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Bittersweet Anticipation: Expecting The Expected

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Ben Dolnick is a writer based in Brooklyn.

Lately, just in time for Christmas, I've discovered that I've been acting in a play. A kind of holiday pageant, really. Working title: Things Are Always Better Before You Have Them.

Act One: I learn about the existence of something I want. Say, a book. (Ooh, a book of letters between William Maxwell and Eudora Welty!)

Act Two: I add the book to my Amazon wish list, which I proceed to circulate shamelessly to my family.

Act Three: I receive the object, put it on my nightstand and forget about it — at least until the following Christmas; possibly forever.

This plot, now that I've become aware of it, seems to play as central a role in my life as the ticking-time-bomb plot does in 24. I see it in the eagerness with which I await the cheerful ding of a new email message and then the speed with which it joins the un-bolded others. I see it in the crisp promise of a newly arrived magazine, soon to join the rumpled stack on the coffee table. I see it in the meal, sizzling in the waiter's hands, mere minutes from becoming a lukewarm and poorly chosen heap on my plate.

I seem to spend disturbing quantities of my life arcing from anticipation to indifference (with a fleeting, occasional stop at fulfillment), and, now that I've recognized this trajectory, I find myself madly envious of the people who've managed to escape it.

I refer not to monks, or even to those with sensibly researched wish lists. Instead I'm thinking of the die-hards who continue to believe that somewhere a perfect Republican presidential nominee is waiting in the wings. The basketball fans who insist that Arvydas Sabonis would be the greatest player of all time, if not for that small matter of having injured seemingly everything below his neck. And the art-lovers who keep themselves warm with the thought of Vermeer's still-undiscovered masterpieces.

What have these people done, after all, if not placed Amazon orders that will never be subject to the indignity of arrival? What better place to take up residence than in a paradise that can never be invaded by pesky reality?

Maybe Amazon should, it occurs to me, open a new warehouse devoted entirely to losing packages, leaving customers in a permanent state of anticipation. And maybe Rick Perry should hold a press conference at which he announces his intention to withdraw from the race so as to resume considering whether to enter. Nothing is so perfect as that which never gets to be experienced, and nothing is so alluring as the thought that the next job, the next book, the next president is finally going to be the souffle that doesn't fall between the oven and the table.

Maybe monk-hood really is the best solution. Or, barring that, a pledge to let myself be surprised on Christmas, to cast my wish list overboard. In the meantime, though, have you heard about this new Cook's Illustrated cookbook? It's supposed to be amazing.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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