Monday, March 23, 2009

Ode to Joy

I was chatting with a friend the other night over coffee, and she was telling of a misspent year in the big city. We were discussing something like pedagogical methods, and the story took a narrative turn into the long-ago year she had spent teaching there, and a concomitant descent into the nether regions of isolation and despair. After a lengthy chronicling of the events leading up to his mental dissolution and subsequent diagnosis of depression, she leaned back in his chair. "And that" she said with some release, "was the worst year of my life." If comedy is tragedy at the remove of history, then, even after almost ten years, she was still just at the point of being sanguine about fate's crimes. Still, in the cosmic scheme of things, it was only one year.

For me it would be hard to pick and choose a "worst year". Whenever I think, "oh this was the one", some gorgon rears its ugly head, attempting to take the crown, or the cake, and I'm editing my friend list once again. I daren't essay such an exercise, really. As a perfectionist it's so hard to come up with the best or worst of anything. Good or bad, you just want to get it right.

The problem is that we usually feel an amalgamation of emotions, which, like an adaptive gene gone out of control or the weather patterns in Seattle, is constantly mutating from moment to moment. Often we feel convoluted or qualified happiness, joy and sadness all at once. In his tragedies, Shakespeare had to have comic relief. But in real life, the joy and the sadness are almost always concurrent. We may feel a pinprick of joy within a sea of infinite melancholy. It's not just a dichotomy or dialectic, like those cartoonish thespian masks. The two often overlap, like a Venn diagram. This phenomenon makes it really difficult to quantify something as elusive as "my worst year" or "my best year". You have many competing years or epochs and they are still mutating even after they are over, through the muddy lens of nostalgia. But to extract the true meaning of events, good or bad, we musn't let our view become tinted by nostalgia, nor by the romanticization of negativity.

Additional complications ensue when we are faced with a man with a distinctly negativist taste. A bad thing can quite easily be good in his eyes. This can be true for anyone. A couple of nights after her disquisition, my friend began relating not a true story, but a description of a much-beloved place and time in her life. This delineation was infused with love as she described, as a young woman in her twenties, biking through the lush landscape of her favorite Medieval town in Germany. This turned out to be what she coincidentally described as "the best year of my life." Now the description was flavored with unmitigated joy. The longing to return to this state of mind, represented by the place, was palpable. It may or may not have been coloured by nostalgia, but in this case, there was nothing bad to transmute into goodness. This thing could only ripen with age.

When my friend was relating the low story, you cold sense the anxiety and fear, and it was plain to see that there was no desire to return to this state of mind, or this particular juncture in life. The simple statements of fact in each case achieved end results which were not dissimilar. But different filters were being employed to process disparate experiences. The satisfaction and catharsis conveyed in the telling of the negative story represents a distillation of an experience into something which makes sense in the larger context of a life's history, and is highlighted by a sense of relief that a life experience has been organized and put into a category. The loose tooth has been wiggled about, almost pleasurably, by the tongue until the pain at the root can no longer be withstood. It finally breaks free. The only residual may be a lingering sense of melancholy, a phantom remnant of the malingering tooth. The statement about the "best year of my life" and its delivery provides a peek into the mind's processing and remembrance of joy, and it's long term internalization. What is the end result? Ironically, joy is something that is felt physically, and pain is ultimately processed intellectually. But whither those infinitesimal moments of joy, and the yawning blue-black chasm of pain?

A talented artist friend and I used to put our heads together to address these issues. There were long nights, tears and cacophonous laughter. One particularly interminable evening, punctuated by chainsmoking and "processing" ad nauseum, we undertook to explain the numerous and seemingly bottomless problems and their attendant states of despondency which we had encountered. The conclusion at which we arrived was not a very original one: that the moments of joy were isolated and fleeting. Then came the follow-up question: why were those moments so few and far between? Was it because of some unseen failing on our part? If so, we were too blind at the time to see it, or to even ask it. It was simple fact, an unfairness of the Universe.

Perhaps we were luxuriating in our despair. Two tormented souls of an artistic temperament, feeding into each others neuroses and paranoia, one holding the voodoo doll while the other held the pin, plotting revenge against those who had wronged us, those who would seek to perpetuate our victimhood. The list of infractions was endless: I'd been drugged against my will, the Dutch mafia was out to get me, I'd been cruelly dumped and just turned 30. All of which were true, but the negativity seemed to infect everything around us, blowing even the smallest offenses out of proportion, and blurring reality. Someone even claimed that their landlord was really a reverend in a Satanic church, sacrificing chickens. Uh-oh. Someone had seen Rosemary's Baby one too many times. (As one of my students often says, "That's just stupid!") At one point we found ourselves plotting to break into someone's house and beat them up (for the record, this someone had given a friend of mine a black eye). Thank god that didn't come to fruition. Imagine if something had gone wrong. I'd lost my moral compass, and had taken up with the Manson Family.

It certainly seemed as if the gods were out to get us. It was a long, cruel winter, I was lonely, desperate and unemployed, existing -- certainly not living -- in the suburbs. A fringe figure. I had slipped through the cracks. My unemployment benefits, and time, was about to run out. The hourglass was inverted.

At one point I remember, after a day of fruitless job searching, trudging across the frozen tundra of a used car lot (at the time we lived in a converted video store between two such behemoths). Hangdog, I looked down at a frozen puddle in a pothole beneath my feet. There was a newspaper which I could see trapped beneath the ice, a local job-finding rag called "Employment Today". The headline beneath it read, I'm not kidding, "Your Prospects for a Satisfying Career". Struck through this headline, as sure as a Kodak-captured lightning bolt, was a crack shuddering through the puddle, as if a soothsayer had pointed at it, and the crack had suddenly appeared, none-too-subtly auguring my future. At the middle section of the paper said crack yielded to a shattered pane of ice. My destruction was complete.

Why were these moments of joy so few and far between, we again demanded? My friend even asked her mother, who responded with another question: "Why on earth would you ask such a question or even want to think about such a thing?" I remember as a child writing a letter to my grandmother. It was a completely organic epistle on my part, not a cry for help, but she took my mother aside and informed her with much feigned concern, "He's so negative." I couldn't have done it any differently. I was a sensitive boy with an active imagination. I'm just drawn that way. For a budding young negativist, it was a healthy means of expression. In the words of William Burroughs "What is negative for some people can be helpful for a writer." Not that one should seek out pain for its own sake, or the sake of one's art.

Still, my friend and I were dogged in our quest for answers, or at least in expanding the questions to reflect certain truths. The conclusion we came to was that the ratio of joyful moments to painful ones in the universe was shockingly great. The reason for this, we decided at the time, was that the moments of joy are finite, and the potential for pain is infinite. Was this the truth, or merely a reflection of our relentlessly pessimistic outlook?

Ultimately, however, our conclusion was false. There is a limit to pain. We die. We really have no control over the amount of pain in our lives, which I have shown here, is not really quantifiable. What we do have control over, I surmised, is our response to pain. Allen Ginsberg once said that the trick to getting through life (and an LSD trip) relatively unscathed was to not respond too much to any one stimuli, whether good or bad. On the contrary, the moments of joy are usually so unexpected and far from liberally sprinkled throughout our lives, that we should learn to focus on them, and to train our focus not away from the negative things, but to frame the bad experiences differently by, as my other friend did, intellectualizing them. Leave the joyful times to happily crystallize in the memory and remain pure. Whether the awful things remain purely awful seems to be a matter of lessons learned, and the filters we use. Art is one, and that includes storytelling.

Moments of happiness to me include a hearty laugh at a serendipitously funny moment, a witty riposte, a meal prepared with love, a favorite song heard by chance on the radio while driving on the expressway with friends, a stroke of fur from a beloved pet (I'll stop short of elegizing a plastic bag, blowing in the wind). No big revelations, but small moments to cherish, embers to be kindled and not forgotten in times of despair.

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