There is a great house owned by a hard working and creative family. I wish I could tell you what it looks like, but I can't. At least I can't tell an adult what it looks like. Remarkable as this may seem, the house's appearance changes. Its basic form is literally set in stone but the details seem to be more dependent on the disposition and interests of the viewer than the house's actual dimensions and construction.
The house is built of stone worked by the eighteenth century's finest cutters. It was originally oriented north south with a slate roof protecting inhabitants from rain, harsh winds and other dangers that could blow in from the Ocean. It was sited on top of a high but gently sloping hill. A light in its cupola can be seen from a great distance and even served as a beacon for travelers from distant shores. It had thirteen rooms and out building on a property that had been cut from the wilderness, was meticulously planned and lovingly tended and improved the entire neighborhood. It wasn't the largest home, nor was it the most expensive, rather its greatness lay in its simplicity and symmetry that were so pleasing that it would usher in an architectural style called "Federalist".
The property imparts a sense of joy to most. When in bloom, the aroma of hundreds of old garden roses, mostly Teas, Chinas and Noisettes, is carried by a light breeze. Pedestrians strolling past are greeted by an ever changing fragrance depending on which cultivars are blooming mixed by variations in wind direction. As they turn the corner just past a large hedge row they suddenly see the house and gardens in all their glory.
The house was conceived in the minds of men in the eighteenth century. It was a dream, an aspiration and finally a plan and after a great struggle, a reality. As the family grew rich from hard work and ingenuity they kept adding to the property. They added so much that, by late in the 19th century its orientation had been changed to east-west, but the beauty of the original design still shown through.
In the 1950's a school bus passed the old house twice each school day, and on that bus rode a child who would gaze upon the house and wished he could live there. He lived in an old shanty a few miles down the road on the other side of the tracks. He imagined living in that fine house and in his mind's eye he would be part of a perfect family living there with an Irish setter and half a dozen calico cats.
The shanty he lived in was never warm in winter. On cold sunny days in February he would imagine how wonderful it would be to sit in the glass conservatory basking in the warm sun amongst large leafed plants that he imagined populate that appendage of the house. He remembered how warm a glass house can be from a school field trip to the city botanical garden. It was on that outing at the age of eight that he finally realized the purpose of that strange glass room protruding from the south side of the great house.
Once upon a time it was called an "orangery", literally a place to grow oranges and other tropical fruits in an otherwise inhospitable climate. He had never seen the inside, but his analytical mind filled in the details of that strange glass room, with tropical plants that he had seen at the botanical garden, ponds, waterfalls, a stream crossed by arched bridges and paths of flagstone and pea gravel leading to a secret place where, in his imaginary world, he would play in lush warmth. He would even imagine a toy train like the one put up every year at the downtown department store's Christmas display. But, he knew a toy train was just a dream for him. He lived in a world of limits sharing a tiny room with two brothers. There was no space in his life for luxury. His family was poor and children at school would bully him because of his hand-me-down clothes.
In late May as the school year drew to a close the glass room was hardly noticed. It was obscured by massive wisteria vines covered in purple blooms. Then, bright colors of other blooming flowers commanded attention. On hot days, however, his gaze turned to a stuccoed rose covered wall beside the house that he rightly imagined enclosed a swimming pool. Clearly, to him the house is a thing of beauty and inspiration. He knew that some day he would own a fine house like that. He'd work hard toward that goal.
Each day as the bus passed, his eye carefully took in the proportions of the house and various out buildings and he subconsciously derived a formula for architectural beauty. He could not yet explain it but it was somewhere in his consciousness. Somewhere too within that formula, was the symmetry of the geometric formal garden that was situated on the centerline of this ten year child's ideal home. He could describe the house in detail, but with time the house would fade in his memory as his horizons broadened. It would be a small part of his much greater universe, but he would always fondly remember it as his muse, his launching pad to a better life. The structures he would create as an adult would eventually scrape the sky and shape cities around the world.
A lady who walks by the house every day ventures through a small gate into the gardens. At the entrance there is a statue of a Greek goddess with an outstretched hand with a small plaque welcoming visitors of good will. The lady knows the name of every flower and the cultivar of every rose, but she barely sees the house. When she does, it's only as a support for the English Ivy creeping up the chimneys and the iron trellises on which stunning deep red "Climbing Don Juan" and yellow "reblooming Lady Banks" roses climb. To her, it's just an old stone house that forms the perfect back drop for the peaceful garden that is the highlight of her afternoon walks.
The gardener would pull up in his pickup truck each workday. For him and other tradesmen it's not just their livelihood, a way to feed their families, it is a path to better lives as well. It's also a canvas for their creativity. He loved his garden and admired the family that made it possible for him to create and work is such beauty. It was also a place for him to learn and try new things. He would eventually leave these gardens when he was offered a position at the botanic garden where he worked his way up to become director. In that position he traveled all over the world giving talks, sharing and acquiring knowledge about botany, plant pathology and landscape design, but he would always remember that it all started at that old house. He remembered it as a place of opportunity.
"It's an obscenity!" the young man standing in the street cries out while shaking his fist in anger. "It's the symbol of all that is wrong with the world", he says while pointing to the house. If he could, he would lead a mob up the hill and dismantle that disgusting house stone by stone and hang the people that live there from branches of an old oak tree. Or, better yet, drown them like rats in their opulent swimming pool. Yeah, that would be social justice. That would be a lesson for those who exploit "the workers". He wants a workers' revolution. The irony that he has never been a worker is lost on him. He hasn't had a steady job since he dropped out of high school and it's hard to get a fix when you don't have money, but he gets it somehow. His ambition is to get on disability, meaning he wants to live off of "the workers". That irony is lost on him too.
He points to the house and says "They are to blame for the income inequality that keeps me down." In his mind income inequality couldn't result from nonproductive people or those who never save or invest. Rather it's because of those who are too productive, save and build wealth. "People who live in a house like that take more than their fair share. We should redistribute their wealth" he screams.
Mistress sends me out to the sidewalk in front of the house to bring him ice tea and a sandwich. She feels sorry for him and says he is crazy, but I think he's crazy with hate and envy and his brain is burned out on drugs. But, it's not my place to second guess Mistress, so I do as I am told. "Why do you feed a man who hates you?" I asked her. She replied that he doesn't hate her, "He only hates the system". I say nothing, but I think he hates her, me and everyone in the world. Envy is a dangerous emotion for people with limited reasoning skills. I think he is too ignorant to understand "the system". He curses at me, calls me names and disparages me for my sissy maid uniform.
As I place his sandwich and drink on the wall, I ask him to put the paper plate, cup and napkin in a nearby trash receptacle when he is finished. He never does! I know I will have to pick them up off the ground when I come down for the newspaper. He's dirty and mean and I detest serving him. But, I am courteous because Mistress's expects nothing less of me. I've let him know if he ever touches me, I'd happily punch his lights out even though I'm wearing heels, so that curbs his actions. Serving this young man, reminds me that kindness is not always a virtue.
The house was built during "the Enlightenment" by men disciplined by reason who yearned for individual liberty. Those students of the Enlightenment wanted to develop rational just systems to improve the human condition. They looked at the world as it was, observed human nature, and devised systems based on their observations and reason. The results have been so successful that they gave rise to the industrial revolution, ended slavery and rejected the "divine theory" of government, which held that God gave kings the right to rule, replacing it with the notion that legitimacy for governments comes from consent of the governed. They embraced "Rule of Law", free market economics, and limited government, creating unimaginable prosperity available to anyone.
They were so successful that nineteenth and century social reformers, threatened by social stresses resulting from such rapid progress, tried to devise alternative systems. Sadly, they embraced values of Prussian Militarism including supremacy of the state over the individual and the ethics that need grants license and might makes right. They decided how they wanted the world to be, and devised systems that conformed to their particular preferences like racial or class supremacy, economic equality, or supremacy of the almighty state. Those systems require people to act contrary to human nature, so they always fail. Consistent failure, however, doesn't deter others from falling in love with lofty promises and inflicting them on populations again and again. It is ironic that the crazy kid's quest for economic equality and individual freedom unrestrained by personal responsibility was derived from Prussian Militarism that valued order and duty to the state above all else, but that is what that young man is unwittingly promoting.
I am a sissy maid living in this great house. I am not master of the house, but I feel privileged just to live in it. Am I wrong to be satisfied just to serve mistress and keep her household running smoothly? I'm not without ambition, but must I strive for greatness? Now-a-days everyone wants to be a superstar and being ordinary is denigrated. Social media posts highlight conspicuous consumption even when it's not real, but posts seldom celebrate work. What's wrong with being ordinary? What's wrong with being a maid? Does this craving for status lead to widespread dissatisfaction in the most affluent society the world has ever seen?
A few weeks ago I walked down to the end of the driveway to retrieve the newspaper and clean up the kid's mess. I saw a well dressed old man just standing across the street looking at the house. I was pretty sure that I recognized his face. He looked like a famous architect whose picture I've seen in the newspaper, on TV, and in magazines. I didn't know at the time, but after an absence of many decades, the boy from the school bus was back visiting his old neighborhood and there he stood.
I did something out of character for an introverted sissy maid. I crossed the street and introduced myself. He had never met a sissy maid before and was apprehensive but gracious. After I offered a brief explanation of my attire; he felt enough at ease to ask me if I worked in that house. Although that seemed obvious, it was his way to encourage conversation. He introduced himself, confirming his identity, and told me about his relationship with the old house. I invited him into the garden telling him I would ask mistress if she would show him the house. I was sure she would be delighted to do so. I am proud to say that she happily introduced herself and showed him the house with complete confidence that every room in the house would be clean and in perfect order. I'm not a corporate CEO, or famous but I'm very good at my job.
The young boy from the school bus, now an old man, explained how he had the good fortune to travel and see the world. He spent the entire afternoon with us and even stayed for dinner that evening, which I cooked and served. He told of his depressing childhood and how he was bullied because of his ill-fitting clothes. Perhaps that was a blessing, he recalled, because it forced him to learn how to deal with bullies. If one never faces bullies as a child, one does not develop the skill to deal with them as an adult. He said his childhood status as an outsider served him well later in academia, and in business both of which have their fair share of bullies.
He explained how this house motivated him to improve his circumstance, and told us of his childhood fantasies about the house and his fantasy life of love, luxury and security within its walls. He told us when he was a child his mother would buy him volumes of the "Golden Book Encyclopedia" at the grocery store. They were cheap and saved trips to the library whenever he had a school assignment that required research. He said he never got the entire set, but they had lots of pictures that were his other great escape. On his first trip to Hong Kong he had taken the funicular railway up to the top of Mt. Victoria and suddenly realized that he was in the exact spot where one of the pictures in the encyclopedia had been taken. At that moment he realized he had finally arrived. While pursuing those books as a child, he would fantasize about visiting such exotic places, and there he was. He would go on the change the skyline of that and many other cities around the world and become rich and famous in the process.
Meeting this highly accomplished man who came from such modest means made me reflect on my position as a sissy maid. It is an occupation that is safe and generally devoid of bullies, unless it is part of the games people willingly play, or one's mistress required one to serve sandwiches to a crazy person on the street.
I'd like to think that my position stems from a desire to serve, rather than from a lack of courage. But residing in the safety of the great house, a house built by others who worked and sacrificed, I'm insulated from the economic field of battle in which this man had been so successful. I have not left a mark on the world as he has. Am I a coward for this choice? My world is smaller than his, but of no less important to me, or to Mistress.
Socrates said "An unexamined life is not worth living." The first time I read that, I regarded it as the most obnoxious quote ever, interpreting it as an elitist idea denigrating normal people and suggesting that only kings, generals and others who are recorded by history matter. If I were rich and famous or, pandering to people like that, I might embrace it, but it's the everyday people who keep the world running. Regular people have lives not seen outside of families or communities, but they could live without the elites easily. I look at elites as parasites and see talking heads on TV as little more than propagandists. Does that make me the same as that of the kid ranting in the street?
But, what if Societies' quote was referring to self examination, rather than examination by others? Was he saying that all of us can and should examine our own lives to know ourselves and our motivations to better understand the world in which we live? Was he saying those who fail to include self examination in their pursuit of wisdom and knowledge are hamstringing their efforts? I am far more sympathetic to that view.
I don't think I'm the same as that of the crazy kid. For one thing, I can't believe he has examined his own life first. Nor has he put forth the effort to understand the subjects needed to shape a truly informed opinion. Knowledge of how various systems work constitutes wisdom and gives us the ability to predict likely outcomes so we can exercise good judgment. You can modify human behavior at the point of a gun, but you can't change human nature. Those who misrepresent history, either from ignorance or dishonesty, do so to dupe people into repeating mistakes of the past hoping for different outcomes. Isn't that similar to Einstein's definition for insanity as doing the same thing over and over expecting different results?
When I think of people like that the kid in the street, I realize that my lifestyle is so different from theirs that I'm not sure they could even conceive of it. So why shouldn't they have different views? But, it's people who have gone through the effort to be informed, and still disagree with each other, who are not necessarily wrong. Instead they might see thing from a different prospective, or have a different view of the nature of humanity. But, I'm certain people like that kid ranting in the street, who views opponents as evil, call people they have never even met racists and want them dead have nothing to offer and will never be part of any solutions to society's problems.
Our guest had such a sense of history and was so well grounded in world affairs that it was a most enjoyable visit. He noted that surprisingly the great house is not really very large by modern standards. It's the style, not the size that captured his imagination and inspired his interest in architecture. But he wisely pointed out that one should never judge historic structures, historic people or even historical events by modern standards. That's taking them out of context which is by definition dishonest.
Because I reached out, we now have a new friend who thanked Mistress for her hospitality and called my uniform "charming". He also called my willingness serve mistress as I do "courageous" pointing out that it does no harm which he called the first ethical rule of a civil society. I have not made a great mark on the world, but I have done no harm, and that in itself is an accomplishment. I'm glad I crossed the street to invite him into the garden.