Gnomicon 180

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  180
Thursday 8 November 2012
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The quickest way to become troubled is to be concerned with
what people are gonna say about your life and your work.
Ahmad Jamal(2 Jul 1930 –  )

To my ear, untutored in music but quite passionate about jazz – especially jazz piano – there is no living artist more accomplished than Ahmad Jamal.  Beyond count are the hours I have spent listening to his bewitching performances, and though it is definitely as a superb musician that he is deservedly known, the comment above captures for me something essential about being American, or, perhaps, just human.

Although born an American citizen I did not set foot in American until I was nine.  Even before I picked up some English and could catch the drift of what teachers and other students were saying, I have the vivid recollection of fixating on an aspect of what struck me at a preverbal level as vitally significant to these strange people:  popularity.  And I have never forgotten that.  Indeed, throughout my life, that theme keeps coming back, running like a leit-motif in and out of my engagements with the world.  Yes, we all want to be liked, to be – if you will – popular, first with parents and grandparents and siblings, and then with the larger world out there.  Maybe that pre-occupation with “what people are gonna say about your life and your work”, that quest for approval, is a reason so many are ‘troubled’.

I think what made me first cognizant — affirmatively cognizant – of the central importance of ‘being popular’ was the way the kids would crowd around a certain few individuals, jockeying for positions of physical contiguity and a kind of emotional acceptance as one of the privileged.  The latter were invariably attractive in the physical sense, and they were very outgoing.

Even teachers seemed to vie to be minor moons circling about these dazzling lodestars of prepubescent and teen charisma – captains of this team, class monitors of home room, head cheerleaders, senior prom queen … you remember the type, right?  I knew some of them, and of the ones I heard about later in life, not a one had amounted to much.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Is that, I asked myself early on in college, the kind of backdrop against which I wish to operate, to run my life?  For here it was pretty much a repeat of grammar school and high school, everybody jockeying for positional advantage, if at a somewhat more sophisticated level.  Graduate school was an intensified microcosm of this ‘fitting-in game’ except that the stakes were now considerably higher.  No surprise, then, that the work-a-day hustle of university faculty carving out nurturing niches in a departmental ecosystem should make one think up an oxymoron like ‘polite darwinism’.

Now, I don’t think that Ahmad Jamal had exactly that kind of thing in mind, but, I’d venture, something along those lines is not entirely off track.  Nor can I in honesty imply that I was somehow above this eager fray even as I began to realize that ‘popular’ like physically ‘beautiful’ is not something you can simply decide to get – you have it or you don’t have it, and that’s just another of life’s many inequities.  In general it seems to me that running for fifth-grade president is not – mutatis mutandis of course (e.g., cost, conventions, consequentiality) – at root all that different from running for American president:  aren’t they both essentially popularity contests where you strut in your finest fleece until you’re inside the pen and can don the normal garb that is the real you?

We’ve just endured a spectacularly dissonant example of this, yet one more riff on our quadrennial rite.

And for that rite, thank Heaven on high!

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