Thoughts of elaboration plague me. I have a theory (which I sometimes
take seriously) that it is in the nature of humans to elaborate any
activity to the point of meaninglessness. I like to tell a story
about the Tahitians at the time of their "discovery" by Captain Cook. A
major endeavor in that golden age was the creation of ornate
cosmologies. Hundreds were devised per generation, and the creators of
those most attenuated were greatly honored.
Perhaps this is indicative of nothing more than an elaboration of anecdotal evidence into a pseudo-science (of which there is more than plenty, which is why I sometimes don't take this seriously). But consider: I work as a typographer, a profession whose substance I am more often than not called upon to explain to strangers, and whose name I am often obliged to spell, so far removed is it from the familiarity of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. I spend my days (and many nights) bringing the structural harmony and ornate beauty of high art to the printed commercial messages of our day. My colleagues and I combine hundreds of years of theory with a finely honed visual discrimination to produce (what we hope is) absolutely stunning work.
And that work has a half-life measured in days. And the very best of it may be noticed by half of those to whom it is exposed. And of that half, perhaps one in five hundred will notice the endless refinement that gives the final product its visual impact. And of those few, perhaps yet again one in twenty-five will see exactly what was achieved, and how. And that one among thousands will be... another typographer...
And so I laugh at myself and the Tahitian cosmologers, but it doesn't change what I do or how I do it. I console myself with the thought that typography and grammar are the great "lost" arts, noticeable only when absent. I see enough garbage to know that this is false, at least in terms of statistical majorities, but the elaboration of comforting lies is another entirely human trait.
And, in truth, we live to satisfy ourselves, to make real in our bodies the image of ourselves we hold in the mind's eye. I may be preaching to the choir, perhaps even to empty pews. But the sermon is my own, and it took me years to write it. It resonates with a truth that I admire, even if I am wholly alone in my admiration. I may be describing the eyebrows of the second cousins of gods known only to me - but my descriptions are as exact and perfect as I can make them.
All of this became most potently real to me this Saturday just past, when my lovely wife Ann delivered our second child, a beautiful boy with long toes and a purple head, whom we have named Cameron. Prior to his birth, my wife had asked me to make a sign, reproduced below, advising our son's nurses to keep his mouth free of all latex surrogates.
True to form, I had made the most beautiful sign I could. I used Stempel Schneidler (sometimes known as Bauer) for the typeface, and I made custom alterations to the face itself, to remove some illogical and unsightly features. I set it to classic proportions and manipulated the letterfit to my ideal of perfection. Including copy and esthetic changes, the sign went through perhaps a dozen revisions. The finished product was rendered by a laser at high resolution and mounted on a beautiful piece of red stock. This we taped to the inside of the hospital isolette.
And when our midwife - an obsessive professional in her own right - saw that sign, she said, "Hey, that looks really nice. Did you computerize it?" I had nothing to say to that. We lacked a common language, and there was nothing I could say. Every bit of that sign except perhaps the mounting stock - and probably even that - would not even exist without computers, but surely this is the least interesting characteristic of any of it...
I remember seeing on television, years ago, a report about a man who claimed to be the last living speaker of a Native American tongue. I recall laughing at the time, thinking, first, no one can dispute the claim, and, second, no one can contest the quality of the man's own translations. What a perfect academic sinecure, professor of a completely dead language!
So, at last, it is not without dismay that I note that the joke is on me, more often than not. That doesn't make it any less amusing, but I wouldn't be much of a Tahitian cosmologer if I didn't regret that not everyone (barely anyone!) worships at my pantheon. Those who do make up in passion what they lack in numbers. And they craft marvelously elaborate euphemisms, analogies and simplifications for the laity and the heathens. And the most introspective of them, I surmise, wonder from time to time if they are not being just a little bit foolish...
But this, foolish though it may be, is my legacy to my purple-headed manchild. Cameron Alexander Swann is born into a home where people take seriously the tasks they undertake to do. Very seriously.
He is born into a home where tastes are refined and discriminations finely honed. Where everyone speaks cogently, and, contrary to Strunk, we never use a short word where the precise word will do. Where everyone reads to some level of accomplishment, and nearly everyone writes. Where things of beauty abound, and where the value and dignity and glory of the human spirit are honored full measure. He is born into a home where the life of the mind is a full-time obsession of every resident, and where self-examination is the rule rather than the exception.
He is born to a mother who can discern Titian from Raphael at a glance. Who can recount the history of Western art from the Greeks to the Boston School. Who can elaborate to perfect clarity the underlying causes of eating disorders - and show the way out. Who can make a beautiful home from virtually no money, and make a gourmet meal from practically nothing. A mother who births and rears bright, loving children - and who knows why that result is no accident.
He is born to a big sister, our daughter Meredith, almost three, who notices everything she sees and remembers everything she hears. Who soaks up knowledge faster than anyone has any right to expect, and retains it with a fervor that marks her as one of us. Who takes the delight in discovery that is the birthright of every human being, but which is beaten and berated out of most of us. A sister eager to show her new brother all she has found.
And he is born to a father who is proud to be one of those fools who never knows when to quit...
This is Cameron's legacy. Not a wealth that we have not yet found (we are un-American enough that we don't expect it to find us). Not a big house or a fancy car. Not even a paid-up education trust, the only item in this list I care about. In place of those rock-hard, solid, dependable, practical values we offer nothing but intangibles. But they are intangibles of the very best quality, and we own them in abundance.
We are not rich, but we prosper well enough, and each year is better than the last. There's a sound roof over our heads and the food is hot and frequent, plenty for everyone. We may not have all we could wish for, but we treasure all we have - certainly not always the case...
And so if our boy Cameron never knows Paris, he will know who he is and what he does and why he does it. If he lacks the latest sports car, we will do all we can to see to it that he lacks the reckless self-neglect that, too often, wraps sports cars around trees. If he has to do without the toniest status toys or shoes or clothes, he will never do without love, without respect, and without admiration. He may not have every thing the other kids have, but he will have everything most of them never get...
Be who you are. Do what you want. Have what you love. I say it to my wife, to my daughter, and to myself. And now, here, I say it for a first time to my much-beloved son, Cameron. Everything worth knowing is worth knowing completely. Everything worthy of pursuit is worthy of relentless pursuit. Everything worth doing is worth doing well. Everything worth having is the product of the deepest self-love, and love is not something that can be done dispassionately, half-measure, from a remove. Be the man you love to imagine and you will have all you need. Fail him, and no mere treasure will satisfy...
Of course, there is always the risk that, in your pursuit of excellence, you will appear faintly ridiculous, at times even to yourself. But a life without passion is a far worse fate, one your sister, your mother and I will strive endlessly to spare you. And come what does (as it must and will), you will always be able to distinguish Bert from Ernie. Titian from Raphael. And Bodoni from Walbaum, which but one person in 25,000 can do on a bet...