Nine out of Ten

  • Barbarella

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

-- Wayne Dyer

As my sister declared how fed up she was with someone who seemed unwilling to return her calls, I watched with a mixture of fascination and fear as a furry black spider suspended itself on a silky strand from the screen door. At least it's on the other side , I thought. "At least everything else is going great," Jenny said, her verbal echo of my thoughts freaking me out more than the eight-legged furry thing had with its taunting demonstration of mobility. As if she'd been asked to recite a poem of which she was fond, Jenny listed everything that was going well in her life: "Brad and I just celebrated our fourth anniversary, and one of my photos was selected to hang at the Del Mar Fair, and I've been spending time with Jane, Heather, and the kids at Mom's; as Dad would say, 'It's a nine-out-of-ten day.'"

When I'm home, I average one phone conversation per family member per day. David and I had been on the road for nearly two weeks, and I was starving for some family phone time. I had been listening to Jenny with empathy and was ready to jump in and offer her solace, but she beat me to it.

"Nine out of ten, huh? Are you just saying that, or is it really a nine-out-of-ten day for you?"

"That's what the Post-It said," Jenny answered. "I woke up stupid-early this morning to watch the soccer game and then realized we didn't get that channel. Then I went to the bathroom and there was a Post-It on the mirror that said, 'Nine out of ten, woo hoo!'"

Jenny lives with my father, who refuses to pay for the most basic cable. When I lived with Dad, I learned how to use my limbs to assist an old pair of metal rabbit ears in pulling in the local television stations; sitting side-by-side in chairs four feet away from the screen, Dad and I would slowly move our arms and legs until Seinfeld's face became clear. On more than one occasion, with one leg held in the air, I would emulate the Karate Kid from my seat; holding this strange and awkward position for the duration of the program became a matter of mind over static.

Despite life's little annoyances, my father maintains a cheerful disposition. Because of his persistence to see the glass filled with even one miraculous drop, we, his daughters, have learned it is not easy for us to suffer a foul mood, even when we really, really want to. Regardless of Jenny's frustration, the "nine out of ten" factor was indisputable -- she was having a good day, period.

Each morning, Dad calls a toll-free number. When a recorded voice answers, he says, "Weather," and listens to the day's forecast. He then says, "Horoscope. Taurus." As soon as he states his sign, a flirtatious female voice intones, " Hello , Taurus!" Then, her voice dripping with saccharine, she prognosticates, "It's an eight-out-of-ten day. The more you study, the more you find you've barely scratched the surface. You love it when this happens, so indulge your curiosity. Your compatible sign today is Aries."

After listening to his daily fortune, Dad will check a few other signs, including mine: " Hello, Virgo! It's a seven-out-of-ten day. Gather with associates to set priorities. Once you agree upon your goals, achieving them will be a snap . Your compatible sign today is Cancer."

On the rare occasion when the woman coos, "ten out of ten," Dad is beside himself with optimism and excitement. But when he hears the equally rare "three out of ten," he remains undaunted. Through Dad's eyes, bad times are just a grand setup for better times.

I talked to Dad yesterday morning as he was driving to an airport in Virginia from the remote place he'd been working for the week. "Will you say a little prayer for me?" he asked. When I agreed, he said, in a serious voice, "Pray that I find a Waffle House on the way to the airport. I'd really like a fluffy three-egg omelet." When I suggested Denny's, one of his favorite breakfast haunts, Dad responded in an offended tone, "It's not the same."

Later, as David and I ran errands that took us all over the island of Martha's Vineyard in his father's jeep, I checked the message my father must have left on my cell phone while we were in the store: "Hey, Barb, guess what, I got upgraded to first class, woo-hoo! Not only that, but I didn't find a Waffle House, but everything worked out perfectly because if I had found one, I'd be stuffed, but now I'm still hungry and I can enjoy all the food in first class! No need to call me back. I just wanted to share the good news. See? Everything always works out. Love you, baby, if I don't talk to you, tell David I hope he has a great show. Bye!"

Not that I look for the down side of things, but if there were a down side to my father's incessant optimism, it would be that he is no fun to be around for those who want to wallow in the familiar miasma of a sucky day. Sometimes, people just want to be miserable and therefore resist with great irritation anyone who tries to steal from them this feeling they have earned.

My sister Jane sums it up best: "Whatever it is, if I'm just in a funk, or I wish I had gotten to the gym, he throws a freakin' Make-a-Wish kid at me. I'll say how tired I am, that Bella's been sick and keeping me awake, and he'll say, 'Did I tell you about my most recent wish? This young girl has cancer and all she wanted was a pillow ,' until I'm in tears over how fucking selfish I am."

My sisters and I know that Dad doesn't intend to make us feel selfish; he just wants us to have some perspective. Heather recently told me she'd been having a tough day, that work was difficult and her boys were cranky, but that, when she opened her wallet to pay for the groceries, she saw the tiny slip of paper Dad had given her on Thanksgiving that demands, "Be Grateful!" "Each time I see it, it helps me keep things in perspective and makes me realize my problems are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things," she said. "And, you know, it just makes me feel so fucking selfish."

Dad tells us, whenever he thinks we need to hear it, that "You cannot be bitching and grateful at the same time. So you have a bad day, you feel lonely, you feel down or uncertain, these days are bittersweet to me. I use them as a reference point, like when I travel from California. People who live in California all the time don't realize how lucky they are to live here. When I'm having a bad day, I know it will go away, just like I know the sun is above the clouds. Where you focus your energy is what increases in your life, and I want mine to be happy."

I have made my calls to my family and gotten my fix, for it will be more than a week before I can speak with them again. Now it is late and I am tired. I can barely breathe because of my allergies, so I probably won't sleep well. David just informed me that the Zurich gallery bumped his show up a day, meaning we will arrive after a full night's travel on Wednesday morning and must rush to get to our hotel, check in, shower and ready ourselves for David's first European show, which will take place early that evening. We have absurd amounts of luggage to check, collect, and recheck during our 19-hour journey. We are riding coach across the Atlantic Ocean. But I am not worried. In fact, I can't wait. I bet it's going to be a nine-out-of-ten day.

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