Dearest Rachel –
The other night, I received one of those regular emails from Nightelf. You know the sort; the kind of elaborate narrative that inspired me to begin writing you – although what I lack in erudition, I try to make up for in quantity. Between a career in academia in certain other life struggles, Nightelf’s letters arrive somewhere between biweekly and monthly, while I have sufficient free time to create at least a letter every time (which even I would admit to being surprised by).
At any rate, there were a few things in the letter but I couldn’t help but reply to. Particularly in regards to the thought of trying to publish a half memoir/half self-help book. We have a mutual acquaintance from AnimeIowas past who has gotten himself published (although, not being a fan of either the detective or ‘anthro’ genres, I haven’t looked into getting or reading the book in question), so I suggested that Nightelf get in touch with him.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the two of them have had a falling out sometime previously, so that avenue was a no-go. But in the reply to my reply, Nightelf started off with a fairly standard pleasantry that stopped me in my tracks:
“Hey, Randy. Are you doing okay?”
I think it was Gerald Ford who was described by a colleague as “if you ask him ‘hey Jerry, how are you?’ he’s stuck for an answer,” suggesting either a lack of intelligence, or a vacillating and indecisive nature. Still, it’s nice to have the company of a president in my situation. Thanks to you, I’ve been stuck for an answer for more than a year now. The best responses I can come up with are along the lines of ‘just getting by’ or ‘taking it day by day’; you know, that sort of thing.
I mean, I know what the stock answer is to ‘how are you?’: you’re supposed to say ‘fine, thank you.’
But that’s not how I really feel, any more than Jack does in this sketch. And it’s not what Nightelf said, either. The question was ‘are you doing okay?’
Well, I suppose that depends on how you define ‘okay.’
‘Okay’ is probably the most quintessentially American contribution to the English language – and to language in general. Virtually everyone on earth, apart from some isolated tribes like the Sentinelese, are familiar with the term. It’s the closest thing to a universal descriptor, not to mention an incredibly useful interjection to bring a group back from a tangential discussion to the main topic at hand.
But its true meaning, like its original source, seems to be shrouded in mystery. Whether it’s derived from Martin Van Buren’s nickname of ‘Old Kinderhook’ (taken from his childhood home, and apparently used as a slogan in his campaigns for president – yep, that’s two presidents in one letter. You’d think it was February, wouldn’t you?), the Choctaw word ‘okeh,’ or the term ‘oll korrect’ (meant to mock the spelling of the poorly educated masses in the hinterlands – yes, even before there was such a thing as flight, there was contempt for flyover country from those living on the coasts, with the money and power. Some things never change), the term ‘okay’ is about as nebulous in definition as it is in origin.
As a general rule, I think of the term as a representing a state of being at least adequate, maybe a little better, but not quite good.
On the other hand, ‘A-OK’ is generally used by astronauts to describe a situation in which nothing is wrong – which is to say, perfection.
So which is it?
Perhaps, as with another uniquely American word, ‘jazz’ (whose origins are also shrouded in mystery), the words of Louis Armstrong most appropriate here: “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Or, perhaps it would be best to be like Humpty Dumpty, and define for yourself with a word means, and just use it that way.
It probably leaves me with what I would consider to be the ‘basic’ definition; a little better than adequate, nowhere near great. I’m alive, I’m ambulatory, I’m getting through every day. I’m not ripped apart by heartbreak by everything I see, but I’m conscious of the emptiness in our lives, and doing what I can to drown it out. If that’s an inappropriate reaction on my part, well, I’m sorry about that, honey. I don’t know that it’s good for my mental health to dwell too much on your loss; at least you know I think about you every day.
In any event, I’m sure I’ll be keeping in touch. Until next time, keep an eye out for us, and wish us luck. We always need it.