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GP 14 December 2005: In Search of Perfection

A More Perfect Union.  James Madison and the other framers of our Constitution, having experienced the manifold flaws of the Articles of Confederation, were much concerned to form a more blessed union with their second experiment:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It has, of course, served us admirably, though it is now much in need of repair so that we may better accommodate the global intimacy that technology, an uncontrolled world financial system, and the rising power of Asia have brought to our shores.

You will notice, too, that the founders, like today’s politicians, pretended to speak for all America when in fact they were largely voicing the thoughts of the limited political class that presses the levers of power in America.  More than 200 million now, we have the need and the ability, if we are to enjoy tranquility, for a much bigger fraction of our populace to have a voice in matters of state.

“Perfection” was certainly the right goal—in large matters or small.  America doesn’t work terribly well when we are not convinced we are up to something better.  And our costs of doing business are so high that we don’t have a prayer of competing at mediocrity with other nations who can do average as well or better than us at half the price.  If we strive for less than perfection, we will come up a day late and a dollar short.  This standard of excellence poses a terrible dilemma for our largest enterprises. At GM, Microsoft, all our telephone companies and utilities, our large universities, our biggest governments, and the list goes on, obsessive perfectionists are not in the saddle, the leadership consumed instead by a 1,000 other concerns.

Getting It Right.  For both entertainment and gratification, the inquiring mind must poke around in small ponds where “better” is not a forbidden word.  It’s mostly in modest, often slightly eccentric communities where the idea of “perfection” rears its head. There the spirit of craftsmanship is alive.  We can only hope that the quaint notion of quintessence will occasionally slip into the mainstream.  Meanwhile, we must content ourselves to look for perfection at the edges of existence.

Ronald Burt, a sociologist out at the University of Chicago, writes about personal social networks and, now and again, about the importance of bursting out of them.  Put crudely, he’d contend that creativity is not a bolt of lightning from the gods that descends on geniuses, later to be transmitted to the masses by sparkling communiqués.  Instead, the creative fellow is really a tireless metaphysical thief, good at stealing ideas from outside his network, and then putting them to use in the particular briar patch he inhabits every day.  Burt’s book, Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition, elaborates on this thesis.  The creative insight and the hint of perfection always lurks at the margins, somewhere hidden from view.

Pilgrim’s Progress.  Even as it tries to redo itself, we find the Wall Street Journal to be a bloodless affair, always lacking in the bonhomie and the coursing of spirits that can astound readers, set tongues to wagging, and create prose that jumps off the page.

Of course, there’s always the exception that proves the rule.  Nikhil Deogun writes from Grantown-on-Spey of “Scotch with My Father” (December 10-11, 2005, pp.1-13).  He and his dad, who was in from Kolkata, India, took a recent sampling tour of  some of  Scotland’s single malt houses such as Tomatin, Glenfarcias, and Oban, having begun at Speyside, “home to more than half of Scotland’s distilleries.”

In India, the real McCoy was not legally sold when he was growing up, so the family got it from a bootlegger or from friends returning from overseas.  Deogun’s father has a highly refined palate, trained by years of tea tasting as a tea company executive, making him passionate about his scotches.  To make sure he did not contribute to the counterfeit scotch racket abounding in India, Deogun Senior had all labels soaked off his whiskey bottles, so that they could not be later used to embellish rotgut.  He himself is the genuine article.

What a pleasure to read about a father and son in pursuit of perfection, their journey bringing a little life to the stillborn pages of the sclerotic Journal.  We, of course, would recommend to them a Michel Couvreur Single-Single from Meldrin House that we put aside a while back, then aged some 23 years.   We almost think we are drinking a cognac when we catch a sniff of it.  For sure this is the right passion for a father and son—pursuing the perfect spirit.

Sturdy Corduroys.  We just joined the Corduroy Appreciation Club.  It’s the creation of one Miles Rohan (really Michael Rohan but that’s another story) who, “several years ago … out of work and feeling lonely,” decided to start a social club.  He was no Groucho Marx, that comedian who didn’t want to be part of any club that would have him.  Rohan’s from Brooklyn, and nobody but nobody was urging him to come to a club, séance, encounter group, or much else.  So he founded his own society, which is just as well, for today all Manhattan’s clubs, especially the university clubs, have lost their panache, and turned into mere hotels that pretend to have collegiality.

His club went down in flames once, but it’s now revived.  “His wife, Jordana Furcht, who is a graphic designer, helped him with a sharper-looking batch of cards (they feature an image of a humpback whale, next to the phrase, ‘All Wales Welcome,” and have real corduroy pasted on the back)….”  See the New Yorker, December 5, 2005, p. 38.  The first meeting of the resurrected club took place November 11, 2005, and we envision a whale of a future for these men of the cloth.

We’ve enlisted in it because we are on the hunt for thick, heavy, durable wale.  Back when Ralph Lauren still made real clothes, it turned out some corduroys that were suitable for a semester in academia or a week end at the manor.  But we have never been able to replace them, and we’re leading a consumerist movement—our club without any members—for the return of real wale.  This, we think, could turn the heads of England’s only really successful consumer revolt, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale.  Maybe we can get back to clothing that has a few threads in it.  Good corduroy has the weight of a long, venerable history behind it.

Bring Back the Sazerac.  We have a levee coming up, and as we were putting the occasion together, New Orleans came to mind.  During Katrina, we had something like 400 communications from those who had been, after the manner of the Italian movie, swept away.  Ironically, this city that is never far from our thoughts simply became just that much more vivid to us, even as others were writing its obituary.  We commemorated the resourcefulness of some of its unusual people in “Gales of Creative Destruction?  Islands of Self Reliance.”

New Orleans, with all that has happened, is coming back.  Firstly, because some wonderful things there never die.  Right in the heart of the French Quarter is Saint Louis Cathedral, the history of which predates the United States.  Not far from the Cathedral and Jackson Square, at a café that opened to the courtyard, we had our first Sazerac too long ago to remember.  It is another piece of New Orleans that refuses to go away.

Of course, this legendary cocktail has made its way into our party plans, even though we are certain to make it wrong.  Should it consist of  brandy and absinthe (illegal in these United States), as was the case when the French dominated the city?  Or maybe rye—say Old Overholt which will be hard to find—blended with  Herbsaint, the concoction preferred by present day connoisseurs?  Or perhaps Bourbon instead of rye, a corruption of the Sazerac that is said to be very much to the taste of “American tourists,” not the locals.  (That is to say, people from the Big Easy don’t always regard themselves as part of these United States.)  In any event, we are instructed we must lay our hands on Peychaud’s Bitters, not that easy a find around America.  When something has enough history behind it like a Sazerac, there’s no one way to make it, and perfection consists of living with uncertainty and a mere Platonic shadow of the real cocktail.  Fortunately, we have found a mixologist who has a nodding acquaintance with this storied libation.

You’ll find a voluminous literature about Sazeracs on the internet and in the drink books if you are of a mind.  We have enjoyed the authoritative commentary of one Chuck Taggart, today a California resident whose heart still resides in Louisiana, who tells us that New Orleans is the home of the cocktail, and that the Sazerac itself may be the first cocktail.

Excellence and Equality?  In 196l John Gardner discussed the central dilemma of democracy in Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?  Head of the Carnegie Foundation, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, he wondered how democracy, education, elitism, and quality could stand side by side.  He was right to wonder, but we now know, in a more global world, that our democracy can only survive if we become obsessed by perfection at every turn, big and small.  We no longer can enjoy the luxury of pure sloth where our goal is merely to get by.

P.S. Harvard Professor Michael Porter has an incomprehensible plan for the recovery of New Orleans with a horrible name.  Basically it says what we know.  New Orleans will recover through Bon Temps Rouler: “letting the good times roll.”

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