Wednesday, December 8, 2010

moral art

O gods . . .
Come down and redeem us from virtue.
--Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Dolores”

I have my grandpa’s knees. When I stand up, I channel him.

He hiked around his farm pointing to every shed and fence-post. His afternoon’s joy was to walk into banks, warehouses and stores where he was known as a customer or a creditor. “How you doin,’ Mr. C?” they would say.

But he flinched when he stood up from a chair. Bent at knees and waist, he could only shuffle his first dozen paces. Knee reconstruction might have extended his life. They can do these things much better nowadays, and someday I may schedule such repairs for myself.

If you do business in Manhattan and you are not wealthy, you walk. That’s why fewer Manhattans than Iowans are obese: you can’t drive from door to door. On every workday I walk a couple of miles. I go up and down hills. I climb two dozen or so staircases. This is not easy for the man with his grandpa’s knees.

But I will not be downhearted from a bit of ache. There are blue gelcaps available at the pharmacy. And there is of course my skill and discipline of movement.

I took my physical education not as a kid on playing fields, but as an adult in the performance studio, desperate to appear in public without humiliation. I wanted virtuoso skills, but the skills that made most difference were humble ones – speaking with words rather than against them, falling down and getting up, sitting and standing, walking and waiting. Knowing when to do a thing and when not yet. Doing one thing at a time, and completely. Learning that the strongest way is also easiest.

Transferring from the L to the Lex at Union Square, I must climb three flights of stairs before descending one. I’ve lost a few pounds a year for several years now. I think I left them at Union Square.

I look up that flight of stairs, and I know that when the moment comes I must not hold back. I imagine myself already at the summit. I must sweep to the top not in so many steps but in a single impulse. I put my knees and ankles and hips and feet in the same plane, I lean into the task, and launch. This is the way to get it done, rising above obstacles of age, decay and god-given awkwardness. How wise I am, how brave.

But now some idiot has stopped on the fifth step. In a red rage I halt. Nobody gave the order to halt, you bozo!

Sometimes the malefactor is an able young person, dawdling in a daydream, reading her blackberry, lounging up the stairs in what she imagines is a style. But sometimes it’s someone older and more overweight than I. Sometimes the malingerer has a cane and a limp.

Get over it! I’m no spring chicken either. I’m tired and I have places yet to go. I’ve got my grandpa’s knees to deal with, and I was doing a really good job until you dropped the ball. Do you see me halting and huffing and puffing, making a display of my difficulty? But you – you’ve made this worse for both of us. You’ve made my graceful ascent into ten laborious steps. By what right do you sabotage my art?

Such, in the flash of an instant, before civilization comes to my rescue, is my inner text. I learn two lessons in the face of my own savagery. First, that my immortal soul is most at risk as I am trotting out my virtues. Second, that there is a line of difference, below which suffering has no reward, and heroism no traction. If you live above the line, you’re tempted to cut no slack for those who live below it. Why can’t they just suck it up and work harder?

The great hymns to Hard Work are sung by people who have no experience of it. They ride on horseback through deathly fields of labor, work that wrecks the body and breaks the soul, while cheating the worker of his sacrifice’s value. Too big to fail, the riders smirk at those who provide their luxury, imagining that the difference between I and hey you there is one of character. They dream in the saddle that they are self-made.

I am both right and wrong in my moral art of stair-climbing. Right because I ought to transcend my pain rather than fetishizing it. Wrong because others lack the luxury of my choices. For some, there is no return to the right way of using their limbs, no reward for the discipline of climbing stairs, no virtuous cycle of weight loss and vascular gain but only a deathly spiral of unrefreshed fatigue and tissue damage. I ought to carry myself erect, but some cannot. “Another day older and deeper in debt,” goes the song.

I am one of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “managerial middle class.” We are bought off in genteel poverty with a fantasy of mobility, convinced that we have survived so far, and will some day rise above our mortal danger, by talent and effort. That’s the way someone wants it. We’re exploitable. We fear that with a single slip we’ll fall below the line, our floor that is a ceiling for others, below which virtue meets no reward. There are many slaves who work for wages. Imagining that we are in control, we can be cruel to those denied the fantasy.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Shall the truth make us free?

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