I have always considered myself an optimist. So, I had tired of my young daughter’s daily complaints each afternoon when she climbed into the back seat of the car after a grueling day of 3rd grade. Before she could describe the unpleasantry of playground politics, I instructed her to tell me one good thing. “The cafeteria had grilled cheese today,”was good enough. This habit helped. After she had described a small positive event, Susanna seemed to lose interest in sharing the big negative ones. Her mother was not so quick to internalize this lesson. Yes, I am an optimist. But optimism translates into “you can do anything you decide to do.” My bad habit has been that I decide to do a lot, often perform below my expectations, and disappoint myself.
Enter the serendipity of a stranger.
One ordinary day at 7 AM, I arrived at the 2nd Street YMCA, with a plodding anxiety and a craving for nature’s opiate— Endorphins. I don’t remember the source of my anxiety. Something to do with things I must do, or should have done. Patrons passed both ways through the concrete-block hallway, bathed in fluorescent light. A man in a yellow YMCA polo shirt pushed a janitorial cart through the hallway, making whistle-while-you-work humming sounds, while he collected sweat-dabbed towels from a blue plastic bin. To each passing guest he sang a ‘Good Morning!” and a “How do you do today?”
Not wanting to fake a cheerful attitude, I pre-empted his greeting. “You’re mighty happy today,“ I said— a statement implying, “Why?” His response was immediate: “Ain’t no bars on my windows; ain’t no tags on my toes!” I had to laugh. Here was a folksy metaphor offered to a stranger. It was balm for my abraded spirit. Linguistic endorphins. The grammatically correct version, “I am not in prison or in the morgue,” would not have amused me. I would not have stopped to write it in my journal. I would not be writing about it now.
In fact, the janitor’s idiom is poetry — repetition, rhythm, and rhyme. In its essence, the lyrical phrase,”Ain’t no bars on my windows; ain’t no tags on my toes!”recommends low expectations, which are taboo to the average bootstrap-pulling American. From sea-to-shining sea, the United States is a land of optimists buoyed by motivational speakers and the words of deceased Presidents. You too should expect a rewarding job, well-behaved children, and the joy of a long-and-happy marriage. A slinky set of wheels and a bit of bling never hurt! Is this a formula for dissatisfaction?
In a 2001 book titled “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking,” Wellesley psychologist, Julie Norem, describes her research with positive versus negative thinkers. She recommends the use of “defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak.” One of her solutions: Consider the worse case scenario.
Paradoxically, the movement toward “negative thinking” has become our new motivational strategy. But I like this paradoxical way of thinking. Lower your expectations. Be prepared for the worst. Be like a boy scout before a camping trip. If you hang your food in a tree, the bears won’t get it, and you’ll enjoy breakfast in the morning. Celebrate the grilled cheese sandwich. Be glad for the glass half-empty. Prepare for bears. Live free, and laugh.
Note: When I first heard the quote upon which this essay is built, I wrote it down and thought of it often. But three years passed before I decided how I might use the quote in my writing. Then, in the newspaper I read an opinion piece that discussed the drawback of optimism. Indeed, the quote I had been carrying in my head, “Ain’t no bars on my windows; Ain’t no tags on my toes,” is a succinct recommendation for low expectations. What is the lesson for a writer? Pay attention to your surroundings. Record quotes that please you. Let the quote germinate. The patient writer is fertile soil. Grow!
Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your comments!