Monday, November 24, 2008

Last Song at the High-School Dance

I have a hard time killing spiders in my apartment. They do good work by killing insects, particularly ants. I’m always finding ant mummies underneath an intricately-spun web. I guess the bad rap comes from a handful of poisonous spiders that can kill people, but most spiders are harmless to humans, particularly the kind that take root in the corner of a bathroom or by a window. They seem like gentle, quiet beings with a really dark side, much like cats, who also get bad raps. You have a cat around, mice are not a problem. You learn to live with the rock-star attitude, or more like a bored teenager who runs hot and cold in terms of emotions. Spiders and cats are like those friends everyone says are assholes, but you go on being friends anyway, because you see the good in them.

A few months ago, while reading on the can in the morning, I watched a spider take down an ant in its bouncing web over the course of about 15 minutes. I felt like a National Geographic camera man watching a lion take down a zebra. Should I have intervened? No, it was just nature taking its course, but I did feel odd watching a killing play out. I kill insects routinely in my place, particularly ants, but the occasional roach, too. But spiders, I can’t bring myself to kill. When I clean, I’ll knock down their webs, watch them scurry away, but invariably, weeks or months later, a web will appear again in that general area, I guess the spiders sensing that’s a good killing field for them. Wouldn’t know what to tell someone who saw those webs and assumed I was a slob – just isn’t true, and I note as much being a reformed slob who rarely cleaned.

I noted in a piece awhile back the passing of Randy Pausch, with my thoughts on death being it’s a natural part of life, whatever darkness and negativity we may attribute to it, mostly because we don’t know what happens after we die. The drama of dying violently? I can only imagine how that pans out against dying slowly from a slow-burning disease, but I can gather a few seconds of pain and confusion , and only momentary knowledge of impending mortality, can’t be that bad in comparison. But we’re trained through movies to see this as some horrific finale with entire lifetimes flashing before our eyes. Got to believe if your lights are about to go out, the only thing you’re thinking will be, “My lights are about to go out.” If you’ve ever been in abject pain, the only thing you’re thinking about is abject pain. It tends to erase all other thoughts and emotions.

I should have known I’d have questions regarding pre-conceived notions about death, having been raised in a town where the main features were a hospital on the edge of town, and a Catholic/Protestant cemetery on the hill. As kids, we used to play hide-and-seek in the cemetery all the time, particularly at night. Telling ghost stories there also worked to maximum effect.

Sidenote: I strongly doubt Catholic/Protestant cemeteries exist anymore. The concept with ours was each branch of Christianity had a side of the cemetery, divided by a rickety wooden fence painted white (that we loved to play on, particularly when re-enacting Civil War battles). Unlike a Northern Ireland set-up, one side was no more or less attractive than the other. The fence came down a few years back. Most visitors who didn’t know of the divide saw virtually no difference, and in my mind it wasn’t like the Berlin Wall coming down. Just one of those weird little markers of passing time, what with Catholic schools and churches consolidating or closing due to under-attendance. Progress or tragedy, you decide.

I’m still trying to suss out the teenage attraction to graveyards. You have the famous graves of rock stars, kids hanging around late at night, getting high and such, in honor of the free spirit’s resting place. I don’t think people make pilgrimages to these places to honor the dead. They do it to bolster the same free spirit in themselves, remembering that this person influenced them to be as reckless, and that by hanging out in a graveyard at night imbibing, they somehow share in that radical glory. But, when you get down to it, it’s just a bunch of kids hanging out in a graveyard. This is worth noting though, because I think most people seriously visiting a graveyard in daylight hours are there to remember – the kids at night see themselves as part of some spirit that hasn’t departed and simply carrying on a rebel tradition. They’re not there for anybody but themselves, which is pretty much the M.O. of youth, for better or worse.

Sometimes the kids would vandalize tombstones – happened a few times in our graveyard, and they were invariably caught, because who in the hell is hanging out in a graveyard after dark? Unless you’re very quiet and careful about it, you’ll probably get nailed. Kids would go there to get laid, too. I still recall one of my high-school friends sheepishly knocking on our door at 10:00 one cold winter’s night in the middle of the week, his girlfriend skulking in the shadows behind him, asking, uh, er, uh, if we could, uh, help him get his car started, it was, uh, er, um, up in the cemetery. I don’t think kids screwing in cars in graveyards have death on their minds – they’re simply trying to find a quiet place to fuck, a randy 17-year-old’s quandary. But probably not a good idea to use a graveyard. Again, your car is there after dark, anyone passing by is thinking, what’s a car doing in the graveyard at night and is more likely to report that to the local cops.

Kids don’t have a clue about death, which is the way it should be. I can still remember the first time someone my age died, a friend and fellow classmate in high school killing himself a year after we graduated, apparently despondent over a failed relationship. The most shocking thing I remember about the whole incident was seeing him in his coffin at the wake, how odd and unreal he looked in death, his peach-fuzz mustache still growing, or much more pronounced than I had remembered it. Afterwards, a few of us drove around listening to heavy metal tapes, our minds blown by seeing one of our own in that lifeless state, and of course, the only option at that point was to build some sort of shrine to the person, emotionally, because it is a relatively odd, special experience when someone that young passes on for whatever reason.

At our 10th high school reunion, I had a blast, despite not being Mr. Popularity in high school. That didn’t seem to matter anymore, and we were all looking at each other as young adults (28 years old) moving on from our former selves, but glad to come back for a night and take inventory, in my case realizing most of these people were fine and just trying to get through life the same way I was.

One table was set aside “for those classmates who couldn’t make it” – with a candle for each person who had died in our class. (Never mind that there were a shitload of living people who couldn’t make it – gay kids, kids who got picked on, adults who just had no urge to see anyone again from their old high school, etc.) I think there were four candles – two suicides, one girl who had a congenital heart disease, and a guy who was in an automobile accident. It seemed cheesy, but even at that age, the shrine of four candles was intimidating, a dead zone most people avoided. Rather than someone wisely saying “fuck this,” blowing out the candles and sitting at the table, that table sat there undisturbed and, I guess, when people weren’t having a blast and caught a quiet moment, looked over and thought, goodbye __________, sorry you’re not here. Nearing the end of the reunion, which felt like a high-school dance with alcohol, most of us were pretty hammered, the DJ, who had been doing pretty well all night, stopped and announced, “And now, one more song, this one goes out the classmates who couldn’t be here tonight” – and he read off the names of the four dead classmates.

And then he played “Stairway to Heaven.” There was nearly a riot. Couples stormed off the dance floor chanting “fuck this” and “you’ve got to be kidding.” It put a real damper on the evening. It was as if he had played "Highway to Hell" instead in tribute. I had a beer in each hand – last call had come minutes earlier – and all I could think was … if you grew up in the 70s, EVERY high school dance ended with two songs, in no particular order: “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven.” This went on well into the 80s, too. If the DJ had just foregone the dedication, he’d have ended the reunion in grand fashion. But something about tying that rock-and-roll chestnut into the passing of these four young people, must have struck plenty of classmates as offensive. (A year later, another of our classmates, who was there that night, a kid nick-named Squirrelly because he was a little guy always getting into trouble, took his life. I’m guessing at least another five or six classmates must have died since then, too.)

Man, you get older, people just start dying. Nothing grandiose about it, no great mystery about the process. When it’s happening, you know it. If you experience it enough, you can look someone in the eye who’s going down that shit road with a loved one and know how it feels to watch someone fade away. It blows, if you haven’t already surmised this. But there’s no easy way out. We tend to have these wonderful visions of ourselves quietly passing away in our sleep some time in our 80s, still sane and self-supportive, sort of kissing the world goodbye in a sweet dream, but, man, from what I’ve seen, you get ridden out of this world on a rail. The door hits your ass on the way out. Hard.

I’ll be back in Pennsylvania this time tomorrow, plenty of opportunities to go up and visit Dad’s grave, but it’s a pretty rare occasion when I do. I know Mom rarely goes up there, too, as stirring up those sort of emotions will always be too raw. It’s not so raw for me, but I don’t need a physical visit to the gravesite to hold onto that sense of passing. I’ve also noted earlier that when someone passes, they follow you the rest of your days like a shadow, the memory always there, sometimes as clear as if the person was still there, others hardly there at all. It’s a strange thing to have that sense of life carrying on with vestiges of those no longer living. A huge draw for me as a writer originally was to have my name “live on” after I die, to have people remember what I wrote years later.

But I’ve become much more a “here and now” person since and am more than content to leave behind a bag of bones and sundry items for people mentioned in my will. (Whoever gets my music collection is going to feel all right.) I know I’ve left some things behind, some words, many more actions, memories people are going to carry long after I’m gone, hopefully in a good way. Whether 50 people, or five, or five million are tapped into that, what does it matter. Legacies are for assholes, people looking to amplify their meaning in the world, to extend their power beyond their lives, and that feels meaningless to me now. It seems like you get busy living, it’s better to let other people decide what you mean to them than try to place your stamp on them. Like those kids screwing in the graveyard and blowing out the battery, with the heater on all night, listening to Journey and Styx. They surely still remember that night, and I do, too. Better than most things I've read in history books!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Few Things I’d Love to Hear Politicians Say

I’ve pretty much given up on voting. I don’t like the process. I don’t like the choices placed in front of me. I don't like lawyers, ergo I don't like most politicians, who are lawyers. I don’t like the canned us/them mentality foisted on people with this fake Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative garbage. When I run into people who willfully lean hard in either direction, I cringe. I know the next 5-10 minutes of my life will be a monologue of idiocy, generally from people who really aren’t that idiotic, but have chosen to be on this one issue. Because they care, man. Because they’re connected to the world. Because …

Pfffttttt. The last few weeks have provided many awkward social moments with people going off on their extreme political points of view, truly cringe-worthy stuff. I’d rather not attempt to hash out whatever goes through their minds. And I’d rather not damn them with some superior attitude, because I’m surely not above anyone. If anything, I’m choosing to disregard levels and degrees here, and just toss the whole shitpot into the sewer. If you vote, I tip my cap. I don’t vote because I can’t stand our political system and recognize the real power now lies with corporations and money, that politics are just a fancy sort of window dressing for people to pick over regarding more personal issues, like gay marriage and abortion. Have at it! I realized a long time ago, probably as a kid in the 70s, that my life went on much the same no matter who was in office. Bad shit comes your way no matter who’s president. Good things happen to you, too. If you’re going to place your mood and overall sense of personal happiness in the context of whoever holds political power, I’m more than happy to call you a bullshit artist of the highest degree.

What would get me politically motivated? I didn’t write “again” at the end of the previous sentence, because I don’t believe I’ve ever been politically motivated, despite some stern attempts at liberalism in college and shortly thereafter. Lord knows, I tried, but one too many poetry readings in stalwart “socialist” bookstores and coffee shops where I could grasp that about 70% of the people in the room were batshit crazy and as offensive as any Republican I’ve ever met, I just had to let it go. I could picture the faces of guys I grew up with in rural America, living lives that were the embodiment of socialism and the “every man” ethic, and they’d be doing this: making googley eyes and mouthing, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”

I’m going to present a list of a few things I’d love to hear politicians say, and by doing so, hope to illustrate what I see wrong with politics, and why I’m so put off with this nonsense. Obviously, there have been times in America when political activism was essential – Revolutionary War, Civil War, etc. But I’d have to think, even if I was a Rebel soldier, I’d be sitting around a campfire with my friends in the woods outside of Gettysburg at night and thinking, later for this shit, I can’t wait to get back home to my tenant farm, assuming I don’t get a cannonball straight through my head. This is how I am. If our political system were to crumble because of people like me, I’d consider that a pretty good thing. Realistically, of course, this won’t happen for a long time, if ever, and I’m indulging the luxury of a lot of people giving a shit about something I don’t give a single shit about. Suffice to say, storming the Bastille would be one of those historical events I’d love to visit in a time machine. But without further adieu:

I don’t believe in god. Any politician who stated this would have my vote. Profess atheism. State directly that politics and religion should remain as separate as possible. Get religion out of it. Have it in your life if you need it, and I surely recognize that millions of people need it, but get it out of politics. I have nothing against religion – in fact, I’ve seen more than a few people I respect lead good lives with total faith in their given religion. But I also don’t see them at work forcing their religious beliefs into their workplace decisions – they understand religion is the core fiber of their being, simply something they are, and it carries them through life. I’m fine with that – I just don’t believe it should have anything to do directly with what people do, be it politics or whatever. Politics, by nature is a dirty business. Religion … well, it shouldn’t be, but go figure, sometimes people get some funny ideas in their head when they try to figure out what god wants, which is usually pig latin for what they want. It’s a bad mix, if you ask me.

I don’t want to get married/I like having sex with numerous partners. Bill Clinton was a pussy man. So was JFK. I suspect a lot of politicians are. Like rock and roll stars, some politicians are in it for the pussy. On a very base level, I can respect that. On a deeper level, why get married to one person if that’s the case? You love to get laid, with numerous partners. This is great! I tip my cap to you for this pursuit of horniness. But we have this insane, misleading political image that a politician must be happily married, preferably with children. If Clinton had just divorced Hilary after getting elected and stated, “I love my wife, but I love having sex with numerous partners more, and I feel like I’m in a cage. I need to get a divorce and pursue this more. Just the way I am, and I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone.” Wouldn’t life be easier with that sort of unbridled honesty? Pussy men should not get married, ever, or wait until their gun barrels cool down a bit by their mid-50s or so, like Warren Beatty.

I don’t have or want children. Much like the “happy marriage” trope – having kids seems to be a hallmark of politicians. You’re deeply suspect if you don’t have them. What’s wrong with you … you don’t like kids? I’d love to hear a politician say, “I can’t stand kids!” It’s OK! I think you get some women in politics who get so wrapped up in their jobs that they probably “forget” to have kids and are shit out of luck when they start having weeping fits at 46. But, hell, if having one takes you out of the game for at least 3-4 months, what are you supposed to do? A guy can have a kid and not skip a beat with his job. Politicians tend to use their kids as props to a nonsensical “I’m really a family guy” image that’s about as far from the truth as you can get for someone who works 14 hours a day, every day. If you’re a politician, your family is not your first priority, and that’s cool, just admit it. Plenty of people in the business suffer the same fallacy.

I don’t like working-class people. It seems like every major election comes down to this pained focus on red state/blue state nonsense, i.e., white working-class voters. Who, as we’ve seen, can be influenced to lean either way, usually depending on the economy. Your average white liberal will sit around all day bemoaning white trash, trailer-park trash, crackers, etc. … yet never once make similar statements regarding black and hispanic working-class people, because they’ve been carefully trained to never appear in any way racist, and making those kind of statements would surely brand them as such. You better believe working-class white people are acutely aware of this, no matter how dumb so many people assume they are. I propose just being honest: if you don’t like working-class people, regardless of color, just say it. Hell, I have severe problems with white upper-middle-class people and perceive their lives to be just as junky and empty as anything you’ll find in Appalachia. Save there’s a lot of emptiness you can hide with money that’s glaringly clear in a shotgun shack. But politicians have this built-in BS factor to fawn over working-class people in speeches, when reality is these people are cannon fodder, at best, or butts of jokes for supposedly sophisticated people most of the time otherwise. If a politician said, “I hate working-class people, but I need your vote, so tell me what I can do for you, and if it’s within reason, I’ll make it happen” – he’d surely have my vote.

I’m a gay/black Republican. A black co-worker, the day before this last election, was carrying on over her uncle, who was a black Republican. The general consensus seemed to be that he was completely nuts, although no one could quite say why, save a lot of people seem to believe the Democrats are wondrously open, giving, non-racist people … which I think is well-meaning bullshit more than anything else. I think of a black Republican, or a gay Republican, and think one thing: progress. For one thing, it’s a gutsy move to break out of tradition like that; for another, if you strip the parties down to their core essentials, the Republican belief in self determination should be just as appealing a message to black people as any core belief the Democrats could put forth. Of course, the Republican party has become so fouled with right-wing religious bullshit and wealth that this is sometimes hard for people to see (of course, the Democrats are just as fouled with wealth). It’s sort of alarming that so many black people are focused in on the concept that they can only be Democrats when the Democrats offer nothing more to them than Republicans do. You want to see real progress, real change, that’s going to come with black folks branching out in the Republican party and putting their own stamp on it in terms of that previously mentioned self determination. (On a more base, realistic level, this will probably also symbolize them having more money/status in society, which will be a good thing.) I can see gay people having severe problems with Republicans based purely on the stifling religious bullshit, but again, strip it down to core beliefs, and there’s something there for them if they can handle the kooks. Which, admittedly, is a pretty tall order. How religion got to be such an overt force with the Republican party, I don't know -- this wasn't always the case, and it tends to be an all-or-nothing proposition with a lot of voters, which will be putting less asses in congressional seats as time goes on.

The two-party system is reductive and unrealistic for sane people, but I can’t function as a politician without their financial backing. I can’t stand what this country has become politically. And I don’t think we’re “divided.” I think people who over-indulge in politics are clearly divided, but the greater reality here is that the assholes in America are divided, as they always were and always will be. The sane people just go on living, like the fucking Joad family in their jalopy and bunkhouses. Whether they’re poor or rich, white or black, whatever they are. I always enjoy meeting people who either are or appear to be apolitical because, surprise, you can actually talk to them like human beings and get the overwhelming sense that they’re not trying to get over on you or “feel out” where you stand on certain issues. I’m not going to hold your political convictions against you unless you create an aura around yourself that’s so stifling that the only sane option is to reject you. And this seems to be a pretty common theme with a lot of “committed” people these days. Their goal is to divide, and then discard.

I can see that the only chance an effective third party, much less a fourth of fifth, has in America is to have billionaires like Ross Perot float the money out there and run their agenda up the flagpole. In effect, they’re already dirty because the sole reason for their existence on a mass level is a staggeringly huge amount of money. There’s not much hope on a national level for a multi-party political spectrum, candidates who cross so many lines politically that you end up voting for them simply because you respect their honesty, whether or not you’re always on the same page. As it is, I feel like our political system has come down to whether you want to shop at Walmart or K Mart. And both places are selling the same shit, mostly Made in China, for varying prices that will cause you to shop at one place or the other for given bargains that strike your fancy. That’s pretty much how politics in America feel to me now. And I'm a "used on Amazon" sort of guy these days.

I’m not quite grasping what cataclysmic political changes people perceive to be on the horizon, unless they’re anticipating a full-blown Depression and the social unrest that will result. Even if Obama fails miserably, and I suspect he won’t, he’ll still be perceived as a good president. He’d have to screw the pooch royally, in ways that make Bush like Thomas Jefferson, to have history portray him in a negative light. Again, I think he’ll do fine, given the horrible economic shitstorm he’s walking into. But I’m not kidding myself about real change. Save money. Live better. Keep waiting on that blue-light special.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Glass Is Half Full of Emptiness

The other day at work, I was dealing with a coworker, explaining why a certain situation wasn’t working, when the guy blurted out, “Bill, do you have to be so negative?” I explained I wasn’t being negative, just honest. “Yeah, but, Bill, the situation isn’t that negative.” Yes, it is, I replied – it’s not getting done, which is why you’re talking to me about it, and I’m telling you why it isn’t getting done. If you want me to lie to you and paint a pretty picture, I said, just let me know and I’ll shift gears right now to make you feel better. (It didn’t help that this guy’s sense of office optimism comes and goes like the wind, along with his unpredicatble mood swings.) The situation I was detailing for him would have been like describing the Titanic thusly: “Well, we just grazed a little ice berg, but everything’s going to be just fine, and, hey, the band on the main deck just started playing a pretty waltz, let’s dance!”

I’ve always had problems with relentless optimism: the cheerleader mentality. Appropriate for teenage girls, but not so cool with adults. When I’m around someone so effusively cheery, I feel like I’m in the presence of someone who’s shit her pants, only instead of shit, it’s ice cream, and it bears the overwhelming, generic aroma of a can of cheap air freshener sprayed in the room. I used a female adjective in the previous sentence because it’s more often women gushing this sort of saccharine vibe, but occasionally men, too.

I remember once at one of my advertising jobs, I was sitting at my desk, first day, reading an employee manual or something, when this woman burst around the corner and blurted out, “Welcome to _______, Mr. Repsher, we’re so happy to have you with our team!” I didn’t know who she was. No, “Hi, Mr. Repsher, I’m ___________, and I’ll be working with you in our department.” It was more like being introduced on Wheel of Fortune. She had a personality that was a surly mix of game-show host, stewardess and rodeo clown. (I’d later add serial killer to the mix.) I didn’t like her on sight, just sort of quietly said hello, and that set the tenor for our working relationship: me feeling like I was dealing with a berserk bullshit artist (I was right), and she probably feeling like she was dealing with a dullard (an image I was more than happy to perpetrate in her presence). Frankly, you come on to people like that, you’re demanding that they accept or reject you. I rejected her – wasn’t a question of choice, I felt an impulse to reject her based on previous negative experiences with people this over-the-top. Luckily, I didn’t work directly for her, but she was in my department. And to be fair, she was about a 6 on a scale of 10 in terms of work-place psychosis, and never really did give me any trouble on the job, so I don’t want to portray her in too negative a light, despite our radical personality clash.

Another job, everyone had to deal with the CEO’s daughter, who was relentlessly positive, which I guess I would be, too, if my dad had tens of millions of dollars and I’d been raised in the lap of luxury. (I’d imagine that circumstance produces children who are either extremely positive or morose.) Her old man was a maverick, I think already born into wealth, but he took it to a much higher level in his lifetime – I liked him a lot, one of the few top executives whom I enjoyed working for, because the guy recognized and rewarded intelligence.

His daughter wasn’t a maverick. She was taking advantage of his status and hanging around his company for years – which is fine. If I busted through on that level and had kids, I’d gladly give them spots in the company … with the idea that they’d go out and do their own thing, sooner or later. (A perfect scenario: the kids would say, screw you, dad, I’m going to make my own way in the world and don’t want your help.)

On top of all this, this woman was the relentless optimist. If you didn’t jog along at a similar cheery pace, you could see the wheels turning in her mind: This guy is not a team player, I feel sorry for him. And you got the vibe this sort of skewed, immature take on you was informally making its way back to dad. There’s a perverse sort of fascism with optimists: they demand you feel the same way they do. Not quite realizing most adults are realists, have enough negative experiences in their lives, enough stress, enough responsibilities, that after a certain point, very few people go through life with a permanent smile plastered on their faces. It’s not negativity. It’s called being a fucking adult, and we should all be more concerned with people who deny that reality and pretend life is one big summer-camp singalong when they know better.

And to be fair to her, she was on the young side, twentysomething, so I’m sure she’ll grow out of some of that vibe. I liked her in general – a basically good person. But again, there was that strange sort of condescension she carried around with her, which I’d bet she wasn’t fully aware of, that was born of a fortunate upbringing most of us don’t have. You want a sure-fire method of pissing off people older than you? Condescend to them, especially based on your wealth, whether you’re aware of it or not. Always works – at least with me! After awhile, I found myself avoiding this woman as much as possible, just because I picked up on the sense that her takes on co-workers would quietly filter back to the old man, and that struck me as being mildly off-kilter, although I’m not sure how much weight this held with the old man. You couldn’t even talk shit about the company – a very healthy, positive way for workers to blow off real steam provided they don’t grovel in it – for fear that it would get back to the upper echelon of the company. (She also tried to set-up one of her girl friends with one of the bigger sociopaths I’ve ever met in an office, sort of an American Psycho in training … thus confirming my take on her limited world view. You mirrored her bubbly personality, and that was a sign to her that you were a good person. She would have thought the world of Ted Bundy. I was a little too old for that shit by 1990, much less when I was in that company years later.)

And she remind me of another woman in another company, hired because her father was a key client. Again, relentless optimist, perky, vivacious, already fairly wealthy, but looking to strike out “on her own.” A humanitarian. I remember her quietly telling me in her office that she planned on ditching all this corporate stuff real soon and doing charity work in Central America, because she really cared, and this was her dream in life. Yeah, well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. She got married to a guy who looked like Dilbert, moved into a mansion her father bought them and dived straight into the wealthy suburban lifestyle from whence she came. Which is fine! I’d probably do the same damn thing in her circumstances and accept the same incredible gift from my father.

But I don’t think people like this realize how galling it is to those of us from the lower classes to hear this sort of well-intentioned concern about others “less fortunate” and understand that this person just isn’t geared for that hard, humble way of life. Don’t say it aloud, repeatedly, if you’re not going to follow through, take that huge leap of faith, and do it. This woman and I got along vaguely, but I was always butting up against that rich-girl optimism and her inability to see herself as she truly was. Maybe she did, I don’t know. And who she was seemed fine to me: a basically good person who was taking full advantage of opportunities thrown her way in life. But if there’s one thing you can give non-wealthy people, i.e., most of us, it’s that we tend to see ourselves clearly, warts and all, and be able to go on with life without dealing with some sort of mild, self-delusional psychosis that quietly seeps out of optimists when they think no one is looking.

What do I consider genuine optimism, if I find these other surface varieties so shallow and open to derision? Simply-stated and paraphrasing that old biblical quote: let the tree be known by its fruits. If you’re an optimist, you do optimistic things. In my case, like working out routinely, or even writing this right now, or being helpful to coworkers, making effort to be nice to genuine pricks on the streets and on trains and buses, trying to see the good in people, etc. Your actions speak far louder than words, and I’m also used to dealing with overly optimistic people on various mood-enhancing prescription medications, which is a given in New York City offices. Christ, people, just crack the nut of being reasonably honest with yourself, a majority of your various mental problems will melt away.

I’ve met enough people in life who aren’t making it in some sense, who are having a very hard time, or even failing in some sense, to know what real optimism is, and that there are people out there genuinely lacking even a morsel of it. Forgive me for routinely noting the ersatz variety often associated with wealth – but it seems like that perky can-do attitude I routinely run into like a brick wall is a certain by-product of the American Way, I gather you don’t find that attitude so much in other countries (they probably laugh at it in Europe), and you sure as hell don’t find it so much in poor people.

So, even at this late date, I’m never sure how to handle people who are eternally happy and upbeat. I think part of it might just be the way I smile. I have a smaller mouth, not a big one, filled with gleaming teeth. I’ve noticed when people with larger mouths let out a huge guffaw or crack a big smile, it’s more of a Broadway production than my off-Broadway grin. I just look like a maniac when I do a big, full-mouth smile, like I’m getting ready to bite someone – it’s just having a small mouth more than anything! And I think sometimes people take that, and an acerbic sense of humor, and a general quiet demeanor, to mean someone who must be dark-minded and pessimistic. That’s not me at all, never was, never will be. Of course, I’ve been knocked around enough by life to have any sort of breakaway optimism tempered by caution and experience. If I’m too careful in life, I can sure as hell live with that.

Holy cow. I have today off, am typing this in my apartment before heading out for boxing class later this afternoon, and there’s a car parked out on the street, blasting a song from its stereo. Hiphop? No. Crappy Top 40 dance high-school musical nonsense? No. Awful Greek pop? No. “Five to One” by The Doors! Man, I’ll take that as a positive sign. How often do you overhear a good song being blasted from a car stereo on the street? (Of course, I’m glossing over hearing “Shake Your Booty” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band blasting from another car stereo when I was out raking leaves earlier, but you get the picture.)