Countdown for liftoff

Countdown for liftoff

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We are a step or two ahead of the dogs from that famous Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov, who discovered that his canines salivated when he entered the room, even if he wasn’t about to feed them.

We can and do anticipate all kinds of things, counting down the days until our wedding, the start of school, a winter vacation, a new dog’s arrival, the day we retire, the start or end of another sports season.

There’s an electricity in the air that changes the usual Sunday through Saturday routine, when we otherwise might just check the calendar to make sure we didn’t miss a dentist appointment, renew a registration for a car or pay a bill that’s coming due.

These bigger events — birthdays, surprise parties, New Year’s celebrations — are like larger waves on the ocean. We ride the regular waves up and down, but the bigger waves can give us a higher high, a lower low and take us further, generally, than every other wave.

What do we do to get ready for these big moments? If we’re anticipating a reunion, we might lose weight because we want to look as fit and trim as we did 25 years ago when we graduated from high school. We might make 100 calls to make sure that all the small details about the place settings for the wedding are exactly right, that everyone’s name is spelled correctly and that no one is sitting with an ex-husband she can’t stand.

We’re often aware of the date of these bigger occasions months or even years before they arrive. A mandatory retirement at the age of 60, for example, could be on the calendar for 15 years or more, as both a liberating experience and a journey into the unknown.

The training for these experiences starts early, when our parents describe how our birthday is coming next month, next week or even tomorrow. Sometimes, the anticipation is so great that sleep the night before is almost impossible, as our minds have already jumped ahead in time, putting us at the front of the room where we have to make a speech or torturing us with a range of what-if problems, as in, “What if my pants rip?” or “What if I forget what to say after slide three?” or “What if I don’t like anyone in my class this year?”

When we’re young, we read books that we know will end. We could tell that the ending was coming because we had only a few pages left before the characters we loved would leave us for the evening, until the next book, or until the next time we read about Horton and the Whos, those brave little folks he would not want to lose.

Our anticipation can magnify any of our senses, turning that orange leaf into a harbinger of a pumpkin carving competition; converting the sound of the shower into the calming splash of the ocean as it gently laps along the shore; or recasting the scent of freshly cut grass into the exultant shouts of parents and teammates amid a walk-off hit at the end of a tightly contested baseball game.

Surely, there are countdowns some of us dread, like the start of the new school year — I didn’t say it, I just wrote it, so I didn’t violate my promise to a few kids I know. While there are responsibilities to honor, burdens to bear and hurdles to jump, there are also joys and bigger moments, like a dance, a birthday celebration or a Thanksgiving with family, that all keep the carousel turning.

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