There is an innocent glee about a good prank that makes the whole experience feel like a combination of a snow day, your best birthday wish ever, and discovering the secret to a magic trick. The disbelief, the wondering, the reveal, and all of this sweet mischief happening outside the bounds of expectations makes it seem as if a different reality than the one of logic and reason. Through the subversion of normal that a good prank requires, something alternate seems briefly possible.
Think of the Loch Ness Monster photos from the 1930s, or the Cottingley fairy photos of the 1910s (above, from wikipedia.) Much as my childhood nightmares were (almost) soothed by the rationale that Nessie was not real, that the photos of a dinosaur’s head and torso appearing out of murky lake waters were not real, it makes the world seem a little dull if we do not have sea monsters and fairies. I’d like some places on the maps where dragons could still lurk, where adventures with the unknown and alternate realities could happen. Where a door to something, anything outside of the normal— which can seem stiflingly dull and predictable—opens, just briefly enough that you can slip through. The fairies may be paper, the monster may be glued in place, but how lovely, for a moment, to think otherwise.
But, how would it be to live otherwise? Not that one leaves bowls of milk out for fairies (although, really, why not?) or expects witches and goblins to fly across the full moon, but that one lives outside the bounds of what seems dull, predictable, and logical. This is Robert Frost’s oft quoted “road less traveled” writ large. Which ever road one takes, we’re all heading to the same end point, it’s just a matter of how we get there, and how we go about our living these lives we’ve got, stretching through the yellow wood. That I am living now, and that I won’t always be, I find this thought not morbid in the least but rather a reminder to spend my days better.
Most times, this better-living doesn’t look like what I thought being an adult would look like. Despite all odds and evidence to the contrary, some little piece of me has had a bizarre Rockwellian vision of what adult life should be. (Also, Rockwell’s psychiatrist apparently told him that he painted, rather than lived, his happiness.) I’m now 31, which seems like a comfortable age to start thinking of oneself as an adult. Someone who should put away fairy tales and not be afraid of hoax-monsters, who should reconcile naïve hopes of saving the world with what is possible, who should start being a productive member of society and the economy. I should work from 9-5, find my one true love, marry him with a large diamond ring, buy a house, have some kids, vacation for two weeks a year, contribute to retirement funds, and so on. Traditional wisdom and the lore of modern American media both promise me that this combination of actions will make me happy.
I am suspicious. While many may find happiness this way, I doubt the universality of this being the only true path, of any happiness being one size fits all. It seems like a hoax, which in my mind has a darker intent than a prank. A prank is lighthearted, and makes you laugh, after that brief glimpse of the door to elsewhere. A hoax is like a methodical con, where someone more powerful dupes someone with less power and calls it a success. Maniacal laughter can ensue on one end and feelings of self-doubt on the other. This is not kind. I do not wish to participate in that sort of game.
But to go outside the bounds of expectations, I’ll gladly play that game. I have six years of advanced education and two degrees and am about to start working as a low-level landscaper. A friend recently said “You’re going to get paid to do what people do for fun in their spare time?” That’s an incredible perspective, because it is true. I feel like I’m playing a huge prank on the world, or, rather, on the systemic expectations of our country’s culture. Let others scurry off to their cubicles, leaving home early to avoid traffic on the commute, wearing pantyhose and neckties. I’ll just be here, in their gardens, planting flowers. I can't even write that without smiling, without feeling like David or Jack playing a prank on their respective oppressive giants. It's like I've gotten away with something. And whatever that thing is, heart or soul or sanity, it's priceless.
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” Such was Edward Abbey’s advice to environmental activists at an Earth First! rally. It’s pretty good advice for everything, though—pull your heart of out the safety deposit box, use your best self for what you love, be mentally and physically active, and you will be victorious over people who are stuck in the ruts of bad systems and unkind hoaxes.
These folks with their locked hearts and desk calculators, maybe they’re not willfully bastards. Maybe they just don’t know how to believe in anything else, how to live any other way. We’ll have to lead by example, then, like fairy tales being passed down by fireside traditions until the archetypes are burnt into our bones. To subvert the crushingly dominant power structures, to exit the tired game we’re not winning, this is the greatest prank I can think of, the best trick I want to be part of pulling off. And, like any good prank, this is more fun with gleeful co-conspirators. Robert Frost, taker of twisting paths, thought so, too:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.— You come too.
-The Pasture, by Robert Frost-