There’s always a fly in the ointment

Thus spoke my friend, Roz Panepento, returning from the double canonization of two popes. Commenting as Robert Burns first did, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” In other words, even the cranky 85-year old priest who accompanied her group, and who wanted to dig in the heated soil of mezzo giorno got heat prostration. It reminded her of the lack of perfection anything in life posses, like the priest with this tongue sticking out in thirst. Then, too, The best laid plans of mice and men also comes from John Steinbeck’s 1937 portrait of the intellectual disability of Lenny and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

The fly in the ointment of any plan points to the fallibility of all men and women and their plans. In Steinbeck’s novella, the author tells the story of George and Lennie, two displaced migrant workers in California during the Great Depression (1929–1939). The story is set on a ranch a few miles from Soledad in the Salinas Valley. Since its initial publication in 1937, it has been frequently referenced in popular culture. So there must be something to this universal fallibility in human behavior. A new production of the Steinbeck story has gone up on Broadway.

The notion goes further back to Hamlet’s soliloquy . . .

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns . . .

My dear friend Roz elaborated for nearly a half on hour on the phone, going over the lives of my children, according to age, and to her inherited nephew, niece, and his wife. She covered the portrait of the human species and their fallibilities very well, including that. The doctors have recently reported that her nephew was diagnosed with a shadow in his pancreas. It will have to be X-rayed every six months for the rest of his life.

Still life would have to go on. In fact, the telephone in my hand, suddenly got filled with static, and Roz asked if I would go into my den and take the phone in the other room, where the phone was clear. Perhaps all this is a paradigm. This was a woman, too, whom the love of her life had been my best friend, Hank Crystal, and whom she cared for and nursed until he passed of cancer. She then reminded me of her niece who had just graduated from the New School in Creative writing, and who was interested in writing. She was a lovely girl, who had dinner at our house one night, a very witty and quick wit.

I did remind her that all of my progeny had visited on Mother’s Day, and explained to her how each were doing, from my five-year old grandson and my daughter and son-in-law, to his mother and father. My older son and daughter-in-law came over with bundles of lox and cream cheese and bagels and other goodies. We then all took a short walk (the temp was over 80 in Riverside). Steph and Joseph (my grandson), who was not feeling well, Roz punctuated, “There’s always a fly in the ointment,” but hopefully not in the cream cheese or fruit salad. Roz asked if my youngest son had recovered from his broken hand. I said he was and ready to go into the Navy and she said, “Don’t forget. There is always a fly in the ointment of life. Put it in one of your strong articles.”

The last thing she said was that she was sitting peacefully in her condo in lovely Ocean Grove in New Jersey. By then, I had just scribbled down the line in my appointment book and said, “Uh huh. ‘There’s always a fly in the ointment.’ You’ve got it, Roz. For you, anything!”

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at and He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at

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