Service of “What If”

October 4th, 2010

Categories: What If


Not everyone writes art criticism as well as Roberta Smith did in Friday’s New York Times in “With a Jury of their Peers,” where she covered MoMA’s new exhibit “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.”

Some feel they must stifle their art critique and knowledge in “meaningful” language that serves to camouflage every point in heavy abstractions that engage me for the length of time it takes my cat to leap on my lap. If I must read each sentence three times, I’m done.

I must be alone because so many in this field continue to write in the obscure vernacular of artistes and to be published. Had I stayed in the wonderful world of art & antiques [where I was an editor a long time ago], there would have been fewer of them, hence, my first if long-winded “what if.”

Ms. Smith noted “The show brings all kinds of rich ore to the surface. And yet, and yet-it also sails into the future as if it were the past, and leaves you wondering if things might have been done a bit differently, with greater flexibility.” Another if with the what implied.

house3What ifs can look backwards and forwards and come up a lot in conversation these days about economic and job-related issues: “What if I had bought my house today and not in 2007?” “What if I had sold AIG or Enron before the implosions?” “What if I win the lottery?”

I have always operated on a “what if” plane. I’m the type that likes to meet deadlines early, when I can, in the event something intervenes, which it always does at a PR agency and in life. I can successfully juggle projects that way. If one client suddenly needs something and I’m well ahead on another project that’s on deadline, there’s plenty of time to do both well and not miss a beat. Nights and weekends are backup cushions.

juggleMy husband is a last minute person. He doesn’t understand why I make and freeze pie crusts the weekend before Thanksgiving or wash the not-made-for-dishwasher plates a few days before setting the table on December 25th. [If I don’t use them often, dishes collect dust.] He doesn’t go for the argument that this is the only way I can get everything done. And what if an unexpected project or new business opportunity crops up? I can’t postpone Thanksgiving but if I’m in good shape, the pressure’s less.

Insurance is predicated on what if I have a house fire? Get sick and can’t work? Die? Trouble is, when we pay for it, we don’t always ask our “what ifs,” only to find out that had our appendectomy hit on a Thursday, it would have been covered.

As I nurse a new sore throat I always wonder if it will turn into an annoying cold that I can more or less hide. But what if it comes with a dizzying fever to prevent my attending a meeting or event? I can’t get into my head that life goes on no matter what-when people die, they miss all their meetings–so relax. But I don’t. What if….

What are or have been some of the “what ifs” in your life? Are there instances in which “what if” is helpful or isn’t?


5 Responses to “Service of “What If””

  1. Hiram Boggs Said:


    Speculating on “what ifs” can be fun, and makes a great parlor game if the participants are imaginative.

    However, it’s a deadly serious business for decision makers. Two great examples of this in recent American history are: “What if both Presidents Bush had listened to advisors with a better understanding of what makes the Middle East tick before going to war there?” Pick your own ending.

    In my own life, I can think of literally thousands of “what ifs,” but doing so, except as a learning exercise, is a useless waste of time. On the other hand, I‘ve found using “what ifs” as a decision making tool (as in chess, “What if I move my rook there, will my opponent counter by attacking my queen?”) is not only extremely helpful, but essential. My sympathy to you for having to put up with a husband who must be a pretty impulsive kind of fellow. Incidentally, how do his impulses usually work out?


  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your last question first: My husband’s impulsiveness works for him. He doesn’t mind missing trains and planes–which I hate. I’d rather read at RR station or airport. He doesn’t mind working himself into a lather the day we have dinner guests, where I find that if I am so exhausted by tension and split-second timing by cramming in the whole job in a few hours not to speak of anxious if the unexpected were to happen, 10 minutes before they are due I wish my friends and/or family wouldn’t come so I could run away and hide. It spoils my evening and time. I like to enjoy my own party, so I plan and work ahead. If I have an hour before folks come [which somehow I never do, but it’s nice to think what if], I can always relax.

    I agree with you: To dwell on what might have been is a waste of time. If you buy a pair of shoes that felt OK at the store but after wearing them one day your feet are wrecked, don’t lose sleep–it happens. And that goes for life decisions as well. I knew a mother who kept telling her daughter, “if you had only married so and so, look where you would be living instead of the dump where you live; where you would be vacationing;” etc. That’s purely destructive.

    Part of my work I like best is anticipating what might happen if a client does thus and such. Some find this a negative approach. I’d rather share what I see as a potential negative impact of a client’s decision than call with bad news because I didn’t speak up.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    The what ifs can be highly positive or destructive depending upon how they are used. Asking oneself such a question before launching upon a project or meeting a challenge can clear up a number of obstacles before they materialize, along with opening up a wide spectrum of possibilities in the bargain.

    Messing with the same question after a blunder is a misbegotten attempt to change the past, and therefore a waste of time. Dwelling on someone elses blunder accomplishes even less.

    My favorite “what ifs” show up in the Met Life ad with the Snoopy flying cheerfully among the clouds. I like to pretend they are someone elses problem!

  4. Nenaghgal Said:

    I suppose I don’t dwell on what if’s too much…I kind of take life as it comes and don’t worry about the what if’s – it’s too draining and worrying – I could think…what if I didn’t move to Ireland….I know now that I would regret it as it has become a pivotal part of changing my life for the better – better standard of living (hard to believe in a country on the edge of financial collapse) but our lives – my husband, daughter and mine are infinitely better for trying something new and finding a life that suits us better than the mad hussle of New York. I do miss New York at times but if I think about what if I stayed….would I still be in publishing? would we survive? But by trying something new I’m now in a whole new field of sales – which I would possibly never have tried..instead of what if – I’ll focus on why not?

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your “dwelling on someone else’s blunder” comment is extremely important–I underscore it. Why? Because recently, I held up doing something my husband suggested we do which turned out very badly for us. When it became clear what the outcome was and is I apologized and he shrugged and said something wonderful and not once has he said, “IF WE HAD DONE THUS AND SUCH…..” which he has every right to do. So I am proof of the accuracy of your comment and very grateful to him for his reaction.


    You can’t ever tell what will happen about anything. As you point out, had you stayed in NY, would there have been a spot in publishing for you? You are extremely talented and so are so many others looking for work in the shrinking world you starred in. I follow highlights of your life on Facebook and it looks as though you live an enchanting life in Ireland, a country I’ve visited only once and fell in love with. As you’ve pointed out on your blog, sales was in your past and you are terrific at it, I’m sure.

    Moves I’ve made with trepidation have worked out very well and others that seemed so right at the time, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, in the long run haven’t panned out. That’s life. The old saw is how you deal with the latter is what counts. It helps not to dice and slice choices gone sour with a deluge of what ifs. I’ve known people mired in quicksands of what ifs to stomach-churning result.

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