I glanced at the newspaper, still being delivered to our shrubs every morning like clockwork (even though we had canceled our subscription weeks before), and launched a thought spiral by wondering why it had ever been called a “rag.”Â One thought led to another, tangents pinging into one another like bumper cars. “Rag?” Something to do with cloth? If grandma were alive she would know. Isn’t it sad that the newsroom was going the way of the dinosaur? Newspapers used to be the key form of news and information in communities large and small…yada yada.
My thoughts slowed as I warmly recalled the lyrical novel, “Winter’s Tale,” by Mark Helprin, in which the business of news became an integral part of the main character’s life. In this magical and mesmerizing story set in an alternative New York City, time becomes a flexible fabric as the hero, Peter Lake, searches for “a beautiful city that might be entirely just.” At one point in the novel, he finds himself homeless and nearly insane. He stares into the windows of “The Sun,” a newspaper, and realizes he is a mechanic. As his mental fog lifts, he asks the harried mechanics to allow him inside because he knows how to fix the broken machine he viewed from outside. They do, and he does.
After this, the mechanics decide he is worthy of a tour of the “many dormant machines that had puzzled them all their lives.” The pair show Peter a golden bell-shaped instrument sitting atop a steam engine, and beg him, upon threat of doing themselves in with a clock mallet, to explain to them its purpose. It had nearly driven them mad by screaming and releasing hissing puffs of steam at odd times, for no apparent reason, then falling silent again for long periods. They stare as Peter gives a name to the little instrument and explains the “perfection tattle,” which allows excess steam to be released when the engine reaches 100 percent efficiency. He further explains that there are more of these perfection tattles on other engines in a large operation such as this, and the whole business is like a giant puzzle with interrelated pieces.
To be the conductor,’ Peter Lake says with a grin, ‘you have to know every instrument. And you have to know the music.’
The perfection tattle tale, with its ripe imagery and story of redemption, painted a picture in my imagination that remains to this day, three Christmases after first reading it. Triggered anew this morning, I yearned then as I yearn now to create my own perfection tattle. A body of interrelated work consisting of several pieces of comely perfection. I aspire to be a conductor who knows her instruments and can create “music” with them.
To wrap thing up, what does the term “rag” mean, in reference to newspapers? My guess was partially correct. It originally referred to a type of high-quality paper known as “rag linen,” upon which newspapers used to be printed. Almost right.
Do I still dare to seek “perfection?”