Perfectionism

Old Earl–I saw this with my own eyes–Old Earl leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face–I was in the kitchen with them, just the three of us. They were sharing an early-evening snack with me. I was visiting as a friend of the family. She leaned back against the kitchen sink when he did this. He leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face, which fell, and a little fear came into her eyes, realizing that she had provoked her husband. I recognized the face.

Her daughter, my friend, had been ill and in the hospital, and while I was visiting her, the doctor came in to deliver bad news, seriously bad news: surgery and a very long recovery, along with an abrupt change of lifestyle. Her face expressed wonder girded up by fear and framed by anger.

I think her mother’s expression was anger slow-cooked over the course of several decades so that her face was now expressing tired rage. Nevertheless, she shrank because his own expression overpowered her resentment.

They called him Ole E which took me forever to understand as a diminutive for Old Earl and not Olie. They called him that, being a long-time president of a local, and under his leadership the local had grown, never experiencing any scandals with money or other kinds of abuse. He was telling his wife what time and where the great-grandkids’ soccer games were that evening. He went outside to take care of something in the yard. His wife relaxed and came to me, setting a bag of powdered doughnuts before me. I indulged.

“Do you have any children?” she asked.

“Two,” I said. “Two boys, 10 and 8.”

“I had two boys,” she said. “And a girl. Do you take them to church?”

“Almost every Sunday,” I said.

“Do you dress them up?”

“What?”

She looked at me, then she said. “I remember dressing the kids for church every Sunday. We would walk to church. Church is only three blocks from here, so we walked. It didn’t make much sense to start the car just for a three block drive. We walked to church every Sunday.”

“But you drive now?”

“Three blocks is an awful long way when you’re as old as we are.”

I wolfed another powdered doughnut. “I’ll bet,” I said.

“I used to press the boys’ pants into perfect creases, every Sunday morning, and then I hung them over the easy chair until just before we left for church. Do you know why  I did that?”

“No,” I said, licking the powdered sugar off my fingers.

“Every Sunday, right after I pressed the creases into the boys’ pants, I would do Lucy’s hair, so that the curls would be just right. It seemed to me that just about every time I was pulling the bow into her hair, trying to set it perfect, the boys would start wrestling on the living room floor.”

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “They’d mess up the creases in their pants.”

“That’s right,” she said. “So I started hanging their pants over the easy chair.” She laughed. “Such a funny memory: the boys in their underwear, a shirt, and a tie, wrestling on the living room floor. I lost my voice almost every Sunday morning, screaming at them to settle down.”

I wished at that moment I had had a little brother, or even a big brother, to wrestle with on Sunday mornings.

“Earl taught them to polish their shoes, and we made them polish their shoes every Sunday morning while I got Lucy’s hair right. Oh, I remember her glossy black shoes, Mary Janes!”

“Mary Janes?” I asked.

“Buckle shoes,” she said.

“Oh.”

“They slipped right over her perfectly white Sunday tights, and she walked so tall and so proud, leading the way to church. I can still see it to this day: we showed the whole neighborhood what a good Christian family looks like!”

“Lucy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Lucy doesn’t look like someone who ever wore white tights and black Mary Janes.”

“People nowadays have no respect for church. If they even go, they wear jeans and crumpled t-shirts, like they just rolled out of bed to meet the Holy Lord Almighty.” She shook her head.

One day, by invitation, I walked the path from Ole E’s house to the church, the full three blocks under the gaze of the whole neighborhood and God himself. It wasn’t a Sunday, but there was stuff going on. In fact, there was a hive of activity, busy little religious bees buzzing about, setting up tables for a fundraiser of some sort, baskets and displays emerging like so many six-sided cells. Over in one corner of the comb, several would-be queen bees were having a very quiet, but mortal, argument over who would be handling the money. I steered clear. Repudiated queen bees have a deadly sting.

On the day Lucy came home from a long stint in a rehabilitation facility, I saw Ole E put his nose into a nurse’s face, but instead of shrinking away, this nurse drew up in indignation. His wife suddenly piped up, “He does that to me all the time.”

Ole E stood, silent, thunderstruck.

The nurse replied, “You let him push you around like that?”

“Oh,” his wife said, “it’s not so bad if you just forgive him.”

“Forgive him? I’d never put up with that from my husband.”

His wife laughed. “You girls nowadays. You know, he got that from his mother, putting his nose down in people’s faces. She used to do that all the time.”

Ole E finally spoke. “I do that?”

“Your whole life,” his wife said.

Tears sprang into his eyes. “I do that to you?” In his face, I saw a wave of realization wash over him. “I do that to the kids?”

“You did,” his wife informed him. “But not anymore, now that they’re bigger than you, and out of the house.”

Ole E wheeled to talk to Lucy. “I did that to you?”

“My whole life, Dad.”

“Oh, dear Lord,” he said, sitting down in his son-in-law’s easy chair. “Oh, dear Lord. I didn’t mean to do that to you. I tried to be a good father. That’s not good; that’s what my mother did to us!”

I excused myself, wishing Lucy a happy and quick recovery.

Lucy told me, when I asked, that the whole family had been transformed. Not only had things gotten easier between her father and her mother, and easier with her and one of her brothers, but it had gotten more tense between her father and the other brother. Until Ole E’s dying day, Thanksgiving and Christmas were gala affairs, with more wine spilled, and more laughter with it, and also palpable tension with the brother who retained the perfection instilled in him in his childhood.

The funeral was a gala affair, with one third of the family excusing themselves quite before the celebration had begun.

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Tectonics

I have a new gig in two communities in New York State near Lake Ontario. The communities are eighteen miles apart, oriented east and west from each other. The community to the east we shall call Parker; the community to the west we shall call Coomer. Parker and Coomer are both towns centering respective town-and-country lifestyles. Those who live outside Parker envy those who live in Parker, and those who live outside Coomer envy those who live in Coomer. I live in neither community: I commute from no small distance to work in one or the other, or both, four days a week, driving in from the south.

Or, as they say, I drive from “up,” because I live above the Niagara Escarpment. In this way they are the same culture. Below the Escarpment is one culture, what I might call the Lake Culture. It is populated by very old, early-American farm families, in some state or another resembling the The Sound and the Fury, some having achieved greatness, others having fallen from greatness into utter ruin, still others having wallowed forever in the misery of poverty. Overlaid is the Erie Canal Culture, which is archetypal mid-century blue-collar America, its participants working in the many and varied factories of heavy industrial giants, seen in one way as the purveyors of great wealth to a rural class of people without the back-breaking and agonizing labor of farm-tending, and also as the soul-destroying never-ceasing powered shafts and conveyor belts. The factories shuttered suddenly.

Above the Escarpment is another culture, with a completely different history, distinct family infrastructures, and different institutions, even though the factories are shared.

So I drive north, down, to do my work in their midst as an outsider, always looking in, watching them as families interacting, and I on occasion being invited in to interact with them, to my great delight. I get lonely while I’m driving, and they’re good people, enviably so.

It has been given to me as a task to unify a few families of each community, so that they might achieve some effectiveness in certain charitable endeavors, endeavors which are to be determined in the future, after we can determine what sort of resources we might be able to pool together, determined by ascertaining what resources these several families are able to acquire. Driving from Parker to Coomer, and then again from Coomer to Parker, is a lovely task under pleasant skies, with regular glimpses of vast lake waters to the north, the constant shoulder of the Escarpment to the south, the land between lined all long with orchards, vineyards, farms, and wooded lots, wherein dwell various species of game animals and their predators. It is a flat plain without a single geographic interruption.

Nevertheless, the people of Coomer, being separated by a mere eighteen miles of empty highway, translating to twenty minutes of travel time, have no knowledge of the people of Parker. The people of Parker know nothing of Coomer. In fact, they are suspicious of each other. At first, this flummoxed me. How is it that these very old families, who are veritably nearly in view of each other, know nothing of each other? When their respective high schools compete against each other in varsity contests, the enmity is palpable and brief. After sharing a regulated and tightly contained space to yell at their children for an hour or two, they depart, socializing not. They have not intermarried.

Instead, each community looks up the Escarpment to sizable little cities, traveling north and south for goods and services not available in Coomer or Parker, respectively, which journey is more than twenty minutes. It seems obvious, to an outsider, that Coomer and Parker together, with greater ease, could support each other with those same goods and services, such as restaurants and larger supermarket grocery stores. It is not so. They think on a north-south axis, they speak of a north-south axis, and they live on a north-south axis, going up and down the Escarpment, to the disadvantage of their own utility. Well, maybe. I dunno.

Driving on the east-west axis, the horizon is apparent, I suppose. One could argue that I’m trying to manufacture a horizon, where the one community ends and where the other begins, but I think I’ve found one. There is a third community, which we shall call Lakeshire, a very thinly populated town, spread out over some area, closer to the Escarpment than Parker and Coomer. There is practically nothing to this Lakeshire community to speak of, no important institutions, no real history, no central presence in the area. Although it is little more than a crossroads, it is more than a crossroads, but no inhabitant of Lakeshire claims to be from Lakeshire. Instead, they claim to be from either Parker or Coomer. The inhabitants of Parker and Coomer, on the other hand, would not consider Lakeshire a part of their respective communities.

There exists, north of Lakeshire, exactly halfway between Parker and Coomer, and on the main road, a mobile-home park. It is large, containing the population of a small town all by itself. The inhabitants of the mobile-home park are located exactly as far away from any amenities as is possible in this area.

There it is, a blight, an unpleasant experience, seeing all those country poor people gathered together in one forlorn place, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind. What is life like within this mobile-home park, each home nestled too close to its neighbor, with no fences to make neighbors, good or otherwise? Caricatures fill the mind. And then the conscience strikes.

There are no trailer parks on the north-south axes.

Conversation and Text in Community

An individual is continuous with their communities in ways that are so taken for granted, we are prone to overlook them. A lobotomy is less mentally crippling than living without community. Yet the image of the individual rationalist arriving at truth through the lonely and disciplined application of reason lives on. Our ability to learn from books seems to be the strongest case for that particular picture. Sure, we need communities to learn language and literacy. But once we’re there, haven’t we got the tools to go the rest of the way on our own? Especially if enough books exist on a wealth of subject matter.

In what follows, we will explore the ways in which both individuals and texts are embedded within communities. What will emerge is that written text creates more possibilities for their readers and commentators, even when those texts are grossly misunderstood.

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An Econ Grad Discovers Poetry

We call it “imposter syndrome.” It’s the feeling that you don’t belong, that you’ve somehow tricked everyone into hiring you, marrying you, letting you be a parent. In reality, it isn’t a syndrome at all; it is merely the lingering sense, felt most acutely in childhood, that everyone else knows what they’re supposed to do. Accepting that no one does is the first step to true adulthood, and the soil on which wisdom may one day grow.

I was a reductive materialist. I believed that everything which exists could be captured in plain, concise, direct description. Indirect speech could convey nothing which could not in principle be translated into direct speech. Analytic philosophers who wrote relatively simply were far superior to continentals who were deliberately obscure. Economists, with their elegant theoretical models, were to be prized over the more fuzzy sociologists and anthropologists. And poetry was not even on my radar.

Let’s say I had encountered Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

I would probably have summarized this as saying “Life is short, get married before you get old and die.”

And how succinct, how direct, how to the point that is! So much more efficient at conveying the message than the poem itself. The remainder is merely ornamental; pretty-sounding language that takes forever to get to the bottom line. At best it creates a pleasant feeling. Or so I might have said.

Over the last six years I have read some two hundred books, mostly nonfiction, predominantly philosophy. Yet far greater than all of the philosophy books that I read combined was one unpublished work—an expansive novel by one John David Duke, Jr., the proprietor of this little stretch of the web. This novel said more about the nature of politics, family, parenthood, and war—to name but a few subjects—than a work of philosophy is capable of saying. It said it by not saying it.

That is the power of art.

Since my reductive days, I have had many great teachers. Dave is among the greatest of them, of course. But other friends, as well as authors whose books I’ve had the privilege to read, have helped me to see that “direct” speech is in many ways an imagined quality. We are always pointing to much more indirectly than we are capable of saying. The greatest depth is to be found in speech that embraces its indirectness and polyvalence. Art does just that, mirroring our unarticulated practices and containing multitudes beyond what we are capable of doing justice to with our articulations. Never mind our specifically reductive articulations.

Among my many shortcomings, as I mentioned, was an absolute ignorance of poetry. Poetry, for me as with most of my generation, is something you gloss over in English class and never think about again. At most, you devote some thought to the meaning of song lyrics. As a teenager, I was very excited when I thought I had cracked the meaning of “Paint It Black”.

But I have lately fallen completely in love with poetry, and can scarcely think of anything else.

It is often observed that the language itself is more central to poetry than to prose. Whatever the merit of this observation, it must be said that the language itself does more work than simply conveying the message summarized by the reductionist, or even “creating a pleasant feeling”. Just as different soundtracks can change the meaning of a scene, so too can different sorts of poetic language.

But I am no literary critic. I find it very hard to explain or convey what it is about indirectness and polyvalence that are capable of containing more than can be said directly. But that’s the point, I suppose—you cannot truly explain it, at least not by walking right up to the matter and starting to describe it like you would begin an instruction manual.

So rather than trying, I will flex my atrophied poetic muscles and say:

The boy sees the men
who know what to do
and dreams of when he will too.
One day he’s a man
and still
does not get
what he expects
all others get.

He’s playing a part
without any script
why did no one
teach him his lines?

Scientists promise answers
and their words
are true
but hollow
insight without life.

Poetry explains
by not explaining
tells what can’t be told
by not telling.
Circling the
invisible
unspeakable
unknowable
wisdom
that makes us human.

I like to think that I have taken a big step forward by embracing the poetic, the indirect, the wisdom that cannot be properly articulated. But sometimes I think that I have actually gone back to where I began, before my reductive materialism, and simply brought something with me from the journey.

Uncoiling

“Sleep in Safety” by 45 Grave was one of my favorite all-time songs between my fifteenth and thirty-fifth birthdays. I was born in 1973. Somewhere along the line between my thirty-fifth and fortieth birthdays, I forced people to endure waves of nostalgia, as happens to those of us who watch our children rise up around our feet, coiling mortality around our throats. “Remember when?” How dreadful the nostalgic! And then the all-time favorites were boxed and put away, not thrown out, but stored, to be laughed at as comic elements participating in a greater tale, a grander story than mere fond memory.

It’s an impulse to hang on to adolescence when manhood is necessary, to substitute the carelessness of adolescence for the freedom of manhood, a liberty which requires discipline, the rote, regimen, and pure, unadulterated liability. That is to say: a man is willing to fail at manhood in order to achieve that quality which allows one to be called a man. If he’s lucky, they might append it to him when he lies in state. Therefore, why grow up?

Overlapping that prolonged adolescence, between the fifteenth and thirty-fifth birthdays, is the uncoiling, prying open mortality to see what dreams might come alive. It is uncoiling before my eyes, and with the uncoiling, the realization that Poor Yorick, though he be unearthed, sleeps in perfect safety. Should he come back, he will not come back as a zombie, formed in perfect silliness and lots of foam rubber. No, he shall sleep in safety to awaken as though he were only resting to hear the next grand story, refreshed.


It is a deliberate act, uncoiling, to examine what is and what is not, what is imagined and what is unimagined. How does one distinguish? The sun shines, the shadows move, and then the sun is gone again for who knows how long. Who can distinguish? One holds the coil open, I suppose, even as it recoils around your throat, and, with a knife, one probes carefully and exactly, inasmuch as one can remember how it looked when the moving sun shone upon it. We’re fumbling around and using the wrong tools, aren’t we? Certainty comes and goes, and then they say some words, and you yourself are gone.

Military graveyards are set in perfect rows and columns, and they endure for a time, embodied as long as they do as belonging to the institutions of power. The helter-skelter arrangement of all the rest of us–mercy! After a much shorter time we are excluded.

Dreams do come to pass, and they come. They are embodied, and we live and eat and breathe among them.