by Stephen Jay Schwartz


First of all, I want to thank Murderati for delivering Indonesia. I never know what’s going to come from writing this blog. Those three hours I spent on a bus with James Ellroy came after someone read my blog. I was invited to teach at the Omega Institute in New York as a result of my posts on this site. Through Murderati, I’ve been invited to contribute poetry and essays for publication and speak at conferences and workshops. But, until now, I had never been handed a country.

It seems my last blog, Synergy, was re-posted on various Facebook walls across Indonesia and now I have twenty-five new Indonesian Facebook friends. I don’t know if any of them have read my books, but they’ve all read my blog. So – thank you Murderati, thank you Internet, thank you Facebook. Whatever comes of the rest of my career I will always know this–there was a day when I was big in Bali.

That said, I’ll return you to our regularly scheduled post.

Magical Optimism…

My eleven year old boy opens his eyes and sees the world he wants to see and magically it is there. I remember I was once like that, when I was a boy younger than his years. The magical optimism slowly faded as I encountered adults who knew better, men and women who’d correct me when I was wrong. As the years advanced I grew up to become an optimistic realist, but a realist none-the-less. Although it is easy to slip into the slough of the cynic, I’ve generally fought to keep a “glass half-full” attitude.

My son re-booted my operating system recently when two things occurred.

Thing One: Noah’s favorite flower is the bright yellow sunflower. My other son, Ben, saved a couple seeds from destruction and planted them and they sprouted. Their little green stems grew and dangled and needed help and I convinced Noah, who had taken over the project, that we should tie their little vines to a tongue depressor with a fuzzy little pipe-cleaner from his arts and crafts supply kit. He trusted me (I’d taken a class called Greenhouse Management when I was in high school, which was really the slacker’s way out of taking Biology II) and I tied one of the nascent plants to the wooden stick and just about broke it in two.

The plant was a goner. I’d broken it in such a way that just a sliver of green connected the top to the bottom. It was only a matter of time before it would turn brown and shrivel up like a sun-stroked earthworm. I put a little Scotch tape around the break and prepared my son for the worst.

“It’s not going to make it, I just want you to know.”

“Maybe it will,” he said.

“I’ve lived a lot longer than you, kid, and I’ve seen things. Experience tells me that plant is going to die.”

“I’ll just keep watering it,” he said.

And sure enough, somehow, that plant sprang a sliver of green glucose cells and built an elbow to tie the two halves together. Now this little plant has grown thick and strong and healthy. It continues reaching for the sky today. In all my year of Greenhouse Management I never saw such a miracle.

At approximately the same time, Thing Two occurred.

Thing Two: While cleaning our fish bowl I accidentally let the fish (a beta) fall into the sink among the dirty dishes and general scum. I tossed the dishes to the floor, yelling, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” until I’d found the flopping creature and, after several tries, grabbed and tossed it back into the fish bowl.

Experience told me this story wasn’t going to end well for the kids.

Sure enough, a couple weeks later the fish developed a brown scab on the left side of his body. A couple days after that the scab appeared on the right side as well. It took another day for one side to eat into the other, creating a gaping hole.

There was a hole in our fish.

Experience told me this was not a good sign. The hole grew larger in the coming days and soon the fish stopped eating.

“I’m sorry, Noah, but this doesn’t look good. I think you should say your goodbyes.”

“Don’t give up,” he told me. “We can save his life.”

“I don’t know, I’ve lived a long time and I’ve seen things. My gut tells me it’s time to pull the plug.”

Taking a stab in the dark I suggested that maybe the local pet store had something to “fix the hole.” Sure enough, my son came back with a bottle of what I considered to be voodoo googlygock with instructions to add ten drops to the bowl, twice daily. We began treatment immediately.

The substance seemed only to blacken the water, creating a charcoal haze in which our fish would spend his final days. And the hole remained. I mean, I could see the toaster oven through the fish. I was surprised the thing had lasted this long.

And then the fish began to eat.

Days later Noah said that the hole was growing smaller. Ah, life through the eyes of a child, I thought as I peered down to study the beta. But he was right, the hole was smaller.

It’s been a month since this thing began and the hole is nearly gone. The fish, which was old to begin with, is older still, yet appears as healthy and playful as a young fishling. Maybe the playful part is my imagination talking, but he sure looks fit.

The point, if I may return to the purpose of writing this blog, is that my “realism” was really cynicism in disguise. If I had gone with my instincts, i.e. my experience, I would have seen that sunflower sapling strangle our fish in a whirlpool of toilet water as they made their way to the city sewer. I would have euthanized them to save myself the trouble of watching them die slowly, over time.

I didn’t know there were any other options. An eleven year old boy told me there was.

I think these two occurrences illustrate the fact that we occasionally need a paradigm shift. In my case, I needed to adjust my concept of what is and isn’t real. The way I lived my life had been tainted by negative experiences I accepted as truth. Noah did not have those experiences and he was strong enough to resist them when I suggested they were universal truths.

Maybe optimism is just a way of seeing life as it should be, and then participating in its positive outcome. Maybe a person’s good fortune is anchored by his positive attitude.

My boys will encounter great struggles in their lives. It’s unavoidable. They’ve already experienced the loss of their home. The negative effect this has had on their personalities has thus far been minimal — they veered toward the positive. Life in an apartment isn’t tough, it hasn’t stopped them from doing the things they love, like hanging out at the beach and enjoying their music and art classes. If anything, it’s removed some stress from my life, which removes stress from theirs.

I hope their optimism continues to flourish. I hope the people they encounter, the ones who thrive on gossip and negativity, won’t have an impact on their development. And I’m glad as hell my boy was there, like a young bodhisattva, to teach me the ways of the world.

19 thoughts on “MAGICAL OPTIMISM

  1. Reine

    Stephen this is so beautiful. Thank you. I really needed to read this today.

    I wish I were an optimist. Mostly I'm a tough it out kind of person. I guess that is being positive, but I don't think it makes me an optimist. I don't know. I haven't thoought much beyond "just keep going." But keeping on works, and that makes me happy with my life.

  2. Shizuka

    I constantly waver between optimist, realist, and cynic, but wish I could be more like your son.
    Thanks for a sweet beginning to the weekend.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Noah is a powerful manifester! Imagine what he could do if YOU were sick.

    It is amazing how much of life is about attitude. It's amazing how vigilant we have to be about senseless negativity. Wonderful reminder, today, SJS, thank you.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reine – your optimism shines through. Your optimism gives others reason to pause and contemplate the depth of their own struggles. You manage to "just keep going" in style, and that's an inspiration to the rest of us.

    Alafair – Your comment about the fish cracks me up. Yeah, I suppose he picked the right school to swim with.

    Shizuka – I wish I could be more like my son, too. I'm getting closer. Glad I could brighten your weekend a bit.

    Alex – I love that description – manifester! What a great word. When I wrote that he was like a bodhisattva, I really meant it. In our family we call him the Wise One. He became a vegetarian at age seven. He considers himself Buddhist, and the first musical instrument he wanted to play was the sitar. I think there's something going on here…

  5. Louise Ure

    I must admit, the older I get the more cynical I become. If I were to participate in a medical study, I know damn good and well that I'd be placed in the placebo group. If the odds were one-to-one that I'd win a throw of the dice, I'd still say the odds were stacked against me and I'd probably lose that one-to-one bet.

    I remember the days of optimism; I still see them in commercials with happy, good-looking people singing along to some song that suggests that anything is possible.

    I need some more Noah in me.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Louise – there's plenty of Noah to go around. And, if optimism was measured in witty lines, you'd be the most optimistic one out there. Your words had me laughing out loud, dear. Let's take a run through the sunflowers, shall we?

  7. Judy Wirzberger

    Stephen, you made my day – not your blog, but your comment about you and Louise running through the sunflowers – what a visual – even in your 60's flower child clothes — but then without–couldn't stop my mind from going there.

  8. Diana James

    Stephen – What an uplifting post! I'm not at all surprised at Noah and Ben's enthusiasm and optimism. They have the most incredible spirit, it is a spirit that is obvious the moment you meet them. Thank you for sharing as I believe so many of us adults fall into lethargy and miss out on so many little joys.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – thank you for the morning Sartre in my coffee. Funny, I was reading Bukowski this morning (of course) and he had a poem about Sartre – I think you'd like it.

    Diana – thanks for chiming in, sweetie. My boys have both enjoyed meeting you and learning about the world of professional public relations. Thanks for being part of their transition to the real world!

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Here you go, David:

    "One of Those," by Charles Bukowski

    Sartre was some fellow, oh yes,
    he showed us the bone of
    Nowhere and shook it in
    our face.
    the choice
    is yours,
    he said,
    morals died with God,
    you're on your

    every now and then,
    during the passing centuries,
    some giant among men
    shakes us truly,
    shocks us out of our
    so that, at least for a
    time, we become aware,
    as we put our shoes on in
    the morning,
    as we trundle through our
    as we eat, defecate,
    imagine love,
    mail letters,
    drive and walk the
    things and thoughts
    assume different

    Sartre was one of those
    Paris, France, much of the
    rumbled and bounced
    because of

    without some like him,
    putting your shoes on in
    the morning
    would become so difficult
    as to be almost

    Jean Paul,

  11. JT Ellison

    It's kind of amazing how for children, the possibilities are endless, and the vagaries of life steal that away. I applaud your optimism, and know it will make all the difference to them!

    And let your young Bodhi out into the world. We all need a dose of Noah.

  12. Robin

    Life through the eyes of innocence. I have a boy the same age and learn something new everyday. Their optimism is contagious at times and at other times has you scratching your head. Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing – made my day.

  13. KDJames

    Oh, Stephen, what wonderful vision Noah has. This makes me want to bundle him up and protect him from the world. For his own sake but also for ours. I think we all have much to learn from your son, even if it's merely learning to remember our own innocence.

    Thanks to you both.

  14. Blair

    Beautiful story, Stephen. Child truly is once again, Father to the Man.
    May your optimism have renewed confidence and strength from the gifts.

  15. Katie Arnoldi

    Steve, What a great way to start the day. Thank you for this essay. It's such a great reminder. You inspire me.

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