Reconstruction Begins at Home

SINCE my recent assumption of the cloistered life and subsequent profession of faith,1 I have been importuned to present a working plan for prospective novitiates; to discuss, with rather more intimacy, ways and means for shuffling off the coils of trade; to speak of the things which will strengthen the spirit and fortify the wavering flesh. Expressions both of sympathy and of understanding pour in upon me; and, while the retreat from the beleaguered citadels numbers hardly more than a corporal’s guard, the movement is gathering an unmistakable momentum.

‘What you say about quitting work appeals to me in a big way,’ writes an old buddy, ‘but how about the money?’ And I do not remind him that not so very long ago it was considered vulgar to speak of money. . . . A quondam fellow toiler, still Prometheus-bound, says that he, too, expects presently to be gone for the day, and for the year, and forever, to etch, and play the cello, to read a book, and sing an old song, and sit in the sun. . . . ‘It’s a grand gesture,’ another confides, ‘ but you’ll soon tire of it. We must all buckle down; the fate of the world is being decided.’ And I have to confess that I am not much help in shaping destinies. . . . Some matrons of my acquaintance profess to wish awfully that their husbands could afford to get out of business, and delicacy forbids me to reply that I do not see how they can afford to stay in it. Others, more sedate, fearful lest their spouses join the home circle, bring me to book for spreading such a disquieting doctrine.

I should like to be helpful in rallying the brothers to the tocsin of liberty. I had not thought of conducting a mission; nor do I maintain a revolving fund for deserving aspirants. The tenure of my conversion is brief, and dividend mortality alarmingly high; I am not yet what one might call a Caæsar in my own bailiwick. But I shall attempt, in my poor way, to throw out a suggestion or two and cite some experiences of a satisfying sort. In a venture of this kind it is not easy to frame a Magna Charta or to make known your emotions from the housetops. One may very well extol, shall we say, the delights of falling in love — but the technique is largely a matter of practice and environment.

I

If there are those who deplore the ‘baser’ uses of seclusion in contrast with the higher motives of gainful commotion, their scruples in this regard should be quite readily removed. I have experienced far more harmful indiscretions than walking abroad with my dog. My wider committee life is constantly presenting new problems — chiefly how to meet deficits of clubs and benevolent bodies. I take as much pleasure in reading Alice in Wonderland with New York Central at 10 as I did with that ‘seasoned’ issue at 256. Solicitors for funds for all the new movements only occasionally drop in upon me, and margin clerks think twice before they pay the suburban telephone toll of twenty cents. Strolling through the village, I observe that the same eggs which were posted at twenty-four cents a dozen on my way to the library have receded to eighteen cents on my way home. I am anxious to get back to my scrapbook, to bring it up to date with a few grotesque entries, but chiefly to forget, in its dusty memorabilia, the scars of a cruel prosperity.

I have enrolled at the University, hoping to atone for outrages committed against the curriculum in my undergraduate days by rubbing elbows again with erudition, but I must reluctantly observe that I am still heir to an ancient frailty of falling asleep in class. Loosed from binding ties, I had projected a summer exodus to New England, where travel bureaus are ‘pointing with pride’ to the coincidence that many of the resorts will be directly in line with a total eclipse of the sun, scheduled to occur, rain or shine, on a late August afternoon. But need one go to New England for his eclipse when the phenomenon of totality is everywhere so much with us?

Time can pleasantly pass in visiting neglected relatives. If, in the heydays, you were doubtful of your welcome at Aunt Mamie’s Byzantine mansion, hospitality you will now find to be unbounded; the folks will be delighted to see you — and glad to know that you are as down at the heel as they are. It is a sort of kinship of misery. And we can reflect upon the futility of piling it up for posterity — one of the conventional deterrents to abdication. Investments ‘for the children’ are no respecters of persons, and, I find, have undergone wear and tear equally with the rest; and, further, whatever nest eggs for the kiddies may have survived must subsequently have been taken back by the ‘parent company’ in order to maintain a strong cash position!

At home, the primal urges can be satisfied for a tithe of what they involve when one is actively engaged. In respect to raiment, for instance, a coterie of the backgammon set in my community conducts a lively business of philanthropic barter, the residents sending in cast-off articles of apparel which are knocked down to the indigent for a pittance. I have from time to time picked up some interesting pieces; and my neighbor to the north will probably never know how close I came to owning, for seventeen-fifty, his new fur coat, which had, in some slight confusion, been taken up by the salvage collectors. For the information and guidance of those concerned, my last year’s tuxedo goes on sale next Friday at noon.

Despite the fact that wedlock has been pretty well deflated, a programme of freedom from the office depends a good deal on what manner of marriage is contracted. To swains who are no longer to be detained by the single state, I advise the extremest caution and a thorough examination of the prospective portfolio, with an eye both to hidden assets and to the going rate of return. The bride will do well to realize that nowadays, when the man of her choice comes to that part of the ceremony where he endows her with all his worldly goods, he simply means that he hopes to be able to meet all the payments on the engagement ring.

As a supplement to the sequestered life I might advocate a handiwork era, free from deals and syndicates, mergers and conferences, loans and discounts. Instead of ‘going places and doing things,’ the men will stay home and make things. Among their other failings, they are said to be suffering from skill-hunger. For my part I can neither sharpen a pencil nor drive a nail without appalling consequences. I remember that in the army our battery once had an assignment to dismember and reassemble a 155-millimetre gun; and that when the squad which did its tinkering under my direction had completed the operation we had enough pieces left over to build a mountain howitzer.

But I envy the genius that shows itself in carving and modeling, parlor tricks and cabinetmaking, landscaping and woodcraft. The preparatory school I attended is about to erect a Hall of Hobbies, where a lad can escape from the tedious iteration of the textbooks with ample encouragement and facilities for freeing the spirit that yearns to create. We need the ennobling influence of the chisel, the invigorating aura of sawdust. And so, a new set of tools, and with all speed to the basement workshop! The expedient may have no bearing whatever upon the gold standard, and our clumsy fumbling may go entirely unnoticed by the Chamber of Commerce, but the hardware dealers will never fail us in their orisons for our part in thus transforming a popular slogan: ‘Throw’ away your horn and get a hammer.’

II

It is, upon reflection, a most involved salvation. My own part in the epic is beset with doubts and misgivings, and I am aware of my pitiable limitations in grasping the simple anomalies of the moment. Depressions are the great levelers. After the vicissitudes of the years we are back where we started. It is the second lap of the seven ages of man. School, college, travel, calisthenics, memory courses, books of the month, have availed us nothing. Even our ‘one hundred per centers’ have not been immune from the rigors of depreciation. Vigilant societies are forming on every village green and on the magic carpets of business men’s lunch clubs, but deficits seem to go on forever.

The scene is replete with fiscal vagaries. The same common stocks which were being so profusely split up ten for one during the rampage are now to be reëxchanged in the humbler ratio of one for ten. Citizens everywhere, of high and low estate, are having their salaries pitilessly riddled — while our more or less public servants display an unconscionable reluctance to suffer any impairment of their emolument. As part of the militant crusade against hoarding, a special series of government bonds is authorized — said to have been originally designed on yellow paper bearing a facsimile of Silas Marner — for the benefit of those who are distrustful of the rock-ribbed obligations already outstanding. I had been expecting a visit from the ‘Paul Revere Rovers’—a civic body that was to go galloping about spreading assurances that all was well; now I understand that they were forced to disband when it was discovered that not enough horses had survived the Machine Age to mount a respectable squadron. We are the most law-ridden people on earth, yet during the past twelve months more than sixteen thousand fresh enactments were placed upon the statute books — forty-four new inhibitions for every calendar day! And we should bear in mind that it is not so much the original law as the upkeep.

Things have been getting a little too loose in the land of liberty. There has, it seems, been some slight overlapping in the federal functions, and a complete overhauling of the bureaucratic system has been ordered — the happy, if belated, advent of economy in the governing processes. And ’t is well. I am not one to trifle with my statistics: the cost of being governed has mounted more than 300 per cent over the past decade, while the increase in population has been not quite so brisk; in fact, a lackadaisical 25 per cent is all we can boast. One out of every forty persons is on the public pay rolls. You and I give up one dollar of every six we earn to support a ‘benign’ democracy. Last year the national income slipped off I don’t know how many billions, but pensions, bounties, and gratuities disbursed under government auspices helped ‘turn the tide’ to the tune of an increase of about three hundred millions; wages and salaries paid to local, state, and federal employees were hiked some five hundred millions. There is, apparently, plenty of balm in Gilead!

It has been suggested that my lack of comprehension in such quandaries is prompted by pique at not having been called to service on a federal commission; but the speciousness of the charge becomes manifest when I say that just the other day I encountered two other fellows who had been similarly overlooked.

It may be a silly notion, but I have for some time entertained the conviction that the men have failed pretty dismally in the current crisis. Two years at resuscitation have left them tired, discouraged, and a little mad. Indeed, word reaches me that the women, sated with the men’s unsuccess, are considering banding together to ‘ turn the rascals out.’ Certainly it is time for us to recognize that feminine talents are being wasted on soup kitchens, ship launchings, and benefits. If the dog days have produced no heroes, there assuredly are heroines on every hand. Throughout these calamitous times I can call to mind no instance of whimpering by our womenfolk; no self-pity; no brooding remorse. Privation and denial they have gracefully accepted. If, in the extremity, caviar is to be stricken from the menu, and the butler must needs go the way of all flesh, there is no resentment over my stubborn refusal to reduce my stakes at cards. They may have been careless a while ago about settling the bills; now they are demons at taking discounts. While the men are at their desks taking losses, the women are in the kitchen taking it, as the saying is, on the chin. The mothers are bringing up the children while the fathers are bringing down the house.

If the master’s voice has lost its resonance and the evening hour become a leaden interlude, the light-hearted spirit of the lady of the house has not deserted the threshold. We may have tried bravely enough, in the halcyon days, to appease her caprice for a Kohinoor; but, with our luck pushed into oblivion, a nosegay is now just as thrilling a token. I still dream of the days when a little bet on ‘Bethlehem’ in the morning became a coach and four by early afternoon; now there is only a kiss for Cinderella! When, to bolster depleted margins, we suggest the appropriation of her lifelong savings, she graciously turns the other sock. Reconstruction begins at home!

III

I have heard it charged against the advocates of private life that theirs is a selfish abstinence; that the broken contacts of the conference table and the board room are not easily rewon; that friendships are cemented in the stress of momentous negotiations; that without an interest in the latest underwriting, or a finger in that ‘ 10,000 Steel at the opening,’ or a part in the intercourse of nations, a fellow loses touch with life and severs himself from his rightful sphere. It is argued that absence from the thundering herd shuts off one’s contribution to society; but some of us, I am sure, feel that we made ‘contributions ’ during the recent festival to the Golden Calf which should — and probably will — last us for a lifetime.

I am familiar with the popular contention that our emphasis on school and college athletics keys up the youthful participants to a ridiculous pitch. But I dare say this somewhat artificial animation would represent comparative composure in contrast with the tension under which their daddies ply their daily stint, without the compensating prospect, I may add, of the victor’s accolade. Indeed, I cannot but incline to the belief that, had our office routine been tempered by a compulsory nap after luncheon and a cup of tea at sundown, no such convulsion as now grips us would ever have taken hold.

It would be a bearable ordeal if we could be sure that the assets we accumulated were a durable possession; but the traffic is in perishables, and the economists have thus far been impotent at preventing blow-outs in the porous fabric. Our fortunes, dearly won, are still subject to change without notice.

So I feel no defection from righteousness in preferring to pass the time of day in gentler pursuits. Might I even suggest to those who find themselves too sorely tried that they come and sit with me upon the terrace? The view is pleasant to the west, the air is fragrant, and there are no straws in the wind. Interruptions should be few. I have left the receiver off the hook; the mortgage does not fall due until Labor Day; the piano was tuned last week; I have made my donation to the firemen’s ball. I can promise the pilgrims that our dalliance will never make us rich; but, come to think of it, business, considered in the light of the late unpleasantness, holds out the same guarantee!

  1. ’Gone for the Day,’ published in the March Atlantic. — EDITOR