"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good luck or bad luck - you never know

I am very pleased to announce that I will begin teaching senior and AP English classes at American History High School in Newark on Monday, September 19th. Both the classes I have been assigned and my students are elite. AHHS is a selective magnet high school, rated 6th in its category in New Jersey by the Newark Star-Ledger, with a 100% graduation rate and 97% continuing their education.

It's easy to guess that it will be a privilege to work in such a place. What is less intuitive is that, for me, that only became possible because of all the jobs that seemed wonderful to me that I didn't get. Over and over I would have an interview which seemed reasonably pleasant, but which bore no fruit, and over and over I would curse my bad luck at not being offered such a plum position. Little did I know that the real plum would have been unreachable for me if I had been under contract as of the first day of school. It is one of those weird concantenations of circumstance that makes one realize that while it's pretty easy to know when your luck is good, it's hard to know when your luck is bad.

All through my middle and high school years, I was a devoted fan of the humorist Jean Shepherd, who improvised 45 minutes of comic observation, jaundiced nostalgia, social comment and kazoo music every weeknight for almost 20 years on WOR. Shepherd later became famous as author and narrator of the film A Christmas Story, which weaves about a half-dozen of his written short stories. His first full-scale film project was The Phantom of the Open Hearth starring Matt Dillon as a teenage Ralph Parker taking a summer job in an Indiana steel mill. It was my brother who brought my attention to the film's chilling closing words: "Once you've stared into the enigmatic face of the Phantom of the Open Hearth, she will give you either good luck or bad luck -- no one knows which."

As Hal pointed out, this is an ambiguous conclusion (probably deliberately). It may simply mean that at the time the luck is conferred on a person, that person does not know in advance whether they will receive good or bad luck. Or -- and more significantly -- it could mean that one never knows, even at the very end of life, whether one's luck was good or bad. There are just too many imponderables.

Somerset Maugham's story "The Verger" is an old favorite of mine. It tells of a church sexton whose tiny world is shattered when he loses is humble but beloved job because he is illiterate. Distraught, on his way home, he seeks the solace of tobacco. But he cannot find a convenient tobacconist between the church and his house. Detecting a gap and an opportunity, the former verger scrapes together some savings and opens a tobacco store. And in time another, and another and another until he is the tycoon of a vast chain of stores. A bank manager dumbfounded by the huge deposit being made by this illiterate titan of retail, asks:

Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to [read and write]?"

"I can tell you that sir," said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still
aristocratic features. "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square."

I do expect this new position to be a harbinger of good fortune, success and happiness. But I arrived there by dint of a lot of what I thought at the time was bad luck. And after all, I am the son of a woman who, while virtually on her deathbed, wrote an article for a church magazine called "The Blessings of Cancer." You just can't rely on bad luck to stay bad.

1 comment:

  1. My brother informs me that this type of "good luck disguised as bad luck" is called Yogi Luck, after Yogi Berra, who experienced many of these turnarounds in his career.