Monthly Archives: October 2011

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

On October 24, 2011, the San Antonio Express-News published a letter from a reader offering advice to the city’s symphony orchestra. Read:

“Why can’t our symphony take a hint for a single season and require all music to be happy and something that can be appreciated, require all musicians to smile, and have an occasional encore when fans are in the¬†mood? Perhaps if the symphony goal [sic] was to have us leave every performance happy, they would have fewer financial¬†problems.” (link)

As I read each successive idea–require all music to be happy? require all musicians to smile?–my outrage piles up on top of itself the way race cars do after the leader blows a tire. I don’t even know where to start, so let’s break this down in form of a list.

1. When happiness is required, happiness is meaningless. When smiles are required, smiles are meaningless. Steve Porter doesn’t quite go as far as demanding the musicians smile nonstop through performances, but my elementary school principal did when we put on our Christmas shows, so I know whereof I speak. None of us were happy about being made to act happy. And if we were happy, how would you have known?

Is this painting happy enough? (“Sunset,” J.M.W. Turner)

2. The exclusive link between “happy” and “can be appreciated” exists only in the author’s own mind. Sadness can be appreciated. Anger can be appreciated. Dry humor can be appreciated. Thoughtfulness can be appreciated. A heroic struggle can be appreciated. A difficult decision to be made can be appreciated. A mystery can be appreciated.

Is this movie happy enough? (“Casablanca,” Michael Curtiz)

3. Why can’t the symphony require all music to be happy? Why can’t a human require all her moods to be happy? Art is supposed to represent, reflect, and confirm the fullness of the human experience; art is the means by which we, as a species, communicate with ourselves. To illuminate even a single soul requires evocation of an infinite depth of emotion, not just one emotion but a whole teeming catalog of them, spilling across days and years and lives, common moods popping up like motifs and disappearing. The sounds of life are written in every key; the sights are painted in every color. To deny this is to deny yourself. To deny art which is not happy is to wall off nearly all of your being from contact with the outside world.

I suspect that someone who demands all music be happy has forgotten how to be truly happy.

Is this play happy enough? (“Hamlet,” William Shakespeare)

4. Happiness is not given out like Halloween candy. To be happy you have to work at it. And the most joyful, the most profoundly life-giving works of art are those which must fight every second, indeed fight for their lives, to achieve that joy. Mr. Porter could confirm this with a simple two-day experiment. Choose a happy song. On Day 1, play your happy song while you have breakfast. Then go out and spend the day working. On Day 2, go out and spend the day working first. Then come home and listen to your happy song.

It’s likely that Mr. Porter only knows Ode to Joy as a one-minute-long tune. But the truth about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony surprises those who haven’t heard it: that thing is over an hour long, about 64 minutes, and the first 15 of those are absolutely livid with rage, coiled into knots of frustration with the world. Even the finale begins, just two minutes before “Ode to Joy” finally shows up, with a madly dissonant wail of despair, half the instruments in the “wrong” key, the drums throbbing. That’s what makes it so shiveringly beautiful when Beethoven finally storms into the heavens: he struggled to get there. This isn’t about feeling good. It’s about triumph.

There are more examples. I don’t want to stick to classical music, so I’ll ask you this: would you consider The Shawshank Redemption an uplifting film if the only part of it you saw was the final two minutes? Would you cry tears of joy if you hadn’t watched the whole thing?

Come to think of it: is this movie happy enough? (“The Shawshank Redemption,” Frank Darabont)

5. Elsewhere in his letter, Mr. Porter alleges that the San Antonio Symphony’s musicians are unhappy with their jobs. I don’t know any of them personally, but I do know quite a few professional musicians, including a few who perform in symphony orchestras and one or two with solo careers and CDs. They are all doing what they love. All of them. They may not be happy with the pay, or having to work every weekend, or with having to play the same ten symphonies every year, but their lives are fulfilled by their work. Their love of music defines them. I’ve seen quite a few “serious” classical ensembles betray the most genuine, the most unplanned of jubilation. I’ve seen a mezzo-soprano grin so broadly she covered her mouth in polite embarrassment. And it has been made clear to me that the San Antonio Symphony takes great pride, and great pleasure, from its work.

Is this music happy enough? (“Symphony No 4,” Johannes Brahms)

6. Can you really even have happiness without everything else? Sure, probably; it wouldn’t mean anything. Suppose you raised a baby from birth to eat nothing but chocolate ice cream. Assuming it survived to adulthood, how would that grown-up nothing-but-ice-cream eater know that ice cream was good? How would it know that it liked ice cream? How would it know that ice cream was pleasing?

Some people try to be happy all the time. But happiness is a feeling, and it passes away into the night just like moroseness or desperation. All moods are fleeting. An IV drip of one constant mood would choke a person to spiritual death.

Emotion doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s like they say about not having light without darkness. But things go deeper than that. Art brings us experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have. We feel new things, imagine new places, make new choices, learn new lessons, discover new interests, recoil at new fears, confront new enemies, commune with new friends. We plunge into new nightmares and float into new dreams. In art there are no limits.

Having nothing but happiness would be depressing.


Filed under Art

Friends and Foes: October

So I haven’t written a real blog post since moving back to the USA in August. It’s at last time to bust that drought and give any remaining readers a friendly reassurance that I am, in fact, alive and enjoying myself. Maybe a good format for an update would be to craft a list of my newfound friends and enemies here in the States.


Texas weather. Hey, it’s gotten gorgeous. Reasonable temperatures in the shade and in the evenings–I’ve been eating outside a lot at lunch and dinner–and this weekend we actually managed five inches of rain. The fifty-some consecutive days of 100+ temperatures are over.

Patricia Ladd. For her possibly life-saving reply to my vitally important question about the possibility of cross-species zombie attacks.

Typos. My new job is proofreading standardized tests for students in places as diverse as Florida, Illinois, and the United Arab Emirates. When a test form comes my way with no errors in it, I feel slightly disappointed. On the other hand, every typo makes me think, “aha! I’ve just earned my check!”

See, the thing is, I pretty naturally edit everything I read anyway–like last month, when I counted the typographical errors in David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest (amazingly for a book so huge, only 6). It still surprises me a little bit that somebody would actually pay me to do something that comes so naturally to me. It’s like getting $14 an hour for breathing, or eating cookies.

Anyway: typos are most certainly my friends. And speaking of friends at work:

Whoever had my office desk before I did. Not only did (s)he leave two entire desk drawers full of nearly every kind of office supply (all but a stapler), (s)he also left behind a cheap pair of headphones. Huzzah! Now I can listen to music at work without using my enormous fancy-schmancy high-falootin’ wrap-around noise-cancelers!

One more Friend at Work:

The awesome cafeteria sandwich guy. He cheers for the sandwiches he makes the way most people cheer for football teams (e.g., “chiipootlaayyyy maaayyyyyooooooo!!”).

Queen Mary, University of London. For making my master’s degree official and even thinking my thesis worthy of a “Distinction.” As of October 5, I really officially am totally, completely finished with my year in London.

The St. Louis Cardinals. Anybody who defeats the Philadelphia Phillies is a friend of mine, at least temporarily.


The Philadelphia Phillies. (VANQUISHED)

Roast beef. How can something that looks so richly flavorful taste so bland?

Roast beef promises so much and delivers so little.

William Jennings Bryan. My family and I watched the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary Prohibition on PBS last week, and one of the many striking things about the series–like the stubborn misguidedness of prohibitionists in the face of their program’s failure, the power of women in making Prohibition happen (and the closeness of the Prohibition and women’s rights movements), and the impossibly cinematic life story (and wife story) of bootlegger extraordinaire George Remus–was that here, again, was William Jennings Bryan, busy being wrong.

Few Americans–maybe no Americans–have ever been as brilliant, as oratorically electric, and as centrally important to their era while simultaneously managing to be wrong about everything. WJB was wrong on his populist economic policy, wrong on his beloved Prohibition, wrong on nationalizing the rail system, wrong on religion being the only font of morality (his main extrapolitical cause), and wrong on evolution when he prosecuted it in Dayton, Tennessee. Do we admire WJB for the resolve, eloquence, and courage with which he was boundlessly wrong, or do we just sort of frown and wish he had gotten it all right?

Preservatives. I think I blogged about this once already, but the fact that bread-based items from the grocery store don’t expire for a month is really creepy. It’s like if Michael Bay created a loaf of bread on his storyboard, only if Michael Bay had invented pre-sliced white bread in plastic bags, you could probably push a button and turn it into a 32-foot-tall hamburger.

(artist's rendering)

Forget about the computers taking over the world. Start worrying about mutant superpower-endowed bread.


Filed under Friends and Foes