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OrdinaryTimes 1.20-Mastery

I enter the shop reluctantly. I’d expected a more welcoming entrance, a better neighborhood. This place, squeezed between the smoky stench of past pull-dated fried chicken oil and a multi-purpose passport photo shop, scares me. The front window needs cleaning—on the inside more than out—and shelves seem randomly-stacked. Inside, though, I’m reassured. I’m in the presence of a master.

A small man, fashionably-dressed for 1973, steps out through a beaded curtain from a dimly-lit back room. He welcomes me with a nod and a phrase I can’t quite catch, delivered in a dialect few ever used. I mumble my query, suddenly stupid, unable to properly form words. I show him and he immediately understands. His body language tells me that my difficulty is small potatoes, but that I’ll have to wait a week, maybe more, for a fix.

I’m always careful to return on the day he’s promised delivery, even to the suggested hour. The fix turns out to be better than I, who could not even properly describe the problem, could have reasonably expected. The price? Lost in rounding.

In this neighborhood, half-gentrified now, few shops like his remain. A generation or two ago, almost every shop was like his, though perhaps a little tidier before his Frau passed. This master carries on his trade, true to his mentor, and his mentors’ mentors before him. He apparently has no son to carry on.

Around the corner, a franchise parody of his business displays a hot-hued logo and promises while-you-wait service. They even have an espresso machine and free wifi to help you pass the time. The clerks there employ a method, half routine and half the product of some image consultant, guaranteed to dazzle. Each wears a matching cotton twill vest with a cheery name badge, subtly communicating uniformity and efficiency, which serve as substitutes for any kind of quality. You receive a punch card promising your tenth order for free, and you will be back, never suspecting that this soul of cheerful cleanliness was actually ripping you off.

Mastery manifests in fundamentally off-putting ways. A master is pre-occupied, focused upon plying his trade rather than making a good impression. His idea of public relations extends no further than skillful delivery. He works alone and he will not invite you behind the beaded curtain. You do not want to see the workbench. It would only confuse your sense of order. He does not have a method. His apparent madness substitutes for repeatable process. His present mastery results from millions of repetitions, each very much the same but each also subtly, essentially different. He appreciates the value of time, not as a commodity to be preserved but as a vessel for practicing patience. He hastens only very slowly.

A master practices. He does not perform. In this world now populated with performance artists, he seems irrelevant. He understands his trade but seems disinterested in promoting his understanding. He has not distilled his vast experience into a set of rules. He relies upon no laminated card to remind him what he must endlessly relearn. He could not franchise. He stands present upon a foundation of his past without leaning into any future. He works timelessly.

I worry about what this world will come to when the last of his lineage leaves. He was once an immigrant, unfamiliar with the customs of this strange country, anchored only in the traditions of his trade. He hung out a shingle and served, satisfied with the opportunity to retain this small, significant expression of his identity. He remained a mystery to everyone but his family, but quietly appreciated by his loyal customers for the values he preserved; theirs as well as his.

Today, we Google for convenience, forgetting that inconvenience always was a necessary component of delight. No flash-frozen, industrial-grade snack could ever compare. We seem to seek satisfaction from hunger rather than to be fed. We retain no memories of what could have been satisfying suppers, never having been inconvenienced for a moment in preparation or consumption. We swallow without sufficiently chewing. We consume and have become consumers rather than awed clients. Nothing but clever method and showy performance seems worthy of our admiration now.


This short YouTube video of Scott McLeod got me thinking about Mastery again.

©2013 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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