When I was a young, broke but care-free philosopher in the University of Arkansas, hanging out with poets, working at a red-neck bar for beer money, and fancying myself a writer, I worried a lot. The bar had a big red button behind the counter, right above a double-barrel, twelve gage shot gun. I was told it was loaded with rock salt. Pressing the red button killed the juke box and called the cops. I only had to use those bar-back tools once, then promptly quit.
Even in those salad days of learning my place in the world, gaining valuable experience as the next John Prine, I worried a lot about ethics, fairness, and the pursuit of happiness. Through the heart of the dark, up-river jungle of the Reagan years, I suffered a kind of academic akathisia that only worsened as I learned more about the world. I studied the new world of Bio-ethics, ventured off into the history of War and Money, and tortured myself with Epistemology.
Nothing helped. The general malaise got worse. The Challenger exploded. Then Iran Contra exploded. That got my political attention. I started paying more attention in history classes. I drank more, but I took control of my education. I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I read more Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson. I was enlightened and horrified. I wrote some bad poetry, and a few good things that won awards that made me feel cool for a while. But the more I learned, the less able I was to be happy, and I got happy less often. One of my best friends, Randy Vincent, wrote a line that always cheered me up, even in midst of a general early 20's unhappiness spiral. Something like:
Now I know
I could skip a quarter
across the pond
and down the juke box slot
just to hear
some tonk musician scream.
Or something like that. Still makes me happy. For a minute. Then it wears off and sends me back to that familiar humid, moldy, greasy, beer-smelling, neon-lit place where the tonk scream originates. It's not a nice, clean, first rate torture chamber like Guantanomo. There aren't any power subversion enablers (as George Washington might put it) kneeing me, or freezing me, or hanging me by my wrists, or insulting my religion. Hell, I don't have a religion. I'm certainly not gentle in Eric Hoffer's sense of the word, but I am a cynic who doesn't care if there's a god or not. I don't need a symbolic crown of thorns to know that human suffering stirs my tonk musician's cover of Munch's scream. The effect of that suffering penetrates deeper than any religion can, like water poured into the upside-down sinuses of all humanity.
Then the real trickle-down torture begins: Sneeze! Cough! Take two of these... Shake it off! Our bad... Off you go now... Good luck! Don't worry! Be happy! Be careful!
The most salient thing I learned in honky tonks from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee, from Branson, Missouri, to Austin, Texas, was to be careful whose nose you pour water in; a lot of southerners never learned that the rednecks were the good guys at Blair Mountain. They'd hassle the college boys (with our Clinton for Governor bumper sticker) until they got sick of us, and then they'd kick our asses or run out of gas trying. Maybe we could have been nicer to them, maybe even lie to them (had we only known they like fake cowboys so much), but eventually, I managed to carve out a rule I could live with:
Be ethical. If that's not good enough, Fuck It!
Maybe because it caused me so much trouble, it took me a long time to be comfortable with that philosophy. "Fuck It" seemed so final, as if I had given up on the world if I wasn't out picking at it like a nostril scab. Eventually, I figured out that I shouldn't be too careful with my happiness. No matter how many civilians died in the formative years of the new disaster capitalism, I had to do a little living. I had to enjoy something. While I was still beating around the bush of my raison d'être, I found solace in music and poetry. Certain poems and songs brought the kamikaze moth of happiness, just after sunset on a moonless night, crashing into the next brightest source of light. The intensity of each fix of happiness seemed to steadily decrease, like the monarch population near a genetically engineered corn field. I measured my happiness level and frequency often, feeling guilty if either went up. Each observation, the very act of looking, seemed to move the next data point, randomly (ergo coincidentally) but consistently lower.
My philosophy evolved into defining and proscribing the ethical: environmentalism, stewardship, minimizing my impact, fairness, justice, liberty, and minimizing unhappiness (since actually maximizing happiness seems so much harder). It was time to rein in The Effort to something more manageable. I became a professional in the entertainment industry, the next best thing to being the next John Prine. Oh, and there were all those student loans, so a union job looked great.
So did a beautiful, intelligent, Italian (descended, tempered, and debate-trained) wife, a beautiful daughter who makes a living making people beautiful, and a son who at fourteen can already play guitar more beautifully than I. We lived in Hawaii for a year (three jobs!). Bought two houses (one before and one after Hawaii). Even without a lot of money, there was enough to get by. I had leveled off into a steady and manageable happiness.
We all get a few really great memories, and we get to keep them no matter what happens to us. It's a kind of defense we have evolved, the ability to cherish memories when times are hard. A kind of mental snorkeling dive, away from the surface blemishes, into another dimension, surrounded by beauty, floating in peace, not even breathing...
The rest of the time, as some graffiti on a bathroom wall in a Beale Street (Memphis) bar once said, "There is no gravity; the earth sucks." There was even a crude drawing of the earth (the Western Hemisphere, I believe), with a little stick man standing on it. Just a few blocks away, a bunch of ducks live in a "palace" on the roof of the Peabody Hotel.
Every day at 11 a.m., they are led by the Duckmaster down the elevator to the Italian travertine marble fountain in the Peabody Grand Lobby. A red carpet is unrolled and the ducks march through crowds of admiring spectators to the tune of John Philip Sousa's King Cotton March. The ceremony is reversed at 5 p.m., when the ducks retire for the evening to their palace on the roof of the hotel.
I think of those ducks often, even when I'm not drinking. They live better than most people I know, like Royalty in the birthplace of the blues. Not far from the Peabody, a little closer to the railroad tracks, there's a motel that reflects the flip side of Royalty, the very soul of suffering: the Lorraine, now known as the National Civil Rights Museum.
The heart of American Folk Music and Blues is struggle, and struggle we must if we want to sing about it. In the late 80's, after my Dad retired to Las Vegas, we would visit (not enough), and I would try to convince him, a double union pensioner, to stop voting Republican. He hated taxes. He was a mathematician. He studied the odds, so wouldn't gamble. He had high blood pressure and cholesterol. He loved Jazz. He beat prostate cancer. He drank single malt scotch in the morning and ate cheap casino steaks at night. He would tell me to be happy I still had my health. When he drove his 1971 Porsche back to Vegas from LA, he would stay in 5th gear all the way up the big hill out of Baker, which required speeds in excess of 100 mph. Our last conversation:
"You know, Dad, you can down shift on the way up the hill."
"I don't want to."
He died of an aortic aneurysm just weeks later. He liked to say that things only seemed like one in a million to us because we don't live a billion years.
Occasionally, over the eye-blink of time I've been thinking about such things, I found theories that might explain my progressive unhappiness, but they turned out to be mental Lego constructs. The edges were too jagged to make graceful ontologies; not enough points on the graph to smooth the curves.
Maybe happiness was something seductively plump that shrank, a decrease in the total available happiness. Perhaps Matt Taibbi was on to something when he dissected Thomas Freidman's graphing abilities with the theory that happiness correlates with the size of Valerie Bertinelli's ass. More seriously, and perhaps more likely, David Foster Wallace might have been onto a grand-unified happiness theory that turned out to be a Medusa.
All theories, once scrutinized, seem like Lego representations in an anti-aliased world.
Eight years of George Bush have taught me one thing: ethics are now rough, dry shit stuck in the throes of prescription-induced constipation that make Bill Clinton's lapses look like laxatives. Oh, sure, we talk high and mighty about justice, but there is no justice when the high and mighty are involved. We have plenty of punishment for drug addicts, shoplifters, and burglars. But the torturing, mass-murdering, robber barons took over the executive branch walked away very much alive and free, with pallets of I-just-paid-cash-for-this happiness. One of my complex ontologies theorizes that there's only so much happiness in the world, and the Cheney people have drained the water table (and sullied the rest). How to simplify that...?
Those people just screamed "Fuck You!" while they fucked you. Kinda screws your whole decade.
In the middle of those Fuckings, I lost my health (diagnosed with osteoarthritis), my career (due to that disability), my house (with its therapeutic pool and hot tub), my 401k (spent moving to cheaper digs), my year of state disability payments (that were less than half of what I was making), and most of my clients from my internet marketing business (which now costs more than it makes). Next, I'll be losing the health insurance. I'm 25% of the way into a two year wait for my first Social Security Disability appeal hearing. There are lawsuits in the works, but by the time I see any money from them, I'll owe it in past due bills and rent (if I can convince my landlords to let it slide for a while). I'll probably have to declare bankruptcy, but I doubt if I can afford it.
My doctors thought they were doing me a favor putting me on anti-depressants. I wound up on Prozac for a few months, which did help to keep the pain/depression spiral monsters from feeding each other. But the Prozac side effects were just too much. So, they took me off it. Now, I've discovered that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Discontinuation Syndrome (the pharmaceutical companies object to calling it withdrawal) is the single most unhappy thing I ever experienced, save perhaps triple hernia surgery and prostatitis. It's been big fun for my family, too, but that's a whole other essay.
Now what's my sage advice on how to be less unhappy (aside from avoiding drugs that fuck with your brain chemistry)? Prepare for the inevitable fallout. I plead the Kris Kristofferson defense: I have nothing left to lose. I live the way disaster capitalists want me to: hand to mouth, on the brink of bankruptcy, and eager for less because it's better than none. What are they going to do, fire me?
I'm prepared! I get food stamps. Ha! Take that, Republicans! And, I have an organic victory garden (FDR would be proud). I've discovered that I can keep food alive (nothing is really growing now) even when it's negative 13 degrees outside, by building a cold frame around the garden. Engineering and biology made me happy for a while. Just wait until my Jeffersonian spring (PDF)!
Guess I showed them.
I still play music, occasionally. Haven't had to hock the guitar, yet. I'll even attempt Little Rock Getaway from time to time. Hard to stop that from cheering me up1, for as long as my thin calluses and arthritis can keep up. My son's much better than I. He can play for hours, which brings me great joy, until he goes back to his video games (and other not- his-homework) and listening to his parents fight about all the things we don't have. Or the things we have too much of. I haven't screamed this much since my honky tonk days. It exhausts the throat. Sorry, kids. As Phillip Larken wrote, in This Be the Verse:
They fuck you up, your mom and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Since college, I've been searching for that perfect Tonk Scream, a kind of cathartic nirvana, maybe as reconnaissance for a pre-emptive war to save my throat. I've been hoping for something akin to Steve Goodman's You Never Even Call Me By My Name (as performed by David Allen Coe), whereby the song becomes the perfect country and western song when endowed with that final verse featuring mama, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk. I thought John Prine himself got close with his song It Don't Make No Sense that Common Sense Don't Make No Sense No More or maybe Souvenirs (Goodman, again, that rascal). I've made a few solo stabs at it, but I tend to be get too philosophical. Maybe I don't drink enough Jack.
One of my favorite professors, James Whitehead (who died in 2003, also of an aortic aneurysm) told me the story about my psychology professor, Dr. John Marr, who used to party at Jim's house with Tom T. Hall. Dr. Marr liked to talk about state memory recall theory, in which
"..memory pathways forged under the influence of specific chemicals, drugs such as alcohol, can be more effectively accessed again when under the influence of that drug."
So Hall wrote a song called I Only Think About You When I'm Drunk. Honestly, I'd be afraid to drink enough to remember the blurry parts of my Tonk years. Whatever clear memories I access will more likely come from the last half of my life.
Of course now I'm too tired to keep looking. As Homer Simpson put it, "...the weight of the world crushed my spirit." Sometimes I try to work my way out of that realistic funk. To paraphrase Marty Ward, who taught me how to play bluegrass guitar while he played a mean banjo, "You're never going to find anything good by looking for it."
I'll just keep my eyes and ears open while I keep trying to pick out the lead myself. Maybe once my calluses are thick enough, I'll be able to play long enough to find it. After all, thanks to my son and YouTube, I finally learned that lead to Wish You Were Here. And as soon as I quit thinking about it all, I remembered a line from my favorite Big Jim Whitehead poem (A LOCAL MAN ESTIMATES WHAT HE DID FOR HIS BROTHER WHO BECAME A POET AND WHAT HIS BROTHER DID FOR HIM):
On his deathbed he reached out for my hand
And he said we come from where we get the wound.
How could we stop looking back at the places where we got the wounds, when we had clues like that left in our path?
1 This jazz-come-bluegrass song, written by Joe Sullivan in 1938 and made popular by Bob Crosby (Bing's brother) and the Bobcats in 1939, supports my theory that the more chords in a progression, the happier the song.