April 19th, 2019


Where I went wrong

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published July 14, 2015

    Where I went wrong

Would you believe that I once opposed educational television because it might interfere with the kids' school work, diverting their attention from school?

Boy, was I ever wrong, as I realized soon enough when my little girl started learning her numbers, colors and words long before she started school, or even pre-school. Soon she'd fallen in love with Big Bird and the rest of "Sesame Street's" full cast of characters.

She was learning not just what she would need in school and out but some human sympathy, even and especially for Oscar the Grouch ("I love trash"), who soon became my own favorite character. E-TV, it turned out, wasn't just for kids. It gave a dad permission to let his inner misanthrope out for an hour a day, and even revel in being a packrat. Just like Oscar.

Educational television wasn't my only miscall over the years. There were so many it's not easy to pick the worst one. Maybe it was backing John Anderson, the third-party presidential candidate in 1980 when the other choices were Jimmy Carter -- whose presidency was already a disaster in terms of the economy, foreign policy and every other way -- and Ronald Reagan, who was supposed to be some kind of right-wing nut. Who knew that he would turn out to be the greatest president since Franklin D. Roosevelt? Not me, captive of conventional "wisdom" that I so often was. And may still be.

It was Reagan who set the stage for one of the longest peacetime economic expansions on record, not to mention the end of the Evil Empire and with it the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race that had hung over the world like a dark cloud for decades. Not bad for a president who was once dismissed by one of Washington's whited sepulchers as an "amiable dunce." Amiable he definitely was, but just who was the dunce may safely be left to the judgment of Clio, all-seeing muse of history. Suffice it to say, I became one of The Gipper's fans, and remain one.

I was reminded of all that when watching the educational channel the other night (there's something about Doc Martin I can't resist) and up came a special on Arkansas' own Euine Fay Jones, our native son and worthy emulator of Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with Wright's genius but without his eccentricities. The special was titled "Sacred Spaces." As in Fay Jones' elevated and elevating Thorncrown Chapel in North Arkansas, one of the glories of American architecture.

Profane spaces have their resonances worth respecting, preserving and refining, too, as Fay Jones recognized and demonstrated. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright did, designing his houses down to the smallest Beaux Arts details. Like screen doors, transoms, windows, staircases, bookshelves ... all can be works of art that enhance our lives and feed our souls every day.

The most mundane objects have their poetics, too, as anyone who has a favorite coffee cup or sugar bowl well knows, treasuring the way it fits into the hand or memory. Mine is a spoon that was accidentally caught in the Disposall when my now grown-up daughter came down to prepare a Passover seder one year, and the spoon had to be freed from its greasy grip with much effort. When it was, its handle told the whole story -- for it was bent and chipped. That was years ago and even now I love to feel its rough edges and remember.

To quote Gaston Bachelard's classic, "The Poetics of Space":

"Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep."

Such objects no longer belong to us but we to them. As artist-architects like Frank Lloyd Wright well understood, and took pains to emphasize.

But each of us tends to be captive to the spirit -- or spiritlessness -- of our own times, as if each generation is locked into its own elevator in time, unable to escape its all-pervading assumptions and habits of mind. Those of us who fancy ourselves the freest of the spirit of our time may be most in thrall to it -- as this review of where I went wrong shows. My opinions, it turns out, were not so new or groundbreaking as I had proudly thought. And that's where I may have gone most wrong.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.