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June 2005

People Who Can Do Things

Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2005

Last Saturday I went out to mow the lawn and the starter cord on the mower broke on the first pull, without starting the engine. Since the grass was well overdue for cutting I went right out to the hardware store to look for a replacement cord, based on a vague notion that I’d seen them for sale. I didn’t think it would be very difficult to replace, but had another vague notion, based on some previous incident, that it was not quite that easy.

It took me a while to remove the three housings which enclose the starter wheel, or whatever it’s called: there was a flimsy plastic one which was mainly decorative, another and heavier plastic one which included the gas tank, and lastly the starter housing itself, which includes the spring-driven recoil mechanism that rewinds the cord after you yank it. At that point I remembered that the tricky part was to wind the recoil rotor to a point where it would, upon release, rewind the cord all the way—otherwise you wouldn’t have enough cord on the rotor to crank the engine—but not so much that there was too much tension on the cord, making it hard to pull and more likely to break. At this point I thought at least one extra hand would be useful, so I asked for my wife’s assistance. Together we managed to get the new cord in place. I reassembled the mower and gave the cord a yank. It didn’t feel quite right—it seemed to be catching somewhere—and the mower didn’t start. I yanked it again, and the mower started, but the cord popped out, broken where we had knotted it to hold it in place. Perhaps we’d been a little too aggressive with the flame we had been instructed to apply to the knot, to melt the nylon strands into a blob that couldn’t come untied.

Well, at least I had the mower started, but now I would have to mow the entire lawn without letting the engine shut off. I used the broken cord to tie down the safety bar which shuts off the engine if you let go of the handle, so that the engine would keep running if I accidentally let go. This is one of those safety mechanisms—lawsuit-inspired, I assume—which may protect truly careless people but at the same time encourages more carelessness: rather than let go of the handle and have to restart the engine, I frequently find myself hanging on to it while stretching to reach in front of the mower to remove an obstacle.

And so the lawn was mowed. But we’ve had so much rain lately that I don’t want to go two weeks without mowing, so yesterday I was faced again with the task of replacing the cord. This time I put some thought into figuring out how to get the right amount of tension. I measured the amount of cord required for one revolution of the starter and determined how many rotations would be needed to pull the cord a few inches farther than the bracket which stops it on recoil, figuring this should be about the right amount of tension. I turned the rotor backward that many rotations (about three and a half), jammed it there with the pair of scissors I had used to trim the cord (thus dispensing with the need for an extra hand, my wife being busy elsewhere). I managed to thread, knot, and seal the cord again, this time being very careful not to heat the load-bearing side of the knot.

I put the main housing back on, with the four bolts that held it just tight enough to keep it in place, and tried it. It felt right and worked beautifully. The motor cranked nicely. The cord remained intact. I tried it several times, and it seemed fine. I put the second housing on and tightened down the four bolts of the main housing, getting them as tight as I could. Since I’m not that strong, I usually figure “as tight as I can” is about right. But not this time. I twisted the head off the fourth bolt.

So the mower works, but it’s wounded. Eventually I suppose the vibration allowed by the missing bolt will cause other problems, and I’ll have to take the thing to a shop and get the bolt drilled out and replaced. Or perhaps just give the mower to the shop as a ten-dollar trade-in on a new one.

This is a fairly typical of what happens when I try to fix something or undertake any other task that requires more than a very minimal amount of manual skill. I don’t have much in the way of motor skills or mechanical-spatial sense. I feel some sense of grievance about this on genetic grounds, since my father was a mechanical engineer and my maternal grandfather was a very skilled cabinetmaker. But my paternal grandfather was a lawyer and judge whose lack of mechanical sense sometimes had people snickering behind his back. (His son, my father the engineer, once said that he would have trouble putting salt in a shaker—but on the other hand he had a decent prose style, and he distinguished himself in other ways [1].)

My wife did not know this about me, or at least did not fully appreciate it, when we married, but it didn’t take her long to figure it out. I think the light began to dawn when we attempted to collaborate on building a bookshelf. She kept taking issue with my notion of how to do things, and I thought she was looking at me oddly. Her father and brothers are union electricians and the sort of men who can build or fix most anything, and she just assumed that this was true of all men. The truth is that she has a lot more mechanical and structural sense than I do, and might have been as skilled as her brothers if her father had taught her in the same way. I think she was annoyed about this for a while, but eventually accepted it as an opportunity to do things herself without a condescending male looking over her shoulder.

I’ve always felt myself to be fundamentally out of touch with the physical world. I often feel that I’m operating my body at one remove, like a person using dials and levers to control a robot. And whatever I’m thinking about at any given moment is most likely not what is directly in front of me. I was a terrible athlete as a child and adolescent and was happy when I got old enough to opt out of sports. I tried gamely at Little League but was the kind of kid who was stuck in right field when almost all the hitters pulled left, in the hope that he might not do too much damage, and who might or might not be paying attention if the ball came his way. I played basketball in junior high and when I think of my very few minutes of playing time in actual games all I remember is a blur of confusion. In fact the only sport I remember enjoying much was football in P.E. classes, where all that was required of me was to try to run over, or avoid being run over by, the guy who lined up across from me. Being on the small side, I generally got the worst of these matchups, but it was an enjoyable level of violence and since we all had to play no great skill was expected.

I think my wife summed me up pretty well once, after she had long accepted and become amused by my incompetence. We were discussing some household repair or project which I was thinking of attempting, and she said it might be better to have it done by “someone who has a better relationship with the laws of physics.” Actually I have an excellent relationship with those laws, abstractly speaking: I found physics one of the more interesting courses in high school, love the elegance of Newton’s laws, and still occasionally dabble in popularized accounts of new developments. It’s the actual things that exemplify the laws that I have trouble with.

Yeats had an elaborate and not very convincing cosmic scheme which gave great prominence to the ideas of thesis and antithesis, and, if I remember correctly some thirty years after reading A Vision, included some idea about a person seeking to become his opposite. I can see a little of that in me, in the form of a great admiration of people who can actually do things. I contemplate with childlike wonder and enthusiasm the feats of acrobats, athletes, painters, sculptors, craftsmen, builders, mechanics, and engineers.

One might expect that I would be sympathetic to gnostic spiritualities which regard the body as being an essentially unimportant prison for the spirit, and promise liberation from it. But not at all: on the contrary, I look forward to the resurrection of the body in the hope of experiencing the integration of mind and body that at my age can only elude me further. I don’t know what we will do with our glorified bodies, but surely we will be at perfect ease in them.

I am, nevertheless, pleased to suppose that there will be no need for lawn mowers in heaven, nor have I ever heard anyone suggest that there would be machinery of any sort at all there.

[1] Without Fear or Favor: Judge James Edwin Horton and the Trial of the “Scottsboro Boys”, by Douglas O. Linder

Sunday Night Journal — June 19, 2005

A Ride Through Covington

Last Sunday my wife and I delivered our daughter to a band camp at LSU, which is in Baton Rouge, a couple of hundred miles away on Interstates 10 and 12. Covington, Louisiana, the town where Walker Percy lived for most of his adult life, is just off I-12, and on the return trip Karen suggested that we go and have a look at it.

I haven’t read Percy for a while, and was just a bit surprised a few weeks ago when, having been asked to name five books that have been important to me, I felt that the list really had to include at least one of his books. I chose Love in the Ruins, but The Last Gentleman or Lost in the Cosmos would have served almost as well. I don’t regard Love in the Ruins as his best book, but it’s the one for which I have the most affection. The Moviegoer might reasonably be considered its superior as a novel, and Lost in the Cosmos is the most engaging presentation of Percy’s ideas, but for sheer joy in reading Love in the Ruins tops all his other books, if only just.

I first read it back in the 1970s. If I remember correctly I was only beginning to consider seriously a return to the Christianity of my youth, and the Catholic Church was well out on the horizon. I imagine some of the Catholic ideas in the book went right past me. But I was captivated by Percy’s wry approach to the most serious questions, and most of all by his manifest delight in and love for the world around him. I mean here both the natural world, which shimmers brilliantly on nearly every page of the book, and the human world, including both the immediate milieu of a small Louisiana town and the civilization of which it is a part: the old violent beloved U.S.A. and…the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world

I was also at that time not long recovered from what I now consider to have been a somewhat deranged youthful hostility to the world that had made me, and I think Love in the Ruins helped me come to terms with the mixed emotions I suppose I’ll always feel about my country. Percy could be ruthlessly accurate and precise in diagnosing the psychic and social illnesses of the U.S.A., but his vexations were always rooted in love and delight, and his example encouraged a similar tendency in me which had never quite disappeared even in my most alienated years.

I think it was his way of seeing the natural world that touched me most, though:

It is still hot as midafternoon. The sky is a clear rinsed cobalt after the rain. Wet pine growth reflects the sunlight like steel knitting needles. The grove steams and smells of turpentine. Far away the thunderhead, traveling fast, humps over on the horizon like a troll. Directly above, a hawk balances on a column of air rising from the concrete geometry of the cloverleaf.

We left the interstate for Covington by what may well have been the same cloverleaf where Dr. Thomas More made the above observation, waiting with his rifle, watching the abandoned motel. It came as no surprise to me that Covington is a pleasing little town, although there are indications that it is now becoming self-consciously so, and fashionable. Enormous live oaks grow everywhere, and it seems that most of the smaller streets are shady. One feels that one is entering a dimmer place, and in the Deep South in summer that’s a good thing. Gracious-looking homes sit on deep lawns. There’s an older downtown area which has clearly declined and shows signs of efforts to make it quaint and artsy, while the everyday activity takes place in the automobile zone, outside the older part of town and nearer the Interstate, which of course is exactly like the comparable zone of any other American city.

A river called the Bogue Falaya runs through Covington, and I read somewhere that Percy’s home looked out on it. We made no effort to seek out his address (and saw no evidence that Covington considers itself notable for his presence) but we did drive around in the area near the river looking for the sort of place where we thought he might have lived. He was not poor, and so it seems entirely possible that one of the big serene riverfront houses which would serve me very well as an image of the earthly paradise might have been his.

I’ve never had much inclination to try to make personal contact with writers whose work I love, because I figure that it would just be awkward (and in any event most of them have been dead for decades). But even though I would have made no attempt to see him, I was sorry that Percy was not there. I would have liked to think I was in the same town with him, and that he’s still there, writing. I’ve always thought the words of Job among the saddest in Scripture: He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more.

In one of his essays (I can’t remember which one and am relying on memory) Percy describes his search for a place to settle and says that he finally chose Covington because it was a “no-place,” a town of no dramatic tradition, haunted by no personal ghosts, a locale to which he had no doleful ancestral ties. But he’s not fooling anybody. It’s clear that he loved this place.

Sunday Night Journal — June 12, 2005

Distracted from Distraction by Distraction

The phrase is Eliot’s, from the Four Quartets. I’ve always thought there was a certain amount of jive in Eliot’s work, as much as I love it, and until recently might have offered this line as an example: does it really say anything more than “distracted”?

Yes, I think it does, at least if you make that second “distraction” refer not to the abstraction but to the presence of specific distractions. It refers to a condition of being so distracted that you are no longer conscious of being distracted, or don’t remember what it’s like not to be distracted, and I think I’ve been in that condition for some months now. I only realized it when I was asked to contribute to the so-called “book meme” in which bloggers list the books they own, the books they’re currently reading, and so forth. (I dislike the term, partly because I don’t think the term “meme” really conveys anything useful and partly because the “book meme” doesn’t actually seem to meet the rather vague definition of a meme.)

But whatever you want to call it, I did participate in this listing of books (and posted it on the Caelum et Terra blog), and it caused me to realize that it’s been many months since I actually read an entire book. Last Christmas my wife gave me a copy of Wendell Berry’s most recent novel, Hannah Coulter, and I got about halfway through it before the holidays ended, I went back to work, and a flood of more pressing concerns pushed the novel aside. Before that, I think it had been some months since I read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the last book I actually read all the way through.

It’s not that I don’t read. In fact I often feel that I read too much and am unable to let my mind cease absorbing data and enter a more reflective state. But what I read has been for some time now almost entirely journalism, both in print and on the Internet. I have several books in progress, but they go untouched for months because more ephemeral matter seems, partly because it is ephemeral, more pressing. Some of the journalism is very good, like the Chesterton Review. But even there I’m not reading primary sources; I’m not reading much of Chesterton himself, and there is much that I would like to read before I die.

I’ve always had trouble concentrating, and almost every aspect of my life seems to encourage that fault. My job involves technically demanding tasks which demand extended concentration and yet requires that I be available for interruption at any moment. Comparing notes on this with a co-worker, I found that we had each arrived at a similar state: that even when there is no interruption or distraction present, the constant expectation of it makes concentration extremely difficult.

That same syndrome has now spread into my off-work time. I don’t pick up a book because I know I won’t have time to get deeply involved in it before I have to do something else. So I go off and read someone’s blog instead, absorbing one two-or-three paragraph bit after another, getting involved in discussions which will be forgotten in a few days. Or I read one of the too-numerous magazines to which I subscribe.

This has to change. I’m going to start making the book—at least one book—my highest reading priority, and work in the journalism and blogs only after spending time with the book. It will mean cutting down on my Internet time, and possibly letting a magazine subscription or two lapse. Well, so be it.

Sunday Night Journal — June 5, 2005

Call Me Shiftlet

Some years back there was a widely reproduced frame from the Peanuts comic strip which showed one of the characters—I think it was Lucy—with a look of consternation saying “I love mankind—it’s people I can’t stand.” It comes into my mind frequently when some event, large or small, a local case of child abuse or an account of murder and torture on a nationwide scale, causes me to face what I would really prefer not to think about: the intransigent willingness of some human beings to do, consciously, deliberately, and willingly, things to other human beings that one would like to think could not even occur to the imagination, much less be carried out in deed.

I disagree with Lucy. I like people—it’s mankind I can’t stand. That’s assuming that by “mankind” she means the human race as a whole and in abstract, and by “people” she means individuals. I have to change “love” to “like” in that first clause, as “love” would be too much for me to claim, but with that change I can say it quite honestly. I certainly don’t mean that I like everyone immediately and entirely, and I admit freely that there are in fact some people I dislike strongly, but I can say that as a rule I have liked more than disliked most individuals I have ever known. And I can say that I have never met anyone in whom I could not find something to like, even if an effort on my part was required.

I began to do this many years ago, in one of my first jobs, with a co-worker who annoyed me greatly in a number of ways. I undertook to combat this by making an effort to look for things to like or admire in him, and when I found them they not only made me less intolerant of what I didn’t like about him but gave me some kind of real concrete sense of his worth as a human being independent of my self-centered and subjective preferences. This little discipline has never really been put to the test; that is, I have never had to try it with someone who has done me a serious injury, or done great evil in the world. But it does help with the daily give-and-take of life, and it helps me to conceive how God continues to love us all as individuals, in spite of what we do. And I remind myself often that I stand at least as much in need of charity as those toward whom I exercise it.

But as for mankind as a species, my opinion is that of Swift’s King of Brobdignag: “the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” The misery we inflict on each other is more than I can bear to contemplate, and if I suddenly found myself with God’s power at my disposal (but not his love) I would probably think it best to put an end to the whole affair, as Genesis tells us God himself was minded to do (“And God saw that the wickedness of mankind was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”) until he decided to spare a few.

One of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories is “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in which a man, a Mr. Shiftlet, commits a despicable act which appears to leave his conscience perfectly serene. Yet when he himself is merely insulted he calls down the judgment of heaven upon the offender. We are given to understand that it is he who stands in the greater danger from this judgment, which threatens but does not arrive.

I read the daily paper and want to cry out, like Mr. Shiftlet, “Oh Lord, break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” But nothing happens, which is fortunate, not least for me.