“And that would be enough”

Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza had just moved from their home on Wall Street in the heart of the city to a quiet section uptown. They’re mourning the loss of their son, Philip, who was killed in a duel. It was Hamilton who had advised him to shoot in the air and had given him the guns. They’re also mourning the loss of their happy marriage, after Alexander’s affair was made public and humiliated the entire family.

Throughout the play, there is a theme of never being satisfied - of Hamilton writing and creating and striving “like he’s running out of time.” He’s always looking ahead and working on the next thing.

But in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” they’re faced with the unimaginable things that have happened to them. Despite all of Hamilton’s accomplishments and aspirations, the grief and loss they feel are overwhelming, transformative. He begins to see that he had the elements of happiness all along.

If I could spare his life If I could trade his life for mine He’d be standing here right now And you would smile, and that would be enough

I don’t pretend to know The challenges we’re facing

I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost And you need time

But I’m not afraid I know who I married Just let me stay here by your side That would be enough

It makes me wonder: What would be enough? Can you have dreams and hopes and still be content with what you have?

I think it’s possible, but that it goes against our nature. We have to work every day to be mindful of what’s right in front of us, before we become so used to it that it’s lost and we only realize it when it’s gone.


The story of Oney Judge

If I hadn’t looked up, I never would have known about her.

This past week, I was in Philadelphia and was waiting to meet someone near the Liberty Bell. I noticed a few posters hanging on a wall outside, and something about one caught my eye.

It was about Oney Judge.

Oney Judge

Her story

She was one of George Washington’s slaves, and she had escaped from his home in Philadelphia while he was President. Here’s the quote that was on the poster.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner.”

I decided to read more. I learned that Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. That was in 1780. Part of this “Gradual Abolition Act” was that slaves held in Pennsylvania for more than six months could free themselves.

I learned that Washington purposefully rotated his slaves while he was President in Philadelphia, sending them back to Mount Vernon or to New Jersey for a few days so they would remain enslaved. This violated a 1788 law that had been passed, but Washington continued to do it until 1797 when he returned to Virginia and was no longer President.

Newspaper ads were placed offering a bounty for her kidnapping. “Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home.”  But there were fears such an abduction would cause a riot among abolitionists.

When she was spotted in New Hampshire, the customs officer sent a message to Washington that she would return if the President would free her upon his death. He declined, saying he would not “reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom].” A year later, in 1798, Washington’s nephew met with her and planned to kidnap her himself, but she was alerted and went into hiding.

Read the entire Wikipedia entry if you can. There are much longer accounts too listed in the notes. It brings to life how human beings were treated as pets or objects. The language is chilling.

“At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington.”

“Following Judge's 1796 escape, her younger sister, Delphy, became the wedding present to Martha Washington's granddaughter.”

What else have I missed?

Simply by looking up from my phone for a minute, I saw something that changed my perspective.

Until then, I had an almost cartoonish image of George Washington. I would think of him stoically crossing the Delaware in that famous painting. Or admitting to chopping down the apple tree as a boy (“I cannot tell a lie.”).

Of course he must have been more complicated than that, his ethics and values not nearly as lofty or even consistent as I had believed. Even just a few minutes of paying attention brought me closer to the truth, and to an appreciation for all the shades of gray in a world increasingly seeking black and white.

What else have I missed?

A Slice of America

“Where’s your beautiful accent from?” I asked. She told me she was from Mississippi, and I replied that “To a New Yorker, that’s exotic.”

The audience laughed. I was at a meeting in San Antonio with people who worked with universities across the United States. Over the course of the day, I heard a wide range of wonderful accents as I met people from Alabama and Alaska, Nebraska and North Dakota, Texas and Tennessee, and pretty much every other state.

In that one conference hall, it was like a slice of America


More than just talk

There were over 300 people there, and the meeting was organized by extension.org, a part of the U.S. Cooperative Extensions system. (Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I until they started experimenting with Working Out Loud circles.)

“Extension provides non-formal education and learning activities to people throughout the country — to farmers and other residents of rural communities as well as to people living in urban areas. It emphasizes taking knowledge gained through research and education and bringing it directly to the people to create positive changes. "

What started over 100 years ago in response to farming issues had grown to cover topics as different as food safety, personal finance, and even “bee health.”

Something special

Perhaps the most striking thing - even more than their accents or their accomplishments - was their attitude. These were some of the nicest, most caring people I had ever met. Not just a few of them. Literally everyone I met was positive and kind and helpful.

Though they’re part of a large organization and all that that can entail, they clearly cared deeply about their work. They all seemed purposeful and committed. Against a backdrop of sameness spreading across America - the same stores, the same bad food, the growing cynicism - here was a chorus of different voices trying to make a difference.

It’s a strange thing to say about a conference, but it made me hopeful.

If Atticus Finch were alive…

What makes someone a hero? Where do you find such people, and what is it that gives them the courage to do things others won’t?

This past month, I came across two stories that may provide some answers.

“They’re trying to cover this stuff up.”

You may not think of heroes as middle-aged and wearing suits, but Ron Bilott is a hero. His story in a recent NY Times article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” is both chilling and inspiring.

For much of his early career, Ron Bilott was an environmental lawyer, the kind who made partner defending large chemical companies. Not exactly the kind of lawyer everyone looks up to. But one day he got a call from a cattle farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Ron had spent time as a boy. Also in Parkersburg is DuPont Chemical, which owns a site there 35 times the size of the Pentagon. The farmer said he had evidence that animals were sick and dying from something in the water and that Dupont was trying to cover it up. When the farmer mentioned knowing Ron’s grandmother, Ron decided to meet him.

That was in 1998, and though it was “inconceivable” to others that his firm could take such a case, he decided to do it because it was ‘‘the right thing to do.”

Then he did what great lawyers can do. He went through stack after stack after stack of documentation - from DuPont, from scientists, from government offices - searching for evidence. And he uncovered that Dupont dumped over 14 million pounds of a chemical called PFOA - a chemical it knew could cause birth defects - and let that chemical seep into the ground and into the drinking water used by 100,000 people and all the local farms.

“It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’

Then the fight began. Read the NY Times article if you can. It’s riveting, and it captures the hero’s journey, complete with setbacks and victories over a long, long time. Just collecting and analyzing health data from local residents took seven years, but in 2011 scientists found a ‘‘probable link’’ between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.

Today, Ron Bilott is currently prosecuting the second of 3,535 person injury cases, fighting for people who got sick just from drinking their local water. Seventeen years after that phone call from a cattle farmer, he continues to fight.

‘‘It was a great opportunity to use my background for people who really needed it.’’

“Her ovarian cancer could have been prevented.”

A few weeks later, I watched Tania Simoncelli’s TED talk. Tania was a science adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and worked closely with Chris Hansen, a lawyer who had been there for 30 years.

She was investigating issues at the intersection of science and civil liberties and wanted the ACLU to engage “in a much bigger way, in a way that could really make a difference.” It was 2005. When she mentioned gene patents to Chris, he was incredulous.

“You're telling me that the US government has been issuing patents on part of the human body? That can't be right.”

Not only was she right, but it had been going on for over two decades. Whole companies were based on owning these patents, which enabled them to charge high fees, for example, for certain tests. This was turning out to be bad for patients.

“That means that you can't give your gene to your doctor and ask him or her to look at it, say, to see if it has any mutations, without permission of the patent holder. It also means that the patent holder has the right to stop anyone from using that gene in research or clinical testing. Allowing patent holders, often private companies, to lock up stretches of the human genome was harming patients."

It took years of research into genes and patents, and a lot of creative thinking, just to develop an effective strategy. They filed their case in 2009, and the fight began.

There were ups and downs over the following years. In an appeal that they lost, one judge even said “I don't want to shake up the biotech industry.” They eventually took their case to the Supreme Court.

Against all odds, they won. They eliminated “a significant barrier to biomedical discovery and innovation.” Patients who would have otherwise died because of undetected diseases would now have access to the tests that they need.

“We took a big risk in taking this case. Part of what gave us the courage to take that risk was knowing that we were doing the right thing.”

The courage of your convictions

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who’s defending Tom Robinson, a man wrongfully accused of rape. He takes an unpopular position, risking his career and his personal safety. He knows he’s unlikely to win, but he does it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.

At one point in the book, he has his son spend time with a woman fighting her addiction to pain medicines, and he explains why he did it.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

I used to think of Atticus Finch as representing some unattainable ideal. But now I think that you or I could be Atticus Finch, like Ron or Tania or Chris.

The words “courage” and “heroic” aren’t reserved for characters in books or for famous people. They could apply to anyone doing something they believe in, persisting even if they know they may not succeed. “Hero” isn’t a label, it’s a choice.

Atticus Finch

The Mandarin Miracle

When we heard our 6 year old daughter was going to learn Mandarin at her new school, BASIS Independent in Brooklyn, I didn’t think it would lead to much. Sure, it sounded impressive. But I took Spanish for years and can barely read the ads in the subway. Mandarin, with its characters and different tones, would be even more difficult.

How much could she possibly learn at school?

Me in Mandarin

Our first surprise 

In her first week, our daughter came home singing a catchy song in Mandarin. That’s pretty cool, I thought. It certainly sounded like Chinese, and she was having fun. She was able to teach me the different tones and a few words.

Waiting for the bus one morning a few weeks later, I heard her having a conversation in Mandarin with a boy who also goes to BASIS. The boy’s mother and I looked at each other as if to say Is this normal? The kids clearly took pleasure in being able to speak a language we couldn't understand a word of.

“He even sings that song in the shower,” the boy’s mother said.

Why I still can’t speak a foreign language

When I met the Mandarin teacher, Na Fan, I finally understood why the children were learning so quickly - and why I never did.

The method I used to try and learn Spanish and Japanese relied on textbooks. I would memorize words and study grammar, but I almost never spoke. Even though I passed the tests, any knowledge I gained quickly evaporated from lack of using it.

Na Fan described a very different approach. “Traditionally,” she said, “learning vocabulary is emphasized: numbers, colors, vegetables, and fruits. But after acquiring all this, kids can’t construct sentences to describe an event or express their feelings.” Na wanted her students to speak from the very beginning.

She had tried various teaching methods, and the one that proved to be the most effective with kids of all ages is QTalk, a system that uses visual cues to help you speak the language immediately. QTalk introduces sentence structure in the first lesson - subjects, verbs, and objects - so you can build sentences and communicate right away.



In class, Na shows images and pronounces the words, and the kids repeat them and construct simple sentences by putting the pictures and words together. From the first day, Na only speaks Mandarin in class, and the kids speak Mandarin too.

By the end of the first year, the kids that Na teaches are proficiently reading and speaking 250 characters. By the end of the second year, it’s up to 600.

The miracle

My 5 year old son just started kindergarten at BASIS a few weeks ago. One day I came home and found him sitting on the sofa, wearing headphones and staring intensely at a laptop screen. I was about to admonish him for playing a video game, until I heard him repeating words in Mandarin.

“It’s QTalk,” my wife said. “He’s been doing that for an hour.”

photo (17)

The Mandarin Miracle is the same as the French Miracle or the Spanish Miracle. A modern immersive teaching method plus a caring, passionate teacher can help people of any age learn to speak and enjoy a new language.

Talking with Na Fan, you can feel her energy and commitment, her sense of mission. “Anyone can learn to speak a foreign language using this method.” She’s found something that works, and now she wants to share it with as many students as possible.

I heard QTalk is working on Japanese lessons. I’m looking forward to trying a different, better approach.

Learning to play piano at 51 years old

After decades of wanting to learn to play the piano, I finally took a step this past Tuesday and had my first lesson. I’m glad I waited.

My earlier attempts at learning

When it comes to learning new things, I’m eager to read books and do research. But other kinds of learning can bring out the worst in me.

More than 15 years ago, for example, I wanted to learn to play golf. I bought expensive clubs, went to the driving range to practice, played a lot, and even signed up for a few lessons.

I was terrible. For years.

The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t accept being terrible. I wanted to be good! Being terrible was humiliating and made me miserable. I reacted by trying harder, getting angry, breaking a few clubs, and making my embarrassment that much worse in the process.

With all the joy drained from the game, I lost interest, sold my equipment and decided I just wasn’t cut out for golf.

Older dog. New tricks.

In thinking about piano, I was conscious of the childish boy inside of me, the one so quick to be ashamed when he’s not good at something, ready to throw a tantrum and give up when he doesn’t make progress quickly enough.

But in the past few years, tired of routinely being frustrated and angry, I’ve tried a range of experiments in personal development, and some things have changed since my golfing days.

How to learn anything

Understanding what it takes to learn came from my research on changing habits at work and spreading the practice of working out loud. I saw that the most effective approach is taking small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support. (“Guided mastery” is a good phrase.) And I saw how that approach can apply to anything.

So as a reward to myself for publishing the book, I decided to take a step. Instead of just reading about the piano and banging on the keys myself, I asked my daughter's piano teacher if I could start lessons too. She’s a wonderful teacher, caring and positive and enthusiastic, as well as an incredibly talented pianist and composer. But she usually teaches children.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’m ready,” I said.

A miracle on the 23rd floor

And there I was, with mild trepidation, sitting down at the piano, with my daughter right there watching me. My teacher showed me where to place my fingers. “This is middle C.” We took small steps, and she provided encouragement along the way while  helping me make occasional adjustments.

By the end of the lesson, I was playing a simple version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I couldn’t believe this was me. The music. The calm. The deep sense of fulfillment after wanting for so long and finally - finally! - taking that first step.

The next day, alone in a quiet apartment, I turned on the piano, sat down, and practiced. Even when I made mistakes, I smiled, and I thought, This is going to be fun.

Ode to Joy

The best baseball game I ever went to

It was at Shea Stadium, though I don’t remember the score or who the Mets played. I was about 9 years old. The game was hard to get to, we had terrible seats, and the Mets weren’t very good either.

So why was it so special?

The best baseball game I ever went to

The way it was

I was a Mets fan from the start, as I was naturally drawn to root for the underdog. Though I grew up in the Bronx, the Yankees were too good and too smug for me.

I loved baseball then. I was the kind of kid who wore his glove and Mets cap while watching the games on TV. I played stoop ball and kept statistics in a composition notebook reserved for the purpose, cheating when necessary to ensure a Mets victory. I collected baseball cards, clipping the lesser players to my bicycle spoke with a clothespin so it would sound like a motorcycle.

Today, I can’t name a single player on the Mets or Yankees, but I remember the names I grew up with: Felix Millan, Buddy Harrelson, Wayne Garrett, Jerry Grote, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, Ed Kranepool. And of course the big names like Rusty Staub, Tug McGraw, and Tom Seaver.

I remember the announcers, the voice of Ralph Kiner and the ugly sport coats Lindsey Nelson wore.

Going to the game

Our family didn’t have a car and couldn’t afford tickets to the game. But there was another way. One of the Mets’ sponsors was Dairylea, and they offered a promotion on their milk cartons. Collect 20 coupons and mail them in for a free ticket in the upper deck.

So we ate a lot of cereal and drank a lot of milk, and eagerly anticipated our trip to Shea. 20, 40, 60, 80 quarts of milk. We would send our roughly-hewn stubs to Dairylea and wait for the mail to bring us the shiny, beautiful tickets. Opening that envelope, we felt like Charlie unwrapping the chocolate bar and finding a glimpse of gold.

To get there, we would take the QBx1 which ran between the Bronx and Queens. I remember it being a long walk to get from the bus to the stadium, but that just heightened the sense of anticipation as Shea loomed large in the distance, and the faint crowd noises gradually grew into roar.

We went with other families, so it felt even more like a big adventure. And our moms packed food, of course. The food at the stadium was too expensive to feed our hungry brood, but we sometimes managed to get an ice cream or a Cracker Jacks.

I remember we sat in the last row, at the top of the stadium, and I was afraid of heights. Nevertheless, I brought my glove, “just in case.”

Heading home

We stayed till the very end, squeezing out every drop of time there, and we took the subway home. It was past midnight by the time we made it to the Buhre Avenue station, and we could smell the bread from the bakery as we got off the train.

My mom must have known someone who worked there. She would step inside the low brick building and come out with big baguettes, still hot from the oven. We ate them while we walked, breaking off pieces with our hands.

Finally home, exhausted, I slumped down on my bed and fell asleep, my glove and Mets hat nearby.

A love letter to Japan

I can admit, now, that I didn’t love you at first sight. I would visit you in Tokyo, once or twice a year for work. Not knowing your language was an obvious barrier between us, but it was more than that. Everything about you was so…foreign. Simply greeting someone or ordering food proved a source of frustration. I couldn’t make my way around by myself. You were inscrutable, and I longed for the familiar back home.

Over time, though, things changed. I grew to appreciate your differences, and discover your many finer points.

My feelings for you started changing as I began traveling outside of the city. I was struck by your natural beauty. On the train, I was like a schoolboy, my nose pressed up against the window. “Look at the mountains! The rivers! The pine and bamboo! The roofs on the houses! The green rice paddies everywhere!”

I was smitten, and eager to get to know you better. Just naming the places I’ve explored - from small villages to magnificent cities - gives me a thrill: Awaji, Gokayama, Hakone. Hiroshima, Kanazawa, Kobe, Kumamoto, Kyoto, Matsuyama, Miyajima, Nagasaki, the Seto Islands, Shiretoko, Takayama, Tateyama, Yakushima, Yokohama. Touring whole prefectures of Hokkaido, Kochi, and Okinawa.

I’ve grown to love your cuisine, how it’s presented and how it respects the seasons. Your fruits and vegetables, even those I’m accustomed to, taste like something else entirely. And good food is everywhere. At a rest area on the highway, I found hearty home-cooked meals. At a small gift shop in the mountains, the soup was a beautiful and delicious gift from the earth, replete with fiddleheads and mushrooms picked right there.

You’re easy to love. Everywhere I go, things are clean and work as they should. There’s a system and a process for everything, from small conveniences to things of more pressing importance.

And your people! Men and women of all ages and stations are helpful to the extreme. Refreshingly, it’s not for money. It’s because there’s a sense of respect that pervades your culture, respect that leads people to treat others well, to take good care of things, to avoid waste, and to take pride in their craft, whatever it is. I see it when the taxi driver knows where to go and greets me with white gloves and a bow as he takes my baggage. I see it as I travel, and the whole of the country’s transit system is akin to the world’s most finely-crafted precision watch.

I could go on…

I know you have your flaws. But in my eyes, they’re the imperfections expected in any precious gem. Others may not love you as I do, but love is not a contest. For the others, I hope they find feelings for a place, for her culture and her people, like the feelings I have for you.

Oh, Japan! There are at least 1,000 reasons to love you. I look forward to getting to know them all, and to discovering 1,000 more.

A love letter to Japan

Sex & words: One book and the 95 words I didn’t know

Words, like sex, can be used to commune with someone, to “share something in a very personal or spiritual way.” They can also be used for one’s own pleasure. At their worst, they can be used to make one person feel superior at the expense of another.

This is what I was thinking as I read a book of essays titled, perhaps ironically, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman.

Confessions of a Common Reader

The Joy of Sesquipedalia

One of the essays, “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” was about the author’s fondness for words. (“Sesquipedalia” means, as I learned upon looking it up, “long words.” It’s from the latin sesquipedalis - “measuring a foot and a half.”)

The essay was about a book she had read that was written in 1920 by Carl Van Vechten. It was titled The Tiger in the House and was about, of all things, cats.

“What simultaneously most thrilled me and made me feel most like a dunce was Van Vechten’s vocabulary. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met so many words I didn’t know. By the end of the book I’d jotted down twenty-two.”

In the rest of the essay, she quizzed friends and family about how many of those twenty-two they knew, with wide-ranging results.

The ignominy of ignorance

I pride myself on my vocabulary and yet didn’t know any of the 22 words. And I wondered: What other words in this book don’t I know? So I went back to the beginning and circled every word I couldn’t define.

Though the book is only 154 pages, I found 95 words I didn’t know, including the 22 contributed by Carl Van Vechten. On page 117 alone there were 4 words I had never seen before. Even my word processing application bristled at 20 of them, chiding me with 20 red squiggles.

I tried to take solace in knowing some words that seemed difficult:

conjugate triptych marginalia apogee corpus parsimonious festooned frisson quixotry prescient necrosis vestigial gewgaws verisimilitude perspicacity provenance pell-mell somnambulist ectomorph

But it was cold comfort. They’re vestiges from studying for standardized tests in high school. The frisson, as they say, was gone.

A special kind of love

Was the author showing off? Indulging herself? Trying to make the reader feel inferior? I don’t think so. On each page you can feel her genuine love of books and words. She was simply sharing that love the best way she knew how, in what for her was a “very personal or spiritual way.”

I was humbled, and decided to face the truth about just how good my vocabulary is (or, more to the point, isn't). No guessing or trying to make sense of a word from the context. If I didn’t know it, I listed it, and I can already hear you saying "What? He didn't know that?!"

Here are the 95 words I didn't know in the order they appear in the book, including the 22 words unfamiliar to the author. (I put those in italics.) I linked to online dictionaries so you can see the definitions yourself if you like.

Do you find the use of these words thrilling or a turn-off?

How many do you know?

  1. miscegenated
  2. motets
  3. interlarding
  4. vermicule
  5. ptarmigan
  6. sesquipedalian
  7. repletion
  8. monophysite
  9. mephitic
  10. calineries
  11. diapason
  12. grimoire
  13. adapterile
  14. retromingent
  15. perllan
  16. cupellation
  17. adytum
  18. sepoy
  19. subadar
  20. paludal
  21. apozemical
  22. camorra
  23. ithyphallic
  24. alcalde
  25. aspergill
  26. agathodemon
  27. kakodemon
  28. goetic
  29. opopanax
  30. elegiac
  31. glossologically
  32. seracs
  33. pemmican
  34. hoosh
  35. prosodically
  36. trenchant
  37. unregenerate
  38. trochee
  39. soi-disant
  40. lapidary
  41. bibliolatrous
  42. palimpsests
  43. alluvium
  44. fascicles
  45. umber
  46. hotchpotch
  47. hoary
  48. hortatory
  49. distaff
  50. abjuration
  51. bibliomane
  52. tangency
  53. nonesuch
  54. bravura
  55. eidetic
  56. redolent
  57. schist
  58. defile (as a noun)
  59. slomped
  60. nimbus
  61. sanguinary
  62. lissome
  63. captious
  64. pettifogging
  65. dragées
  66. helpmeet
  67. rufous
  68. towhee
  69. descried
  70. ferrule
  71. purdah
  72. pounce box
  73. ichor
  74. spoor
  75. prolix
  76. embonpoint
  77. turpitude
  78. emendations
  79. placable
  80. moly
  81. piezo
  82. lucubrations
  83. ventail
  84. kerf
  85. villanelle
  86. blandishments
  87. excursi
  88. lubricious
  89. frontispiece
  90. salacities
  91. vulpine
  92. erysipelas
  93. lumbago
  94. catarrh
  95. declivitous

Why is Italo Calvino stalking me?

I had never heard of Italo Calvino before, and now he’s everywhere. It’s starting to make me suspicious. Why is he following me?

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Our first meeting

I’m in my favorite bookstore on Bleecker Street, bookbook. It’s the one with a table outside offering engineered serendipity at a discount. Inside, asking for a book recommendation from the person behind the register can be like asking the sommelier about a wine. “I like Borges. Do you have anything like that?”

“Try this,” he said, and handed me If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

At lunch

I’m heading out to meet my daughter for lunch at Buvette on Grove St. I’m late and have to pick a book to throw into my backpack. (“Always bring a book” is a rule of mine.) I consider a few options and bring the Calvino since it’s compact.

The place is crowded so we eat at the bar, and before the food comes the person next to me places a book on the counter. I do a cartoonish double-take. It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I notice it’s a much older edition, meaning she probably didn’t get it from the same bookstore.

I can’t help but mention the coincidence to her. Like a good New Yorker, she’s unimpressed. “I couldn’t get into it,” she says, “so I’m giving it to my friend.”

On Twitter

Now I must read the book, and I find it is indeed like Borges. “Not one novel, but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense…a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct.”

A few days go by. As I scan my Twitter feed, I see Italo Calvino is there too.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

And again a few days later.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

Surely, the universe is telling me something. The next time I am at the book store, I buy two more of his books, a collection of stories titled Cosmicomics and a novel, The Baron in the Trees.

In the car

When I’m driving by myself, I usually listen to TED talks or simply try to be quiet and enjoy the drive. This time, for some reason, I switched on the radio. Selected Shorts was playing on National Public Radio, a show where they read short stories aloud in front of a live audience.

“Our first story tonight is Italo Calvino's “The Distance of the Moon” read by Liev Schreiber." My mouth drops. I listen to the story in full, hanging on each word. It is in the collection of stories that I just bought.

A conspiracy of attention

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the author is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity 30 years after his death. Or perhaps the universe is trying to introduce me to Italian fiction.

More likely, though, is that I’m simply tuned in to what has always been there. Maybe my one choice in the bookstore that day simply made me aware of things I was blind to before.

Of the eleven million data points our brains can take in at any moment, we’re conscious of only forty. But which forty? Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.