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The Urban Man: A Comic Prayer

by Marc Porter Zasada

Here in the modern world, we cling to our eccentricities as if they were gold. We say, “I’m a little wacky that way. I’m a nut for hockey. I collect funny saltshakers. I still play my clarinet.”

In an age which includes things like workforce management software, RFID cards, and SAT scores – when our emails are cataloged by lawyers and our identities stolen by the millions – the value of even the most minor personal quirks will naturally skyrocket.
Tonight the Urban Man has taken his children on a ritual visit to a production of the classic play, “You Can’t Take It With You.” Written in 1937, it shows the happy Sycamore family pursuing their eccentricities against all the iron logic of modern life: Down in the basement, father makes fireworks. In the parlor, mother’s typing her 11th unpublished drama. Daughter Essie’s still hanging around the house getting ballet lessons at age 29. Her husband, Ed, amuses himself by printing up nonsense on a hand press.

I’m sure you’ve seen the movie version or a community production, somewhere. If not, you’ve seen a thousand imitations: “You Can’t Take It With You” was the original of all situation comedy, and the first to center on a family of lovable kooks getting in and out of scrapes.
Nevertheless, back in the Depression, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart created something far more subversive than any contemporary sitcom – desperately wacky and risqué as those have become. Grandpa refuses to pay taxes. Daughter Essie and son-in-law Ed have no real ambition. The family are contentedly, self-consciously insular, and truly dedicated to their hobbies – not caring a fig what the world thinks about them. In fact, they don’t try to fit in at all – except, of course for Alice, the “normal daughter” who’s embarrassed to let the parents of her fiancé see the chaos of her home. Here she explains why a marriage would never work out between herself and Tony, the son of a wealthy capitalist:

TONY: …we’re not going to live with your family. It’s just you and I.

ALICE: No it isn’t…it’s never quite that. I love them, Tony…I love them deeply. Some people could break away, but I couldn’t. I know they do rather strange things…but they’re gay and they’re fun and…I don’t know…there’s a kind of nobility about them.

TONY: Alice, you talk as though only you could understand them. That’s not true. Why every family has got curious little traits. What of it? My father raises orchids at ten thousand dollars a bulb. Is that sensible? My mother believes in spiritualism. That’s just as bad as your mother writing plays, isn’t it?

ALICE: It goes deeper, Tony. Your mother believes in spiritualism because it’s fashionable, and your father raises orchids because he can afford to. My mother writes plays because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered by mistake.

TONY: Darling, what of it?

ALICE: And – and look at Grandpa. Thirty-five years ago he just quit business one day. He started up to his office in the elevator and came right down again. He just stopped. He could have been a rich man, but he said it took too much time. So for 35 years, he’s just collected snakes, and gone to circuses and commencements. It never occurs to any of them…

This work makes the extraordinary claim that if you were to do precisely what you wanted, and let the cold hard gears of the world turn without you, then the good Lord would protect you even from the common sense of money, long hours, bell curves, and tedious bureaucracy. You would face no SATs, no 1040s, and no workforce management software – only the cheerful blank pages rolled into a typewriter delivered to the wrong address.

If homeschooling ever develops a holy canon, I’m sure this play will make the cut. Certainly, after repeated viewings, my own children have come to refer to it in dangerously reverential terms. By now, I know they see our own homeschooling clan as a species of Sycamore: Fiercely dedicated to our hobbies, happily cut off from the flow of pop culture, and protective of our carefully-cultivated quirks. I know they feel we have that “kind of nobility” mentioned by Alice in the quotation above.

And yes, like other families we know, I suppose we have secretly come to see eccentricity as not just a charming byproduct of homeschooling – but somehow fundamental to the whole enterprise.
In this newspaper, for example, you will find many articles arguing that the skills you develop outside standard institutions can lead to wonderful things in the big world: Your work on the piano may become a lifetime gig; your backyard interest in the fauna of rainwater puddles might produce unforeseen cures; your fumblings with Jefferson might eventually reconfigure American opinion.
But if you read between the lines, you will see that each of these authors goes on to assert something much less provable: That your private interests are important right here and right now – even if you are a mere child or incompetent amateur, and even if those interests eventually lead…nowhere.

Indeed, homeschooling claims that even if your ideas never leave your living room you somehow participate in the great experiment of human endeavor: Ed will never print anything worthwhile. Father Sycamore’s fireworks will never contribute to the advancement of science. Essie will never be a great dancer. But like homeschooling, “You Can’t Take It With You” posits a value for these activities, in and of themselves.

Now, the Urban Man admits that any responsible parent should tremble before imparting this message to his child. I mean, hobbies? Dilettantism? Doesn’t success in the modern world depend on single-minded ambition? The shedding of all personal distractions? Surely, the most successful people may cultivate their little eccentricities, but they have learned to focus on the productive. Eventually, they turn over the bulk of their leisure time, their hobbies, and nonsense itself to professionals: The people who make silly movies, write fantasy books, own sports teams, and sell iPods. And surely, responsible parents ensure that their children’s own little interests become productive and mainstream over time. Heaven forbid that snake collecting should turn out to be something, like your money, you can’t actually take with you into the next phase.
And yes, the Urban Man is old enough to see how Kaufman & Hart use the false logic of all comedy: That G-d takes special care of clowns. I’m painfully aware that unlike what I see on TV and movies, this is patently untrue. Just because a man dedicates himself to merry amusements, providence will not always go his way: Good news will not always arrive at just the right moment, and checks will not materialize from thin air. If G-d protects fools, He only seems to do so onstage.

Again tonight, young Ed fiddles with his xylophone and bumbling government agents fail to collect Grandpa’s back taxes -- but I’m pretty sure that when we wake up tomorrow, the inevitable logic of our information systems, futures markets and chain restaurants will have survived without interruption through the night. When I boot up my computer in the morning, I’ll probably find that the workforce management software has not disappeared. The bills will still be piled up on my desk. Taxes will beckon. Deadlines will loom.

For a frightening moment, as I sit in the dark with my children, I wonder if I really have been an irresponsible parent – if I’ve been teaching the kids some giddy homeschooling daydream all these years instead of properly preparing them for a world of productivity metrics and dotted lines. I cringe when my daughter grips my arm during one inspiring onstage speech about the importance of not “waking up 20 years from now with nothing in life but stocks and bonds,” and she whispers, “Daddy, you’re just like Grandpa!”

Still, as we head into the chaotic second act, I can’t help feeling that old heroism rise up among the illusions of “You Can’t Take It With You” -- even in that canard about G-d and his happy eccentrics. In fact, the more I think about it, I find I really don’t mind these playwrights clouding my children’s judgment; and I discover myself defending my family’s own chaotic lifestyle to an unknown judge: I say, “Surely, like everyone in the modern world, my kids will need their eccentricities as they go forward into this fearful century. Indeed, homeschooling and it’s preoccupation with the personal may be the surest proof against the grim logic of the coming years. Perhaps I don’t mind if my kids develop an outsized belief in the value of their own little interests. Perhaps I don’t care if they develop faith in a G-d who will always spare them a corner of the universe to operate as fools.

And for a moment, the Urban Man actually pictures himself onstage, near the back of the Sycamore’s parlor, taking a tap or two on Ed’s xylophone. I interrupt Grandpa, and I speak an innocent prayer: “Lord, isn’t my family charmingly wacky, too?” And the crowd titters. “Don’t we…plant strawberries in our backyard? Take unnecessary singing lessons? Put on neighborhood plays? Struggle with the violin? And, let’s see…hey, don’t we look silly, all of us, heading out in our bicycle helmets like papa duck and a trail of ducklings?” Finally, I hear a few genuine laughs, and gaining courage, I say, “Surely, Lord, we too have harmless and comic souls. And surely, You will protect us.”
_____________

Marc Porter Zasada and his wife Martine have homeschooled their four children for the last 11 years. You can read more from him at www.theurbanman.com, or write to marc@theurbanman.com. He plans to release a book of essays for the Link conference this June. © 2005 Marc Porter Zasada.■