Does the day start well or poorly? Jane, helping me change shoes after my morning exercise, seems disappointed in my outlook. The exercycle has been particularly challenging this day. It’s always hard. Perhaps I have a few more aches and pains than usual. And how does one add it up, this question of a good day or a bad one, happy or sad?
I am influenced in this regard by what transpired during my exercycle hour. “Arts and Ideas,” the BBC Radio 3 podcast, of course. Note, gentle reader, that this experience is entirely free. It shouldn’t be, actually. But it is. The BBC, a world treasure right up there with, say, Venice or the Alhambra, doesn’t charge for this stuff. So there it is on my iPhone, playing away, while I fight my way toward 3.5 virtual miles on the stationary odometer.
And what have I heard? Well, a very stimulating history of cultural definitions of happiness, for one thing. And in very much the present day, Beatrix Campbell, one of Britain’s finer public intellectuals, asking, no, politely attacking the essential question. She wants to know if the individual can be “happy” without regard for the collective. In other words, is this a post-Thatcher happiness, one that is all about “me?” And if so, is such a thing legitimately called happiness?
My own happiness, it must be said, has been effectively upstaged by the BBC discussion…the very existence of which heartens me. The whole thing, part of a BBC series…which does not mean a sequence of TV shows, by the way…called something along the lines of “New Thinkers,” emanates from a venue near Newcastle. Sage Gateshead, a modernistic bubble of a place on the Tyne, is the setting for all sorts of BBC intellectual gatherings. By the way, there is a separate program…meaning a thread of activity…titled “New Generation Thinkers” that weaves in and out of such presentations. That is to say, as part of some larger gathering with debates and presentations, there is a certain number of younger intellectuals on the program. And, no, the BBC doesn’t do these things on their own, this latter example being a partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, not to mention the Hay Festival, the famed literary gathering. Remember, this is a country about 1/5 the size of ours. Anyway, the podcast is making me feel good, even if the morning exercise isn’t.
But Jane was changing my shoes, when I wandered off track…and trying to remind me of the bright side of exercise. It’s hard work, but you generate endorphins, right? I nod. She’s right. Still, it’s been an unusually tough 45 minutes of pedaling. Though that part is over now. And it’s true that I don’t feel relieved, or even encouraged by my own achievement. Why?
Perhaps I’m habituated. Perhaps, something else. Jane and I do agree that a trip to Peet’s couldn’t hurt. And she’s on to something, for I consider all this, issues of mood and outlook, bouncing down Live Oak Avenue. I read about the decline of it all over an excellent cappuccino. Then I head home.
Bixby, one of Jane’s two rescued dogs, greets me at the door. For me, there is always something slightly heart rending about this. I’m aware that he is a traumatized little being. And the bits and pieces of normal life he has salvaged from his experience are all the more precious. Which makes me particularly alert to the push-pull ambiguity of this injured dog. Yes, he meets me at the door…even ventures a step or two beyond, out of friendliness or curiosity or both…gives my blue jeans a sniff, then withdraws. A greeting and a retreat simultaneously. I understand these emotions.
I roll inside, leaving the front door open, allowing the fresh autumn breeze to waft about the apartment. Bixby stares at the screen door. He cannot be expecting anything. Yet he is. He is full of hope, this little dog. He cannot play, chase a ball, for example. Which leaves him restless and bored. Bixby is given to pacing. And to eyeing the front door, just in case. Now, I watch him staring through the screen, hoping for something…and I know this is the essence of longing. He is a little dog. He has been through a lot. He is a captive, of sorts. Certainly, he is dependent. Also, I feel somewhat inadequate. Jane can stir both dogs, particularly Bixby, into a high state of exuberance. All she really needs to do is arrive home. With a little extra effort, mostly vocal encouragement, Bixby goes into a prancing frenzy, even barking, something he rarely does.
But in this moment, he is a little dog…a survivor of years of deprivation and mistreatment…who has come through it all, not quite intact, but hoping. It is hoping, and it is hopeless. Things can never be put right with Bixby. He longs, and his longing seems futile, sad, poignant. In short, he is my daily Rorschach test. Through him, I see not so much how broken I am, but how broken I feel.