he lost heaven to God.
Satan was the original super villain. God, however, was not such a good superhero. God is a little bigger than the hero role.
To get a really good story of a hero, the Greeks have the gold. Homer wrote the story of the hero’s battle of Troy.
Yes, there was a beatuiful woman involved. But it was really all about the fighting.
A hero isn’t a superhero has a supervillain to fight.
Homer gave us the story. Achilles was so strong, and all his friends were almost as strong. They were the children of imoortal god, more than just men. Perhaps because of their half-divine status they were a little lazy.
Hector, the Trojan hero, was the opponent who put them to shame. He was strong. He was disciplined.
He beat them. More than once.
The villain has to be a real threat or it’s not good story.
Superman has that problem. Now he is mocked for his impossible strength. He was too close to perfect. He was so strong they had to invent an external weakness: krypronite. But it felt like a cheat.
The tension in life is in the struggle. The story has to fill us with the tension so that we cannot turn away.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
The hero is always me. Or I want it to be. I want to believe my struggles matter in the larger picture. It’s great if my problems can be seen as an epic intergalactic struggle between right (of course ME!) and wrong (anything that bugs me).
I need the bad guy, I need to struggle against the bad guy so I can get better. I need the struggle to mean something.
Thank you, Darth Vader. Thank you Joker and Dr. Octopus. And thanks Hector and Satan. I wouldn’t be who I am today without you.
“I’m glad you sat where you did. I thought all the seat faced backwards.”
It was the end of my glorious trip to Denver and I had just boarded the train to get to the airport. The friend who had dropped me off told me the line ended at the airport so I could right it to the end and not have to transfer.
When I stepped up into train I saw all the seats facing me. Would I have to ride the whole way backwards?
Then I saw a guy towards the front of the car sit down facing forward. Ah ha! The seats on that end of the car faced forward. I made my way up there and sat in the row in front of that guy.
“I’m so glad you sat down! I wouldn’t have noticed the seat faced forward,”
It took him a moment to understand what I meant. “I’ve never ridden this train before.”
That’s when I filled him in with the knowledge my friend had given me. One straight shot all the way to the end.
But when we compared tickets, we saw a problem.
He had a ticket that was only good for local routes. I had a ticket that went all the way to the airport. His was 6 dollars and mine was 10.
Hm. He had acted in good faith. But the ticket wasn’t right.
I had just met him, but I could see the situation and the ramifications clearly.
He could step off and get the right ticket. Or he could stay put.
What were the consequences?
This is exactly the sort of conundrum life presents us so often.
You gotta ask yourself:
Do you feel lucky?
What was at risk? What did he stand to gain or lose?
There are a few things that are certain. There are a lot more that aren’t. And even the things that are certain might not be. Almost every choice is a risk.
So much is life is doing your best, taking your chances and seeing how it works out.
I knew that the train came every 15 minutes, so his risk in this case if he got caught was small. He had enough time to get off, and fix it.
It’s great if life leaves you a margin. But even without a margin, the risks still have to be taken.
I know I’ll be lucky some of the time. And when I’m not, I’ll just have to try again.
That’s the way I want to live. I guess I do feel lucky. Or at least I want to be lucky.