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A Talent for Happiness

March 29, 2002

The last few times I’ve driven into Chicago I’ve been lucky with the traffic, but you know how it goes on the Dan Ryan Expressway – on a bad day, you can spend an hour between any two mile markers, watching your knuckles turn white on the steering wheel. This week, on my way back from a meeting in the blustery city, as I sped up the Skyway ramp I could see the poor drivers below me on the Dan Ryan starting their regular impersonation of a ten-lane parking lot. I counted my blessings and got ready to pay the tolls, grateful for all the cheapskates who can’t stand the Skyway. I had capped off a good business meeting with a spicy $6 plate of Pad Thai at a restaurant near the Loop, my brand-new economy rental car was gliding past Gary like a limousine at well over a mile a minute, and I was going to get home in time for a family dinner. Ah, life is good.

But that hadn’t stopped the four of us at lunch from a bit of gentle griping about our careers. Depending on the tone, of course, venting a little about this or that work problem with old friends is probably healthy, and we traded a few ideas about problem-solving in our field. But finally we all admitted that we like our work, or the heart of it, anyway. Then the conversation wandered off to some stories of people on weird, thwarted quests for happiness. Priscilla recalled a fellow she dated in high school who thought the name his parents had given him, Wayne, was too ordinary and wasn’t macho and exotic enough for a virile young soccer player like himself. He seemed to think that his unlucky name was holding him back in life, so one day he asked Priscilla, “When we’re alone, would you mind calling me Ian?” Suzanne suggested that one might not want to be alone with Wayne / Ian, and in spite of his vulnerable striving after his dream the four of us had a laugh at poor unlucky Ian’s expense.

You have to be lucky to live well, I think, but the story of Ian reminds me that some people have no talent for happiness. After all, once you have met your basic material needs, happiness is probably more a skill you practice than a condition you find yourself in. I told everyone at lunch about the minor character who falls in love with a waitress in the charming French movie Amelie that’s been showing in South Bend lately. After the relationship falls apart, he takes up the destructive and self-destructive ritual of going to the bistro where she works and keeping notes on a little tape recorder of all her conversations with male customers. Now that’s a person with a talent for unhappiness who doesn’t know how to let old wounds heal. And as wonderful and whimsical as she is, the main character Amelie also has to learn how to heal and let a new life unfold.

Surely everyday life calls for not just luck but also small, frequent rituals of healing just to unload the stresses of making a living. Out in Colorado my in-laws hike most evenings in a nearby parcel of wild parkland called Bear Creek. When we lived in New Jersey my wife and I would walk around Manhattan for hours on a Saturday to get the pressures of her graduate school classes out of her muscles and off her mind. And now we go fairly often to Chicago for the day. On our last family trip we came out of the Field Museum with friends in the late afternoon to see clusters of snowflakes as wide as ping pong balls sifting slowly down out of the sky, and the eight of us walked across the white landscape of the park delighted by our good fortune. In the summer we buy a season pass to Weko Beach and go once a week and stay until the trumpeter plays Taps from the top of the dune as the sun vanishes somewhere on the other side of Lake Michigan. Then I drive us all home playing the family’s latest favorite tape loud enough to keep myself awake. If everyone else dozes, I might recite the final stanza of Gerald Stern’s wonderful poem about healing at the Jersey shore, from his book called Lucky Life. After cataloguing all the little wounds of everyday life, he describes his family’s summer beach ritual. Their week at the beach reminds him that he does have a skill for healing and a talent for happiness, and so Stern ends the poem by saying, “Lucky life is like that. Lucky Life. Oh lucky life. / Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired March 29, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.