A Grain of Happness
Have you ever been to Stonehenge? (I can never say that word without the word sounding all Nigal Tufnel in my head). It’s a place everyone should visit, a great place to find your place, to get an idea of your position in time and space, those rocks five millennia old, the ground and its deeper meaner older still. Stories and legend have surrounded these stones since the time of the pyramids, known and lost and reinvented, told and forgotten: built by the devil, Merlin, Aliens from other worlds. These days many experts talk about the meaning of the stones, try and build up some meaning from the data at hand while really having no idea what they were for at all. The only certainty is that they’ll be there so long that all that we think we know will be lost yet again, a future race of us, or others free to make their own interpretation. I’ve been to the stones many times, stopped my car while driving past and taken the time to visit these timeless rocks, me a man who maybe knows stone better than many. Standing there in the English rain I developed my own theory on the nature of these stones. Someone once told me the story of how an Australian aborigine told him that if you found yourself alone he should make a ring of stones and go sit inside it, that this would make you feel better, that this would make you feel happy with your lot. That’s where my story will end.
But this isn’t about that yet, not really.
I used to think I was a snob, thought this since I was a little kid (I used to think my mum was posh as well, which annoyed me, which just shows how conflicted I was even from an early age). I thought I looked down my nose at people, people like me, while at the same time disliking anyone who I thought better than me, quite a narrow range of love and acceptance really, but one that has an edge when you’re young, like kicking up from the depths: kicking with your feet while battling with your arms while unsure what direction you’re actually taking. These days I think it was not really looking down at all, just as you don’t look down at animals in the zoo, it’s just looking out of interest, seeing yourself in their monkey world, scratching their balls, picking their own kids nits.
I often think that we tend to only really bother with people within our closest zone of safety, the people we take in the ones we love the most, and also the ones we’re most cruel to (explained away that it’s due to our love we hate them so). To explain the idea of the zone of interest a little better let me explain. When I started doing deadlifts (the ultimate climbing strength training!), I was told to imagine three zones around my feet: blue, green and red. Blue was the safe zone, going around from toe tip to heel. The green zone was shoulder-width wide, while the red zone was everything beyond the other two as far as you could reach. The idea is that any weight lifting in the blue zone will be safe to lift, the weight going through your legs and a straight back. Go into the green zone and you may hurt yourself, strain something unless you do it perfectly and in control, and go into the red and you will get injured (if you had to take the weight of the world on your head you’d stand up straight right, do it in the blue zone, not lean over like you were doing up your shoelaces?).
For me, I only feel comfortable with people in the blue zone.
I got over the former problem with my ‘betters’ by judging people by who they were not what they were, that money, education and privilege were trumped by being a good person. A person should be judged by their humanity most of all, assholes coming in all flavours. Hanging out with all kinds of people, from the homeless to those who could purchase small island states, made me see such thing as money were poor indicators for quality people. Having lived like a millionaire for much of my adult life (sans the actual cash) it was good to meet people for whom wealth was as noticeable as the twenty percent of oxygen their lungs sucked from the air, a detail not worth considering as long as you can catch your breath, and that I often had things they could never buy. As for the rest, those I can’t help but judge as being poorer than me (morally poor or ignoble in their poverty and nothing to do with their financial circumstances), I try to avoid them, knowing I’m way too judgemental, the downside of having a writers brain: everything you see or experience reason to consider, every human interaction a butterfly to pin.
Anyway, this is not about this, but something else.
It’s perhaps, for this reason, I hate Blackpool, a leap in my story, but I’ll come to that. For me, someone with a writers brain, Blackpool makes me feel like Superman when he first experiences his super senses, the whole world crowding into his young fragile mind. And yes maybe I’m a little too sensitive, miss the joke of the place, but when I’m in Blackpool I’m gripped by the little petty naff horror of the place, stung by the bad taste tragedy in every overflowing ashtray, sad, depressed and miserable. In Blackpool any sane person is assailed by poverty in all its forms, a base and horrible place where kids play in the dirt outside bars while parents piss it up, cheap thrills are chased like quicksilver by empty hearts, while dirty nappies rot on the beach sat amongst fag ends and greasy polystyrene trays once used as spades. As you can guess I try and avoid going to Blackpool, but have found myself there more often than I’d like, either through work, taking Ella to cheerleading comps (a cheerleading comp crossed with Blackpool is like crossing Malaria with Ebola), and then those odd times when stupid middle-class people imagine it fun to descend from lands of soya milk and the honey world and go on a chav safari (it never is). On such trips, where middle class point out the window as they drive down the promenade (keeping the doors locked), and say things such as ‘Oh look at her’, or “did you see that”, I tended to just hook ahead, such sights never making me feel good at all, about as funny as driving through a besieged Sarajevo. And you know why? It’s because deep down in my DNA I’m one of them, I’m looking for a higher meaning in the moment, and answer through the extraordinary: extraordinarily drunk, extraordinarily high, extraordinarily fucked up, anything but normal, peace no key to any door worth opening.
But this is not about Blackpool.
If places such as Blackpool could be bred, mated or mutated like super baddies are made, then imagine you took Blackpool and mated it with Ryle in North Wales (haven’t you been? Well don’t!), maybe giving Grimsby and Dover a go at it too, a shit seaside town gang-bang. Then inject the embryo with a dose of radiation (BTW did you know John Wayne died of cancer caused by atomic testing in Utah?), some neon, some madness and greed, and perhaps a packet of Marlboros, some bullets and a used condom, get David Lynch to stir it all together, then take that thing that is born and cast it into the desert far, far away. Do that and you’ll probably get Las Vegas, partly the subject of these words, the place I’m sat now, the neon lights flashing outside this window.
I arrived in Las Vegas last night, coming in under a neon storm of dazzling light that sparked out of the black desert, like Tron on high-quality hallucinogens, a site that makes your heart pump faster, one of those cinematic moments I love that make it to the cut of your life movie.
I’d been travelling around the West coast of the US for a week, starting with the Vampires in Santa Cruz and making my way south down Highway 101, down the Big Sur and down to LA. Life on the road has a kind of one night stand romance about it, cool when imagined in your waking life, but grimy and sordid when you wake up to its reality. Living in motels is a depressing business, fun at first in a trash ghetto way, but one that soon gets as paper-thin as the motel’s walls, too many nights in dive hotels listening to dramas next door, hookers getting beat up, crazy people shouting, a madwoman waking me up singing ‘Let it Go’ a few mornings back, her words half a dream. When you pay bottom dollar for a motel you get what you don’t pay for, end up looking for hidden cameras in the ceiling, wifi ate up by lonely porn, the little things telling, like when you use the soap and it feels like it’s made of glue, maybe some ex-tenant rendered, the Indian owner always looking as if he’s packing (“no drugs - no visitors”). You tend not to want to go out in such places, beyond the door a little threatening, and so stay in watching HBO and re-runs of the Walking Dead (is it possible to get PTSD from watching a TV program I wonder?). After a few years of such trips, I can see the seediness of such a life in the words of Bill Hicks, another man of the road.
Having dropped off Vanessa, Sinead and Cian a week ago (Cian having broken his collar bone necessitating a foreshortening of our holidays in order to go home for an operation), I thought I’d go all Steinbeck and get on with The Bear Pit and Depression Detox books (that’s a working title BTW), hoping Big Sur would channel my creative juices. Now if you’ve not done it then the Big Sur is one of the great car journey’s you can do in the US (Ullapool to Thurso is better though), dazzling, the Pacific coast and the sea itself really something, as wild as you can get while still having a major road running through the landscape. But yet again, driving by myself I had that ‘Into the Wild’ understanding that the view and the experience was nothing if unshared, that living alone was something to get through as soon as possible when you’re alone in order to get home to someone, or to the sanctuary of people you love - blue zone people. Each time I got to a pull out with a five-star view I’d pause to pull in, then just think ‘It means nothing if it’s only mine to see’ and would drive on. It didn’t use to bother me so much, but maybe I feel I deserve people more these days.
In coffee shops and on grimy beds I’ve been getting on my work, or a “labour of love” as someone said today (which translates as work having little commercial value : ), but it’s good to get on with creative stuff, which when it comes to writing books is like blowing on damp kindling, taking a long, long time to burst into the flames of finishing (if anyone wants to read and give feedback on the prologue of Bear Pit then drop me an email). Funny but I love writing as much as I do climbing, only writing takes more work.
After a week of travelling around I finally made it to Las Vegas last night, here to meet up with a mate in a week to climb in Zion (wet weather’s due tomorrow, and so climbing’s off).
And so I sit and write here, tapping at this blog in between tapping at other things.
America can sometimes feel as if it’s taking my breath away, killing me, like I’m somehow submerged in it, held under, something to do with the food I think (too much salt and sugar, too little access to real food - the though of Aldi or Lidl appearing on the road as welcome as M&S). Another thing that gets to you is the unrelenting media, the constant assailing of product and services, the sell, sell, sell - every one a hustler in some way or the other, cars, houses, lifestyles, drugs, stuff. From the outside you can see how fear is employed in most aspects of selling here, that the IRS is after you, that your identity has been stolen, that your credit rating may not be good enough, that you’re going to get ill, you’re going to die without life insurance, your kids are unsafe in cars without ‘brand name’ tires, politics as well just another product to buy, the idea that either party is different the same as Frosties versus Cornflakes. I know many Americans who this does not affect, who eat well and don’t consume junk media (talk radio etc), but it seems most do, as they do in the UK I guess, only here living is like too many things, way too refined and full of additives that are no good for you. Maybe this is the future for us all, and being here makes me see why I love living in Ireland, a country of only four million souls and that twenty years behind the rest of the world and in no rush to catch up. But here in Las Vegas, to walk around Walmart (it’s cheaper to buy new clothes than wash and dry them, just as it’s cheaper to buy junk than make it yourself!) is to be in the Walking Dead, people who look unhappy buying things to make them feel better (I have never seen so many drugs on sale in my life as can be found in your average Walmart). To see a mum buying their small baby girl a mega pack of Gatorade to drink makes me - a man more unhealthy than you’ll ever meet - despair. Is it bought, is it all bought - any of it - out of need or to make someone happy? I look at all that food piled up and think about three days ski touring with Vanessa in Yosemite, a tin of chilli shared each night, a packet of noodles one lunchtime as fancy as any Michelin starred meal.
But this is not about that either.
This is a blog that has no real narrative destination but also is not meant to sound down on America or my millionaire’s lifestyle, or on Blackpool, Las Vegas or America or Walmart. But all this week I’ve been writing about the nature of happiness, sat in places devoid of it seemed, happiness the biggest issue in all our lives, the meaning of life itself, yet one I think most of us just don’t get, maybe because we look to hard for it. Perhaps happiness is just a commodity like everything else, an opportunity to hustle us, taking other peoples word for what it is (like John Wayne and crew trusting the government that filming in a radiation zone was safe - see above). Here in Las Vegas, you find yourself in what one could imagine - on paper at least - as another Stonehenge to human happiness, a dazzling city of neon, of luck, of money, of sex, of cheap food, of apparent glamour and celebrity, fun as big as the beds. Last night I checked into a hotel room for only $21 that is bigger than the flat I used to live in, a view of the strip, clean and fancy, the kind of place that would have you jump onto the bed with delight as soon as you opened the door (the hotel is Circus Circus, famous for featuring in Hunter S Thomson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as the hotel Anthony Spilotro was involved with, Spilotro played by Joe Pesci in Casino). But it’s only a room of cloth and paper and carpet, the walls a little thicker than a motel, but walls no the less, all an illusion designed to be what you think you really want. Go downstairs to the lobby, down into a dungeon of slot machines and again you’re dazzled by the flashing and the crowds, feel this is the place to be, but look harder and those people around you are lost, just stumbling on, bellies full of all you can eat, pockets full of coin to waste in pursuit of sad satisfaction and disappointment, a coin that’s probably not even theirs to spend. The very fabric of the place is no different from a grim West coast English seaside resort, smelling of cigarettes and sweat and desperate, no one looking happy, just stressed, strung out, coming up or coming down.
Brin-Jonathan Butler once wrote that Las Vegas was “the most expensive toilet in the world that still can’t flush” but it’s not shit, it’s simply human, but even so I’m not sure if I judge or I just despair. Perhaps we’re all tourists to this place, these kinds of places, all on safari, all in on the joke. Step outside for air and begin to walk and there on the strip are the stretch limos, the towers, the billboards, the shows, a lifetimes worth of expense, ten thousand lightbulbs shining through the hot desert night. A sign says ‘Biggest gift shop in the world’ and you wonder how is that a good thing? Where is the history here, the charm, The Desert Inn, Howard Hughes’ ghost? All gone in the desire to make the place better than it once was, giving people what someone thinks they want (“give your fans what they want and you’ll end up sitting beside them’). But as I walk the streets, the drag, or drive my car down the long strips looking for food that won’t make me feel ill, I think on about the nature of happiness, as I have since I started down the Big Sur a week ago and felt what was missing.
I think about this pile of stones lit with neon, and about that other pile of stones, to stand before them in the cold English rain, to feel the history at your feet and all around, to know your place, to belong, not simply passing through. Maybe the reason I find this place so sad is that everything is too big, too magnified, blown up, pumped with steroids in the hope big equals happiness. And perhaps that’s where we go wrong, that life has shown me that happiness is perhaps not a big thing, not like a nugget, but only a grain, that maybe our problem is we think too much about what it is, when really maybe it’s nothing at all.