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  • I

    It was the bee sting that set me straight.

    For months I’d been planning this trip, figuring out tickets and accommodations; plotting out how we’re going to afford it—applying for fellowships, arranging speaking engagements, advertising our house for rent. I spoke with teachers and got lesson plans for my children who I was so recklessly pulling out of school three weeks early. I called in favors from friends to care for our house, our garden and our chickens. I’d mapped out every detail and refused to get excited or hopeful because something could always go wrong.

    In fact, I was convinced that something would. The last time I’d put so much effort into perfectly executing a trip like this, my brother committed suicide three days before we left. I figured I was stupid to be attempting this again, everything a sign and warning but still I pushed on, sure that this was an incredible opportunity if some catastrophe didn’t befall us. There are so many ways to die and lightning can strike twice and even though I still hurt for my brother’s loss, I knew I would have to pay somehow for all the luck and blessings. And so I held my breath and cried middle of the night tears just to release some of the tension; and in the mornings I would wake up with a bruised and swollen tongue from biting it in my sleep. I mistook fear and anxiety for meticulous preparation.

    Everything was set and my jaw was now clenched in daylight hours as well as nighttime. I walked through the days before our departure carrying an insistent headache that I could only hear through if I yelled at everyone around me. The day before we left, we figured we needed to check our two beehives. The older one was doing just fine. But we couldn’t find a queen in the second hive and all the jostling around made them agitated. For the first time in 2 years of keeping bees I got stung. What were the chances that on this day, the day before I leave for five weeks out of the country, a bee would choose to end its life on the inside of my right bicep, and another bee would burrow down into my rainboot only to lose its life on the back of my right calf? I suppose on any day, it’s a 50/50 shot. And when the stinger left its black point and the venom spread like hot metal in its 3 inch radius, I knew I’d outrun my luck for a good long while. But it was okay, and maybe I could see that sometimes the dark side of 50/50 is a necessary place.


    As long as I can remember, I’ve been making deals with God and the gods, the devil, fate and time. If I do this then that. If I get this fellowship then I’ll be denied that award. If I can get across the street before the don’t walk sign starts flashing, I’ll make enough money to send my kids to camp. If we break hands when crossing the pole, we will be separated irrevocably. If it rains on Sunday, it won’t rain on Tuesday. If I count to 30 keeping my eyes away from the track, the train will come when I finish the second count of 30. If I step on a crack then I’ll lose everyone I love.

    These deals have become more acute and more desperate as my life seems to grow more stable. As I become more successful. As my children grow stronger and more beautiful each day. As, it would seem, I have more to lose. And also as I recognize that one tragedy does not protect you from another and more tragedy. A life that I should be living in joy and humility, is lived instead in fear and humiliation.

    Michael tries to deliver me from the dark age superstitions that guide my daily actions into an enlightenment vision of myself as existentialist captain and master. But I am recalcitrant and hold onto the flat horizon in abject ignorance. When Michael tried to explain the law of averages—if a flipped coin comes up heads 3 times what’s the chance that the fourth time it will come up heads again—I responded with utter confidence “15%.” As the Berlin wind and rain turned our umbrellas inside out, Michael patiently told me that 87 million people in Germany think that the bad weather is their fault. And what makes me so special? Exactly, I respond. I’m not special. Anything can happen. But luck favors the prepared and hubris is never rewarded.


    The whole thing is fast and ineluctable. I suppose that’s how accidents go. I walked past only to be drawn back by own curiosity. I became stupidly confident watching others lose their money when I alone seemed to know under which matchbox the ball could be found. And I let myself be urged on when they all said, C’mon this is a big win. And suddenly, really in the blink of an eye and a flip of my wallet, I was out 50€. Shocked and more than anything embarrassed—more embarrassed than I’ve ever been before—I slinked off to a bench in the shadow of the Berliner Dom on Museum Isle and put my head in hands. I knew better. I don’t gamble. Even in dollars. Three days in Las Vegas and I only put a quarter in a slot machine in the airport as we headed home, just to satisfy my kids’ curiosity. But here I was, a New Yorker falling for among the oldest in the pantheon of scams in a city I mistook for familiar. My head had been filled with my own hubris. Or maybe it was just emptied of sense.

    I didn’t know what happened so I texted my mom to find out if this sort of thing happened in our family. Superstition told me it must be spirits, my grandfather visiting me on the 13th (ha!) anniversary of his death. She texted back:

    “Any one lose money on the street? I’m sure of it but who would give themselves up? Lol. I’m guessing Daddy Ed [my greatgrandfather] (ran numbers and threw dice) Granddad Haley (gambler), Andrew (maybe). Remember we can get ‘taken’ legally and illegally. :)”

    I could’ve walked away at least 5 different times by my count. But my count clearly wasn’t so great that day. The fault it seems was not in my stars but in myself.
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