This tale begins and ends with biology.
One afternoon, during my junior year in college, I sat in biology class, befuddled as usual. So I tuned out the teacher, flipped a page in my notebook, and wrote out my post-college goals. They were as follows:
1. Be a writer.
2. Live in a big city.
3. Have a partner.
Miraculously, within eight years, I'd achieved everything on my to-do list. You'd think I've been content ever since--and I am, at least where the city (San Francisco) and the partner (Nick) are concerned. And yet, I continue to strive, plot, and scheme. I'm always looking ahead at what's next, whether it's my next career move or my next meal (or both).
In that sense, I suspect I'm typically American. Unlike, say, the Italians, who savor il dolce far niente, Americans typically don't know how to appreciate "the sweetness of doing nothing." We're rarely content with where we are, what we have, who we are, and what we do. We're always looking for something else, something new, something more.
There's a fabulous scene in one of my favorite films, Key Largo, that expresses the perpetual American drive. Edward G. Robinson plays a gangster on the run, holding the occupants of a Florida hotel hostage so he can elude the police--as a hurricane approaches, no less. I'm paraphrasing and condensing here, but basically, Humphrey Bogart says to Edward G.: "I know what you want. You want more!," to which Edward G. heartily agrees.
Stay with me, as I'm about to connect the dots.
Last Friday was a warm, sunny day, so Nick and I did something we rarely do: play hooky. We scampered off to our favorite beach, Gray Whale Cove, just south of San Francisco. Nick snoozed on and off, I read the newspaper. And then I did something that's even more rare than playing hooky. I simply sat and watched the sunlight sparkle off the waves. After a while, my mind drifted back to my college junior days, when I scribbled down my life's goals in biology class. I saw myself then and now. I felt a deep contentment.
As I continued to watch the sea with no purpose in mind, I noticed a spout of water shooting up, about 100 yards off shore. The water often sprays upward here after crashing against a rock, so I didn't think much about it. And then, another spout, and another, and before long, a large black fin poked through the waves, followed by another. Whales! In all the years we've enjoyed Gray Whale Cove, we had never seen a whale here before. (I tried to grab a photo; below is the best I could manage.)
Maybe the whales were there on previous visits and I just didn't see them? Who knows. But this much is certain. If we hadn't taken time off to "do nothing"--i.e., go to the beach--and if I hadn't been gazing at the sea without motivation, I'd probably have missed this thrilling example of biology in action. Or, to put it another way, by not looking for "more," I found it.