Sunday, June 28, 2009

Like Atoms in A Fugue

I had a friend from Vietnam once. She used to braid my hair and get bored halfway and leave it in a mess. I had the pleasure of hosting her recently when she came to Macon for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Of course she got the date wrong and arrived a week before the festival proper, so she left frustrated and infestive, as it were. Admittedly, it did not surprise me. She was never the organized, prescient kind. In fact she is the type who in America would be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed a fistful of pills. In Vietnam, I suppose, she is just a regular girl.

I am the first to admit that I do not have patience for everything. I remember a time when I did, however. Learning how to work my antediluvian Russian sewing machine was a superhuman effort and I, god knows, got to know all its whims. Now, however, I find myself hitting the imaginary CTRL + F just to find my keys in my room. Just find them, damn it, where are they! And I jitter my leg like a madwoman.

It ought to have been the other way around. It is children who are impulsive and instinctual. They do not care to know how things work but rather to ask and ask and ask and remember nothing, just so they can ask again. But as we grow up and ascertain the workings of the world – learn the settings of the microwave, train ourselves to check the oil in the car – we cultivate patience for details. At least in theory. The situation de facto is that people skim texts rather than read them. They buy half-cooked foods and cakes-in-a-box rather than cook for real. Holes in socks and missing buttons are a common occurrence, because who is familiar with the artful craft of sewing nowadays? My foreboding Media Studies prof would be eager to asseverate that people are becoming more and more mechanical, inattentive and essentially robotic.

I am skeptical about that thesis, however. It seems unlikely that the patience of the world has run down the drain with the dregs of technological development. Patience does not come in a limited amount, like natural gas. The popular theory is that patience has been eroded by convenience, like rocks yield their substance under the abrasive pressure of water. Since we have dishwashers and microwave ovens and vacuum cleaners, we can relax more around the house. Since we have Walmart our cooking is minimal. The cars that meow in our driveways render obsolete the uncivilized bustle of riding the bus, waiting for the damn thing, smelling the proximity of the other passengers. How primitive it was, back in the day. How far we have come. So if our patience is no longer being taxed by these nuisances, where does it all go?

Well I’ll be damned if here in the South people don’t spend 70 per cent of their existence smiling. Perhaps this is where our resources go: making small talk, stretching our faces, getting along with people. Does this amity come naturally? On the contrary, it is an effort. Unlike the detail-oriented efforts of the past that belonged to rustic living – a self-made dress, a home-made birthday cake – living in harmony with others is today an effort “en gros,” like a full work-out for our persona. I am convinced that the concept of “persona” is a recent addition to our vernacular, born from this fecund pressure of social protocol. We have to contrive to be a certain somebody and this full-on pantomime sucks in all our patience like a vacuum. Who is peeved every day when coming home from work, say Aye. Why, it is just about anyone who works in an office.

I recognize it here, in our holiday house. Being in the world is exhausting. When you kick off your shoes and collapse in a chair it feels like being released from prison. It is only “home” that you feel safe enough to relinquish the phony accoutrements that are requisite everywhere else. It can be disconcerting to know somebody in “home” mode after you have known him in “social” mode. Sentences without smiles, curt comments that betray ominously irate underlayers: these are things that are not acceptable in the work place. But they are inside, frothing, because we are human after all. So they have to find a crevice to seep out.

If you live with people who work in an office it may seem sometimes, because of the illusion of artificial habitude, that they are mad at you. They might let dishes pile up in the sink, let dust gather on furniture, do things that say “I don’t have patience for this.” But they are not angry or irritated – they are just being normal. Their reservoir of patience has been pilfered by a compulsory, sophisticated species of decorum that encourages people to be less human and more zombie. Patience is not extinct. It is still there but it has been derailed, like a hijacked train, toward objectives such as: must look good in society, must do a good job, must get along with everybody. With this mask of unnatural harmony draining our resources of patience, no wonder we need antidepressants for the
natural, uncontrived side of life.

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