Sometimes we make life needlessly difficult.
I’m on the phone with a friend telling him about my trouble with a crossword puzzle.
“Four letters, English countryside,” I say.
He tosses out an idea or two.
“Sometimes, I feel I am over-thinking,” I say.
My friend’s laugh, the same one I’ve heard for more than 50 years, comes back across the phone. His voice is warm, comforting, trusting. We’ve known each other 90 percent of our lives.
“A friend once told me not everything is a zebra — sometimes it’s just a horse.”
We talk about how easily we can turn the easiest of challenges into complicated, layered equations — only finding the answer is the easiest solution or the first place our gut wanted to go.
Since this call, I hear his words over and over again. From removing a cabinet from a garage wall to adjusting the tension on my bike, I see animals strolling around in my mind.
If I find myself staring at a zebra — stuck and unable to figure my way out — I ask myself, am I staring at a horse?
Some of us carry a lot of power between the ears, processing large amounts of information, quickly making sense of the challenge. Others of us tend to find our minds clogging up like a narrow drainpipe during heavy rain. And in the overflow, we drown.
In elementary school, word problems always had my number.
Word problems, which always seemed like a misnomer since they were all about numbers, killed me. Just seeing one creeping up on a test was enough for me to break out in a sweat and restrict my breathing.
I’d sit and stare. Indeed, I would think, this is my opportunity to demonstrate my extraordinary brilliance to my teacher. Afterward, she’d look at my answer and realize she should place me in an advanced academic environment. Surely, she’d say to herself, only a genius would be able to solve such a complicated challenge correctly.
And while I daydreamed this scenario, precious minutes would tick off the clock on the classroom wall, only adding to the pressure.
I approached every word problem as if I were figuring out the perfect air-tofuel ratio on a rocket ship to Mars.
I would proceed to walk around the problem, identifying and imagining obscure details into the question.
What if Johnny is allergic to tomatoes? Does that mean he would not have used the two for his BLT, leaving all six intact on the table? Or what if the traveling car crossed over from Georgia to Alabama where the time zones change? Could Billy and Jane arrive at Aunt Betty’s before they originally left, according to their wristwatches?
And, as you can expect, I crashed and failed. Chasing zebras destroyed my scores — and derailed me from ever becoming an astrophysicist.
Fortunately, I’ve learned more of my problems are horses than zebras. That is unless you are that last pesky four-letter word on my crossword puzzle.