Sunday, September 12, 2004
Near the end of Doc Carson's psychophilosophical novel about the human quest for happiness, an old man says to the inquisitive narrator: "I feel like I'm sitting on a cerebral roller coaster. What fun."
The statement is perhaps the best glimpse of Carson's own personality through the lens of his characters.
The KU alumnus and professional lawn mower makes a point of staying intellectually engaged -- facilitating a book discussion group with friends and neighbors, publishing a homespun philosophical newsletter with a circulation of 270, reading constantly, and self-reflecting for hours on end as he trims grass.
These are the simple pursuits that bring Carson joy.
"Personally, I am stimulated by reading, thinking, that kind of stuff. I'm not advocating that for people who don't enjoy that," he says. "I think we have to find that niche where we are most satisfied. And it changes; happiness is a moving target."
In Carson's first book, "Gone Shopping! An Odyssey of Discovery," the narrator's search for glee takes him on an ascent through the five-story KT Mall, billed as "The Mall That Has It All." From the beginning, it's clear the mall is an existential puzzle as much as a shopping destination.
The shopper receives a bag of free mall money when he walks in the door and then encounters the usual array of shops: food marts, clothing boutiques and furniture stores. But the excursion turns curious when he realizes he has to fork out money just to look at items. He encounters a man who swears government spies are monitoring his garbage, an elderly woman who dies on a bench and ruffians who pursue him with no security guards to bail him out.
The shopper is momentarily distracted on the mezzanine between the second and third floors, where people are maxed out in recliners watching big-screen televisions while servants fulfill their every whim.
He has trouble locating the stairs and barely makes it out of this comfort zone. But as he wanders, he begins to suspect an underlying pattern -- that each floor represents one of the essential ingredients of happiness.
His questions are answered when he finally arrives on the fifth floor and engages in a Socratic dialogue with an artist and a sage. Together, the trio gets to the core of what it takes to live a happy, meaningful life.
Accurate definitions crucial
Carson, who has degrees in philosophy and psychology from Kansas University, formulated the mall metaphor after reading lots of hard-to-understand philosophy books.
"I came to the idea in my head of having a mall where you walk in the door and the first things you see are the easiest things to get," he says. "The further you go in the mall, the more complex and deep the philosophies get.
"Then I combined that with Maslow's hierarchy of needs."
So, the first floor of the mall is the basics: food, clothing and shelter. The next level represents security, and so on.
At the core of the narrator's revelatory discussion on the fifth floor is a theory of knowledge that Carson believes forms the foundation of self-fulfillment. In a nutshell, the theory holds that humans use words to grasp reality, and the degree to which we achieve happiness relies on how close our definitions of those words match reality.
For example, "If you've mislabeled love as abuse, it's going to be tough to find happiness," Carson says.
Carson has long been interested in philosophy and psychology, the backbones of his novel. He lives in rural Lecompton in the modest ranch house that he and his wife, Sue, built with their own hands in 1975.
The couple has been running Doc's Mowing Service since 1978.
It took Carson a year and a half to write and 3 1/2 years to revise "Gone Shopping!," which he describes as part self-help, part philosophy and, hopefully, part compelling novel. He admits it's a complex book, "not an easy read." Yet all sorts of people showed up to his first talk with interesting questions and comments.
The book was named a pick of the month in the April 2004 Small Press Review.
Once Carson slows his book promotion activities and his life returns to a normal pace, he and Sue plan to resume publishing Perspectives, their monthly philosophical newsletter. And Carson will continue to organize book talks and symposiums at his home.
"It's my greatest joy ... to see people thinking and challenging me to think differently," he says.