Maybe I’m … no, I think I’m OK

The songwriter Randy Newman can pack a lot of wisdom (and humor) into very few words. One of his songs is called “Maybe I’m Doing it Wrong”, and the chorus goes:

Maybe I’m doing it wrong
Maybe I’m doing it wrong
Just don’t move me the way that it should
Maybe I’m doing it wrong

Much of the fun, of course, is in speculating exactly what Newman means by “it”—he never says. But the scenario just sets us up to hear something a bit deeper in the last verse, if we’re listening:

Sometimes I throw off a good one
Least I think it is
No, I know it is!
Shouldn’t be thinking at all
Shouldn’t be thinking at all

Just because I may be doing it wrong is no reason not to be wary of folks who are telling me that I’m doing it wrong, and how, and why. For one thing, there is lots of money in keeping an audience eager for esoteric knowledge—and if they can be persuaded they haven’t quite got it yet, that they aren’t seeing what’s there because they haven’t done a proper job of pulling back the curtain—well, those folks will stay in the market for instruction in curtain-pulling.

I don’t think that all the hype which surrounds deeper understanding is malicious. Some folks are eager to share what they’ve learned. And some think it is justified to motivate listeners to action by hyping a goal. But the danger is that in hyping the goal you can easily misrepresent it—and thereby lead people away from it, because they fail to recognize glimpses of it, thinking there must be something more. Well, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

My conscience is pricked when common weaknesses are discussed, and beauty is one area where I’m particularly vulnerable. I appreciate beautiful things, though not always very deeply. This is especially true when it comes to fine art. I like, say, Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, I enjoy looking at it, I can see that it is remarkable for its time and place, and I know a very little bit about why that is. But I am almost totally unequipped to appreciate it as a painting, knowing nothing about technique or color combinations or the challenges painters face when they render light and dark. So when I hear people champion the beauty of God’s creation in vague and mystical terms, I am at a bad sort of loss—I can’t relate to what they are saying, and am sometimes left wondering whether I’m missing something Really Big—and need to do something about it, now.

Of course, I could inflict the same sort of mystery on other people by going on about computer programming, or functional design, or writerly craft. Plenty of people make a living doing exactly that. And I understand computer programming deeply enough to say that what is currently being promoted as needful with respect to knowing computers—what used to be called “computer literacy”—is not only useless to most people, but actually masks the few important things that it would be helpful for people to know in that area. There is a lot of frustration being deliberately instilled over this, and that frustration will never find release because the proffered solutions are just plain wrong—and that is because the useful solutions actually solve problems that aren’t as sexy as the ones being trumpeted by the hucksters.

Here are a couple of examples of beauty as I’ve experienced it lately, two scenes from my soon-to-go-on-hiatus daily walk around our El Paso neighborood. El Paso is hard up against a mountain range, one which dominates the view from just about everywhere. I’m staying on the east side of the range (the city wraps around it, through the pass which give it its name), and so the mountains are due west. When I start my walk I head east for about ten minutes, then turn a corner behind the middle school and see this:


The mountains are usually more vivid that this, since I turn this corner around 9:15am while the sun from the east is still low. The photo was taken at 12:30pm, as I was on the way to the post office (driving).

About 2/3 of the way through my 45-minute walk I turn another corner and see this:


The building to the left is an elementary school. The dome sits atop a circular library, which is usually empty. This is the stretch of road I used for my quieting-the-mind exercises. This morning I wasn’t doing anything active to quiet my mind, just putting aside my train of thought as best I could. I found myself looking at the dome, and noticing visual elements—the copper color (can it really be copper? probably not), the glow of light at the lower left and upper right, the way the ridges made dark lines on the left side, gradually shifting rightwards to ever-more-glowing lines. I wondered how hard it would be to even begin to render it accurately, in paint or chalk. I wondered what artists know about doing that sort of thing.

Finally, I recognized that this was exactly the same approach I took to engaging another aesthetic matter, namely music. I spent twelve years playing music with Chris, and managed to dive pretty deep in my encounter (I think), but not through direct perception. Instead it was practice, studying the best (and worst), mastering technique, performing, watching for the effect of our music on other people, and many other specific concrete things that assisted that deep encounter.

Similarly, the mountains themselves are meaningful to me in many ways—I like looking at them, I’ve driven across and around them hundreds of times, I’ve walked through them occasionally, I’ve seen many other, very different mountains and compared them with these in my mind. They are not just an important feature of the landscape of El Paso, but of my life.

And yet they’re just mountains. And the songs we sing are just songs. If folks find it helpful to assign a deeper, grander significance to such things, I’m OK with that—in fact, I don’t dispute it. But I no longer worry about being deficient for not experiencing these things in a deep and grand fashion. I’m happy to have them simply be a part of my everyday existence, easily accessible, available to yield whatever depths I am capable of (and interested in) plumbing at a given point in my life.


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