THE UPSTATE NEW YORK DISEASE
EVERYDAY LIFE/EVERYDAY ANGST
Was out in the backyard this morning watering the veggies (there are about 5 giant tomatoes turning the prettiest shade of pink right now), mainly thinking about how good things are in my life when suddenly a dark mist settled into my brain. “What is this?” I thought. Here it was an absolutely gorgeous summer morning (it was in the low 70’s at 10 AM, a rarity for late July in DC); after it’s third year our blackberry bush has decided to reward our patience with hundreds of big, dark juicy berries; I’ve found an editor who’s going to hook me up with a publisher and I have to say that I don’t think I’ve been happier in my entire life. And yet. And yet, in the midst of my morning’s pleasant, satisfying and, by any sane person’s measure, truly wonderful thoughts, some free-floating terror grabs hold of my brain and throws my emotions into a bottomless pit of blackness.
Why? How does this happen? Am I the only one who experiences this mood destroying anxiety at the drop of a hat from out of nowhere? Met a fellow Upstate New Yorker – me: Greece; he: Irondequoit, both suburbs of Rochester- last week at a dinner party, and as normal as breathing, at some point during the evening the topic turned to the dark, drab, soul-destroying atmosphere that is what we call the Joyce Carol Oates perspective on growing up along the south shore of Lake Ontario. We both agree that Ms. Oates’ writings perfectly capture the not-quite-real, not quite explainable atmosphere of dread and foreboding – you, know, the feeling that an atomic bomb could go off at any instant if you’re not careful – that hung around us throughout our childhoods like a coven of flies at a garbage dump.
The feeling is, of course, “angst,” which is defined as follows:
1. a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general. "adolescent angst"
My friend and I joke about it: about how our parents (and grandparents, aunts, uncles and a few older cousins too) seemed to be constantly warning us not to get too carried away with the “happiness thing” because even thoughts of happiness could bring on a disaster of Biblical proportions if you weren’t careful. If you went too far. That’s pretty much how it was, how we never fully embraced happiness and joy because by doing so could result in destructive wrath. From where or from whom was never explained. You just knew in your bones that you were courting disaster by being overly happy, by celebrating your meager successes too much. In fact, this perspective on life was never articulated – in words, that is. It was communicated very effectively by gestures; Mom’s quick frown or Dad’s sharp glance, rather than in words. But we got the message. We understood. And here we are, middle aged adults, still caught up in a condition we recognize but cannot overcome.
Is there such a thing as “Original Angst” like Original Sin in the Catholic Church? Or does this condition stem from the more practical cause of our parents having suffered through the Great Depression? Was it some sort of parenting technique at the time, a Dr. Spock-like rule of our parents’ generation? Is it genetic, a leftover Id response like “fight or flight?’ Certainly neither my friend nor I have ferreted out the origins of the Upstate Angst Disease despite hours of discussion. But what we do know is that this free-floating-disaster-is-just-around-the-corner life outlook accompanies us today like a shroud forever damping down every positive emotion we experience. Oh sure, we laugh (at ourselves mainly), we enjoy our friends, our cats, our minor successes and yet....... And yet, we are programmed to resist the throw-it-all-to-the-wind carefree embrace of our loves, our joys, our happiness – our lives. Because you never know when the miasma of angst will rear it’s destructive head and dash the life out of you.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask anyone who grew up in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and all the upstate New York State towns between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. Ask my friend.
Or maybe I’m wrong. I would like to think so. Maybe it’s not just a condition stemming from eighteen years stuck in long, cold, dark and soul-draining winters that invariably led to lethargy, frustration and depressive thoughts by the time March rolled around. Maybe it’s not just us “Upstaters” who suffer from this disease. Maybe everyone suffers from the Angst Disease. Wow! There’s a frightening thought.
PS: Just ran outside and chased a squirrel who was digging fiercely in the earth at the base of my tomato plants. The big, just-turning-pink-ones have been covered in plastic baggies for a couple of weeks now and I won’t have these cagy little creatures eating my precious fruits like they did last year.
But I have to admit that this burst of Id-based activity certainly dispelled my angst!
Have a good day!