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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The meaning of life

Many years ago, more years than I care to count, I worked a job with a friend that required a lot of travel, often by car. This friend was the sardonic type, intelligent, with a penchant for asking seemingly innocent questions that could lead to circular argument, for the sake of circular argument and to frustrate the interrogated.

One of his favorite japes involved gas stations. In those days, Standard Oil ruled - if not the road, then most of the gas stations beside the road. Its marketing slogan back then, in an effort to connect with the traveling public, was "As you travel, ask us."

It was the highlight of my friend's day if we happened to need gas near one of those ubiquitous Standard stations. He'd pull in and tell the attendant to "fill 'er up." (Almost all stations were full service back then. That's how long ago it was.) He would then say, "I noticed your sign, 'As you travel, ask us.' Can you tell me, what is the meaning of life?" I'll spare you accounts of the predictable consternation the question engendered. But that recollection came to mind as I read our cover story for this week.

Features editor and staff writer Kenneth Burns conducts his own psychic road trip in "American Idyll," as he pursues "the pursuit of Happiness." The "pursuit of Happiness," along with "Life" and "Liberty," is, as far as most Americans are concerned, the lynchpin of our Declaration of Independence. As Isthmus' commemoration of Independence Day, Burns tries to track down just what it was that Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the document, had in mind when he used that phrase.

Burns taps a number of sources in the course of his pursuit, some of whom interpret it as referring to the unfettered ability to accumulate "stuff." But to me, it could just as well mean the pursuit of the meaning of life, or some other desire that resides primarily in the mind of an individual. As long as it doesn't interfere with someone else's "pursuit of Happiness," or life or liberty, for that matter, you have the "unalienable right" to go for it, even if the Supreme Court doesn't agree with you.

As for my friend's pursuit of the meaning of life, it ended one day at a station in Indiana. "Just a moment, sir," said the attendant as he retreated into the station's office. He returned with an application for a Standard Oil credit card.

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