I talk a lot about unconventional learning – getting philosophical insights from biography, or finding life-hacks within innovative and courageous approaches to music. But I don’t want to sound pompous or fancy – nor is my sincere atheist spiritual-seeking merely a trick or some kind of self-serving diversion. Rationalization is a common and popular pursuit, but really not what I’m after.
It is easy to confuse ideas designed to make us feel good with ideas designed to help us actually be good. I dislike and distrust the first category with great rigour and energy on principle – because I have found that the places we are most prideful and least willing to look, are where our greatest moral challenges almost always hide. Feeling good is great, but not when it comes at the expense of clear compassionate perception, or helps us to avoid necessary, but often difficult or uncomfortable work on our character.
All of that being said – sometimes we get stuck with crude and unavoidable material, and the challenge is about both feeling and doing real and lasting good – without being able to change anything at all in the physical world. This next trick is one that I just have to share, because I have devised few more useful or helpful incantations over the course of my curious and questing life.
In my book “Structural Happiness” I tell a story about a very frustrating summer that Catherine and I experienced. We had a new neighbour – and they liked to stand out on their porch (just below our bedroom window) and whistle. I’m a cheerful whistler myself (mostly 1930s songs, since they have such sweet melodies), so I was curious to see what this fellow might come up with. Great tunes, nifty trills? Nope, just the same few dumb notes over and over, and even when he seemed to be close to assembling a tuneful melody, he’d always somehow wreck it. Started at it really early in the morning, too – so much for sleeping-in on Sundays!
For weeks we drove ourselves nuts, trying to imagine how ignorant you had to be to make that much noise out loud, when you had that little to say. Then one day I finally leaned out over the railing to see if I could spot the jerk who we had come to picture as a big drunken oaf in an undershirt – and instead I saw a birdcage! Just that fast, the whistling became a sound of happiness, rather than an indication of (and invitation to) madness!
We were both struck by how fast this all-day irritant turned into a spirit lifter – but to my nutty mind, that still seemed like a level-one lesson. Promising enough to call for further experiment.
Enter Spats. Do you know about spats? Those little white button-up shoe covers that once bridged that unseemly gap between the top of a gentleman’s shoe and his trouser leg? Think olden days – ornate canes and toppers. Anyhow, as a costume model, I have hats and ties from many periods, arm garters, pocket-watches, cigarette cases, vintage tools and instruments – even some period luggage, bags and webbing. But I still have not run across an inexpensive set of spats (the inexpensive part being quite necessary, since I truly have no earthly use for the darned things whatsoever).
The summer after the rude dumb whistler who suddenly turned into a cheery bird, Catherine and I got a new neighbour who we knew right away was an animal. A small yappy dog, to be more precise – who of course was quite good when their owner was home, but yelped and whined on and off all day, whenever they were out.
This is not one of those sounds which you can easily find music inside – he was most definitely expressing his irritation (and inducing it in us). So I thought we should instead think about who exactly this dog was as an individual – and so better come to understand his upsets.
I decided that he was a small naturally scruffy terrier who considered himself in every way superior, and took quite extraordinary care about his appearance to project this. He wasn’t actually miserable because his alpha was away at work – he was mad because someone had gone and scuffed his prized (and natty) spats!
Funny stories about Spats, his ego, his various sartorial indulgences (and those fools who dared show disrespect to same) multiplied all through his tenure as our neighbour, and we ended up being just fine with all the barking. We’d just roll our eyes and giggle, “Aw Spats, when will you learn?”
Which brings us up to just a couple of months ago. At first we thought perhaps there was a noisy Christmas guest – but it seems now as if the noise is here to stay – our new normal – and right above us, too. The noise is definitely produced by someone small, full of energy, and frequently unhappy. The gait would be a scamper, if they weren’t always so very heavy-footed – almost a tantrum stomp. Not only is there a great deal of rambunctious bumping and thumping around, there is also a periodical bout of screeching and wailing to go along with it.
Now of course everyone has periods in their childhood when they are bumping up against limits they don’t like – and lockdown has to be driving a lot of energetic kids especially bonkers. They aren’t actually any worse behaved, they’re just badly missing some proper madcap free-range no-rules fun (aren’t we all?)
But rather than put on my psychology hat, or even my philosophical one – I went directly to tested and proven Spats-logic – so we are once again laughing at what initially had us gritting our teeth and shaking our heads.
Thumpi, you see, is a small ill-tempered Rhinoceros boy who wears dungarees (and walks on his hind legs like in Babar) and has a whole lot of energy to release (in between also epic naps and snacks).
Trouble is, Thumpi’s mom really likes her fresh cut flowers – which is why he is always getting in trouble for bumping into furniture, knocking over her favourite vases and smashing them – hence the regular yelling denials. Perfectly understandable stuff, really. After all, everyone knows Rhinos are a real handful at that age (boys especially). “Oh Thumpi, when will you learn?”