My wife Jan and I were lying in bed the other night when she drew my attention towards the small, half-round window which lies near the peak of the roof in the main upstairs bedroom. On the south side of the house, this perfect semi-circle peers out upon a well-defined patch of treetop and sky, an occasional plane, creasing the fabric of the heavens on its way to who-knows-where, and not much else. What I saw, when I looked there, were pitch-black tree branches, still clinging to the last-gasp modicum of leaves which thusfar had outlasted the cold, blustery fall, and a late November nor’easter. The tree branches appeared in bas-relief against the moderately softer charcoal gray night sky.
Jan, who has always slept on her right side, had been relegated to doing so on her left for nearly the past year, owing to a broken right humerus bone suffered in a fall last winter. As she has been wont to say throughout all these long, painful and debilitating months of mending, therapy and recovery (bless her), even such clouds can boast silver linings. One of these shining swatches of interior cloud-cloth, has been the fact that, while lying on her left side on the bed in the upstairs bedroom featuring the small half-round, south-facing window, she has had the opportunity, for those moments seeking sleep (which sometimes lengthen into minutes; often many of them), to view life inching ever forward en route to eternity.
“I’ve watched the seasons unfold from here,” she said profoundly. “And each one is more beautiful than the last.”
“That’s a pretty amazing window,” I replied.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean, to be able to do all that for you, and for you to appreciate it the way you did… That’s a job well done for a lowly pane of glass. Don’t you think?”
“Yes,” she said, after a moment of reflection. “It really is.”
This episode reminded me of the 1954 Hitchcock film classic Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays professional photographer “Jeff” Jefferies, who is confined to a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village, NY apartment, owing to a broken leg sustained while photographing a racing accident. Jefferies passes his mending time peering out the rear window of his room into several apartments across from his and onto the courtyard below, observing the flotsam and jetsam of human life drifting past. Stewart’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder, allegedly committed by a consummately creepy, pre-Perry Mason and pre-Ironsides, Raymond Burr. So it is as this point, of course, where the similarity between Hitchcock’s Rear Window and our rear window ends.
But that brief conversation got me thinking about this thing called “Life” and the intricacies, ironies and subtleties therein, which conjoin and conspire to craft the all-too-brief measure between birth and death, and which can, at the very least, help to establish the defining line between a life well lived and one that may be otherwise. There are two things in particular that I would like to address in this post: the first concerns the seemingly irrelevant and innocuous choices we make, often without giving them a second thought, which can irrevocably change the course of one’s life; and the second has to do with the multitude of small, simple pleasures which can occur almost daily and which have the power, if acknowledged, to enrich one’s life immeasurably.
A case in point regarding the former… I met my wife, Jan at a party which I attended during a long Thanksgiving weekend nearly forty years ago. I was recently separated from my first wife, and living in a small apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ with no car and very little desire, on this particular Saturday evening, to do anything other than curl up with a bad book or watch an equally mediocre movie on TV. There was a knock at my door. It was my neighbor across the hall: the male half of a young couple I barely knew, asking if I might be interested in attending a party with them that night. I declined, but he insisted; he was aware of my carless, mateless plight, and probably wanted to cheer me up. Against my better judgment, I eventually, reluctantly, agreed. My wife-to-be, on the other hand, was, at virtually that very moment, being prodded and cajoled by a friend of hers into attending this same party, very much against her will. Jan had toiled that same day, amid the collateral damage perpetrated by Black Friday, selling cosmetics at Saks Fifth Avenue, in New York City. After eight hours of dealing and dueling with privileged humanity at its most vile, she wanted nothing more than an evening of soothing solitude.
Nevertheless, we both arrived at that particular affair—one which I had no earthly right being anywhere near, and one which she had virtually zero interest in attending. And “the rest,” as the metaphorical “they” utter far too frequently, if you ask me, “is history.” Had I been steadfast in my refusal, or had she, both our lives would have traversed vastly different trajectories, arriving, as does that occasional airplane creasing the patch of sky articulated by our half-round, rear window: who-knows-where. Is it not astonishing, at the very least, to contemplate where one’s life might have matriculated, had one chosen that alternate path on life’s journey, instead of that which was travelled? It is a constant source of amazement to me, each and every time I contemplate the many crossroads arrived at in my life thus far, as to where I might be today, had I turned left, not right at a particular juncture, or vice versa. As the days tick down toward yet another New Year, take a few moments to consider the choices you’ve made and your ultimate destinations arrived at. Then try to imagine a path not taken and where it might have led.
“Simple pleasures.” That phrase has become a virtual oxymoron over the years, like “jumbo shrimp” and “common courtesy.” In our technology-ridden, social-media-dominated world, the concept of simple pleasures has all but disappeared, not only from the lexicon but also from modern society itself. Perhaps seeking joy in simple pleasures has diminished steadily over the years for the plain fact that life itself continues to become ever more complicated and involved. Back when life itself was far less mentally and emotionally congested than it is today it was easy to find joy in the elegant minutia of daily life. Before coffee became an international fetish, for example, that first cup of percolated Maxwell House was, indeed, good to the last drop. I still look forward to beginning each day with my home-brewed java and the daily newspaper. Who the hell does that anymore!?
Somehow I can’t get the same simple pleasure by perusing the internet while sipping a seven-dollar mega-moca-choco-latte-ya-ya from one of the Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks that dominate every neighborhood. Why? Because I think that such an exercise is complicated as opposed to simple and is, for several reasons, virtually bereft of pleasure (including having to go to Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and having to pay seven-dollars for a mega-moca-choco-latte-ya-ya, which, by the time it takes me to say that, has been rendered lukewarm, at best, and will be room temperature, or worse, by the time I get it home).
In my youth I began fashioning a list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures, as my not-yet-fully-formed mind’s eye viewed them. For some reason, as I recall, I had only three items on the list, but they were, in descending order of pleasure-inducing: 1. (Here I refused to actually name the item, saying only that it was so obvious that mentioning it seemed redundant; I’m pretty sure though that my randy teenaged mind’s eye was visualizing s-e-x.); 2. Running with a football. (I was still playing football at the time and the act of lugging a pigskin through-and-around other testosterone-fortified teenagers who were attempting to separate me from the ball, if not my head, was truly a great joy to me.); and, 3. Writing a perfect sentence. (Later in life, when I was no longer playing football, but was writing and editing professionally, this became Pleasure #2 on my list. Though the unmitigated joy of running with a football remains on the list to this day; it was that intoxicating). What is a perfect sentence? It is simply one that could not have been improved upon by any other person, living or dead. Not Shakespeare. Not Hemmingway. Not even Steven King or J.K. Rowling. Muhammad Ali is actually the author of what may very well be the greatest sentence (actually, poem) ever written, especially considering his epic life and unparalleled level of fame, worldwide. The sentence/poem, it its entirety, is: “Me; we.” Think about it…
I’ve added to my list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures over the years. The list now includes items like: Hearing your child laugh for the first time; Lying next to someone you love (there’s that s-e-x thing again); Elmer T. Lee bourbon on ice, occasionally accompanied by a Cohiba cigar; Pizza (almost any kind); James Taylor, live at Bethel Woods; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Grilled lobster; A New York Strip Steak, medium-rare; Driving a fast car, fast; Porsche 911s; A great book, movie or play; Reconnecting with many of my Beta Theta Pi Fraternity brothers after way too many years; Football; Baseball; Basketball; An old, wooden lacrosse stick with catgut webbing; A very cold Blue Moon with an orange wedge; A very hot Folger’s Black Silk with cream, sipped slowly while reading The Bergen Record; Saturday mornings at the kitchen table with my wife, Jan; Christmas; Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol; Saturday nights with my wife, Jan; My dog Sam curling up in my lap; My daughter Carolyn’s smile; The ocean; Woodstock, NY; A sweet, crisp seedless white grape; Watermelon on a perfect summer day; Fireflies on a perfect summer night; Watching Derek Jeter play baseball; Having watched Jim Brown play football; Lu Zabriskie’s eggs over-easy, crisp bacon and rye toast, still warm and firm, though expertly spread with unsalted butter; Mom’s homemade manicotti; Cargo shorts; Grandma’s meatballs; The gym, most days, anyway; The smell of fresh-cut grass; Retirement.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. One of the things that advancing age has taught me is that one must take the time, especially as one gets older, to do as many of the things that gives one pleasure, as often as one can possibly do them. If you really think about it, and make a list, I can practically guarantee that the vast majority of things on your own, personal list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures, will be of the simple variety; easily and cheaply done. I can’t eat Grandma’s meatballs any more, or watch Derek Jeter or Jim Brown play their respective sports, or eat Lu Zabriskie’s eggs over-easy, crisp bacon and perfectly-buttered rye toast. But many of the other simple pleasures on my not-so-simple list are still, thankfully, up for grabs. I, for one, plan on grabbing them as often as I can.
Don’t take my word for it. Instead, listen to the Founding Fathers of these United States who, in their infinite wisdom, guaranteed each and every one of us the right to “the pursuit of happiness” in none other than the Declaration of Independence itself. They didn’t guarantee us happiness itself, you understand, but the right to seek it is guaranteed, by law. In other words, we are obliged to seek happiness whenever and wherever we can find it, as long as our own happiness does not cause some other person unhappiness. So, there it is. Go get it; and in doing so, bring some back for the people you love most. Happiness is a choice; if you fail to choose it, you can blame no one but yourself.
Oftentimes pleasure can come through the simple act of looking out a window, rear or otherwise, and relishing in the miracle and abundance of life which bustles all around us…
“I’ve watched the seasons unfold from here,” she said. “And each one is more beautiful than the last.”
“That’s a pretty amazing window.”
“Yes. It really is.