Hopes and Schemes
In the fall of 1785, a young Scottish farmer was working in one of his fields, when his plow happened to overturn the nest of a field mouse. The victim scampered away – but the perpetrator felt sadly about his inadvertently cruel act – and eventually wrote a poem about it. The poet was Robert Burns, and the piece was called “To A Mouse”. In it, the author compares the plight of this creature who, after much hard nest-building, had presumably felt snug and secure, but must now face the rigors of winter without a home – with our own human predicament, always at the mercy of blind fate.
The poem is written in broad Scots dialect, with many words which, for an ordinary reader, might require translation. But the general sense comes through clearly enough, and one short passage near the end is so meaningful that, despite the dialect, it has acquired the status of a proverb:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley.
(In case this is new to you, “schemes” is commonly rendered as “plans,” and the last three words mean “often go awry.”)
You might recognize these words as having inspired the title of a modern novel. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) is about two roving California farm-workers, George and Lennie, whose best-laid plan is someday to have a ranch of their own. Lennie is somewhat slow-witted, and George describes their fancied future life together (which he promises will include raising rabbits) so lyrically that Lennie repeatedly begs, “Tell me about the rabbits, George” – which has itself become a catch-phrase for unrealistic hopes.
Although that novel ends unhappily, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” (as Alexander Pope wrote in 1734.) A beautiful example of optimism in the face of disaster was offered by The New Yorker magazine in March 1941, when it published a cartoon by Peter Arno that has added another hopeful expression to our language. In the cartoon, an (apparently experimental) airplane has just crashed. (To eliminate any sense of tragedy, we can see the pilot parachuting safely to earth.) But, while everyone else is rushing toward the crashed plane, one man, with blueprints tucked under his arm, is walking calmly away from the scene. His words have become immortal: “Well, back to the old drawing-board.”
It wittily recalls the mantra we were taught as children: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
America, particularly the West, has always symbolized hope, as expressed in many of our songs. We still dream of a “Home on the Range,” “where seldom is heard a discouraging word.” After this country entered World War II, there was a plethora of songs about how good life was going to be afterward. I particularly remember one called “I’ll Buy That Dream,” which foresaw
A honeymoon in Cairo, in a brand-new autogiro,
Then home by rocket in a wink –
We’ll settle down in Dallas, in a little plastic palace –
It’s not as crazy as you think.
But where does all this leave you and me? I have to admit that I myself have always found it hard to make plans. Hardly anything I’ve done in my life has been the result of careful planning. As a young man looking ahead, my depth of planning extended to the notion that I must make three life “settlements.” The first, in which I was already engaged, would be an “Education Settlement.” Next would come a “Career Settlement,” and finally a “Sex and Marriage Settlement.” That was my entire prospectus.
As it turned out, none of these settlements went at all smoothly – and in fact, none of those issues ever really got settled at all. I never got the kind of education I thought I should have had, never achieved a settled career, and, as for sex and marriage, it wasn’t until January 2015, nearly 50 years after we first met, that Dorothy and I, now in our 80s, went through a form of legal marriage to which we could finally agree.
By that time, our condition was such that the bride had to be pushed in a wheelchair by the groom to the courthouse. Thinking of Robert Burns’s mouse’s nest, I couldn’t help reflecting, with some sense of irony, on the words of another favorite song of ours, expressing young lovers’ hopes and dreams:
We’ll build a sweet little nest, somewhere in the West,
And let the rest of the world go by.