Like most families together for the holidays, we spend the first hours going over the updates: who died, who went bankrupt, who needs surgery. Given enough time and liquor, this can easily become a competition: whose disaster story is worse? Later, when we go around the table and proclaim what we are each thankful for, the verbal stream slows to a trickle. I am the only person who has a list of delights at the ready. I am the lone optimist.
What's the difference between optimism and insanity? My mother refers to herself as a cockeyed optimist but I'm pretty sure she's rounded the bend. For seven years, she's watched my father disappear into dementia, and yet she still refers to his condition as "a little aphasia." That's like saying Quasimoto had a bit of a limp. When she is asks, "What was Dad doing when you got to the nursing home?" I usually have a snarky answer ready. "He was working on the Pythagorean theorem." To her credit, she always laughs. But in her heart, she refuses to accept his demise. "You never know," she says, as if he'll shake it off and come home.
Except for my dog, I am the only optimist in our house. He's like me: He thinks life on the whole is pretty good. My husband recruited our children to his camp early on, and they now share his grim world view. Global warming. Biological warfare. The Ravens losing in the playoffs. These topics were discussed over Thanksgiving dinner. "How can you live your lives believing that everything is going to be bad?" I asked.
"It's not bad. It's realistic."
My son, a student of psychology, tried to convince me that pessimists have a more realistic perception of the world, and are therefore better prepared to survive in it. "In cognitive psychology it's called 'realistic pessimism'," he explained.
"Scientific proof!" my husband banged his hand on the table.
"You don't believe in psychology," I reminded him.
"I do when it supports my position," he said. "The conclusion is obvious: Prepare for the worst. Then, if it happens, you're ready."
"But if the worst doesn't happen, you've wasted all that time and energy..."
"You have to play the odds," he interrupted. "Chaos in the Middle East, rising sea levels, the disappearing rainforest... these are realities." He swiped a brussel sprout off my plate as I stood up. "Don't leave. We have yet to discuss the shifting tectonic plates."
"Now you're just torturing her," my son said, pointing his fork at his father.
"I've had enough." I marched into the kitchen with my hand on my forehead, drama queen style. "I think I'll go open up a vein."
Once I was alone, I took a little personal inventory: Like everyone else our age, we had ongoing concerns. Two sick parents. A knee that needed repair. Three unpaid speed-camera citations. A leaking powder-room toilet. An overdraft notice from the bank. Just recently I noticed some roofing tiles on the front lawn.
Realistically, I belonged on suicide watch. Instead, I felt good.
Until I slipped in a long puddle of my own perspiration during a hot yoga class and twisted my arm. I didn't notice at the time that I was injured. I was too busy trying not to vomit. Who thought hot yoga was a good idea? At 98 degrees with high humidity and low lights, this is a room for hazing, not for exercise.
I waited four days before seeing a doctor who asked, "Why didn't you come in sooner?"
"I was hoping it would just go away." He shook his head as if to say: "Pshaw! Optimist!"
So I sit here with a cast on my arm, typing only with my pinky and index finger and I can't help but think: Today is a good day.