2006September30 Do it right and don’t bother me.

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

[started on 30 September 2006 / completed and posted on 27 December 2006]

This entry, at this writing, for Per Diem (in September) for the first time in about a month, deserves a brief preface. Having just read that one-page interview they do in every issue of the The New York Times Sunday Magazine, this week with Warren Beatty, I am reminded by his light way with the irrepressible Ms. Solomon to lighten up myself. I have a tendency to laugh at things and people, sometimes (often?) inappropriately—even when doing so with myself as the object—and I repress it. So I often, I think, come off as serious, overly so perhaps, if not stern, severe, and censorious. That’s not right. And I really really believe in doing things right or not doing them at all. This being the subject of this posting, let’s see how I can do. Especially without the aid of toxic substances.

I have been called many things that to me are of a piece. Control-freak, perfectionist, obsessive, fastidious, overly scrupulous, exacting, demanding, hypercritical. And these were likely meant as compliments. I may indeed be all these things, perhaps at once, which may explain my frequent end-of-the-day exhaustion. It may even be the pejorative meaning that I think is attached to the use of any of these phrases and descriptors is appropriate. However, I protest that my own motives are far more positive. The behavior elicited in me is possibly unavoidable.

We live in a world of progressive bustle. The last time I checked there
were still only 24 hours in the standard day. Yet, I think most of us,
at least most of us Americans, are called upon, if only reflexively, to
do more and more in what has always been the same time span.

This works as a stratagem insofar as the results are measured in
terms of that revered index of our power and glory as the world’s
greatest economic force: productivity. I hold no one’s productivity
against them. Some of my best friends, and many more of the people I
truly hold dear, are dervishes of duty. Rich or poor, and I can think
of at least two industrious souls who may, in fact, be even less than
poor; they aspire less to the progress such a condition would signify,
and more to even greater levels of activity, regardless of the personal
financial impact (they say
they want or need more money—but the years accrue and the dollars don’t;
let us leave unstated how they maintain even a semblance of solvency).

Busy. Busy. Busy. My friends are so busy. I would suppose that the
rest of the world, where most of them—and in a sense not I—reside, is
at least as much, if not more so. Else what could inspire such frenzy?

But one other thing is true, and I don’t mind saying it, even though
these are my friends (I have heard or read the maxim 50 times, if I’ve
had it suggested once, that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask
permission), that in most instances something suffers in the process of
getting things done. In short, mediocrity abounds. Shortcuts are
rampant. Something is bound to suffer. And what usually suffers in my
observation and experience is the quality of the product (it’s obvious,
but I’ll say it: product, productivity…).

Let me state something as an example. I am admired for my cooking.
More importantly, I am sought out for it, or my apparent knowledge of
things culinary. I admit only to liking to eat well, and I am the first
and best one to appreciate my own cooking. If I were someone else,
likely the first approbative thing I’d say is, “I really like his
cooking.” Maybe the only thing about myself I could find to say something nice
about. Be that as it may.

There’s a reason for this, I believe. It transcends passion, or
interest. It may, in part, be despite what I’ll call an aptitude for
the methods and apparatus of the cuisinier. Anyone who has an instinct
for cooking competently can, after all, make a decent scrambled egg,
let’s say, or a pie crust. However even more than this is required.

What is required, I suggest strongly, is a dedication to doing the
right thing, which in cooking is doing the whole thing. From mincing
the fresh garlic, to making a béchamel from scratch, from taking two
hours to make a fish fumet from the raw ingredients, to sealing the lid
of the daubier with a corde de pâte so it can cook for the longest time over the lowest flame you can coax gingerly from your range.

The only thing that assuages my guilt about opening a can of peeled
whole tomatoes (and the common wisdom is correct, only those from
certain regions of Italy, and perhaps only certain varieties of
tomatoes are absolutely most suitable) instead of skinning and chopping
into a concassé fresh plum tomatoes is the knowledge that in my neck of
the woods of our fair city, Cambridge, the only decent Roma tomatoes
are to be had at the end of the tragically short season toward the end
of summer. And, it also means a shlep to farm stands in what always seem
the remotest parts of Concord, 45 minutes away in traffic consistently mainly of productive people scurrying into the city or out of it. And these are barely adequate ways of mitigating the deeper guilt of not having grown and tended the tomatoes myself under the appropriate conditions of soil and sun. But there’s a limit, I suppose, to any notion of doing it right, and a certain element of trust in the dedication of others to the same objective is required or output would drop precipitately close to zero on an individual basis, not to mention the prospect of death without such trust (see remarks below about the primordial spirit of early village culture).

Even the most untested of palates detects a difference in a dish
meticulously carried through each essentially simple step until the
parts are brought together in a whole. The diner may not be able to
discern, and hence articulate, the sometimes elusive sensory evidence
of individual ingredients. However, they know that what they are eating
did not come either out of a box with the Stouffer’s brand on it, or
off a plate at a chain restaurant.

The whole country is in thrall to prepared food (well, it is less
work, but to what purpose?; however hard I worked at a profession in my life, I always found things to do right even outside the demands of my clients), even as much as restaurants, struggling to stay alive
profitably, turn to prepared ingredients: content to have consistency,
in the absence of freshness or any modicum of distinctive and qualities
worthy of a quest—with the attendant extra effort.

I put it to you that, irrespective of the subjective elements (and
talking about food, and appreciating food is a dodgy metaphorical
context for this philosophical question concerning a facet of the
nature of truth: namely what’s the value of doing it right?),
productivity is not useful as a simply quantitative measure.

Bureaucrats may handle more forms per day than ever before, but the
life of citizens is not improved. Lines are no shorter, etc. A computer manufacturer may sell many
more units in less time, and for less money, but the failure rate — and warranty repair rate —
progresses. The rapidity with which a repair is effected is
shortened—by the mere expedient of simply replacing the entire product,
rather than actually fixing the broken component—so nothing lasts,
performing its function reliably through months and years.

To bring this musing to the current date, just within the past week
of December, a news story appeared wherein the proud U.S. owner turned in
his car, a Saab automobile, that had lasted for over a million miles as
recorded on the odometer. His reward, with only a little prodding of
the manufacturer before their PR engine could be revved to full
apprehension of the message, was a free brand new current Saab model of his
choosing. The presumptive conclusion is that Saabs somehow stand for
reliability and longevity—better markers, I would maintain, than mere
productivity, which is measured in automobile plants by the number of
units that roll off the archetypal assembly line. However, the rarity
of the event (and in a vehicle which has seen extensive renovation and
repair, having survived at least three major accidents, which
underwriters might otherwise have written, not just under, but off, as
a total loss) belies the ostensible conclusion. If anything, the car is
a monument (and truly that, as it is being placed apparently in a Saab
traveling exhibition, and ultimately to be lodged in the Smithsonian
Institution, as I understand it) to the persistence of the owner, if
not as well, his fortitude, having racked up so many miles during his
career. And this soon to be fabled vehicle was not the only one on
which he recorded hundreds of thousands of miles on the road.

No, this is not an indicator of the continuing quality of
manufactured goods (and let us remember the all important element of
context: Saab is, in effect, owned by General Motors, soon to cede its
long time, and rarely challenged, title of world’s largest automobile
manufacturer to Toyota, which common wisdom says, these days, truly
does do it right, with vehicles that last and last, with little
attention, little care and little maintenance). This Saab is the
opposite of a lemon, which is a rare occurrence in the Toyota annual
product output, and is a peach—equally rare. If you went looking for a
bad Toyota, it would be as difficult as, and as uncommon, as looking for
a Saab (or an Audi, my personal bête noir, or an Alfa) that is
guaranteed to keep on going like that Energizer bunny (the icon of a
product that, ironically, has a shelf life and a predictable
performance life, wherein a guarantee to perform and finally fail after
sufficient usage is a mark, perhaps a perverse mark, of what has come
to be the meaning of doing it right in a disposable consumer society).

Done right, a meal becomes memorable, to be added, one hopes, to a
succession of memories of such meals—the reputation of the cook
guaranteed. And it is only possible, I say, with dedication to a simple
and arduous principle of application, repeated application, that is,
always to work “hard as hell,” in the words of the recently departed
Jerry Ford, our 38th president. Done right, a car becomes an object of
reverence, in part for the multiplicity of instances, of evidence, that
doing it right is a habit, not a happy accident. There are innumerable
Citroën 2CV (deux chevaux,
named in recognition of the modest power output of a doughty, and
strangely dowdy, or perhaps homely, car that seems always to operate
under the most adverse of conditions and seemingly forever; it ain’t a
Bentley, but there’s a lot more of them still on the road, even though
taken out of production finally in 1990, after 41 years; 51, if you consider the first prototype was produced in 1939, before the war—and for a somewhat lower sticker price than the Bentley; also, I’ve looked, and
testimonials to the Bentley are short on the ground) still chugging
away, both on the streets of Paris, and on the départementale roads of rural France. Which is why the deux chevaux is a symbol of the indomitable, and the principle of doing it right. And the Bentley is merely a symbol of extreme wealth. Either way, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

I have been cooking for a very long time—I just realized I’ve been quite
serious about it, without seeking a living at it, for over 30 years,
closer to 35—and I realized long since that I do it, to some degree for
myself, but more satisfyingly for at least one other person, and, more
often than that, for a table of half-a-dozen, or more, happy faces
around a table, anticipating the landing of a proverbial gustatory
eagle on our dining table. I’ve realized the satisfaction comes less
from the atavistic need to nurture our friends and loved ones (and to
perpetuate what I stubbornly believe is still the same ethos that
cultural anthropologists tell us is at the root of the longevity and
persistence of so-called primitive societies—from the Eskimo to the
Trobriand Islanders—wherein, for example, the craftsmanship and
attention to detail of the artisans of sea-going craft ensures the
return of the village hunters and fishers, alive themselves, and
brimming with their catch).

How many operators of robot welders in auto manufacturing plants are
thinking about the ineluctably anonymous users of their “output?” How
many are consciously mindful that the comfort, safety, and economic
well-being of the users of what they make is dependent finally on that
very consciousness, expressed as "doing it right," and blowing the
whistle on any part of the operation that doesn’t demonstrate this
fundamental principle? I daresay there are more such individuals
turning out Toyotas, than Chevrolets or Fords—no matter how desperate
the senior managers of these superannuated ailing giants have become
trying to revive a spirit that informed and defined that principle for
the rest of the world, suddenly turned to mechanical means to meet
ever-growing mass needs for quality goods.

It is too easily a bitter exercise for you, but, starting with the tools and
appliances in your kitchen, and proceeding to the garage or street
where you park your vehicle, and proceeding through every corner of
every room, and every aspect of your equipage intended to get you
through your day: your gadgets, your underwear and socks, and the hat
on top of your head, take account of what seems to have been done
right. The questions to ask are easy. Can I depend on it? And for a
very long time? (the span to be defined by you, in terms of your sense
of the fleeting nature of your life and its chief eternal constituent,
the ever present now of time) Will it always work as you expect, until
it fails utterly, having been useful to the end, like the old-fashioned
notion of a good and faithful horse or cow? Was it worth its price, and
does its value increase, the longer it lasts? Are you still happy with
it, if in a different way, as much as when you tore it out of its
If you find yourself answering in the affirmative, and consistently as
you trace in your mind every object in every repository of your life,
you are lucky. You live a life that is, partially, defined by that
principle of doing it right, the achievement of which is a continuous
struggle—a satisfying if not, at times, exhausting one, but a struggle.

And I envy you.

[completed 27 December 2006, the date of posting]

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