I missed the memo about hope.

Here in Los Angeles, Hope is a one way street. I kinda like that.

Call me Pollyanna, call me Candide, just don’t call me late for dinner.  I’ll admit it…I’m a pretty hopeless optimist.  I’ll even go so far as to make the following statement: 

 There is no such thing as false hope; all hope is true.
President Obama and I have the same birthday and apparently the same ineptitude when it comes to cynicism. Perhaps it’s astrological.

When I say that all hope is true, what I mean is that even when your hopes are disappointed, hope in and of itself is still good.  Hope is creative and emotionally productive in ways that make it an end unto itself. 

Let’s consider an example…let’s say you’ve applied for your dream job.  There’s only so much you can do to influence the hiring decision, and once you’ve done what you can do, you’re left alone with your own heart and head to wait for a decision.  And while you wait, you can hope.  You can envision your happiness and fulfillment in your new job and contemplate all the tangible and intangible rewards that might come your way if you get the offer.  Or, you can choose not to hope.  You can operate under the assumption that you are not getting an offer and therefore not entertain any notions of how the new job might change your life for the better.
Some might say a bit pessimism in the job search scenario noted above is just self-preservation.  After all, if rejection does come, the pessimistic person is better prepared, right?  But flip that frown upside down and contemplate that the hopeful person, just by hoping, becomes more prepared for their success.  (And while just hoping for something to happen doesn’t magically make it happen, when you hope, you might be vibrating the molecules of the universe in a particular way which helps to shape a happy outcome, but what the bleep do I know…)
While I generally take the Andy Dufresne approach to the positive power of hope, I did learn one disclaimer this morning when I was (shockingly!) listening to NPR.  I heard this story about a young Libyan man, Hisham Matar, whose father was kidnapped in 1990 and has not been seen or heard from since.  In describing how he has coped with this awful thing that happened he said:
‘Living in hope is a really terrible thing,’ Matar says. ‘People speak about hope most of the time as a very positive thing. … [But] it’s a very dispossessing thing, it’s a very difficult thing to live with. When you’ve been living in hope for a long time as I have, suddenly you realize that certainty is far more desirable than hope.’ 
Damn.  Doesn’t that just break your heart? So hope is awesome when there is a knowable timeline for getting an answer to what you’re hoping about.  But when it’s possible that you’ll never get an answer, then hope can become a bit of a quagmire, I suppose. 
But nonetheless, I hope I never stop hoping. Memo received. 

Hedging Your Bets

I missed the memo about hedging your bets.

There’s a tiny but very vocal group of people who are going around saying that the world is going to end this Saturday.   Since the beginning of the world, people have been predicting the end, and since none of them have been right, I was pretty content to ignore this latest proclamation.  But then I heard this story, in which the true believers said that it’s somehow an affront to God to have any doubt about when Judgment Day will occur.   According to Harold Camping and his ilk, the end of the world is apparently all spelled out in a mathematical code in the Bible, thus questioning the validity or meaning of this calculation is tantamount to questioning the word of God.  This kind of thinking makes my head hurt really, really bad. 

Thinking that you somehow know the unknowable is one thing, but further pronouncing that doubts are not allowed is quite another.  As a high school kid, I got quite a few memos from reading Paradise Lost and one of the biggies is that God so loved human beings that he did not want to enslave them, but rather gave them free will.  Free to eat the apple.  Free to mess things up.  Free to have doubts and questions.  I think God gets really annoyed when people tell other people not to think. 

I am not what you would call a deeply religious person, but I do believe in God.  On my own trippy path toward my current state of spiritual (mis)understanding, I had to find a way to make room for questions.   In college I got the memo about Pascal’s Wager and I remember feeling a lot of comfort when I thought about it.  For the uninitiated, here’s a visual over-simplification: 

Some might find the idea of betting for or against the existence of God a flippant sort of attitude to take about the fate of one’s immortal soul.  But for me, the comfort came in the idea that I didn’t have to have it all figured out, I didn’t need to know for sure.   I wanted to believe, and Pascal’s reasoning helped to buttress my belief with a bit of rationality.  I dug that.  So I’ll go about my life trying to be the kind of person who’s in God’s good graces, at least most of the time.  And if that gets me into heaven, all the better.  If not, then maybe I did some good on Earth and that’s OK, too.  Either way, I like my odds.

There’s stuff we can know, and there’s stuff we can’t possibly know.  Being certain and having faith are not the same thing.  These Rapture folks seem awfully certain, and that’s what I just don’t get.   The idea that they’re quitting jobs, divesting themselves of all possessions, basically doing a total life flush….this just doesn’t compute.  I don’t know if one can ever truly be ready to be sublimated into the sky, so I don’t understand how trashing your career and giving away all your stuff could make you better prepared for such an extraordinary occurrence.  If you believe, fine, you believe.  But keep some money in the bank and if you run out of milk and bread today, what the heck, go ahead and buy some more.  Hedge your bets, folks, hedge your bets.   Memo received.

Retainers, Laundry & W.B. Yeats

I missed the memo about retainers, laundry, and W.B. Yeats.

Seeing as how I was all grown up when I got my braces off, one might think I would have been mature enough to heed the counsel of my orthodontist when he told me to wear my retainers every night.   I think I lasted about three months.  I found my retainers the other day, in a box of cast off stuff under the bathroom sink.  On a lark, I popped them in.   These custom-made,  expensive bits of metal and plastic which once fit perfectly are now the stuff of medieval torture.   Despite my wishes to the contrary, I can’t keep my teeth in place by passive force of will; I do actually have to wear my retainers.

Similarly, despite my desperate pleas to the universe that laundry just stay clean, beds just stay made, and toilets just stay pristine, the natural tendency is for tidy things to become untidy.  This is Entropy! (note the exclamation point; try to say this to yourself the way Johnny Gilbert says “This is Jeopardy!”  Seriously…try it, it’s more fun…I’ll wait….) 

Entropy, in a very basic sense, is the natural tendency towards disorder.  It’s a law of the universe that my teeth want to revert to crooked and that my hamper runneth over. 

I think I was first introduced to the concept of entropy back in 7th grade science or thereabouts, but I didn’t give it much thought until I was studying “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats.  Egads, that poem gave me the heebie jeebies.  It’s beautiful, but the idea of a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born really spooked me.  And then there’s this line:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

“Things fall apart.”  Holy crap.   I’m a pretty perky person by nature, so the casual, yet desperate negativity in this language really just blew me away.  But then a few years later, I saw this video, and I tried to lighten up

(“Things fall apart…it’s scientific.”  David Byrne has a way of saying things so I can understand them, kinda like Forrest Gump and his mama.)

So here’s what I think I’ve figured out:  Entropy sucks, but the more aware of it I am, the less it sucks. Doing one or two loads of laundry seems a lot less daunting than 5 or 6.  If I had been more consistent about wearing my retainers, my teeth would have stayed straighter, etc.  Maintenance is a lot less monumental when done in regular intervals.  Now, to overcome my inertia and start tackling all this entropy…OK class, that’s enough physics for tonight.  Memo received. 



Gregory Peck

I missed the memo about Gregory Peck.

It’s Oscar night, so I thought it appropriate to think and write about, Oscar winner and former president of the Academy, Gregory Peck.

Like most people of my generation, my first experience of Gregory Peck was sitting in English class and watching him as Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of  “To Kill A Mockingbird.”   I’m thinking that if Gregory Peck had never made a film before or since, his performance in TKAM would have easily placed him in the Hollywood firmament as an enduring star.  But his role as Atticus Finch was just one of dozens; and thanks to Netflix, I’m slowly working my way through his body of work.

I blame credit Gregory Peck with planting the seed which ultimately germinated in my decision to attend law school.  I don’t do the kind of life-or-death work that Atticus Finch was doing, but sometimes, I get a tiny glimpse of how empowering and humbling it is to be an advocate.  Someone says, “Here…I have this problem that I can’t handle by myself.  I need someone to help me figure this out and be my voice.”  Wow.  

If that were the only memo that Gregory Peck helped to deliver, that would have been more than enough.  But there’s more.  Recently I happened upon a broadcast of “A Conversation With Gregory Peck” on PBS.  I was spellbound by his grace, his humility, and his quiet wisdom.  And even as a septuagenarian, he was still gorgeous.

Hearing  Gregory Peck reflect on his long life and some of his extraordinary experiences was pretty amazing.  It makes me mindful that it’s not quite enough just to live a good life,  you also have to connect with other people and share the things you know.  As a famous movie star, Gregory Peck had easy access to a platform for talking about all the things that he had and hadn’t figured out.  I’m just me, but I’ve got this little blog, so I’ll do my best. 

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to watching “To Kill A Mockingbird” about a hundred more times and I’ll hope my little Atticus gets the memo, too.

Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns

I didn’t get the memo of about the law of diminishing marginal returns.


Actually, I did get this memo, and it came in the form of a hefty economics text-book in college.   But this is one of those life lessons that I have to keep teaching myself, because I keep forgetting it.

For the uninitiated, here’s a definition:  “The law of diminishing returns is a classic economic concept that states that as more investment in an area is made, overall return on that investment increases at a declining rate, assuming that all variables remain fixed. To continue to make an investment after a certain point is to receive a decreasing return on that input.”  (There are lots of variations on this definition, and even some very fancy formulas, but this is the one I like best.)

As a principle of productivity, perhaps this all makes sense.  But applying this one’s personal choices is where this gets tricky.  If you like something, more of that thing is better, right?  Well, no.  Think of your favorite food.  For me, it’s any form of pasta with any form of tomato-based sauce.  The first forkful?  Sublime.   The second?  Just as good.  The first helping?  Yep.  Still good.  OK…round two, still delicious, but not the rapture on a plate that the first helping was.  Getting full really starts to distract from all of the fun things that are happening on my taste buds.  And heaven help me if I were to get a third helping…this would not be any fun at all.  The cruelty of the waistband completely cancels out all the pleasure of tasting even the most delicious foods. 

There are many memos in “Cool Hand Luke” and the egg eating scene is a fairly perfect illustration of how the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in: 

(And even though this scene is kinda gross, Paul Newman in 1967…hubba hubba.)

We’ve all gone overboard at Thanksgiving, so it’s easy to predict that a second or third piece of pie probably isn’t a fantastic idea.  But how about money?  Does the law of diminishing marginal returns apply to money?  Well, according to this recent study, it kinda does.  There’s a point at which having more money is not going to make you any happier, and could perhaps make you less happy, at least, that’s the wisdom of the dearly departed Notorious B.I.G.


It is possible to have too much of a good thing and more is not always better.  The lesson gets more meaningful when I contemplate what I give up in order to have more of whatever that good thing is.  Do I want to give up my health and my girlish figure just so I can have more pasta, when I rationally know that “more pasta” is not as good as “just enough pasta.”  Do I want to sacrifice family time to work more so I can make more money?  What would the marginal returns be on those extra dollars?  Moderation…memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball