by Joan Shaddox Isom
Our family is careful not to be too happy. Whenever my daughter’s husband gets a new job, when the cat learns to use the litter box, when we manage to find two socks that match, we raise our faces to the sky and scream, Bad rice! Bad rice! (ie: things aren't so great here after all.) The gods, of course, get jealous and angry if mortals are too happy. They can and will send destruction. I know.
Once we built a house that was going to be our dream home with one of those super stove tops where I could make fifteen pancakes at once while my family stood smiling with plates ready to receive the bounty. The flower beds would be carefully planned so that something was blooming year around. We'd have proper picnics (sans bugs) in picture book settings on the lower lawn. Our dogs would never slobber, and they'd bite only the people we disliked. Our daughter would never wear her skirts hemmed up to her neckline, and our son would refrain from wrecking our car. Then reality set in. You know it well so I won’t report it.
My walking group is sipping our morning coffee at the Cherokee Grill. “Over 800 dead, but it could be worse,” a friend chirps as she watches the television ensconced in the corner of the room. The dead are not verbalized on the world news this morning. A footnote, their names straggle across the bottom of the screen.
Did you hear about Henry?” another asks, “He’s a quadriplegic now, but it could have been worse,” She talking about a man who survived a small plane crash.
I drive home. I’m forced to climb over our gate to get into our yard. My husband reminds me, “You had on high heels and a skirt the last time the gate opener failed.”
My spouse is a practical man who lives by a maxim which he drilled into our children’s skulls daily, particularly whenever they whined, for instance, that everyone had a car but them, or everyone was staying out all night after the prom. “Don’t gripe,” he’d say cheerfully. “You could be homeless on a grate.”
At middle age, I thought everyone else had a perfect life. One day in a truth session among a group of friends, we all discovered that everyone else was as miserable as we were. (And some were enjoying immensely the fact that they were miserable.) Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we are too comfortable saying, “It could be worse.” That’s settling for less than happiness. But such a comfortable settle. Authentic happiness? Beware. It may be a reasonable facsimile. Synthetic, even. Or maybe chocolate flavored, instead of pure chocolate. And it could weigh heavily on the stomach. “Oh, well,” the fox says, as he walks away from the tree, his neck in a cramp from all that looking up and longing for the grapes that he finally decided were sour.
But some are still trying, carefully planning weekends at the lake, watching the kids roast marshmallows for the first time, helping a boy clean and cook his first fish. But all the while they must be wondering: “Are we picnicking the way an authentic middle class family in the twenty-first century should be picnicking? Are we doing it the way they do it?” Walker Percy states: “a radical loss of sovereignty has occurred when a person comes to believe that his very self is also the appropriate domain of 'them:’ that is, the appropriate experts of the self.” He goes on to tell of a person who is seeing a psychiatrist. ‘I may be sick but how happy I am when I can present my doctor with a sickness or a symptom or a dream which is recognized as a classical example of such and such a neurosis. I am an authentic neurotic!’”*
This yearning to be authentic drives us to consult our guide books and then slog dutifully up the steps (taking the elevator is cheating, isn’t it?) of the Eiffel Tower, or the Statue of Liberty. At Mt. Rushmore, we hang on every word the guide tells us. “See Lincoln’s ear? Five men can eat dinner in it!” The crowd murmurs in amazement. Evidently they feel something. Doggedly, we try to feel it too, but what are we supposed to feel? We almost caught it. But it slipped away at the last second. Or maybe we did catch it and it was too much for us.
Last Christmas, I found a photo of three or four seedy department store Santas hunkered down over a street grate, keeping warm. I made it into a card and sent it to everyone as a portent for the new year. It read: “Not even any bad rice here. Things could be worse.”
*Percy, Walker. ""Diagnosing the Modern Malaise." Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Joan Shaddox Isom's work has appeared in Nimrod, Southern Scribe, storySouth, Spire Magazine, Eclectica and others. Beacon Press published The Leap Years, an anthology she co-edited, and Charlesbridge published her book for young readers, The First Starry Night.