Opinions, Column

The Setup for a Scheme: Part 1

It was a warm September evening at the home of a particularly lovely lady, whom all of Beacon Hill adored. Upon hearing a sudden knock at the door, she looked up from her daily crossword, surprised. She wasn’t expecting company. At the sight of the visitor, her eyes widened with shocked delight. Her eldest son, who had traveled thousands of miles from California to see her, stood in the door frame. Even more exciting, it seemed he was prepared to stay a while—he carried two full duffel bags, one in each hand. Strangely, they were unzipped. 

As she ushered him in, he greeted her with a smile and gently set his bags down. After a pause, he announced with a twinkle in his eye: “Mom, I’d like to introduce you to your first grandchildren.” 

And there we were—my twin brother and I. One in each bag, snuggled into a warm nest of quilted blankets, both of us completely unaware of the life-altering news our mere existence had brought to Beacon Hill that evening.

At that time, none of my grandparents’ four children had married, so it seemed inconceivable that grandchildren were even on the distant horizon. My dad had other plans. He had embarked on a completely unheard—of path for men in the early 2000s: conceiving children without getting married. The plan was years in the making. In fact, the only reason he moved to California three years prior was because Los Angeles was home to some of the best fertilization agencies in the world. Yet other than my dad and his nurses, not a soul knew about my brother and me.

The reverberating effects were instantaneous. At first, my grandmother was speechless with shock, but the instant she recovered, she told everyone she knew. From neighbors to acquaintances, old friends to colleagues, she made sure the entire world heard the story of how her first grandkids miraculously arrived on her doorstep. My great-grandfather was equally as joyful. For years, he had been fervently mourning both his lack of great-grandchildren and the fact that the Red Sox hadn’t won the World Series since he was two years old. When both of these dreams came true within a single month, he earnestly declared that his life’s purpose had been met, and he was at peace.

This surprise—my Dad’s best-kept secret—is what I refer to as a “scheme.” A scheme is a secret, systematic plan developed over an extended timeframe, aiming to create joy for others. It culminates in one giant “reveal” moment. The best schemes are those with monumental stakes and long-term ripple effects. 

The primary difference between a surprise and a scheme is that a scheme’s drawn-out time frame allows for a high level of preparation and planning. For example, if I surprise you with a cupcake that I picked up on the way home, it’s not a scheme because it doesn’t require much time to prepare. Conversely, if I spend months systematically taking note of every time you mention your cake preferences, then bake you a cake perfectly suited to all those preferences, that’s a scheme. So all schemes are surprises, but not all surprises are schemes. 

Furthermore, to maintain a scheme, a bit of duplicity is usually required. A surprise without forethought doesn’t require a cover story or an alibi, but, if you’re actively scheming to surprise a loved one, you may be required to cover up certain actions with a white lie here and there. For that reason, a scheme’s “reveal” is often accompanied by maniacal laughter as everyone puts together the puzzle pieces of the schemer’s odd behavior leading up to the big reveal. 

Considering the magnitude and seismic ripple effects of my dad’s scheme, I believe he is the perfect subject for a case study on the character traits that lend themselves to a well-executed scheme. 

From what I’ve deduced, there are two necessary characteristics of any good schemer.

First, the schemer must be an unconventional, creative thinker. For instance, my dad dreams up words like yot (the affirmative form of not) or far-courted (when you’ve finished your work, so the proverbial “ball” is in the other person’s court). He even weaved a web of whimsical names for his kids ranging from “Emmbrooke” to “Blakesson.” Ten years ago, he invented his own product, patented it, and still makes a living off of it. Some could argue that all you need to pull off an epic scheme is a mastermind willing to travel off the beaten path.

But there’s more to it than that. Creativity and initiative only fulfill the first half of a scheme—the organized development of a plan. The second half—creating joy for others—requires something more. The schemer must be uniquely attuned to the deepest and most heartfelt desires of the people they are aiming to surprise. The schemer must be compassionate. 

Luckily, compassion is a trait my dad holds in spades. Looking back on my childhood memories often feels like an Easter egg hunt for his acts of kindness. When we were young, he made feasts of paper food for my stuffed animals (patiently withstanding my deep sadness that they couldn’t eat real food). On Christmas Eve, we’d go to sleep in an undecorated house and overnight, he would singlehandedly transform the whole place into a winter wonderland, Santa’s Workshop, or a Christmas forest depending on the year. Once, while working as a sailing instructor, he assuaged a kid’s ardent fear of racing by saying, “You don’t have to race, just go around these marks four times in a row as fast as you can.”

This type of habitual compassion provides the necessary momentum and perseverance required for a scheme. Newton’s Laws of Physics demonstrate that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. In the same vein, someone who is not used to consistently practicing compassion will be daunted by the prospect of suddenly going to the extreme lengths required for a scheme to truly maximize someone else’s happiness. But for those who practice kindness every day, preparing for a massive scheme is not that great of a leap. The scheme merely becomes an extension of their daily life.

For example, I once gave a friend their birthday present alongside an envelope and they thought that’s nice, Emmbrooke wrote me a cute little note. Little did they know that this “note” was actually a five-page handwritten letter detailing what their friendship meant to me. The letter drew on dozens of specific instances that would have been impossible to remember if not for my months-long habit of mentally bookmarking and writing down our fond memories together. 

Accordingly, the true significance of a scheme isn’t the big “reveal.” Instead, a scheme’s joy lies in the long-term impact and meaning behind the act. Take my Dad’s surprise, for example. Although he was surprising my grandmother, its ripple effects have impacted my brother and me for our entire lives. Just imagine a child growing up in an environment where they are repeatedly told the remarkable story of how they came into this world defying all convention and all odds (literally—only two of the seven embryos survived). Imagine knowing that your parent went well out of their way to defy societal expectations as they researched every fertilization agency across the United States, moved to California solely to access the best ones, and spent years reading every parenting book possible.

And therein lies the crux of it all: a scheme is an act of love. As its tale gets told and retold, the scheme becomes more than a story—it becomes a legend, an integral part of one’s history, until its origins as a single act of love multiply a hundredfold through oral tradition and storytelling. If a sprightly young man schemes an immensely thoughtful proposal, his kids will get to share great pride in retelling their parents’ love story. If a daring couple surprises their kids by immigrating to another country and adopting an entirely new way of life simply to secure their children’s futures, their act of love is felt for generations. So the true beauty of a scheme comes not from the huge surprise, but from all the love and preparation precipitating the big moment and from the reverberating effects of storytelling that transform it into a legend.

January 23, 2024