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

Saturday, February 16, 2019

In Praise Of The Impractical–What Happens When A Head In The Clouds Meets A Calvinist

Polly Alcott  had come by her practical, organizational skills naturally.  The daughter of a Wyoming rancher whose pride was a back-forty scattered with old tractors, truck chassis, and harvester engines; and a mother skilled in pickling, putting up, and making do with the odds and ends of farm life, Polly could never simply let things be.  Not only had the careful husbandry of her childhood taken deep root, but so had her parents’ Puritan fundamentalism.  Not only was idleness a dereliction of ranch family duty but sin against the Lord. ‘Idle hands make light the devil’s work’ was taken seriously in the Alcott family.  There was something inherently, innately wrong and immoral in wasting time.  According to her father, any pursuit other than tending to the ranch, the back-forty, the cattle feed, the silos, and the barn was irrelevant, dismissive of Christ’s teaching, and disrespectful of the mind and body given at Creation.

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For better or worse, Polly had inherited or retained only the secular pragmatism of her parents, not their Puritanism, although given her upbringing and the inextricable relationship between good and practicality that characterized it, one could never be sure.  In any case Polly was her father’s daughter in one essential, telling way.  Nothing other than nuts and bolts, repair and restoration, and the planning and organization that made it all possible mattered.  As an adult Polly was unmatched for her deliberate, unhurried, and well-thought out management of her home, family, and garden. 

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Life is a zero-sum game, and although Polly’s 19th century ranch ethos had definite and legitimate value, few men were interested in a woman with a mind, spirit, and body so close to the ground.  She was not unattractive; and her quiet, unassuming demeanor suggested a reasonable if not complaisant marriage; but there was something about her practical determination – obvious to the more interested suitors – that was off-putting.  She simply had little interest in anything but the here and now.

Many suitors thought that she would make a particularly good mate – a loyal, faithful, and above all dutiful and practical housewife; a good mother, and attentive to the essentials of hearth and home.  Many others thought that if they were to get married; if marriage was really required and expected, then better to marry elegantly to someone of charm, wit, and allure. 

Because those men who were looking for a maitresse de ferme were few  in a liberated generation, Polly found mating surprisingly difficult.  She had been raised to believe that a child of the Lord, practiced in the ways of the world, would be always considered valuable if not cherished.  She failed to understand that the Victorian values of her parents were of little or no relevance.   She waited, alone on the dancing school floor, while all the other girls were picked.

Polly did eventually marry to a man who had just come off a very painful divorce and a troubled, dysfunctional first marriage.  Anyone would be better, he thought, than his first wife, a burlesque queen, outsized, out-sexed, and outrageously radical – a woman who had inherited her beauty from her Russian mother and explosive personality from her Italian father but whose DNA had gotten so twisted by generations of ne’er-do-wells, prostitutes, and hangers-on that she could barely hew the faintest of social lines.  Which was why her future husband could not resist her.  She was the diva, the femme fatale, the irresistible female he had always wanted but thought out of his reach.

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Of course his marriage could never have lasted.  Oil and water – conservative Catholic and out-of-bounds sex princess – but a union of diametric opposites appealed to both.  He wanted excitement, sexual promise, and  a release from the ordinary. She wanted an imposed brake on her sexual and emotional profligacy.  Although they failed, their marriage was a tribute to the institution.  As flawed as it is, peopled by failure and disappointment far more than satisfaction, it was worth a try.

In any case, beaten,  discouraged, disappointed, and scarred by the experience, he found Polly Alcott the unexpected antidote.  Their early years together were perfect and uncomplicated.  They asked nothing of each other and were happy for what they shared in an unencumbered life of travel, adventure, and friends.

Whether it was a matter of age or circumstances – a house, baby, and a responsible job – Polly lost, put aside, deferred, forgot (her husband never knew which) whatever carefreeness she had had; and returned unequivocally to her practical Wyoming roots.  The change was so gradual that her husband hardly noticed but soon he recognized a pattern.  Like her father before her, busyness itself became her profession.

Of course he would be happy not to grope and grasp for pots and pans, be less drafty upstairs, and be warmer overall, but at what cost? Was the constant disruption and irritation really worth it? And wasn’t a life of gradual accommodation less stressful and obtrusive in an otherwise reflective, peaceful life?  The older he got and the more focused he became on the end of his life, the more his wife’s purposefulness bothered him.  If life was in God’s hands, then attempts to moderate, modify, or alter its course was senseless.

As life went on with no break in his wife’s ambitious routine, her husband wondered where she had gone.  This wasn’t the girl he married, certainly.  Yes, her calm centeredness had indeed been a welcome change from the emotional gymnastics of his first wife; and yes he looked forward to a life without serial crises, but he had never anticipated such limitations.  Although his first marriage had been disastrous, the dissolution was only because two talented, sexually ambitious, and highly intelligent people could not live together - two positive charges without a negative will explode.  A second marriage of emotional convenience was no better. 

Polly was oblivious to the growing discontent of her husband. How could she be otherwise? Her way , the way of the farm and the ranch, the way of Luther and Calvin, was the only way.  Her husband’s Catholic, Mediterranean, and libertarian background was a mystery that she had little interest in unraveling.

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To be fair, her husband had little give in him and was as convinced of the evolutionary quality of his academic, intellectual, artistic ways as Polly was of Calvinism; and this stubborn difference was the reason for their later quarrels and dissolution of their marriage.  Polly had done no wrong.  She had been ‘determined’ to act out her God-given character, genetic makeup, and upbringing.  Her oblivion to her husband’s own preoccupations were neither selfish nor ignorant.  She could not have acted otherwise.  Nor had her husband been at fault, for he no sooner could escape his education or the poetry and art of his mother.  Literature was not simply made up of stories of other people.  It had relevance. 

It was a shame that their life had to end this way – still married, too much inertia for change, too little promise outside; but it was a marriage in name only.  Separate quarters, separate interests, and separate preoccupations.  He learned to live with her dogged purposefulness.  She accepted his indifference and purposelessness.  Not exactly a marriage made in heaven, but an illustrative one.  Philosophy, outlook, and valuation always rule; and since these fundamentals are installed at birth, there is little chance of accommodation.  When the difference in outlook is as great as that between Polly and her husband, marriage has very little chance of success.

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