Concision, Precision and Decision

Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life.” ~ Victor Hugo

When I lived in Paris many years ago I had the good fortune to attend the press opening of the first ever performance in French of the stage musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables. The experience was fabulous and it left me with a great respect for the work of Victor Hugo as well as a deeper appreciation of why his novel was so influential in its day. Moreover, it caused me to think a great deal about social injustice at a point in my life when I was forming my early views on the world.

Most importantly, though, the memorable evening sparked in me a passionate interest in a refined and energetic self-expression…regardless of my station in life at any given point in time. Hugo imbued his characters with the eloquence to express their deepest feelings, even in the most difficult times.

I also came to the realization as well that letting my circumstances determine the nature and quality of my expression was tantamount to admitting failure in my effort to hew to the highest standard in living. It is clear to me now that radiance is infinitely more influential than reaction in any situation.

Finally, I came to understand that there is no way around the fact that the condition of your heart permeates your thinking and precision of your thinking determines your capacity for decision in life. A troubled heart leads to unclear thinking and the net result is indecision. Conversely, an untroubled heart constrains to precise thinking and the product of both is a decisiveness that cannot be faked.

In Retrospect

“Righteousness is easy in retrospect.” ~Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

How true is that?!? More often than not the right thing to do is the least popular thing to do. Politicians find themselves between a rock and a hard place on this point as reelection concerns are often pitted against the need to support unpopular but clearly necessary legislation.

If you’ve ever had to take an unpopular stand with your family because it was the right thing to do you likely faced chastisement, disdain and perhaps even rejection. For whatever reason, mankind tends to prefer the comfort of the known to the discomfort that often accompanies the road of integrity, which, incidentally, is typically the road less traveled.

“If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” ~Alan Simpson

To that I would add: “…neither friends nor family, worldly possessions nor reputation.” Your value as an individual requires that your character stand above all these. I repeat. Your value as an individual requires that your character stand above all these.

If righteousness requires that you take a stand, then stand! Don’t apologize. Don’t be afraid. Don’t lord it over those around you. If the stand you are taking is the right thing to do, you will feel good about yourself, you will be at peace with yourself. And that, my friends, is the perfect starting point.

I’ve made decisions in my life that took years to come to fruition. You must be careful not to set fixed expectations as to how and when the harvest should appear, for what you send out in righteousness rarely comes back in the size, shape or timing you anticipated.

Many people have nullified what could have been tremendous if not miraculous blessings because they reacted unnecessarily to the time between the planting and the harvest. Reactive proclamations like “Well I didn’t think it would take so long to work out” or “I made the right choice and I have lost so much” turn into attitudes and actions that abort the creative process.

While it is true that righteousness is easy in retrospect, I would be remiss were I not to mention a balancing factor. The French have a proverb which clothes this balancing point nicely: “Une bonne conscience est un doux oreiller(“A good conscience is a soft pillow”). Even if the world turns against you, if you have done the right thing and you know it you will be at rest with yourself, a rare state of being that can only be described as “priceless.”

To William Lloyd Garrison’s question posed over a century-and-a-half ago…”Are right and wrong convertible terms, dependant upon popular opinion?” I reply: absolutely not!

Mmmmm…gelato!

I was first introduced to Italian gelato while traveling around Europe on a Eurail pass many years ago. My friends and I were having a difficult time finding lodging in Florence as we had arrived unknowingly on an extremely popular Italian holiday, All Saint’s Day. As we walked along the River Arno, admiring the stunning architecture of the city, I read a poem written by Longfellow that captured the essence of this magnificent place:

The Old Bridge at Florence

Taddeo Gaddi built me. I am old,
Five centuries old. I plant my foot of stone
Upon the Arno, as St. Michael’s own
Was planted on the dragon. fold by fold
Beneath me as it struggles. I behold
Its glistening scales. Twice it hath overthrown
My kindred and companions. Me alone
It moveth not, but is by me controlled.
I can remember when the Medici
Were driven from Florence; longer still ago
The final wars of Ghibelline and Guelf.
Florence adorns me with her jewelry;
And when I think that Michael Angelo
Hath leaned on me, I glory in myself.

We turned up the Via de’ Benci, turned left at the Piazza San Croce and happened upon Vivoli gelateria. I tried several different flavors and I can assure you that it was love at first bite. Having grown up eating ice cream, I never knew what I was missing.

All of this came to mind as I was reading an article in the L.A. Times entitled “The Inside Scoop on Making Gelato.” Gelato has less fat than ice cream and is much creamier. If you haven’t tried it before, I recommend that you do so when given the chance.

If there is one thing that constrains to an experience of staleness, it is the unwillingness to try new things. Author Roger von Oech offered the following advice: “Everyone has a ‘risk muscle.’ You keep it in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it at least once a day.”

Step out of your normal routine, your well-trodden preferences and your predictable habits every now and again. Your taste buds will thank you and more than that, you will live a dynamic and interesting life!

What changed? Well, everything changed.

A man hasn’t got a corner on virtue just because his shoes are shined.” – Ann Petry

All this talk of fashion reminds me of a wonderful tour I was given of the John Lobb workshop in Paris, prior to its move to the rue de Mogador. If you haven’t heard the name before, John Lobb has been making some of the world’s finest shoes and boots since 1866 (http://www.johnlobb.com/heritage/). John Lobb was acquired by the Hermès Group in 1974 and their bespoke creations are wearable works of art.

Prior to the industrial revolution, bespoke tailoring, boot and shoemaking was the norm. Every outfit and every pair used to be made to fit the individual, highlighting assets and downplaying liabilities. Then came the industrial revolution and its machines and factories transformed an industry filled with artisans and craftsman.

Powerloom, Image by Wikipedia

The novelty and economics of “machine made” created an enormous splash, whose ripples continue to lap upon the shore of the pages of current fashion history. Everything could be made, cheaper, more quickly and for more people. What changed? Well, everything changed.

I recently spoke with a haberdasher about his experience with new clients who have never before tried custom-made clothing. He told me an interesting story about a man he had worked with the week before who never really liked clothing as his height and weight made it impossible for him to buy anything off the rack that fit properly. When he realized he could have clothes made to not only fit, but complement his frame, he was overjoyed. It was if a veil had lifted in his experience and with it went pounds of shame, embarrassment and discomfort that he had lived with all his life. He went from prisoner to proprietor. What changed, everything changed.

I’ve enjoyed seeing a resurgence of bespoke artisans – tailors, boot and makers and the like – in the wake of the industrial revolution. Unfortunately the cost of having clothing or footwear custom tailored is too high for most, but there are ways to complement your size and shape. It takes little research and a bit of practice, but men and women can find clothing that will improve their appearance on any income. You needn’t spend a fortune to find ways to magnify your virtue through wise clothing choices.

I spent an hour or so speaking with the various artisans in the John Lobb atelier, and to my surprise just about everyone I met had been working there for at least twenty years! They were proud of their craftsmanship, protective of their art and confident in their skill. All of them felt honored to do what they were doing and wouldn’t trade their craft for the world.

Compare that with the experience of most factory workers in today’s textile mills and you get a closer view of the changes wrought by the industrial age upon the loom of humanity. It is a starkly different texture. Progress? Well, I’m not so sure.

Forgive me for prying, but what in your world do you allow to imprison you? Your clothing is but one possible jailer, but what of your diet, your outlook, your friendships, your lifestyle? In my view far too many people live their lives in prisons of their own making. How do you break down these walls? Well, at first you must learn to be comfortable in your own shoes.

You have to be willing to get to know yourself as you are, here and now. Come to rest in your limitations and you will soon be free from your limitations. From there you can find those resources at your disposal that will best complement you as you now are. Moving onward and upward from there is easy!

If your experience is anything like mine was, when you come to rest with yourself the first question that will come to mind is “What changed?” To which you will naturally respond: “Well, everything changed.”

Have a great day!

All Work and No Play!

Paris at Night: View from Tour Montparnasse
Paris at Night: View from Tour Montparnasse
The year was 1989 and I had just finished another ceremonial soiree with 60 of my American, French and Soviet peers in Paris, France.  I had been selected to represent the United States as a student delegate to tour France in celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and we made our way by bus, by train and by air around the countryside meeting school and governmental officials, participating in town hall-style meetings and interfacing with the media.  It was a fascinating trip for a high school kid from suburban Michigan, believe me!  

Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova
On this particular evening we had the pleasure of meeting the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who no doubt had his hands full as the Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost resulted the slow reversal of decades of repression that began with the Bolshevik’s desire to eliminate the worldly and spiritual powers of the church in the early 1900s.  We also met the first female to fly into space, a lovely Russian cosmonaut named Valentina Vladmirovna Tereshkova.  Mme. Tereshkova was full of life, her call sign on the Vostok 6 mission was Chaika, or “Seagull” and her charming presence as we looked over Paris that evening from the top of the Tour Montparnasse left an indelible impression on my young mind.  

Earlier in the trip I had met an inquisitive Russian reporter, Peter Polojhevets.  He wrote for the cultural and education section of the national newspaper “Pravda,” and Peter was a fascinating fellow.  No doubt under intense scrutiny while participating on a trip like this before the fall of the Soviet Empire, he was eager to gain insight as to the typical life of an American teenager and I somehow became the subject of his story.       

The interview took place on one of our many bus trips through the French countryside.  With the help of an interpreter, Peter asked me many questions about my life, my habits, my days and my dreams.  At one point he asked why I did not wear a watch, to which I quipped “So that I don’t get a tan line(!),” a reply that tickled his fancy and made it into the article instead of my serious explanation that I offered once his laughing fit subsided.   

My real answer to Peter’s question was that I didn’t want to feel constrained by the passage of time.  Just prior to the trip I had been deeply immersed in the study of classical poetry in my A.P. French Lit class, and the poem “A Cassandre” (which I referenced in an earlier post https://gregghake.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/carpe-diem/), rocked my world.  It was the first time I had really felt the pressure of the finite nature of our time on earth.  

Thanks to Pierre de Ronsard’s beautiful verses, I vowed to make the fullest use of the time I had available to me to enjoy life, to give it my all and to make a difference in the world.  Ditching my watch was just a symbol of that, offering a constant and timely reminder of my newly discovered perspective.  Like all symbols, though, its value passed and I moved on.  To prove my point, I now have a watch…and a tan line on my wrist.      

It is far better to make every hour in the day count than to count every hour of the day.  There is a natural, rhythmic oscillation between exertion and rest, and as the saying goes, “All work and no play makes you…a manager.”  Just kidding!  Actually, the saying I believe is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Imbalance is unhealthy and leads to a lack of ease mentally and disease physically.  Setting the balance is your responsibility.  Many people aspire to “work hard” and to “play hard,” yet few, in fact, manage to achieve and maintain a healthy balance.   

Take heart!  Balance is achievable.  Rest periods are available throughout the day and don’t necessarily require time off.  There are lulls in activity, quiet points in conversation, occasional moments of stillness in the morning and evening that can all be used to advantage.   

Take the time to identify the brief moments of rest throughout your day today and don’t miss them because you’re fretting about what is coming next.  The majority of rest periods that appear throughout the day are missed by people who are ostensibly too busy to notice them.  This is true for parents, for business professionals, for students…across the board!  

Note the rest periods – no matter how infrequent they may be – and mentally or vocally give thanks for them.  Take the time to breathe deeply, to shift your focus of attention, to notice something you haven’t in the world around you.  It is well worth the “effort.”  The more you find a reasonable balance between work and rest the more pleasant your life will be.  The more you enjoy life, the more others will enjoy you.  I assure you.  

Let me know if you would be interested in seeing a translation of the article.  I’ll try to dig it up.  

Have a wonderful day.  Do svidaniya!           

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