The eighth in series of "Unresearched Essays," short, one topic essays, written using only information from memory, that perhaps provide an opportunity to shed a little light on who I am.
This is not an opinion piece, or at least it is not intended as an opinion piece. There is a time and place for that, but this series of articles is supposed to be a kind intellect-baring exercise, one in which I explore the depth of my knowledge without resorting to the internet or books. It's been a bit disconcerting. There is so much information that I "know" that is simply stuff I take for granted. The only reason I step on an airplane, for instance, is that I know it will fly, and in the broadest, most general way, I know how it flies -- thrust from engines, wing shape that redirects airflow to increase air pressure on the underside of the wings causing lift, streamlined design to minimize air resistance ... but the reality is that I don't know why the particular plane to which I am entrusting my life will fly. I don't know how it's put together, I don't know if it is properly maintained, I wouldn't even know how to turn it on. That's the case, sadly, with most of the technology and processes that make up my typically suburban American lifestyle. I know that when I flush the commode, that waste goes off into a distribution system that takes it to processing plants to clean it up enough to be discharged back into the water supply that is then retrieved, cleaned again, and distributed back to the faucets of people like myself who assume that what we get is safe to drink, although once again, I could not begin to tell you how to do all of that.
When I look at all the things that constitute my life and realize how little I actually know of the nuts and bolts of what's going around me, it can feel like I really don't know much at all, yet my head is filled with stuff. I know how to make a meatloaf for example -- in a large bowl, mix together two eggs, two cups of milk, one and a half cups (uncooked) rolled oats, two teaspoon each salt and pepper, and a tablespoon or so of dried onion flakes. Add two to three pounds of ground beef, mix, and place in an oven safe baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. I can also maintain the proper chemical balance that is necessary to keep swimming pool water clear and sparkling, and I've built wooden runnerduck tables for use on the patio and in the living room. No, I don't know why they are called runnerduck. I can change flat tires and burnt out light bulbs, fix jammed kitchen sink garbage disposals and indeed replace kitchen sink garbage disposals if necessary, construct garden planter boxes, and gather, clean and cook garden snails, or as the French would call them, escargot. I could go on. And on. And on. I haven't even begun to list how many places I've been or the sights I've seen, the power tools I can use, how to drive in the snow, or how to sort through the jumble of wires behind the entertainment center in the living room.
Here is my dilemma: when I consider what it is that I know, I feel inadequate. Why is that?
I took my granddaughter, who is a senior in high school, to breakfast the other day. We have a good relationship, she and I. I didn't really know my grandparents. Both my grandmothers were gone while I was still an infant, my mother's father never spoke English and I never spoke Polish, and to my father's father, I was simply one of literally dozens of grandchildren. He was a kind man, but I don't think he ever knew my name. Both men died when I was still in grade school, so I really have no template for what a relationship with a granddaughter should be. Fortunately (from my perspective at least) my granddaughter and her parents live with us, so I have had the pleasure of seeing her grow up. We are comfortable with each other. The conversation we were having was wide ranging, and at one point, touched upon what the new season looked like at the Gallo Theatre. The Gallo is a community gem that brings a wide range of concerts and plays to the area, each year hosting two or three national touring companies of Broadway productions as well as acting as the home of a variety of local groups. The Modesto Symphony Orchestra calls Gallo home, as does Townsend Opera Company and several community theatre groups. In addition to providing opportunities for local exposure to national and international talent, the Gallo has ample opportunity for local talent to experience live theater.
Have you ever wanted to do any acting, I asked my granddaughter. Not really, she said, and proceeded to lay out the formidable odds against the possibility of success in the field. To succeed, she reasoned, you would have had to have connections in the industry, you would have had to have started very young, and you would have had to make a commitment to the craft that was pretty much all-consuming, and she didn't feel like she wanted to sacrifice her whole life to that.
I didn't ask her if she wanted to become a rich and famous movie star, I said, I just wanted to know if she thought acting on stage, like maybe in a local production at the Gallo, was something she found appealing. Oh, she said, no. I think it interesting that she obviously had considered whether it was worth becoming rich and famous by acting even though she apparently had no interest in acting itself.
Part of the reason I feel inadequate when I consider what I know is that for me, knowing means doing, and if I am honest with myself, I will admit that I value doing almost solely on the basis of earning -- if I don't get paid for it, it's means it's not worth pursuing. (Incidentally, I am not going to address the subject of sex for which I have never paid nor been paid, the implications of which might be worth pursuing at another time.) So apparently my granddaughter would consider doing something she didn't like if it made her rich and famous, and I won't do something even if I like it because it won't make me rich and famous. The net result of all of this is that neither of us is too terribly busy, so we have time to go out to breakfast together.
I do realize you don't always have to be paid for something to make it worthwhile. I worked with a man who had a job that paid the bills, but he was unremarkable in that job -- someone whose review would be filled with a lot of "meets job requirements" and a few "needs improvement." Yet, he was a remarkable fisherman. He could and would on any day go out to the streams in the area and quickly catch his limit of trout, and trout are cunning creatures that do not get caught easily. His freezer was filled with beautifully prepared trout fillets, and he shared those generously with others. I admired his skill, but found it ironic that he was so middling at that which earned him a living and excelled so at a hobby.
Retirement has allowed me to debunk at least part of my own argument about how to value things since my retirement has been a very busy time of exploring activities that I judged I never really had time for when I was working. I still look for a "return on investment" from the activities I choose, but a paycheck is no longer the only means of measuring that return. I have not, for example, taken up painting since 1) I have no talent for painting, and 2) since I have no talent I could not produce anything that has any semblance of value even to me. Cooking, on the other hand, pays off nicely in the form of some very good meals while achieving a cost avoidance by not eating in restaurants. It's like getting paid, but tastier. I do a lot more of the maintenance items around the house too, things like appliance repair and gardening. I do these things gladly, and no doubt there is a degree of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a task, and it saves money, but honestly, if the damn dishwasher didn't need repaired, I wouldn't be unhappy.
So what's at the root of the undercurrent of angst when I look at the body of knowledge I've acquired over my life? Is it, as my wife suggests, that I am too hard on myself, that I have for no good reason a poor self-image? Her opinion is in part a reaction to my hopelessly romantic notion that I have never done anything to deserve such a good woman, and she, although not a vain woman, who has a confidence in her own abilities that I have always admired, insists that she has excellent taste in men, and I should not insult her by thinking she settled for anything but the best. Or is what I feel the purely fatuous disappointment of the former beauty queen who realizes that she was unable to parley her fleeting fame into the world peace that she naïvely hoped for?
I don't know. Fortunately it's irrelevant. My inadequacy is a feeling, and as psychology science would tell us, feelings are neither right nor wrong. It is what you do because of those feelings that is of concern. Temptation and sin is analogous situation -- having the thought run through your head that you would like to ram the car that cut you off and drive it into the guardrail is an almost daily temptation for commuters, but in the vast majority of cases, you just blow it off -- no harm, no foul. If you someday snap and do in fact take aggressive action against the other driver, then your actions (not the temptation) enter into the realm of sin.* For the most part, my feelings of inadequacy do not materially affect my actions. They are a blemish more than a condition, a single dandelion in a sea of fescue.
As much as this is supposed to be an article about what I know, it ends up being about what I don't know. I can not adequately explain why I feel inadequate. I suspect, but do not know, that my feelings are pretty much exactly what everyone feels, that we only imagine that others are always confident. It's like believing that brave people are never scared, yet every brave person I know is scared, but they choose to do what must be done. My wife, as if often the case, is probably right -- I'm too hard on myself. What I know is "sufficient unto the day."
* While it may be reasonably clear that an action can be right or wrong, it is not so easy to judge its sinfulness. Catholic teaching is that sin is an offense against God, and for something to be truly sinful, it must be of serious matter, committed with full knowledge of the nature of the actions, and done with full consent. All three conditions must be met before an action, no matter how right or wrong, good or bad, can be judged a sin.