Friday, March 18, 2005


In a kids' book of Herodotus we used to have (disclaimer: it's not my fault we had the book, my ex's father was a Classics professor) there was this aphorism which I may have misremembered or remade to suit my own purposes: "We do not know if a man lives a lucky or an unlucky life until we know how he dies."

As I recall, my father-in-law explained Herodotus meant: a man must die a noble death - in battle, for instance - in order for his life to be considered truly good. But I took it more in the sense of the following rabbi's parable:

Yankl, a poor farmer, had one horse, which unexpectedly ran away one day. All his neighbors came by to commiserate: "What terrible luck, old man!"
Yankl replied: "Maybe."

Days later the horse came back, bringing a wild mare back with him. The neighbors jealously clustered around Yankl's new horse, saying, "What wonderful luck, old man!"
Yankl replied: "Maybe."

Yankl's only son decided to try taming the wild mare. She bucked wildly and threw him; Yankl's son's leg was broken. Yankl was going to have trouble harvesting his rye without his son, and once again the neighbors sighed: "What bad luck old man!"
Yankl replied: "Maybe."

Days later, soldiers from the czar's army swept through town. They had orders to round up all the young men and press them into service. Very few Jews ever returned alive from service in the czar's army.

They took all the young men, but passed over Yankl's son because his leg was broken. Now the neighbors were whispering, amazed: "What wonderful luck, old man!"
Yankl replied: "Maybe."

Here is the Chinese version of the story.

And here are related excerpts from a Wall Street Journal story by Robert Tomsho, Barbara Carton and Jerry Guidera. Published just following September 11, 2001:

Luck Among the Ruins

Monica O'Leary thought her luck had taken a turn for the worse on Monday afternoon when she got laid off from her job.

But the fact that she didn't go to work on Tuesday turned out to be nothing short of miraculous for Ms. O'Leary. She had worked ... on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center.

For hundreds of people .. Tuesday morning turned out to be an incredibly lucky time to oversleep, reschedule a meeting or sneak in a haircut.

Greer Epstein ... slipped out for a cigarette just before a 9 a.m. staff meeting.

Bill Trinkle had planned to get an early start ... but after fussing with his two-year-old daughter and hanging curtains in her bedroom, he missed the train that would have gotten him into the office about a half hour before the attack. Instead, he took a later train directly to visit a client company, where workers hugged him as soon as he walked through the door.

It was simply a good day to sustain seemingly bad luck. Nicholas Reihner was upset when he twisted his ankle while hiking ... but it was the reason he missed his Tuesday morning trip home to Los Angeles from Boston on the American Airlines flight that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center.

David Gray ... was due to arrive by commuter train at the Trade Center for a meeting just at the time the first plane hit. But a few days earlier, Mr. Gray ... broke his foot while jumping rope at home ... he rescheduled a meeting so that he could drive into Manhattan instead of taking the commuter train. "So I was on the New Jersey Turnpike watching the World Trade Center go up in flames, instead of being in it."

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