Once in a while I suddenly remember some past naïve belief of mine, and then I wince, shake my head, and say: I guess we all retain a few strange beliefs for a while, like how a box of dry food bits retains some bigger pieces, or a few big trophy deer survive longer—it happens. Naïve beliefs are nothing to feel badly about.
I used to have strange beliefs around “effort,” just like that innocent horse, in the “children’s” novel Animal Farm, by George “Nineteen Eightyfour” Orwell, an obliging horse who would keep trying to work harder: past 100 percent effort, to 105, 110 and so forth. Today I feel contempt if a company spokesman proudly announces such mathematically impossible demands. Orwell’s poor horse kept agreeing to “do more with less.” Then I think, one day, he dropped dead in his harness.
Whenever I read that phrase, “more with less” in the newspaper I feel frustration and despair. Don’t people “get it”? The cold equations are clear: In global terms, we will never be as competitive as we were in the post-war years, before the sudden “mysterious” 1970’s inflation, an inflation that has since moderated but which, due to vested government interests, is never going to go away. Society will always have less… It logically follows that to say we can “do more,” or even do “the same,” is to say our parents and people of the Nineteen seventies were idiots. Not so. They liked maximum profits as much as we do, they were already doing about as well as they could.
It’s queer: If I had the strange belief that I should “try hard,” I also had the belief that I should be like a machine, trying equally hard every hour. In fact, I thought, if only I had enough willpower, I wouldn’t really need any time for recreation, I mean, don’t winners like Horatio Alger and Benjamin Franklin work hard long hours? Right up until bedtime? Perhaps it was to counter society’s lingering Puritanical beliefs, lingering past the Great Depression, that suddenly in the 1970’s biorhythm charts became popular. There were charts in the newspaper, right next to the horoscope.
Speaking of “lingering past the Great Depression,” here’s my pet peeve: Today’s generation has forgotten the Depression my poor parents lived through; I get irritated every time I read about some critic of architecture disparaging the “new exciting” buildings of my youth, a style they now call “brutalism.” Every city has a few of those modern concrete—not brick—blocky buildings. Well, in my day, some new buildings were, as they would say in today’s advertising, “Modern yet sensible.” “Daring, yet not costly.” “Economical yet space age.” We didn’t dare make the buildings anymore space age than they were, it just wouldn’t feel right: like putting wasteful amounts of food on the table, or like clothing fabric in China being wasted on collars and cuffs and ankles. — Somebody cried once from viewing my painting by Stephen Lowe of a young Chinese woman walking into the wind wearing patched clothes. —The foolish young critics who disparage brutalism should consider the times, as in “the temporal context.”
As for trying hard, even soldiers, playing for very high stakes, can’t be equally effective at all times. They have a rhythm to their days, their weeks and their “training year.” Napoleon, I dimly recall, said his soldiers would not be any good for fighting at two o’clock in the morning. He’s right; I know that now. So let me be gentle on myself for being human. It’s OK to “waste money” on oil paintings, on pastries, to have our highs and lows, and never mind going around with a strained “life is real, life is earnest” look… unless you’re a big bit in a cereal box. … …And then life will break you small, soon enough.
As I trudge through life, older and tired, with my strangest beliefs having fallen by the roadside, I carry two sane thoughts: One is “Don’t worry, be gentle.”
Another is “Unhappily, I think we compare ourselves to what we are like at our best, forgetting we are usually not at our best.”
~I first saw my painting in Victoria, on rice paper. How awed I was, decades later, to see it displayed in Calgary. I snapped it up, as a limited edition print. It’s called Wind Blows Ten Thousand Strands. (Of hair)
~Regarding office politics, I was told the problem with always working your maximum is you would have nothing left in reserve for doing “horse trades.”
~Regarding idealism, my for-profit agency, by trying real hard, keeps the administration costs down to seven percent, like the War Amps do, to free up more money for paying the staff. This when the industry standard is twenty percent. Comically, this flummoxed the government when it came time to give province-wide raises, as the civil servants initially underestimated the amount of new pay our agency needed; tragically, this meant our agency shot itself in the foot, because: when the government announced across-the-board cuts of one percent? We had no fat to chop: We started shaving calcium off our bones.
~Note to my brother-in-law, a hunter: OK, maybe the survival of a trophy deer is not coincidence, but I was stuck for examples; I didn’t want to leave an innocent cereal box standing out there all alone.
~I’m amused by a story out of Vietnam. The U.S. army was using dogs for sentries, patrolling and tracking, but there weren’t enough of them. At a meeting of officers, a general sternly suggested using the animals for longer hours. A worried young lieutenant burst out, “Oh, no sir! You can work a man like a dog, but you can’t work a dog like a man!”