"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Life On A Need To Know Basis - Get Rid Of The Irrelevant And Clear The Decks For Running

“But is it relevant?”, asked Harry Wentworth.  His wife paid no attention and went on cutting up the vegetables for dinner.  Asking about relevance was one of her husband’s quirks, a kind of intellectual tic that may have had meant something at one time, but had long passed into repetitive irrelevance.

Image result for laurence olivier is it safe

                               Is it safe?

“What does Daddy mean when says, ‘Is it relevant?’, asked his son.  ‘Is what relevant?”.

“Your father has this thing about meaning”, replied Billy’s mother.

For her nothing was particularly relevant, nothing invested with particular meaning, no conundrums to be solved, no existential questions to be answered. Cards were dealt, you played them, one some hands and lost others; and ended up no better nor no worse for having played. 

So Billy grew up between two poles – one of a questing father for whom inquiry had become a nervous twitch, a reflex response to anything that came his way without answers; the other of an indifferent mother for whom little mattered other than getting through the day as quickly and easily as possible.  Since Billy found everything relevant – what his mother was cooking for dinner, how a jet engine worked, what was the purpose of school, what was under the ground, why arugula was bitter, what was going on in Nancy Blythe’s head – he could neither understand his father’s incessant, nervous parsing to figure out what was what nor his mother’s breezy attitude about everything from the cat to Granny’s funeral.

None of this was particularly troubling to Billy.  It’s just the way his parents were, a given taken for granted as a child but more peculiar as an adult.  He found himself wondering about meaning, relevance, and purpose more than he thought he ever would; and wondered whether or not his parents’ particularities were finally taking their bite.  He found himself analyzing, filtering, and categorizing just like his father.  People were all marked and filed – smart, dumb, clueless, alert, hazy – for no other reason other than to order a world which, thanks to hormones, the old Wentworth genes, and growing up a small town which seemed to have more than its share of deserters had become worrisome and indecipherable. 

New Brighton was an ordinary town – factories, shops, churches, libraries, offices and a city hall like every other one in the middle of nowhere which should have been as predictable in the behavior of its residents as in the configuration of the municipality; but was not.  Every family had a peculiar twist – Mrs. Johnson went away and never came back one Sunday after church; a roomer overstayed his welcome at the Porters and killed them in a psychotic fit of pique. Herbie Swanson’s mother and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Bruce Benton’s blind father, or Betty Morton’s short, reclusive, and spooky uncle.  It never rained at all one summer, and every hair curler, hammer toe, and jelly roll was out for all to see on the front lawn.  What did this all mean, Billy wondered? Was there a common thread to it all and shouldn’t one be looking for it? If so, how?

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Literary exegesis studied long ago might have a point.  Within the ambit of the New Criticism texts were to be parsed and disaggregated to understand the artist’s meaning.  What was The Tyger really about? Or Shakespeare’s Sonnets to his young man? Or Yeats’ epics, Eliot’s spare, depressing verse? Billy had been happy to leave that dry, academic, and to him unnecessarily laborious reading of literature behind, but thought it might be time to pick it up again.  

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He had no such luck.  Life was as opaque as Blake’s poetry.  Not only were there no easy answers, there were no answers.  His life was simply cluttered with irrelevant information; and he was no better off than when he started.  No epiphanies, no ‘Aha!’ experiences, no particular insights, and no satisfaction.

Until one day when Billy was well into his forties he finally figured out how to shake off his father’s inherited obsessiveness – an unexpected insight, perhaps the result of so much intellectual baggage, too heavy to lug around any more.  There was no point in figuring out what was what, or searching for meaning in a randomly assorted array of weird behavior.  Life should be led on a need-to-know basis.  The search for relevance, meaning, and purpose was itself meaningless with one exception – what was absolutely, positively essential?  Nothing in the news was essential – what politician was sleeping with whom, what lies and deception were being foisted, what responses were being made in response to international affairs, economics, finance, or social mobility.  There was little Billy found that he needed to know, given the altogether familiar and predictable turns of events.  The comic strips ‘Blondie’ and ‘Beetle Bailey’ ran for decades in syndication throughout the US and were popular because they never varied.  Each character acted according to character, but the ways in which each was silly, inept, unaware, or late were endlessly funny.  The reader needed to know nothing about Dagwood, Blondie, Beetle, Sarge, or Zero; nor why they did what they did.  It was only what they did that mattered.  Need-to-know was reduced to a simple, familiar formula. 

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The infelicities of preachers, priests, politicians, and generals were to be expected.  What was not predictable was exactly how they would play out their infidelities, lies, and misdemeanors – and this, because it always happened the same way with only peculiar and odd twists in the telling, was funny.  One never needed to know anything more than the fact that the predictable would happen sooner or later.

So, like Tolstoy who explained in his memoir A Confession that after decades of search for meaning, he finally gave up.  There was no such thing.  Neither Billy’s father’s quirky but insistent search, nor his own more paced and disciplined one turned up anything; so he trimmed this sails and cleared the decks for running.  He narrowed his interests and his friends; stayed clear of family gatherings; unsubscribed from everything until his mailbox and inbox were empty; and focused only what he needed to know – odds and ends that might or might not clear up a few questions but at least give him a laugh.

Image result for images tolstoy a confession

His wife needled him like his mother had done to his father – Billy was becoming misanthropic, obsessively narrow, and withdrawn.  What exactly was the point?

Yes, what was it? But Billy was under no illusions.  He had not narrowed his field of vision to help him look for answers.  He simply preferred one with characters of someone else’s invention, one described more eloquently than he ever could. 

To his friends Billy had become a recluse, a strange hermit who resembled nothing of his past.  The outgoing, gregarious, intensely social being that they had known in their thirties and forties was gone.  No paramours, no cinq-a-septs, no adventure.  Yet he was a happy man – not really smiley, happy happy but satisfied.  He had figured out a way to eliminate annoying static and noise, to pay no attention to anything that didn’t matter to him; and that, given the amount of noise and static in the world, was saying something. 

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