Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. — Marcus Aurelius
Let’s start with a crowd-pleaser — a confession. Having been at the Historical Society’s barn all week cheating at Pinochle and fraternizing with a gang of questionable “prospectors” in Lisa Shaw’s “The Prospect of Summer,” with our opening night last Friday and our closing on Sunday, I’m just now sitting down at my keyboard and trying to out-type this column’s noon deadline. It’s not the only thing I have neglected this week.
Ask my cats, ask my laundry, but perhaps most thoroughly ignored have been all those huge, seemingly insoluble problems facing our world that, in the past decade or so, I’ve somehow assigned myself to resolving.
I mean global war, climate change, racism, gun violence, assaults on democracy and equal citizenship, etc. Quite a to-do list and, in 10 years, I haven’t been able to cross off a single item. That’s where all my big thinking has gotten me and the world — nowhere.
But in the last few weeks, my biggest concerns have had to do with learning lines, staying at least in the neighborhood of “on key” and how to survive five costume changes in a dark, sweltering corner of an old barn. In other words, out of necessity I’ve been forced to “think small” and, sweat and sciatica notwithstanding, it’s proved very … refreshing, even soothing.
Some of us are naturally gifted in terms of “petit pondering,” the small-minded, the nit-picky, the anal retentive, but none of us are unfamiliar with the perverse pleasures offered by the “pet peeve.” I may have mentioned a couple of my own in an earlier column, but the lovely thing about peeves is that they’re self-replicating since new ones pop up all the time.
A current favorite is the fact that as soon as I become fond of a particular item at our IGA, like yogurt, or salad dressing, the universe takes note and, within a couple of weeks, that item becomes unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Not far behind is the fact that all the people who manage to get their pieces published in the Sunday Magazine or “Sunday Review” sections of The New York Times seem to be published authors already, which is very daunting to a turning-76-year-old freshman columnist who isn’t.
That’s just a sample from my collection. This week I went about gathering a kind of tri-state-area “pet peeve potpourri.” From New Jersey came, “Those ‘cold-shoulder’ sweaters — what are they thinking?” “Black wheels on cars.” And, “People who think if they put their flashers on it’s O.K. to double-park for a few minutes, or an hour, maybe.”
From the wilds of Connecticut: “Camisoles [no explanation provided].” “Systemic greed.” And, “People who put ad circulars back in the pile after they’ve taken the coupons.” And from New York: “Helium balloons left untended and in danger of escaping by environmentally-challenged consumers.” “People who snail-walk not only on crosswalks, but when there are none and you’re just being a polite motorist.” And, finally, “When my sister uses my toothbrush.”
Interestingly, I’ve noticed that, for most peeves, there seems to exist an equal but opposite peeve. For instance, one person is driven crazy by people who don’t hold doors open for others, while someone else hates it when “people hold doors open for you when you’re still a half a block away and you have to sprint to get there.”
Then there’s the guy who can’t pass a crooked picture without straightening it, who someday may come in lethal contact with the lady who verges on homicide if anyone touches anything in her house.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be chronically peevish to think small. Sages down the ages have recommended the benefits of meditating on one tiny thought, one small object, to achieve balance and serenity. That practice gives small-mindedness a good name — “Mindfulness.”
And you don’t have to be Maria von Trapp to turn your attention to other kinds of little things that so sweetly and simply enhance our lives.
You know, the flip side of pet peeves, those of the “brown paper packages” and “whiskers on kittens” variety. I, for one, love the slant of morning sun across my kitchen island, and the violent white of a gull flashing against a bank of gunmetal clouds, and my cat at my bedroom door, meowing to get in, and the messages my grandkids leave on my answering machine.
Warning: If you get started doing this, you’ll never stop, except I have to. This column (another favorite thing of mine) can only be 800 words, and guess what, it’s now way past noon.
But, please, don’t you stop. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of favorite things to keep you going.