Duty Rhymes With Beauty

I’ve been thinking about duty and balance. Since my last post, I spent five days on jury duty in a dreary suburb south of Seattle. And the Sunday after I finished jury duty, I spent the entire sunny afternoon reconciling the budget for the study abroad program I co-led this summer. This involved taping hundreds of Italian receipts to pieces of paper and justifying each expenditure on a complicated Excel spreadsheet. I was hoping for balance. I was off, as usual.

The jury I was on was a civil case, so our job as jurors was simply to decide how much money to take from one man and give to the other. We were not deciding guilt or innocence, just less money or more money. During the many breaks, we couldn’t talk about the trial, naturally, and the room came stocked with a goodly supply of out-of-date gossip mags and puzzles. And so the puzzle people in the room immediately snagged the only 1,000 piece puzzle and began assembling it. It was a sunsetty and wintery depiction of Neuschwanstein, Mad King Ludwig’s German castle. By the end of the first break, they had the edges assembled. puzzle

I had decided to try to make good use of these breaks and so began reading Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: A Selection which I had first gotten interested in while reading Dan Chiasson’s wonderful book of poems of the mostly same title. I didn’t get very far– the doughnut holes were flowing and the conversation in the jury room was lively–but I did learn the following, “Africa captures elephants by means of pit-falls; where an elephant straying from the herd falls into one of these all the rest at once collect branches of trees and roll down rocks and construct ramps, exerting every effort in an attempt to get it out.” I had never felt the pit in pit-fall quite so dramatically as in this moving description of this small society working together to save one of its own.

Is this true? I don’t know. It was true to Pliny’s mind and time.

Isn’t it true that“? the lawyers would begin their questioning again and again to get the witness to say yes or no. But they would never ask, Isn’t it beautiful that“?

Truth is not beauty, beauty not truth, in the courtroom.

This week, I also read David Sedaris’ new piece in The New Yorker and was moved by his more serious-than-usual reflection on family and work and travel. Here he describes a friend asking him to imagine a four-burner stove:

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Sometimes I feel like the Viking range of commitments. Work burning, poetry burning, family, friends, health all firing at maximum BTUs. I wonder if Sedaris’ friend, and Sedaris himself (as he comes to conclude) are right. Do you need to cut off one or more of your burners? Or is there a way to balance it all?

Pliny also writes, also of elephants at the gladiatorial shows, “they even walked on tight-ropes, four at a time actually carrying in a litter one that pretended to be a lady lying-in“”

My inner accountant knows we’re not balancing the budget this year. In fact, we’ll probably have a deficit.

And my inner defense attorney (or was it my inner prosecutor?) asks: Isn’t it beautiful that you haven’t been in a car accident and get to leave this courtroom and go back out into the world and read Pliny and walk like an elephant on a tight-rope and carry your burden du jour on a litter while it pretends to be more delicate and more beautiful than it really is?

By the end of the trial, the puzzle people had lost interest. Their discoveries had slowed and they were down to the murky heart, the bruise-colored shadows surrounding the mad king’s castle. The examined and cross-examined puzzle was left incomplete. We walked away from it, left it unreconciled, unbalanced, but we’d still done our duty.