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Schnitzel with Noodles, Please -- and a Side of Pixie Dust

by on January 21, 2015 6:15 AM

Remember what Peter Pan instructs the Darling children to do if they want to fly?

He tells them to "think of a wonderful thought."

Wendy imagines a mermaid lagoon. John sees himself in a pirate's cave. Michael, too young to be sensitive to ethnic stereotypes, fancies himself an Indian brave. And up they go.

There's a lot of happy-thought conjuring in popular culture. In "The Sound of Music," Maria the singing nun tops her list of favorite things with "raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens."

In the cringe-worthy song "Happy Talk" in "South Pacific," Bloody Mary encourages the young American officer to "talk about a moon floating in the sky" and "a bird learning how to fly," among other things.

A jazz tune called "Better Than Anything" begins with "Better than sailing at midnight, better than diving for pearls (Al Jarreau and others) or -- the foodie version -- "Better than cream cheese on bagels, better than honey on bread" (Natalie Cole and others).

Even the New York Times' coverage of Monday's Knicks game compared the team's first win in 17 tries to "an open seat in a rush-hour subway car or a cable guy who shows up at an appointed time."

On-line, you can find countless lists of things to be thankful for. The operative word in all this is positivity. The idea, to quote another old song (the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby and others), is if we "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative," we'll all be happier people.

Is this true? Does positive thinking work?

I ask because, one, it's the middle of January in Central Pennsylvania and, two, it's the central question raised by a play I saw in New York over the weekend.

"Every Brilliant Thing" begins with Jonny Donahoe, the lone professional actor (audience members are assigned bit parts) telling about his mother's first suicide attempt when he was 7 years old. To cheer her up, the lad composes a list of "brilliant things." Things like ice cream, roller coasters and people falling over (little kids have a keen sense of schadenfreude). It's an English play (by Duncan Macmillan) and the Brits use the word "brilliant" the way we Yanks use the word "wonderful."

Sweet, right?

The boy gets older. His mom gets no better. There are further suicide attempts. The mother's depression is visited on the son. The list grows, and gets quirkier: "peeling off a sheet of wallpaper in one intact piece"; "Christopher Walken's voice"; "hairdressers who listen to what you want."

By the end of the play, the list is one million items long. I wondered: Did this mean it didn't work? It seems like you'd only need to keep thinking of things that make you happy if you were desperately unhappy.

There may be no convincing a suicidally depressed person that life is worth living. Indeed, a list of the good things in life might only confirm the hopelessness of it all: How do you go on if, after being reminded of the world's multitudinous delights, you remain utterly miserable?

Most theater critics found the play more uplifting than I did. I might have liked it better if the brilliant things didn't reminded me of an inspirational poster that faces me when I get my teeth cleaned.

Still, I think keeping a list of actionable brilliant things is a good idea. By actionable I mean sure-fire mood lifters that you can actually undertake. No point listing a swim in a tropical lagoon if you're stuck in State College in mid-winter. Although the only actionable feel-good thing I can think of at the moment is not getting out of bed on a Saturday morning when rain is pounding on the roof.

Apparently thinking wonderful thoughts does not come easy to me. But then, even in "Peter Pan" as you may recall, wonderful thoughts aren't enough to keep the children airborne. Also needed, Peter tells them, is faith and trust.

Oh, and pixie dust.

Luckily, you can order pixie dust from Amazon. A multipack of six vials goes for $12.99. It comes with a certificate of authenticity signed by a member of the Council of Elder Fairies.

Can't you picture grownup Peter Pan filling orders for Amazon and fretting that he's about to be made redundant by a drone?

Clearly, I should order my pixie dust multipack pronto. Better make it one-day delivery.

Faith and trust might be harder to come by.

Did I mention the pixie dust vials are a choking hazard?


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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