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MARTHA SEZ: The slub

June 27, 2011
Many of the good things in life are, from an evolutionary perspective, accidents...Enthusiasm is building among scientists that ...religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident...the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.

— Paul Bloom, “Is God an Accident?” from “The Best American Science Writing 2006,” ed. Atul Gawande

Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done...We are built to make mistakes, coded for error. We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.”

—Lewis Thomas, “To Err is Human,” from “The Medusa and the Snail.”

I’m no scientist, but I do know that everyone makes mistakes.

Back in the late 1960s I bought a blouse, one of those ubiquitous embroidered loose fitting collarless tunics made of sheer cotton. They are still around — you can find them anywhere — but they were just beginning to appear in Midwestern stores then. I tried it on, and showed my parents.

“Look,” I said, “Does this shirt look lopsided?”

It was sewed wrong, but I hated to admit it, since I liked it so much otherwise.

“In India, I’ve heard, they make things with flaws on purpose, because they don’t want to anger God by being too perfect,” my mother said.

My father looked over at the way the shirt draped. “Yes,” he said, “and they weren’t taking any chances with this one.”

My parents were fairly enlightened, considering the times — those were the days of “Laugh-In” and Archie Bunker, for those of us who are helped by cultural cues. I, of course, knew everything at that particular stage of my life, and considered myself more enlightened than almost anybody. I accepted the explanation immediately.

Since then, I have read clothing tags many times that referred to “imperfections” that revealed the innate naturalness and sincerity of the garment and its manufacture, and thus were not really imperfections at all, but a good thing. The word “slub” often appears.

I looked it up, and it is a real word, meaning a bump or knot in cloth, sometimes added on purpose for texture.

I suspect most slubs, literal and figurative, are accidental, and not a matter of religious belief or aesthetic preference at all.

Since scientists, and even a lot of people who are not scientists, seem to agree that human beings are not perfect, or even perfectible, it seems strange that so the desire for self-improvement persists in our society. Maybe the pursuit of improvement, unlike the pursuit of perfection, or even excellence, is realistic and hopeful. The key to improvement is, things have to be a little faulty to begin with.

Sometimes, trying to correct an error, we just make matters worse. For example, whenever I try to remove stains with Chlorox bleach, I bleach little white spots on whatever I’m wearing. You can’t fix them.

It is fairly easy to point out the flaws of friends and family members. This is the first step on their path to enlightenment, and they should be grateful. Have you ever noticed, though, how resistant people are to advice, even good advice?

Considering how unpopular advice seems to be on a personal level, it is surprising that televised weight loss shows like “The Biggest Loser” and other so-called reality shows have been popular for decades now. Dr. Oz is another self-improvement show, on a physical, vitamin, exercise level. Do you think people really want to improve themselves, or do we just like watching other people getting pulled apart and put back together again, like Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head?

I don’t pretend ot understand either science or religion — although at one time, I believe back in the late Sixties, I used to know all that stuff. Still, if we look around, I’m sure we all can find some area in our lives where there is room for improvement. Friends and family members could probably help locate some. If not, you just have to stop being so darn perfect.

Someone just asked me what this little bleach spot on my new green blouse is from. Is it flour? White paint? Will it come out?

Oh no, I said nonchalantly, never mind. That’s just a slub.

Have a good week!



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