Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How Can You Get Lucky?

Richard Wiseman, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, wrote a book called The Luck Factor, which relates his findings on why some people are lucky. He found that people who are observant tend to be luckier than people who are oblivious. If that's the case, I should be very lucky, because I'm one of the most observant people I know. I remember walking with a friend at a park and stopping to pick up a cicada wing off the pavement. "How did you even see that?" he asked. "I couldn't see it even when I saw you bend to pick it up." I don't know. I constantly look for things and patterns and connections; things that are where they're supposed to be and things that aren't; things that can be explained and whatever is needed to explain the things that can't be explained, to put the world in order. I notice people doing things they shouldn't--like the day I saw an elderly woman slip the disk-shaped bone out of a piece of beef in the meat case. She tore right through the plastic on top, quick as if she'd done it many times and popped that round bone--the kind with the marrow in the middle--out of the steak and into a baggie in her purse. I see dropped paperclips and tiny earrings and pennies. Writing on bathroom walls and misplaced keys. Sometimes I think I see too much.

The only other person I know who notices things like I do is my 17-year-old daughter. Last night she said, "Guess what I saw on the bathroom floor today?" I didn't want to guess, but she didn't wait for me to anyway. "An empty granola bar wrapper and a packet from drink powder that you pour in a water bottle." I waited for her meaning to become clear. She continued, "So I looked in the feminine waste dispenser and found just what I expected: a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a baggie. Somebody in a school of 3000 people had eaten lunch in the bathroom stall." I made a disgusted, yet compassionate sound. "Can you believe somebody in a school that size would have to eat lunch in the bathroom?" she said. "Surely out of all those people you could find somebody to eat lunch with so you don't have to eat in a bathroom stall. Even weird kids have friends in a school that size."

Every quarter I pass out notecards and ask my students to write one line about something they've observed in the past 24 hours. They come up with some pretty crazy stuff, and I keep the cards after the exercise.

Here's a poem I wrote about needing to be observant during a particular period in my life. What have you observed lately?

Since my husband left in October
I’ve been collecting pennies.
abandoned disks
copper-colored Lincoln icons not worth the bend-over for most people.
They’ve become cheap 97% zinc prayers…
(Jesus loves me, this I used to know)
prayers that I’ll be OK, just OK,
or that they’ll add up to the cost of a few cans of cat food
if I’m not
I don’t ask for much these days.

I decoupaged an old square salsa jar to hold my pennies—
words: green, sign, wise—
photos: a woman playing a guitar, Granny Smith apples, a praying mantis, the sun,
a voluptuous nude woman caught in tree branches, a bird flying, a woman flying.
All my found pennies go in it
after I polish them,
touching them to remind them of their worth.

One day I stepped off the shuttle bus at The Academy
and saw a penny on the pavement.
I bent in front of the bus to pick it up
but it was stuck in the asphalt
embedded from a summer day
when the tar was hot.
I couldn’t pry it loose with my fingers;
I wanted a tool,
my keys,
a dime,
a ballpoint pen
to dig up an edge so I could get it out,
take it,
put it in my pocket,
hear it clink when it hit the bottom of my jar,
but I was embarrassed
aware of the bus driver waiting to leave the parking lot,
make another circle around the campus.
So I left it there.
A week later as I waited at the bus stop
I looked for the penny.
I looked all over, keys in my hand,
ready to pry, claim my reward,
certain I remembered where it had been,
watching for the bus, ashamed
of how much one cent meant.

It was gone.
One copper penny and it was gone. Maybe…
maybe it was worth something to someone else.
The shuttle came.
I got on.
Other days I found other pennies
and paper clips
and pens—
many useful things have little worth.
But that penny,
that penny trapped in its tarry, asphalt prison,
bearing the weight of tires and feet…
I hope that wasn’t the one penny that stood between being OK
and being a penny short of OK.

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