Check Out My Perpetual Happy Machine

Dear Will:

I cannot deny that sometimes, when I learn that my school’s rivals are losing a game they were expected to win, I have flipped over to their radio feed just to hear their announcers whine about it. I’m not proud to admit that listening to the losers’ consternation has brought me a sort of wicked satisfaction. It’s just one more example of how, even years after her death, I continue to disappoint my mother.

The Germans have a word for this—schadenfreude—which Merriam-Webster defines as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” That there’s a word for it suggests pretty clearly that I’m not the only one afflicted with it. And if it’s true that “misery loves company,” then for sure there’s someone reading this right now taking pleasure from my affliction—which provides a sort of elegant symmetry when you think about it. Schadenfreude may also help explain why bad news spreads so much more quickly and widely than good news and why gossiping is so much fun. Perhaps we see schadenfreude as an antidote for envy—albeit one with nasty side-effects. (Ask your doctor if schadenfreude is right for you.)

Here’s a possible side-effect that had not previously occurred to me: A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that Covid-19 news reports in the United States have been significantly more negative than those from sources outside of the US. That negative tilt is apparent in US news outlets from across the political spectrum, and the gap is enormous. Last year, 51% of international news reports about the virus were negative, compared to 87% in the US. Why the difference? Researchers aren’t sure, but their number one theory is this: News outlets are simply giving Americans what they want.

Ouch. The implication is that our national media are more likely to report on a handful of anti-maskers than on the vast majority of good citizens who are masking up to help combat the virus. I guess we would rather read about ICU overload and increasing death tolls than about neighborhood fundraisers and successful vaccine research. If that’s true (and apparently it is), there must be a lot of disappointed mothers out there.

A friend of mine recently asked me: “What’s the opposite of schadenfreude?” The question stopped me short. I had never thought about it. Apparently the Germans do have another word—gluckschmerz—which refers to “pain at another person’s good fortune.” But that’s not what my friend had in mind. He was asking, in all sincerity: What is a word for enjoyment obtained from the enjoyment of others?

It turns out that Buddhists have just such a word—mudita—which is “sympathetic or vicarious joy.” The classic illustration is a parent delighting in the accomplishments of a child. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, because everything I know about Buddhism I learned from reading The Tao of Pooh, and if mudita was in there, I don’t remember. But I love the idea of cultivating mudita, which Buddhists apparently do. Making a more conscious effort to enjoy the joy of others can only be a good thing, right?

Jesus was neither German nor Buddhist, but I think it’s safe to say that He was a mudita kind of guy. (Schadenfreude? Not so much.) Nevertheless, it seems like we Christians probably spend more energy talking about Jesus suffering for us than about how He celebrates our joy (as surely He does). We often teach the importance of weeping with them that weep; but perhaps we could spend a little more time on the other half of the scripture, “rejoicing with them that do rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Clearly I could use that sermon, in any case. Especially during football season.

If we all started practicing mudita on each other, think of the possibilities. Your happiness would increase my happiness which would, in turn, increase yours. It would be like some sort of Perpetual Happy Machine. As opposed to whatever it is we have now. Wouldn’t that be something? Just thinking about it is making me happier already.


These Foolish Things

Dear Will:

I’ve always liked the idea of playing the piano, but I’ve never been much for working at it. Recognizing that I lacked both passion and talent, at some point my teacher gave up his quest to instill classical music theory and began teaching me how to fake it instead (much to the relief of real pianists everywhere). But, hey: 40-ish years later, if you give me just the chord symbols and the melody line, thanks to Mr. Swank I can still bluff my way through just about any piece of popular music. Sort of.

The problem is that when my five years of formal piano instruction ended in junior high school, I had learned mostly just the foundational chords, many of which I have subsequently forgotten. Which means that today, when I sit down to play and encounter a chord I do not know, I usually just substitute one that I do and it’s, you know, fine. Good enough for my purposes anyway.

Except for when it isn’t. Recently a vaguely familiar American standard slipped into my Spotify feed—a lovely jazz version of “These Foolish Things” that parked itself in the back of my consciousness. Then a couple of days later, a different playlist offered up this version by Nat King Cole, and—come on—when that voice sings you pretty much have to stop with the PowerPoint and really listen. It. Was. So. Nice.

So of course I had to take a swing at “These Foolish Things” myself. I mooched an arrangement out of one of Bryn’s songbooks and immediately sat down to butcher it beyond recognition. (It’s my signature style.) It was slow going, as usual, and of course I had to fudge my way past several chords I don’t know (D7-9 anyone?). But then I hit the bridge, which included a string of mystery chords for which no combination of junior-high workarounds could possibly work. So I had no choice but to stop and try to read the actual notes. Like a legitimate piano player.

As if. After all these years, my ability to read actual music notation is pretty elementary—there are just too many big words for me to get through the paragraph, if you know what I mean. But I did work it out, and when I worked it out, the bridge went from, you know, fine, to soooo fine. Both lyrically and melodically, those measures are perhaps the least interesting in the song. But when you actually play the notes as written something transformative happens. You know how at the beach a wave can sometimes pick you up and hurl you? Well, when you play C11 – Cdim – C11 – C9, it’s kind of like that. It’s a sequence that lifts and spills you into the final refrain. So much better.

As I sat there, playing and replaying that marvelous progression, I kept thinking: Why did I wait 40 years to figure out how to play an eleventh chord? It took me, what—ten minutes to work it out? For years I have forgone beauty and nuance just because I couldn’t be bothered to put in a little extra effort? And now I can’t stop thinking about the C11. Anytime I’m tempted to do the same old thing because it’s easy, or when I follow familiar, habit-bound patterns without pausing to think, once again I’m playing “These Foolish Things.” (I’ll pause here to allow the irony of that to sink in.) That mysterious, magical bridge has become a dare to stop and think and take notice, to willfully deviate from the long-established, effortless course, to allow myself to wander down unfamiliar paths and see what might be waiting around the bend.

It seems like someone somewhere said something like: “Nothing really great ever happened inside your comfort zone.” But I couldn’t tell you who. What I can tell you is that if someone had framed this image and left it on my piano about, oh, 30 years ago or so, I might not be writing this letter to you in 2021.

More likely I would be sitting at the piano, marveling at the magic of a D7-9. Whatever that is.


One Thing We All Can Agree On

Dear Will:

In this time of unprecedented social strife and tribalism, there is at least one thing that I think we can all agree on: We don’t spend nearly enough time celebrating the wonder of the duck-billed platypus. Am I right? The platypus is like a unicorn that actually exists—but SO much cooler. Apparently assembled on the Sixth Day of Creation from a box of leftover parts found in the corner of the Animal Assembly Lab, the platypus ended up with an inverse mullet: a duck face and a beaver butt, party in front but all business in back.

As if that weren’t enough—and why should it be?—platy has a trick that only one other animal can perform. As any third-grader could tell you, one of the defining characteristics of mammals is that their young are born “alive and well.” But for the platypus, that’s more of a guideline than a rule, so it lays eggs and dares the Mammalian Central Committee to do something about it. Which so far, it hasn’t.

But wait. There’s more! If I remember correctly from the report I wrote at Mariposa Elementary, the male platypus has a didn’t-see-it-coming, extra-stupendous superpower. On his hind webbed foot (it has webbed feet!) he’s got a secret, poisonous spur that he’s more than happy to unleash on predators and other neighborhood bullies. Somewhere in the Outback there’s a wombat with a swollen, lacerated snout trying to explain it all to the skeptical wallabies and bandicoots at the watering hole: “Fellas, I’m not kidding. Don’t mess with that guy. You make one harmless joke about his mother and he’ll cut you. I’m serious.”

You’ve probably encountered a platypus or two yourself recently. You know the type: looks funny, talks funny, kinda weird. For all you can tell, the two of you have just about nothing in common. You are a bipedal carnivore from Van Nuys and he’s a semi-aquatic crayfish-slurping Australian. You pray five times a day and he doesn’t so much as go to church. So different. These are the kinds of creatures we typically avoid as we stick to watering holes we find more suited to our own kind. It’s safer. More comfortable. And, in this time of unprecedented social strife and tribalism, increasingly problematic.

Who can doubt that our toxic divisiveness really comes down to a discomfort with otherness? We can put up with a lot, but different is sometimes just too much. Which is why with so little provocation we’re name-calling again (“Duckface!” “Beaverbutt!”), and before you know it the spurs come out and we all start looking and feeling like swollen, lacerated wombats.

I’m pretty sure that we would all be better off getting to know those who don’t look like us, talk like us, think or pray or even give birth like us. Sometimes we can get so caught up in trying to establish who is stronger, faster, richer, “righter” that we miss out on the contest to be friendlier. Imagine what would happen if we searched first for common ground from which we can work on something together, our various idiosyncrasies notwithstanding. What would that be like?

I would love to find out. But until then, let’s all agree on at least this much: That the platypus, with the bill, the tail, the egg trick, the venomous claw—not to mention the charming foreign accent—is the total package, animal magnificence cobbled together from a bunch of random whatnot. Other than that one wombat, who could possibly disagree?

And just like that, we’re standing on common ground. It may not be much, but it’s a start. Do that a few dozen times more and we may be onto something. It shouldn’t be that hard, especially considering that, deep down, we’re all just a bunch of bandicoots and wallabies, trying to make the best of things in and around the same swampy pond.


February P.S.: I just found this old Far Side cartoon. Gary Larson just gets me.