Never Finished

I, like so many Americans, have a complicated and uneasy relationship with food, and on roughly one day each month I go on a madcap culinary bender to remind myself why I don’t on the remaining 29.

My most recent binging adventure went better than most.  It was a large, potluck-style family gathering, and between my aunt’s sweet potatoes and my mother’s brisket, I had not even reached the dessert table before the stitching in my half-zipped hoodie burst from the fabric and unspooled clear across the dining room.  (Or did I imagine that part?)  From this one meal, I probably packed in enough fat and protein to last me until the Fourth of July.

Nonetheless, my general disposition the following morning was much the same as when I have overindulged in nutritional culs-de-sac like cake, ice cream and chocolate—that is, one of abject self-disgust, followed by the vow never to repeat such a ridiculous face-stuffing ever again.

Certainly, to the typical American college student this groggy “never again” feeling is a familiar one, generally occurring sometime around 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, as one begins the arduous process of rolling out of bed and coming to grips with just how much liquor one managed to choke down the previous evening.

“I’m never drinking like that again,” we have all heard ourselves say, only to be seen engaging in precisely the same pastime, right on schedule, the following week.

Albert Einstein famously rendered “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” as the very definition of insanity.  Yet it is a near-universal way of life.

We all possess an inherent desire—manifested in myriad forms, not just food and drink—to lick a bad habit once and for all, and most of us believe it within our grasp to do so.  That if we simply hunker down, focus our gaze and stop goofing off, the desirable will become achievable.

The notion underpinning this notion, which extends beyond New Year’s resolutions and the positive thinking movement, is that certain things contain an endpoint.  That there is a dragon to be slain, and once the dragon is dead, the problem is solved forever.  Done and done.

Sadly, as most current and former addicts (to anything) will affirm, real life tends not to be so simple, orderly and neat.

I am reminded of a wonderful exchange in David Fincher’s 2010 movie The Social Network. Discussing the prospects for their promising little web startup called “The Facebook,” Eduardo asks Mark, “So when will it be finished?”  “It won’t be finished,” Mark matter-of-factly retorts, “That’s the point—the way fashion is never finished.”

That is to say (for those who have never encountered Vogue or Project Runway) that a dress is never perfect—it can be continuously altered and improved, but can never truly be said to be complete.  At a journalism seminar I attended years ago, movie critic Lisa Schwarzbaum made the same observation in postulating, “A review is never done—you just run out of time.”

I must say that I find enormous appeal in this concept, in spite of myself and my many attempts to disprove it.  Schwarzbaum’s observation has rung true for me with distressing regularity.  I can imagine rewriting and revising this column for the remainder of my natural life and never being confident of arriving at a “definitive” version of it.

President Obama is also a subscriber to the “never finished” theory, having underlined in numerous speeches—most famously his “race speech” in March 2008—the phrase “to create a more perfect union” from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  America is indeed not perfect—as Obama is endlessly criticized for pointing out—and the story of both the country and the Constitution is one of continuous improvements.

The good news in all of this disappointment is that what we humans lack in perfection, we compensate for in self-correction.

I may never overcome my fits of concentrated gluttony, but I can winnow them down to manageable levels.  In like spirit, Mark Zuckerberg can continue to refine Facebook, Tom Ford can forge ever-new frontiers in the world of spectacles and bow ties, and the Supreme Court can help to coax the United States (or not) into establishing gay folks as citizens equal under the law.

The work goes on.  May it never stop.

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