I had this epiphany the other day when I was walking the dogs:
At my house our habit on weekday afternoons, when one of us is working at home and the other is out and about, is for the one at home to walk with the dogs to the end of the dirt road we live on to meet the one with the car. Then we all ride home together.
It’s summer and hot, the dogs are getting old and I ain’t getting any younger myself, so that afternoon I’m telling you about we had only made it halfway up the dirt road when my husband intercepted us. He was driving our old pickup truck that has almost half a million miles on it. It’s got no shocks left and the dogs can hear it coming from outer space—they perk right up—and even I can hear it for a good quarter mile or so.
The dirt road has woods and a mountain on the west side and on the east there are pastures, with daisies and Queen Anne’s lace on both sides, and in this season the tree branches arch overhead and meet in the middle to form a green tunnel. So it was all very picturesque and as the pickup came rattling to a stop, I realized:
This is the kind of thing that other people look back on nostalgically as The Good Old Days, when life was simpler and they were happy.
Me, I was mostly hot, but no kidding, how many pop songs feature pickup trucks and dirt roads? “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” is an obvious example (and obviously that’s the one I began bellowing). But really the one stuck in my head was a more poignant song by Bob Dylan, about a room where he’d hang out with “the first few friends I had.”
By the old woodstove where our hats were hung Our words were told, our songs were sung Where we longed for nothin' and were quite satisfied Talkin' and a-jokin' about the world outside.
He doesn’t specifically say, but Dylan being Dylan, you get the idea the room wasn’t upstairs in his parents’ split-level but in some weather-beaten shack somewhere, most probably out West but maybe in the North Country (whatever the hell he meant by that), where the wind blows heavy on the borderline. He wails on for a couple of verses about what a great time everybody had around the old woodstove, then he ends the song:
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain That we could sit simply in that room again Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.
You get the implication here? Yes, Bob was happier back in the woodstove days, but now he’s got ten thousand dollars. He’s rich, famous, hell, legendary, sneering at those Swedes trying to give him a Nobel Prize like they were offering him turds on a plate.
That’s an extreme case, but what I'm getting at is that in all these Good Old Days reminiscences the reminiscers have now moved on to bigger and better and wish they could return to those impoverished beginnings when they were happy. Us, meanwhile, here we still were, complete with poverty, dirt road and beat-up truck. So I reckon that meant we were happy, right?
Oddly, the answer I’m here to give you is “yes.”
Not that I’m buying into the Good Old Days thing. Of course I’m as pissed off at the aging process as anybody else—I’d give more than $10,000 to be 23 again, and in my case I’d have to steal it—but that’s from a health and beauty viewpoint, not from any idealization of the past. I think people tend to forget, when they remember the past in a golden glow, about the insecurities, money worries, heartbreaks and butt zits that probably kept them back then at about the same balance between happy and un- as they are today.
I don’t forget those things. I was always a po-mouthin’, glass-half-empty bellyacher. Recently, my husband and I happened to be in the neighborhood so we drove past our old “shack by the tracks,” the little rental house where we lived when we first came here as young people. And what I mostly remembered from that era was: Slugs.
One night when we were sitting on the porch of that house holding hands during a rainstorm, I reached my free hand down to get my wineglass and touched instead: a slug. That ruined the night porch-sitting thing for the rest of my life. Another night I went out to the back stoop to look at the constellations and stepped on: a slug. That took care of the barefoot thing. And once I left my favorite iced tea glass in the garden overnight and a slug crawled in there, drowned, and was frizzled to a smear of dried snot when the sun came out. (That didn’t change my life much but it was the end of the iced tea glass.)
And slugs weren’t the only breeze that ruffled the petals of my rose bower. I remember sitting at my cramped desk head in hands, trying to figure out how on earth to make a living; later the sick misery I’d feel on Sunday nights when I had a job I hated; once my loneliness when I was left at home for two weeks by myself (with a whole watermelon, but that's another story).
But we were younger, more energetic and better-looking when we lived in that house, and people we loved came to visit us there who are now no longer alive or who no longer love us. We have videos of nieces and nephews gamboling around the yard as toddlers who are all out of college now. We had good times. On the whole I expect the good times outweighed the worries and I was probably just as happy then as people were in pasts they are more nostalgic about. I just didn’t realize it because I was fretting about money or slugs or because I hated my job or because I yearned for a bigger, nicer house of our own—basically because I was a po-mouthin’, glass-half-empty bellyacher.
Which brings us to the main point: We talk about the “pursuit of happiness.” But maybe it’s not so much a problem of catching happiness as of recognizing the damn thing when you’ve got it. That was my epiphany that afternoon I’m telling you about, with the noisy pickup truck rattling up the dirt road among the Queen Anne’s lace: Hell, if this is what they write all the songs about, I reckon this must be it, it must be happiness.
I thought about it and it was true. It was hot and I haven’t even mentioned the horseflies; people I loved had died or stopped loving me; I was an impoverished unknown nobody; but the sun was shining, the flowers were blooming, my spouse and I and what we call our faminals were all together and reasonably healthy. What more could anyone reasonably ask? There was even some beer in the truck.
I’m suspicious of people who brag about their happiness. Once this woman I’d just met was telling me about a job she’d had that sounded quite exciting—I don’t remember doing just what but it involved swooping around with binoculars in small airplanes. Impressed, I made some laughing comment about how I supposed such things got to be business as usual after a while. She said aggressively: “No. Never. It was every bit as thrilling every minute I did it.” She was gritting her teeth and I got the idea: She needed my envy.
Another woman, who had a lot more money than me (which isn’t much of a trick), made me sit through videos of her vacation in some exotic locale I couldn’t afford to visit on Google Earth. “Do I do cool stuff or what?” she asked me. Same message. We’re a competitive species. Some people need you to admire their level of fun the way others want to show off their big houses or new cars.
That’s obnoxious and I don’t recommend it. But as a reformed po-mouthin’ glass-half-empty bellyacher, I do think we should be smart enough to recognize happiness when it comes rattling down the dirt road at us. We don’t have to wave it in anybody’s face. We don’t even have to sing songs involving dogs, pickup trucks or woodstoves. We should just acknowledge it now instead of saying 20 years later how we’d give all of our tomorrows for one single yesterday. I mean:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
And here’s one final thing I have figured out about happiness: You shouldn't expect too much out of it.
There are always going to be horseflies. Usually, though, they don't amount to much. What I mean is that if you think you’re happy except that you’re worried about money, or that you wish your husband would pay a little more attention to you, or that you could lose 20 pounds, well! You’re probably happy.
We just seem to be made in such a way that when we get what we want we find something wrong with it, or we want a little something more. I don’t think we can help that. I think the secret is acknowledging it, then realizing that the flawed, incomplete happiness we’ve got is still the real thing. We just have to step over the slug, slap the horsefly, and realize that "happy except" really boils down to "happy."
A consolation is that horseflies may sting but they are as big as oxen and they sound like helicopters, so that it's easy and satisfying to kill them. I’m afraid I can’t think of anything nice to say to say about slugs.
So I might as well end this treatise on happiness right there. Anyway, I have to write an article about a board of education meeting. Like I said, there will always be horseflies!