THE COSMIC SPREADSHEET
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
even before the Santa Fe dream started...
A little more than three decades ago, about a year after we first met, the realization dawned on JoAnn and me that we had more in common than polo. At first we were just nodding acquaintances at a small polo club in Anaheim. And then one day she showed up with a chestnut mare she had just bought from someone in LA. JoAnn had no place to store her tack and I had a tackroom. “Why don’t you keep your tack in here?” I asked.
At that point I had been riding seriously for two years, ever since my eleven year old son, Loren, and I had gone to the desert outside of Palm Springs on a father-son Indian Guides weekend and happened upon a polo match at Eldorado Polo Club in Indio. It stirred the same kind of primal attraction I had felt when I first saw a match in West Orange when I was a teenager. I said to myself back then one day I will do that. But like a lot of childhood dreams it got put on the very back burner, a victim of the demands of life.
What I didn't know was that from the time I was first put on a horse when I was four or five horses had been surreptitiously shaping my destiny. What I felt that first time was electricity. Coming up through the saddle straight into me. Sheer gazillion volt electricity. It was a feeling that never got old. Growing up I had listened carefully to all of my Grandpa’s stories about horses and the Russian cavalry and how he, the man I called Poppy, had won the Cross of St. George for bravery and I said one day I will do that. Well, maybe not actually be in the cavalry but I knew one day I would ride a horse flat out, straight for the horizon, all four feet off the ground. For a kid growing up in a small town in New Jersey in a small house with a very limited budget that was akin to becoming Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Not a chance.
But still, every chance I got I was horseback. I wouldn't let anything stop me. When I was eleven or twelve I took riding lessons in the Orange Mountains with money I made delivering groceries for Mr. Gerber, riding my bike each way, hurrying to get home before dark so my Mom wouldn’t suspect.
“Poppy, can we get a horse?”
“Where are you going to keep it?”
“In the backyard, Poppy.”
You can guess how that turned out.
When I finished my residency I volunteered for the Army and rode at every Army post I was stationed. Rode every chance I got after I was discharged. Somehow a horse of my own never happened and it remained a dream, a secret just behind my eyes, until the day almost forty years ago that one of my patients told me she had a riding stable in Santa Ana Heights and we got to talking and she asked if I would be interested in taking lessons. Maybe trading for my fee. Would I? Ya think?
So at least three or four times every week at about 7 AM, there I was, unlearning all the bad riding habits I had picked up over the years at the various and sundry stables. Learning how to jump. How to fly on the wings of a horse.
I was no closer to learning how to play polo but I was riding. And then early one morning I met a man whose daughter was taking jumping lessons. His name was Denny.
“What are you doing riding in an arena this early with a bunch of 12 year old girls?” and I said “because I want to play polo and I figured I had better become a better rider” and he said “I play at this small club in Anaheim. Why don’t you come out tonight and watch?”
Why indeed? I was there that night. And that’s when I met JoAnn.
And the “why don’t you keep your tack in here…” when she showed up with her chestnut mare a few months later led JoAnn and me to long and often convoluted conversations about life and relationships and families and backgrounds. And values. Polo was the backdrop, horses were the common bond. And dogs. There never seemed to be enough time to run out the conversation thread and together we learned the truth of what Izak Dineson had written years before: God made the world round so you can’t see too far ahead. Good thing.
Sooner or later you begin to realize life is like a giant spreadsheet, a cosmic Excel. Change a value in one cell at the top and the results change away down at the bottom. At any moment we are confronted with choices. Each one leads to another set of choices and another so ultimately you wind up walking an algorithmic path you didn’t even know existed when you started, with a life 180 degrees different from the life you imagined. As Jack Bartlett once said: “I don’t want to meet the liar who can tell me his life turned out they way he thought it would.”
The most interesting part of it is we think we are actually in control and the choices are ours to make. But are we? Or are we confronted with alternative paths that result from choices we made way back at the top of the spreadsheet we weren’t even aware were life-changing when we picked the one that was the most alluring or the one that we thought would bring us ultimate success. Or made the choice that we felt would bring us happiness.
You could almost hear the cosmic spreadsheet blink and reboot when Denny told me about the club in Anaheim. Or maybe it started to blink when my patient told me about her riding school. Or even before. And when the values at the end obediently changed to reflect what seemed at the time to be random events it wasn’t coincidence at all. Maybe Santa Fe wasn't a coincidence.
If you trust who you are and what you’ve done, the right thing will appear and inspire you to move in that direction. Or as the late Randy Pausch once said: “If you live your life the right way the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”
But can you trust it? That you are doing the right thing? Making the right choice? I was about to find out.