Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy Camper

You have been wracking your memory files of late, trying to remember when you first heard the expression "happy campers."  No specific moment comes to mind; you took the phrase in as a metaphor, assuming it meant a group of individuals in some venture-laden circumstance.  The individuals who were indeed happy campers were in various incarnations audiences, participants, classrooms, congregations, perhaps even voting blocs.  Whoever they were, they were pleased with the status quo; things had gone their way, their travel itinerary had been fulfilled with success, they had been fed well, perhaps even with imagination; their seating or sleeping or dining conditions were at least satisfactory, perhaps even bordering into splendid.

Now, you are not so sure.  It is the streak of stubborn cynicism that visits you when a phrase or concept becomes too well used, is thrown at you as though some sort of gauntlet which you are supposed to take.  Because of the price of oil, the gulf oil disaster, the bi-election disaster, job insecurity, candy-assed conservatives railing for more restraint, and the increase in number of poorly edited publications, and goddamn administrators at colleges and universities with their goddamn rubrics and templates and formats,you are no longer so willing to be free with your expansive gestures
as you once were.

You want to know who these campers are who are so self-absorbed as to think they have somehow become standards of contentment and comfort.  You are calling them out.  Who the fuck are happy campers?  When you were in fact a camper, you were dismayed to discover something unanticipated in your sleeping bag, particularly if it were a snake.  On the other hand, finding nothing in your sleeping bag meant at one stage of your development that you were a social pariah, so low in esteem that no one would attempt coarse humor at your expense.  Such a state would make you unutterably an unhappy camper because at the time you were unable to unravel the nuances of popularity and pariah behavior.  At that same age, you'd have been a particularly happy camper were your sleeping bag to contain such tributes to your social standing; persons would have thought it clever or prestigious to have left some irritant token in your sleeping bag, thinking it a great lark when you discovered it and reacted with appropriate mock outrage.

The happy camper has become the new and, you think, unreasoned standard of contentment and comfort.  Now that you have taken strides toward becoming a curmudgeon, you are not willing a snake-free sleeping bag or some mess-kitchen chipped beef on toast meal become a standard for elation or comfort or satisfaction.  In your own, secret, anarchist heart, happy campers are akin to Tea Baggers, men and women even more cranky than you, angry at the thought that the Constitution of the United States could in any way be interpreted as a modern document, that all persons were, indeed, created equal.  Tea Baggers are somewhat happy campers now because a few of their acolytes have gained election to representative bodies at state and federal levels, but to you they are as young persons throwing temper tantrums, a condition unappetizing even when young persons are demonstrably young as opposed to senior citizens behaving as though they were young.

Whoever these campers are, you hold no brief for their happiness.  If you were to learn that one or more of your favorite writers were campers, you would not want them to be happy.  Look, you would say, as Joyce Carol Oates or Annie Proulx, or Don DeLilo, John Maxwell Coetzee, or even the redoubtable V.S. Naipul; these are truly unhappy persons, turning out literature to enrich our lives.  Jamaica Kincaid may be a happy camper, but surely Edwidge Danticat is not, nor could you ever imagine Philip Roth or Jerome David Salinger as happy campers.  And yet, they have all given us literature in greater number and weight than happy campers.  Can you, for even a moment, consider William Golding to have been a happy camper, or, say, Henry Louis Mencken?

This calculus, you have just realized, would prompt the realization that a definition of literature could contain the trope:  a narrative written by an unhappy camper.  All of this would lead you to ask of yourself:  Are you a happy camper?  Your answer would be, Fuck, no.  Except.  Now that you think about it, you can see the emerging throughline.  You are not a happy camper unless you are writing.

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