Keith is famous in our family for coining new words. One of them is “strawism,” his term for “something that sucks or blows”—i.e., something bad. These days, we encounter strawisms on a regular basis. Our nation’s IQ is shrinking, though it’s difficult to tell whether this is the cause or the effect of our bad taste and bad decisions. Our political system is failing us, just as we are failing the planet we live on. Our economy is lurching forward on its metal walker, minus the tennis balls that would erase the black skid marks from the floor.
And yet, in so many ways, life is good.
Take now, for instance. Keith and I are riding the train to Chicago to ogle the Christmas displays, visit the Impressionists at the Art Institute, and wait in a long line at Garrett’s to buy a bag of caramel corn. Life is good: The train arrived and departed on time. We managed to find two seats next to each other. There is a handy electrical outlet so that Keith can recharge his cell phone while he reads his Wall Street Journal online. The sun is shining, and the temperature is a crisp thirty-two degrees, just as it should be at this time of the year.
When Keith returns from the dining car, he brings two glasses of ice, two lime wedges, two cans of Mr. and Mrs. T, two wooden stirrers, and two tiny recyclable bottles of vodka. Life is good. He also brings the dining car manager’s life story: She lives in Carbondale; she travels from there to Michigan and back four days a week, leaving her poor children and husband behind. He stresses the word “poor.”
“We’re roughly lucky,” he says. He means “awfully” lucky. I agree.
He sips his drink and is quiet for a full minute while I write. “Windmills,” he says, pointing out the window. “We should count them.”
I put down my pen. There are about two dozen windmills, and their verticality inspires him to share some comments that I really don’t want the elderly women near us to hear. “Text me,” I tell him.
And that becomes his catchphrase for the rest of the ride. He gets a mischievous look in his eye, starts to speak, and then corrects himself. “I’ll text you,” he says sotto voce.
We share a packet of almonds, soft and sweet and promising to reduce our risk of heart disease. Life is good. He nudges me to look at the woman across from him, her head bobbing toward the magazine she’s holding. Having seen him in this position about a million times, I know she’s simply falling asleep. He, however, declares that she does not know how to read. She shoots upright in her seat, embarrassed. “I should have sent you a text,” he whispers.
We start making bets about who’s likely to get on or off the train at each stop. He insists no one from the South will get off at Gilman. But there goes a young man dressed in black from head to toe, lugging a guitar.
“The Gilman Goth guitarist,” he jokes, “has a gig at the grange.”
His display of alliteration makes me fall in love with him all over again. (But then, I’m an English major—what else is there to say?)
There is snow on the ground further north, and it makes us wax sentimental. “What’s your most poignant memory of snow?” he asks me.
“My mother letting my blind father drive our Corvair through a snowy field, figuring he couldn’t navigate any worse than she could on the drifted roads. And yours?”
“Getting my first Instamatic camera for Christmas and taking pictures of snowdrifts.” He is counting on snow for Christmas Eve, something in which he takes boyish delight, and something he assuredly deserves, Santa, since it will soften the blows of December: The 13th would have been his father’s 100th birthday; the 15th is the anniversary of his mother’s death.
I push him up out of his seat and away from the melancholy that’s brewing. “Let’s walk the entire length of the train,” I tell him. We take turns pressing the locks that open the doors between the cars, holding onto the handles in mock terror while the floor wobbles under our feet.
Back in his seat, he is pointing again: A helicopter flying close to the train. The Homewood Depot, which he believes looks like a Taco Bell. The Continental Paper Grading Company, which leads us to joke about English departments outsourcing their work (it would explain so much!). Next to us stands a young man whose jacket reads “Phat Farm.”
Keith looks at me quizzically. I shoot him a warning glance. “I’ll text you,” he says, nodding.
That our life is so good makes us ponder the question: What does it take to be happy? Good example. Realistic expectations. Practice. A willingness to be silly. The ability to declare a moratorium on worry. The good sense to put others ahead of ourselves. And all of these things are available to us, free of charge.