The shoebox

It is Saturday morning. I’ve jumped out of bed early. As soon as I open the back door, the cat greets me enthusiastically. She knows that Saturday is different from a workday because the morning ritual is more relaxed than during the week. First, nice and easy, I put on a pot of coffee.

I take my favorite mug and can already hear the coffee perking. With the newspaper in one hand and the coffee mug in the other I stroll onto the terrace. I wonder what has happened in the world in the last twenty-four hours? I toss the paper onto the table, and my eyes fall directly on an ad on the front page: Fantasy trip to the Bahamas… Now what is this? It just couldn’t be true. After graduating I made exactly that kind of trip. It was the one vacation adventure that still gives me a warm feeling. No, that trip could never appear in a Dutch newspaper ad. That’s impossible and, even if it were possible, it shouldn’t be allowed, because it’s my special and very personal memory. I’ve still got pictures of it somewhere, don’t I? Where would they be now? Probably up in the attic in some box or other.

“Kittycat, let’s go upstairs and have a look.” I know the wet suit is still up there, so that’s a good place to start. Look … that old shoebox, I recognize it immediately. That is my treasure chest, Hush Puppies, size 12. You can’t miss it. It contains all the old postcards, but also letters, bills, school odds and ends, flight tickets, and plenty more. The whole thing is bursting at the seams and practically falling apart. Gee, I sure saved a lot of junk! The box goes along downstairs. It is like a can of worms. Once you open it, they all start wriggling out. Where is that old ad? All right, there it is, and it even has a picture stapled to it, a picture of me and my travel buddies in front of ‘The End of the World Saloon’. That was that weird bar where all the guests had to write their name and address on the wall. Would I still be able to find my name again? Or better, will I go ever back to find it?

The limitations of your imagination are determined by your past.

Now look here, a copy of the letter that I sent to my English literature teacher. I remember it now, it had something to do with that joke of his about the meaning of literature.

Dear Professor,

At the start of the course you told us an anecdote. It was about the true value of literature, about ‘what Shakespeare can do for you’. It was an interesting start of our ‘literature of leadership’ course.

Your story was about a man whose personal goal was to read all the works of the immortal bard. For one reason or other, however, he couldn’t get himself started until the time when, during an airline flight, he opens up ‘his Shakespeare’ for the umpteenth time. He pages through it until he reaches the first chapter, the chapter that he has started so many times but where he never got beyond the first page. At that moment a beautiful woman takes the seat next to him. She is altogether impressed and asks our hero: “Do you read Shakespeare?”

Only he who can imagine the present different from what it is has a future.

I knew it immediately, that had to be me. Just give me a moment and…

At the end of the course, you made a final round of the group and asked everyone to tell what they had learned from it. I could not hold back and felt that I had to come up with an appropriate conclusion and leave a proper final impression. It went something like this: “Having dutifully worked my way through all these books and having participated with total dedication in every single discussion, only one question rests unanswered for me. How did the story of the beautiful woman end?” Except for the applause of my fellow students, there came no answer.

Whoever reaches all of his goals has probably set them too low.

Herbert von Karajan

So how did the story end?

During my flight home, something happened to me that I simply have to share with you. Yes, it has to do with the story of the beautiful woman, and, honestly, it is so unbelievable that it can only be true. It is definitely a story that someone who considers Shakespeare to be one of his friends will enjoy.

Do not confuse the details with the circumstances.

Charles de Talleyrand

As soon as I have found my seat on flight 38 from Boston to Amsterdam, I take my lecture notes and books out of my briefcase. I intend to work out a few texts in some detail, under the motto that ‘if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably never get around to it’. Right then, and you’ve already guessed it, a stunning woman, in her forties, give or take a year, sits down next to me. How can this happen to me? She looks familiar (honestly!), but that happens to all of us once in a while (in particular with exceptionally beautiful women).

People flying on airplanes are like canned sardines. You can’t feel other than uncomfortable. Fortunately everyone has that same feeling, which makes it somewhat bearable. But you have no choice but to suffer through the forced intimacy. It is an unwritten law that you have to acknowledge the presence of your fellow travelers sitting directly next to you at least through some innocent eye contact and a matching smile (spoken words are optional). It’s like a silent expression saying, ‘sorry, but we’re all in the same boat’. Our heroine adheres perfectly to this ritual. She flashes the proper smile, at the same time looking surprised.

I generally have an appropriate text for every situation and decide that a joke might work best to break the ice. Considering the hours that we’ve still got ahead of us, that would not be a bad idea. But the woman beats me to it: “Do you read Shakespeare?”

I just couldn’t restrain myself and had to laugh, as your anecdote immediately came to mind. My answer was obviously, “Yes, but only to make a good impression.”

The conversation that followed was extraordinary, to say the least.

Heroine :    “Honestly?”

I             :    “Yes… Does it work?”

She laughs and continues the conversation.

Heroine :    “You look familiar. Have we met before?”

Such a cliché, but what a joy.

I             :    “Yes, I do think so.”

Her British accent rang a bell with me.

I             :    “You were my English teacher at the City of London Polytechnic, about twelve years ago if I remember well.”

She looked surprised and started to laugh.

Heroine :    “Ah, you must be Peter, my Dutch student. Am I right?”

A simple nod was sufficient.

Heroine :    “This is quite a coincidence. I saw you on a plane some two years after you finished your studies at the Polytechnic but I couldn’t bring myself to say hello to you.”

I             :    “Yes, I still remember it. It left an enormous scar on my heart. And by the way, I don’t believe in coincidence.”

I can’t help it and have to laugh at my own words.

The awful thing about doing nothing is that you can never take a day off.

Hoagy Carmichael

I             :    “That was just a joke. I don’t really blame you for it. I think I understood it at the time, or maybe I hoped I understood it.”

Heroine :    “What in the world are you doing on a flight from Boston to Europe?”

I             :    “I’ve just finished a week at MIT.”

Heroine :    “You mean you’re still in school?”

I             :    “No, not really. Just thought it would do me some good.”

Heroine :    “What was it exactly?”

I             :    “Oh, just a course about the literature of leadership. That is what all these books and notes are about.”

Heroine :    “You must have come a long way by now.”

Nothing but amazement comes up in me.

Heroine :    “I remember you well, Peter. You were the next-to-perfect student. You were always present, and you did your work well. I remember that you were the only student in the class who had a job on the side and was obsessed with fitness. On top of that, you had some crazy ideas about reaching your goals, just to mention something. Chance or coincidence was, I believe, your favorite theme. What I wondered at the time was why I simply couldn’t get you interested in Shakespeare.”

If you are lucky, then an extra little push can do no harm.

I             :    “Did you know that all the guys in our class were in love with you?”

What a person thinks of himself determines his fate.

Jewish proverb

She laughed mischievously.

Heroine :    “Tell me about your stay in Boston.”

I know when I am winning … I think so anyway, so let me keep up the pace.

I             :    “You look fantastic. Let’s go back to the part where I impress you with my Shakespeare books. It must be good for something, isn’t it?”

I             :    “To summarize things, I’ve had a good time, and I am leaving Boston with a lot of special memories.”

Heroine :    “Such as?”

I             :    “A fully automatic piano at the Hyatt. A construction site on the other side of the river. Large cups of coffee. A show about ‘uncommon sense’. A sculpture entitled ‘The Three Lies’. Twenty-four Nobel Prize winners. A fortune cookie with a message from Hong Kong something-or-other. An antique cigar shop. And whale-watching.”

Heroine :    “And the course?”

I             :    “Oh yes, the course…”

Heroine :    “Here you’re sitting with a pile of books and lecture notes, and you’re talking about whale-watching? You’re losing points now.”

I             :    “Like the saying goes, you should have been there, and it’s good to know that I’m impressing you with my Shakespeare.”

Heroine :    “All right then, just tell me about your whale-watching.”

You’ll benefit greatly if you can make the mistakes from which you can learn early in your life.

Winston Churchill

She can hardly keep from laughing.

I             :    “Okay. We left the harbor on a fast boat. Several hundred years of history were summarized during this trip in mere minutes. As soon as we had arrived at promising grounds, an explanation followed about what we could expect. I remember a couple … passionately enjoying each other’s company during the entire trip. I also remember a family with a little boy. The little guy had apparently just learned to talk. Everything was exciting for him. He had never seen a real live whale before. ‘At 3 o’clock,’ the loudspeaker announced, as it came to life. ‘A mother whale with a little one.’ It was a fantastic show. The whales were enormous but graceful at the same time. The captain identified them as finbacks, and we got an explanation about their behavior and other trivia. The helmsman did his best to follow the animals. We got reasonably close but couldn’t keep up with them. I wondered if the whales considered themselves ‘exceptional’. Such an encounter! Here in this wide ocean are these survival artists, masters of evolution, able to find their way without any compass, without any evident goal, and yet… The little guy was tremendously impressed. The lovebirds were still kissing. The trip back was much like the trip out to sea. It went fast, and we were told more trivialities. It was a very informative boat trip. The only way to make it even better would have been as a scuba diver, swimming among the whales.”

It is easier to fill ten books with philosophy than to bring one principle into practice.

Ljev Tolstoj

Heroine :    “Weren’t you fond of sports that any sane person would only want to see in a movie?”

I             :    “You still remember that?”

Heroine :    “And what about this literature of leadership? Did you learn anything?”

I             :    “That is an ambivalent question… Let me explain it this way. Suppose this plane were to get into difficulties and, after a panic attack or two, the flight attendant were to come out and ask the passengers if anyone can fly this ‘coffin’. Then I, Mr. Hang Glider, would not only head for the cockpit immediately, but I would also have a well thought-out plan or something close to it. I might tell a few jokes, and it’s not inconceivable that I would involve Shakespeare and his friends. Even more important, we would survive.”

Heroine :    “Is this a riddle, a wish, or have you gone altogether mad?”

I             :    “Maybe I had too much sun during my whale-watching.”

Heroine :    “Now if you start talking about the piano, then I suggest that upon landing you take the first plane back to the US for a real vacation.”

I             :    “What are you doing yourself, by the way? I still remember you as very married, so what brought you to Boston?”

Be careful of your reputation, for it will last you longer than a thousand great hoards of gold.

The Book of Ecclesiasticus 41:12

Heroine :    “To borrow your own words, that is an ambivalent question. Anyway, it’s good to see you again. If this were a movie, then right now I should say something like ‘we should stop meeting like this’.”

I             :    “Help me out here. I need an ending to this meeting, preferably one that has something to do with Shakespeare.”

Heroine :    “You know what? No more whale stories, and no more questions about my marriage, and you may have my dessert.”

I             :    “No, I am serious. I cannot rely on your coincidence, and I cannot wait another ten years for a good ending. Maybe it will never come.”

Heroine :    “I knew it all the time. It was only a matter of time.”

In a plane full of strangers, the chair next to me was never so empty …

Life has two things to strive for. The first is to get what you want. The second is then to enjoy it. Only the wisest achieve the second.

L.P. Smith

Have fun!

Without fun you achieve nothing. This is different for every individual person. For some it is a fresh cup of tea or relaxing in the sun. Fot others it is a shoebox full of memories.

Life is like a story. The important thing is not how long it is, but how good it is.

Jewish proverb