Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hill of Content

Summer somehow didn't find it's way to Montana this year. Perhaps the weather gods decided to give the good people of the Western Rockies a taste of why many of us moved here, for the snow. Snow in June, snow for July and even snow on Labor Day eve. Yes, the white behind me is indeed freshly fallen, but I feel I should give this peak a chance. It's Trapper Peak, which stands slightly over 10,000 feet beaconing the Bitterroot valley just south of Missoula.

I've heard more conversations about the weather this summer than I can ever recall. Even more than than the summer when the temperatures never crested over 60 degrees along the shores of Lake Superior. The summer of 2004 in Marquette, Michigan when I wore turtlenecks to teach in and napped under heavy blankets while I stubbornly slept on rocks yearning for some warmth. But Midwesterners, if they complain at all, would say something about how it could have been worse that summer Lake Superior had ice during July. "We could have had 100% humidity, black flies, feral mosquitoes and tornadoes," to convince ourselves we were somehow better off with gray skies and cold winds.

But out here in the west, people don't exactly cry in public, but they do complain...openly. I don't have any Slavic or Nordic ancestry, but when people get heated up about lousy weather while standing around a fire at a potluck, I quietly stare at my shoes, obviously too cold for sandals. My midwest inner nasaled voice thinks, you people are whining, aren't you embarrassed? I still cannot believe someone can openly complain and actually not feel guilty about it. It's just a mind twist for me. Isn't anybody going to say, "well at least it hasn't snowed in the Missoula valley this year?" But they don't. Nor did I. I just kept quietly talking to my internal midwest voice while focusing on my boots.

And really even during the wettest day of August this year, I didn't complain. Mostly because I was too busy exploring the Western Rockies to be bemoaning. Luckily, I had some visitors to take up hiking in Glacier, some mountain bike riding in Sun Valley, a too quick trip home for swimming in Lake Michigan and even wet suited river days down the Alberton Gorge. Summer happened, but it just didn't look like what the good people of Missoula wanted or more specifically, what people expected. And so with this cursor as my witness, I can write, I've been really happy this summer. Mostly because I didn't really have any expectations. Maybe I am turning more Danish than just a midwest transplant. Or maybe I'm just learning how to climb the hill of content(ment).

Let me explain. If you'd like a far better explanation, then watch this video.;photovideo. Or listen online at NPR's podcast about the study of not just money, but happiness. According to numerous studies by both economists and psychologists, Denmark is considered the happiest nation. Yes, these herring hungry blonds are surrounded by healthier Swedes and richer Norwegians but they are actually happier. Why? When their weather is pretty glum and their greatest claim to fame Dane after Hans Christen Anderson would be the prince of doom and gloom, Hamlet. So what really makes Danes so happy? (just in case you don't have time to read or listen to either story, let me sum it up for you.) Danes have a sense of contentment because they have realistic expectations. And furthermore, contentment is not a weakness in their culture. It's a goal.

But where in American culture is contentment valued? Where is the glory in being happy with what you have? What are we to do with the American Dream now that we've worked so hard to never be satisfied? Take it from me, someone who has spent more time believing and working at life is elsewhere and probably better. Contentment is really more of a mind twist for me too than complaining about the weather in public. What's my back to school essay, "what I learned this summer?"

Let's start with the greatest albeit fictitious Dane, Hamlet for a starting point. To be or not to be? To be or not to be, happy? Sure, go into any college library and you'll find more criticism about this clause than probably any other in the English language. It's existentially dense. And I would imagine a clause we ask ourselves in some form or another, everyday. True or not, but what is fascinating is that the most crowded class at Harvard is taught by a psychologist titled, the positive psychology of happiness. Students might be skeptical of all these self-help books, but they are certainly signing up in droves for some answers.

Personally, I don't have any answers. But I do have stories and poems. I do know this, happiness is as elusive and subjective as love, but there are concrete elements that psychological and economic researchers study and what is being taught at Harvard. If you don't have time to watch the video, then let me break it down to you. Happiness is having modest expectations. Danes still have ambition and goals, but humility and modesty are traits most associated with success in their culture. Perhaps even being able to except something as simple and as impossible as allowing the weather, well to just be, is having more realistic and modest expectations. Sounds too simple?

Today as I write this, it's gray and cold. Today, I look out over our front lawn and I see our white mini-van. A car I laughed at when my husband brought it home earlier this spring. There's nothing mini about this van, but it's everything modest. It's a great metaphor for contentment or in being happy enough with what you can afford. And frankly, I drove the mini van to Trapper Peak and it was great. And the weather at 10,000 feet, was better than I had expected. Here's a poem about modest expectations of happiness and as you might guess, mountains and mini vans. Enjoy.

Happy Enough

At first he picked me up in what his wife

left him. My fate to fall for a man who

drives a mini-van. At least he didn’t chew

his words, smell of olives like the last guy.

He arrived right on time, but when he tried

to unlock my door, it stuck. He swore

it was already funny when he drove

up looking like a carpet cleaner, tired

but shaven. And sometimes it’s that easy,

the awkward sexy moment when a man

offers his gloves in a hail storm, you fall

for him, his ill fitting sweater, uneasy

pause before speaking, the way one person

sees you like the capital of Nepal.


  1. Emily,
    I caught a train this summer,just a pack and a dog and andrew. We chased modesty, humility-values essential to seeing things as they are
    and also for managing a sober perspective. And here, with the great plains opening up to the East (the lowliest of land formations) and the pride of the Rockies to my west, we've struck a balance, contentment. It appears that the moutains need the plains to ground them.

    Excellent blog, I miss you.

  2. Emily,
    Maybe the meek inherit happiness as well as the Earth

  3. Thanks for the 60 minutes clip, it was funny and illuminating.

  4. People DO complain a lot out here. I come from the midwest as well, Nebraska as a child, then Wisconsin as a young adult. Sad to say, I am guilty of complaining quite a lot, out loud to others, over beers, while hiking mountains or just at the bus stop. What's wrong I wonder? I really appreciate your account of staring at your shoes while people went on and on. Keeping the b*tching to a minimum is a good goal. Thanks again!