My dad once wrote an article whose title stayed with me: "We never know when we are happy."
Well, as Jim Morrison sang, the opposite is also true: "I've been down so goddamn long that it looks like up to me."
On a couple of recent family visits I've reflected on a period of just a few years—1984 to 1987—when an incredible number of things went down in our family. Things that at the very least explain why we're not big Ronald Reagan fans.
A sister went into Alcoholics Anonymous.
My mother went into Alcoholics Anonymous.
A sister got a divorce, from a man we didn't care much for.
Another sister got a divorce, from a man we all loved.
A sister suffered from an eating disorder.
(I only have three sisters.)
In the middle of my junior year of high school, I was sent to drug addiction treatment for four months—one month in a locked ward in Cleveland and three months in a ward that might as well have been locked, because where was I going to go in the winter in Sioux City, Iowa? Besides, I actually loved it there.
My mother went into a nuthouse.
We should have all gone into nuthouses. But we didn't. And honestly, I don't remember feeling at the time like our family was exploding, even though it obviously was. (I'm being discreet. There was more.)
But the family didn't explode. My mother didn't survive for long after that, but the rest of us did, with a few scars on our arms and legs and a few other casualties. Meanwhile, during that time, I became a better tennis player, a better brother and probably a character. I got my driver's license, I discovered sex (without actually having it of course), saw every James Bond movie, read The Great Gatsby and a few other good books and decided I would be a writer.
I'm 47 years old, and I think a part of my mind is continuously occupied worrying at stoplights and even when I sleep, about What Could Go Wrong, and Whether I Would Be Able to Handle It.
I find it useful to look back on a time when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and being astonished at how I—with the flexibility of youth on my side, but also suffering from a total lack of experience—didn't only handle it, but I don't think I thought of it as a bad time.
John Steinbeck wrote of his friend Ed Ricketts, who would give anyone his last dollar, but did not worry about psychic pain:
His feeling for psychic pain in normal people also was philosophic. He would say that nearly everything that can happen to people not only does happen to them but has happened for a million years. "Therefore," he would say, "for everything that can happen there is a channel or a mechanism in the human to take care of it—a channel worn down in prehistory and transmitted in the genes."
In other words, "I been down so goddamn long that it looks like up to me."