Get a piece of paper and draw a horizontal line. Above the line, write the word “fortune.” Below the line, write the word “misfortune.” In his analysis of fables and myths from around the world, the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut discovered a pattern. As heroes make their way from the beginning to the end of a story, they have experiences where they are clearly way below the line, suffering great misfortune, or way above the line, enjoying great fortune.

Vonnegut, however, believed our reality is not like the plots of myths and fables. We simply don’t know which zone we are in at any given moment. From one experience to the next, we cluelessly move from fortune to misfortune and back again, each a precursor to the next disaster and triumph to follow.

To illustrate what Vonnegut means, let me tell you about my recent conversation with a heat pump technician. He was wrapping up an installation at my house and our conversation turned to my cat, who was meowing nearby.

“I love cats,” he said.

“Do you own one?” I asked.

“No, my family only has a turtle. We’ve had him for … let’s see, my son is 32 and he was in kindergarten when he got him, so we’ve had the turtle for 27 years.” (Fortune? Misfortune?)

“Wow!” I said.

“School was ending and the teacher had a lottery to see who could take the turtle home for the summer. My son won.” (Fortune? Misfortune?) “But when school started back up, someone decided that the school couldn’t keep turtles in the classroom, so we had to keep him.” (Fortune? Misfortune?) “The turtle is a red-eared slider. Do you know how long these guys can live in a nice aquarium?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“From 30 to 50 years.” (Fortune? Misfortune?)

I made a whistle sound to indicate I was impressed.

“We named him Norman. And you know, since we got him I’ve upgraded his aquarium three times.” (Fortune? Misfortune?) “That’s three times as much as I’ve renovated any room in my house.” (Fortune? Misfortune?) “But what can I say? He’s a member of the family now.” (Fortune? Misfortune?) “Sometimes we take him out and set him on the floor and he walks around the house. He acts like he owns the place.”

“Gee,” I said, trying to imagine what that looks like.

“You know, you can’t own a red-eared slider without a license. But we’re grandfathered. We got him before they changed the rules.” (Fortune? Misfortune?)

“Lucky you,” I said.

“Yeah, lucky us,” he said.

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.

From my own life I offer the following example that happened decades ago. I was in high school and my family went out to a restaurant for a rare weeknight pizza. (Fortune? Misfortune?) I ate a hamburger pizza and the next day developed a miserable case of food poisoning (Fortune? Misfortune?) that was so bad the upstairs toilet and I became soul mates. I was absent two days from school (Fortune? Misfortune?) and missed a challenging history test. Getting sick allowed me more time to study and worry about the test.

Lucky me.

So you see, it’s really impossible to know which side of the line you are on at any given moment. All I can say is that, even if you win the lottery or get fired from a job, you’ll soon live to regret and be thankful it happened.

Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”