My readers occasionally send gifts—often really nice stuff, like handmade easels and homemade English muffins. Books they're written and drawings they've done. Sometimes portraits, quite good ones, given the subject matter. I always mean to write back and thank them. Sometimes I even do. But the race to get something half decent in the newspaper has a way of pushing everything aside, and then there is this blog. Every. Goddamn. Day.
Last week I received this sign, sent by a reader. To be honest, I was more impressed with the quality of the sign itself—enamel over metal—than by the sentiment expressed. It wasn't cynical at all, but rather ... well, quite positive. It was suggesting that we need to focus on doing good for other people, and that can't be right. Then there was that bothersome "shall"—"What shall I do this day?" Quite fey in 2019. A question that you really have to be pressing your hands against both cheeks and sighing in order to express properly. Plus "this day." Not "today," but "this day," an echo of "Give us this day our daily bread." Practically a prayer. Ewwww....
What to do—not "What shall I do"—with it? I flipped the sign over. On the back it read:
SEAMLESS ENAMELWAREBEST MADE CO.NEW YORKCurious, I jumped online. Best Made Company is a hip concern with stores in Manhattan an Los Angeles. It's "About us" section offers nothing specific, only that their "customers are makers, adventurers, tinkerers, and curiosity seekers who only want one thing: quality." I bet they are.
A little digging shows they started in spring, 2009 as a boutique axe company, founded by two Canadians, Peter Buchanan-Smith and Graeme Cameron. I'm not immune to quality axes. I've got one. But there are axes and there are axes. But let's put it this way: a Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, stamped by the craftsman who made it, a fantastic tool I have rhapsodized here previously, costs $172 from Highland Woodworking. Five times the price of an axe you can grab at Home Depot, but a beautiful tool that's worth it.
The Best Made Hudson Bay Axe goes to the next level. It costs $348, a little more than twice as much as the Gransfors Bruks. That seems excessive, almost grotesque.
The sign, I couldn't help noting, cost $32. A lot for a little sign, and quite a compliment from the reader, who explained in a lovely note that she was moved by the column I wrote about a woman who altruistically donated her kidney to a stranger, to do her part to offset the carnival of vileness that is the Trump era.
Tossing the sign in the trash seemed wasteful. And an insult to the reader who was not only so thoughtful, but shelled out 40 bucks to buy and send the thing to me. I felt obligated, almost trapped.
But "WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO THIS DAY?" Was I now committed to looking at the thing for the rest of my life? I decided to bring it home and consult with my wife. She'll know what to do. I showed her the sign and mused that I might put it up somewhere.
"Oh it's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Put it up in the kitchen."
Okay then I swallowed hard and did. After screwing it into the wall—a central location, just as you walk in—I thought to research the phrase.
Turns out the sentiment goes back to at least Benjamin Franklin, who before he was a Founding Father was a busy Boston printer, creator of "Poor Richard's Almanac," coiner of admonitory sayings. He claimed to begin each morning at 5 a.m. with thanks to God, followed by asking himself what good he should do that day, and ended each day asking what good he had done.
So what's so bad with that? For a selfless person, nothing. But as somebody with a rather inflated sense of self, with a full time job wandering through his private Hall of Mirrors with a chamois and a bottle of Windex, the vow of helping others well, it seems insincere. And unrealistic. Maybe I could insert a strategic "for me" with a Sharpie—"WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO for me THIS DAY?"
No, no. That would throw off the purity of the design. And is probably a bad life strategy as well. I mean, look where it has gotten me.
Not that I'm against doing good for others and some days it does happen, mirabile dictu. But to be so intentional about it, so public, to ballyhoo the thing like that, raising the question on the kitchen wall. To set it as some kind of goal, to intend to do it, premeditated. That's a big step.
What good shall I do today? Well, I put up this sign. And wrote this post. That's a start.