Monday, November 2, 2009

The last of my despised pieces.

In Peet’s Coffee in Orinda. Context

As long as I’m happy. And we quibble with happy and joy until they are meaningless. And did they ever have any meaning? What small percentage of all the people who ever lived had the room and the place and resources and the recourses to devote their selves to the pursuit of happiness? The bulk of human existence has been the pursuit of the hand to the mouth and maybe another day.

And here I am, with my room at home and my room at school and my room at my friend’s place if I want to come over and stay a while. And here I am with my summers in the mountains and my winters at the beach and my spring trips to the East Coast. And here I am with my academic scholarships and jobs if I just want to apply myself a little and a home whenever I need to go back. And here I am with you can do anything if you put your mind to it and aren’t you going to graduate school and go to New York to get an internship because that’s where all the publishing is.

And here I am in a coffee shop with a laptop and a cup of tea really and actually and it’s not something I normally do but it fit in this moment because I didn’t want to go see a movie but I surely did not want to sit in the house on a perfectly nice Saturday afternoon. But I remember in that vital and immediate sort of way my father and I stopping for the first time at the cute little coffee shop in the converted train depot in the middle of our little town and ordering maybe some coffee and a bagel with egg and cheese and sitting on the patio in the wrought-iron chairs in the sunshine because there was always sunshine where we lived in the Southern California suburbs and the flowers and the fountain and wishing I were old enough to legitimately inhabit the scene, thinking and not just thinking but feeling viscerally that I did not belong there, that I was momentarily visiting a world that was not mine, playing at a person that was not me and could not be me as long as I remained thirteen and isolated in my independent studies and uninitiated into the vibrant urbane modernity that wavered somewhere in my consciousness as that thing that I wanted to be.

And I remember revisiting that coffee shop on my own years later on a warm night and grabbing a coffee and sitting on a high stool in the corner and writing something I don’t know maybe a reflection on a book I had read recently and realizing that my adolescent ideal was fascinatingly inaccurate. That all I really wanted was to be out of that town and that coffee shop with its pretenses at engagement, that maybe that place in the midst of thought and art and moving happening existed out there somewhere but it surely was not here. And I laughed at how silly I had been my thirteen-year-old self.

And I laugh now at how silly I had been my eighteen-year-old self. And tomorrow I will surely laugh at how silly I am now my twenty (and three months and twenty-eight days)-year-old self. Because what do I know? What do I really know about anything? How am I supposed to pass judgment on this whole world and evaluate it and rank it and decide what the best way for me to be in it is? How I am supposed to be happy? I’m positively paralyzed with the potential for happiness.

I’m not though. I’m posturing even as I say that. I don’t know exactly what it is that I want and I don’t know exactly where it is that I’m going, but I know I want something and I know I’m going somewhere. And that’s unfortunately vague but it’s true, truer than anything else I could say at this moment. And I all I really have now is an awareness, all I can cling to is this awareness of who I am and I am just me, but I am me.

I talked to my mom on the phone last night and that’s where that phrase came from. “Just as long as you’re happy,” she said. She says it to me more and more and it’s hard to step back from my parents and ask if what they’re telling me is true because it’s so much easier to obey them and accept what they say and do and imply as The Way the World Is and I don’t know what to say except that this is what I am saying. And before I wonder whether the pursuit of happiness is even a worthy pursuit I have to wonder about what happiness truly is.

It’s notoriously hard to define, I know because I’ve read the studies and scientific studies appeal to me because I like concrete, empirical knowledge and even though they contradict each other all the time and even though my illusions of objective observation have been shattered in the past year because post-modern thought somehow seeped into my head—okay, I sought it out actively in my search for a functional worldview, a search that rested strangely on the foundationless presupposition that there was a functional worldview out there that I could grasp, a presupposition that betrayed my own unavoidable subjectivity—I still can’t resist the seductive tug of the scientific method’s assertion of conclusion. And oh gosh, I know that minimizing commute time is the best way to increase happiness, and I know that having hobbies and interests increase happiness, and I know that many life tragedies that most think would devastate them actually don’t modify a person’s resting happiness rate all that much. And I still don’t know what it is. And I have this feeling that no one else does, either.

But assuming this happiness exists, and I do it all the time, assume that it exists, especially in my protestations to my mother that yes, I am happy, I am wildly happy and everything is going well, I just cannot bring myself to blindly agree that “As long as you’re” can end with happy. Just because the drafters of the Declaration of Independence said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because anyone said anything doesn’t mean it’s true. Who says?

I don’t know how to determine who’s right, and I don’t know whose authority I rest upon. And I once thought that reason was independent and rationality was obvious to anyone who had a pulse and a brain and then someone told me Descartes was wrong and I believed it. And I still believe it. And then someone told me that we don’t come into the world as tabula rasa, blank slates, that we are born in context and under the authority of a tradition and I knew intuitively it was true and I believed it. And I still believe it. And maybe all I have in my limited context is a slosh of intuition and reasonable reasonability and mostly sure and if it works pragmatism. And maybe it’s a little much for me to ask for more.

I looked out the window next to my granite-topped table and dark-stained wood seat and saw a sparrow perched on the sill in the shade. And mostly sparrows don’t catch my attention but I learned this week in my ecology class that sparrows are not native to California, that snails are not native to the United States, that the grass that grows on the hillsides around here came in the stomach of European livestock just a few hundred years ago. And if sparrows aren’t natural in their blind background ubiquity, what is? The Central Valley that feeds half the world was a swampy dry flood plain fewer than one hundred years ago. We made it, dammed up all the rivers and built a giant aqueduct and between the constant sun and the water-on-demand created an agricultural dream.

And we just make reality whatever we want it to be. Now ice plant grows on the beach and rice grows mid-state and I sit in a concrete building with my plastic and metal and type in a bath of electric and wonder what I was created to do.

And it’s fulfillment, right? The old question that surely someone asked from the beginning, someone who was fed on the backs of others and had the leisure time to sit around and sip delicately prepared hot drinks. There were less of them then but it does not make me any less privileged I think; if Maslow has any credence, fortunate is in some respects absolute. Because we can’t blather about meaning and vocation and purpose until we’re firmly entrenched in the middle-upper-middle.

It’s not that complicated. We can strip life down to the bareness of being and the answer will still be the same. And I know it even as I deny that I know it. Love.

And I know it even as I pretend I don’t that none of it matters, that even the pretensions that I wish I had the abandon to affect are hollow.

And the what then I should do still does not spread itself out in perfect lines and black and whites but the smudgy grey takes a little form.

And maybe the most general map is all I can ask for; maybe if I need a fertile plain, I can make one. Maybe if I want to be that person who legitimately inhabits the world I just have to say it and it is so. If civilization is our action upon the world, then reality is created in that space. And I am an actor.

And we are all actors. I think therefore I am has no longer any hold. I am who I am in relation to the other.

And suddenly everything is a simple syllogism.

I am who I am in relation to the other