Superman’s Mute Canary

Hope is on my mind. You too? Well, it is a classic top of mind topic, a lemon twist in the human condition. Prophets, poets, philosophers, they have beaten the concept to death… well, not quite to death. I mean, it is hope, after all. The point is I have nothing to add, not really. That’s why I chose it for my first-ever blog post.

I have nothing to say but I have gathered, unintentionally and over the years, a personal index of what others say around the idea of hope. The things that others say about unfathomable topics are comforting, of course, especially when the words are attributed ultimately to someone who keeps the blueprints for the universe on file in his office, in a file cabinet made of gopher bark, no doubt. It’s nice to know that others, omniscient or not, have arrived at some conclusions. But I am on the verge of a bottomless digression, so on with it.

Emily Dickinson famously versed that “hope is a thing with feathers.” The poem goes on to describe hope as Superman’s mute canary, or maybe Yankee Doodle Pigeon. Neither rain, sleet, snow, nor Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines can drop this bird.

(For those of you of a certain age or those of you who watch retro-toon channels, it will now take about 37 minutes for the song, “Stop That Pigeon” to stop repeating in your head)

Nearly the best part about Emily’s portrait of hope is that the super-bird lives in our soul. Nice. What better home for a ubiquitous if ambiguously defined concept than inside another ubiquitous if ambiguously defined concept. But I like it. I have learned that success is not only about showing up, it’s also about gaining access. But I don’t have to figure out how to get face time with hope or get hope to visit my website or read my resume. According to Ms. Dickinson, I don’t have to stalk hope. Hope is in my soul right here… or maybe it’s over there… but it could be under here, about two inches to the left.

Then there is Woody Allen, and Woody Allen is the best part of Emily’s poem. Years ago he published a collection of stories, many of them having appeared in the New Yorker. He named the collection Without Feathers because, well, his persona as a comedian and humorist was a man without hope, or perhaps more correctly, a man who has hope but it looks like a plucked Cornish hen and never takes flight. Now that I think about it, I’m sure that is what Woody Allen’s hope looks like, a featherless bird furiously flapping its buffalo wings.

But never mind that, the book itself is hilarious.  The first time I read it was on a road trip. I sat in the back seat reading and laughing so hard and so often that the other people in car became annoyed. You see, while the existence of the soul and therefore a bird cage for Yankee Doodle Pigeon might be dubious for some, myself among them at times, laughter is as tangible an experience as exists, and an experience within which hope really does take flight. It is difficult to despair while laughing, is my guess. Unless you are the caped crusader’s arch enemy, The Joker.

This, I think, is why I watch comedy at night. Sir Francis Bacon said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that hope makes a great breakfast but a lousy dinner. The morning time, especially under the influence of good coffee, holds out the hope of many possibilities, accomplishments, wins, new starts. Anything can happen. At night time, it’s all over. This morning-time optimist club to which most of us belong (again, except for The Joker) reflects the seduction of hope and a siren song I try not to hear.

Which brings us to my very favorite saying about hope, most often attributed to the Oracle of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett, and the antidote to high hope and the accompanying crash. Buffett said, “Hope is not a strategy.” Hoping for things to happen is, for me, the quickest path to depression. Planning for things to happen can take me through the day and to my pillow on an even keel.

But then again, as a good friend of mine said, “Hope may not be a strategy, but it’s a hell of a campaign slogan.”

June 2009