About Happiness

It took eight years and a Wallace Shawn play for me to appreciate Ella, the last woman I dated before I met Barbara.  It turns out that Ella, with Wally’s help, taught me two important lessons:  First, that there is value in seeking out the remarkable rather than making do with the mundane; and, second, that it is essential to happiness for each of us to find our own “remarkable”…which is not always what we expect.

Ella was an icily beautiful and shamelessly mercenary Russian woman who knew exactly what she wanted:  A wealthy man who could make a better life for her and her daughter.  And by better life, she meant a fabulous life.  One night at a restaurant, she asked me to assure her that I wanted the “five-star lifestyle” she craved.  “You know what I hate?,” she lamented. “Cheap men.  Men who want discounts.  Men who use coupons.”  I hastily tossed my Groupon under the table; soon, she followed.

Because, the fact is, I have never wanted a five-star lifestyle (or even a life that could be called a “life style”).  If Barbara would go along with it, I would happily eat at diners, stay in roadside motels, and entertain myself with whatever diversions are available at the discount ticket outlets.  I drive a fourteen-year-old Camry.  I cringe at $100 theater tickets and $40 restaurant plates.

In fact, my cheap manliness has gone deeper than clipping coupons.  For most of my single life, I dated whatever women happened to be available, interested, and more or less suitable.  I approached dating the way most shoppers approach buying a vacuum cleaner:  Of the five models on display, that one looks good enough, and lo, one more shopping chore is done.  Similarly, for almost my entire work life I’ve taken jobs that demand little creativity or emotional investment, and provide no particular satisfaction.  I’ve taken a similar approach to clothes, cars, food, and the other pleasures of life.

So, maybe I am the “cheap man” that Ella despised…or, maybe, there’s some other reason.  As to which, cue Wally Shawn.

A few weeks back, Barbara let me know that she was dying to see Wallace Shawn’s play, “The Designated Mourner,” in its short revival at The Public Theater.  I flinched when I saw that tickets were $90.  What could possibly make 80 minutes of theater worth $90? Isn’t there a movie version on Netflix?  Won’t it soon be produced in some nearby community theater?

Nevertheless, the dutiful husband, after I found that the entire run was sold out I stood in the lobby of the theater for five hours to get wait-list seats.  And, for my troubles, I learned two things.

First, The Designated Mourner was a pretty remarkable experience.  To be crass about it, sometimes 80 minutes of remarkable theater at $90 can be worth more than a whole week of run-of-the-mill entertainment selected from the discount lists.  I’m guessing that the same is true for remarkable music, remarkable bottles of wine, remarkable restaurants, and so on.  This is in keeping with the moral I gleaned from Anthony Bourdain’s latest book, “Medium Raw”:  If need be, go hungry for six days out of the week, and spend all your money on one transcendent dining experience on the seventh.

(Notice any resemblance?)

Perhaps I am late to this life lesson.  I scoffed at Ella’s “five-star lifestyle,” but really, she was saying only that she preferred the remarkable, the memorable, and the precious over the mundane.  And, although Barbara’s day-to-day tastes are more modest, she also has tried to pry into my hard head the message that we must not be cheap men and women when we are presented with the occasional remarkable piece of clothing, remarkable chance to travel, or indeed remarkable friend.

Second, I learned something from Wally Shawn’s character in the play.  Jack is an admitted “lowbrow”…someone “who likes to take the easy way in the cultural sphere – the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment.”  He pretends to be a highbrow – “you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby” – but finally embraces his true lowbrow tastes (including lavishing attention on a bag of pornography, which he refers to as his “Experiment in Privacy”).  Jack’s quest is to find his own definition of “remarkable.”

In other words, it is one thing to be willing to hold out for what I really want, rather than settling for what is merely easy.  But, it is another thing entirely to recognize what I want in the first place.

Like Jack (who confronts his own Lowbrowness after he leaves his wife and loses all of his friends who “can read John Donne”), and indeed like the Wallace Shawn character in “My Dinner With Andre” (who waxes elegiac about the pleasure of finding that no roaches are swimming in last night’s cup of coffee), I will soon need to ask myself the hard questions about what makes me happy.

Wise people like Barbara have a finely-tuned instinct for happiness:  For her, it’s family, beauty, deeply creative work and a successful rhubarb pie.  But, I’ve never really considered what makes me happy.  Oddly, it’s never been important to me.  I spend hundreds of hours organizing concerts (and, before that, threw myself into community theater and songwriting) :  Does that mean that my happiness is in creating entertainment?  I get an undeniable thrill from bicycling across gorgeous landscapes:  Should I seek out more adventure travel?  And, is my lowbrow enjoyment of diners, motels, reality television, Lee Childs potboilers, folk music, and Rutt’s Hut deep-fried hot dogs real happiness, or just my Cheap Manliness?

Given my current plan to downscale my work life in about four years, it’s time to ponder the Remarkable (no matter how unremarkable), and my own happiness.  I’ll consider this my own Experiment in Privacy.

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September 3, 2013 · 9:26 am

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