Aug 3, 2009
Juayua, El Salvador
This is the first morning since June 30th have I had the chance to read the paper with coffee. Some rituals just feel so good and so right.
I come across the following piece in today's New York Times.
By Tim KreiderIn
1996 I rode the circus train to Mexico City where I lived for a month, pretending to be someone's husband. (Don't even ask.) I remember my time there as we remember most of our travels — vivid and thrilling, everything new and strange. My ex-fake-wife Carolyn and I often reminisce nostalgically about our honeymoon there: ordering un balde hielo from room service to cool our Coronas every afternoon, the black-velvet painting of the devil on the toilet that she made me buy, our shared hilarious terror of kidnapping and murder, the giant pork rind I wrangled through customs. Which is funny, since, if I think back honestly, while I was actually there I did not feel "happy." In fact, as mi esposa did not hesitate to point out to me at the time, I griped incessantly about the noise and stink of the city — the car horns playing shrill, uptempo versions of the theme from "The Godfather" or "La Cucaracha" every second, the noxious mix of diesel fumes and urine, the air so filthy we'd been there a week before I learned we had a view of the mountains.
I was similarly miserable throughout the happiest summer I ever spent in New York City. I was recovering from an affair that had ended badly, and during my convalescence I was subletting a cool, airy apartment a block from Tompkins Square Park, with a kitchen window that looked out on a community garden. A theater troupe was rehearsing a production of "The Tempest" out there, and I got used to the warped rattling crash of sheet-metal thunder in the evenings. I happened to catch "The Passion of St. Joan of Arc" on cable for the first time late one night, a film I knew nothing about — it was grotesque and beautiful, astonishing. One of the happiest memories of my life is of sitting on top of the little knoll in the park with my friend Ellen, eating a sweet Hawaiian pizza and waiting to see what movie would play on the outdoor screen that was being inflated in front of us. (It turned out to be "Raiders of the Lost Ark.") Even though this whole time I was preoccupied with thoughts of the woman I'd lost and torturing myself with jealousy and insane fantasies of vengeance, in retrospect it's obvious now that the main thing I was doing that summer was falling in love.
I wonder, sometimes, whether it is a perversity peculiar to my own mind or just the common lot of humanity to experience happiness mainly in retrospect. I have of course considered the theory that I am an idiot who fails to appreciate anything when he actually has it and only loves what he's lost. Or perhaps this is all just what Michael Chabon called "the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past." But I think I recall that summer with such clarity and affection for much the same reason that I remember my month in Mexico City so fondly. The fresh heartbreak was, in a sense, like being in a foreign country; everything seemed alien, brilliant and glinting. It was as if I'd been flayed, so that even the air hurt. When you're that unhappy, any glimmer of beauty or consolation feels like running into an old friend abroad, or seeing mountaintops through smog. Maybe we mistakenly think we want "happiness," which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.
We do each have a handful of those moments, the ones we only take out to treasure rarely, like jewels, when we looked up from our lives and realized: "I'm happy." One of the last times this happened to me, inexplicably, I was driving on Maryland's unsublime Route 40 with the window down, looking at a peeling Burger King billboard while Van Halen played on the radio. But this kind of intense and present happiness is heartbreakingly ephemeral; as soon as you notice it you dispel it, like blocking yourself from remembering a word by trying too hard to retrieve it. And our attempts to contrive this feeling through any kind of replicable method — with drinking or drugs or sexual seduction, buying new stuff, listening to the same old songs that reliably give us shivers — never quite recapture the spontaneous, profligate joy of the real thing. In other words be advised that Burger King billboards and Van Halen are not a sure-fire combination, any more than are scotch and cigars.
I didn't always enjoy being a cartoonist. During the 12 years of my career, if I can call it that, I bored my friends and colleagues by complaining bitterly about the insulting pay, the lack of recognition, the short half-life of political cartoons as art. And yet, if I'm allowed any final accounting of my days, I may find, to my surprise, that I reckon those Fridays when I woke up without an idea in my head and only started drawing around noon, calling friends at work for emergency humor consultations, doing frantic Google image searches for "Scott McClellan" or "chacmool," eating whatever crud was in the fridge, laughing out loud at my own jokes, and somehow ended up getting a finished cartoon in by deadline, feeling like an evil genius, to have been among my best. But during the time I was actually focused on drawing — whipping out a perfect line, spontaneous but precise, or gauging the exact cant of an eyelid to evoke an expression, or immersed in the microscopic universe of cross-hatching — I wasn't conscious of feeling "happy," or of feeling anything at all. I was in the closest approximation to happiness that we can consistently achieve by any kind of deliberate effort: the condition of absorption. My senses were so integrated that, on those occasions when I had to re-draw something entirely, I often found that I would spontaneously recall the same measure of music or line of dialog I'd been listening to when I'd drawn it the first time; the memory had become inextricably encoded in the line. It is this state that rock-climbers and pinball players and libertines are all seeking: an absorption in the immediate so intense and complete that the idiot chatter of your brain shuts up for once and you temporarily lose yourself, to your relief. I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness. Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool's errand, is that happiness isn't a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It's the consequence of having lived in the way that we're supposed to — by which I don't mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it's also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the "real" stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.
This last month of traveling has been good to me. This last month on the road has made me very happy. Whether be it caused by the "condition of absorption" or just simply that being out here has eliminated all things that was causing me pain previously, its been good. Any other time, I would agree with Mr Tim KreiderIn that our happiness is often us nostalgically reminiscing on the lights of the faded glory, but I must say my current state of being has nothing to do with that. Everyday, every morning, every cup of coffee, every smoke, every bus ride, I am happy. Let's just credit it to the "condition of absorption" so we can tone down the gloating a little. Wishing all of you the same.