Sunday, January 1, 2012

No Crystal Ball

By Lisabet Sarai

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will,
I predict this motel will be standing
Until I pay my bill.

~ Warren Zevon, Desperadoes Under the Eaves

A few days ago I finished reading I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. The book, a biography/oral history written by the artist's ex-wife and long-time friend Crystal Zevon, impressed me on several levels.

Warren Zevon was the prototypical tortured genius. He had incredible talent as well as solid musical skills (he studied piano with Igor Stravinsky), and is responsible for some of the most brilliant songs I've ever heard. Yet he spent much of his life lonely, miserable, and haunted by personal demons. An alcoholic, obsessive-compulsive, insecure sex addict, he hurt and disappointed the people who loved him (of which there were many) over and over again. When I read his story, I wondered (as I often do) if only individuals ravaged by insanity or self-destructiveness, like Zevon, are capable of creating truly great art.

The other message I took away from Zevon's biography is a renewed appreciation for the unpredictability of life. In 2002, after decades of personal struggle, Zevon's life seemed to be looking up. He'd been clean and sober for more than a decade. His relationships, especially with his children, had improved. He was negotiating with a record company about a new album. He was strong and fit, spending hours in the gym, but a persistent shortness of breath led him to consult a doctor. After a battery of tests, the specialists informed him that he had a lethal, untreatable form of lung cancer and would be dead within three months.

Unpredictable indeed. You never know when that sort of news will slam into you like a speeding truck. And yet randomness still reigned in Zevon's life. After his diagnosis, he lived more than a year, long enough to finish a final album, see his daughter married and witness the birth of his twin grandsons.

Positive events are equally impossible to predict. Although I always dreamed about traveling, I never expected to be living overseas. A child of divorce who saw few successful marriages growing up, I would have pooh-poohed the notion that I'd end up wedded to the same person for nearly thirty years. And despite that fact that I've always written for self-expression and recreation, it never occurred to me that I'd become a professional author.

Who can predict the consequences of a chance encounter? I happened to pick up a salacious Black Lace title in an Instanbul hotel. Thirteen years later, I've got a respectable back list of erotic fiction of my own.

So I'll pass on the crystal ball. There's no way I can tell what the future holds – good or bad. Furthermore, even if I had that kind of foresight, I wouldn't want to exercise it. Honestly, I'd rather be surprised.

In any case, I really don't want to focus on what's coming down the road. One thing I've learned over the years is that true joy exists in the present moment. When you allow yourself to be distracted from the now, by nostalgia over the past or concern for the future, you lose the chance to appreciate the gifts of today.

I'll see what 2012 brings, day by day. I'm an optimist, so I generally expect positive outcomes, but I know we're all a short step away from death, too. I'm not going to let that spoil my celebration.

Happy New Year to all. May your 2012 be full of sweet surprises.


  1. Hi Lisabet!

    I had a conversation like this with my kid in a Burger king yesterday when i pointed out to him that his present existance, even the fact he had been born at all, depended on the random outcome of a very small piece of paper being sucked up or not in an old vacuumn cleaner in a house in minneapolis in April 1973. He was born because the vacuum cleaner wasn;t strong enough to suck up the piece of paper.

    But your life has turned out very well. Who could have predicted it?


  2. I am also an optimist, becoming more so as I get older. I also love a shiny new datebook and the clean slate of a new year. I like imagining what may be...

    Happy New Year Lisabet!

  3. Hey, Garce,

    It's tempting to look back at those moments of randomness and ask oneself "what if that hadn't happened". I believe, though, that sort of indulgence is a waste of time and energy. In fact every instant of our lives we're pushed one way or the other by processes that have no direct relation to us - like the rain drop in "Time and the Maiden".

    I try to focus my attention on what is, not on what could have been.

  4. Kristina - You're right, there is a feeling of new possibility as one faces the new year, even though the division between one year and the next is totally arbitrary. Is January 1st, 2012 truly different from December 31st, 2011.

    Only if we make it so, I guess.

  5. Heh, heh ... it depends on what calendar you follow!

  6. Living in the moment sounds like good advice, Lisabet. I've always wondered: 1) if a fortuneteller really had a reliable gift for seeing the future & if this person knew you would be killed in an accident within a month, would s/he tell you? Probably not. Would you want to know? Probably not either.
    Garce, as random as your or your son's birth might have been, I'm curious about the piece of paper that wasn't sucked up by the vacuum. This sounds like tyhe seed for an interesting story.


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