<quote-01>I sat before an empty comment bubble for twenty minutes late last Friday night<quote-01>. I wanted to offer something fitting in response to your “Happy Thanksgiving,” Hoke, something not only for our boys but for the three of us as well. I tinkered with a handful of possibilities but ended up erasing each of them entirely. I couldn’t find it. After a half an hour, I went back to my previous comment and tacked on something more final. I’ll let Wuck give it a go, <quote-02>I figured<quote-02>.
“Welcome to the world, precious Robin. We got you,” you wrote, Wuck.
One of my deleted responses approached just such a sentiment; I knew it would please Hoke too. Well done. But it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say, not the blessing I was struggling to bestow. For a moment I imagined myself seated in front of an Apple II in the St. Mark’s library, plugging in the perfect Artillery Simulator coordinates to obliterate the enemy tank. Only this time I was calibrating a precise beam of energy, a symphony of good vibrations projected into the universe so that it might one day shower down upon us all—a prayer composed in just such a way as to beggar both interpretation and rejection. <quote-03>This is how I pray every night, actually, whispered but aloud<quote-03> on my slow walk to and from the alley garbage cans with the day’s cat litter: gratitudes and petitions honed over the course of years. But, again, I couldn’t find it—not that night.
I’ve been thinking a lot about luck lately. Maybe I’ve always thought about it more than most people, but the older I get, the more I think about it.
I used to be a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout video games—like, “logged hundreds and hundreds of hours” huge. In both franchises, the player gets to customize their character, obvious details like race, birthdate, and sex, sure, but also more intimate and engrossing particulars like <quote-04>talents, temperament, and trade<quote-04>. Among the many foundational decisions in these games is the opportunity to highlight two or three core attributes: strength, intelligence, willpower, agility, speed, endurance, personality, and luck in The Elder Scrolls games; and strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck in the Fallout games. Over the course of the fifteen years I spent playing the many games in these franchises, each time with a unique character build—necromancer Mortimer Siníste and cyborg-monk Juniper Black spring to mind—I never once chose luck as a defining characteristic, never wore any garment that improved it or used experience points to bolster it. “I am good enough at this game so as not to require luck,” I must have reasoned. “Luck,” I can hear myself scoffing. “Pshaw.”
Were we taught as children to distrust the very notion of luck? How young was I when I learned the line often attributed to Seneca? “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Was it one of my own coaches or another on TV bellowing, “We make our own luck here!”? Every year books and articles of all kinds attempt to reduce luck to, at best, some tangible force of nature like wind or sunlight or, at worst, some perishable commodity like bread or preserves: “We Make Our Own Luck” from Psychology Today and “Ten Proven Ways to Create Your Own Luck” from Entrepreneur, “Serendipity Strategies and How to Support Them” from The Journal for Information Science and Technology or the oft-cited Luck Is No Accident from the famed Stanford psychologist. I understand, of course, the human desire to quantify the inexplicable, to make sense of the mysterious, but I find the thinking behind all of these platitudes and publications laughably simplistic.
Did you know, Wuck, that all you have to do to finally have some good luck with your career is “be an opportunity magnet,” “loosen up,” “be outgoing,” “be flexible,” and “not be afraid to fail”?
What reductive fucking rubbish, the very apex of white-privilege-hindsight-bullshit. Anyway, what the fuck would Seneca, a Roman aristocrat, know about luck? “Luck is what happens when” he writes, “when preparation meets opportunity.” His very definition of luck presupposes something lucky already happening! <quote-05>This is the folly in taking advice from privileged men like Seneca; there is no shortage of opportunities for them<quote-05>. You know, thinking back on my Elder Scrolls and Fallout experiences now, I realize I was wise to shun luck in just this fashion. I knew, after all, that the game-worlds would revolve around my main characters. The above adages, thus, were useful in these unrealistic and virtual Petri dishes. The games would script all the good fortune—all the opportunities—I’d ever need; I could overprepare for any eventuality, surrender to the unforeseen narrative turns when they presented themselves, and look death boldly in the eye as failure meant little more than a momentary setback, just some convenient respawn point a few minutes in the past. Did I really need a 10 percent better chance of uncovering more valuable loot, of my arrows finding my enemy’s heart? I was to be savior of worlds, curer of diseases, vanquisher of devils. “I make my own luck!” such a hero could convincingly shout. “Show yourself, opportunity, so that I might unsheathe my mighty preparation!”
Needless to say, this is not the kind of luck I’ve found so captivating lately, so staggering. What I have in mind, I suppose, is more along the lines of what Hamlet bemoans as “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” what the Chinese have for centuries tried to charm and preserve with feng shui. I speak of that—good or bad—over which we have no control, of luck like entropy, like a roll of the dice.
Take, for starters, our very existence. Each of us—the unique Hoke, Murph, and Wuck—beat unfathomable odds to take his first breath. Something like four-hundred-million-to-one were the odds that the sperm carrying our specific blend of traits and predilections would win the race to the egg. Imagine the other possible Hokes with full heads of hair and no talent for dazzling meaning making, the other Wucks with their father’s legs and blind faith, <quote-06>the female Murphs with brown eyes and self-destructive streaks<quote-06>—hundreds of millions of them! And yet, here we three are, all of us having cashed in numbers less likely to hit than the ones on a Mega Millions ticket. To whom do we owe that luck? It certainly was not of our own making, <quote-07>nothing resembling the intersection of preparation and opportunity<quote-07>—just random chance, good and staggering fortune.
I think also of those poor bastards shipped off to either side of the Western Front, how they poured up and over their respective berms of dirt into a widening gyre of bullets or found their expanse of trench obliterated by some mortar-fire lobbed over on little more than a whim. What determined which twenty-thousand men died in No Man’s Land, which forty thousand found themselves forever mangled, and which forty thousand lived to see the second day of the Battle of the Somme? Did those who somehow evaded the fifty-or-so million bombs at Verdun deserve their fates any more than the eight-hundred thousand who didn’t? The men who returned from that surreal madness—especially those who survived all four years—did so only because they were luckier than those who didn’t. “All a matter of luck and happenstance,” writes Tim O’Brien about who lives and who dies in war.
I mean, we don’t try to put ourselves in situations where all we have is luck—a longshot roll of the dice or flip of a card—<quote-08>but we find ourselves in them, nonetheless<quote-08>.
When we packed up the cardboard box to take with us to the Guerreros’ last Thursday night, there was no room for the apple pie. The corn pudding was atop the Jell-O mold and the sparkling cider and the cans of Coca-Cola, and the miniature gourds and flowers for the centerpiece were wedged beside; neither the pudding nor the flowers would weather the hot and hefty pie plate, so I laid it by itself in the trunk, just to the right of the box.
“Can you get the pie, Mom?” I asked when we arrived, not wanting to risk the balancing act if I could avoid it.
Kristen had already extracted Grammar from his car seat and was grabbing an armful of jackets for <quote-09>her parents’ notoriously frigid dining room<quote-09>.
“Oh, I think I can manage,” she said.
So I placed it in her outstretched arms and guided her off the river rocks in the Guerreros’ parking strip and down from the curb before returning to the box in the trunk.
Usually I’ll hang a collared shirt and sport coat in the backseat for even a brief car trip, <quote-10>not wanting to crumple newly ironed fabric beneath a seatbelt before making my evening’s first impression<quote-10>. Because we were running behind, however, I’d thrown on both and forewent the seatbelt. As such, I carefully buttoned my shirt and tugged at the lapels of my jacket before scooping up the cornucopian cardboard box with my left arm, closing the trunk with my right, and circling around the driver’s side toward the walkway of pavers between the street and the Guerreros’ front gate.
I saw my mom unlatch the little wrought-iron lift-lock and let Grammar slip ahead of her.
Kristen turned to me. “Did you lock the car?”
I started to say something sarcastic about how the electronic key fob would probably work from all the way in her parents’ living room but didn’t get it out.
“Oh no!” somebody screamed—maybe Kristen, maybe my mom. Either way, the commotion stole my attention, and through the aperture of the opened gate—just past where I asked Kristen to marry me, just past where we first kissed—I saw my mother fling her left arm to the sky like a dancer who’s remembered her choreography a moment too late. That was the image I had, my mother like a ballerina in croisé derriére tracing a slow and twisting diagonal toward stage right, toppling in slow motion as if to piano music. Expecting level ground, she’d found none. The thump of her body and clanging of the pie plate were simultaneous.
“Mom!” Kristen shouted, rushing forward from where she stood just ahead of me.
<quote-11>“Grandma?!” went Grammar. “Grandma?!”<quote-11>
“Grammar, go get Nona!” Kristen barked, shrill and panicked.
I could see his quick about-face in the distance. “Nona!” he shrieked, sprinting to their front door. “Grandma fell! Grandma fell!”
I looked for a paver on which to set the cardboard box and steadied myself. A fall can be a death sentence for the elderly, if not from the immediate impact then from what transpires in the aftermath: further physical decline, depression, infection, whatever. Conch always talks about her father falling at work, how he left for the foundry one morning a fifty-year-old ox and returned a cripple, never to work another day in his life. He spent twelve more years in a wheelchair before succumbing to black lung. Kristen’s own great-grandmother, for that matter, fell from a single stair inside the Guerrero home some Thanksgiving decades ago and <quote-12>cracked her head open<quote-12>; she lived a little while longer but was never the same. The last time Conch herself fell—tripping far less dramatically on an uneven stretch of sidewalk and into a patch of grass—she broke her hip; and that was ten years ago—well before the bursitis that now renders her dejected and irritable for the month leading into her quarterly shots. And while I didn’t exactly expect to find blood pooling behind her unconscious face, I was not optimistic. The chances she had seriously hurt herself were better than the chances she hadn’t.
I didn’t say anything like “this is the beginning of the end” to myself as I made my way to her writhing on the jagged bricks, but I was aware of my senses cataloging every detail with heightened precision: the quality of light in the courtyard, the westerly breeze, Kristen’s posture beside my mother, the look of anguish and disappointment and embarrassment on Conch’s face, Grammar’s three-year-old excitement not at all in tune with the potential gravity of the moment. I thought briefly of the grotesque children in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: “‘We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. ‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car.”
“Should we call an ambulance?” Kristen cried.
I looked again to Conch’s face, stubborn but suffering. She clenched her eyes and breathed through gritted teeth. “Well,” my own face likely read, “is this it?” Is this the face of an old woman resigning herself to the denouement, to despair and sadness and obsolescence? Has she broken in some meaningful way? Is this still the woman I’ve known all my life—contentedly misunderstood, apparently cutting and ornery and narrow minded but actually warm and patient and thoughtful—the woman with more love to give than her life and talents have allowed her? Will each hour together now be underscored by sorrow, finality? What’s next? A ride in an ambulance, an abject hospital room, a haze of sedation and discomfort, pneumonia maybe? I stood dumbly, just stood, waiting for the dice to cease their somersaulting and reveal our collective fate, hers and mine and Kristen’s and Grammar’s. I was as conscious of the light and the breeze as I was of the tears of pain and frustration in my mother’s eyes.
We waited a while longer.
<quote-13>“Help me up,” she snapped. We’d gotten lucky.<quote-13>
Years ago, Hoke, you ran into Magic Johnson in an airport, somewhere in Michigan I want to say. I think I’d mentioned to you at some point in the distant past that the only celebrities I could imagine feeling starstruck by were Paul McCartney, Hulk Hogan, and Magic Johnson. These three felt like the unapproachable deities of my childhood, figures larger than life, more incredible to me than the Queen of England or Jesus Christ. Whether you remembered that or not, you knew I’d cherish some personalized memento from the Magic man and approached him on my behalf. “My buddy Murph is a huge fan,” you told me you said. “Do you think I can get an autograph for him?” To this day it hangs in my childhood bedroom, a slip of white paper encased in a mylar comic book bag wedged into the corner of my framed and signed Lakers jersey: <quote-14>“To Murph. Good Luck. Magic.”<quote-14> I still look at it and marvel sometimes: “For a brief second, Magic fucking Johnson contemplated my existence!” At the time I didn’t think much beyond that, didn’t really consider the sentiment. But over the years I’ve returned to it again and again, wondered how many such phrases he might have used through the decades of his stardom, <quote-15>how and when he settled on “good luck.”<quote-15> Despite the obvious and not insignificant hurdle of being born a Black man in America, Earvin Johnson needed a lot less luck than most. If you’re looking for a real-life human being to play the role of hero in a sandbox RPG like The Elder Scrolls or Fallout games, a person worthy of the world’s irresistible attention, it’s Magic. His gifts are numerous and extraordinary, exactly the kind of alpha male to get away with an utterance like “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” or “We make our own luck here!” And yet, in a scribbled missive to an adoring stranger—in tens of thousands of such missives—his default <quote-16>valediction<quote-16> betrays <quote-17>an acceptance of how impotent we all actually are, how utterly powerless in the face of an ever-changing world and infinite universe<quote-17>.
Our sons, I believe, will be “special,” not just in the eyes of their fathers but—like their fathers—in the eyes of many. They may very well be brilliant. They can take it from their “brilliant” fathers, however, that being brilliant isn’t always <quote-18>enough—sometimes not nearly<quote-18>. For every extraordinary and beloved artist there is another just as potentially extraordinary who never caught a break, who didn’t nurture their extraordinary gifts as a result, and who drifted, say, toward more pragmatic endeavors or, worse, threw themselves off <quote-19>Evans Hall<quote-19>.
What I’m getting at, darling boys, apples of our collective eye, is what I tried to get at last week, what I wish for you and for your foolishly hopeful and undeserving fathers, what I wish for all of us in the deepest reaches of my soul:
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