From the Desk of Jay Rainey – December 11, 2020

I do not like to waste anything, a disposition that on some days doubtless finds me chancing food poisoning as I reach for sealed back-of-the-fridge containers and persuade myself that my risk of illness pales by comparison to the risk of discarding “perfectly good leftovers.” At this time of year, my tendency toward frugality also manifests in the “scrap wrap,” a labor of love that spawns gifts of Frankensteinian appearance in the name of salvaging the otherwise useless remnants of wrapping paper rolls.

How pleased I was, therefore, to learn today that “sloppily wrapped gifts tend to exceed expectations.” A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology reports that gifts received from casual acquaintances are more desirable when they are neatly wrapped but, conversely, gifts received from loved ones are more desirable when they are messily wrapped. (Presumably gifts are even more desirable when they are scrap wrapped?)

Masatoshi Koshiba, an eminent physicist, died on November 12 at the age of 94. In his youth, he was forced to work odd jobs to help support his family, and his grades often suffered. His obituary in the Wall Street Journal recalls a comment by a teacher that Koshiba overheard as he was preparing to enter the University of Tokyo. “The one certain thing is he will not apply for the physics department,” the teacher said. “He would never pass.” Koshiba went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos.” Late in his career, when he was invited back to his alma mater to speak at a graduation ceremony, Koshiba projected his mediocre high school grades on a screen for all to see. What matters, he told his audience is “drive to succeed, not grades on paper tests.”

Dr. Jessica Rixom, who led the gift wrapping study, observes that “when [a gift is] wrapped really neatly, it raises expectations that are hard to live up to.” I have written earlier this year and in a letter last year, too, about our misplaced cultural obsession with perfection, one hazard of which is precisely “expectations that are hard to live up to.” The gift matters more than the wrapping, just as the drive to succeed matters more than success itself.

In his 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), the musician Jeff Tweedy, a native of nearby Belleville, Illinois, describes being invited to peruse the archive of Woody Guthrie’s song lyrics in the late 1990s. “It was like reading the unedited transcripts of an artist’s creative process,” Tweedy remembers, “and it was wildly liberating. It didn’t seem like Guthrie agonized over every word; he just wrote down whatever came into his head.” Mixed among the pages of lyrics were Guthrie’s “to do” lists and drafts of personal goals. One of them Tweedy has never forgotten: “Write a song every day.” Or as the artist Chuck Close once said, “Just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Best wishes to you and your families for a joyful weekend.

Jay Rainey
Head of School 

This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: California Stars by Woody Guthrie with music composed by Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. (Apple Music / Spotify)

*The photo above is of the clay hearts that Lower Schoolers sculpted and painted after their virtual assembly with artist Mark Borella, the Seeds of Happiness Guy.