The proper aim of life, even at its least creative, is handwritten on a secret card placed face down on the table before we draw our first breath. Our mothers, by some undiscoverable trick of love and light, seem always to know each word on the underside of not just their own card but of ours as well.
For Glenn Dickey, patriarch, doctor, and dear friend
And to my Angel Mother, who continues to bear up my head.
There was a time when playing Monopoly® or chess with my boys; we played by different rules. Never did we sit down with the intent to go against the grain or don the invisible anarchist hats we kept in reserve for buttoned-down contests like Axis and Allies®. Only after a few rounds of strict adherence to Mr. and Mr. Parker or The Laws of Chess did the temptation arise to play a different game from the cards and pieces we were dealt.
“Let’s play Give Away!”
In a bang-bang “Opposite Day” variation of chess, each player of Give Away was obliged to capture any offered piece until the player left with only their king was crowned, ironically, the winner. Since the point of Give Away was to lose all one’s pieces, the variation breathed new irony into the sad expression, “I can’t win for losing.” (For optimal fun, play this backward variation as fast as possible!)
Rule alterations for Monopoly were less radical but more rewarding: All monies to be paid to the bank for any reason—buying property, making improvements, paying taxes—were placed instead onto the center of the board to be scooped up by the next player to land on Free Parking.
Then there were the rules we dreamt up but never played by in anger.
“What if we combined chess with Stratego®? We could reassign roles so that a queen, say, could disguise herself as a pawn?”
“Does she move like a pawn, or does the pawn move like a queen?”
“We should try it both ways!”
But we never did. The true game was imagining the fictional one.
Years ago, on a long bus ride to see a college bowl game, I sketched for my traveling companion, Loren Sucher, my latest Variation on a Theme by Parker Brothers. Hoping to lure him away from Robert Ludlum I engaged him in an imagination session for a version of Monopoly called Who Knows?
“What if we could rig it so that up until the very end after all the money is counted, we only think the player who’s grabbed it all gets to keep it? What if there is an overarching hidden rule that doesn’t kick in until the last minute? And—what if that rule changes everything?”
“You don’t believe in dying with the most toys?”
“After all the money is counted, the player with most of it wins only the privilege of drawing a Paradigm Card.”
“The one you redeem for twenty cents. Ba-dum-bum.”
“Haha. You know, like Chance or Community Chest. A Paradigm Card reveals hidden truths about the game just played.”
“Like, that it’s all fake money? You’ve always been a communist.”
“Maybe not. The Paradigm Card might say something like, ‘There’s no place like home. And there’s no victory without lots of them.'”
“So you’d turn Monopoly into a real estate grab”
“Monopoly is a real estate grab. But for that particular round, the object is to grab houses. Maybe the next time, it’s hotels. Every game is secretly governed by a different Paradigm Card.”
“That’s so random. Nobody can know the meaning of life until they’re dead?”
Thirteenth-century Italian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas described deliberate will as a uniquely human characteristic whose object was to reach a thoughtfully desired end1. In the modern era, behavioral scientists initially assumed that in possession of perfect information, most people make rational use of it; they tend to choose a course of action consistent with the well-being it ought to promote. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, economists tell us that our go-to preferences are tainted by an availability bias that skews our decisions towards short-term, here-and-now convenience, often at the expense of eventual well-being2. But what if, like the hidden revelation on a Paradigm Card, none of us has access to perfect information or, in some cases, any information at all? How deliberate will our will then become?
Outbreak3 is the human transformative I sometimes use to describe aspects of implicate human identity that exist outside our reach but whose opacity can be breached under special circumstances. The ancients thought of what I call Outbreak as an actual substance they called Quintessence (the quinta essentia or fifth element, that rounded out the four tangible elements of earth, air, water, and fire.) To complete his computations on relativity, Einstein imagined such a missing physical element and substituted for it a mathematical plug for what he called Dark Matter, a type of mass or energy only recently proven to exist4. For my imaginative mother, Outbreak was the foundation of all life. And by Aquinas’ standards, her will, while deliberate, could only be classified as irrational.
The proper aim of life, even at its least creative, is handwritten on a secret card placed face down on the table before we draw our first breath. For many of us, the card may yet be read or even known to us. Our mothers, by some undiscoverable trick of love and light, seem always to know each word on the underside of not just their own card but of ours as well. Mine saw things others missed. She knew things she had no right to. Why else would she have tossed my baseball card collection? Or warned me against getting my picture in the newspaper? Or, after watching a high school play I wrote, mentioned an obscure role played by an actress she would later come to know and love as Kari.
“Scott, the play was quite nice, but I couldn’t help noticing the ill-fitting scene where the nice girl complained about receiving all those flowers. It was the wrong scene in the wrong play. Or am I missing something?”
“Yes, Mom,” I didn’t say. “You’re missing the bit where not only did I write that ill-fitting scene for the sole purpose of convincing that nice girl to audition for the part—her name is Kari since you didn’t ask—but when I put out the word to a few of Kari’s friends that I really hoped she’d join the show, they were more than happy to pass back to me her return invitation.”
“If he wants me to try out,” Kari family-lore-famously said, “he might start by asking me himself.”
A few days later, after screwing up the nerve to ask Kari to audition, the show within the show I arranged for just the two of us? I still consider that our first date. Five years later, I invited Kari to marry me. After becoming a mother herself, she somehow inherited my mom’s gift for knowing who each of our five children would marry, often before they did themselves.
My first recollection of my mother’s ability to outbreak the rational was the prayer she offered every morning of my youth. A teenager during World War II, engaged to my father serving in the navy during the Korean conflict, and like most American mothers of her generation, keenly aware of the conflict between North Vietnam and America’s French allies and, later on, America herself, she was galvanized by war. Her familiarity with it led her to plead aloud every day that her sons would be spared its horrors and unspeakable tragedy. She uttered that same prayer for the first seventeen and a half years of my life. Five months before I turned eighteen, the age of eligibility for mandatory conscription, U.S. policymakers were moved to abandon the practice of adding boys my age to their list of prospective inductees. Were my mother looking over my shoulder as I write this, she would say that another word for irrational will is faith.
“Why do you have to make things so complicated?” she once told my pre-school teacher, a graduate student in the local university’s child development program who was berating my mom for serving dessert at the end of a meal instead of at the beginning, “thus exalting sugar to premium levels of admiration it did not deserve and should not command.”
“You know, Scott, when I hear nonsense like that from academics who won’t know what it’s like to raise children until face-to-coalface with the terrifying fact that none of us will ever know enough about any of it, all I can do is get down on my knees and ask God to show me the way for that day only.
On this Mother’s Day, in the shorthand of changefulness and with apologies to Shakespeare, I will label the bang-bang powerplay of feeling and faith the flash and outbreak of an irrational mind. Thanks, Mom, for first showing me the will to move even heaven and then leading me to hope that, as irrational as it sounds, heaven will sometimes respond favorably to such a maneuver.
“So, you’re saying I can slog out an entire long game of Monopoly—which could take hours—just to find out that the person who had the most number of pink money, or who sat at one remove to the left of the banker, or whose token was of that little dog from The Wizard of Oz—any of those situations—could produce a winner, no matter how much money they had at the end of the game.”
“Or better still, what if, at the beginning of each game, every player drew a separate Paradigm Card that only they could see? They could read it, place it face down in front of them, strategize, look at it from time to time, experiment, and course correct. The first person who achieves their individual private goal wins. Or maybe everyone who follows their Paradigm Card wins.”
“You are a communist. I take it you’ve actually never played this game?”
“Course not. It’s a mind game.”
“Tell you what. You go back to Das Kapital. I’m going back to The Bourne Identity.“
Shortly after reaching her 80th birthday, my mother learned that there was a large mass pressing against her kidneys and putting sufficient pressure on other vitals that, unless relieved, would eventually take her life. On learning of the risks entailed in resecting the mass and that recovering from an invasive surgery could take years, perhaps longer than a brutal recovery she had suffered through decades before, my mother opted to step aside and let Mother Nature do her worst. Setting her face to the wind and willing herself to heaven, she did not last two weeks in hospice.
How does a rational mind make that kind of decision? My mother made hers deliberately, with the full knowledge, yet without a shred of proof, she would come out the other side a newer, freer version of her eternal self. I would give anything to read her Paradigm Card.
These days, when she comes to me in dreams, she is younger, always smiling. There is lightness in her gait and light all about her. And when I watch her—she doesn’t speak to me; just goes about her heavenly day, allowing me to onlook—I come away with the sense that nothing she encountered on the other side surprised her for a second. Who’s being irrational now?
[Author’s Note: This longer-than-usual post was originally published in two parts, separated here.]
In my faith tradition, when a young person reaches a certain age, she is brought before a holy man called a patriarch. Following the pattern of Isaac and Jacob in the Old Testament, who, before their deaths, placed hands on the heads of their posterity and pronounced upon them family versions of the Paradigm Card, patriarchs in my faith reveal to us early in this eternal round heavenly instructions, blessings, and advice that are meant for our eyes only.
When it was time for me to receive my patriarchal blessing—I was seventeen—I was invited to bring my mom and dad to the home of our Reed Broadbent, a man set apart for that purpose. There, in the name of God and by virtue of his holy calling, Patriarch Broadbent pronounced a blessing upon my head. His words were recorded and later transcribed and mailed to me. I still have the original, hand-typed transcription. The patriarch instructed me that once I received it, I was to read it often.
“It will be a help and a comfort to you throughout your life.”
He also invited me not to trifle with his words nor share them beyond my immediate family members; but that in certain contexts—and I would know them—it might be appropriate to speak of it beyond my family circle.
“So, Scott, was there anything in your blessing that stood out to you?”
This was my mom. My dad was driving us home from the Broadbent’s. I was in the backseat, my mom in front.
“Not really. I remember something about gifts of writing and music. I liked that part. He already knew of my interest, but there was more to it.”
“How about what he said about your health? Strong body. No drinking or smoking. Guard your it at all times. He must have said it three times.”
Now that she mentioned it, I did remember.
“That’s probably an important warning.”
As a child, the most terrifying thing that happened to me more than once was throwing up. And not just the vomiting but having to do it into a toilet or, worse, my family’s designated “spit-up pan.” For obvious reasons, the dinged-up excuse for a pot that “some local fiend built with his own three hands and sold to my mother for the price of a good milk cow5” was kept from all others lest there be any confusion about what to put in it. The spit-up pan was lightweight, with thin loop handles sticking out of it like big ears so any of us kids could grab it at the first pang of trouble. But whether into that pan or its more imposing, monstrous white porcelain cousin, throwing up was one of those hard things it would take me years to manage on my own. I needed my mother, you see, to hold my head as I did the deed.
Growing up, there was a decade or so when my father ran his architecture practice out of our home. More precisely, he had designed and built an addition to our home connected by a 40-meter breezeway that traversed our open-sided carport to bring you to “the office.” Unlike the work-from-home setup that we all got used to during COVID, my father’s office was a place where family outsiders reported to work each day. A member of my dad’s staff, a landscape architect, drove to work in a truck, which he parked in our driveway’s turnaround or in the vacant lot between the office and the main road if you could call it that.
Bob was a big bear of a man, and though of no relation, we affectionately called him Uncle Bob. Most of the time, he was funny and nice, and he had lived nearby before we moved into our home and he and my dad worked together in town. But one spring day, when I was seven, my six-year-old brother Roger and I got on the wrong side of Big Bear Bob; he wasn’t so much of an uncle after that.
While riding bikes in our driveway one day, Roger and I noticed Uncle Bob’s pick-up had a load of cut firewood in the back. In spite of the risk—Bob threatened to “flush our heads down the toilet” whenever there was mischief—we hatched an ingenious plan to practice our nearly acquitted football skills.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to take some of that wood, and when Bob leaves for the day, and hide out with it in the field? When he drives by to go home, we could throw it back in the truck!”
Roger and I had begun to play catch with a football while running back and forth on the lawn, around our long driveway, and sometimes in the large vacant field. The quarterback practiced leading the receiver, timing his pass to land not where the receiver was at launch but where he was likely to be when the ball reached his in-motion hands.
“We can lead Bob’s truck as we throw it,” said Roger.
“Get the time right, and ‘Bob’s your uncle,'” I wish I had known to say back then.
The wood was not split tree wood but heavy (for kids) woodblocks sawn into near-rectangular chunks for approximate stacking. Measured relative to the spot on Bob’s car where the smoking block would ultimately strike—sixty years on, I can still neither unsee nor un-hear its crash—I’d estimate the chunks to have been two feet long, with maybe five- or six-inches on a side. Pretty large for a young quarterback’s first-grade hands.
Our home and the adjacent office were set back maybe 100 meters from the dirt road that just passed our driveway before dead-ending at the Magleby’s. The field grew on the lot my grandmother owned but would never build on once she lost her sight and moved into the remodeled office after Dad moved it back into town. In places in the field, the grass grew tall enough that we sometimes played there a running variant of hide and seek called Monster. The day of the deed, Roger and I used the grass for cover to hide three or four of Bob’s woodblocks near enough to the road that, at the precise moment, we could chuck them into the back of his pickup before he knew what hit him—literally, as it turned out. We would have to stay low and act fast.
As Bob’s truck turned left onto the road in front of us, we sprang into action, holding one woodblock each, attacking the truck as a pack. Roger threw first, his block too heavy to make it even into the road. To lead the runner, I would have to run myself. Finding my spot, I planted my left foot, whipped my right hip, and slingshot around my right shoulder, both arms and hands, hurling the wood at the front hood of the truck like a discuss thrower in full spin. But in the compression of time and my inexperience as a seven-year-old quarterback, I miscalculated the speed of the truck as well as how close Bob now was to the side of the road as he veered towards sensing what was about to happen. Too late to check my payload, I let the wooden brick fly just as Bob’s face turned towards mine, the football on its fouled trajectory from me to him, hopelessly hurling not to the back of the truck but at the exact spot Bob’s rolled-down window perfectly framed his head. There was a boom-boom where the top of the block met the top of the window frame, followed by the other end bouncing off something else—was Bob’s elbow leaning out the open window? Had I hit him in the face?—followed by a screech of brakes. Roger and I knew what was coming next and began running for our lives.
Bob was used to chasing us and, like a defense back, knew where we’d run. In seconds he had one of us under each arm and was carrying us out of the field towards the office where he kept the bathroom, and the toilet, into whose bowl he had thrust our heads on the numerous occasions he caught us stealing his drafting pencils or scribbling on his vellum drawings. He hauled us into the bathroom, set Roger down just outside the open door and threatened that if he didn’t watch what was coming, he’d have to go first. Then, with his giant left paw wrapped around my ankles, he opened the lid of the toilet with his right and, in a single motion, flipped me upside down to let my head dangle just inside the bowl mere inches above the still water.
“You could have killed me with that firewood”
“Really? It hit the truck, not you, you big dope,” I didn’t say.
“I’m sorry, Bob. I won’t do it again.”
“Do you really think I won’t flush your head all the way down the toilet this time?”
“No, Uncle Bob. I’m really, really sorry. We were just practicing football”
“With my firewood?”
“I will never try to kill you again.”
And then, as he always did, with my head still deep inside the bowl, Bob plunged the handle so that I might again feel the toilet’s misty spray on my crewcut head and upper face, baptizing me in the name of Correctional School as I now see his little ritual to have been. I was then commanded to sit in witness as Roger was likewise sprinkled before the congregation before trudging back into the field to gather up Bob’s wood.
Was Bob’s cruel ritual the reason it was so crucial my mom hold my head steady as it rested above our home toilet bowl, ready to puke into it? Would I really have fallen into the abyss without her? I do know one thing. No matter what I had eaten, whatever mysterious but was onto me, however strong the urge to transfer the contents of my stomach into the grey pan or the white bowl, I always managed to hold it until my mother’s hands were wrapped firmly around my cheeks and temples, thumbs just behind my ears, steady me, aim me, embrace me as I did the deed. Afterward, taking the spit-up pan’s loyal companion, the spit-up towel, she carefully wiped down my sour mouth and face.
“You should try to get some rest, dear.”
On February 24th of this year, I was urgently hospitalized for a life-threatening change of venue playing out inside my heart, lungs, and vasculature. Kari was out west and about to travel further away but immediately hopped a red-eye home. Before her flight, she texted two holy men. Within minutes Bishop Josh Turley and his wife Sandra, and my current patriarch, Glenn Dickey, a medical professional on duty at the hospital that night, were at my side. After Sandra’s “hug from Kari,” Josh and Glenn anointed me with consecrated oil and gave me a priesthood blessing of healing.
Without knowing a word of my patriarchal blessing received at the hands of Patriarch Broadbent in a different state nearly fifty years in my past, Patriarch Dickey’s words echoed the same promises made to me in my youth.
“Scott, your body is strong. I bless you that in time, and without any residual diminishment, you will fully recover from this emergency.”
One week later, two days home from the hospital, despite my medical team’s assurances my body would continue to heal on its own, all the same symptoms that sent me to the emergency room in the first place rushed back late at night. According to all the instruments at my disposal, none of the organs whose behavior had combined to produce my “widowmaker” syndrome appeared not to be working properly: not my lungs; not my heart; not my body’s vasculature. I sensed I might be in trouble and did not dare to fall asleep as my mind raced through the scenarios.
“Is this it all ends? When was it going to let up? Should I return to Emergency? How ironic to be released from a fully-equipped hospital only to die in my own bed!”
As I lay there, tele-words from my cardiologist that day brought mental comfort.
“It will take more than what you went through in the hospital for your heart to fail.”
“But how do you know that?” I began to argue with him long after the call had ended. “You examined me over Zoom. Why can’t anyone explain this setback to me?
As I pondered the cardiologist’s unembodied prognostication, the words of my first patriarch rushed up from youth. Thanks in large measure to my mother’s calling them out minutes after hearing them and the fact that they were brief, I had memorized them.
“I bless with a strong body, but you must guard your health at all times.”
A little late now to follow his admonition, but I had always taken solace in his reassurance of physical strength.
And then the voice of Patriarch Dickey.
“I bless you that in time your body will make a full and complete recovery and that you will experience no long-term negative effects.”
Reasoning that death could reasonably be seen as quite a long-term negative effect, I relaxed a little. And as I reviewed the confident voices of doctors and holy men, new words came not so much into my mind as straight to my heart.
“The reason your heart is beating in this unusual way is… The reason your lungs are reacting to your beating heart the way they are is… The reason your blood pressure continues to be so high despite your medication is… These actions are working together right now as part of the healing cycle clearing the blockages from critical regions of your lungs. Their completion will take time. You should try to get some rest, dear.”
“The reason your heart… The reason your lungs… The reason your blood pressure…”
None of these explanations made a lick of sense. In fact, based on what Dr. Dickey and I had worked out, complemented by partial explanations provided by my medical team, everyone had got it completely backward. At that moment, as at others like it from my past6, the cosmic explanation that came together in my temporarily expanded mind formed a holistic, fully-functional system of utter integrity. It was as if I could see my heart, lungs, and the blood in my veins pumping through a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that I somehow knew was safe and necessary for my body to heal. It looked to my spirit’s eye as though some as-yet unheard-of heart-lung-blood machine, operating on principles and laws practiced on a higher plain, just needed a few hours to work its miracle. I must be in Flatland, I thought, where supernatural surgeons perform heart surgery without breaking your skin7. I thought about what Isaiah called higher ways than ours8. I thought about what it might feel like to die. I thought about my mother. And fell asleep.
When I next opened my eyes, my flat and unbroken bedroom ceiling coming into focus above me, I was mildly surprised at how unsurprised I was to find myself on this side of the firmament. No sooner did my morning mind come back to me did I hurriedly rehearse my heart-lung-blood trauma from the middle of the night before. But by then, the words I had clearly heard, their otherworldly logic, and my confidence in their irrational truth were now to me no more than a pile of used dust. Like the stuff of fantastic dreams you cannot wait to log, but even as you do, their emerging banality crumbles in your memory; I could make nothing of them. Even still, I believed them every whit, as well in the rightness of the Sphereland system that had worked me over so thoroughly before I drifted back into Flatland. And I felt better than I had for days.
When the transcript of my patriarchal blessing came in the mail in the spring of 1974, I read it carefully, thoroughly, and repeatedly. And I have done so many times since. No worse for wear nearly half a century later, its un-yellowed archive-quality transcription belies its ancient vintage without diminishing its gravitas. But each time I read it, in what has become my little ritual for hunting down the two extra times the patriarch reinforced his admonition that I guard my health at all times, I search in vain. Whether lost in transcription, misremembered by my whip-smart mother, or misadventurously exaggerated in our car ride home, the effect was the same. Perfectly preserved transcript or not, I never forgot the patriarch’s, nor what ultimately became my mother’s admonition. That I have not always adhered to it recently placed my life at risk. But in the risking, there she was again, holding up my head up with her irrational will.
- Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Q A[1 and 3] Body Paragraph 1/1.
- Thompson, Derek, The Irrational Consumer: Why Economics Is Dead Wrong About How We Make Choices, The Atlantic, January 16, 2013. For a practical, historical example of irrational availability bias, see my post on goldfish swallowing.
- For an introduction to Outbreak, see my post, Bone, Wit, Gut, Flash, & Outbreak.
- For more on Dark Matter, see NASA Finds Direct Proof of Dark Matter, 2006.
- With apologies to Patrick F. McManus, whose Jack and the Beanstalk allusion in A Fine and Pleasant Misery will always put me in mind of that old pan.
- For a still-expanding roster of assays involving the still, small voice emanating from what I elsewhere call the Outbreak, see any of my assays under the HOUSETOPS tab at the top of this page.
- In Edward Abbott’s 1884 paradigm-busting classic Flatland, commemorated on its 100th anniversary in Rudy Rucker’s exquisite commentary, The Fourth Dimension, beings from a higher dimension are able to break into homes through non-existent ceilings and perform surgery without breaking the skin. According to the authors of these thought experiments, this is because higher dimensions are not bound by the same laws that govern those beneath them. See my posts, Then, Now & Yet, Nowland, and Silver Water, for additional musings on this principle.
- See Isaiah chapter 55, verses 8 and 9: …For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.