Hold It Right There–how we feel and why

Aristotle, 14; Charles Darwin, 5. 

It sounds like the final score in the big-names-in history wrestling contest. Aristotle destroys Darwin.

It’s actually the number of human emotions these thinkers could think of. Both list fear and anger. Aristotle distinguishes between shame and shamelessness; Darwin doesn’t bother with either of those. Darwin includes love; Aristotle, friendship.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, there is a giant leap in human emotion theory, when psychotherapy gets rolling, and shrinks list as many as 90 emotions. (That must have kept them—and their clients—very busy.) Recently, University of California psychologist Paul Ekman has returned to basics, listing 7 human emotions. He actually uses a system (the facial action coding system, or FACS) for recognizing and coding them. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, and contempt. That’s what we humans emote. And he knows it when he sees it.

This week we’ve been faced with a range of emotions out here in Mariposa. Rapture, disgust, fear, and regret. 

Yesterday Tizi and I picked Kerr apples. These beauties hang on eight trees in the row closest to our kids’ house. The Kerr apple is in the crabapple family, about 1” to 1 ½ inch in diameter. They are tart and sweet at the same time, and they are gorgeous to behold. As they ripen, they become dark red; given sun and time, that color deepens to a ravishing burgundy, bordering on purple.

They don’t hang on branches so much as bunch like grapes, and they come off the tree with dark green leaves you leave behind on the ground, if possible. You can’t look upon these apples and not feel moved by their natural beauty. The emotion, in a word: rapture.

Before picking yesterday Tizi and I drove into town and had breakfast at a place called Happy Burger. It was an unhappy breakfast. I love the ambiance. In a stroke of genius, someone decided old record album covers could serve as wallpaper (and ceiling paper). The whole time we were eating I looked up and around. Mitch Miller, Julie Andrews, Nat King Cole, Wilson Picket, Roy Clark, Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Jack Jones. The Beach Boys. Gerry and the Pacemakers. I kept pointing them out to Tizi. 

“Look, there’s Glen Campbell.”  

“Look, Dean Martin.” 


“That’s enough,” she said. 

According to my facial action coding system, acquired in years of marriage, I saw she was in a state of disgust. She was patting down her hash browns with a paper napkin, for the third time, trying to soak up the grease. “We’re not coming back here,” she said.

Because of those album covers, put me down for regret, which none of the emotion scientists include. 

“Steve’s breakfast,” she said, “is way better.”

Attached to a gas station and a small general store, Steve’s is full of locals. They belly up to tables, eat and gab and laugh. The atmosphere is friendly, companionable. Even an amatuer user of the FACS can read happiness. Except for the signs and posters hanging on the walls. Whereas Happy Burger’s decor elicits delight with faded photos of entertainment icons (will you get a load of Wayne Newton’s hair!), the theme in Steve’s is all Second Amendment. It’s unsettling.

“Everyone out here has guns,” David says when I mention the signs on the wall. In the West he means. In Mariposa. “Almost everyone carries.”

I tell him about a guy I talked to in the tasting room on Saturday, who said there are heroin addicts galore out there, breaking into homes, and if they break into his house, he said, their next stop will be the medical examiner.

“I don’t know about the heroin addicts,” David says, “but basically everyone out here is just waiting for a break-in.  They want to use their guns..” 

“Assault weapons?”

“Lots of them. To protect themselves from the government.”

Mariposa is an old mining town.. The county, also named Mariposa, was established in 1850. There are lots of small communities in the county: Mariposa, Midpines, Bootjack, Catheys Valley, El Portal, Hornitos, Coulterville, Fish Camp, and Wawona. Mariposa in particular has a certain old West 19th century charm. No one locks their doors.

The town, and the county, currently feels threatened. And not just by phantom heroin addicts.

Siege mentality is too strong a term. Let’s just say Mariposa residents like things the way they are. That feeling has been in bold relief recently, with dubious thanks to Terramor.

Right now on every country road you drive in the area—Triangle, Darrah, Tiptop, Wass—in front of homes you see the signs: Stop Terramor. Terramor is an outdoor resort-building operation, selling “glamping” to people with campers. The tagline on the Terramor website (they sell their program, with similar resistance, in other localities around the country) is “Start planning your adventure.” To residents in Mariposa County, Terramor will be an assault on a way of life, impacting water resources, bringing pollution, traffic, and increased fire hazard.   

They’re fighting Terramor. They’re preserving their way of life.

”Can you imagine these trees in the spring?” Tizi says.

We’re picking in the late afternoon. I’m on an eight-foot ladder grabbing fruit in the top of a Kerr. She’s in the lower branches and picking up drops as well. Late afternoon the sun arrives at a point in the sky, you’re no longer baking while you pick. There’s a breeze. Today the sky is perfectly blue, which we remark upon every so often. There must be a fire somewhere—in Oregon or Washington, in Canada. That’s a new normal. Today is the old normal.

Happiness gets little mention in emotion science. Maybe not until the 20th century. Maybe not until an American adds it to his list. Happiness is so frivolous, so transitory, unlike the more visceral emotions, like anger, fear, or disgust. “The fact is that the commitment to happiness in Western culture is relatively modern,” writes Peter N. Stearns in Harvard Business Review. “Until the 18th century, Western standards encouraged, if anything, a slightly saddened approach to life,”

“It’s a good day,” I say. When I come down off the ladder, I reach in my pocket for my phone.. “Hold it right there,” I say. She’s reaching for the fruit. I take aim and shoot. It’s a good picture. We’ll want to remember this day. We were happy.

1 Comment

  1. Sherrie says:

    Looks and sounds like a fabulous day! The photos are stunning and makes me want to be there.

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