Traveling the Road to Optimism
Is there a place in the world these days for an optimist?
This question occurred to me the other afternoon as I was wandering home across the spring countryside from a luncheon fundraiser for the library at Pfeiffer University.
It had been such a pleasant interlude with 100 or so folks who simply love books and the life of the mind and helping bright young people go forth into the world they will soon inherit.
I was in a fine frame of mind when I flipped on the radio and found a report on The BBC asserting that one-third of Britain's population is so unhappy with life in their native land they would seriously consider emigrating someplace else - if they could only figure out a place to go that was any happier.
"There's nothing left in this country to feel good about," complained one of a trio of chaps in a local pub outside Bristol. "I have nothing good to say about anything happening here now. It's hopeless, I'm afraid." His bar mates grumbled pretty much the same thing into their pints.
Listening to them, I was suddenly reminded of the last time I was in a British pub with my father, the most upbeat and civilized man I ever knew.
We were in St. Andrews, Scotland, and it was pouring rain like the end of time outside - a fitful October day, a rotten conclusion to a two-week golf pilgrimage -during which little had gone as I'd hoped or planned.
We'd ventured down one wrong country road after another, missed important tee times, been rained off at least two Open golf courses, slept in lumpy beds and downed enough mediocre pub food and Scotch whisky to qualify for a rebate from the British Tourist Board.
In short, we had a hell of a good time - though several months had to pass before I quite realized this.
"So how's it going?" I asked the barman, who poured us a couple of expensive Louis Trieze brandies, Churchill's preferred breakfast tipple. My dad suggested a toast to the end of our first - and final - golf pilgrimage to the game's holy land. St Andrews was our concluding point in more ways than one.
"Bloody awful," the barman replied, ticking off a list of woes that ranged from his daughter's depressing choice of boyfriends to a rash of car larcenies in the neighborhood. He suggested we bring our clubs into the bar because thieves had taken to -following tourists to their destinations and sledge-hammering windows of cars to steal their contents.
"It's a sorry world out there, blokes. St Andrews is nothing like it used to be," he added with a grim shake of his head.
"It's possible you won't get out alive," my old man said, attempting to cheer him up. "But I suppose it's all how we choose to look at the situation. Change your thinking and you just might change the world. Gray skies are just clouds passing overhead."
The barman looked at my old man as if he must be barking mad. Then again, nobody had probably ever quoted Duke Ellington to him before.
"That's a bloody dangerous attitude, mate," he said. "Lose your golf clubs, Dad, and you'll be singing a different tune, I expect."
"Oh, well," my father came back, lifting his brandy, "they're just golf clubs."
Thinking of Dad
My nickname for my father was "Opti the Mystic," bestowed on him when I was 13, all wise, and found his optimistic take on life about as endearing as a -double root canal.
He was prone to quote Emerson on abundance or Churchill on courage to my impressionable girlfriends and was forever preaching a gospel of positive thoughts and civil response in the face of any -challenge. Life to my dad - as it is with most self-described -optimists - was a proposition of making the most of whatever came your way, and the least of all that goes.
The irony of this particular exchange was that my dad was about to lose the most precious thing of all - his life. He had terminal cancer and, according to his physician, perhaps only a few weeks to live. By almost any measure of common sense - at least in the opinion of my mom, his wife - he never should have undertaken a trip of this magnitude, which required him to walk golf courses in wind and rain, sleep in drafty inns, eat poor meals and drink too much devil rum.
He was, after all, a dying man, though you might not have known this by the way he behaved most of the time. We'd had some of the nicest conversations and biggest laughs we'd ever had just sitting in clubhouses waiting for the rain to let up, arguing politics or talking philosophy like old times, chatting with interesting characters we met along the path, taking whatever the serendipity of the road and the gods of time would grant us. In the process, I'd learned about several terrible events that caused my old man to strive for optimism in a world that forever seems to be coming apart at the seams. He'd experienced horrors I could scarcely imagine.
For the record, however, he did not die in the next few weeks. In fact, he lived almost another six months, slipping off to the fairways of heaven one beautiful March morning when the daffodils had just come out in my mom's front border in Greensboro. The smartest move I ever made was spending the last three weeks of his life just sitting by his side.
I suppose that's why he was on my mind as I followed a winding country road home to the Sandhills from my fine day over at Pfeiffer, passing farmhouses where daffodils were in full bloom, and the ancient Uhwarrie hills where he and I used to hunt Indian arrowheads were coming alive with the glory of another Carolina spring.
I saw a country store advertising homemade ice cream and pulled over for gas and a scoop of chocolate. Like my old man, I have an almost unnatural attraction to good chocolate ice cream.
Inside, behind the counter, a string bean of a fellow was watching a report on CNN about the violent backlash over the passage of President Obama's sweeping health-care reform. Several members of Congress had received death threats for voting to support the bill, and Sarah Palin was making new headlines by posting gun sight symbols over the congressional officeholders she believed should be targeted for removal. On her Web site, Palin was advising her followers it was no time to retreat - but to "reload."
The anchor played several foul-mouthed messages promising voter revenge and worse on their congressional representatives. Bricks had been thrown through windows, gunshots fired.
According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law center, the number of known hate groups has almost tripled in this country since the election of Barack Obama. Our national political life, according to some, has never been in such chaos.
"Pretty crazy, isn't it?" remarked the string bean, -handing me my double scoop of chocolate and glancing up at the TV set. He looked to be about 25 years old, with a bobbing Adam's apple.
"Don't remember ever seeing people so dang worked up. Makes you wonder if this -country will last much longer."
Good Optimist's Son
I stood there eating my ice cream, tempted to mention the year 1968, with its horrifying assassinations, violent antiwar protests and torched inner cities. The situation was so bad that year a French travel agency offered tours to this country with the slogan: "See America before it ends."
But I didn't mention the national crucible of '68, nor the struggle between urban modernists and rural fundamentalists in the 1920s that came to a violent head over the Scopes "Monkey" trial and Sacco and Vanzetti. Ditto the anti-immigrant violence that accompanied much of the social legislation of Theodore Roosevelt or the New Deal policies of his distant cousin, Franklin.
If you went back a little -further, the Civil War had to rank as this nation's gravest test of national sovereignty, followed by the disaster of Reconstruction that created, among other things, the scourge of the Ku Klux Klan. As a nation, we passed those tests of will, but it wasn't pretty. Whatever hadn't killed us, one could argue, only made us stronger. In some respects, though, some people clearly never stopped fighting that civil war.
Instead, it being March, I simply thought about my dad.
"Well, that's the beauty of a functioning democracy," I said, trying my best to sound like a good optimist's son. "Most of the time, it looks pretty dysfunctional. Gray skies are often just clouds passing overhead. Fortunately, for the moment at least, what binds us to each other is stronger than what divides us."
The guy just looked at me and smiled.
"I hope you're right," he said. "I got little kids."
Continuing on my way, enjoying my ice cream and the beautiful spring day, I hoped I was right, too. It's one thing to lose a set of golf clubs, quite another a great country you optimistically hope your kids will someday soon inherit.
Jim Dodson, The Pilot 's Sunday essayist and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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