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How to Do Things Right

How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man by L. Rust Hills is actually three books in one: a comedy, a tragedy, and an extended philosophy essay. The comic routines are reminiscent of Mark Twain with a sprinkling of Jerome K. Jerome. The tragic component is most visible in the uncomfortably honest Epilogue "What Finally Happened to Me" of Book Two, where the author discusses the breakdown of his marriage and much of his sanity, along with his eventual reconstitution. The philosophical segment in Book Three is the least satisfying, often lapsing into crude immorality and idiosyncratic cynicism/pessimism.

But there are enough gems sprinkled in the muck to make at least the first half of How to Do Things Right worthwhile. For instance, in the Postscript of Book One, "Delight in Order", a discussion of Disorder as the ultimate evil and Order as the initial good shines a bright light where it belongs:

The thing about both order and disorder is that they spread. Disorder, as is well known (i.e., a cliché), spreads like wildfire—that is, I suppose, much too fast and out of control. But order spreads too—not far, not fast, not like wildfire certainly, but it still spreads. How order spreads is in an orderly way: slowly, calmingly, carefully, even neatly. But the key thing about how order spreads is that it spreads from the inside out.

...

If you get yourself straightened out and settled down, it's going to help your spouse to get in order too; it's bound to. And this in turn will have a good effect on the kids. Maybe even the dog will get less yappy and nervous, and that will please the neighbors. Order spreads slowly, but it spreads. Real order, the order which is worth seeking, begins with the composed, balanced, secure individual (you); spreads (one hopes) through the composed, balanced, secure family; extends (perhaps) to the composed, balanced, secure community; and thence (with the participation of millions) to the nation; and from there (triumphantly) to an ordered, composed, balanced (and grateful) world. But you have to start with yourself—you first, then your spouse and kids, and only after the dog do you tackle Town Hall.

That's rather serious if tongue-in-cheek. Sillier are some of the bits like "How to Eat an Ice Cream Cone", "How to Daydream", and "How to Cut Down on Smoking and Drinking Quite So Much". In between are parts of Book Two on retirement such as "'Getting to Know Thyself,' as a Pursuit" which includes:

We have already noticed how dangerously easy it is for a retired man to "decide" to "become" a writer. It is even easier, of course, and probably even more dangerous, for a retired man to "decide" or "realize" that he's something of a thinker or philosopher. It is one of the first illusions that besets one in retirement, that one is thinking clearly for the first time in one's life. What is actually happening, in fact, though, is that one is getting more and more out of touch with the way things are. More and more one substitutes opinion for information in one's thinking. One tends to begin to think in terms of ends or goals or absolutes or ideals rather than in terms of means. In retirement, the illusion that one has thought things through and has an opinion formed on his own is just fantastically difficult to avoid.

Hills only partially avoids that illusion himself. He was for many years fiction editor for Esquire magazine, and passed away late last year.

^z - 2009-06-03

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