Imagine, if you wish, that two months ago you bought a houseplant. Let’s say it was an orchid. It was most beautiful with leafy green leaves and a magnificent stem from where seven intensely red flowers sprouted. You placed the flowerpot on top of your living room table and you never again gave it water or food. Two months later, many days after you had to dispose of the plant, you look at that empty table and you wish that beautiful plant were there. True, you did not look at it all the time, you worked all day long and when you returned home you had to take care of the laundry and of dusting and of cooking dinner. But when you did look at it, it was vacation to the eyes! What a source of enjoyment it was! Except, you never nursed that plant, and so, when it dried up and the leaves and flowers began to disintegrate and turn into dust and detritus, you had to get rid of it. And now, no matter how much you look into that empty spot in the middle of the living room, no matter how hard you try to imagine that wondrous combination of greens and reds, nothing comes to your mind but a vanishing image of a flower plant that you admired but did not do anything to take care of it.
We live in a tough world. I would dare say that even though we are not in the middle of an active war zone with its gigantic craters and burned out buildings, we are nonetheless living in a decaying world, and if you want to argue about it, I give up and concede that at least it is a traumatic world we live in; so, I am bothered by many events, many things, many trends and many people. You can at least admit that I have cause for being irritated and alarmed. Thusly, it will come as no surprise if I were to complain about how careless society at large is with respect to maintaining things that are beautiful so that we all can enjoy them. Common examples of such things would be parks, movie houses. It is not nice when the trees in a park are dry-straw colored rather than a verdant green, or when the garbage cans are full to the top with waste and are surrounded by more garbage because no one has cared to empty the cans dutifully. And why should I be bothered if the benches in the park are broken, or covered in bird excrement that could easily be washed off with a hose. Or try going to the movies. Hollywood producers and business people worry about how much money a given movie will make, and they in their little minds are of the belief that the tickets will sell if the movie has sex and violence, and sometimes they even worry and care that there is also a good script. But do they ever worry about the movie house, the building inside of which people will congregate to watch the movie? When the Hollywoodies go to the movies, they go to their movie houses– palaces built for the demi-gods they think they are. When I go to watch a movie, I go to the local multiplex. I look for a seat that is not too crusted with dry food, melted butter, or runny cheese sauce and hope that the muck does not penetrate my pants during the two hours of movie watching during which I often need noise abating earplugs to preserve whatever hearing I still possess. If I try to cross my legs I need to be careful to first unstick my shoes from the adhesive mixture that has been layered upon the floor by generations of other moviegoers. Do you see how it is getting personal? It does not cross the minds of the Hollywood types that a substantial portion of the population may minimize going to the movies in order to avoid submitting to the onslaught of waste matter left by careless people avenging the scandalously high prices at the “healthy” food concessionaries that populate the theaters?
But now that I have set the frame of reference for the peacetime environment in which we are living, let me explore what really bothers me most of my brothers and sisters that share with me the good things that our civilization does offer. I already have shown that, overall, we appear to not care. But perhaps I am being too precipitous in my judgment. Maybe there is still time to water those orchids, perhaps.
I gave this essay the title “If only I…” because I believe firmly that throughout a life, we miss many opportunities to improve ourselves and our environment and society. By the time a person is forty or eighty years old, there is no point in wishing to play the classical guitar like Andres Segovia. Maybe one can become an accomplished guitarist if one begins practicing guitar at age five. It is one of those instances when the concept of “If only I…” would apply. Remember the teacher you had in third grade? The one that awoke in you the desire to study biology and that eventually resulted in you becoming a medical doctor? By the time you are retiring from a successful career, it is too late to tell your third grade teacher how thankful you are for her dedication: she is now dead. It is too late. And it goes the same for not having told your children how much you loved them and how much you trusted in their intellectual capacity and wanted for them to be successful in whatever choices they made. Now those choices have been made years ago and your children are now with grandchildren of their own and their personalities were forged by whatever forces were surrounding them at the time you did not tell them of your love and trust in them.
But there are always opportunities to remedy our lapses. If the orchid has not died, then we still can water it and we can continue enjoying its beauty. Not too long ago I was talking with a young couple. Both are successful at what they do and their combined income is more that $200,000 in one year. They were telling me that they had had a wonderful time at the outdoors Miller Auditorium listening to a presentation of Madama Butterfly by the Houston Grand Opera. Then to cap it all, they tell me: “And it was free!” As if they had outsmarted the system. They knew how much I like opera and wanted me to know that they had actually gone to one opera and had taken pleasure from it, and indeed I was happy they had ventured into opera and enjoyed it. So when they said to me that it was free, that enjoying a full production of Madama Butterfly had been free, I reminded them that it was not free, that I and many other people who donate money and time to the opera had paid for the performance. It had not been free of cost! I still can see the change in their faces when all of a sudden they realized that indeed, the performance that they so much enjoyed and for which they had not paid a cent, had indeed not been cost free –It was a facial change like Max Wertheimer’s subjects when they solved the problem of how to get to the bananas that where suspended above their reach, and all of a sudden they solved the riddle by placing a wooden box and climbing on top of it. I asked them if they would consider making a contribution to the opera and was inundated by an avalanche of excuses. So at that point my inner juices began boiling, festering, fermenting. I did not become impolite, rather, I tried to show them that if one wants to occasionally enjoy going to the opera or visiting an art museum, then, one should make a contribution to those institutions. They cannot exist without our support. The complexity of mounting an opera production or of hanging an exhibition of wonderful paintings does not occur from Monday to Wednesday, it does not happen even in one year. Everything has to be planned to the minimal detail. Everyone in the orchestra is an accomplished musician; are they just watching cartoons at home waiting for a call from you telling that you want to see Madama Butterfly on Saturday evening? Are the curators in the museum waiting for your call advising them that on Thursday you would like to see an exhibition of paintings by Pablo Picasso, specifically those he painted using white, gray and black oil paints? And what about the building where these events will take place? And what about all those people that are in charge of building the scenery for the opera or the walls to hang the paintings on, and of keeping the buildings clean and without molding? Are all these human beings stored in drawers just waiting for you to call upon them to dance for you on the one day in the year when you feel like doing so? We are talking literally about hundreds of people continuously dedicating their time and effort, indeed their lives, to bring to life a work of art that for practical purposes does not exist but until it is brought to our moment and place, as long as all the personnel necessary to do so is functioning.
Imagine you are happily married and have one precious and beloved child. She is seven years old and is the jewel of your life. One day, she does not feel well and you and your husband are so concerned that you decide to do something about it. Your child is vomiting and her skin has patches of bruising. She has lost some weight and that angelical smile that filled her cheeks with love has now been replaced by a haggard expression. Both of you take your beloved child and drive ten miles in such a hurry that you break many traffic laws, and what would have normally taken 30 minutes only takes 12 minutes. You arrive and park the car. Open the door and holding your child in your arms turn around towards the emergency room entrance. But there is no emergency room entrance, there is no hospital, only a few standing concrete slabs and bricks betray that there was ever a hospital standing amidst this vast empty expanse. It had been one of the leading children hospitals in the nation, but caring for so many sick children had been a costly proposition. At first, the administration asked for public support to keep the hospital and its 5,000 employees running, then they began firing “non essential personnel”, then some nurses and some of the doctors, followed by some of the administration. During the last period, a few heroic nurses and doctors and laboratory personnel had donated their time, but it was all for naught. The hospital had to close its doors to the public. Scavengers had taken first the copper wiring, then the metal ducts, then the bricks. Now you stood there, wanting to have your child healed from her leukemia, you wanted this great hospital, the one that so many people had been proud of, but had given so little support to. Then, realizing your child is about to die, just for a fleeting second the thought comes: If only I…
So, you see, I do get some times somewhat bothered by things that on the surface appear trite, inconsequential, and too intense. But if I do, it is because I want my children and their children’s children to have a very good hospital, and a great ballet company, and great museums, and most definitely a great opera home, and a nice zoo, and so should you.