Are you good?

One of my favorite songs of the past couple years is Lucinda Williams’ “Are You Alright?” It kicks off her last album, West, and asks the listener, who could be a friend, lover, or complete stranger; if they’re OK. It’s stunning in its simplicity and pure-heartedness:

She hasn’t heard from him or her in a long time, and she’s worried. “Do you have someone to hold you tight, do you have someone to hang out with?” she asks, hoping her friend hasn’t dipped so far into her own mortal coil that she can’t find her way out.

So intimate is the vocal, it could be a mid-morning phone call or e-mail from someone who genuinely cares, someone who has noticed a tick, a small or large silent rupture; someone who maybe saw that you’ve been crying on the outside or on the inside, or wondered why you’ve been out of touch. And so they stop what they’re doing long enough to say, “Hey, I thought about you and noticed you didn’t seem very happy or didn’t seem like yourself.”

I appreciate the song because it’s a tough question to ask and answer (one acquaintance memorably replied to my inner inquisition, “How should I know?”), but when it’s asked out of love, it can give the asked one pause.
It also says plenty about the woman who’s asking it; in this case, Ms. Williams: She gets out of herself, wrenches herself out of her own well-documented blues, to give a rip about someone other than herself. It’s a healing song, in other words, and you could do a lot worse than what I’ve done the last couple mornings — listen to it over and over, and think about/summon those you’d like to send it out to.

It’s also a way of talking about my favorite new addition to the national lexicon. I’ve heard it a lot lately, in a lot of different places. I was on the road for the last couple weeks, on the West Coast and in Chicago, meeting cabbies and musicians and book lovers and pilots and flight attendants and bartenders and kids and parents and grandparents and people of all stripes and sizes, and they are all saying the same thing: “I’m good.”

The guy at the bar says it when he doesn’t need another drink. The gal at the restaurant says it when she doesn’t want dessert. The preteen who just got 14 hours of sleep says it when his parents ask if he got enough sleep. The blackjack player at the casino says it when he doesn’t want another card.

Countless others say it in response to “How you doing?,” which always brings to mind the Jackson Browne lyric (“Maybe people only ask you ’How you doin’?’/Cause that’s easier than lettin’ on how little they could care”), but it says here that telling the world you’re “good” flies in the face of Browne’s cynicism and is almost defiant in its positive self-assessment and stock-taking.

Maybe it’s the hope-filled nature of this extraordinary political season, but it seems to me an entire nation saying “I’m good” is big news, because it suggests that we are not the insatiable materialistic masses we’ve made ourselves out to be. No, a national mantra of “I’m good” says that, if only for that moment, we are not needy, greedy, pining, whining or wanting for what we have not got.

Plus, it’s an easy affirmation of our own doing and our own state of being — the kind that every self-help guru peddling the secret to happiness is, at this very moment, kicking themselves for not having figured out how to package and hawk.

To be sure, “I’m good” is much different than its most recent forbears “It’s all good,” and “no worries,” both of which, in addition to being too hacky-sacky for my blood, presumes too much grooviness about the rest of the world. Alert the media, I know.

Anyway, thanks for asking. At the moment, I’m good.

Or as good as a wretch like me can be in these sun-deprived, snow-embalmed dog days of
winter.

I’m good! Really! No worries!

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He also writes for the online publications Reveille Magazine and MinnPost.com.