Excellence Served Three Ways

Settle in, folks. It’s going to be a long one.

I’ve always been obsessed by obsession. What does it take to be excellent? What does it mean to surpass good enough to get to really good, and then beyond that?

In the past two days, I’ve seen three very different answers to that question.

I’ve just finished Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. An absolutely brilliant book about a brilliant career, it’s a story portrayed in extraordinary ways because he was able to be fully open about his goals and his fears with a writing coach who pushed him, and listened to him, as carefully as his tennis and conditioning coaches had before.

Agassi’s excellence came from fear. From fear of his father, from fear of tennis svengali Nick Bollitierri, from fear of not ever being good enough. As a child, Agassi was surrounded by men who knew only force and dominance and competition. Their work left him physically strong and emotionally disabled, the fate of so many men.

In the end, he had two careers. The immature career built on the scaffold that those angry men had constructed, and the mature later career built on the trust he bestowed upon a different community, the trust that they reflected back upon him as well. But even his triumphant second act carried the physiological and psychic scars of the first, never left him wholly at peace.

Last night, Nora and I went with a friend to a chamber concert by The Queen’s Six, a vocal ensemble that is a subset of the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle. For a little over two hours, the Six ran through a repertoire covering nearly five hundred years, from Henry VIII to Stevie Wonder. Precise, and sophisticated, and beautiful… and a little bit cold.

Their excellence came from a dedication to craft for the sake of craft, came from the endless shaping of vowels and mastery of music theory, from seeking out the finest training to an array of public performance (ranging from eight services per week in the Chapel to last summer’s wedding of Harry and Meghan). But the edge of the stage formed a powerful wall, a wall over which music could pass but humanity could not.

But prior to the show, the three of us went for drinks and dinner at one of Vermont’s very best restaurants, Misery Loves Co. of Winooski. And we saw a third origin of excellence, excellence that stems from generosity and love. We sat at the counter facing the open kitchen and watched four young men on the line—surrounded by a continual flow of eight or ten others—care for each other, and through one another to care for us.

They tasted everything, and if they liked it, they gave a spoonful to one of their colleagues. They did this not merely as an objective quality check, but because they were proud of what they’d done, and wanted to share it with a friend. In the midst of a busy line, they’d hold out a sauté pan, their friend would take a spoon and taste a sauce, and they’d spend ten quiet, thoughtful seconds thinking about what they were eating, talking to each other about what they thought.

One of the more experienced chefs was showing a younger fellow how to strip and julienne a lemon. “Your flat knife is gonna work really well for that,” he said. Not a direction—“Use your flat knife”—but an encouragement, a mutual desire for satisfying work.

It’s a busy kitchen, as all successful restaurant kitchens must be, but there are no raised voices, no calling out and calling back, no hollering to the dishwasher for more bowls. The dishwashers themselves are part of the generosity, ensuring that their more public colleagues never had to question whether their workstations would be depleted. As I wrote about the relationship between a fictional 1950s bartender and his barboy:

Your barboy is an extension of your own body. He brings you what you need, carries away what you need no more. He cleans where you cannot reach, moves where you cannot go, sees and hears what is too distant for you to perceive. You tell him your needs and he responds instantly. Eventually, he becomes you. You wish him to bring ice and find that ice has already arrived. You notice beer caps high in the trash, and then notice that the trash has been emptied. The words “thank you” are invaluable. They indicate not merely polite gratitude, but the more important fact of having been noticed, having been recognized.

Misery is a restaurant in which everyone, from customer to bartender to line cook, has been noticed, has been recognized.

The great bartender Jim Meehan once weighed in on the debate between the terms bartender and mixologist. “A mixologist serves drinks,” he said. “A bartender serves customers.” And it’s that impulse toward generosity that causes Misery to do surprising things.

Nora spotted one of the chefs dropping a fish skeleton into the basket of the deep fryer and then lowering it into the oil. “What the hell is that?” Nora asked. It turns out that fish bones, dusted with cornstarch and deep fried, are a delicacy known in Japan as hone senbei, or bone crackers. When a patron orders the whole lubina (a kind of Atlantic bass), the waiter offers at the end of the meal to have their fish’s carcass rendered into a lovely second course, at no charge. It takes everyone by surprise, it’s not on the menu, but when one comes back into the kitchen, it’s treated with as much care as the whole fish originally on the brazier, as beautifully plated and presented on its second life as its first. Those are the kinds of gifts—unnecessary, as gifts always are—that mark the shift from good enough to really good, and then beyond that.

So excellence from three root stocks. Excellence from fear, focused on defending the fragile self. Excellence from craft, focused on perfecting the object. Excellence from generosity, focused on lifting everyone around you to greater joy. Each brings a different flavor, but only one has the power of engaging all of its participants.

Let’s leave the final word to Andre Agassi, now wiser than his wounded younger self:

Helping Frankie provides more satisfaction and makes me feel more connected and alive and myself than anything else that happens in 1996. I tell myself: Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.

A Brief Comment on the Nature of Futility

From the Twitter account of Carl Bergstrom, a theoretical evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington:

My PhD advisor told me to put a ten dollar bill between the pages of my thesis in the university library.

“So I can check to see if anyone read it?”, I asked.

“No, of course no one will read it,” he replied, “but when you come back into town you’ll always have money for lunch.”

The Ethnography of Fiction

I finally got enough space from Town business today to work on my novel. And for the first time in two months, the characters started to talk to me. I know the writing is real if I end up at the close of the day in a situation that I could never have predicted at the beginning.

Back when I was learning ethnographic methods, the rule of thumb for when you’d done enough fieldwork was when nobody told you anything you didn’t already know. Once you’re no longer surprised, you know enough about the culture to represent it to others. Fiction writing is much the same. When it works, the people I write about surprise me every day, which means I’m still learning their culture.

I always felt it was an enormous privilege, and deep responsibility, when my research participants entrusted me with their stories. I feel the same when my fiction participants trust me, too.

Born on Third Base

Image posted to Twitter by Jeff Selingo of the Washington Post

The image above shows the percentage of new freshmen at various elite institutions who were legacy admissions in the 1983-84 school year, “legacy” meaning that one or both parents, a grandparent, or another immediate family member had once attended that same school. Anywhere between forty and ninety percent of these schools’ new students were seated because of reservations their parents had made at the club twenty-five and thirty years earlier. And those parents there because of their own parents’ affiliation as well. It’s a multi-generational distillation process that ensures that those inside remain inside, those outside forever out.

(Interesting that this data was published knowledge in 1984, and closely held business secrets now. Come on, y’all, show us the numbers. Don’t be ashamed of the things you do on purpose.)

As Stanford’s David Labaree wrote in his book A Perfect Mess, American higher education has stratification infused fully through it. The wealthiest schools that give the greatest life advantages preserve those advantages only for their own. It’s WASPy, and it’s persistent.

End-of-Life Planning

Nobody wants to think about their own death, but if we don’t, we’ll just leave a mess for someone else to clean up. Someone has to plan the funeral, find homes for the pets, sell the house, distribute the jewelry and furniture, and do it far too often by guessing at what their mom “would have wanted.” It’s an ugly scene, uglier still if there are siblings or lienholders or any other kinds of complications. It’s exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to be doing while you’re grieving the simple human loss of your mother.

No institution ever imagines that it will end, either. Green Mountain College had existed as some form of college or another since 1834, and had every reason that it would continue on for another couple hundred years. And now it will no longer exist as a college after May 2019, but it will continue to exist for a while longer as a non-profit entity, charged with end-of-life planning. As with Mom’s demise, the work of grieving will be commingled with the distribution of assets.

Imagine how complex it is to wind down a non-profit of any reasonable size. It’s relatively easy to close a for-profit business, because whatever’s left after they pay its bills belongs to the owners, according to ownership agreements spelled out when people invested in the first place. In non-profits, there are no owners who hold a financial stake; there’s a board of trustees who enact the mission of the trust. I’m no CFO, but even I can imagine quite a few things that have to be accounted for in closing a college.

Students. Most of a college’s students are somewhere in mid-course at any moment, and the college has to be prepared to have them received somewhere else. New colleges and extremely small or specialized colleges are usually required by their accreditors to have “teach-out agreements” with other institutions, a guaranteed place for students to land and finish the degree they’d begun. But once a college has matured, teach-outs aren’t usually required. The presumption is that the school will endure. When it doesn’t, students are suddenly homeless, scrambling to plan for the coming fall.

Faculty and Staff. Who cares? Like any other factory closing, they’re out on the sidewalk. Best of luck…

The Campus and Facilities. The cultural geographer Paul Groth claims that our physical environment is marked by such extreme specialization that most places can’t be used for other purposes. There’s no good re-use for an airport, for example, or an interstate highway. College campuses are likewise tough to re-purpose. Fifteen major buildings and a couple of dozen outbuildings on a 150-acre campus represents one of three things: a college, an English country estate, or a golf course. My understanding is that the United States Department of Agriculture has a controlling interest in Green Mountain’s corpse, by the terms of a major rural economic development loan the college drew some years back. For any college, there’ll be bankers or bondholders with some interest in a collateralized portion of the campus.

The Stuff. How do you sell 250 staplers? Two hundred computers teetering on the edge of obsolescence? All of those painful, meager dormitory beds? The contents of the library? When Nora’s mom passed away a few years back, we discovered that she had 52 pairs of opera gloves, a hundred light bulbs, reams of letterhead from her old business, three rolls of surgical cotton and six tubes of Neosporin. Multiply that by several orders of magnitude, and that’s what the college trustees have to truck away from the estate. The rugs. The portraits of the presidents. The giant wool mascot head. It’s logarithmically larger than cleaning out your garage, but it’s the same endless series of decisions. Trash, sell, give away? Trash, sell, give away?

The Endowment. This is probably the toughest one legally. Any college has a pool of endowed funds, ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the billions. And every single component of that, every fifty dollar gift or fifty-million dollar bequest, has conditions under which the donor made it. Endowed funds to support scholarships can’t be used for scholarships if there are no students. Endowed funds for campus maintenance don’t work after the campus is sold. And some endowments haven’t even been claimed yet, as live alumni have bequests written into their own wills. The work of distributing assets in support of the goals of a donor is hard enough when it’s one person; colleges have to understand and adhere to the wishes of hundreds or thousands of donors. Can a donor request a refund if the college no longer can fulfill her or his terms? Yuck! What a mess.

In the next few years, we’re going to see the Mount Ida–Newbury–Burlington–Dowling–Green Mountain story played out over and over, with more than a hundred college closures since 2016. It’s not a pleasant task for anyone to consider, but there are an awful lot of colleges who had better start their end-of-life planning now.

Redundant

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no one needs.

Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up”

Every time you see a job ad that looks like a match for your skills and ideas, you’ll have a moment of already inhabiting that life. In every case, you go through a few hours of imagining what life might be like in your new home in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, in Minneapolis or Seattle. Imagining how your work might blossom further among your new colleagues at Brandeis or Marquette, with the resources available to you at UCLA or Oregon.

But then no. And then no. And then no.

“Unemployed scholar” sounds like a noun, but it’s really a constant series of verbs, of hopes rising and beaten back, of staying close to your friends as they also succeed and fail, remaining part of the society of insiders who might some day notice your work and open a door.

Being an unemployed scholar means being willing to go anywhere. To not put limits on your job search, to be as willing to live in Manhattan KS as Manhattan NY, as willing to live in Miami as Seattle, as willing to live in rows of soy as in grids of metropolitan streets. I have a colleague who grew up in the forests and mountains; she took a short-term job in a broken border town where everything in all directions was beige. “I just think the desert is ugly. I’ve tried really hard, but everything is just so bare and sparse. I’m still used to Tacoma where it rains for nine months out of the year.” The pain would be equal if applied in the opposite direction. And at the end of this semester, she’ll be cut loose again, on the road with a cardboard sign, hoping for a ride to paradise.

Being an unemployed scholar means that you can only apply for jobs once a year. You look at the Chronicle, where the elite schools advertise in August and September, the middling schools in October through December, and the bottom tier in the spring, all aimed at hiring in the summer for a start in the following fall. You feel your prospects sink as the schools become more meager, but you’d take it, you’d take an offer from any aimless college, some formerly Methodist teachers-and-preachers school now existing only through its inertia, clinging to a lost identity. Much like yourself.

Being an unemployed scholar means feeling yourself getting stale, drying out, losing your juice. The dissertation is behind you, you’ve climbed that mountain safely. But you don’t know what’s next, you don’t have the library and the databases and the lab space to take the next step. You keep trying to sell that old product while the shiny new kids get all the visitors to their booth. It’s like being a thirty-five year old first-baseman for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, sitting in the ice bath after a hard workout and watching the twenty-year-olds coming for your job.

Being an unemployed scholar means that your .edu mail address is about to expire. Your only contact with your old doctoral institution is through their alumni office, occasionally getting their glossy, undergrad-focused magazine or a request to donate to the annual fund. They’re busy with their new generation of students, have finished with their obligations to you. Write when you find work…

Being an unemployed scholar means wondering every day whether it’s time to quit, but not knowing how to leave even if you could gin yourself up to try. Failed racing drivers don’t have any advantages in the Uber market, and failed rhetoricians don’t have any advantages in writing for HuffPo or on Twitter. There’s no good place in the air if you were bred for water.

“Unemployed scholar” is a daily experience, a chronic ache, a deficiency that cannot be remediated. It is an encompassing, complete shame. It cannot be repaired. It can only be left altogether, with enormous bravery, re-inventing yourself from near zero.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Guys and Dolls: The Academic Journal

I’m doing some research this morning for a potential new project, which I’m superstitious enough not to tell you about yet. But in doing so, I came across a very early article by the sociologist Erving Goffman, called “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure.” It’s a very thorough piece of descriptive research about the ways that con men have to handle the people they’ve swindled, to soften the blow to the victim (or “the mark”) of the fact that they’ve lost money and respect. This isn’t done from any humanitarian impulse, but rather to keep the mark from going to the cops or the courts.

I’ll have more to say in the next few days about how this article so presciently describes the institutional response of higher ed to its adjunct community (the marks who were promised a knighthood only to find themselves outside the castle) as well as the larger political scene in which millions of Americans are now discovering themselves to have been the victim of a massive con, and have to find some ways to come to terms with that. What I want to talk about today is another writer familiar with con men: Damon Runyan, the author of Guys and Dolls and dozens of other stories set in the minor-league gambling underworld, people who’ll bet each other ten dollars on the color of the next car through the intersection.

The most remarkable feature of Runyan’s work is neither the colorful characters nor the screwball adventures they find themselves in. His world is most centrally built by the very form of his writing, a perpetually present-tense form filled with unnecessarily high diction, a language of the man desperately needing to be seen as more than he is. Here, for instance, is the opening to his story “A Piece of Pie,” of betting on an eating contest.

On Boylston Street, in the city of Boston, Mass., there is a joint where you can get as nice a broiled lobster as anybody ever slaps a lip over, and who is in there one evening partaking of this tidbit but a character by the name of Horse Thief and me. This Horse Thief is called Horsey for short, and he is not called by this name because he ever steals a horse but because it is the consensus of public opinion from coast to coast that he may steal one if the opportunity presents.

By contrast, and from the same era, here is Goffman’s description of the ubiquity of con schemes:

The con is said to be a good racket in the United States only because most Americans are willing, nay eager, to make easy money, and will engage in action that is less than legal in order to do so.

You can see the similarities. The insider letting us civilians in on the game, but doing so through politeness and formality that would never be found in the native scene. And the fussy diction—... willing, nay eager… … action that is less than legal… —marks the work as a form of highbrow wildlife documentary, Sir David Attenborough describing the behavior of penguins in language that is perhaps other than the penguins themselves might deploy.

(Once you read a little of this kind of stuff, it’s impossible to not write that way yourself for a while. It’s deliciously fun.)

So much of academic writing, across all disciplines, is a form of Runyanesque self-soothing, convincing the writer that she or he really does belong. It’s governed by a series of conventions—the use of the third person, the passive voice, the present tense—intended to remove the work from place and time and authorship, to take on the mark of lasting, objective, incontrovertible truth.

It’s easy to make fun of writing in the high humanities, through things like The Postmodernism Generator and the various Sokal hoaxes. And the writing in those fields is, indeed, impossibly arch and ponderous. But even the bench sciences have their own Runyan syntax. This is from the abstract of an article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry:

An approach for the synthesis of a variety of new β-aryl-β-amino acids has been developed via a palladium-catalyzed auxiliary-directed regioselective Csp3-H arylation of the unactivated β-methylene bond of β-alanine. The use of 8-aminoquinoline amide as an auxiliary efficiently directs the desired regioselective β-Csp3-H functionalization. The developed protocol enables the easy and straightforward access to several high-value β-aryl-β-amino acids useful for peptide engineering, starting from inexpensive and readily available β-alanine precursors in moderate to excellent yields.

Leave aside the nouns, none of which us laypeople should be expected to understand, and look only at the verb phrases. An approach…has been developed. The use… efficiently directs. The developed protocol enables. It’s as though nobody actually did the work. This is the language of police reports. The language of official blue-ribbon commissions designed to cover up crimes under the guise of investigation. The language of Damon Runyan, desperate for respect without wanting to seem desperate at all:

This tall young character cannot be more than twenty-one years of age, and he is maybe six feet two inches tall and must weigh around one hundred and ninety pounds. He has shoulders like the back of a truck, and he has blond hair, and pink cheeks, and is without doubt as good-looking as any male character has a right to be without causing comment.

For all of its gravity—because of its gravity—academic writing, like the work of Damon Runyan, can be poignantly funny, a mature version of fourth-grade Shakespeare, little kids dressed up and playing their oversized roles.