The arrival of the Great American Backyard Bird Count a few weeks back prompted a once-a-decade bird-feeder cleaning. I have a couple of the dome-over-dish type, and since I look down from my loft-office window, I figured I could count better if I could see through those weather-stained, mold-splotched domes. Should I do the cylindrical one, too, while I was at it? No. Obvi. Foul as it might have been, the cylinder had no apparatus to block my view. To borrow one of my dear departed father’s favorite expressions, I wasn’t going to make it my life’s work.
I hauled ‘em in to the kitchen sink (Dede not at home), soaped ‘em, scrubbed ‘em, and rinsed ‘em down. Problem: when the domes dried they were just as opaque as they had been, though not quite as nasty. I took ‘em outside and went at ‘em with a spray cleanser. Made no difference. Hadn’t I had better luck last time I tried this? Hadn’t I been able to completely restore their acrylic transparency? What had I used? Since I couldn’t remember the answers to the first two questions, the third one was moot. I hung the feeders back up, having at least imparted a measure of hygiene. I had also succeeded in not making it my life’s work.
A path opens before me down always-entertaining memory-loss lane, but today I have a greater theme in mind: sorriness.
I’m not claiming to be the sorriest person in the world. I’m willing to bet that at least a few house painters are sorrier than me. Maybe a few jackleg auto mechanics. But I’m sorry enough.
I deceived myself on this point for the longest time. Wasn’t I a go-getter, full of grand ambitions, a leader of men? Hadn’t I been elected president of my ninth-grade class? I was rounding the bend past sixty when it hit me that that was actually my mother’s conception of me and that it probably wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. Dead 30 years. Mom, let it go. It’s too late for me to be a Supreme Court justice.
Now I see the truth. Now I look in the mirror and I see sorriness. What’s more, with these new eyes I can see a proclivity toward sorriness from an early age. One night in tenth grade (the huge election victory a year earlier notwithstanding), instead of reading the history assignment I hula-hooped 5,000 times, a perfectly pointless endeavor encouraged by my dear, long-gone, equally sorry brother. The go-getters pretended not to study and made the Dean’s List. I didn’t study and made Cs.
But is that such a bad thing? My father would think so. When he said, “Don’t make it your life’s work,” you were supposed to understand that the injunction applied to putting gas in the lawn mower, say, rather than to, say, everything. He went to the office every day until he was eighty, a classic type-A. Which is fine, of course. But one of those in a family is probably enough.
The way I see it, sorriness is a gentle, unassuming vice, one that doesn’t insist on dominating the personality. It’s a vice that leaves room for virtue. For example, sorry people almost never run for high office, direct global corporations, or incite religious fervor. The small force sorriness exerts does nothing but create an almost inaudible ping in the machinery of capitalist consumerism. Sorry people know how to say “no.”
Sure, I wake up some mornings and think, “Gee, maybe I should do something today.” Because, in this culture, how could sorriness not be vulnerable to self-reproach?
But we sorry people — those of us who are serious about it — will remain true to ourselves and strong in our aversions. Nobody is the boss of us.