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Radical Times at Lake George | 2017 | Enjoy the Silence


It is the very mark of the spirit of rebellion to crave for happiness in this life  

-Henrik Ibsen

Fleeing Happiness

Me, with Bigfoot
At least one of us is happy

While I am uncertain that happiness is supposed to be something with which people healthily concern themselves, it is impossible to suggest that I do not strive for that state and often fall short. The more one runs toward it, the quicker it flees. It seems to be the human condition, this striving, this failing.

In the last twenty years (give or take a few years on the other end), there have been only a few periods of prolonged happiness. The rest of the time was not necessarily unhappy, just not explicitly happy.

When I was going into eleventh grade, I went to a summer program called Summer Scholars for gifted students in the Hudson Valley. It was the first time I spent a substantial chunk of time away from my home. I am sure I was initially nervous or uneasy, but also eager for this new experience. I did not have any warm feelings for my roommate. One of the writing professors, Nancy, seemed openly resentful of my peers in general and me in specific (she believed I was obsessed with vampires because I mentioned having liked one of the Anne Rice books, telling me during my final review that she was sure "hundreds" of people read vampire novels, a statement about which the Stoker estate would scoff). Our resident director, a woman whose surname was literally Yess, allowed us far too much freedom that only some of us abused. One of our resident advisors told us on the first day that we should use condoms if we had sex and to otherwise be respectful of our roommates. (It is possible that one of the boys had sex with several of the girls, one of whom excoriated him in poetry during our final performance, but it otherwise occurred outside my notice.)

We baked cakes and cookies in the kitchen. We threw impromptu 2AM violin concerts and literary salons. We acted in a children's play of the Town Musicians of Bremen, one that incorporated Beatles music, directed by a Bard student who didn't wear a bra, a precious fact when I was a teenager. It was the first time I saw a glimpse of what my life could be, a life to which I felt both entitled and worthy. It was what I imagined my college experience would be, factoring in more and higher-pressure classes and more diversity to the student body.

It did not end up having much to do with my college experience, since I was ever the commuter and never the resident, except by proxy of sleeping with one or another, but I couldn't know that. I was filled with hope. My ego was satisfied, given that I was only here because I was somehow special - never mind that several of my peers were only there because no one else in their school applied. I had a firm purpose centered on my singular talent. There were attempts to keep us busy with activities and trips when we were not occupied with classes. It was only two weeks, so I never had the chance to get bored or jaded.

I returned the next year and those memories are precious, but not as much so. I wanted a repeat of the experience I had the year before - I had expectations - and that didn't happen. The residential director, Jim, was sterner than Ms. Yess. As a teacher of a decade now, I understand entirely where he was coming from. He had thirty precociously devious teenagers under his care and we would absolutely have fondled one another and swallowed fireworks if given the slightest provocation, but it was disappointing to be reined in when I felt I was relatively trustworthy. Still, it was summer, I was on a beautiful campus with as much college food as I could stuff in my mouth and pockets, I was surrounded by fantastic new people, I was learning about sociology (from professors who were far less openly contemptuous).

I was happy again - not as well, not as much - when I was a resident advisor for this program years later. Children are monsters, but I was fond of a few of them. I was getting to know Jacki for the first time, a wonderful beginning to a close friendship that would last for a decade.

It was not a faultless time. Dexy was just this side of statutory rape with some of our charges, several of whom were the type to chug entire bottles of hot sauce and then throw up - and I know they were this type because that is exactly what they did in the common room. I had no air conditioning and thus had a heat rash for most of the experience. Most of the kids were ungrateful, but that is the nature of kids. Still, I remember being happy.

I was very nearly happy both the times I went to Free Spirit Gathering, though more the second because I knew what to expect. Unlike with Summer Scholars, having expectations did not distract from the experience of being there. Instead, it obviated the anxiety and uncertain, the walls I built up to the experience the first time, knowing Emily had been there with her clan days before I arrived. Now, if I arrived with my clan of two people, I would be near ecstasy, though Amber couldn't find time off to go to a similar festival an hour from us this summer.

The next time I was overwhelmingly happy was the weekend of my wedding, over a decade later. I was surrounded by people I loved, who showed their love for me by their presence and their help. Again, it was summer. It was a beautiful locale. For whatever problems the world threw our way, we transcended them, mostly thanks to my sister-in-law Rebecca.

There are times I should have been happy and wasn't. On trips, I know that I will enjoy the memories, but I do not always enjoy what is happening at the time. It is too much, too quickly, too erratically, too unpredictably, too anxiety-provoking.

There have been smaller happinesses, dispersed ones. When I am not depressed or anxious, I am often vaguely happy. (This statement may not make sense to people who do not have depression or anxiety, but you will have to trust me that it does.) My life is blessed for the most part, living with and loving the best woman I have ever met, writing a great deal, being quoted if not read, living in a small and friendly town.

I see some commonalities to my happiness - new experiences, feeling special and purposeful, the company of people I cared about, summer - but these are all obvious. Most everyone is happy in the presence of these and it doesn't point a way toward what will make me in specific happy.

By the absence of these things, it is harder to find my happiness. I can't deny that a cozy Christmas party instills joy in me, but I cannot do without all of the above and think of happiness.

But happiness is no default state. Striving for it - striving for something - is what we are seemingly built to do in this culture. Happiness satisfies us and we are not evolutionarily built to be satisfied. I keep these memories to drive myself on, to find the next series of moments I can link together into happiness in memory, if not in the moment.

Soon in Xenology: The sound of silence. Underutilization. Infinite consequences. Abuse.

last watched: IT
reading: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
listening: Fuel

Radical Times at Lake George | 2017 | Enjoy the Silence

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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