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'Nuttin', Honey'

by Jay Brakefield

I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to write an essay but that I'd been feeling pretty good and thus didn't have much to write about. It's hard to write about being happy. For me, anyway. Of course, being happy despite getting old and not having a lot of money or prospects is a bit unusual, I guess. It runs counter to our culture (get it?), which is all about zipping around and making progress and building things and making money so you can be a productive member of society, then retiring to a senior community where you can look healthy and active (tennis! sweaters! big white teeth!) until you start

drooling and have to be removed from sight. Blaise (isn't that a great name?) Pascal, a French philosopher, said that all our problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. And he never ever visited America, which goes to prove, I suppose, that this stuff has been around for a long time and isn't all our fault, which is a great comfort to a liberal such as myself. If you don't believe in God, you have to find some other way to punish yourself. Collective responsibility and all that. You killed Charlie Parker, even if he died before you were born and you never heard of him. Doesn't matter. Bird lives, man.

At any rate, on Sunday mornings I like to listen to this NPR show called “To the Best of Our Knowledge” while drinking coffee and feeling real cool about being intellectual and all. (I also like to read The New Yorker in cafes. Sometimes people talk to me about how much they love the magazine, especially the cartoons.) Anyway, it's a good show about ideas, and being NPR, they can get interviews with a lot of cool people. Not long ago they interviewed this Indian guru guy who talked about how he did this kind of full-tilt walkabout, living on the street and almost dying and having a spiritual breakthrough. He talked about the value of meditation, even if you have to mini-meditate, going to wherever you go when you meditate for short periods (seconds, even!) and still reaping a benefit. Kind of like a spiritual snack. Finger food for the mind. Is that a mixed metaphor? Oh, well. What struck me about this later, after I wrote about it and asked a friend what she thought (she said that at first she thought my essay was about mindfulness, which is all the rage these days, being present at all times and all that). Where'd that thought go? Oh, yeah: If you're meditating, are you present? Well, yes, it seems to me. Wherever you go, there you are, as people used to say. Everybody's gotta be someplace.

People used to say a lot of things that they don't say anymore. Some terms just become dated. “Drayman,” for instance: a wonderful word for a wagon driver. Nowadays, it would be “drayperson,” which sounds dumb, so maybe it's good that there aren't any left, of whatever sex. Some things are too out of tune with the times, such as racist terms and jokes about ethnic groups and handicapped people. No more “And speaking of mothers-in-law….” Lefty journalist Amy Goodman once caught herself just in time when she started to invoke the cliché about killing two birds with one stone. Wonder if she's a vegan. No one wants to return to the days of unabashed racism and sexism (except unabashed racists and sexists, I suppose), but it does seem at times that we've sacrificed vividness for safety. Safety and fear. Yes, fear, lest one slip. The Bryan City Council keeps reducing the time citizens (actually, it should be “residents,” I know) can speak at meetings and what they can say. (Took 'em off the cable channel, too, they did.) No personal attacks. No references to disparate treatment of officials whose homes are visited by the police. Beware of the truth!

Now, this God business. In college, like many other '60s folks, I tried psychedelic drugs. Manifesting a hitherto well-hidden propensity for self-preservation, I avoided extensive use, but I did have a spiritual experience in which everything made sense, everything pulsed along in its concentric way (“No wonder this neighborhood is called Concentric Way, Gladys; we've been trying to leave for hours!”). I tried church but found it short of epiphanies. I found more spirituality in a 12-step program before I realized that I was a garden-variety neurotic rather than an alcoholic. There's no 12-step group for people like me, far as I know, though I recall seeing notices for meetings of a group called Emotions Anonymous. We all recover in our own ways; I'm still working on it.

Maybe I need to meditate more, get back to that sweet spot accessible to a 20-year old kid who stays up all night reading Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, then ingests a peyote milkshake (ugh!) and grooves on flashing red cop-car lights in a midnight coffee shop shaped like a spaceship. I'm hip, man! Where's the latest copy of The New Yorker? I'll drink coffee while I read it and meditate between articles, looking for a spaceship that took off a long time ago.