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Negative is the New Positive Part II



Recent letter to Mick LaSalle, Movie Critic for the SF Chronicle:


Dear Mick: Pirate Radio is not a preview of what old-age nostalgia is going to look like for Boomers. It is old-age nostalgia for Boomers in their 60s. I make this point as a comforting reminder that, as younger Boomers, we’re not quite there yet.—Jim Ronningen, Albany


Dear Jim: Point taken. There’s a big difference between older Boomers (sad, drug-drenched hippies, mumbling about Woodstock) and younger Boomers (radiant, high-functioning epicures, who still own copies of Frampton Comes Alive.). Young folks can’t tell the difference, but we can spot each other with one glance.

Lest it not be obvious, I am of the older Boomer subset, and that exchange of letters explains a lot.

As mentioned in Part I of this thesis, a recent Australian study of personality types gives grumps like me the edge over shiny happy people: “While cheerfulness fosters creativity, gloominess breeds attentiveness and careful thinking, Professor Joe Forgas told Australian Science Magazine.” A mildly negative mood, the study found, promotes an improved communication style, particularly in “stating their case through written arguments.” Hah! That just happens to be my forte! Forgas has also done studies on the effects of weather, and says that dreary days sharpen memory, while bright sunny spells make people forgetful. I’m storing that tidbit away for my next thesis, in which I compare New Yorkers to Californians.

I also mentioned in Part I a new book by Ariel Gore, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. The book makes no case for either extreme of negative or positive; rather, it’s a luxurious meandering exploration of the subject as stated in the title.  (Full disclosure: I was one of the women who responded to Gore’s survey, and at least one of my answers pops up; an article I wrote for hipmama is also quoted.)

I’ve been following Gore’s career since she first launched hipmama, a zine for mothers living outside the paradigm of suburbia / 2.4 children / husband /  mini-van. The zine has since been passed to a new generation, even as Gore gave birth to her second child as her first one entered college. None of this has stopped her from writing interesting, unusual books, of which Bluebird is the latest. Always on the lookout for what isn’t being told by mainstream media, she noticed that in the burgeoning field of happiness  psychology, most of those in Happy Land were male, and, even more alarming, the women who opted for traditional stay-at-home roles were the happy ones.

She sent a questionnaire out to 100 women, asked a smaller group to keep diaries, attended a meeting of “happiness experts,” and in general spent her time studying, ruminating, meditating and cogitating on the subject. Like most books of this type, Bluebird has something for everyone. Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

“My mother,” Gore quips, “considered it a sin of dishonesty to let any negative emotion go unexpressed.”

Naturally, when addressing women’s happiness, the topic of motherhood is central, and this is Gore’s specialty. She has a keen understanding of the difference between motherhood as a fact of our lives, and motherhood as a social and political institution, and she never confuses the oppression of one for the other.

Gore even comes up with a few answers to the questions raised by her mental meanderings. But the most significant aspect of this gem of a book, to my mind, is the fact that negativity, or rather reality in its darker manifestations, is not ignored, spurned or judged. That’s my beef with all the happiness cults—the demand for eternal positive thinking and behavior, and the denial of anything remotely unpleasant.

Because journalists are reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich‘s book Blind-Sided, mentioned in Part I of this rant, there’s a lot of chatter in the media these days about the misguidedness of “positive thinking.” One I particularly like is Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal With Life’s Problems by Liz Langley, posted on AlterNet. In it, Langley interviews four authors for their advice on how to respond to the tragedies and crises in friends’ lives. I can only hope this will mean no more dismissing of real problems with some version of “Buck up!”

Lately I’m really zeroing in on California culture, and why it doesn’t suit me. I’ve lived here for over 22 years, and I’m still a stranger in a strange land. I haven’t lost my New York accent—if anything, it’s gotten more pronounced. I’ve become progressively more negative, more cynical, and more of a hermit. For a long time I believed my isolationist tendencies were generic, that I’d be this way even if I were on the East Coast, but I’m starting to see that the reason I don’t like to socialize anymore is that I simply can’t relate to Californians: I feel inadequate and uncomfortable around them.

Clearly I’m being tested by my circumstances. For complicated reasons, I absolutely cannot move back to New York, so I have to face up to the situation and make peace with it.  I seem to be making some progress. A few weeks ago I was reading a memoir in which the author said her life works best when she’s open to new experience, that she creates the conditions that will allow her life to flow in a positive direction. For some reason this resonated for me. I recalled with sudden insight all the times I’ve sabotaged myself by shutting out the new and scary. I glimpsed the deeper meaning behind all the positive chatter. It was a humbling moment. Ironically, it came at a time when everyone else seems to be tuning in to the darker side—or what I call reality.

Good grief! I can just see it now: as everyone decides to get real, I’ll be in positive thinking mode. I’ll run around smiling like an idiot, drawing happy faces and chirping Have a nice day, but I’ll get only scowls in return. People will lecture me about the falsity of my new persona. They’ll explain negativity to me as if I’d never heard the word or known a thing about it…and I’ll just smile and repeat, “Have a nice day.”


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