Wednesday, August 17, 2005


I have no idea to this day what
them two Italian ladies were
singin' about. Truth is, I don't
want to know. Some things are best
left unsaid. I like to think they
were singin' about something so
beautiful it can't be expressed in
words, and makes your heart ache
because of it.

I tell you, those voices soared.
Higher and farther than anybody in
a gray place dares to dream. It was
like some beautiful bird flapped
into our drab little cage and made
these walls dissolve away...and for
the briefest of moments -- every
last man at Shawshank felt free.

-- Red (Morgan Freeman), describing a duet from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, from The Shawshank Redemption.

Sometimes the Universe sends us a sign or two -- or maybe more -- that we've gone ever so slightly astray, and that a course correction of some sort is called for. The signs can be giant, glaring ones of the "You are about to plunge off a Really! Big! Cliff!" variety; but more often they can be small ones, so small as to be not even noticeable as signs in the first place, unless you're willing to be attuned to them in the first place. This, of course, is a double requirement: you have to be not only willing to listen to what the Universe is trying to tell you, but also you have to have enough knowledge of yourself to know what the Universe is getting at in the first place. Both are pretty hard to get a grasp of. Call it Zen, I suppose, or whatever.

You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, "I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me." The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, "Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety." But the man shouted back, "I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me." A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, "Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I'll take you to safety." But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. "Lord," he said, "I'm a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?" God said, "I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?"

-- Father Cavanagh to President Jed Bartlet, "Take this Sabbath Day", The West Wing

Today I helped some people stain a fairly large wooden fence. It was part of a charity-based volunteer day in which The Store took part, but that's not important -- I keep thinking about the fence. You see, of all the work I do these days, it suddenly occurred to me as I was driving home, after I'd dropped my friend off at her car, that that fence and its coat of stain is the most permanent thing I've done in, well, quite some time.

Our work is so damned ephemeral these days, isn't it? If we work in an office, shuffling papers back and forth and analyzing numbers, there are always new sets of numbers to study. When I worked at a pizza joint, I'd often have to close the restaurant and then open it the next day, so I'd mop the floors and then mess them up again myself eight hours later. In the sales job I had, the glow from a good sale lasted roughly from the time you hung up on the buying customer until the time you dialed the number of the next one, and the happiness of a really good sales day was gone the next morning when you walked in and saw the number next to your name on the big sales tracking board reset to zero.

But that fence, barring a disaster, will still be that pleasant shade of redwood stain for years. So what does that mean?

Well, I don't know, really. But in the course of reading blogs and watching stuff on DVD and thumbing through books lately, I'm coming across some kind of recurring theme.

More and more I question the ultimate value of any criticism whose immediate purpose is not to bring its readers into direct contact with beauty (or shorten the amount of time they spend in contact with ugliness). The purpose of my professional life is to make people happier, and I try not to let myself forget that my way of bringing it about can never be anything more than an imperfect means to a blessed end. C.S. Lewis said it better than I can: "If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him."

-- Terry Teachout

So what does Mozart have to do with Chaucer, a fictional President being scolded by his parish priest, and a freshly-stained fence? Maybe it's that art, real art, has most to do with our attempts to create real, genuine beauty, and not of the sort one sees in a starry sky or the autumn hills, but in the way we perceive those things and help others to perceive them. And maybe that's what's so permanent about our best art. Maybe that's why we still listen to Mozart: because he, along with many others, helps to remind us that, in Andy Dufresne's words, "there are places in the world that aren't made of stone".

Or maybe I just spent too much time inhaling stain fumes.

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