Tiny Points of Life
Nothing to Worry About
“Stuart! Be careful up there! You shouldn’t be doing this! Come down! On the ladder – come down on the ladder! But be careful coming down! I’m worried about you up there! Stuart?!”
My mother shouts out of a living room window. She has taken the screen out of the window frame so that she can clear the roofline with her head, twist her face skyward, and project her voice up over the top of the house. Bracing at a place close to her elbow, she is cantilevering the upper third of her body out into the frigid airspace two stories above the ground so that my father might hear her.
The snow is still falling.
It’s the tenth day in a row. I’ve been counting. We all have. The whole city.
And not just kind of snowing either. Really snowing. Dr. Zhivago snowing. Antarctica snowing. We’re not used to this.
On the fifth day my father came home from work covered in the stuff. He was soaked through. His car had gotten stuck twice in our neighborhood and he had helped push Mrs. Wilson out of her own driveway. He had been within a block of the house for nearly two hours.
My mother had called him on his cell phone to find out where he was. Just to check and see if he was okay. He told her to look out the kitchen window toward the end of the street. And there he was. He waved.
“If this keeps up, I’m going to have to shovel the roof,” he said, standing in a puddle of water spreading out over the square of slate tile just inside our front door. “I don’t think this house was built for that kind of weight. I’m worried about the house collapsing.”
My mother and I looked at each other, brows furrowing.
By the eighth day, my father’s concern had metastasized its way into nearly every expression and thought. After dinner that evening, I found him standing in the kitchen pouring boiling water into a coffee cup over a bag of Earl Grey. His face registered a concern wholly disproportionate to the activity.
He kept glancing furtively up at the ceiling.
Like it might suddenly split open and flatten him.
His lack of concentration caused him to miss the cup, scalding his hand. It was a favorite mug, too. A father’s day present from my sister. Don’t Worry, Be Happy! it commanded.
The word Worry came off in a nice clean shard of porcelain.
Now the mug is out in the garage, all six pieces of it, in a bag on top of an already full garbage can. The trash is backing up in our house, like it is in every other house, because the snow has disrupted garbage pickup services throughout the city. My sister, Katie, has found occasion to pause her preoccupation with fruit-flavored lip gloss and painting her toenails the color of the rainbow to worry that the trash pickup might not resume without a serious decay of the social order.
If it ever resumes at all.
“What are we going to do with all of it?” she asked once over dinner. “Burn it? Where? If everyone starts burning trash, do you know what that will do to the environment? Should we buy gas masks just in case? Which one of you guys are going to start parking in the driveway when the garage fills up with trash?”
Her environmental concern is laudable but entirely unexpected. Katie is fourteen. She still sleeps on a unicorn pillow, a vestigial remnant of a dying fetish. In the past year her concerns have shifted sharply from mythical horses with sparkly spires to pouty, unshaven vampires and a collection of alarmingly precocious friends. One of them, Candice, looks and talks like a pole dancer trying to make a clean break selling real estate.
Physically, Katie is developing fast; expanding up and out before our averted eyes like some sort of dehydrated, hyper-compressed sponge that has just made first contact with water. My parents are at pains to suppress their worry. Pouty vampires are one thing, occupying as they do an imagined reality not unlike the unicorn. But the prospect of real boys in the real world is looming large on the horizon.
So far, unlike some of her friends, Katie has shown little interest in sexual matters, even kissing. But she has shown a highly sophisticated discernment when it comes to lip gloss. She collects the little tubes and displays them in the shape of a rainbow on her dresser, from Apricot Ambrosia to Zulu Nut Zest.
This, too, worries my parents. When Katie decides to start kissing, it’s going to be epic.
So Katie’s stated concerns about the impact of burning trash on the environment were a fairly radical departure from the norm that might have been welcome and even encouraged. Except that it ended up provoking my father’s own worries about the snow load.
“Stop worrying,” my father said, glancing up at the light fixture above the table and sticking his fork into nothing. “It’s all going to work out fine.”
By the tenth day, my father’s worry about the roof could not be effectively managed by looking up at the ceiling and trusting in a benevolent God. Because he knows my mother too well, he took matters into his own hands without any prior notice. This morning he put on his coat and boots and hat, pulled the ladder out of the garage, grabbed a shovel, and went up onto the roof.
We discovered what he was up to only because, while it was truly snowing hard outside, it was not snowing so hard as to explain snow flakes the size of young farm animals plummeting out of the gun-metal sky past the living room windows. Two or three of those and my mother looked at me and Katie in confusion and then rushed across the living room to rip the screen out of the window frame.
He has been at it all morning and it seems to be snowing harder by the minute. It must feel like bailing water out of a leaking boat.
Snow-drowning. That’s what they should call it.
That, to me, feels like the real worry here. That it won’t stop. That it will just keep coming and coming and coming as we are all buried alive in our houses watching television until the power goes out and the timbers snap and the windows implode and we are all snow-drowned. Others who live elsewhere will excavate the scene after it is far too late, finding us grotesquely frozen on the sofa, mouths packed with snow, clutching our phones.
But I know that I have surrendered appropriate perspective to worry. My mother is probably right that whatever the future ultimately holds in store, the real danger is that my father will fall off the roof and shatter into a million pieces like his once-favorite mug. I am forced to remember Butch and Sundance up on that ledge, the posse hot on their trail, and Sundance afraid of drowning in the river below. Are you crazy, asks Butch. The fall will probably kill you.
So, focused on the real danger, my mother hangs perilously out of our living room window, snow coating the side of her face, shouting admonitions up into a dingy oblivion that my father, who is all the way on the other side of the roof, cannot possibly hear with his hat on.
As riveted as I am to the unfolding events that might well render me an orphan, I am in danger of being late for my interview with Mr. Wells, the principal of my high school. I tell my mother I am leaving. She doesn’t hear me.
All of the schools have been closed now for nine consecutive days, prompting in some a kind of nervous-joking sort of a concern that if the snow keeps coming the children of our community will forget everything they have ever been taught. Lesson plans are being blown off track like so many trains broadsided by out-of-nowhere avalanches. The slacker lifestyle is getting a huge assist, if not a seal of approval, from Mother Nature. Refocusing attention in the classroom after weeks of snow will be as hard or harder than reprogramming the relaxed rhythms of summer in the fall, when we, the future of the free world, actually have to remember how to think and care about seemingly irrelevant abstractions and niggling concepts like “being on time” and beating the Chinese.
I put on my boots and my coat and a baseball hat. I sling my backpack over one shoulder. I say goodbye to my mom who still cannot hear me and close the front door on Katie’s less-than-sincere concern about whether I plan on wearing any gloves like I’m supposed to.
“You should worry about frostbite,” she chides disapprovingly from the other side of the door. I step off the stoop and out into the snow up to my knees.
She’s right, of course. It is cold out. I probably should worry about frostbite. Now I kind of am worried about frostbite.
But I cannot go back inside and get my gloves. Some things are worse than having your hands amputated. My sister’s face at the moment of concession is one of those things.
So I stuff my hands into my coat pockets and start walking into the white beyond, snow falling so hard I worry about how such a radical redistribution of weight on the planet will effect the Earth’s rotation, not to mention polar bear habitats and ski resorts and the igloo economy. While I cannot deny a certain thrill at any climatological novelty, all of this snow is probably desperately needed by people and animals somewhere else. What are they going to do without it? All I can do is press on.
It so happens that Principal Wells lives in our neighborhood only a block and a half away. I had originally planned to interview him over the lunch hour in his office but the sudden ice age and the resulting school closure has prevented me from so conveniently scheduling my report research. So, while I am not so happy about having to walk – nay, trudge – through oceans of snow to conduct this interview, a block and a half is not so bad.
I suppose that, like everyone else, I could have used the snow as an excuse. I could have waited until both Principal Wells and I were back in school. But now, because of the snow, the report is already past due. And I worry. I worry that somehow I will not be given the lenience I would need; that the report will be officially “late” and that I will not receive credit for all of my hard work. Twenty-five interviews. Hours of asking and listening and writing. All wasted. I worry about getting a bad grade and missing out on college and having to spend the rest of my life standing on a slippery floor serving trans-fats with a smile. I don’t like paper hats.
Accordingly, unwilling to encounter such risks, the day after West Franklin High School closed its doors to children and snow, I sleuthed out the Principal’s home phone number and called him up to schedule the interview.
“Sure, Peter! Come on over!” He seemed delighted.
But then, Principal Wells always seems delighted. He’s one of those people who always looks to be having the best day of his entire life. His face is a carnival of unconvincing restraint and decorum. You always feel like you’re sharing a moment. Or about to share a moment. Like you’ve happened upon some freakish crack of daylight in a storm. He leaves you feeling privileged to have crossed his path at that particular time and simultaneously uneasy, if not resentful, that the rest of your day will not even remotely resemble that inexhaustible moment in his day. It is like walking past your neighbor’s house as the Publisher’s Clearing House van is pulling into the driveway. You stop. You watch. You move on, violently ambivalent.
But maybe that is not quite the right metaphor because the strangely disquieting experience of Principal Wells is not so much about envy as confusion.
And worry. Worry that your capacity for appreciating life is somehow stunted, or that the psychological machinery that might otherwise allow you to experience an uncompromised feeling of joy is defective. You feel like the woman in the diner watching Meg Ryan writhing in ecstasy, ostensibly over the food. I’ll have what she’s having. Because the food you’re eating does not do that for you. Not even close.
So then, you think, what’s wrong with you? It’s enough to make you worry.
That, in a nutshell, is the secretly disquieting experience of Principal Wells.
Which is exactly why I decided to interview him for my Social Sciences research project, which is titled, rather unimaginatively, What Makes Us Worry? I thought it would be interesting to canvass a cross-section of my acquaintances on the general subject of their concerns. I wanted to learn what people are worried about? What keeps them distracted at school or work? What keeps them awake at night? What makes them snap unconsciously at people they love, morphing them in unguarded moments into savage neurotics?
I wanted to interview Principal Wells because I knew that one way or another, his answers would be interesting. If he is never worried about anything, as his general demeanor would suggest but that human nature renders extremely unlikely, then I want to know why, and I want to know how the rest of us can feel that way. Or at least me.
On the other hand, if he is worried about something, anything, then I desperately want to know what that something is so that I can remind him of it on those occasions when his range of expression (stretching from unqualified contentment to euphoria) gets on my nerves.
I have saved Principal Wells for last. He is number twenty-six. His predecessors have come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ages. But their responses have proven considerably less varied. It would seem that a lot of us are worried about the same kinds of things.
The kids from West Franklin High are worried a lot about fitting in and being liked. It is not possible to over-emphasize how much the general subject of fitting in plagues their conscious and unconscious existence. Insufficient approval from their peers is a mountainous concern. Variations on that theme included the manifold reasons that may cause one to fall out of favor, be cleaved from the herd and devoured; to wit: being too tall, too short, too fat, or too skinny. Nose size. Muscle tone. Voice tonality. Eye separation. Eyelash curl. Feet too big. Feet too small. Breasts too big. Breasts too small. Penis too small. Proving that social science findings need not always come in dichotomous pairs, there was no apparent stigma among my fellow students associated with having a penis that was too large.
Becky Heinland told me she was worried her breasts were already different sizes and getting worse, citing as evidence the fact that her mother’s breasts are different sizes. I offered that maybe the problem was not so much actual unequal breast size as the appearance of such caused by carrying one shoulder higher than the other, due either to a genetic quirk or her heavy purse. She accused me of likening her to Quasimodo and terminated the interview. I tried to tell her that having a hunchback, or a back-breast I may have called it, was not the same as either an asymmetrical carriage or even an overdeveloped shoulder. But at that point Becky was beyond listening.
Imperfect teeth are a big worry. Also breath, finger size, hair color, hairstyle, and clothing choices. One interviewee worried that he might be gay. One was worried that she might not be gay. In fact, all manner of sexual neurosis are simmering right beneath the surface of the student body, even among those who have never been sexually active. No—especially among those who have never been sexually active. We worry the most about the things we know the least.
Worry about grades and academic performance showed up, as did anxiety about post-secondary education and the job market beyond. Steve Simms worried whether he would ever be able to make enough money to support the family he worried he might never have. Steve has eight siblings. Family is important to him. I asked him what career choices he was considering. He listed newspaper reporter, poet, and working for the U.S. Census Bureau.
“What do you think about Purina?” I asked.
“As a career?” he asked. He didn’t understand.
Kelly Sweet is already worrying about becoming a serial bride, marrying the wrong kind of man over and over again. She sees herself as damaged goods by the time she’s forty-five. I asked her why she would think that about herself and she told me her mom gave her the slutty genes. I asked why her mom would give her slutty jeans and she said not jeans, idiot, genes, and terminated the interview. Kelly Sweet could be a bit mercurial like that. She has also “dated” half the senior class.
Slightly more than fifty percent of my peers worried that their parents were headed for divorce. That figure happens to track with the general statistics on marriage in this country, so I choose to interpret it as a validation of my data collection. Interestingly, none of the adults I interviewed said that they were worried about the prospect of divorce. In fact, two of them considered the question for a disturbingly long time. I had to ask them if they understood the question. Each of them blinked, smiled and said something to the effect that divorce was not on their worry list.
The things that were on the adult worry list had a lot to do with money and politics. Every last one of them worries about money, specifically, whether there will ever be enough. I asked whether they were worried about the prospects of winning the lottery and having too much money, enough money to inspire a lot of bad, reckless, life-changing decisions; enough money to ruin relationships and attract the wrong kind of attention from friends, family and strangers. No one is worried about the financial equivalent of having too big of a penis. No one.
They are worried about the country. I have interviewed six adults and every last one of them believe the country is headed into the abyss. Three of them say the country is not what it once was. The other three say the country is not what it could be because people are unwilling to let go of the past. Everyone feels underserved by the machinery of democracy. Two were worried about legitimization of homosexuality. Three worried about terrorism. Everyone worries about guns, although there is rather vehement disagreement as to whether there are way too many guns or not nearly enough.
All of the adults worry mightily for the next generation. Two of them called us the Lost Generation. Mr. Somner called us the Degenerate Generation. I asked him what he meant by that and he said we have been raised in a degenerate and amoral culture.
“That generation has no guiding moral compass,” he said. “They’re over-entitled and selfish and only live for the moment. The Internet has destroyed their attention span and corroded their values. They don’t invest in anything. I don’t … Not you, Peter,” he said suddenly realizing that I was a member of the generation he was maligning. “I just mean your generation, you know, generally.”
“And this worries you?”
“Who’s going to take care of me when I grow too old to do it for myself?”
“Precisely. They’re going to rob me blind.”
I wanted to ask him more about his fear of predation by his own children but he terminated the interview with a hurried apology because his on-line poker game was about to start.
It is not an overstatement to say that the adults were as worried about growing old as the kids were worried about fitting in and being liked. Death was the single most recurring worry behind incontinence and consumer electronics. Mr. Dunlap, my assistant softball coach, said he was worried about erections lasting more than four hours. He elbowed me in the shoulder and told me he was just kidding. I think he was worried about having been improvidently honest.
The snow has not let up and there is a wind now that makes it hard to keep my eyes open. It is much easier to walk in the middle of the street than along the buried sidewalk. Fortunately, the snow is keeping everyone inside. The road is mine.
My hands are freezing. I worry about frostbite. Not really, but kind of. You never know what could happen when you are not prepared for the worst. The Donner Party did not setout on their trip to California worrying about being eaten for lunch. Things can go wrong. That’s where worry comes from. All of it. Things can and do go wrong. I think about my dad up there on the roof and my mom hanging out the window and I worry about them. Katie could choke on a lip gloss.
I reach Principal Wells’ house and stamp my boots on the stoop to get the snow off. He opens the door before I can knock.
“Peter!” he exclaims, like he recognizes me from the back of a milk carton. His Christmas morning face is on. It goes perfectly with his retina-scorching red wool vest.
“Come in! Come in!”
I thank him and step inside his modest but tidy home. He helps me with my backpack and my coat. I pry off my boots, losing my socks in the process. I am embarrassed at my bare white feet suddenly on display in the home of my Principal. I worry about what he thinks of them, just as if I had pulled a couple of sea bass out of my boots and flopped them out on his carpet.
I mutter an apology as I fish out the socks and put them back on.
“Ever seen anything like this snow?” he asks. “Isn’t it spectacular?”
“Spectacular?” I ask. “Yeah. I guess. There’s sure a lot of it.”
I follow him into the kitchen where he points to a round oak table. I sit. He makes hot chocolate and I make small talk about school and my teachers. Mr. Wells thinks that they are all gifted educators and marvelous human beings. I find this a dubious assessment – my science teacher sniffs his own earwax, my English teacher keeps Xanax in an aspirin bottle, my trigonometry teacher is meeting the lunch lady everyday at 3:30 in the empty band room, and I could go on—but I am willing to take it on faith.
“So,” he says, handing me a mug and sitting down. “Let’s get down to business.”
I take a good look at the mug. Don’t Worry! Be Happy!
“My dad has this exact same mug,” I say. “I mean had. It broke.”
Mr. Wells finds this coincidence remarkable and pleasing. Amazingly, it appears to have brightened his day.
I launch into my spiel, giving him a more detailed explanation of the project than I had previously. He is attentive and enthusiastic. He has a balding pattern that has the effect of elongating the expressive area of his face, lending more acreage for his enthusiasm.
“Fire away, my boy!” he says.
So I do.
“What is it that most worries you, in descending order of concern?”
“I really don’t have any worries,” he says, smiling and sipping.
If he is joking, there is no sign of it. The social scientist in me wants to test the answer. This is not something that, unlike his assessment of my wax-sniffing, pill-popping, fornicating teachers, I can simply take on faith.
“You know that the ocean temperatures are rising along with water levels.”
“At the current rate of deforestation, all of the rain forests on the planet will be completely gone in less than a hundred years.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“That’s an acre and a half of forest land every second.”
“I know. We really need to fight for those forests.”
“Iran is steadily working its way toward a nuclear weapon. And North Korea is quickly figuring out how to deliver one.”
“Obesity is epidemic.”
“Thirteen percent of American kids and sixty percent of adults are overweight.”
Mr. Wells nods his head enthusiastically, eyes wide, smiling.
“That’s why we got rid of those vending machines.”
“But that’s not something you worry about?”
Mr. Wells shakes his head enthusiastically, eyes wide, smiling.
“Worry about it? No.”
I hit as many worry buttons as I could remember from my other interviews. Storms are getting bigger. We are due for a mammoth earthquake. Shark attacks are at a ten-year high.
Nope, nope and nope.
Drugs, guns, violence, the economy, moral decay, tooth decay, unequal breasts, incontinence and erections lasting more than four hours. Death.
As to each, he claims that the issue is not something he chooses to worry about. It’s not that he doesn’t care about these problems, he says, or most of them anyway. He does care about them. Even passionately. It’s just that he doesn’t see the point of worrying about them. So he doesn’t.
“Okay, but how can you avoid worrying about what might happen because of these things?”
“Like what?” he asks. Incredibly, I think it is a sincere question.
“Like what? Like what? Like we could all die, that’s what. Everybody. We could all perish in gun battles over drugs and snack food after the world economy collapses and we use up the last available oxygen on a planet with boiling, acidic seas and a never-ending nuclear winter. Long before that happens, everyone will be divorced, broke, addicted, toothless and stupid. No one will care about anyone or anything that does not fit in the palm of a hand and come with an earphone jack. When a couple of big solar flares completely take out the grid, cell phones will become the riot rocks of choice and the world as we know it will become one big 3-D reality show called Armageddon. Again,” I say taking a breath, “we could all die.”
Mr. Wells takes a drink of his hot chocolate. Somehow he is able to do this while smiling. That should not be possible, but he does it anyway.
“Peter,” he says. “As you sit here in my kitchen, drinking a steaming mug of hot chocolate, the planet is spinning like a tilted top, at over a thousand miles an hour, as Earth hurtles through space at more than eighteen miles every second. We orbit a nuclear ball of fire so enormous that even at 93 million miles away you can feel it on your face when you walk outside. Move the Earth just a little bit closer in, or a little bit farther away, and there is no way any of us could ever have existed in the first place. The planet would either be a charcoal briquette or a ball of ice.
“We ended up with an atmosphere with the perfect mix of elements to support life and protect us from the microwave of space. It deflects or burns up the meteors that would otherwise pulverize us and it keeps us within the very narrow band of temperatures required to make life possible. It’s cold today, granted, but it’s not 450 degrees below zero.
“Our entire solar system, meanwhile, is rocketing through the galaxy around a supermassive black hole with the density of a billion suns. And we’re circling that galactic drain at the speed of half a million miles an hour right along with a hundred billion other nuclear balls of fire, each roughly a million times larger than the Earth.
“And if you want to get personal, forget about the planet for a second. Just consider me as an individual. Bernie Wells, Principal of West Franklin High School. Do I care what happens to me? Of course I do. Do I want bad things to happen to me? Of course not. But worry? Not for a minute.”
He pauses for a reaction. I have none. All I can do is blink.
“See, the DNA that makes me who I am is the product of a string of events—including the right sperm meeting the right egg—that puts the odds against me at four hundred quadrillion to one. And that’s without factoring in the odds that each and every one of my ancestors would live to a reproductive age and that they would each reproduce in the exact combinations required to ultimately create me, Bernie Wells, your Principal. There’s no name for a denominator that big. It’s a 1 with 2.6 million zeros after it. By comparison, the number of atoms in the known universe is estimated to be a 1 with 80 zeros. Every grain of sand on every desert and beach in the world… Care to take a guess?”
I shake my head.
“Only eighteen zeros. Eighteen! Compared to two point six million zeros!”
He wants something from me. His expression is frozen in a kind of existential ecstasy, floating over the table like a balloon. My brain feels broken. He doesn’t wait.
“So I guess here is what I’m saying, Peter. It’s this. That you and I exist to have this conversation in the first place is nothing short of … of… well, Peter, it’s nothing short of miraculous. We have stolen every millisecond of existence from the laws of probability. Statistically speaking, you’re an impossibility. So am I. So is every microbe on this planet. So, no, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about obesity or illiteracy or deforestation. I care. Of course I care. But worry? About money? Guns? Sex? Politics? Death? No.
“Drink your hot chocolate, Peter,” he says. “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
All I can do is stare at him. My notebook is still in my backpack on the floor next to me. My cup is still mostly full and I’m referring here to being full of liquid chocolate, not optimism about the future. I don’t know what to think about the future. I don’t know what to think about anything.
The truth is, I’m feeling a little sick. I need air and lots of it.
I thank him and tell him that I need to get home. Mr. Wells laughs at nothing in particular and leads me to the door swinging his arms. He goes on about how beautiful the snow is as I wrestle with my boots. I fully expect him to make snow angels when I am gone.
“See you when I see you!” he sings from behind as I step back out into the white curtain of a full-on blizzard. “Don’t die of exposure! Ha-ha!”
I walk home slower than I had to the interview. I take the sidewalk, this time, watching my boots disappear with every nearly silent step. It’s snowing so hard I can barely see four feet ahead.
I’m trying to put it together. Trying to know my own mind.
I think of Mr. Wells. I think of all the others. I think about my parents and my sister. I wonder whether they’re all still alive and/or married and living in a house with a roof. I wonder if they’re worried about me. I wonder if I should worry about them worrying.
My hands are cold.
I think again of Butch and Sundance, soaked to the bone.
We’re all down here in the river, thrashing around and worried about how well we can swim.
But it’s the fall that should have killed us.
But it didn’t. It’s a miracle we’re even in the water.
I hear a truck approaching fast from behind, its engine revving. I turn in time to see that it is my friend Ethan and his girlfriend Lindsay in Ethan’s white pick-up. They blow past me with the windows open in a nearly impenetrable cloud of frozen frothy water. I see arms flailing out the windows of the invisible truck. Ethan is shouting something and Lindsay is making a shrieking sound as they float away down the street.
She’s either screaming in terror or laughing hysterically.
I can never really tell.
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