Optimistically pessimistic

Recently while I was reading Jim Crace’s extraordinary novel “Being Dead,” a friend of mine passed by and glanced at the cover. 

“Oh, that’s uplifting,” she sniffed.

“Actually, it is,” I replied. “And anyway, life’s not all lollipops and teddy bears.”

That stuff kills me, that kind of blithe, brainless inanity. This is the same person who once offered me some blueberry muffin and, when I declined, huffed, “Oh, come on, have some fun in your life,” and clomped off in a mist of unaccountable umbrage.

I’ve never thought fun resides in a muffin, or any baked good for that matter (especially macaroons). But there you have it: the intrusive fatuity of the aggressively upbeat. 

Afraid of life’s moody side — squeamish, square, and excitable — these individuals are all strenuous sunshine and shellacked smiley faces. Lame humor is a font of ready giggles, birthdays a cause for sloppy exuberance. Willful ignorance is worn like a shield. They ironically bask in the light while being firmly in the dark. 

Call me a cynic, I don’t mind. The first defense of the pessimist is to brand himself a realist, someone wise and sensitive enough to embrace life’s gloomy aspects, its inescapable horrors, from dentists to death, and realize we’re all kinda screwed. The key is to carry on through the muck without seething too much.

While I bend toward the pessimistic, I’m not quite the full-throated morose, misanthropic fatalist some see me as. I grouse more than your average person, and my glasses are more smoky than rosy. But I’m also surprisingly empathetic and possess a squishy sentimental streak. I like puppies and “La La Land.”  

What I don’t like is the arrogance of the chronically positive, that whiff of  superiority that clings to them like a cloying cologne. “Why aren’t you more like me, like normal people?” they seem to always ask. As if “normal” — selfies and singalongs, charades and Champagne — is something to aspire to. Some of us like to brood a bit, reflect and go deep and dark. Self-awareness is kryptonite to the slaphappy extrovert.  

I’m not a morning person; I thrive at night. So first thing in the morning please don’t ask me “Are you pert and perky?” with a blinding smile. I know someone who made a habit of this. The optimist’s chirp — why are they so gregarious, so chatty, so loud? — chafes like a chainsaw. 

I’m sounding curmudgeonly indeed, grumbly instead of gushy, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a matchup: the pessimistic vs. the Pollyannaish, the easily disappointed vs. the easily amused. I am of course employing coarse, sweeping generalities to illustrate a common dichotomy — the glass half-empty or the glass half-full. 

Me, I’m pretty content where I stand, shadows and all. Though I’m no apple-cheeked optimist, I’ve constructed a complete life without skimping. My glass? It runneth over.

Idle thoughts about our human duality

Eric Idle, one of the great Monty Pythonians, spoke in yesterday’s newspaper to say this: “I think I am an optimist by day and a pessimist by nighttime.” 

I take this to mean that life’s workaday gunk, from headaches to the headlines, and the daily news cycle, that cataract of informational sewage, from Trump to pathologically unfit Supreme Court nominees, poisons him in a most unpleasant manner. 

That he undergoes a sort of icky Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde binary: By day he’s merry old Eric Idle (Jekyll), getting along hunky-dory, and by night, fangs sprout, thick hair unfurls on his hands and face, and his disposition waxes decidedly splenetic (Hyde).

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Mr. Hyde, left, and Dr. Jekyll — same fella, different moods

For all that, Idle is evidently not a morning person. He says: “I can’t stand talking to people before lunch. I don’t think anybody civilized does.” (Hear, hear!)

I relate, to an extent. I am not a morning person. It takes a couple of hours, and at least one caffeinated elixir, for the early-hour crust to peel away, the nocturnal fog to burn off, my voice to clear from hoarsey to honeyed, my mood to shift from monosyllabic zombie to socially functional, with a possible grin if you’re really nice.  

It’s like the transformation of the Wolf Man back to a regular bloke, while we’re trading in Universal Horror metaphors.

But Idle and I differ in that I am a pessimist by day and an optimist by night — polar opposites. I arise and experience the day as Hyde — hairy, harried — and then I cool off, wind down and digest the day’s doldrums and distress during the dark. I relax, anxiety dissipates, I operate in a less pressurized space, though I must say I miss Hyde’s chimpanzee orthodontics and senatorial eyebrows. 

I rise in a murky mood. And, though it improves quite quickly, pessimism hovers over me during the daytime, an existential pall, a storm cloud poised to spit angsty, acid raindrops. I’m a little tense and the day’s news buffets me and only mixes me up more, stirs the pessimistic pot, which is really more like a cauldron, black and bubbly.

And then! The sun ducks, darkness falls like a stage curtain on the woozy light, and I slowly unwind. I once asked a therapist why this was — why my mood and my whole being gets, well, better at night. He had an answer that I cannot recall. It was some time ago. Bummer. I think it’s something about letting things go. Work is over. The night is yours. A splash of vino is poured. Fists unball.

I googled this phenomenon with imperfect results. All sorts of reportage about morning people vs. night owls popped up, but none of it addressed mood and state of mind, optimism vis-à-vis pessimism, focussing more on sleep habits, insomnia, and other folderol. There’s much about how some at night get droopy and others get galvanized, staying up later than the snoring household.

That’s not what I’m on about. It is noontime as I type this, warm, partly cloudy, just like me — warm and partly cloudy. Darkish thoughts percolate, I’m a little clenched, my forehead is a map of (mostly innocuous) worry. I am Mr. Hyde to Eric Idle’s enviable Dr. Jekyll.

But our roles will switch as the day progresses. Idle is slowly being filleted by life’s slings and arrows, so that by nighttime he will curdle with negativity. I’m already a wreck, lucky me. I’m Dracula (another Universal Horror allusion, you’re welcome), miserable in the sunlight, a goddam barrel of monkeys by night. We do what we can.

A few things keeping me afloat

A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise. 

The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.

I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice. 

But I won’t, even though I just did. 

Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:

  • Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.

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  • The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.) 

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Amsterdam

  • I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic. 

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  • Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.

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