The truth is that I don’t know much about happiness. It’s not that I’m a sad person. I’m not, though I love a good wallow in self-pity as much as the next guy. But, I’m starting to see that I’m no closer to a clear definition or strategy at age 46 than I was when I was a kid.
If happiness is a ratio between things planned and things achieved then I think I should be a basket case by now. My vivid childhood fantasies starred me, the boy genius, as a millionaire by thirty, best-selling author and governor of Illinois by thirty-five, and the genial and beloved, yet tough as nails, President of the United States by forty-five.
Just to keep you up to date I’m a wee bit short in the millionaire department, and if I’m going to be President on my schedule I’m going to have to crack that time travel nut pretty soon. I don’t drive a jaguar, I’m not a good public speaker, and I’ve written no best sellers to date.
Why I’m not a basket case (or perhaps I flatter myself) remains, to me, a mystery. Maybe life’s compensation for dashed hopes is a comforting drowsiness of the spirit that falls over one in middle age. About the time that famous athletes and movie stars become younger than us we begin to make adjustments to reality. Our goals become more reasonable, perhaps. I may not be a millionaire, but maybe I could afford to retire someday. I don’t have a Lamborghini, but I don’t have to drive a bucket of rust, anymore. I’m not married to Claudia Schiffer, but my beautiful and brilliant wife loves me and she’s still here after twenty-four years of my ridiculousness. To sum up life at this juncture I would have to quote the Barenaked Ladies. “I feel fine enough, I guess, considering everything’s a mess.”
What troubles me now, is not my own happiness, or lack of it, but the fact that I am responsible for the happiness of others. I guess I have been culpable in some vague way for my wife’s happiness or unhappiness for years. But, she is a big girl and in most key metrics more stable and sure-footed than me. The problem is these kids. I have discovered, in my new found adulthood, that I have a persistent and powerful desire to have my kids be happy. Unfortunately, I have no clue how to accomplish this and my efforts thus far have backfired worse that a 1972 Pinto in need of a tune-up. In my typical self-absorption I assumed that what made me happy as a kid would make my kids happy. For those of you taking notes this is not necessarily the case.
When I was a child I loved the company of adults. I needed, at some visceral level, the approval and recognition of these authority figures. The constant stroking of my little ego by my parents and more often by my grandparents made me conclude, apparently in error, that I was really something. My Grandparent’s apparent belief that I was a talented artist, a gifted writer, and an all around boy genius met with my approval from the start. The fact that they doted on me and showered me with laurels seemed to me no more than I deserved. I was going to be the millionaire President. Already, the powers that be (the adults) had recognized greatness in me and were giving me my just rewards.
What they had actually recognized in me (and liked, I might add) was obsequiousness. I was a more subtle Eddie Haskell and my earnest interest in and imitation of their views and values met with their approval from the start. I was able to validate their own notions about what a good boy should be. I sat and watched Lawrence Welk with them, for goodness sake. My cousins, who did not stoop to such obvious flattery, must have found my Grandparent’s favoritism alienating and unfair. I can only say that my cousins were right. In my own defense, I was just a kid.
Now I find, as an adult with kids of my own, that my daughter is a very different child than I was. She is headstrong where I was pliant. She is determined, where I was malleable. She is as eager to assert her own will as I was eager to please. She flies at the world with fury and righteousness. She speaks truth to power. I love her so much but I don’t always understand her.
It is well known that people, at a certain age, begin to live vicariously though their children. I never thought that would happen to me when my daughter was four. At this tender age she did something I have been too scared to do all my adult life. While we were visiting the Library in Muscatine, Iowa on May 5 2003 a local band had blocked off the street and were warming up with a few numbers in preparation for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. The avenue in front of the Library had been roped off for the street dance and nearly a whole city block was empty with pedestrians standing outside the roped area watching the mariachi band playing on the back of a flatbed semi trailer at the head of the street. Before we could stop her my daughter ducked under the rope and ran out into the vast expanse of empty pavement and proceeded to dance. My wife was chagrined and worried as our first born writhed and twisted to the Latin beat and to the gratification of a hundred bystanders. I will now admit that my weak paternal response was not fear, nor embarrassment, but sheer jealousy. I would have given any amount to possess the courage and lack of self-consciousness that celebration of joy required. In her exuberant dance I could see the shortcomings of a life lived on the safe side. I decided I could do worse than live vicariously through this little force of nature.
Now she has purple hair; or is it green today? And she lectures her Republican grandfather about gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. She is brilliant and tough and unyielding and witty and clever and manipulative and logical and emotional and she loves little kids and she is kind to old people and she gives money to the poor and I watched her warm a little kitten’s cold, lifeless body in her hands and bring it back to life. And she doesn’t give a damn what you think about any of that.
Thinking back on our time as parents my wife and I say to each other, “what are we going to do with her.” I still don’t know. But the idea I’ve come up with lately is this; I’m going to encourage her. My daughter is not me. I desperately want her to be happy, and I know that butting heads is not going to be an easy path. I can only assume that she will get knocked down and bloodied as often as she does the knocking and bloodying.
But I have no monopoly on wisdom. Most of us are able to see the world through our own rose-colored glasses and we accommodate ourselves to the necessities of living. Some people, though, see the world as it actually is and feel a compulsion to tackle it and wrestle it to the ground kicking and screaming. My daughter is of the latter school. It is her nature as surely as grass is green and sky is blue. I have always been a mutable fellow. Why should I fight against this force of nature. I might as well be on the winning team. I love my daughter so much. If she has to wrestle the world, I aim to help her. I hope she puts a full nelson on the son-of-a-bitch.