The Happiness Machine
Every day I peruse Google news, addicted to this magic doorway to every publication imaginable. Everything interests me (except the forty percent or so tabloid nature of the thing – the media in general). So I click on this story, or that, and once down the rabbit hole I soon find other stories I just can’t help but clicking on.
And more often than not I find myself on some technology site. And, I’m sure you have noticed, every gadget update, release and innovation is talked about with breathless anticipation, admiration, and dissection. (If only such microscopic attention could be focused on issues of war, health care, and . . . oh, why bother, it’s so much important to talk about the inside-baseball aspect of it all, who’s for, who’s against, who’s scoring points, who’s winning, who’s losing; the actual subject, meh, let’s just hold onto our prejudices, ignorance and preconceived notions and overlay on top of that who’s on our side, their side, who’s left, right, liberal, conservative. And who’s winning the news cycle. Jesus.)
And perhaps because of all this depressing shit we all escape into a kind of gadget nirvana. The IPhone will blow your mind! But wait! There is the Iphone 2. But wait! There is Iphone etc. etc. etc. Android will eventually run out of food items to name their latest operating system. Occulus Rift VR will take us to amazing places. Dual core, fuck that, we’ve got quad-core! (I personally won’t be happy until we have a billion cores . . . no, a billion, billion cores cubed . . . no infinity cores! Cubed! And the same for camera megapixels; I want to take a picture of the moon and zoom and zoom and zoom and zoom until I actually see Armstrong’s footprints! So that’s the shit that will make me happy.)
And this leads me to George Carlin and Ray Bradbury.
I sure miss Carlin (although he seemed to veer into cranky-old-man territory towards the end) but he saw this coming years ago.
“There is just enough bullshit to hold things together in this country. . . Nobody questions things in this country anymore. Nobody questions it — everybody is too fat and happy. Everybody’s got a cell phone that’ll make pancakes and rub their balls now — Way too fucking prosperous for our own good. . . Americans have been bought off and silenced by toys and gizmos. And no one learns to question things.”
More recently I’ve been reading an old Ray Bradbury book that’s been sitting in my bookshelf for more years than I care to admit, begging me year after year to enhance my evenings with its tale of an American summer like I hope they still exist. I’m talking about Dandelion Wine. It was published in 1957 and is about the magic of summer, set in 1928, in Bradbury’s childhood hometown of Waukegan, Illinois – which he reincarnated as Green Town. A creative well he went to in many stories. Some people (even critics in 1957) may view it as a time past or a “glutinous pool of sentimentality.” I take it in the spirit it was intended; having grown up in a small town, with a sense of community, the details don’t matter, the era doesn’t matter, just being alive is all that matters. The book isn’t really a novel with a plot or even a great masterpiece or anything like that; It’s just a poetic breeze not unlike the warm summer wafts of air he was trying to commit to paper.
. . . That said, one early section of the book is about an inventor named Leo Auffmann contemplating building something he calls the Happiness Machine.
“The shocks of life, he thought, biking along, what were they? Getting born, growing up, growing old, dying. Not much to do about the first. But—the other three? The wheels of his Happiness Machine spun whirling golden light spokes along the ceiling of his head. A machine, now, to help boys change from peach fuzz to briar bramble, girls from toadstool to nectarine. And in the years when your shadow leaned clear across the land as you lay abed nights with your heartbeat mounting to the billions, his invention must let a man drowse easy in the falling leaves like the boys in autumn who, comfortably strewn in the dry stacks, are content to be a part of the death of the world . . .”
Later: “Should a Happiness Machine, he wondered, be something you can carry in your pocket? [emphasis mine] Or, he went on, should it be something that carries you in its pocket? ‘One thing I absolutely know,’ he said aloud. ‘It should be bright!’”
Well, he tinkers away and builds his happiness machine and it is bright and it makes people see things they haven’t seen, and feel young; but, (I’m not giving anything away here; I suspect you know where this is going) of course, it doesn’t provide happiness. “‘The first thing you learn in life is you’re a fool. The last thing you learn in life is you’re the same fool. In one hour, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I thought, Leo Auffmann is blind! . . .You want to see the real Happiness Machine? The one they patented a couple thousand years ago, it still runs, not good all the time, no! but it runs. It’s been here all along.” Of course, he says this while looking through a screen door onto his family and realizing that the kids playing, the loving wife cooking, that these are the cogs and wheels of the true happiness machine.
The Dandelion Wine that the main character’s grandfather makes is a metaphor for summertime captured and bottled. But it’s only as good as when the last drop is consumed. Then, the grandfather warns, there should be “no regrets and no sentimental trash lying about for you to stumble over forty years from now.”
Well, I did stumble across this novel forty odd years on and I’m glad to report it’s not trash.
My smart phone died the other day and I bought a new one online. I didn’t get the fanciest new thing on the market; I got an unlocked, two-year-old model. It’s just a tool and I know what I want those tools to do for me. This phone death and Dandelion Wine coalesced into these words which somehow couldn’t be contained and ended up on this blog. The phone is something I carry in my pocket. I guess I’m a little happier having it, than not having it. And surely I’m still a fool. Thanks for reading.