Southern Seen — Diagnosing and treating quality of life

Southern Seen — Diagnosing and treating quality of life

Posted: Friday, July 18, 2008 10:06 pm
By: Larry McGehee

Occasionally at dinners or parties, our college librarian’s wife mentions some of her ancestors. At one dinner in their home recently, she spread out a huge genealogy chart. I was politely scanning it when suddenly a particular name caught my eye (proving that if two southerners talk long enough they will find someone they know in common or their kin). The name was Horace McSwain, and it turned out to be Dr. Horace McSwain, a family doctor, long deceased now, in my hometown of Paris, TN, some 500 miles west of our present abode. Dr. Horace McSwain delivered me-in McSwain Clinic on Dunlap Street–and also delivered half of the entire town, somewhere around 3,000 of us. His office was up a steep and narrow flight of stairs on the second floor corner of a court square building housing a women’s shop and his brother’s drugstore on the first floor and another brother’s insurance agency across the hall. Dr. Horace made house calls, charged five dollars for an office visit, administered vaccine shots personally, handed out lollipops, and kept track of his delivered offspring. Those who made it to high school graduation could count on a graduation gift from Dr. Horace and his enchanting wife. During World War II he was about the only doctor still around. He seemed ancient to us even then. One of several family members practicing medicine in that little place, Dr. Horace has grandchildren and great-grandchildren carrying on the tradition. Some 72 years have passed since I shook hands with Dr. Horace, the first stranger I met in this world, and we have lived most of those years in a variety of larger cities. Yet, largely because of him and people like him in that little town, I remain an unrepentant provincial. Time, distance, and size have only confirmed what I probably would never have appreciated had I not “grown up” and left. As I have aged, I have realized that I have never really left. What is most striking about the world I have seen since is that it is a very mixed bag. Despite its gadgets and goods, its efficiencies and energies, it has regressed about as much as it has progressed. The difference, I think, stems chiefly from two factors. One is the function of size. I believe with Aristotle in some mysterious, elusive quality which he called “appropriateness.” Appropriateness in the quality of living places is somewhere between too big and too small. (Goldilocks would have said, “Ju-ust right.”) Bigness can overdo itself. One doesn’t swat a fly with a sledgehammer; it just isn’t appropriate. I feel the same way about big cities. They are certainly appropriate for concert halls and art museums, but beyond that they strike me as more dysfunctional than functional. Inconveniences and costs (measured in money, health, or fear) outweigh the advantages. With the decentralizing of businesses and the exodus of residents to the suburbs, cities may now be a 20th century phenomenon, masonry and glass dinosaurs too recently dying to yet be announced extinct. The great unfulfilled promise of American space has always been to me, as it was to Thomas Jefferson, the dispersal of the American people upon it, not the concentration of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in separated and stagnating and senseless enclaves and fortresses. The second thing about the appropriateness of provincialism as a cure for the world’s self-created ills is its amateur status. One thing that this world is strangling on is its intolerance of the non-professional. In our half century. Professionalism has become the dominant way of life; doctors, nurses, lawyers, ministers, teachers, accountants, engineers, city managers, government workers, scientists, and all fields of human enterprise, have evolved into professions. In most instances, standardized testing and codes of ethics serve the professions (and those of us depending upon them) very well, but a certain amount of homogenization comes along with this development. The amateur gets squeezed out, much as nine out of ten small business operators get squeezed out by large corporations. Uncredentialed caretakers of the public good are forced to go either undercover or out of business or to jail. Teachers or or practical nurses find their good intentions reduced and often thwarted by well-intended regulations and certifications which have unintended effects. Unspecialized but personalizing people doling out lollipops and graduation gifts to youngsters they can call by name have been the trademarks of many a Smalltown USA. It is an amateur spirit, imbued with people making a life together and making it up as they go along, a “winging-it” spirit which precedes professionalism and bigness and which could even yet rescue us from ourselves. I celebrate it. I would patent it as Dr. Horace’s Hometown Horse Sense. Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 7.18.08

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