The Thinking 

Two Kingdoms

July 19, 2009


    I have never lived in the Kingdom of Domestic Perfection, but I’ve caught glimpses of it. Peering through its gleaming gates, I’ve seen its streamlined highways and well-lit interiors. Perhaps you already live there and know all about it. Then I don’t need to tell you that the skies are a consistent hue and that it almost never rains. Except when rain is forecast.
   In the Kingdom, people are strong and large and healthy. Even in the car or at a desk, they are as healthy and vital as oxen at the plough. I don’t mean to be insulting. They are highly intelligent.  If intelligence is the steady application of the mental forces toward a tangible goal, their minds are supple and fit.
   In Perfection, the stream of consciousness is no longer a stream. It’s more like the regulated flow from an engineered dam. And, people are grateful for that. No child is born without a reason. No life is continued without a reason. No love is given and no love received without a reason.
   Everyone is perfectly equal, as in 1 + 1 = 2 and 15 = 15. Or, at least that’s what I’m told. The men and women differ only in frivolous anatomical respects. The women enjoy football and the men cook. They cook dinner with fervor, like aeronautical engineers preparing for a test flight. 
   The children are equal to adults in all essential ways, although it’s true they have grave physical inadequacies for a few short years. Before long, they make their own food and cure themselves when sick. They are content to sit quietly with an interactive device.
   Old age is nice in Perfection. The grandparents die unobtrusively when the time comes.
   The very best thing about the Kingdom is its machine-like efficiency. The homes, large and roomy, are immaculate and frequently empty. The closets are full. The kitchen countertops are spotless and the beds are always made. The dogs sleep during the day.
   Serious disputes are settled by the Kingdom’s chief institution, the House of Legal Perfection, where everything is decided according to the Rule of Maximum Individual Fulfillment (MIF), the kingdom’s guiding document. MIF is happiness. MIF is perfection.
   The other main institutions are the House of Physical and Mental Perfection, for cures and prescriptions; the House of Educational Perfection, where children spend six days a week 11 months a year; and the Perfection Emporium, a vast complex of entertainment and shopping establishments that exceeds the imagination in its multi-faceted splendor.
   To tell you the truth, that’s all I know of Perfection.  Follow that bridge at the bottom of the hill. Cross the railway bed and enter the valley. That’s where I live, the Kingdom of Domestic Absurdity.
   Viewed from above, the streets show scattered steeples, smokestacks, spires, and various signs of architectural experimentation. Absurdity is profoundly vegetative and profoundly mineral. The people are quasi-agricultural – out of necessity and preference – and they are compulsive builders. Stones are their preferred medium. Stalks and pods, vines and limbs, creepers and primeval shrubbery – a maze of growth exists in every season. The welcome mat outside each door is muddy. Rakes and hoes are propped against the walls.
   There is always someone at home in Absurdity.  Rarely does a day pass without some disagreement, but there is no House of Legal Perfection and disputes end eventually.   Frugality is a way of life, both a communal art form and a rigorous discipline.  The Absurd Casserole takes three hours and 45 minutes to make from start to finish. The men rarely cook it and most have no idea how to put it together. 
   There is virtually no equality in Absurdity. In fact, the word is rarely employed in reference to people. The men are unequal to the women and the women are unequal to the men. The children, who outnumber adults by roughly three to one, are the most unequal of all.
   No child is ever alone. Grandparents resign themselves to unpredictability, noise and visitors. The maiden aunts are besieged. In the whole kingdom, they are the most adored, their profligate love reciprocated by those whom they spoil with repetitive kisses and candy. 
   Tragically, there are few toys in Absurdity. Children play with rocks (a fact often repeated in Perfection). They visit the maiden aunts and jump off walls. They are forced to play for long and uninterrupted hours outside. Their games are frequently altered through improvisation and contentious dispute. 
   There is no House of Educational Perfection, but there are small schools, including some which convene for only one day a year. The chief institutions in the Kingdom are the Thinkery, the Chapel, and the Rink.
   One of the salient features of Absurdity is the honor given to the act of reflection. In Absurdity, the tributaries and rivulets of thought are protected. They flow into the wide, bottomless gulf of treasured communal ideals but also contain deep currents of skepticism.
   Here, people try in vain to keep the mind forever running toward a fixed destination. The circuitous path across a meadow, a trail through the woods, the rocky descent down a steep ravine: these beckon and the mind follows. It yearns to wander. Memory holds a special place, possibly because death and illness are a constant or possibly because memories are often more true.  
   Here there is no Rule of Maximum Individual Fulfillment. But, there is  what the people of Perfection consider a savage and primitive notion of human love. Love is believed to have almost mechanical properties. It propels people through and beyond time.  In Absurdity, to love another person –  or two or three or four people –  is often no more complicated than to accompany them through time.  Love means synchrony.
   Each home is under a form of mild, mostly benign, but occasionally punitive, communal surveillance. It’s not that there’s no privacy, it’s just that every home conforms to certain cherished ideals or risks censure. Even private acts are considered communal gestures. Every present action is believed to extend both into the distant past and the far-off future.
   No home is permitted the Right of Dissolution, a sacred principle in nearby Perfection. This right does not hold in Absurdity because each home is considered a repository of ancestral memory. The highest domestic goal is the guarding of this collective memory. Continuity is the sine qua non of life in Absurdity. Home is perpetuation.
   This ancestral memory comes in many forms: trite traditions, exalted rituals, sacred stories and poems, and certain settled ideas. In Absurdity, people are often rediscovering the old, as they say, while in Perfection there’s much talk of the “courage to be new.”
   Once I saw this crude homemade poem tacked to a bulletin board at The Thinkery, and I think it is characteristic of Absurdity:

         My thoughts embark in the silent sound.
         They hoist their sails to go round and round.
         They trawl by day,
         Cast lines at night,
         Baiting and awaiting
         What they’ve already found.
   The culmination of the summer season in Absurdity is always the Festival of Metaphysical Fun, which has undeniable roots in Absurdity’s pagan past. Here people get together to eat, play games, engage in rhetorical contests, and exchange thoughts in an atmosphere of earthy civility. Vulgarity, cheap irreverence and derision of cherished ideals are strictly forbidden, but dissent is encouraged. I remember one especially impassioned citizen who protested all attempts to treat the mind like “a circus bear on a chain.” Applause was generous.
   The whole thing is the target of ridicule in nearby Perfection, where most questions were settled long ago, once and for all. It’s true that in Absurdity thought is often metaphorical and picturesque. This bothers the people of Perfection, who prefer to get to ideas without detouring through concrete things.
   Wisdom is abundant and free in this world. But, it’s never just given. It holds its hand out as you’re precariously dangling from the ledge.
   A housewife in Absurdity never lacks for wise company. I should know. She is encouraged to consult – in addition to the requisite home maintenance manuals – the great minds of history, Romantics and cold-hearted materialists, poets and scientists, philosophers and political dissidents. She samples them all. You might ask what these intellects have to say to a mere housewife. But, of course, the universal conundrums are alive within every home. The kitchen broom and the garden hoe are ancient tools of enlightenment.
   The home is a miniature republic, asking us to define ourselves in the same way the founding of a nation asks for clarification of invisible aspirations. Home is a metaphysical project, as well as the most practical and essential enterprise on earth.
   Possibly you live in Perfection and already know of this practical side. In that case, I lay before you this absurd compendium of thoughts on the subjects of love, home, happiness, beauty, the soul, culture and many other absurdities with modest expectations. Perhaps they will make you appreciate anew your rightful place in your own kingdom.



Melissa writes:

My sister-in-law lives in Perfection. She cringes when my kids enter her house because she literally fears the clouds of dirt that follow five boys. She has two girls, and as long as they are safely ensconced away at some class, then the princess dresses and Barbies are tolerable. But four girls linger at my hip begging for tea parties and to bake mini-cupcakes after mini-brownies after mini-quick-bread. I love the Valley of Absurdity and would never leave my imperfect herb garden and the vast wasteland that is between the GI Joe cemetery and the play house complete with laundry line that matches my own. My own earth to grow food (mostly herbs, green onions and garlic) and kids is precious to me. I love my life and the husband who makes it possible. I am at home baking those mini-brownies and staying up with him to make more babies to eat mini-brownies.
I am printing out your Absurdity piece to hang on the bulletin board over my sewing table. When my dear sister-in-law comes for her first visit in three years and I feel the tension build, I will steal off to my room to read this entry rather than to the kitchen for clandestine sips of hard liquor. Thank you.

Laura writes:

Thank you.
You say, “I love my life and the husband who has made it possible.” I have heard that again and again in Absurdity. Someone once told me that wives in Perfection never openly praise their husbands. I don’t believe it, but that’s what they say.
Melissa writes:
I think that you are right that in Perfection wives never thank their husbands. While I can’t be sure because my experience is limited, I know that I have never heard my sister-in-law thank her husband.
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