Thursday, January 10, 2019

Joy of Life

There are a lot of different reasons why people like me tend to alienate others. On occasions when I'm spending a bunch of time attempting to interact with what we may for these purposes refer to as “mainstream society,” I realize what a misanthrope I appear to be.

Whenever I meet a new person and we engage in conversation that lasts for more than two minutes or so, I somehow manage to turn it into a political discussion. If someone mentions the sunset is exceptionally beautiful today, it's people like me who are bound to point out that air pollution gives it an especially wide array of reds and oranges. I somehow can't help myself. I steer the conversation in a political direction, and doing so almost always involves complaining about someone. You look at most of what I talk about, and certainly most of what I've written or sung about, and I'm full of complaints.

Of course, there's a lot to complain about, which is why I do it so much. This is a weekly podcast, and just in the past week there's so much horrible stuff that has happened, including some predictable developments in terms of the similarities in the timeline of events that are taking place in the US now, compared with 1933 in Germany that I outlined two weeks ago, in my last podcast of 2018.

The reason I'm meeting so many new people lately is because my wife had a baby at the hospital here in Portland last Saturday morning. Reiko and the baby are still in the hospital, as there were some complications with our newborn daughter, Koto – her first breath consisted of blood and poop rather than air. It happens sometimes. She's getting better every day under the expert care of the medical staff at Providence hospital. It's all paid for by the Oregon Health Plan, where people who fall below a certain income, including us, get mostly free health care.

Little Koto is my third child. I've gotten lots of messages of congratulations, but I know that many people out there question why I would do such a thing as bring babies into this world. From a really simplistic, mechanistic environmentalist standpoint I understand where they're coming from, and of course from that angle if we follow the logic to one of its possible conclusions, the best thing for the planet we could all do is kill ourselves. There's been some great dystopic fiction using that kind of plot line. But I think babies are amazing, and we'll all be better off with more babies, if they're raised well, because more well-raised babies are exactly what we need if there's any hope for the world.

As a political activist sort it's hard to be very positive these days or most days. It's not really what we do. If we're being positive, it's generally to encourage people to fight back against something negative, which is still a very combative mindset.

As a parent, especially, I have striven to raise happy children by playing with them, empathizing with them, supporting them by finding different ways to provide them with exciting and relatively safe ways to interface with the world. I regret every occasion when I ever lost my patience with my children and spoke with that hurtful, impatient tone of voice. Sometimes I also regret being too open too early with my eldest daughter about some aspects of the world we live in – though living in Portland, it would be very hard for her not to notice on her own that we live in a terribly unequal society. The most efficient route from our apartment to the school she went to for several years when she was very young took us right through the downtown area with the highest concentration of people living on the sidewalks or waiting in line for a free meal.

But what is most beautiful to see in many of the people around me – particularly in my children and in my wife, Reiko – is that they clearly share with me the joy of life. I don't know if we're really unusual that way or not, but I'm under the impression there are billions of other people in the world who feel much the same way. Those many like us who aren't rich by western standards but aren't poor by global standards, who live in a city or town with parks and playgrounds, neighbors and friends, running water that's relatively palatable, a water heater that works, a roof that doesn't leak when it rains, who wake up happy on most mornings – happy to have each other, the companionship, the sunrise, the clouds, the grass, the squirrels, the music, the mountains, the climbing walls, the espresso, the cannabis (at least in my case).

Yes, the rent is going up all the time and the music industry has been collapsing for most of the time I've been attempting to make a living as a musician. Yes, for many people the world is a terrible place, and this also touches us in so many ways, from the forest fires to the constant awareness of the real desperate poverty all around us here in this radically unequal country. There is probably little to wake up for for people whose houses have just been bombed or those who can't feed themselves or their children. And as someone concerned with the welfare of humanity and life in general, it is these injustices that I tend to focus on in my work as a songwriter and as a podcaster.

But every day as I wake up, like so many other people, I'm excited for another day in the world. I know that life is finite, and I don't take a single day for granted. Whether that is because I have so many friends who have died young, or because I'm old, or both, or neither, I don't know. But that's how it is for me. I wake up in the morning and hold the toddler who is usually next to me, and I feel the kind of joy where you don't know if you're going to laugh or cry, so you do both. I love walking into the living room before anyone else has gotten up, and opening the blinds to watch the fog lift on the grass in front of the medical center next door to our apartment complex, to see the absolute enthusiasm with which the dogs run for those sticks their humans throw for them every morning. I enjoy turning on the espresso machine and the ritual of making and drinking my first flat white of the day.

Maybe I don't talk about this stuff too much because I feel like I'm bragging, or because I have an aversion to New Agers and what often seems like their narcissistic obsession with finding inner happiness. Or maybe it's just that as a goal in itself, it seems really strange. Because to me, it's just the default setting – whether I'm driving to the next gig, changing a diaper or making a matcha latte for Reiko, it's those little things in life that are so enjoyable to me.

I've been fascinated with the studies in recent years that have been done around the world on the global happiness index. It's the subject of much satire, mainly because the countries that usually are on top of the index are countries that aren't known for the kind of effusive behavior that many people tend to associate with happiness – countries like Denmark or Norway. They are countries with some of the world's highest tax rates, where it's cold and dark much of the year and raining much of the rest. But it's not living in Disneyworld that makes people happy, it turns out. It's living in a place where you're consistently able to enjoy the little things in life that life is all about – the hygge the hipsters are talking about so much these days. When people have their needs met and they live in a society where almost everyone else is basically having their needs met, too, this produces happiness – even if it's cold, wet and dark most of the time.

It is the beauty of the world – the beauty of people and of living things, and even dead things – that motivates me to do all the complaining and exhorting that I do. But once again at the risk of bragging I have to say that for me, every day it is a given that the world is a beautiful, beautiful place.

I know that whether or not you share this feeling, this daily joy about being alive, you have at some point experienced it. If you have ever been in love once, even briefly, you can probably relate to the song that I'll leave you with now. And for those of you who do not find joy in living on a regular occasion, I'll leave you with the words of the late Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands, who summed up the feelings of fellow freedom fighters throughout history and around the world when he said “our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

Life Is Beautiful

You’re sitting here in front of me
Floating in a cloud
Your chocolate eyes meet mine
And you’re whispering out loud
Words that make me shiver
Thoughts that make me melt
And I can only be thankful
For the deal I’ve been dealt

For the woods outside this window
For this guitar on my knee
For the smile on your lips
For the good you found in me
Looking at the wood stove
And the towels upon the sink
With your fingers on my forehead
All that I can think is
Life is beautiful

For the way you kiss my fingers
For the way you hold my hands
For the way you look
In those leather pants
For the times like now when I just gotta
Roll another smoke
Breath deeply for a minute
And take another toke
Life is beautiful

And when it’s over
And the afternoon is done
We can spend the evening dreaming
Of the rising of the sun
And even when the shadows
Look me right in the eye
I feel your heart within my belly
Like the stars up in the sky
Life is beautiful

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