Wednesday, July 5, 2017

In praise of enthusiasm

   "I wish I was that excited to go places."
     It wasn't what she said so much as how she said it.
    We were walking through the passenger area at the Lime Kiln dock on Put-in-Bay, hurrying to catch the ferry back to the mainland after a long weekend with old friends. Our dog Kitty, in a burst of zeal, extreme even for her, strained forward on her leash, making emphatic, urgent noises that sounded, I swear to God, like a chimpanzee going "Ooo! Ooo! Ooo!"
     As we passed the ticket taker, she said, "I wish I was that excited to go places."
     On the page, that statement might seem a wry observation of the dog's boundless energy. But spoken, there was a flatness, almost a deadness to it that chilled me, causing me to pause and look back at the speaker. A standard issue young person, female variant. Shorts and a Miller Boat Lines shirt. The aviator sunglasses kids wear nowadays.
     Some young people are buoyant, filled with squeals of delight and flights of wonderment. Others are languid. New to the world, they measure it and find it lacking. And they don't know about the second conditional tense. It really should be, "I wish I were that excited to go places," assuming she wasn't talking about wishing she had been more excited at a specific time in the past. But we'll let that go.
      Enthusiasm is pretty much squeezed out by the time adulthood hits.  Except of course for sports. And game shows. People go nuts on game shows.
      I would never hazard whether people are generally more or less enthusiastic now than before. They certainly seemed more worked up in previous times The 19th century gave us over-the-top art forms like opera and melodrama. And other cultures seem to froth quicker than ours. Few whirling dervishes twirl in Protestant Christianity. 
     Enthusiasm shouldn't be mistaken for zeal. We have no shortage of glittery-eyed fanatics and one-note obsessives. Mania isn't excitement, though perhaps the former has given the latter a bad name.  Howard Dean let loose one guttural "Hyaaaaah!" like he was driving cattle in 2004 and his campaign fell over dead.
     I'm as much immune to enthusiasm as anybody. Times when excitement seems in order I tend to dull it with literary references. I remember, heading to Wrigley Field to watch my younger son throw out the first pitch at the Cubs/Sox game, I described myself as feeling like Willy Loman heading to the Polo Grounds to watch Biff play in the championship. I guess that was my way of saying I was thrilled.
     I'm happy to go places, to get away, to Put-in-Bay, last April to Italy and France, last year to Japan and Washington, D.C. I'm glad to get away. But excited? Gee-I-can't-wait-to-get-there excited? Not really. 
     Maybe I should be grateful not to be susceptible to ardors. Many a folly has started with a whoop, hats thrown into the air and then over the top of the trench, into the teeth of the machine guns. Enthusiasm is by definition short-lived. "There is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake or an eternal fever,” Lord Byron wrote. “Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?”
     Still, the choices aren't continual enthusiasm or a life of sighing torpor. Maybe that teen's remark caught me off guard because I feel the same way. "I wish I was excited to go places." But how do you get that way?




  1. Your picture at the top of the column says it all; young people glued to their phones instead of the world around them. They are on a boat / ferry; look at the people / harbor / shores / life around them. The real world is bigger and brighter the what can be found on a phone.

    There are many ways the young person you refer to could be excited; look and talk to the people who she deals with. Strangers from who knows where. A few words with them might widen her world view.

  2. Life is mundane when we make it so. I'm certainly guilty of that. It's a coping or defense mechanism. Beware of wariness.

  3. "Everybody's very worried about apathy." Richard M. Daley

  4. This is why I am a everygoddamnday fanatic. A daily reverie that stimulates thought instead of corroborating preconceived notions. Not just a linear reverie, but a choose your own adventure, multi-tentacled reverie.

    Ten years ago there was no iPhone. Today it is a otherwise functional productivity tool that somehow has become a way to disengage billions of people from actual life. Smart phones and social media have utterly changed the world in ten short years - a bigger shift than any other phenomena in human history by my estimation. Trump is one of the unintended consequences of making a better phone. Those young people staring at a simulacra of human life on a tiny screen when the real thing is within reach is another. The horror.

    I used to live in Europe and loved travel. The exhausting, demeaning process of getting from one distant place to another has mitigated that love. Now I feel like I have the whole world in Chicago. Getting around Chicago isn't a lot of fun but it doesn't compare to the soul crushing tediousness of modern air travel.

    As for the enthusiasm and abandon some cultures show towards life, as usual Mark Twain says it with greater wit and insight than the rest of us:

    "You never heard of a Presbyterian going crazy on religion. .... No frenzy, no fanaticism --no skirmishing; everything perfectly serene. You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors." - Mark Twain

  5. Wish I could muster up some excitement about today's post, but I can't seem to find it (sarcasm alert). Yeah, I'm not one to feel much excitement about most things. I believe it's a personality trait one either has or does not have. I know people who squeal for joy about going to a movie or play, and I feel there must be something wrong with me for not feeling the same. Even traveling; I anticipate visiting my mother, for example, in Raleigh with a quiet calm happiness, but Were I planning a trip overseas I would feel trepidation more than excitement, imagining the many things that could go wrong. Strange, really, since I consider myself an optimist about many things.


    1. If you've never heard it, listen to Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" You just described the song.

    2. I've heard it many times; great song. That's not how I would describe my demeanor, however. Life is good! :)


  6. I don't know "how you get that way" but, I'm always really excited to go places. Whether it be a week in Paris or Buffalo; I'm genuinely enthused. I remark often about having pre-vacation euphoria and have to consciously reel in my child-like giddiness when anticipating a new adventure.

  7. You sound like Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"

    1. Technically not Peggy Lee's. It is an adaption by Lieber and Stoller of a trope of Thomas Mann's. But nobody did it justice like her, the case with a certain kind of song. I risked stunting my growth in high school by listening to Dave Garraway, before he invented breakfast-time television, playing late night jazz on a Chicago radio station. It was midnight and time to turn off the lights when Dave said 'peace,' and Miss Peggy intoned the lyrics of Alec Wilder's more upbeat take on youth.

      "Songs are made to sing, while we're young
      Every day is Spring, while we're young."


  8. Because we forget that life is what happens when we are thinking in the back of our minds about how the future will be. Because we live life as if we will not age--as if it will last forever. Because we live life as if we were kids on an endless summer vacation. There is a great quotation by Ken Kesey on the occasion of his arrest for marijuana possession. He said, "I feel like you only come to this movie once, and if you don't get something rewarding out of every minute you're sitting there, then you're blowing your ticket."


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