LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
GP 13 June 2007: Gone Fishin’
Twenty Is Plenty. We have a bumper sticker, left over from another era, that murmurs, “Twenty is Plenty in Sconset.” A few decades back, Nantucket Island, under the benign dictatorship of Walter Beinecke, was a lazy, tasteful, idyllic place where long-legged girls played tennis, the purplish blue hydrangeas flourished in the mist, and you could walk to cocktails, so it mattered not how tipsy you became.
Best of all, across the island from Nantucket Town was Sconset, where theatrical players hung out at the turn of the (20th) century. There, your children could learn to bicycle with no threat from speeders. Movies shown in the Casino meant that you could take your entertainment without mingling with the day-trippers. It was slower than slow.
That’s all past now. Paris Hilton look-alikes push past you in the store. The months before August are no longer lazy. New money tears down $1,000,000 summer homes to make way for $10,000,000 palaces. Unseemly battles have been promulgated by the privileged, who are encroaching on public beaches and constructing special barriers for their homes at the expense of yeomen and fishermen alike. And, yes, there are terrible amounts of rushing around.
It’s hard to find the “twenty is plenty” state of mind. It’s harder to preserve than the environment. It’s hardest to restore it, though we will be issuing a Do-Nothing Entreaty when we get around to it, which will celebrate laziness. Our challenge here is take you well beyond the compulsive admonitions of the Slow Food Movement or the Society for the Deceleration of Time, looking for the kinds of things that will truly put you in the slow mood.
River Lethargy. Your cell phone, computer, automobile, city, institution—each is designed to whip you into frenzy. At a recent church service, we saw a friend’s head bowed down, and we thought, “How prayerful!” Until we learned he was on the phone to his plumber—afraid that if he missed the conversation, the repair would not get done for weeks. All about us we find mankind in a frenzy. Of course, the frenetic activity has reached the point of diminishing returns, where the more people do, the less they get done. Only the most bullheaded can fail to realize that this pell-mell spirit is intimately connected with the hypertension and depression that is now epidemic in society. But most cannot stop long enough to act on their uneasy intuitions about their breathless pace.
Long ago when American Telephone and Telegraph was a real company it learned that its operators became more productive if they took mandatory breaks. When one’s nose is continuously to the grindstone, you grind down. And, as we said in “The Big Sleep,” there is no learning without leisure. We have grievous need to be in an atmosphere where it seems entirely appropriate to do nothing.
We suspect the very presence of water will get it done, luring us into quietness. That has caused us to put fountains inside and out of places we hang out. The most pleasant Japanese restaurant in New York City, now just a memory, had a small raised water canal running through its upstairs dining room. The best songs about slowing down all have rivers in them. For instance, “Up a Lazy River”:
Up a lazy river by the old mill stream
Real Steps. If Fortune Magazine ever wanted to publish rankings that mattered, it would decide which businesspeople were the pushiest. We suspect real-estate people would top all the charts for consummate rudeness. Nothing stands in their way; the DNA controlling shame was removed from their genetic code at some prenatal stage. Years ago we had dealings with a real-estate magnate, who’s still fooling ’em today and whom we had decided to cast aside because his manners were so bad. But one of our very nice colleagues asked to take a run at him. The relationship flourished. Puzzled, we visited with Bill, our magic executive, and asked him how he had prevailed with Jerome the Unfortunate. He said, “Easy, Victor. Every time Jerry takes a step forward, we take two steps backwards.” One can beat the unbeatable with slowness and strategic retreats.
We are given to understand that Elizabeth I, England’s greatest ruler, was a master and mistress of procrastination. Her courtiers were in a great hurry for her to rush into domestic tempests and foreign entanglements. But she knew how to put them off. Oft there is a great deal of sound and fury in the breasts of bureaucrats, signifying nothing. Slowness, it seems, may be an antidote for some of the worst inclinations of the movers and shakers of any nation.
The Shadowbox. Quite a few years back, Broadway raved briefly about a play called The Shadow Box. It dealt with hospices, showing how they helped people confront the lonely prospect of death. In one scene, an older chap steps forward to reminisce about how he came to live with the young man who was taking care of him in his last months. As we remember, he said, “You know, I got interested in what he was doing. Which, as it turned out, was nothing. But he was doing it so well.” Indeed, there are wonderful people who are focused on nothing, but interested in everything. Probably their mission in life is to connect together the rest of us who are all too consumed by our pigeonholes and have a need to bridge the gap between us and the next guy.
The Society of Dilettanti, for instance, dedicated itself to purifying the taste of 18th-century England. As well, we can learn from Letitia Baldrige’s new book Taste that it is no simple matter to maintain and enlarge taste in fashion, dining, clothing, and design. We need it to knit together society. It requires leisure to develop taste and to then integrate it into all aspects of one’s life. But it is a consolation to know that since taste and leisure are interconnected, one can enlarge one’s life mightily by doing less.
Useful Indolence. It’s not at all easy to step away from society’s frenzy. Frequently enough, we bump into chaps who have determined to take it easy for a few days, but are lost without their Blackberries, iPods and the other 1,000 trivial ways they have dreamed up to fill up every moment. We are reminded of the heroine in Antonini’s Blow Up who is coached to move in counter rhythm, escaping the lock-step undulation of the crowds we see at rock concerts or of the commuters we see piling down the stairs into Grand Central’s subways. It’s a whole lot easier, but fatal, not to be an individual, not to move in one’s own time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson talked magnificently of individualism and Transcendentalism to 19th-century America, but he did not really walk the talk. Henry David Thoreau, by himself at Walden Pond, did. He understood what it was to be a different drummer: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
It is as much a virtue to be behind the pack, as ahead of it. La dolce far niente—the sweet life is to do nothing.
Advice to a Young Man. Recently one Charles Wheat delivered advice from the Eastern Shore to a young man just about to get his diploma. Truth is, it’s good counsel for all of us:
On this watershed occasion in your young life, I want to speak to you of fishing, a pastime fraught with pleasure and metaphorical possibilities. My credentials on this topic are primarily anonymous, but nonetheless strong because they are born of lifelong obsession.
Fishing is God’s gift to heal the fevered mind. You could look it up, as Yogi Berra said of many other things, because so many good writers have taken the time to salute the art and passion of fishing with so many quotable statements. As an example (and my only one foisted on you here), I give you the Gospels, in which Jesus made His disciples “fishers of men.”
But regarding the fevered mind bit, let me say that a few hours of casting a fly or cranking a lure—or more times than not ramming the butt of a pole in the sand or creek bank, drowning worms and lying back quietly to consider the universe, or doze—has always been worth more to me than Freud, Jung, Adler or more importantly: Epictetus. The world is a busy, crazy place, my good fellow, and while organizing one’s life is crucial to success, taking a break: unstructured, unobsessed with the main chance for awhile, calm and unhurried yet concentrating on one’s self and enjoying what one is doing for its own sake—this is not merely balm but also rejuvenation.
I believe you will go on to great success in life. I believe you will get there by hard and joyous work (if it isn’t joyous, don’t do it). I believe you will continue to make your parents as proud of you as you are, I presume, pleased with them. And I believe you will have a happy life. But I also believe that you will need to learn the value of play as panacea to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And for me, fishing is the sovereign play. Fishing recharges your batteries. And playing at it can help you in many parts of your overall life.
Louis Armstrong. Mr. Wheat might have ended his meditation with the joyful incantation of Louis Armstrong about Gone Fishin’:
I’ll tell you why I can’t find
Goin’ Fishin’. Which reminds us. We’re all gone for a few weeks, so you will be spared our bad puns for a while. And, yes, we’re goin’ fishin’.
P.S. You will find a few fishing books worth your attention on the Global Province. See “Trout Around the World.” See “Great Fly Fishing Books” in “Global Lists.” Howell Raines, the now deposed editor of the New York Times, is on the list, and we hope he is out in the streams again, even if they are running a little dry now, to recapture equanimity.
P.P.S. James Honore’s In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed has been quite a hit outside the United States, and slower to catch on here in the fast lane. He’s a Canadian journalist who got his inspiration rushing somewhere, while he had a few spare moments in an airport. Of course, there’s some irony in the fact that he is talking about a movement: what we are looking for is a lack of movement, not a call to arms. He wants movement; we want time and the world to stand still.
P.P.P.S. Our favorite existentialist, Heraclitus, informs us that we can’t step in the same river twice. But we intend to try. All we have to do is slow down the river. Then there’s the story of the sloth that got attacked by a slug. At the police station, the sloth was asked to recount the whole incident, but he could not. “It all happened too fast for me.”
P.P.P.P.P.S. The ironic Scottish novelist Muriel Spark offers up the perfect model for business conduct in Curriculum Vitae, her autobiography. Early on, she got a secretarial job at 106 Princes Street at Edinburgh’s William Small & Sons, a fine women’s clothier. Working for the elderly owner, she enjoyed “Mr. Small’s leisurely dictation, punctuated as it was by scraps of meditative philosophy.” “His son, Gordon, a tall, handsome and agreeable young man of thirty who now ran the business, would occasionally come in, play the piano for a while, and go out again.” “Another way in which we passed the dreamy hours was by coping with his considerable list of charities.” “All the time I was at Small’s I never tired of soaking up the mixed atmosphere of luxury, real elegance and silliness.” She spent her last years in Italy, the very home of artful domesticity.
Copyright 2007 GlobalProvince.com