Do you know, I started this blog post in March. Is it still March? No. I’m past apologizing for my delinquency. Things happen, and given my attention span, things will continue to happen. Also, that attention span of mine — hopeless.
Suffice it to say, we’ve all been fine. We are fine. We’re dandy. Except for the fact that the Guy had the flu and was between jobs for a while (personal vacation), though he officially started as of last Monday. Hobbes had some kind of virus and then pink-eye, which incidentally resulted in the doctor removing a blood clot the size of my thumbnail from his ear — it’s charming, the things that parenthood forces you to witness, and also children are disgusting — but neither of those was serious, and the important thing is that I’m still healthy, so there you go.
Everything’s fine. Moving on, now.
In August (and September and October), I went through a strange funk where my usual sunny good-natured underwent an identity crisis, and became instead a desire to make everyone’s lives suck. From a certain point of view, you could call it a midlife crisis. Men try to feel younger by getting the stuff they would’ve liked to do when they were adolescents, but: (1) couldn’t afford; or (2) were too smart to do. Me, I went for the gift that keeps on giving. I did damage to other people’s psyches instead of my wallet, showing (if I do say so myself) an excellent grasp of ROI1. I moped, I whined, I complained at length until my coworkers started to bolt for the door the second I walked into a room. I took people’s fragile joys, crushed them to pieces, and then added a pinch of lemon juice and chili pepper for flavoring.
Which just goes to show yet again how much better women are at everything. Men only play at being teenagers. Women actually become teenagers. It’s all about the commitment. 2Happiness is not one of those things that came naturally to me. As a kid, I must have been depressing subject for pictures. Photograph after photograph shows me standing in frowning disapproval next to some smiling relative or family friend. The ’70s were a great decade for everyone but me, apparently. “Look!” each family friend or relative seems to be saying. “What joy to be alive! The sun is in the sky, the Soviets haven’t blown the shit out of us, big mustaches and lapels are in — life is one grand, sweet song!” And down by said adult’s hip, there’d be a sullen little bundle of hair and cheeks, exuding the bonhomie of your average postmaster.3
I’ve always wondered if misery was a nature or nurture problem. Everyone’s cases are different, and my own parents were pretty awesome — but then, there are those pictures, and who can tell how freaked out they were with their very first child, especially given the fact they had me so late. Fortunately, Hobbes has set some of my own anxieties to rest; my childhood inability to grasp the intricacies of the smile do not seem to be a genetic trait. My mother occasionally comments on his cheerfulness, with the pensive awe of someone witnessing karma go very wrong. “He’s so nice to be around,” she told me once.
“But I was too, right?” I said. “I mean, I was a happy kid.”
“Mmm,” she said, regarding Hobbes in that reflective way again, and that’s all she would give me on that front.
Happiness was something I had to work at, and I didn’t work on it until later in life. I was too busy making other people sorry that I existed for the first 10 years of life. Then I spent another 10 years making other people sorry that they existed. It was a lot of work. I did it well. True, it didn’t leave a whole lot of time for mucking about with personal happiness, but that isn’t even in the Asian vocabulary, so it wasn’t that big a loss.
In my 20s, I decided to be happy.
This was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I say this as someone who once tried to earn a living as a classical pianist. I tried all kinds of things. This was before the internet was really big, so there wasn’t a google or a wikipedia to answer all our questions. Even then though, there were all kinds of useless tutorials bound up in these flappy, soggy bundles of paper we used to call, “books.” For instance, there was the one that said you should look at yourself in the mirror every day and say, “I’m okay and you’re okay.” Which I tried for a while, until one day the person in the mirror started to argue with me. At which point I self-diagnosed schizophrenia and got rid of all my mirrors. Then there was the one that suggested I spend 5 minutes every day thinking “affirmative thoughts.” Which is how I found out that I have the attention span of a gerbil, and can’t think of one subject for longer than 31 seconds, because if I try, on the 32nd second I start shedding and grow extra nipples on my elbows.There were a few other suggestions, a lot of activities that you could do to make you happy, but most of them were new age things like, “meditate,” or modern age, like, “medicate.” Neither of these were appealing.
So then I did the unthinkable. I asked my mother.
Voyages of self-discovery are not conversations I normally have with my mother. We are family, yes, but there are a lot of subjects that are not — if explicitly taboo, have become a bit of a minefield. I use the word “minefield” with apologies, because there are no mines in my family; only gently phrased reproaches, which lay their kindly larvae into your ears and slowly work their way to the brain, to latch in after reaching full maturity to control your every word and deed several months after they were first implanted.
The following are things we do not talk about:
- My father
The things we do talk about:
- Her friends and family who are dying.
- Her imminent demise and all the arrangements that will have to be made around it.
- Natural disasters
Happiness falls squarely under “feelings,” which is under the “We do not talk about it” category. Nonetheless.
“So what about it?” I said.
“Hm,” she said. And then, “Yuuuuuuhri,” with that hint of exasperation that she gets whenever I do something deeply stupid. You know, like in those conversations where she says, “I’ve put the money on the table, here, so don’t forget it,” and I respond, “Okay, okay, okay. Wait. Where’s the money?”
As it turned out, my mother had been giving me information to be a happier person for the last 20 years. I just hadn’t been listening. You know that famous, apocryphal Mark Twain quote, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I suppose this is an indication of what’s going to happen with me and Hobbes over the next 17-odd years. I’ll dispense hard-won wisdom, and he’ll know Mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she is: a girl/old/never gone through the same thing/inexperienced/naive/innocent/insane/stupid. And then I’ll get to say, “I told you so.”
I spent the next two years practicing what my mother had preached, and you know what? I ended up pretty happy as a result. It continues to be work — there are days and months where it’s harder than most — but mostly, I’ve learned what makes me happy. And that’s not something to scoff at, these days.
I spent some time yesterday trying to pass on what I had learned to Hobbes, who frankly is happier at age 3 than I’ve probably ever been in my entire life, so it’s a bit like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs4. Still, it seemed like it behooved me to make the attempt, so I sat him down in the living room and gave him a lecture.
Actually, I gave him a list of things you could’ve pulled out of a fortune cookie. It just seemed easier than repeating what my mother had told me verbatim, because she used a lot more words.
“Listen, Hobbes,” I said, while he stared at me with big eyes. “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools. Do you know what that means?”
He held up his forefinger, and looked momentous. “Bad guys,” he said.
This seemed to indicate a lack of understanding, but then again, maybe it didn’t. I tried again. “Be grateful for everything,” I said. “Morning to night. Everything. Even the bad stuff. Okay?”
He tilted his head and tried to find a common meeting ground again. “Good guys?”
“Also,” I said, “you have to like yourself first, or else why should anyone else like you?”
His face fell. “You don’t like me?”
This was not going the way I had hoped. “No, no. I like you. Do you like you?”
He looked exasperated. This was getting into deep waters, and he just didn’t have time for it. “I love you,” he said firmly, with the air of one determined to close the subject. “I want Daddy.”
“Because Daddy doesn’t have deep philosophical discussions with you. Daddy doesn’t try to improve your life. Daddy isn’t here trying to distill the knowledge and wisdom of generations into bite-sized pieces for your tiny little 3-year old brain.”
“Calm down,” he said with sympathy, and patted my shoulder. “You’re my favorite. Where’s Daddy?” He climbed down off the sofa and went in search of the Guy, abandoning me and my wisdom with absolutely no sign of regret.
“Fine,” I called after him. “One day, you’ll regret not listening to me more carefully.”
“What?” he yelled from the kitchen.
“You’ll be sorry!” I yelled back.
Which, you know what? Cheered me up tremendously.
- That’s “Return on investment,” for those of you not in the business. How much you get out of an effort vs. how much you put in. It’s pretty easy if you spend any thought on it.
Fully-loaded Porsche Panamera 2012? $98,718.
Affair with hot blonde who makes you buy expensive gifts, and then results in a divorce that results in misery, loss of house, alimony payments and cup-o-noodle dinners with internet hookers in a motel? $346,293.
The look on the face of a person who asks you how you’re doing, and then is forced to listen to the real answer because goddammit, they asked even though really they should have known better? Priceless. ↩
- Or it’s about method acting at its most extreme. Fortunately, most women exercise good sense in stopping short of reenacting puberty. ↩
- Disturbingly, the sprog’s face looks almost identical to mine at that age, except that most of his photos show him grinning like a madman. It’s as if Dr. Evil gave birth to Austin Powers. One of them is evil, you’re just not sure which one. I mean, okay, one is actually named Dr. Evil, but besides that, I mean. ↩
- Does my grandmother suck eggs? Note to self: ask Mom. Do other people’s grandmothers suck eggs? Further note to self: google. ↩
- A Good Idea Followed by a Bad Idea
- Childrens’ Day and other things
- Stories on an afternoon drive
- Bring your kids to work day
- Tech support.
- A little daring
- I don’t know about you….
- A little bit of validation
- In which good intentions mean diddly-squat
- Things I need to remember not to forget
- Sometimes they will surprise you
- England and other errata