The Happy Hand Grenade

So I was getting my brain erased in this charming little bistro when it occurred to me that I was happy.

No, not in the usual way (though the Malbec was good). My brain was being erased by a small alien creature, little enough to perch on my lap while the deed was done. The effect was achieved with a sinister instrument of technology (actually a pencil with the eraser pressed to my forehead), and my tormentor giggled when I crossed my eyes and pretended not to remember where I was. The alien creature was six, and we were honestly having an amazing time. Nobody bats an eye when you erase somebody’s brain in a Brooklyn bistro. Or maybe they do and we just didn’t care. I didn’t really notice one way or the other, and anyway my memory was erased.

Now in fairness, given my usual peripatetic lifestyle, the uncertainty of memory isn’t particularly remarkable anyway. But though I was on the road, this wasn’t part of the usual grind. It was, astonishingly, vacation – something I don’t do that often. But in order to forestall the flickering burnout that I’ve discussed here before, I actually managed to block out a few days and travel to New York with Jenn. Mostly the goal was to wander around in full tourist mode, but I also dearly wanted to catch up with some friends, a family that I’d originally met on a cruise (shut up) last year. We’d all bonded over not being elderly, angry and British, for one thing. But they’re also legitimately fascinating people – a cartoonist, writer and comic married to an indie record company owner (oh yeah, that’s still a thing). They have to hustle to make all that work, but they do, in style. And of course, somehow in the midst of that they also take care of the wee alien. And with a few days in New York to play with, catching up with the alien was deeply necessary.

Thus the dinner, and the somewhat welcome erasure of my mind. Afterward we decamped to our host’s home for a chat and a nightcap. As you’d expect, they have that terrific little apartment in Brooklyn: a sort of comfort-riot of bohemian coziness, overrun with books and records, artworks in varying stages of completion, spice jars, markers, difficult-to-identify bits of cultural ephemera, all overlaid with the natural, post-whirlwind detritus of life with any good six-year-old. Her room, as it has to be, is the entropic center of it all, stickered, toy-strewn and bedazzled, the whole thing perpetually turned inside out and sparkling like a Broadway costume closet raided by Huns. Nor could it be otherwise, because I couldn’t imagine little Tug turning into little Tug against any other sort of background. Also her name is Tug.

Tug herself is a diminutive madwoman, a smiley-face hand grenade with the pin pulled, enduringly clever and perfectly wicked. She has an obviously churning, busy little brain, which I’m sure is going to yield a cornucopia of developmental drama in eight or ten years time. But she’s also very much just a good, regular kid, neither more nor less of a pain in the ass than any other. Nonetheless, I’m unabashedly smitten, and have been since we very first met. She’s wildly and demonstrably affectionate, known for a deluge of hugs and impromptu lap climbings, and I don’t imagine for a minute that I’m the only person who gets the same treatment. Doesn’t matter though – she’s got me. She’s got my number and there’s nothing I can do about it. Ever since we met we’ve been sending drawings to one another. From the very start, she spelled my name as “Pull,” so we’ve been Pull and Tug ever since. She understands that this isn’t technically correct but she also gets the poetry of it, so Pull and Tug we shall ever be.

Spending time with Tug and her parents, relaxing in their great little apartment in their great little neighborhood, after a great meal at the great little bistro just downstairs, was one of those experiences that I never quite know how to talk about (obviously). I mean, I’m not known for my hugely sunny disposition, but there are times even for me when it’s possible to find myself in the flow of something purely good and deeply, even profoundly enjoyable. That’s kind of my whole conception of happiness, in a way: an inherently fleeting experience that catches you whenever it happens to catch you. And it can be easy to miss – you need a certain watchfulness. It’s possible to drift along, putting every experience through the standard shitty-ness meter and fail entirely to notice that for a minute, a little while ago, things were kind of okay.

When I do catch happiness in the act, when I manage to notice it, one nice side effect is that I also tend to remember it. That also requires noticing that there aren’t a ton of those moments, that their rarity is part of what makes them memorable, but whatever. I can call up a few of those moments in my mind, and they mean something to me.

Take today. I’m writing this at a table in the front of our favorite coffee shop. I was sitting two tables over one of the last times I caught that happiness, and I remember it. I was sitting across from Jenn just as I am now, facing the window that looks out on 17th Street. Like today, it was gray, she was working, and I was doing a close reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality (shut up), taking copious notes, working slowly. It was warm in there, it was cozy, I was buzzing intellectually, the coffee shop was murmuring, I was okay, not sick, not hurting, nobody I knew was in any real trouble. And for a minute there, I noticed all that, taking note well enough to write my father about it later. And I have that now. As much of a pessimistic bastard as I am, I find that I can use those little moments. Somewhere among them is a useful cognitive strategy against the abyss, because of course the shitty days do come. The brittle, stretched, gone-too-far days that I always manage to go looking for will come round again – I’ll make sure of that. And the rest of the time, the quotidian shit just goes wrong anyway. Then somebody dies. So having a little card to play, something to help you remember that there’s a different kind of experience possible, isn’t a totally trivial thing. It’ll never be enough to turn things around by itself, but it’s a straw to grasp at. You need those.

But I also like the fact that there isn’t anything about those experiences that you can necessarily just go and create. It’s not like you can will them into being, exactly. You can try and create opportunities for them to happen but it’s not some clear, volitional thing. And there’s no way to live there all the time. I’m not there today, even though the circumstances are more or less the same and there’s nothing wrong with today at all. Which in its way is good; like I said, the whole point of being happy is the fact that you usually aren’t.  I’m perfectly okay with knowing that I can only catch it once in awhile, and that the very next job will be turning around and letting it go.

It occurs to me at the eleventh hour here that I started out with having my memory erased and then moved into a discussion of memory and happiness, which I didn’t consciously plan out. There’s probably some graceful way to turn around and make that look like a conscious motif but I don’t have the energy. Like I said, today is absolutely fine, it’s just not one of those days. But Tug’s day was. I’ll remember having my memory erased, and somewhere along the line here it’ll help me. That’s kind of good enough.


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