In the spring of 1966, I, soon turning 14 and, in that coming fall, entering high school, was invited to apply for admission to the St. Louis Country Day School (CDS), a prestigious private institution. Though my father and my mother, an elementary school teacher, were staunch supporters of public education, the opportunity CDS presented was too good to pass.
(I was accepted, but the scholarship didn’t cover the gap between the annual cost and what my parents could afford. To public secondary school I went. On occasion, I still wonder had I attended CDS where I might have gone and what I might be doing.)
I remember the rigorous entrance exam, covering general knowledge and ending with an essay. The subject. The Cussedness of Life. Cussedness was defined as “something disagreeable, perversely contrary and unhelpful.” The parenthetical illustration: Why is it that when the barber massages your scalp, he scratches every part except the one that itches? Not that I’d ever had a scalp massage, but I got the point. Yet the example struck me as something merely annoying, too mild to match my sense of the angst couched in the definition of cussedness.
In my essay, I wrote about the then efforts of the St. Louis municipal government to upgrade fire suppression measures citywide, including the installation of new hydrants. The problem as I saw it, the plan did not encompass great swaths of the inner city where generally the building stock was numerous and set in proximity. Any conflagration, however small, in short order could decimate an entire neighborhood. I asked, how could such an oversight (or was it?) occur?
In a world populated by humans and, thus, the self-interested ideations and actions of individuals (be they persons, communities, or nations), the cussedness of life stubbornly remains. Whatever the era, concerning the presence of things “disagreeable, perversely contrary and unhelpful”, that 19th century epigram, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, holds true.
Any of us even half attentive to the world around us could cite examples of cussedness. I asked my wife Pontheolla, who, without blinking, named a series of “cussed things”, some global, others local, and personal (that one, I confess, pertaining to me!). And in this her last reference, offered less as a criticism and more as an observation, I had an insight, feeling to me as the scratch to a disturbing itch that all forms of cussedness provoke…
Usually things that are “disagreeable, perversely contrary and unhelpful” are large and overwhelming. The kinds of concerns beyond individual, even group capacity to address, much less ameliorate. The sorts of issues that oft leave folk bemoaning their powerlessness in the face of proverbial irresistible forces and immovable objects.
Still, big things are made up of small parts. Even a monumental matter (on a personal human scale, my nature, which, as is true for all of us, is multi-faceted) has elements that can be taken up and tackled (as Pontheolla observed about an abiding aspect of my personality that continues to vex her, and, truth be told, me, too). In this present case, as in all circumstances, a question arises. Will I do something about it? For even a big cussed thing, whether in the world around me or within me, has a small piece that I might bite off and chew.