Testing Fate With an Eight-Buck Notebook




The cover is black, with a velvety suede feel, and the notebook—excuse me, journal—closes with a clean magnetic snap. A pen could slide into the side loop and feel at home. The paper is smooth and heavy, with the faint, rich speckle of vanilla bean ice cream. In all, an unusually fine notebook for a grocery store to stock.

Do I buy it?

For forty years now, I have written on scraps, old looseleaf, and green-tinted steno notebooks (both sides). I did not want to be precious about my ideas or my scribbled rough drafts. Superstitious as my Irish grandmother, I somehow knew that if I expected glorious prose, or my notebook expected glorious prose, I would write dreck instead.

This might have been a mistake. Granted, it saved me a lot of money in stationery costs. But it also kept me in a state of anxious insecurity, and it drove anyone who cared about me insane. I studied for tests but fully expected to fail them—voiced that fear—got back As—and watched friends who had blown the test stab their home-ec pincushions like they were voodoo dolls named Jeannette. Who could blame them? My pessimism was pure superstition, based not in past experience or a failure to study but in some talismanic belief that if I thought the worst, it would not come to pass.

I am no better now. Tossing and turning, maddened by insomnia, I wake my husband, who rolls over to give me a sleepy backrub. “Aahhh, thank you. That does help. But”—in sudden panic—“I shouldn’t say that, because if I say it’ll put me to sleep it won’t, and then—”

He mutters the Lord’s name—not an especially powerful curse when you are Jewish—under his breath. “You do get tangled.”

Always did. To the point that I secretly branded people as cocky if they dared say they thought they would do well, win the bid, get the job. The Hopi warn of offending the gods with the presumption of perfection, but I stop way short of that. I will not offend them with even a modicum of assurance. I assume the worst and work through it, whether the unknown is a medical test, an article submission, a speech, or the stock market. And so, when I register for Washington University’s Summer Writers Institute and my teacher says to get a notebook, I dig out a scuffed one.

Then I read this article. “Folk wisdom suggests that if you expect the worst, then you won’t be disappointed,” it begins. I nod eagerly. The writer understands. I skip to her byline and read that Ella Moeck is a research fellow in psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne, and “she studies how emotions influence the way we remember the past and envision the future.” Okay then.

She moves on to a definition: “Expecting the worst to avoid feeling bad later is known as bracing.” That seems right. Emotionally, I put both hands out, careful not to fall too hard. If I have already made my peace with the worst possible outcome, what can hurt me? I am doing what everybody thinks Mark Twain said to do: eating a live frog before breakfast so nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day. (It was Nicolas Chamfort who actually gave this advice, a century earlier, tongue in frogged cheek.)

Some theories favor bracing, because we decide how we feel about something by comparing what happened with what could have happened. This allows me to dwell in a state of sweet relief far more often than the rest of you. But, Moeck continues, negative expectations can also worsen outcomes. We think the interviewer is dissatisfied with us, so we misread their facial expression. We expect to fail, so we do not bother to study.

Ah, but that is not my sort of bracing, I want to tell her. I study like hell and prepare myself to fail. Never would I have the audacity to blow the thing off altogether. And my low expectations do not feel literally predictive; they are a lucky charm, a miraculous medal, a well-rubbed bunny’s foot. Irrational from the start.

Still, she continues, negative expectations make people feel worse. There are studies (they needed studies?) that prove this. Having been raised Catholic, I take worse is a badge of virtue (though that does not make it healthy). The negative thoughts lower our opinion of ourselves (also a Catholic plus) and deepen our worry about the future.

Ah, but afterward, we can fix all that, right? There might be a tiny uplift, researchers say, but the positive feeling does not last. In Moeck’s own lab, she writes, “we never found that feeling negative in advance of an outcome was helpful after the outcome was known.”

My jaw sets. This is not good. This implies a lot of wasted misery. But—I brighten—maybe I am confusing pessimism with superstition. I have never been a pessimist. I married one instead, and when he turns Eeyore, I have to remind him—this is getting convoluted—to lower his expectations. In other words, we go on vacation someplace with stunningly beautiful scenery, his glasses shatter, and he decides the entire trip will be a disaster. I lead him to an optical shop and remind him that unmitigated disasters are rare. If you go into the vacation just expecting some relaxation and a little pleasure, I say, instead of The Trip of a Lifetime With Stunning Scenery Everywhere You Look, you will not be cast down.

So now we have a muddle of options. Think the worst to take the pressure off—but still do your best. Think the worst and use it as an excuse to give up or wallow. Think the best and sail along until you crash but know you can set yourself to rights again. Think the best, crash, and give up or wallow. Oh, and yes: think the best, succeed, and savor every second. That is possible. But until I get there, I have decided to not think at all. The future can take care of itself. Meanwhile, I am tired of writing only in crappy notebooks because I am afraid my words will not merit an eight-buck investment. I buy the notebook.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.