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So I’m going to use the question of “What is Happiness?” as an intro into teaching freshman writing this spring. I wonder why I never thought of it before, and I’m curious to see how it pans out. Aren’ t you?

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The fatal flaw of the “it gets better” campaign finally came alive to me. Now, before you criticize, I understand that bullying of any sort is terrible and that a positive message is good.

It never gets any better for butter.

But here’s the catch. Why do we ask people to wait and be patient for things to get better? Isn’t that the mental trap we all inhabit anyway? If only this thing I am hoping for came to pass, then my life would be perfect. It can be any number of things that are easy to imagine–a new car, a new  job, a new spouse, a new school.

The process devalues the present moment and forestalls the possibilities of being whole now, not in some distant future. No wonder it caught on so quickly.

The news cycle has mostly moved on from discussing alleged links between violent political rhetoric and the Tucson, Ariz. shooting. And the spectacle of our legislators sitting boy, girl, boy, girl, er, D, R, D, R, will further move us beyond it.

Nonetheless, let’s postulate this as  one of the reasons we react so strongly to the alleged links: If media and messages can make someone do that, what other, smaller things can they make us do? In other words, the discussion beckons us to question the source(s) of our own thoughts and desires, and that’s not something we really want to dwell on. And if we do dwell, we don’t want to stay too long or venture beyond the poles of conventional wisdom.

A clever invention, but it doesn't light up all by itself.

How much of us is really us, and how much comes from outside, whether it’s all those Smurf cartoons we watched as children or that odd tension we recall from our childhood homes?

There’s no easy answer, so it’s inevitable that our national attention will move on to something else. Human motivation is just too complicated. But you don’t have to be crazy to acknowledge that we hear other people’s voices coming from our own mouths sometimes–namely, the voices of our parents. But if we are honest, we can likely name other voices as well.

 

 

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

The key to posterity, apparently, is eating an opossum. Such was the act that helped enshrine Pan, the wire-haired fox terrier that accompanied our hero, A.L. Westgard, on his cross-country pathfinding missions.

Westgard’s driver had received two small possums as a gift. They were intended to be pets (yes, opossums as pets). But Pan ate them during an

Pan, a wire-fox terrier, was nothing like a hound dog.

overnight stay in a stable. The two small marsupials had escaped from their cage, Pan ate them and then cleverly concealed his act, though Westgard eventually ferreted it out. Westgard writes:

That was the time he deserved corporal punishment but didn’t get it. It was not in my heart to give him anything stronger than a round scolding in appreciation for his cunning in hiding the remains of his victims from our view when we first inspected the stable.

For this, and for being a companion loyal and true, Pan earned his own chapter in Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder. It’s more than can be said, at least in the first 85 pages, of the man’s wife, Helen.

Westgard also took a moment in earlier chapter to name his driver, Heinie, but only by way of illustrating the man’s poor sense of direction. Knowing this, Westgard nonetheless sent Heinie out in a trackless plain to hunt down a team of horses to pull the car out of a ditch.

I guess if you’re a famous autoist, it looks bad to have a driver. But if that driver has no idea how to get from point A to point B, then you really are the “hero of the highways” meriting congratulatory greetings at every stop.

Imagine a flood stranding you in some stranger’s house for 16 days in Montana or Wyoming. It’s the early 20th century and your goal–if you are A.L. Westgard–is to drive around America exploring the routes of future highways, but what makes your story interesting is not the dirt tracks you’re following. It’s the people, most of whom seem to be on the verge of death in one way or another.

Deserts are unforgiving places.

There’s the starving guy wandering around in the desert, the Kansas farmer tending crops laid waste by grasshoppers, and the Montana couple whose house is threatened by a rising river carrying trees, wagons and small houses. It’s enough to make you wonder about the people who settled this country.

But there is an even deeper mystery. Why did pathfinders like Westgard and William Warwick never bother to name their wives? Westgard even dedicates his book to his unnamed spouse:

To my wife, who has shared with me the hardships as well as the pleasures of the trail, ever a cheerful comrade and a trusty advisor.

I imagine Lewis had something similar to say about Clark, though I do wonder about those pleasures, especially in the days before hotel showers. It’s  not like Westgard denies his wife’s existence. He goes into some detail describing her reaction to the prairie dog meat served in the house where they were stranded for 16 days (Her facial expression indicated that she did not like it).

Names go down in history as heroic leaders of great movements bringing about social changes, political reforms and major infrastructure projects. Facial expressions, no matter how cheerful, crumble into dust. So I’ll end here on the name of Westgard’s wife: Helen.

 

We are very focused on pinpointing the tiniest flaws in our physical selves, and the fate they may portend. What if we spent half as much energy searching for the signs in our souls and on our planet?

I’m just going to start typing this year and see what happens. It’s the least I can do. A wise writer told me on New Year’s Eve that I shouldn’t wait for the right time, and I’ll add that I shouldn’t wait either for lightning flashes of inspiration.

Inspiration is a momentary shaft of light shining through some tiny crack in the walls we all erect around our true selves. The light is useful for the illumination it provides. But it doesn’t, in the end, tear down that wall. And that is the end goal, n’est-ce pas? That takes something more substantial, something more like work.

So here is what I want to work on this year: a story about a couple that drove across country in a GMC truck in 1916. It took them more than a year to get from Seattle to NYC and back again.I believe they kept a diary and that the diary is somewhere in Seattle. So, one of my first calls of 2011 will be to hunt that sucker down.

The writing teacher in me wanted to write “hunt down that sucker,” since you shouldn’t separate verb phrases. But what the heck. It’s a new year.