Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

Just read the below column in the NYTimes by a woman my age (44). It's basically about giving up, and about being envious of a 12-year-old!

I found certain things in the column to be true: At age 12, there is certainly a sense of "limitless possibilities" open to you. A false sense, in this case, I might grouse. Most likely, the below-mentioned daughter of this New York Times columnist, a daughter who is already (obnoxiously -- at age 12?!) going off for "conferences in Washington," is going to be, at 44, exactly like her mother: Married-with-children, earning $85,000 a year at a cushy city job, living in Connecticut or someplace, probably bemoaning upper-middle-class life (either privately with her privileged friends or, god forbid, in a public forum where she expects sympathy).

And then there's the quote: "It’s just that urgency that goes, in early middle age. 'All that yearning and anguish and passion had been replaced by a steady pulse of pleasure and satisfaction and occasional irritation, and this seemed to be a happy exchange; if there had been times in her life when she had been more elated, there had never been a time when things had been more constant,' Emma Morley, one of the two narrators of the British writer David Nicholls’s recent novel, 'One Day,' reflects, as life and love come together for her at age 38. 'What is there to care so much about?' she continues, '… everything had evened out and settled down and life was lived against a general background of comfort, satisfaction and familiarity.'"

Well, bully for those staid, privileged women for whom the above is true... But... that state certainly ain't the case for THIS 44-year-old. I'm wondering where my own "steady pulse of pleasure and satisfaction" and "general background of comfort, satisfaction and familiarity" are! As yet non-existent, perhaps by choice. The search goes on for me.

For instance: When I left Austin for NYC in 2007, I was 41, had a good-paying job, a car, a comfortable, coolly-furnished house (albeit a rental)... And gave it all up to throw myself into a strange city with nothing because I was bored to death where I was. Peggy Lee's "Is that all there is?" was the refrain in my head at the time. I wanted to be mentally challenged; I wanted to learn new things, see new things. Inspired, perhaps, by the opening paragraphs of our country's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness..." (How utterly audacious and unusual is it to include the goal of "the pursuit of happiness" in a political document/blueprint for a nation!)

It seems to me that Judith Warner (the columnist below), on the other hand, has completely given up. In her own mind, her life is over. No more happiness or intensity. Her remaining subdued thrills being to (1)live through her daughter's "conferences"; and (2) watch her husband dance/sing boyishly. According to her, she's got nothing.

Jobless as I am at the moment, I feel sorry for her and her lack of imagination and future.

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Column by Judith Warner in the New York Times (10/15/09)


It was one of those moments that really should be meaningless. Julia and I were in the car, listening to the soundtrack of the new remake of the movie “Fame.” We were both singing along to the title track; I was grousing lightly to myself about the impudence of anyone’s even attempting to remake the 1980 Irene Cara song, when suddenly I heard Julia’s voice, stronger and more confident than mine: “I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to fly. (High.)”

And one of those all-too-frequent choke-in-the-throat feelings came over me.

This was her song now. Not mine.

The sense of limitless possibility: hers. Vaulting ambition: hers. Anticipation, excitement, discovery, intensity: all hers.

It is a strange thing to have a 12-year-old — that is to say, a child who is coming out of the family cocoon and starting to make a life for herself out in the world. Up to a point, of course. Julia isn’t yet going to college, or getting a job.

But on the day in question we were on our way home from shopping for clothes for a conference that she was going to attend in Washington. She was going to live in a dorm. Carry her own Advil. Dress in “office casual” clothes, the defining and finding of which had obsessed me, successfully channeling all my anxiety about her going away to be a mini-conventioneer among strangers. Until, of course, the clothes were found.

I kept coming back to one skirt, turning it in my hands and studying it. If I didn’t own it now, I was sure I had owned one very much like it in the past.

“I could wear this,” I said, holding it in front of me, and picturing it a size or three larger.

“But promise me you won’t,” she said, with desperate urgency.

It’s just that urgency that goes, in early middle age. “All that yearning and anguish and passion had been replaced by a steady pulse of pleasure and satisfaction and occasional irritation, and this seemed to be a happy exchange; if there had been times in her life when she had been more elated, there had never been a time when things had been more constant,” Emma Morley, one of the two narrators of the British writer David Nicholls’s recent novel, “One Day,” reflects, as life and love come together for her at age 38. “What is there to care so much about?” she continues, “… everything had evened out and settled down and life was lived against a general background of comfort, satisfaction and familiarity.”

This is a turning point in the book. Happiness — elusive for so long — has been achieved.

And then, three pages later, Emma dies.

This is the cruelty of middle age, I find: just when things have gotten good — really, really, consistently good — I have become aware that they will end.

“It’s the circle of life,” a friend said, semi-tearfully to me the other day, still recovering from her choke-in-the-throat experience of having received a note from her daughter’s fourth grade teachers warning that, soon enough, the precious 9-year-olds in their care would need to start to wear deodorant.

“Changes are coming.” She was still choking up over it. Puberty was on the horizon for her daughter; menopause for her.

We always say “circle,” but to be perfectly honest, I now see the passage of time more as a kind of bell curve. Years of ascension, soaring anticipation, followed by a plateau — which is not so bad, really — and then, no way to sugar coat this: a rather precipitous decline.

You are not supposed to think this, much less say it. A decline? Never!

Fifty is the new 30, after all; and 70 is the new 15, and 40 — well, the forties are just so fabulous that they can’t even be considered middle age. Even if they do happen to fall right smack in the middle of what, despite our best efforts, is still a limited human lifespan.

Susan Jacoby, the author of “The Age of American Unreason,” among other books, found herself, a year or so ago, attending a panel at the World Science Festival in New York City called “Ninety is the new Fifty,” and is now writing a book on the “delusion” she says we all have “that age is something that can be defied.” Her focus is on how the baby boom generation faces old age: “if we do everything right, we’re not going to get old or sad. It’s part of the belief that a positive attitude can fix everything and you’re not going to die.”

Yet the stirrings of mortality, and our fears of facing it, she acknowledges, can start much earlier. “The forties are a kind of deadline,” she told me.

My life, I’ve often told my girls, feels in these years as if I am constantly about to take a giant math test. Even so, I’d much rather be 44 than 14, as I was when “Fame” was first released. And 14 was already worlds better than 12.(“The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every single good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit,” Anne Lamott wrote, in “Operating Instructions.” “Seventh and eighth grades were a place into which one descended… . One was no longer just some kid. One was suddenly a Diane Arbus character. It was springtime, for Hitler, and Germany.”)

There are trade-offs: intensity versus contentment, exaltation versus peace. And perhaps the best exchange of all: you trade in an idea of yourself for a reality that, if nothing else, can make you laugh.

Our family shared a ride to school and work the other day, and in the car we listened, of course, to “Fame.” I parked, and Max walked the girls to the front door of the school. Suddenly, spontaneously, he burst into song.

His shouts of “Fame!” were accompanied by sideways leaps and expansive arm gestures that I, from across the street, could recognize as disco-era choreography.

The girls scuttled off with record speed. The other children, and most of the parents, averted their eyes.

Yet one mother, tired-looking, with a baby in a stroller, kept turning back for more. One more glance, one more giggle. She walked off, laughing still, and shaking her head.

She may have made some kind of comment to her baby as she passed by me in the car; I couldn’t hear it. The music was turned up too loud.

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