One Thing We All Can Agree On

Dear Will:

In this time of unprecedented social strife and tribalism, there is at least one thing that I think we can all agree on: We don’t spend nearly enough time celebrating the wonder of the duck-billed platypus. Am I right? The platypus is like a unicorn that actually exists—but SO much cooler. Apparently assembled on the Sixth Day of Creation from a box of leftover parts found in the corner of the Animal Assembly Lab, the platypus ended up with an inverse mullet: a duck face and a beaver butt, party in front but all business in back.

As if that weren’t enough—and why should it be?—platy has a trick that only one other animal can perform. As any third-grader could tell you, one of the defining characteristics of mammals is that their young are born “alive and well.” But for the platypus, that’s more of a guideline than a rule, so it lays eggs and dares the Mammalian Central Committee to do something about it. Which so far, it hasn’t.

But wait. There’s more! If I remember correctly from the report I wrote at Mariposa Elementary, the male platypus has a didn’t-see-it-coming, extra-stupendous superpower. On his hind webbed foot (it has webbed feet!) he’s got a secret, poisonous spur that he’s more than happy to unleash on predators and other neighborhood bullies. Somewhere in the Outback there’s a wombat with a swollen, lacerated snout trying to explain it all to the skeptical wallabies and bandicoots at the watering hole: “Fellas, I’m not kidding. Don’t mess with that guy. You make one harmless joke about his mother and he’ll cut you. I’m serious.”

You’ve probably encountered a platypus or two yourself recently. You know the type: looks funny, talks funny, kinda weird. For all you can tell, the two of you have just about nothing in common. You are a bipedal carnivore from Van Nuys and he’s a semi-aquatic crayfish-slurping Australian. You pray five times a day and he doesn’t so much as go to church. So different. These are the kinds of creatures we typically avoid as we stick to watering holes we find more suited to our own kind. It’s safer. More comfortable. And, in this time of unprecedented social strife and tribalism, increasingly problematic.

Who can doubt that our toxic divisiveness really comes down to a discomfort with otherness? We can put up with a lot, but different is sometimes just too much. Which is why with so little provocation we’re name-calling again (“Duckface!” “Beaverbutt!”), and before you know it the spurs come out and we all start looking and feeling like swollen, lacerated wombats.

I’m pretty sure that we would all be better off getting to know those who don’t look like us, talk like us, think or pray or even give birth like us. Sometimes we can get so caught up in trying to establish who is stronger, faster, richer, “righter” that we miss out on the contest to be friendlier. Imagine what would happen if we searched first for common ground from which we can work on something together, our various idiosyncrasies notwithstanding. What would that be like?

I would love to find out. But until then, let’s all agree on at least this much: That the platypus, with the bill, the tail, the egg trick, the venomous claw—not to mention the charming foreign accent—is the total package, animal magnificence cobbled together from a bunch of random whatnot. Other than that one wombat, who could possibly disagree?

And just like that, we’re standing on common ground. It may not be much, but it’s a start. Do that a few dozen times more and we may be onto something. It shouldn’t be that hard, especially considering that, deep down, we’re all just a bunch of bandicoots and wallabies, trying to make the best of things in and around the same swampy pond.

PW

February P.S.: I just found this old Far Side cartoon. Gary Larson just gets me.

Feeling the Joy

Dear Will:

We have this delightful, irresistible friend who likes to say that she is a “certified joyologist.” She’s kidding, but if you met her and heard her infectious laugh and saw the way she infuses a room with positive energy, you would have no reason to question her claim.

Given the chaos and disruption of 2020, we figure we could all use a little more joyology in our lives. A lot more, actually. As the poet Mary Oliver has written, “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Rather, she says, “if you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”

All right. We’re game. ‘Tis the season, after all, when joy shows up on billboards and t-shirts and any number of gift bags (shopping bags, for that matter). Looking back on this year-like-no-other, there have been plenty of things that have brought us joy in spite—and sometimes because—of all the rest. So in this season of giving, we’re giving in. To joy.

There were many moments during 2020 in which we suddenly, unexpectedly felt joy. Moments like these:

  • When hundreds of my co-workers agreed to voluntary pay-cuts so that no one would be laid off or furloughed (not a bad place to work, right?)
  • Before: 90-mile commute on the 405. Now: 30-foot stroll down the hall (pants optional)
  • Working with a puppy asleep at your feet (panting optional)
  • Hearing the sound of neighbor children lost in imagination on a cool, summer evening (love that)
  • Knowing that many doubters wear masks anyway for the sake of the rest of us (love them)
  • Sitting together—just the two of us—on the patio outside of Rubio’s (first night out in months)
  • Making new friends of old neighbors while walking Nacho, the least-disciplined dog in Orange County (work-in-negligible-progress)
  • Eavesdropping while Dana tutors one of her students (who knew math could be so fun?)
  • Texting with Seth during the Lakers’ Championship in Quarantine (perhaps even better than the championship itself)
  • Watching more movies AND reading more books (how is that possible?)
  • Trading in Dana’s two worn-out knees for a couple of state-of-the-art titanium numbers (to match her titanium hips)
  • Cheering in the early dawn as our beloved Brentford Bees came THIS CLOSE to the Premiership (best season ever)
  • Sunday evening Facetime Poetry Hour with Bryn (how else would we know about Mary Oliver?)
  • All of us avoiding COVID-19 (so far)
  • Seeing a resounding affirmation that democracy still works (so far)
  • First tour of Luke and Tyler’s first house (quirky and delightful, just like the house)
  • Spending a distanced weekend with Bryn and Seth at Silver City Mountain Resort (before they were chased out by the fires)
  • Celebrating the Dodgers’ first championship since before any of our kids was born (catharsis)
  • Looking on as Nacho disembowels yet another squeaky toy (no blue dragon is safe)
  • Studying Engineering from home while enrolled at UCLA (correction: no joy in that for Seth whatsoever—he’s moved back to Westwood)
  • Eating Guerilla Tacos during the Worst Drive-in Dance Concert of the COVID Era™ (Date Night!)
  • Witnessing the selflessness of medical personnel and other essential workers (angels and superheroes)
  • Meeting the brand-new baby of our brand-new friends who arrived only a few months ago as refugees from Afghanistan (you’d love them too)
  • Sitting down to compile this list (and there’s more where this came from)
  • Thinking about friends like you (corny, but true)
  • Celebrating the birth of Jesus (Joy to the World!)

Here’s hoping for even more joyology in 2021.

PW

Photo by Anthony Asael

To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.

PW