I presented this as the speech How to Live Like an Emperor in the Age of Coronavirus
At the end of last year, Bubbie, my last living grandparent, was fading away. She couldn’t see, could barely walk, and her kidneys were failing. It was becoming clear that we needed to savor each moment with her. So we created some great memories — like the last time we had a steak dinner with her and needed to push her on her walker around the corner to the restaurant. Or the last time she came to our house and Ari asked if he could snuggle her because he really likes snuggling people. We spent those last months finding special moments with Bubbie. And it was exciting because Bubbie was always up for some good fun.
I needed to focus on the quality of the time with Bubbie, not the quantity. You’d think that you could amass enough of something to make you happy, but it rarely does. Take ice cream for example. Bubbie loved ice cream. When I go to a great ice cream shop like the Sugar Factory I want to get the biggest and best thing they have. At Sugar Factory this would be an Insane Milkshake. On the menu, these milkshakes look awesome! They are the biggest most wonderful things on the planet. And I think that if I drink the whole thing, I will be happy forever. And then it comes. And the first sip is incredible. There’s even candy on top and chocolate covering on the outside of the mug. But as I eat it, it tastes less good and by the end, it becomes an unhappy challenge to even finish it. Eventually, through multiple visits, I learned that savoring a little bit of ice cream is far better than trying to eat all the ice cream in the world.
When I look at experiences, I feel the same way. I think about all the places I haven’t been and adventures I haven’t tried. I want to pack them all into my bag of experiences and it just becomes overwhelming. But then I get excited at the wealth of possible adventures that I can explore every day. I just need to pay more attention. In my office building, there’s a skylight looking up at the Empire State Building that I didn’t even notice until my son pointed it out. I was always rushing by it to get lunch. There’s a great book on how dense the world is and how much we don’t see called On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandra Horowitz. In the book, Dr. Horowitz takes us down the same street with 11 different experts and shows us how much we’re missing as we walk down the street.
I even ignore the truly glorious things that are right in front of me. I remember when Ari was in preschool next to Central Park. How lucky was I! I got to walk to work by Central Park after dropping him off! One day I realized that I’d walked by Central Park thinking about work and what I had to do. All of a sudden I’d be at the subway, having completely checked out from the experience. It struck me that this wasn’t going to last forever, Ari was going to graduate, and I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore. I thought about how I could make the most of the time I had left. Each day, I would take a full minute when I got to the park (I timed it) to just appreciate how lucky I was. A few times, I even took pictures of how pretty the landscape was because I knew that every day it would look slightly different. Finally, I played a game called, “Last Day” where I walked through the park like it was the last day of school. It’s an oddly fun game and it’s amazing how you can have that “Last Day” experience many times.
I’d forgotten about this Central Park experience for quite a while. Then I found myself in Japan at a work conference. I had some time to explore Tokyo one afternoon and ended up at the Imperial Palace, The Emperor’s residence. I wasn’t coming back to Japan for a long time so I ran around the place trying to see everything. I ran to see the grassy lawn area where the concubines used to live. I saw the platform of the giant Tenshu tower that burned down in 1657 and was not rebuilt because one elder felt that the Shogunate was so good at protecting the peace that a proper tower was not necessary.
As I walked through the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, things seemed beautiful yet familiar. I was kind of annoyed at first thinking “WTF. I’ve come halfway around the world to see this Imperial Garden and it’s not any better than the park down the street.” Then I realized that I can’t compare them. Even though the Imperial Garden isn’t that different from Central Park, it doesn’t make it any less wonderful. I need to really step in and appreciate it slowly and take a minute and really absorb the place rather than compare it to someplace else.
The way to really appreciate the Imperial garden is the same way to appreciate Central Park. I need to soak in the little things as much as the big ones — reveling in and appreciating the moment.
It’s a pretty amazing experience. The Emperor of Japan opened his private garden to the public so that laypeople like you and me can see what it’s like to be an emperor. And it hit me: WE ARE LITERALLY LIVING LIKE EMPERORS.
This was a profound experience. When I raced around looking at all of the historical buildings, it was awesome, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. Then I thought about what the Emperor actually does in his garden. He doesn’t look at the tourist attractions. He casually walks around the garden appreciating his beautiful irises. When I took a step back to savor the moment, and really acted like an Emperor for an hour, that filled me with joy.
I started this piece by contemplating how important it is to savor every moment when someone is dying. But I know that every moment dies once it’s over. I remember when Blake was at his second birthday party. He turned to me and said, “Are all of these presents for me?” I thought this was wonderful, I’d raised the perfect humble selfless child who would always be like that. But of course I hadn’t. He changed into a normal kid on his next birthday screaming, “I want more presents!” I learned that when the kids do something cute and I say, “I’ll take a picture of it next week,” they’ve already grown out of it by the time I get around to snapping a photo.
The key to living like a king is to savor life, sucking all of the marrow you can out of each experience. Anna Quindlen, in her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life, has a great quote from Gwendolyn Brooks that sums it up well:
EXHAUST THE LITTLE MOMENT.
SOON IT DIES.
AND BE IT GASH OR GOLD
IT WILL NOT COME
AGAIN IN THIS IDENTICAL