Utter disappointment and complete exhilaration are closer together than they may seem. The two are relative to each of us, given our expectations and how easily we are placated. It really comes down to what you anticipate, in most cases. If you keep your expectations low, then the outcome is by definition bound to be more satisfying. A precursor to happiness is basically learning how to see the glass as half full no matter what.
I’ll give you a for instance: Back in 1973, a much ballyhooed comet was set to dazzle the planet. Time, Newsweek, the major television networks, and much of the rest of the media played up the eminent arrival of “Comet Kohoutek” (pronounced Ku-hoe-tek), named after its discoverer, astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. In our fifth grade world, we envisioned Kohoutek as the quintessential mad scientist, wearing a white lab coat at all times, looking like a cross between Einstein, Marx and Lenin. Buried deep in his laboratories, staring through a phalanx of ultra-powerful cannon-sized telescopes, Kohoutek never slept lest he miss any potential stellar phenomenon.
Such was our newfound comet mania that we let down any of the Cold War defenses held by our teachers and parents. We knew Kohoutek was a communist from somewhere behind the Iron Curtain, but it didn’t matter to us. He could have been a trans-gender Romanian gymnast for all we cared. Two classmates engaged in a raging argument over whether he was actually Czech or East German. (He was Czech.) With his well-honed comet finding skills, we embraced Kohoutek as one of our own, like David Bowie or sad to say now, OJ Simpson.
Fall came. October, Novermber. Shorter days and crisper nights. Chuck Phipps and I, theretofore immune to each other’s presence, became staunch comet-searching allies. Like Linus in the pumpkin patch, we were true believers in Kohoutek’s calculations and visions. We gazed interminably at the night sky, talking about everything from comets to vomiting, our breath visible in the chilled air. For that comet, we missed many a dinner, M*A*S*H episode, and more than once, homework assignments. We remained vigilant night after night despite the comet’s stubborn celestial absence. (We were certain, however, that we had spotted a UFO hovering over the neighboring slightly-more-white-trash-than-our-own apartment complex. This sighting was never confirmed by the authorities, however.)
As autumn wore on, the nay-sayers came out in droves. The media now began to turn on the very figure they had lionized weeks earlier, questioning Kohoutek’s methods and conclusions. His comet, many now thought, was a dud, a ruse. The media called it “Comet Watergate,” implying we’d all been suckered by this commie fraud. My infidel classmates were even more crude and cruel, coming up with the admittedly catchy nickname of “Comet Kotex.” Impudent fools. They knew nothing.
Phipps and I took all this extremely personally, as if we were Kohoutek’s lab assistants or his public relations firm. We had a stake in proving this mad scientist right. Our classmates mocked us and said we were wasting our time. Imagine approximately twenty-five Lucy Van Pelts and you have the picture. They had completely gone over to the dark side. On Thanksgiving afternoon, Phipps and I wolfed down our turkey and stuffing to rush out and continue our comet stalking. Just a few days later, high in the northwestern sky at dusk, it finally appeared. Comet Kohoutek looked a little like the Nike swoosh symbol, a small pink dagger on the late afternoon horizon. Phipps and I were ecstatic. It was real. It was finally here, and it was a thing of truly understated radiance. In an era of glam rock, huge afros and platform shoes, understated beauty was a rare quality and in this respect, Kohoutek’s discovery was an unexpected gift and we considered ourselves his finest comet hunters.
That December, Phipps and I uttered hasty goodbyes in the freezing night air. His father had been transferred to Minneapolis and he was gone the next day. Kohoutek had been our only bond, so parting came easily, casually, as it will to fifth graders accustomed to transient apartment complex realities.
Comet Kohoutek slipped quickly into popular memory as a bogus, over-hyped sham. I remember hearing a neighbor say with certainty, “Wait till Haley’s Comet comes. That will be the real deal.” Indeed, in school we’d been sold on Haley’s Comet for years preceding Kohoutek’s surprising discovery. Science class filmstrips, textbooks and lectures alike assured us that every 76 years like clockwork Haley’s Comet came around. It had last appeared in 1910 and was due again in just over a decade.
When 1986 rolled around, Haley’s real deal was nowhere to be seen at all, not even once, in North America. It was blotted from night-sky vision by a combination of artificial urban light reflection and growing air pollution. I wanted to find my know-it-all neighbor now. Unlike “Comet Watergate,” not even a brief glimpse was enjoyed this time. Somewhere deep inside a Czech laboratory, Lubos Kohoutek was smiling.