The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Dear Ellie — Read or listen to the news today, and you will probably conclude you were born in the worst of times. Global warming! Terrorism! Fanaticism! Violence, rampant obesity, apathy, bad grammar, ignorance! We’re doomed!

I hope I haven’t neglected any areas of concern, but I’m sure I have. It’s a full-time job to keep up with everything that’s dire and awful with the world. No wonder people spend so much time on the Internet exchanging videos of cute puppies and kittens and baby rabbits — just to escape for a few sweet, untroubled moments.

All you have to do is look at history, though, and you realize it’s almost always been the worst of times, millennium after millennium of plagues and wars and floods and starvation. But somehow, the human race has survived. My own grandparents lived through the Great Depression, with fears of total economic collapse, and two horrific world wars and a worldwide flu pandemic. Your other grandparents and I spent part of our childhoods huddled under desks at school to practice for missile attacks by the Soviet Union that would have killed us and ignited another world war.

Duck and cover in the '50s

Duck and cover in the ’50s

(Some time, do read up about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the civilized world could have ended. Or the Berlin Crisis of 1961, ditto. We’ve come close to oblivion both times, but somehow managed to escape it.)

Opa, your grandfather, draws hope from examples like that. Opa is one of those people called optimists who finds rainbows and pots of gold all over the damned place. He’ll look at the Cuban Missile Crisis and nod wisely, saying that — see? — human beings have an unbreakable bent toward survival. Haven’t we proven that, over and over, throughout history?

On a more everyday level, Opa is also the kind of guy who liquefied the mashed potatoes at our most recent Thanksgiving, then announced we were starting a new holiday tradition — potato soup. And, wasn’t it tasty?

Similarly, a few years ago, when our upstairs air-conditioning blew and our master bath shower pan gave up the ghost, I told Opa I felt like Job. He reminded me that Job didn’t have indoor plumbing.

Blake engraving of the Book of Job, 1793; note absence of restroom facilities

Blake engraving of the Book of Job, 1793; note absence of restroom facilities

(Does the Job reference fall flat? If so, remind your parents Coco thinks that every child should have knowledge of the Bible, since so much of Western civilization and literature is built on it. Also, she is tired of having her erudite Biblical references greeted with puzzled looks in this family of heathens.) (While you’re at it, do read the King James version for its beauty and poetry.)


There are many points I’m trying to make here. For one, it’s great to have optimists in your midst, since they’re cheerful and lighthearted — but you probably don’t want to trust them with the mashed potatoes two years in a row. For another, try to keep a perspective on the world. I know it’s hard to have perspective when you’re young and inexperienced, but that’s exactly why you should study history.

And the world, clearly, can be a very troubling place. All you can do is the best you can, living as generously as possible, remembering (Biblical reference alert) you are your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.

Try not to despair when the news is dire. But, when you do despair, try to make it efficient. Try a bubble bath or a carbohydrate binge, then get up the next morning and start putting one foot in front of the other once more. Survival starts there.

I don’t recommend videos of kittens and puppies and baby rabbits to lift your spirits. I do recommend interacting with a four-month-old baby on FaceTime, watching her gurgle and smile and laugh. She’ll remind you of all that’s good and hopeful in the world. Love, CocoXO

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)


  1. Sheryl · December 15, 2015

    I’m so enjoying all your words of wisdom and reflection to the new love of your life!

  2. Brette · December 15, 2015

    I think it is a good thing you are doing so that Ellie will remember the important things – like how much older generations have suffered and that men sometimes muck things up in the kitchen. Seriously though, if there is anything in this messed up world to help us have hope, it is a baby. I’m so happy you have one in your life.

  3. Jane Boursaw · December 15, 2015

    You make a great point. Things seem really dire with the world at the moment, but when *haven’t they been dire? And when you think about the plagues, world wars, life without indoor plumbing or wifi or computers, for that matter… gosh, it really IS the best of times right now.

  4. Holly rigby · December 15, 2015

    Oh Ellie’s Coco, I feel better already, thanks for the pep talk, the reminder of Job, instructions for productive angst, and the sweetest video of that Gerber baby! God Bless Us Everyone?
    Ava’s Neena ( going on three years now)

  5. Alexandra · December 15, 2015

    It’s wonderful the way a baby makes us remember all that is good in the world and strive to improve it.

  6. Melanie · December 15, 2015

    Things do seem dire. More or less always, as you say. It could be worse like the fall of the Roman Empire, because back then they didn’t have potato soup.

  7. Kerry Dexter · December 15, 2015

    I am enjoying imagining Ellie in a few years digging into those biblical references in the KJV…

  8. merr · December 15, 2015

    Lovely that you have created this online gift for your granddaughter.