Cheerfulness is a choice people make. Happiness is something else—happiness happens to you, rarely, like when Minnesota beats Michigan, and you don't get to choose it. Joy is a theological concept. Contentment is something that happens to other people, the Inuit, for example, or…Basque sheepherders. Not you or me. But we can choose to be cheerful and loose and jazzy, in the face of whatever life throws our way.
My people were determined to be cheerful, even as they came through the Great Depression, crop failures, tragedies of various shapes and sizes: they sat around the oilcloth-covered kitchen table and enjoyed their bowl of ice cream and did not complain about the landlord or the weather and looked forward to a better day. My father loved to make small talk with waitresses, the mailman, Bud at the gas station, and it always was cheery.
We're all in over our heads. Life is too much. But it could be worse. We've made bonehead mistakes, yelled at our kids, wasted years of our lives on one harebrained thing or another, are prisoners of our own vanity, but so far we have not fallen into quicksand, …been hit by an anvil falling out of a tree, …so onward we go.
My people got old and felt their age, got dizzy if they stood up fast, felt unbalanced, held onto railings going down stairs, suffered backaches and jittery stomachs, but if you asked them how they were, they said, "Fine. Never better." Life is one damn thing after another. And so what? Sew buttons on your underwear.
Cheerfulness is the great American virtue, found in Emerson, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and also in cafes and taverns and workplaces all over America. Academics tend to be negative, especially in the humanities—certain educations are a depressant—and of course young people have an obligation to be morbid and filled with angst and stay up late and brood. NOT MY JOB. The E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Johnny did Frankie wrong and it was sad when the great ship went down, but I would rather be a grasshopper sitting on a railroad track and picking his teeth with a carpet tack. The train will come eventually and the passengers in the club car won't feel the bump of the carpet tack, but praise God from whom all blessings flow and let's do a show!