My Father’s Magic and How He Worked It

When I was in my 20’s, I had the rare privilege of watching my father teach an adult Sunday School class, using abysmally bad materials.  The classes were a lot better than the materials.  That puzzled me.

I got the materials myself and began to work with them during the week leading up to the Sunday class.  I didn’t find anything there.  It was as nearly without ideas as a desert is without waterfalls.  The writing was thoughtlessly bad.  It was trite.  When I forced myself to get past my assessment of the materials and to ask a much better question (“What would I do if I had to teach this lesson?), I found that I had no clue.  And even as I was coming to that conclusion, I knew that the next Sunday, Dad would find a way to create a good warming fire of discussion out of these dead embers of written lessons.  And he did.  And I would try to see what he knew that I didn’t.

Even while it was going on, I knew it pleased him.[1]  How would it not please him?  Your son comes up to you and says, “Will you teach me how to do this?  My efforts are failures and yours are successes. I know that you have skills I don’t have.”

It turned out that he didn’t know how to say “what he did.” He told me that “experience helped him.”  I was in my mid-20s and I didn’t have any experience and too little patience to like the answer.  Now I am in my mid-70s and I know exactly what he meant.  But where Dad’s gift was to do, and not so much to say, my gift is to say.  That is what I am going to do here.

Here’s a line from Dorothy Sayers’s book, Busman’s Honeymoon.  It isn’t much of a line, but it is as good as the much more extensive materials Dad had to work with.  Lord Peter Wimsey has just taken his wife, Harriet, his mother, and his cousin to the local church on Sunday morning.  Peter has been asked to read the morning scripture.

“The congregation sat down with a creak and a shuffle, and disposed itself to listen with approval to his lordship’s rendering of Jewish prophecy.”

Having lived as long as I have and read as much as I have and, recently, having written as much as I have, I discover that most statements of this sort attract my attention.  Words like “disposed itself to listen” and “listen with approval” take on some significance to me because of the categories they fit into.[2] 

Let’s start with what it means to “dispose oneself” to listen.  This is a little bit of a sore point with me because I teach undergraduates who seldom “dispose themselves to listen” and who, if this were to be pointed out, would argue that such a “disposition” is not their job.  There are a lot of alternatives to “disposing oneself to listen.”  One can avoid the setting.  “Never go to church (class).”  Boring old sermons (lectures).”  One can “enact listening”[3] while actually attending to other things or to nothing at all.  And without even the pretense of listening, one can hop onto Facebook on one’s laptop or text friends on one’s phone.  You really don’t have to “dispose yourself to listen.”

And not everyone knows how.  As the obligation to listen has decayed and the occasions where one must listen have melted away, the skills necessary have atrophied as well.  Note the relationship of those three.  If you have the obligation to listen and not the skills, you are in for a long period of boredom.  If you are often in settings where you must listen, you are quite likely to develop, on the one hand, the sense of obligation, and on the other hand, the necessary skills.  I don’t mean to imply that those happen in the same order all the time nor that one is logically prior to another.  I think you will agree with me, however, that the three positive dispositions reinforce each other (obligation, settings, skills) and that the three negative dispositions also reinforce each other (no obligation, few settings, and low levels of skill).

The fact is that even when you know how to do it, it isn’t always the first tool to come out of the shed.  I often find myself listening to a performance of some kind and finding that it is too fast or too slow for me.  Sometimes I really want to invest myself in the listening, but when I begin, I find this discrepancy.  Generally, I am fast and it, whatever it is, is slow.  When I remember that this is something I have chosen to invest myself in, I know how to “dispose myself to listen.”  I slow myself down to the speed of the presentation.  I listen to it as it ought to be listened to.

As a rule, two things happen.  The first is that I really enjoy it.  It might have been a slow-developing movie or a very long adagio in a symphony or a conversation that is properly preceded by exchanges of pleasantries and which will, if I continue to attend to it, become significant and enjoyable.  So I get all the enjoyment that comes naturally from those good things.  The second is that I get a break.  It is not necessary for me to have been functioning in the high gear I was in and slowing down—disposing myself to listen—provides a reminder that I ought to slow down and a very restful demonstration of the benefits. 

The second phrase that caught my attention is “listen with approval.”  This is a part, remember, of the longer phrase, “and disposed itself to listen with approval to his lordship’s rendering…”  One cannot, of course, approve of a rendering he has not yet heard.  He can, anyone can who knows how, prepare to listen with approval.  Some would say that “listening with approval” improves the quality of what you are listening to.  That is a point with some merit, I think, but it might take quite a while to work.

It is the mechanism I am interested in.  One of the scholars I studied in grad school called it “membershipping.”  I’ll grant you it is an ugly term.  He meant, by inventing it, to say that we do not ordinarily test what people say to see if it deserves “membership” in our conversation.  Rather, we “membership” it; we ask how it belongs, rather than whether it belongs.  We set our minds, in other words, to explain WHY it was a brilliant remark, rather than the task of determining whether it was or not.  This is not always a good thing to do, for obvious reasons, but I will guarantee you that the members of the congregation listening to Lord Peter’s rendering of the prophecy of Jeremiah enjoyed every part of it more than they would have had they “disposed themselves to listen critically” to the reading.

Listening critically gives your mind the task of deciding how good it is.  Listening approvingly gives your mind the task of enjoying how good it is.  The first task is harder.  Not everyone can do it well although nearly everyone can pretend he is doing it well.  It is not hard, using Sherry Turkle’s words, to “perform criticism.”  The second task is easier.  Nearly anyone who is willing can do it.  The product of the first task is an evaluation of the performance.  The product of the second task is an enjoyment of the performance.  Each has its place.[4]

To return now, to how my father did what he did.  He took each of the elements available in the insipid materials and allowed it to ruffle his mind a little.  He found contexts of thought where they could be profitably be put.  He could teach the specific item, if that were needed.  He could teach the general category, if that were needed.  He could teach the relationship between the specific and the general and, to those who were paying attention, he taught just how to do what he was doing.

We’re close enough now to Fathers’ Day that I have been thinking with a more vivid enjoyment about what he taught me.  He would not tell me what he was doing, but he did it with such regularity that I figured it out.  And now that I am old, I have a batch of categories myself.  They aren’t the same categories Dad had, but they work the same way.


[1] I also know because I have sons of my own who, at one time or another, have asked me the question I asked my dad.  It felt really good.

[2] I will pass over the way “his lordship’s rendering” requires an understanding of the role of the nobility in Edwardian England and over what “render” might mean in “rendering Jewish prophecy.”

[3] Sherry Turkle’s phrase in Alone Together.  Robots cannot give you their attention—they are robots, after all—but they can “enact attention” and that is enough to satisfy many users of social robots.

[4] This would be the time, in another sort of post, to point out that oneself is at the center of criticism; the performer is at the center of “approval.”  In our era, being a keen-eyed judge of quality is a very desirable status.  Being able to give oneself to the experience of approval and enjoyment is not so highly thought of.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to My Father’s Magic and How He Worked It

  1. thinkydoug says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your father and the tools he helped you acquire. My father is a good bit more analytical about these kinds of things and is able to articulate nearly anything well, no matter how abstract. That’s been a real gift for me.

    People often ask me how I came to be this way or that–how I came to write the way I do, know what I do about language or grammar–and I usually say that it was a gift from my dad. The education I’ve taken up through the years has only been to refine the raw gifts you’ve given me, and for that and so many other things, I love and thank you.

    Happy Father’s Day, Pop.

    -Doug

    • hessd says:

      Jonathan Haidt says that ideology “binds and blinds.” It may be that fatherhood does the same thing, but I am not going to complain. I love the binding our writing has given us and I don’t care how blind your appreciation has made you. Thank you for all of that.

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