Francis Fukuyama, “Liberalism and Its Discontents”
Following Monday’s set, five more responses to Francis Fukuyama’s take on the challenges to liberalism.
American Purpose continues the discussion Francis Fukuyama initiated in our pages on the “discontents” with liberalism on the left and the right. We publish five wide-ranging responses today, with five more to follow on Wednesday.
Francis Fukuyama, “Liberalism and Its Discontents”
Author, speechwriter, editor, and wordsmith par excellence Adam Garfinkle on finding—or creating—the right word.
I enjoy hitting upon just the right word for an expressive occasion, even if the word isn’t commonly used. I trust that when I do use perfect but uncommon words, most of my readers will understand them. Or not: As a recovering “thought” magazine editor, I don’t care anymore. In my unapologetic logomanic view, when we happen upon the serendipitous word or phrase we must use it, lest the sheer beauty of the moment’s art perish from inanition. Anyway, sending readers to the dictionary now and again is no sin. We, as readers later become writers, have all enlarged our vocabularies in just that way. Why deprive others of the opportunity?
Sometimes, alas, the pool of existing words doesn’t suffice; so, we devise neologisms. We do so by general agreement for scientific-technical purposes, coining words like “robot,” “cyclotron,” and “laptop.” But sometimes we do it to exercise our wit—and to share that wit by creating, from whatever stores of deep literacy we have, a verbal sprite for others to enjoy. In that spirit, here are a dozen of my favorite non-technical neologisms. Some are my inventions and some are not, but none is yet recognized in any stolid English-language dictionary.
Anecdotage: that period of life when older people tend to babble on, telling stories that few younger folk can follow, let alone care about.
Anecdotage is a compound of “anecdote” and “dotage.” It’s brilliant, as befits its conveyor to me if not its inventor, the late writer and foreign policy expert Harvey Sicherman. I thought it was terrific even when I first learned it, in my thirties. Now that I’m approaching seventy, I appreciate it even more. After all, my circle now includes more people whose behavior illustrates the concept. Including mine?
Bullshistory: the use of false historical narratives to make points in political debate.
I invented bullshistory specifically to describe Yasir Arafat’s tall tales about there never having been Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. Despite massive evidence from Muslim Arab historiography itself, Arafat claimed that such Temples were in Yemen—if anywhere. I subsequently used bullshistory to throw a wet mop over the fanciful, self-serving, or just plain ignorant accounts of the origins of the Balfour Declaration and the so-called Sykes-Picot borders of the modern Middle East on their respective centennials.
Bullshistory, a compound of “bullshit” and “history,” is so obvious and necessary that I’m still puzzled it wasn’t coined decades ago. Today, when the world is so overfull of bullshistory, the term is more useful than ever. It’s much more colorful and precise than “lying.”
Concrastination: the urge to get things done right away.
The more familiar “procrastination” is the lot of most of humanity most of the time. This is as it should be, since lots of things that people think they need to do and feel bad about not doing are less important than supposed. Most things that never get done, because of successful procrastination, or sudden death, or whatever, didn’t need doing in the first place—unless one counts the value of distraction for its own sake, which is certainly a possibility.
Still, there needs to be an antonym to apply to the anal-retentive types who make lists and assiduously cross things off upon completion, or for normal people who are occasionally smitten by the impulse to just do something. Concrastination fills the bill.
In its opposite, “procrastination,” the prefix “pro” is spiked with positive connotations meaning “before” (as in, “prior to”) or “for” (as in, “on behalf of”) or “toward.” In fact, “pro” has no business beginning a word like “procrastination,” which is all about doing as little as necessary or going nowhere fast, or as slowly as possible. The prefix “con,” while it can mean “with,” usually means “against,” and so oozes negative connotations. So concrastination, when placed beside procrastination, is a double negative, which works to illustrate that two wrongs can sometimes make a right.
Heirhead: someone who inherits much family money but lacks the character, maturity, or brains to know how to manage it usefully.
True, not all heirs are heirheads. Some families have, over time, found ways to transmit virtue, common sense, and good character to their well-heeled offspring. Inherited disaster isn’t inevitable. But it’s plenty common all the same. Speaking for myself alone, I have encountered several heirheads in my day and have even suffered at close range from one of them. I am sure I’m not unique in this.
Back in the 1950s, an American television series called “The Millionaire” illustrated, episode by episode, the dangers of sudden wealth. Being between four and nine years old at the time, I took the lessons to heart. I only wished my family were rich so that I could face such daunting challenges. Alas and bollocks, it was not to be. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.
Absent strenuous parental efforts, heirheads have problems natural to their rare circumstances. Because they never need to suffer the anxieties of finding ways to provide for themselves and their families or significant others, they tend to be less well steeled against adversity, lacking what we Americans call “grit.” As a result, many become perpetual adolescents who, when they encounter novel and perilous situations, tend to fall to pieces more readily than do those who have been schooled to stoicism.
Moreover, heirheads often cannot know whether those who keep their company really like them or just want to feed from their affluence and generosity, the premise being that nothing brings largesse like propinquity. The result is they typically don’t have normal friends and friendships, normal spouses and marriages, or normal children. Indeed, many of the offspring are fated to begin the heirhead cycle all over again, at least until the piles of money are frittered away.
People who lack close friends often develop warped theories of mind, which, in turn, sometimes cause them to have roller-coaster-inflected relationships. So lonely are they, despite an abundance of apparent pals, that they fall wildly for new friends and lovers, then fall wildly out of friendship or love when perfection doesn’t materialize, since no mortal can fill the void of their interpersonal hollow.
A similar problem often dogs drop-dead-beautiful women. Great beauty is often a curse, for such women, too, have trouble being sure their friends are really friends or just mesmerized would-be lovers or acolytes hoping for spinoff benefits from their attractive associate. Very beautiful women, I have learned, often look forward to aging. It’s not their own maturity they crave but the chance finally for others to act maturely toward them.
My advice: Stay aware from heirheads if you can. It’s not always easy. It has been hard to avoid the depredations of the Orange Heirhead these past four years. Lesson to the electorate: Don’t ... ever ... do that again: No more heirheads near the Oval Office!
Nesterday: the time, presumably early in life, when one is sheltered in the security of one’s parents’ home.
Nesterday points backwards in time, as does “yesterday,” from which it is clearly derived. But nesterday points back more to a feeling than to a mere flicker of moments in yestertime, because it bears an actual sensate referent: a nest, which “yesterday” lacks (since there’s no such thing as a yest).
If we sense piquant emotion around the word “yesterday,” it’s partly because of Paul McCartney’s famous song of that name. But remember, if you can, the song’s vaguely melancholic lyrics: Has anyone ever figured out what the singer is so downcast about? “Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say” is as close as we ever get. Of course, ambiguity is useful in emotive lyrics because it allows listeners to fill in their own particulars and so, in a sense, own the thing. That’s fine; it certainly worked. But had McCartney written a song about nesterday, it might have worked even better.
Philosoupy: the field of thought which insists that all philosophies can be expressed in soup recipes and all soup recipes, if good enough, are philosophical in essence.
Philosoupy is not a word to be used lightly or often. Use clearly depends on one’s general orientation toward and affection for soup. It also demands some familiarity with basic philosophical concepts. But if those two conditions are fulfilled, the word can serve as a catchall for discussing a range of interesting questions.
To illustrate, a Cartesian recipe must have body and soul but needs nothing else. A Kantian recipe must never rely on faith or prayer or even hope but only on the audacity to know—sapere aude—that pure reason and categorical fidelity to the recipe’s instructions will ensure a successful gastronomic outcome. A Hobbesian recipe must be followed to the tee, by order of the sovereign, lest the result end up nasty, brutish, and short on flavor. A Benthamite recipe must be constituted so as to give all diners, taken together, the most satisfaction possible. A Confucian recipe, if successful, must be attributed to one’s parents. You get the point.
Resistentialism: the proclivity of inanimate objects to screw with you.
Resistentialism derives from “existentialism,” which is the proclivity of life itself to screw with you, with no hope of help from above, below, or anywhere else. The logical link between the two concepts is clear.
Everyone knows quotidian examples of resistentialism. If you drop something on the floor—a coin, a pill, a finishing nail, a cufflink, an earring — it will roll, bounce, hop, skid, spin, carom, ricochet, or just flat-out get up and walk to, I swear it, the least accessible place possible. We all know this. No one can really explain it.
This is the quintessence of resistentialism; but many other phenomena meet the test, as well. Is the larger prong of a plug always in the wrong orientation when you try to connect it to the socket? Is the USB stick always upside down? Of course it is. These are manifestly 50/50 probability cases, but reality is more like 2/98. You are being resistentially cyberscrewed, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Or say you approach a door outside some swank hotel, restaurant, or store, and the decorations festooned on it obscure whether it’s a heavy door or a light door. If you think it’s heavy but it turns out to be light—it will be—you will put enough force behind opening it so that you break a glass pane or two, or at least make a nasty, embarrassingly loud noise when the door pivots back and slams into the interior wall. If you think the door is light but it turns out to be heavy—it will be—you will stumble against the damn thing, look like a warthog trying to do a grand jeté, and probably slam your forehead on a mullion for mortifying punctuation. This is a door screwing with you. It can’t be, but it is.
Years ago my daughter, about nine years old at the time, was handed a large, clear bowl filled with a freshly made green salad and asked to carry it from the kitchen to the dining room table. She thought it was glass and would be heavy. She prepared to take the weight, but the bowl was plastic. When the bowl jerked back over her head and the salad ended up on the floor, it was a salad bowl screwing with her. She cried. Resistentialism, à toute force.
Scandicountant: a Nordic person, or someone behaving like a Nordic person, in the sense of keeping track of every last penny or øre.
Germans are reputed to be excellent, even anal-retentive, record-keepers. And they are when compared to, say, South Americans. But they’re poor third cousins compared to Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. Nothing round and metallic, or value numeric, escapes those folks. That is why all multinational peacekeeping and other operations organized under the United Nations default automatically to giving any task involving accounting, or the actuarial sciences more broadly, to a Nordic nation. You can count on their counting it—and doing it right.
Maybe the extraordinary Nordic facility at keeping track of whatever has value owes something to the harshness of the northern climate and the survival value, from times of old, of meticulous planning. Or maybe it has something to do with the accumulated psychology of coping with long, dark winter evenings. No one knows.
But I suspect that behind all those scenes we have in our historical mind’s eye of ferocious ninth-century Viking hordes ransacking Celtic villages and pillaging cattle and other foodstocks far and wide when not busy founding Dublin, somewhere out of sight of the mayhem and violence, every expedition included a back-sited tent wherein sat several Scandicountants keeping careful track of every piece of loot and lucre hauled in. They no doubt proceeded to calculate the requisite value-added tax, which caused as much general grousing then as it does today. (It’s a shame that no Nordic version of Monty Python’s “Flying Circus” show seems to exist. This scene would make for a real howler of a skit.)
Sheeple: humans conforming like sheep.
Sheeple is among the better known words in this list, especially among younger folk. I heard it from my son, who is thirty-six years my junior. It is sheep plus people and refers to the human herd instinct.
When we think of the herd instinct, we often think about behavior like stock market antics. But sheeple works for any conformist behavior. It conjures a scene from the 1960 movie “The Time Machine,” based on H.G. Wells’ justly famous 1895 book: bovine-like Eloi walking around in a field looking goofily placid, all dressed alike, waiting to be called below by the siren to be butchered and eaten by the Morlocks. Lately I see the Eloi as undergraduates neurophysiologically addicted to their iPhones and the Morlocks as avaricious advertising and tech giant business executives.
But that’s just me. Those who still fall for what Donald Trump calls “truthful hyperbole” or an “innocent form of exaggeration”; virtue-signaling social justice warriors who invoke “diversity” to cover superficial appearance but not thought or opinion; those who use “impact” instead of “affect” as a verb because they don’t know any better and think it makes them sound smart—whatever one’s tastes, examples of sheeple are so plentiful that it’s a wonder we don’t use the term more often.
Subdudity: a downcast emotional state because of some disappointment or bout of bad fortune.
Subdudity befell me recently when it turned out that my wife and I would not be able to go from Perth to Bali to mark her seventieth birthday, as we had planned more than two months before. All the possible flights were canceled from beneath our toes; and, with COVID-19 travel restrictions popping up all over the place, we were afraid we’d get stuck in Indonesia for the duration of the pandemic. So, we bagged Bali and returned to Singapore in a state of subdudity.
But we were lucky. An Australian friend in Perth learned that her daughter, a journalist newly arrived in Hong Kong from Singapore for work, couldn’t even make it to the Margaret River, near Perth, for her cousin’s wedding. She, too, found herself in a state of subdudity, hers being of a deep blue shade. Did we need my neologism to communicate our feelings? Strictly speaking, no; but it felt much better to share our respective disappointments using the perfect word.
Uniquity: the noun form of the adjective “unique,” means the quality of being without peer or comparison.
We need this word because it is not possible to modify the adjective unique … well, hold on a moment: People frequently use “very unique,” “almost unique,” “somewhat unique,” and other logically impossible phrases that identify the speaker as having as loose a grip on language logic as a toddler has on a melting popsicle in the heat of the noonday summer sun.
But let us not be harsh or judgmental: The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution contains the memorable but questionable phrase “a more perfect union.” If something is perfect, it cannot logically become more perfect. Perfect is no more modifiable than unique. Nearly everyone accepts the advertising lingo “new and improved,” but that’s not possible either: A new thing cannot also be an improved old thing, and an improved old thing cannot be new. So, let me adjust my plaint and say since it is not possible for sentient educated adults to modify the adjective unique. The term is a dead end. This is sad.
So one day, when my younger son came up out of the blue with uniquity, I rejoiced. I asked him on the spot what it meant, and he answered without hesitation, “the essence of being unique.” Voilà! Genius! Especially since uniquity pairs nicely with the similar-sounding “ubiquity,” from which it differs by just a single letter.
Care must be taken when using uniquity. The word works best when describing something extraordinarily and improbably asinine—like Donald Trump saying that the federal government assumed no responsibility for organizing a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, then turning around a few days later to claim that he had “total control” over it. This is an example of presidential uniquity, since no predecessor had ever come close to saying anything so inane at such a fraught moment. Trump has since trumped his own asininity many times over, of course—as with his remark about shooting looters in Minneapolis and his claim that the death toll from the pandemic has been exaggerated because doctors make more money when they write “COVID-19” on death certificates. It hasn’t been easy to keep up with him.
That fact that uniquity also sounds sort of like iniquity is probably a plus. It certainly works here and allows us to construct fun sentences like, “Trump’s ubiquitous iniquity exemplifies uniquity.” Truly, there’s nothing else like it. We can only hope there never will be again.
Yidiot: a nitwit Ashkenazic Jew.
I can utter this neologism because I am one—not a yidiot, I hope, but a Jew of Ashkenazic origins.
Jews are reputedly pretty smart, and IQ test results seem to prove it. But smart people often do stupid things, whether out of hubris or else thanks to a glaring mismatch between intellectual and emotional intelligence—a subject on which whole books have been written, some of them not even by Jews. When Jews who are “supposed” to be smart do stupid and counterproductive things, they are acting like yidiots. Or, if we like an adjectival form, we might say that what they are doing is yidiotic.
Example: When Bret Stephens wrote his New York Times column a few months ago about “Jewish genius,” it was, arguably, a yidiotic thing to do, not because the argument was wrong but because it was presented in that venue, a publication that not long afterwards spat out James Bennet for the sin of being insufficiently deferential to magical ideological thinking.
For quite a while I was puzzled by the question of how such an obvious neologism had resisted being invented until I invented it a few months ago. (What took me so long?) I have not yet solved the puzzle but will say that the term is so fraught that it should be used only sparingly. Why?
Because Jews are bound to disagree over what constitute fair examples of yidiocy, just as they incline to disagree about nearly everything. We don’t need more epithets to throw at each other, so you’ll get no more examples from me. I love my fellow yidiots, in theory at least. As our favorite irascible servant Bertrand said more than once to master Ebenezer Cooke, poet laureate of colonial Maryland, “That’s an end on’t.”
Except to say that recently we’ve seen the related term covidiot making the rounds on social media. Covidiotshave included spring-break revelers in Clearwater, Florida, and hot-blooded rajputs holding Corona festivals of ten thousand people because they thought their caste made them immune to illness (it didn’t). People who hoard toilet paper fit the description, too, because, well … because they’re morons—since everyone knows that the stress involved with the pandemic leads to less toilet paper use, not more.
Look, with any luck and God’s help and maybe soon a vaccine, we won’t need the term covidiot much longer. Yidiot, on the other hand, we’re likely to need at least until Jewish matrons in Miami stop sending back their restaurant orders on principle. That, really, would be “an end on’t.” Don’t hold your breath.
Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, the founding editor of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
Spending extra time at home these days brings back some elementals – family time, simple pleasures, and, of course, bread.
Well over a year ago, I tried to make bread. At lunch a colleague offered me some of the starter that had given life to his handsome loaves, pictures of which he showed me on his phone as if they were children he had sired.
“Aw, look at that,” I said.
Usually, I can be counted on not to underestimate the amount of work that goes into making a stew or building a bookcase or fixing a bicycle, modest achievements that, especially when done well, conceal years of effort. And I had no particular desire to make my own bread, but before long my lunch companion wore me down with his poignant tales of crusty, old-fashioned sourdough and the miracle of natural fermentation.
Like most eaters, I have fond memories of eating bread. Mine begin with Pepperidge Farm thin white, toasted, out of which my mother made an infinity of tomato sandwiches – ripe tomatoes from her garden, store-bought mayonnaise, and a serious sprinkling of salt and pepper. I can still see the dappled pools of mayonnaise and tomato drool dotting our kitchen china and the aforementioned white bread, lightly toasted and damp in the middle where my mother had cut the sandwich in half.
Irish soda bread is also a part of my life. It takes about an hour to make, not counting the run to the store for raisins, which I never seem to have on hand. I bake it for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day. One year I worked on the family recipe pretty methodically, experimenting with different amounts of the liquid ingredients and adjusting the baking times to produce a soda bread that was, I hoped, not so dry.
It now comes out softer but looks and tastes exactly like my mother’s.
Not long ago, when I visited a friend who had moved to my neighborhood, I brought him half a loaf. He immediately began warming it in his oven, even though we had reservations at a nearby restaurant. Just before we left, he pulled the bread out and cut us both massive slices, which, steaming hot, we very happily ate from paper napkins as we walked, with him holding forth to say that the atheists are wrong, the majesty of God is real, and warm homemade bread was yet another proof. Touched by his enthusiasm, I didn’t disagree.
The best bread I ever ate came from a bakery in the Bronx that my mother discovered. It was on her way home from her job as a high school guidance counselor. If I was with her, my mother would double park outside and send me in with some money to fetch the goods. The counter was plain, and behind it were a couple of equally plain shelves on which sat stunning round loaves of crusty sourdough bread, guarded by short old Italian women who spoke no English at all. After spending some time being ignored, I realized that you had to insinuate yourself into their field of vision, say “please,” and hold up one or two fingers for how many loaves you needed.
If, however, you walked in and saw no loaves on the shelves, you were out of luck. If you asked for bread anyway, they looked at you like you were a very stupid child.
I blame those old ladies and the memory of their delicious bread, hard on the outside but chewy and airy on the inside, for my decision last year to accept the sourdough starter from my colleague.
I should have passed.
For one thing, the bread I made was terrible. Worse yet, trying to make it stole many hours of my time: reading about bread, examining long, involved recipes that I didn’t quite understand, tending to a starter that sometimes seemed capable of animating lowly, all-purpose flour into something noble and beautiful but more often reminded me of a kid playing sick to avoid school. Still, I kept at it.
When I finally put the dough in the oven, it didn’t rise; it burned, and it came out stuck to the bottom of the Dutch oven I had used. The pieces I could tear off were dense and inedible. Three more times I tried and failed to make bread, the baking of which humankind has understood for millennia.
Such extensive failure could only be attributed to my own sad limitations, the most important of which is that I didn’t understand what all these bakers were talking about. While using their books and recipes, I was having serious problems of basic reading comprehension, beginning with the vocabulary. For example, there is starter, which is water and flour that has begun to ferment; then there is levain, which is water and flour that is fermenting with the help of starter; and then there is poolish, which is like levain, but different, though also made of water and flour and starter, which itself is, of course, made of water and flour.
Making bread had made me ridiculous, but this huge waste of water and flour had one lovely side effect: I gave more attention to the bread I ate. I chewed slowly and savored the experience. I thought of the food my mother made for me and my siblings.
As before, whenever I tried a new recipe – tried to put appetizing food on the table – I ate with more respect for what I was eating. Thinking about the effort that goes into making bread, I felt admiration for bakers and gratitude for their good work. I was not disillusioned. Instead, I appreciated bread more than ever.
In January, a friend brought over some whole wheat bread he had made from sourdough starter. It was very good: a nice hard crust and soft inner bread flesh that had risen nicely and evenly. My wife, Cynthia, praised his efforts, and, leading the witness, asked with wide-eyed curiosity how he did it, as if the topic of how to make sourdough bread had never come up before at her table. He talked about the recipe he followed and offered to share his starter. Cynthia accepted, even as I protested that I was done trying to make bread.
A stranger to this scene wouldn’t have seen a problem: Why shouldn’t Cynthia accept a cup of starter and make bread herself? The answer is that she is way too busy. My wife is a highly productive person, and committing herself to one or two too many projects is a part of her method. I am a less productive person with a different method: I try to under-commit myself so as to leave me enough time to take on larger projects – one of which is to help alleviate the pressure caused by my wife’s overcommitment. She would of course describe the problem differently – if she had the time.
For this and other reasons (see the general rule of labor distribution in modern marriage; see alsothe closely related first law of fungibility, to wit: “What truly needs doing will be done by one spouse or the other, usually the wife, except when the husband has already invested a great deal of time and effort in said project”), I knew the starter Cynthia was accepting would sit in the fridge, ignored by her, taunting me with memories of my own failures as a would-be baker of bread.
And so it did.
A week later, there I was, checking on the starter and trying again to make bread. But this time, I succeeded. The bread had nice pockets of air and a good crust. The inside reached a good level of sour. It was very tasty.
Daily life has been full of such soft lessons since I began working from home in mid-March. If you are healthy and fortunate enough to be among the employed, you can either suffer by reading the news all day long or make some bread, or go for a run, or throw yourself into work. It is not obvious how you should behave when tens of thousands of your fellow Americans are dying and their families are suffering, when businesses are closing and unemployment has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, all while your own life has shrunk to a cuter, more domestic version of itself.
I sometimes wonder whether it’s immoral to take such pleasure in my private life. If the pleasure came at the cost of others’ unhappiness, or by closing my mind to such suffering, it certainly would be. But I don’t think I am particularly guilty of either. Let me spare you the itemized list. I am happy to stipulate that I am short of a saint but not a completely selfish bastard. Like most people I belong somewhere in the imperfect middle, trying to be a good person but also spending a lot of my time, most of it even, trying to be good at things that might be considered morally neutral or possibly even self-serving: good at my job, good at writing, and, these days, good at things like making bread or playing the ukulele, which I took up a few months ago.
It is a good time for being good at things that pass the time and amuse the people closest to you. Several of my neighbors have been working with rising intensity on their cornhole skills, as a small league comes into its own in the driveways of our suburban neighborhood.
Yet these innocent pleasures also feel a little bit strange. My nagging conscience asks, are we not required, in troubled times like these, to look past the pleasures of private life and keep our eyes fixed on the sunburnt horizon of calamity? Must we not stare and bear witness to all of it, from global warming to the antics of our president to the crisis of authority that has us questioning simple medical recommendations while throngs of would-be pundits on social media tear at the fabric of civil society and sometimes raise serious questions, like whether it is possible for African-Americans to get a fair shake from the police, the health care system, or even a color-blind virus?
True, the world at large seems rank and corrupt – as I check the clock in my kitchen to see whether it’s time to fold my bread dough once again. (There are three more rounds of folding to go.) While the news cycles count the minutes of this annus horribilis, I look out the front door and see Norman Rockwell scenes: a twelve-year-old learning to ride a bicycle from two encouraging friends; parents returning from a nearby basketball game, with their kids walking beside them and, yes, talking to them, talking to their parents. Even as public life veers toward a national orgy of hate, accusation, and lies, the pandemic has been wonderfully rich in the elemental pleasures of family and domesticity.
Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I have three children who, in a normal year, would have been in school, being educated by people who are actually qualified to teach them. This year, the stress of their being stuck at home is showing up all over the place, from the number of drinking glasses accidentally broken to the frequency and severity of the kids’ worst behavior. The current index of negative family indicators at my house is like one of those Greek diner menus that go on for twelve pages and seem to leave nothing out. We all desperately need a long break from one another. But amid the chaos there have been incredible moments of connection, running jokes, collaborative projects, board games, and many more encounters that have led to greater knowledge of each other’s character, tastes, and inner lives. I know my children much better than I did before this crisis, and I feel known by my children in ways I have never felt known before. It often seems to me that I am living out my personal fantasy of what family life was supposed to have been like all along. Life is perfect – except for the disaster looming beyond the perimeter.
When my three children were sent home with their laptops, I was all but shining with noble intentions. I thought I could convince them that studying was their job and they were my fellow workers, all of us building our little projects, sometimes across from each other at the dining room table.
But when a home is a school and workplace all at the same time, things change drastically. After a few weeks, we entered some nether zone in which the children began to have more responsibilities, aka chores, but we all have more free time. Instead of fellow workers, we’re like fellow students, and it’s one of those hippie schools you hear about, with no grades or deadlines and the students determining the course of their own education.
There’s a lot more cooking class and much less health class, more music and less math, more shop class and domestic arts, and a lot of conversation and movie-watching. Traditional subjects are getting short shrift. But traditional arts and crafts—reading, drawing, music—are thriving. We’re closer to being a jam session than a class of students prepared for its next year of schooling.
Self-improvement is in the air, at least on the better days.
Among the skills I most wish I possessed are the abilities to play music and speak a foreign language. Thinking I might tackle the first, I asked for a ukulele as my birthday present. It’s like a guitar but smaller, with only four strings and a lot of open chords. It’s one of a handful of instruments that, like the harmonica, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Cynthia dutifully bought one for me. I dutifully plucked at it for an hour or two. Then, gift receipt in hand, I returned it to the music store. Though I had never played an instrument before, I knew this ukulele – a little more on the toy side of the toy-instrument spectrum – was not up to my standards. For just a little more money, I walked away with “a piece of wood and plastic,” as my ukulele hero Amanda Palmer calls it, whose sound was a good bit warmer and not so squeaky.
Cynthia thought it was hilarious that on my very first day as a musician, I was already a snob about my instrument – and about a ukulele, no less, the least snobbish of instruments. In my defense, I knew that if the ukulele and my completely ignorant playing didn’t sound any better at the outset, my career as a ukulele player might be over before the weekend.
Like all novices, I had high hopes to protect and nourish, like making up silly songs one day that would mock my children for leaving their rooms a mess or playing too many video games. (Several years ago, I made up lyrics for a song about Father’s Day: “For taking out the garbage and cleaning up the garage / Happy Father’s Day.” I would love to support it with an instrument.)
To be honest, my development as a ukulele player has not convinced anyone that the undertaking deserves greater investment. So it is a good thing that my additional expenses related to ukulele playing have been minimal. In February I thought of paying for lessons. This turned out to be impractical unless I wanted to settle for virtual lessons, which I did not. It seemed better to take advantage of the many freebie tutorials online. So far, my progress has not outstripped the supply of free lessons.
Besides, learning on the cheap decreases the pressure to succeed and makes it easier for me to put the ukulele aside when more pressing projects interrupt. Also, after my sons told me that I should buy a cool sports car for my midlife crisis, I told them I had already made my big midlife crisis purchase: a ukulele. They countered that their mother was the one who actually bought the ukulele. I returned shot by pointing out that, in fact, I had returned that ukulele and paid for an upgrade.
This meant that my big midlife crisis purchase was half a ukulele, whose total cost barely crested the $100 mark.
Sometimes I imagine that if I don’t show much interest in flashy material goods, my kids will learn not to spend their days lusting for speedboats and sport cars and expensive vacation packages. For this I will probably one day be rewarded with postcards from Aspen showing my sons in a hot tub, surrounded by ski bunnies, with a Land Rover parked in the background. In any case, playing even the humble ukulele has deepened my pleasure in listening to all kinds of music, from the mumbled confessionals of singer-songwriters to the highly coordinated thrusts of the classical orchestra. The talent and skills that build songs are now more evident to my ears, and I can better appreciate the good fortune of a well-written song. I can see that even modest musicianship takes an immodest level of dedication.
It may seem that, consumed with bread-making and music, I have spent these months hiding in a flour-smeared apron or taking shelter behind my ukulele to avoid the profound conflicts that surface daily in the media; but the steady cultivation of one’s own garden is important, too. It carries many benefits, not just to the gardener but to his family, his guests, and others.
Learning to make bread and music teaches you to appreciate not only the bread and the music but what others do for you when you are a guest in their homes or restaurants, when you listen to their music, and when you are lucky enough to see them enjoying a tomato sandwich at their kitchen tables.
The domestic arts are no less deep than the usual subjects of public debate and sometimes more so. While others are consumed by the latest outrage of our polarizing president, I check to see whether there are any bananas or apples left on the sideboard. As I do, I’m reminded of the great paintings of the Dutch golden age, when bourgeois collectors clamored for pictures of bread and fruit and cheese, all of it ripening past perfection and reminding the viewer of the transience of life itself.
David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture and lives in Alexandria, Virginia.