Clouds covered the sun and the afternoon turned cold and gusty, and when they moved away the tinting in the lenses of my glasses darkened and I unzipped my jacket, the one I almost didn’t pack on Friday when I left Houston. The ground in the park is spongy and made a slurping sound as we walked to the playground. Crows prowled the cedar grove, cawing, lifting their wings and bobbing as though doing pushups. I’m back in the state of Washington with the boys, my wife flew to Houston on April Fool’s Day (forty-six years after Flann O’Brien’s death), and we’re doing many things for the last time before we rendezvous next Sunday in Houston – visiting the park, seeing the landlady, shivering in April.
The boys were sword fighting with cedar switches, harmless as willow fronds unless aimed at the eyes. The almost-twelve-year-old is an increasingly double-natured creature, and will remain so at least for the next few years. His voice is cracking and croaking, and hair is sprouting. He’s part scholar and part thug, and seems to be accepting puberty’s onset more cheerfully than I did. As the boys parried and wielded pine cones like sidearms, I sat at a picnic table and read Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind (Frederic C. Beil, 2011). This is a biography I’ve waited for a long time, as I’m still waiting to read lives of Yvor Winters and Eric Hoffer. In the chapter devoted to A Stroll with William James (1983), Murray writes:
“Though without religion – I remarked to him once – Barzun seemed uncommonly cheerful. `I don’t know,’ he replied. `Happiness is within you, as many a thinker has said. It comes from momentum. Why don’t you fall from a bicycle? Because you’re going forward.’…`when you’re on a given course of action you haven’t time to groan and whine…there is a sense also of social obligation: you must not make others less happy than their natures make them by being visibly unhappy yourself or by pointing out in their lives why they should be crying their heart out. It used to be said in manuals of ethics and manners that you must always be cheerful. One owes a cheerful face to one’s fellow man.’”
Barzun is describing the civilized person who would never assume his or her state of mind has any claim on others. In his introduction, Murray says Barzun defines the "commonplace duties of civilized life" as "good temper, serenity, yielding to others and generally refraining from self-assertion." Cheerfulness is a social obligation. Cloistered, we can groan and whine all we want. With others, we smile, or at least we don’t scowl. This is not hypocrisy. This is respect and well-exercised human doubleness. Barzun reminded me of Theodore Dalrymple and his essay “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” one of this blog’s founding documents: “Thanks to the fact that I write, my life is satisfactory: I can inhabit gloom and live in joy.”