Friday, April 03, 2009

`A Failure to Be Enchanted'

Almost the only depressing part of my job in schools is witnessing the institutionalization of waste. Put aside intellectual waste for now and consider food. I supervised three lunch periods in a grade school on Wednesday and saw wheelbarrow loads of fresh consumable food bagged with the trash. The school menu is weirdly contradictory. As a sop to the nutrition police the lunch line begins with fresh vegetables and fruit – broccoli, carrots, Romaine lettuce, apples, oranges. A lot of kids have been indoctrinated: They load up their recyclable plastic trays with fiber and minerals and that’s usually where they stay -- on the tray. Already they’ve learned the usefulness of self-deception.

The entrĂ©es on Wednesday were corn dogs and small pizzas resembling quiche. For our overseas readers let me explain the American corn dog: a breaded hot dog deep-fried on a stick. I’ve eaten less than one in my life and that was out of professional obligation, while covering a county fair as a reporter in upstate New York. I wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Two bites told me (the first missed the hot dog).

I didn’t see one meal consumed in its entirety. Lunch period typically lasts 25 minutes and most of that time is taken up with fooling around, not expedited food consumption. Afterwards, the bags of waste resemble compost or hog slop. There’s a separate garbage can for leftover white and chocolate milk. As they did when I was in public school, kids complain chronically about the quality of the food.

When it comes to waste I’m hardly blameless. Earlier in the day I used a die-cut machine for the first time. I punched out shapes from construction paper for use on bulletin boards – flowers, stars, umbrellas. Some of the punches were dull and I wasted reams of colored paper, tossed into a recycling can. In the middle of this a teacher asked, “Is this recyclable?” She held a transparent block of plastic with a steel spring inside. I said, “Why not?” and she dumped it in the plastics can.

“Without gratitude there is no happiness.”

That’s how Theodore Dalrymple concludes his essay in the latest New English Review, “Attitude or Gratitude?” He, too, writes of waste and its depressing significance. Don’t be alarmed: The good doctor hasn’t turned into a Gore-ite neo-puritan busybody, as he’s eager to clarify:

“My dislike of waste does not arise from any appreciation of the ecological need to preserve, heal or (worse still) save the planet. I wish the planet, as I wish humanity, no harm, but find it too large and nebulous an entity to have any genuine feelings towards it: Gaia means nothing to me. And even if it could be proved that wastage was exceedingly good for the planet, I still should not like it.”

I share Dalrymple’s nuanced understanding of the matter. Waste is a phenomenon that induces self-righteousness in all of us, meaning it’s readily politicized. (I’m reminded of Thoreau’s journal entry for April 24, 1852: “That which interests a town or city or any large number of men is always something trivial, as politics.”) Like me, Dalrymple isn’t writing an ecological screed. He’s writing not about waste but contrasting ways of looking at the world and its relation to the individual. We might call these approaches the spiritual and the self-centered (my words, not his):

“After a little reflection, I came to the conclusion that my dislike of waste arises from a whole approach to life that seems to me crude and wretched. For unthinking waste – and waste on our scale must be unthinking – implies a taking-for-granted, a failure to appreciate: not so much a disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted by it in the first place. To consume without appreciation (which is what waste means) is analogous to the fault of which Sherlock Holmes accused Doctor Watson, in A Scandal in Bohemia: You see, but you do not observe.”

We’re back to gratitude, our ethical touchstone, as a prerequisite of happiness. Dalrymple reminds us of Samuel Johnson, whom he reveres. I see a veiled allusion to Johnson in this essay – “touching for the King’s evil (scrofula)” – and am reminded of an observation reported by Boswell:

“That man is never happy for the present is so true, that all his relief from unhappiness is only forgetting himself for a little while. Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment."

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