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Eat when you're hungry: Words for life in the fast lane

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Gormless

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Eat when you're hungry: Words for life in the fast lane**

Hardly a week goes by without hundreds of this column's readers writing in to ask, "What's it like to be gormless, anyway? If it's a good thing, how can I become more gormless? If it's a bad thing, how can I help prevent gormlessness in unborn children?" Some, plowing through nineteenth century British novels in search of clues, have mistakenly seized upon the ex-pression "I'll be gormed"--a profanity whichyou can unpack with a little imagination, but which turns out to be a red herring, and a malodorous one at that.

Simplistic definitions of "gormless" such as "simplistic" will not bear scrutiny. "Hapless," "ill-advised," "innocent," "tactless," "ingenuous"--these carry too much baggage. Being gormless conveys no inherent moral weight either for good or ill, though it can manifest equally in beautiful or ugly shapes of uneducated humanism or educated gullibilty. I know a woman who spent her first quarter century learning that life is not as simple as she once thought and her second quarter century discovering that it is not as complicated as others would have her believe. She was gormless all along without even knowing it.

There is also a pejorative sense, for sometimes gormless people, in whom there is no guile, foolishly believe what others tell them. Not every proposition can be tested against our own perceptions, of course, but the gormless are especially susceptible to demagogues and charlatans. This is why you haveheard me call both Congress and myself gormless in regard to our reaction to the war in Vietnam.

In general, the concept is easier to illustrate than to define. The gormless doze in barber's chairs, ask strangers for directions and wear white at night. They prefer to eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired, and they seem flummoxed when others ridicule them as impractical. Like Tennyson's "Ulysses," the gormless drink life to the lees--while somehow managing to drive in the slow lane. Like Thoreau, they front only the essential facts of life. Charitably, we might say that the gormless life is one in which everything is fresh, as for a child. This can be risky.

Let's say that a young man interviews for a job with an ex-Stanford MBA who has risen to CEO of his company. Most interviewees would wear a suit that matched the wallpaper, discreetly tucking their Phi Beta Kappa key in the same ghastly pocket as their rabbit's foot. But the gormless person goes in corduroy, remembering that the material was invented for a king--well, okay, for the king's servants--and sports a tidy bowtie, neither an anal retentive regimental nor an escapist floral print but maybe a middle-of-the-road jacquard. He wears it not to convey his detachment, advertise his creativity or flaunt his disregard of convention, but because he likes it. "I'm not a yes-man," he informs his interlocutor as he peels his banana, "unless you want me to be."

I will omit the ensuing conversation, but suppose he doesn't get the job. Our gormless candidate might find himself, between the time he asks for a sofa on which to lie down and the moment they escort him to the door, meditating on the word "career"--from the French "carriere," meaning "race-track." He feels sorry for people who go round in circles chasing mechanical bunnies.

Another example: Let's say you attended a prestigious Southern university which preened itself on the political correctness of its curricula even to the point of threatening to strip dissenters of tenure. Let's further say that this same institution had decided to ban homosexual unions in its chapel because political correctness ends at God's door and selected long- term commitments solemnized through sacrament raise a stench in His holy nostrils. Further, imagine that donors had threatened to cut off financial support for the free exchange of ideas unless these queers were silenced.

What to do? Whereas rational people might choose to moon the alumni in question, while another segment of the community might react with the self-satisfied smirk one has come to associate with school board candidates of a certain stripe, the gormless onlooker feels neither the smug vindication of the ruling class nor the smug masochism of the liberal martyr. He would simply wonder aloud whether God can afford to hate anybody, even the intolerant.

Gormless people, who swim against the current of contemporary thought, believe that last year's eternal verities and this year's New Age panaceas should both comeunder fire because fire tests our mettle and purifies our substance. To be gormless is to be without expectations. The truly gormless person meets experience head on,with both eyes open.

George Bernard Shaw said that reasonable men adapt themselves to the world, whereas unreasonable men adapt the world to themselves. "We need more unreasonable men," he added. Those are the ranks of the gormless--and I have to admit that I am slowly becoming one.

Paul Baerman is a Universiy employee.

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