This sign is beautiful. It is not pretty.
“Pretty,” as most people use it, whether they mean to or not, is not so much about about aesthetics as it is about politics. Pretty appeals to the masses. Pretty isn’t controversial. Pretty is morning TV hosts, the neighborhoods in State Farm commercials, and Vanna White. I can’t say this with authority because I wasn’t fully conscious at the time, but I think pretty is what Nirvana was so worked up about. Pretty is absolutely pleasant.
The problem with pretty is that everyone is obsessed with it, and it isn’t real.
A few weeks ago I drove past a sign that said, “WELCOME TO ADAMSVILLE, TENNESSEE, HOME OF ASHLEY DURHAM: MISS TEEN TENNESSEE 2006”. There’s no way that Ashley Durham is the best thing about Adamsville. There’s also no way that everyone in that town feels represented by Ashley Durham. It’s a pretty safe bet that Adamsville, like any town, systematically oppresses residents with skin colors different than Ashley Durham’s. Obviously it’s not in the best interest of the town to put that in information on their sign -- it makes perfect sense that Adamsville (or any town) would want to bill itself as absolutely pleasant. But here's the problem I have with it: prettiness is a distraction.
Dryline’s sign is real. It would never be featured in a glossy tri-fold Oklahoma travel brochure because it doesn’t look new and it doesn’t have a gift shop. Without even trying, Dryline has solved the problem of pretty; which isn't an easy thing to do. There are solutions to prettiness but they require dissecting what pretty is.
1) Pretty is absolute. There’s no such thing as “kind of” pretty. Pretty houses have all their shingles in place. Pretty hair has absolutely no split-ends. Pretty politicians make absolutely no concessions. This is an addictive and hallucinogenic line of thinking and absolutely everyone is in on it, which is why we have partisan rancor. (By the way, am I the only one who wishes that congressional stalemates were settled by a Non-Partisan Rancor?)
I was once invited to a conference about strategies for teaching kids who are from low-income neighborhoods. Everyone in the auditorium had a different philosophy that led them there. Mine was more or less:
IQ, social intelligence and general grit and are randomly distributed throughout a country that’s soon-to-be less than 50% white, yet we’re almost exclusively governed by the pasty inbred children of the same yacht club, which statistically means that we’ve accidentally overlooked a lot of smart people and accidentally elected a lot of idiots, and the solution must be to give EVERYONE the education they need to compete so the actual cream will rise, but I’m not really sure what that entails, and...
I have unpretty and unresolved philosophies. No one should let me write organizational mantras. This organization had many mantras that more or less boiled down to the philosophy: TEACH KIDS ALL THE TIME.
This is easy to root for. I’ve lived this philosophy. It feels great. It’s simple and it’s consistent. Eventually it needs to be adjusted.
The conference started off with a movie of interviews with adorable children talking about the high expectations their teachers had for them. Then came a clip with four elementary-aged boys, literally holding their heads in their hands, explaining to the camera how hard they worked. One of them lamented that sometimes they had so much work to do that their teacher made them work through recess. I was confused about how this fit into an overwhelmingly positive movie until I realized that we were supposed to like this comment. People cheered at this line. Some teachers stood and applauded. This teacher was TEACHING KIDS ALL THE TIME.
It’s great to cheer for working-class children studying overtime for the American dream. Cheering against recess, though, is silly because: a) This kid was clearly miserable as he explained this; b) The vast majority of teachers standing and clapping attended schools where they felt entitled to recess; c) America is so overweight that we could all use more recess d) let’s admit to ourselves that our most important lessons about human behavior were learned during recess and, most importantly, e) recess has been proven over and over to boost both student behavior and scores.
So if the end goal is a nation of well-rounded, intelligent and socially adept children, then the mantra should be TEACH KIDS ALL THE TIME, BUT LET’S BE REASONABLE ABOUT WHAT THAT MEANS. That will never be the mantra because caveats are ugly. Dissent in the ranks is ugly. Absolutely simple and consistent is pretty. So you end up cheering against recess.
There is an unpretty solution to absolutism: gray. Gray is muddled. Gray is complicated. It’s difficult to discern whether gray is more black or more white. Gray is not sexy; it does not look good on bumper stickers. Somewhere, though, in between “ONLY DO THAT” and “NEVER DO THAT” is a solution that won’t ruin children’s lives. In that way, gray is beautiful.
2) Pretty is pleasant. Pretty is pleasant even when everything around it is clearly unpleasant. Pretty is delusionally pleasant.
A few years ago, I was working with mothers from a low-income neighborhood to organize a demand for better police presence in their neighborhood. They were sick of their kids being threatened by dealers on their way home and they felt abandoned by the police. Some time after our first meeting with police made the front page, they were swooped down upon by another "community action group," all but one of whom lived nowhere near the community, and who were funded in part by the police department.
This group proposed, strongly, that the real solution here was for the neighbors to get together (which they already did regularly) and talk about ways to improve the community (which they already had) and then, instead of dragging the police into the news, have an ice cream social. Here was the kicker: the ice cream would be FREEEE!!!!!!1!!!! The message was that it was fine for these families to get together and talk, as long as they weren’t ANGRY. Meetings during which low-income mothers complained about drug dealers knifing open their kiddie pools weren’t pleasant. Ice cream was pleasant. Pleasant is usually a distraction from what is awful.
The unpretty solution to pleasantness is to acknowledge your rust. You can’t stop rust before you admit it’s there. Ice cream doesn’t make the dealers go away. Admitting that there are dealers is the first step to making the dealers go away. The mothers I was working with were trying to make their rust visible, so they could finally begin to repair the damage.
Nothing is just black or just white and nothing is rust-free. Pretending otherwise just frustrates everyone. No political organization is absolutely correct. No mother in that neighborhood thought the police were absolutely good or bad, nor did they pretend they were perfect themselves. Pretty just isn’t real.
I don’t know if Dryline’s sign accurately represents the community it's in. My impression is that it does. I met one-seventh of their population when I knocked on his door and asked if I could take pictures of his sign. He politely told me I could, then I stepped my way around some tricycles and sat in this field while grasshoppers flew into my face. Dryline’s sign is boldly lettered and proud. It’s not trying to hide the rust, or the gray. That's why it's so beautiful. I think that’s the most accurate representation of an American town there could be.