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Life as Performance Art

     Decades ago, when Montreal hosted a world’s fair, a friend of my parents had only three days to see everything.  For a normal person, that would not be sufficient time, but he was not someone considered normal.   People said he was dumber than dirt, an odd ball, a bubble off center, and just plain strange. To make matters worse, he was so reserved he never engaged in any of the usual banter or chit-chat. He kept quiet, and no one realized he was listening and taking everything in so he could think about it later. He once said, “If you listen a lot, you hear things.”  I thought he was a creative genius.
     Before his vacation Clarence bought a khaki-colored pith helmet, a clipboard with paper, and a deputy sheriff’s badge at Woolworth.  When he got inside the fairgrounds, he pinned on the badge, donned the hat, and carried his clipboard under his arm. With pure bold audacity, he went to the front of the line at each display or building he wanted to see.  He had no intention of standing in line for several hours to see something. Instead, he bluffed. No one examined the badge too closely, and in that hat and with a clipboard, he looked like some type of minor official. People made way for him.  He covered the fair in three days and had the snapshots to prove it. Now, just who is the one dumber than dirt?
      We had a President a century ago whom many people thought was like Clarence: dumb as dirt.  Most of us have forgotten about Calvin Coolidge, and that is a mistake.  Coolidge was notorious for keeping his mouth shut and listening more than he spoke.  A woman seated next to him at a dinner said, “Mr. President I bet my friend five dollars that I could get you to say more than three words.”   He looked at her and said, “You lose.”    One Sunday morning he came home from church and Mrs. C asked what the preacher said.  His answer: “Sin.  He’s against it.”  When he died, the infamous Dorothy Parker asked, “How can you tell?”
      People may have thought he was dumber than dirt but underestimating him was their mistake. Thanks to the Internet Archives platform, I downloaded his State of the Union speeches during the Roaring Twenties.   They are dry reading, almost a perfect cure for insomnia. But the fellow’s brains were firing on all sixteen cylinders.  We could use a little of his common sense today.
     He announced, “The business of America is business.”  In other words, keep it simple, keep it honest, and focus on what you are doing without getting distracted by everything swirling around you. As an example, for a number of years there were two very popular restaurants in southern Minnesota along the Mississippi River. One of them started out as a small, family owned and operated place, that call itself the Hot Fish Shop. They served freshwater fish, accessories, drinks, and offered a few selections of steaks. That was it. They provided good service at a reasonable cost.  It was a popular place for half a century until the family died out and the business was closed.  They intentionally closed it because even though there were potential buyers, the family had no confidence that they would keep up the standards.  They did not want their escutcheon tarnished.
     Another fish-based restaurant opened in the 1970s,  and it also did very well in the first few years.  Then, the investors and owners had delusions of grandeur and aspirations of a nation-wide chain. They cut corners, did not treat their staff very well, did not foster a relationship with the regulars, and kept raising the prices so they could buy more restaurants. It lasted about a decade and went bankrupt.
    Same basic product, but the two places had entirely different priorities and different business plans.  Unfortunately, it is something we see happening in many different areas of life.
      Often that is what happens when we ignore Mr. Coolidge’s great dictum.  Another example: Colleges and universities were traditionally institutions of education and learning. Much of that education was the result of a free flow of ideas and a mutual respect for sharing them. Professors and students brought their own ideas into the classroom, and where there were differences of opinion, they were civilly hashed out.  There were debating societies where hot button topics were discussed. Visiting professors and experts in many of the professions were invited to give a short opening address, and then the debates began.  Not everyone agreed, of course, but everyone could hear the message, think it through, and learn.
     This freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and free and respectful discourse of ideas is becoming a thing of the past.  Now, it seems as if two individuals or groups are throwing fireballs at each other.  I do not think that is good, nor do I believe it will get us anywhere. It is more of a show than education.
   Today, in many places, differences of opinion are not welcomed because it might be upsetting, traumatizing, or leave a student claiming that they do not feel safe hearing something they do not like.  Often, it extends well beyond a difference of opinion.  The speaker’s life history and background are scrutinized, as are his or her list of friends and associates. Any ‘wrong’ bits of information, or even the suspicion of the speaker holding wrong thoughts and ideas is forever held against them.
      If the business of education is education, I don’t think this recent trend is a good thing. We are merely wasting time and money and dummying down our educational system.
      Another fellow, often thought of as dumber than dirt was Yankee’s catcher Yogi Berra.  He was a master of convoluting the English language to make some smart points. One of his finest is an expansion on Mr. Coolidge.  He said, “The main thing is the main thing, and the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

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