IT WORRIES me that I’m using GPS to guide me around Minneapolis, a city I’ve known since I was a boy on a bicycle, and also that I text my wife from the next room, and when I get up in the morning Siri sometimes asks me, “What’s the matter? You seem a little down. Would you like to hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3?” And I say, Leave me alone, I just want to think, and she and I wind up having a conversation about delayed gratification.
Too much technology in my life. I used to go to Al’s Breakfast Nook and now I go on Facebook. Thanks to social media, my handwriting has become illegible. It took me half an hour to decipher a note I left on the kitchen counter that said, “Why am I here? What’s the purpose of it all? Who needs me?”
But Thanksgiving is on the way so let’s talk about something more cheerful such as profound gratitude. I’m from Minnesota and grew up in a culture of cheerfulness. Now I’m old and have much to complain about and am grateful for memory loss. My mother did not encourage complaint — “Other people have it worse than you,” she said, referring to children in China. She also said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Which eliminated journalism as a career and politics, music criticism and any form of fiction except children’s books.
My parents came of age during the Depression, when everyone they knew was hard pressed and scraping to get by, and you did not complain because everyone else was in the same boat. Mother darned socks and mended jeans. They bought day-old bread as a matter of course and shopped around for the cheapest gasoline and slaughtered their own chickens. Dad cut our hair. He bought cans of vegetables for half price whose labels had come off and you didn’t know if it was carrots or beets. They did this cheerfully. I found it embarrassing and I rebel against them by getting haircuts from barbers and paying exorbitant prices for produce raised in Guatemala. I buy fresh bread. But I try to emulate their cheerfulness.
We live in the Age of Extreme Sensitivity. People have been fired for looking cross-eyed at someone. People have been offended by books they never read and demanded they be dropped from libraries. You get on a bus and you remind yourself not to smile; someone might take it the wrong way. Disparaging terms such as “birdbrain,” “nincompoop,” “sourpuss,” or “klutz” are now considered elitist and can get you into hot water.
Lighten up, people.
Cheerfulness is a choice, like what color shirt to wear. Happiness is something else. Joy is a theological idea. Bliss is brief, about five seconds for the male, fifteen for the female. Euphoria is a drug: they give it to you for a wisdom tooth extraction or a colonoscopy. But cheerfulness is a habit. You do it as a favor to other people. You hang on to it despite heartbreaking news — the college boy who left the party drunk and passed out on a freezing cold night and died, 19, a nice kid who did one dumb thing and ffffft he’s gone. Management changes at work and the good boss is replaced by a numbskull and suddenly life is intolerable. An old friend goes over to the dark side and thinks that God has ordained You Know Who as Emperor of America and will brook no dissent.
Ignore these troubles and embrace the great American virtue of cheerfulness. Don’t be held hostage by the past. Look ahead and improve the day. When you feel sour, wash your hands and brush your teeth and you’ll feel a fraction better and from that fraction you can go on to exuberance and exhilaration.
I once bought a king-size mattress from a furniture warehouse and tied it to the roof of my car with twine and it blew off as I drove home on the freeway and I ran to rescue it and a big rig blew past me blasting his horn and I almost bought the farm at age 45.
I’ve done other idiotic things but feeling the Doppler effect of twenty tons going 65 fifteen feet away made it memorable.
When I think back to that day, it cheers me right up. I’m here. Survival is the key to cheerfulness. God bless you this week, and your beautiful family, too. Be nice to each other.