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Which Would You Smack With a Shovel?

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To Whom It May Concern:

I read with mounting disdain your letter to Gretchen S. entitled Stupid Me, in which you hypothesized, if I may use such a dignified word for your drivel, that human beings are simply one more life-form on a planet teeming with life-forms, and that we are, in our own way, as incomplete and as floundering as the rest of the lot. Stupid You indeed.

I own homes in six different time zones. I can glance at any page in a telephone directory, close it, and then recite flawlessly the names in alphabetical order. I have made my money by studying how money is made, and then by making more money with money. Success in life depends not upon guessing well, but upon knowing, and then making choices with confidence based upon that knowledge. Both my values and what I know to be true are constant and non-negotiable. I am a beneficiary of the greatest idea on the face of the earth -- capitalism -- which rewards excellence, achieved either by hard work or by genetic good fortune or by both, and I will be damned if I'll stand by quietly when someone, even someone as minor as yourself, suggests that I and a June bug are equal miracles.

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your refreshingly direct letter. You are absolutely correct: I do think you and a June bug are equal miracles. You say that success depends upon knowing. We differ on this, in that I think knowing is just another word for I'm-done-thinking-about-it. You say your values are constant. We differ on this too, in that I think values are a flimsy product of circumstance. In hopes of making my point, I'm inviting you to play a fabulous game I've devised called, Which Would You Smack With A Shovel?

The rules are simple. I'm going to give you an imaginary shovel. And then I am going to present to you an imaginary table, upon which I'm going to place different sets of imaginary things. And then, in the best announcer's voice I can muster, I'm going to ask you to raise your shovel and smash just one of those two imaginary things on the imaginary table.

Ok, Anonymous, here we go. I'm now placing on the table a small grayish stone and a beautiful living butterfly. Raise your shovel please. And now, bring it down hard upon one of them.

Unless there's something very wrong with you that should be addressed the sooner the better Anonymous, I'm guessing you brought your imaginary shovel down upon the small grayish stone. Good show, Anonymous. You've made it clear that you value Life and Beauty more than you value Non-Life and Grayishness.

Okay. Let's brush the bits of stone off the table, and next to the same beautiful butterfly let's place another small stone, much like the last one but shaped, when viewed from a particular angle, like a lopsided heart. This stone, I must inform you Anonymous, belonged to your great grandfather. It was given to him by your great grandmother who found it one clear summer day when they were courting, and until his death your great grandfather kept that stone in the right front pocket of his trousers, rubbing it with his thumb whenever he needed soothing.

Okay. Raise your shovel please Anonymous and bring it down hard upon just one imaginary object.

Eww. Sorry butterfly. So much for Beauty and Life. But hooray for Sentimental Value.

Ok. Let's sponge the residue dust of the beautiful butterfly off the table and replace it, next to your great-grampa's stone, with another lump of stuff also found in the ground, but it's a diamond. I have no idea how much it's worth.

Ok. Anonymous, raise your shovel. And now smack one of the two imaginary objects on the table please.

I know you're a smart guy when it comes to money. I'm imposing my guess upon you, that you smacked your great-grampa's stone just in case the diamond is worth a lot.

I have good imaginary news for you: The imaginary diamond is real. In fact, it has been assessed by imaginary licensed gem-brokers at over seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Great going. You own it now.

Ok. Now onto the table I'm placing your fabulous diamond and an imaginary mongrel dog donated by your local ASPCA.

And now, Anonymous, under the drum-roll of an imaginary professional drummer, please raise your shovel and bring it down as hard as you can upon one of the two imaginary objects on the imaginary table before you.

As we wrap the poor imaginary poochy in a sheet, I must deliver to you some disturbing news. The licensed gem brokers were crooks. They made off with the real diamond, and in it's place put a chunk of well-cut glass.

I don't blame you, Anonymous, for hurling your imaginary shovel into the imaginary bushes. You don't want to play any more. Who would? Soon you were going to have to choose between kitten/elephant, white baby/black baby, beautiful-woman-who-despises-you/homely-woman-who-adores-you, and on and on.

The good news is, you're free to go. The bad news is, sorry, there's no way out of this game. In real life, every choice you make is based upon your values and your beliefs. But what you value and what you believe to be true is a house of cards. On a daily basis, your values and your beliefs must be recalibrated in response to new information, both in small ways and in big ways.

In small ways: You believe there are eggs in the fridge. You open the refrigerator -- no eggs. You believe you got a great haircut, present yourself to your wife -- wife says Ohhh boy. You believe your car will start -- dead battery.

In big ways: Seconds before that tiny tube in your brain bursts, you believe that you're healthy. Seconds before the phone rings, you believe that your boy is not in jail. Seconds before you win the lottery, you believe that you cannot afford a new hat.

Anonymous, I admit that my silly game was rigged in my favor. And okokok, I take it back, you're a bigger miracle than a June bug. But I stick by my opinion that there's not a rug you're standing on that cannot be pulled out from under you, and that you're not nearly as big a shot as you think you are, and that if it's you and some other imaginary person up on that imaginary table, and me standing there with the imaginary shovel, I'd be worried.

Waldo Mellon