This Side Up

Simple joys are often the best


Can you measure joy?

Sure, you can sum up a vacation, a night on the town, an outing with friends as a “good time,” or a “great time.” And there are those times when you feel an uplifting, whether a birth, release from a disease after extended treatment, or achievement of a long sought objective. There’s also the joy of giving, which in many ways exceeds that of receiving.

Does one form of joy – maybe it should be called celebration – exceed another? Can it be quantified?

Our adopted spotted coon hound, Ollie, could have some answers.

He knows what brings him joy. We know it, too.

It’s really very simple, and nothing more than a strand of rope with a knot at either end. It’s his “pullie,” and he has a collection of them. His favorite is a mix of black, red and green. It is frayed from chewing and smelly but a thing of beauty to Ollie.

Say “pullie” and Ollie is off to find his toy for a game of tug of war, or as I have discovered, hide and seek. His eyes wide, tail wagging and growling, he’ll present the pullie expecting you to grab its slobbery end to start the contest. He hangs on with determination, rhythmically yanking to free the prize.

But his joy, as I’ve learned, is not entirely a matter of wrestling the pullie away. I’ve loosened my grip after only a few seconds of the game and instead of prancing off in triumph, he shoves the pullie back into my hand, as if to say “you gave up too quickly.” Some feigned growls on my part heighten the bar and the reward – joy – for him. The greater the challenge, the greater sense of accomplishment when he’s finally captured the pullie.

The same is true of hide and seek.

To vary the tug of war, I’ll pretend to throw the pullie, which sends him racing in that direction. Then with his back turned I’ll quickly slip it under a couch pillow, under a chair or even under the rug.

“Find it,” triggers a bout of intense sniffing. He’ll retrace the path of the pullie, tail swaying, bent on his mission. Again, if it’s an easy find, his excitement – that joy again – doesn’t seem to match those occasions where after minutes of being told to “find it” he sniffs out the pullie.

Are we built the same way? Does it take a challenge for us to secure joy?

Indeed, some of my most memorable sailing experiences have been the most challenging. Many were not joyful experiences at the time.

There were times when lost in the fog and before the days of GPS where I could hear waves crashing off Cuttyhunk island and wondering if my crew and I might likewise end up on the rocks. Much closer to home there were storms where black clouds swept down the bay, first obscuring the Providence skyline, then Conimcut Light and then closing in with high winds, pounding rain and spikes of lightening. The rigging sparkled with Saint Elmo’s fire. The air smelled of ozone. I prayed for the anchor to hold, not to be struck by lightning.

When it was over there was relief and yes, joy, to have made it.

Looking at Ollie, I wonder if animals – dogs in this case – can think beyond the moment and comprehend what could have happened and being joyful for the way things turned out? Or is it all for here and now?

I envy that.

Ollie knows what brings him joy. It’s that sticky piece of rope and a willful player. He doesn’t need to be told to fetch his pullie; he can just produce it and most times Carol or I will grab an end. His “joy fix” is that easy and, as I’ve learned from pulling on that rope, so is ours.


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