After an exciting spring and early summer, I seem to find myself out of sorts lately. I’m not sure if it’s because of the crispness in the air and the falling leaves, the recent passing of my father-in-law, or the impending birthday of a child I’m lucky to see once a year (and am guaranteed not to see on their birthday). Which seems kind of pathetic, because really, these are all relatively small issues in the grander scheme of war and illness and loss. But there you have it.
As tends to happen with me, my reading either reflects, or is informed by, where I’m at elsewhere in my life. So my last books have had me thinking a lot about the life I might have led if I had made different decisions at key junctures, or if I had summoned just a bit more courage or self-confidence. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips (Picador, 2013) promised to be, according to Amazon, “A TRANSFORMATIVE BOOK ABOUT THE LIVES WE WISH WE HAD AND WHAT THEY CAN TEACH US ABOUT WHO WE ARE”. Hmmm. I didn’t find it even remotely “transformative” Heavy on Freudian psychology and its attendant jargon and preoccupations with the mother/child relationship, it tended toward being more pedantic than helpful. As near as I could decipher, the key point seemed to be that by THINKING about other lives, we in fact derive more satisfaction than by actually living them. Which does make sense. I’ve long known, for example, that I get almost as much enjoyment from planning for and fantasizing about upcoming travels as I do from the actual experiences. The chapter titles pretty much tell you what you need to know about what you’ll get from this book: “On Frustration”; “On Not Getting It”; “On Getting Away With It”; “On Getting Out of It”; “On Satisfaction”. None of which really clarified anything common sense and life experience hadn’t already taught me.
Another book I had been anticipating reading for several months (the amount of time I was on the wait list for it at the library) was The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2016). I love to read any type of travel narrative, which then of course feeds into my constant “what would my life be like THERE…” daydreams. And Bryson is one of my favorite authors of that genre. He has a witty style that I always enjoy, and an honesty bordering on cynicism that perhaps reflects my own. I did enjoy this book immensely, though at the end I found myself wondering if I come across as being as grouchy, even curmudgeonly, as Bryson. As the author explores what he dubs “The Bryson Line” from Bognor Regis in southern England to Cape Wrath in northern Scotland, the reader experiences lovely coastal walks, quaint villages, fascinating museums, and mysterious standing stones. But they are also subjected to random rants about everything from urban sprawl to incorrect grammar to litter to incompetent McDonald’s cashiers. There seems to be an idiot lurking around every corner, just waiting to ruin Bryson’s day or send him into apoplectic diatribes. Sometimes it is amusing, like when he quips “I like the Scots, especially the ones who don’t look at me like they might in a minute have to shove my head through a wall” (I have a Scottish ex-brother-in-law), or “Returning to my book, I learned that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country. It was a wonderful evening.” But sometimes they’re just mean, and I occasionally found myself feeling sorry for someone who seems so very annoyed so very much of the time.
My sister lived in England and Scotland for several years, so I have been to some of the spots mentioned by Bryson. I also know from her that there are plusses and minuses to living there. A couple of weeks ago, I read a fascinating article online entitled “Psychology debunks the idea that we’d be happier if we lived somewhere else.” It makes the valid point that sooner or later, the allure and newness wears off, and that what makes us truly happy is the “social capital” that we build in a place we have been for a while. Last weekend, my husband and I decided to try to escape the seemingly endless Colorado crowds by driving to Fort Laramie National Historic Site, in Wyoming. I had been there before, but never really noticed how beautiful the area is. I also was struck by what we had come for: the absence of people and crowds. “Maybe we should move here”, I thought. Then I went into the only grocery store nearby and was frustrated by the bad country music blaring overhead and by the absence of much choice in the picnicking department, and realized that maybe I wouldn’t be as happy there as I like to imagine. They did just open a White Fence Farm takeout location right by my house, after all.