Finding Goodness in Unexpected Places

“Someone give me some good news,” she said.

She wasn’t exasperated; she didn’t have that frustrated edge to her voice that people often have when they’ve been hearing nothing but terrible things for an extended period of time. The sigh she let out as she spoke hinted more at resignation than anger. Her request sounded as though she had all but given up the fight against negativity and was grasping for one last moment of hope to remain grounded.

I didn’t blame her for trying to lift the mood in the room; the office lunchroom conversation had not exactly been pleasant. It had been relatively short and the subject matter may not have held the same overbearing weight as the headlines screaming from the newspaper lying in the middle of the table. Still, discussing a coworker’s week-long struggles with digestive issues and the various challenges that go along with planning one’s wedding were enough to start bringing her down and she’d had enough.

“I don’t necessarily have good news,” I answered. “But how about an adorable picture?”

She smiled and nodded vigorously. I scrolled quickly through the photos on my phone, selected a shot I’d taken earlier that week of my children sharing a milkshake and passed the phone across the table. I grinned as she began kvelling; I mentioned that I could not believe the similarities in their faces, from the outlines of their noses to the curves of their cheeks to the shapes their lips formed as they puckered around their straws. She asked with a knowing smile if they love each other and I couldn’t answer yes emphatically enough.

I was glad that I had been able to help her smile at that moment but her request stuck with me through the rest of the day. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times recently when all I’ve wanted was for someone to show me something positive. The news has been one terrible thing after another after another. I pass multiple homeless people every day as I make my way through the city. I work with children who are doing their best to handle significant mental illnesses, many of which are as heartbreaking as they are scary.

Still, somehow, we keep breathing, keep moving, keep pushing through.

I made my phone calls and home visits during the rest of the afternoon, my coworker’s request periodically re-entering my consciousness. My wife and children had spent the day in the city with friends and I went to meet them when my visits were finished. Their faces lit up when they saw me and I had a passing thought that I had found my own personal piece of “good news.” We remained in the city for some time longer and then made our way through the evening rush hour crowds to take the subway home.

The subway had just started moving when I heard someone singing from the other side of the car. I couldn’t see him clearly through the commuters standing between us but I caught glimpses of his face. His skin was dark but his smile shone, practically eclipsing the pale fluorescent train lights. It was difficult to make out the songs over the murmurs of the other passengers and my daughter’s ongoing commentary (“Train! Ride train!”). I could tell that the people around him enjoyed it, though; their applause sounded more enthusiastic than the soft, polite claps I was used to hearing for subway performances.

The man began moving toward our side of the car, asking for donations as he weaved slowly between the other passengers. He stepped gingerly past our stroller, careful to protect his guitar from hitting the handles or the people sitting nearby. The family of tourists behind us said that they had not heard him playing and he began strumming immediately.

“Don’t worry… about a thing,” he sang.

I smiled, quickly recognizing the Bob Marley song. Shayna motioned for me to pick her up so she could get a better look at the musician. I planted my feet to balance her weight with that of my work bag and the movement of the train and hoisted her into my arms. I leaned in next to her ear and joined in softly.

“‘Cause every little thing… is gonna be all right.”

I leaned back against the subway pole and turned slightly so that Shayna could see the man with the guitar without having to look over my shoulder. The man returned her gaze as he sang, his warm smile continuing to shine.

“Don’t worry… about a thing,” the man sang again as he returned to the chorus. This time, though, I harmonized with him loudly enough for everyone near us to hear.

“‘Cause every little thing… is gonna be all right.”

Shayna giggled and smiled back, captivated with our duet. The man’s eyebrows rose briefly from the surprise of having an unexpected partner but his expression shifted quickly back to enthusiastic joy. We finished the song together and I passed him some money as he thanked me for joining in. He gave me a fist-bump and one last gracious smile before moving into the next subway car to perform for a fresh audience.


I found myself thinking of my coworker again. She was right; the world seems so often like it’s crumbling around us that it’s difficult to find reasons to keep a positive attitude. That train ride made a difference, though. My kids saw their father sharing an interaction with a man who came from very different circumstances, not least of which had to do with the color of his skin. I felt good about providing an example for the way I expect my children to treat others, especially those less fortunate than we are. And, as for my singing companion, I can only hope that he appreciated my joining with him in what I assume was one of his lower moments.

There is still good news around; sometimes we just have to spread our own.

The “Reasons to Stay Positive” graphic was borrowed with permission from the creator, Ms. Dani DiPirro. Follow her @PositivelyPresent on Instagram.

Musical Notes

I had a friend in college who had the ability to guess the kind of music that a person liked with remarkable accuracy. We were in an a capella group together1 and we went on a few road trips to sing at other schools. On one such trip, each of her passengers rotated picking the “soundtrack.” When each person chose a CD from her massive catalog she was able to guess the genre, and sometimes, the exact album that the person had picked. I wasn’t so impressed when she said that a friend of ours had picked Aretha Franklin; frankly, that was a pretty easy one if you knew the girl. But I’ll admit, I was kind of surprised when she said, quite confidently, that I would choose something in the alternative/hard rock vein. She had nailed it; I was holding Live’s “Throwing Copper.”

When I was in middle and high school, I struggled a lot with self-esteem issues. I had long-ish hair that was awkwardly parted in the middle and glasses lenses that were so thick that I could have used them to wreak havoc on ant hills.2 One of my favorite songs was Dave Matthews Band’s “Dancing Nancies,” which asks, “Could I have been anyone other than me?” The song itself is written more as a question of hypothetical situations but I always thought of it more as, “Why couldn’t I have been someone else?” It was a typical middle school refrain; I wondered why I was me instead of someone more popular/funny/good looking/talented/choose your adjective. My music tastes at the time were mixed, as they’ve often been, but I remember a lot of Nirvana, Green Day, the Offspring and Pearl Jam. There were appearances by Dave Matthews, Ben Folds, who remains a staple in my library, and Phish, but most of the music I listened to had a significant undertone of disappointment and the feeling that something was missing.

That last piece – the feeling of being incomplete – was the key behind much of my emotional state during that point in my life. I had friends at school, earned good grades, got along pretty well with my family; but still, I always felt like something was off. More specifically, I always felt like there was something inside me trying to break free. I was drawn to songs like MuteMath’s “Typical,” a song that speaks of a desire to become more than the conventional, to exceed expectations. There was a voice inside me yearning to make itself heard. I tried using a number of outlets, including creative writing, acting in the school plays, playing goalie for the high school floor hockey team.3 Things came together slowly in high school, but in college, as is the case for many people, I found the things that helped me turn into the person I would become. I joined the Tonics, studied subjects that interested me and had experiences that shaped my personality. And after I graduated, I started working, got married, Eitan was born and I turned into the person I am today.

I still find myself in that frame of mind of inadequacy from time to time, usually when I’m in a bit of a rut at work or when I haven’t slept properly and my patience with the world is worn thin. It’s in those moments that I still turn the music up, letting the heavy electric guitar engulf my senses and adjusting my pace to the beat of the song. Sooner or later I’m able to emerge from my reverie with the reminder that we all make our own meaning with regard to our destinies. I count my blessings – a loving and supportive wife, an amazing and healthy child and a community of relatives and friends, among others – and remember that, to the people most important to me, I’m anything but Typical.

1. The Binghamtonics. We went to Binghamton University. The name is a musical pun. Every group has a name like that. Yes, we knew we were dorks.
2. Both of my parents and three out of four grandparents wear glasses. My brothers and I were doomed. Thank goodness Eitan has his mother’s eyes.
3. I wasn’t a crazy, quirky goalie like the guys who play in the NHL. I didn’t choose the position because I enjoyed the bruises I endured from every practice and game. I played goalie because I have asthma and I didn’t have the stamina for the running the other positions demanded. Goalies don’t run, so that’s where I played.