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Jewish World Review July 11, 2001 / 19 Tamuz, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

Our deeply embedded need for order -- HEBRON, Ill. | Just south of town here the corn is growing in perfectly lovely rows, filling fields that run almost to the edge of the two lanes of Illinois Route 47.

I'm driving north to nearby Wisconsin for a family gathering, but as I notice the rows of corn flash by out the window, what I am finally given to understand is a primary source of my penchant for orderliness. I am not compulsive about it, not obsessive. But eventually I prefer order over chaos, organization over randomness.

And I think it has to do, in some ineffable way, with these northern Illinois rows of corn.

Each of us arrives at adulthood carrying with us individual ways of seeing things, of being, of acquiring and processing information, of handling affairs of the heart. If we never understand how we came to be that way and how we continue to accept or reject change, we live unexamined lives, and what is more heartbreaking than that? What is a more wasteful use of a gift than that?

I grew up just south of here in a small town that was -- and still is -- surrounded by long and impressive rows of corn and soybeans. Each row was spaced equidistant from a row that was -- for all that most passing eyes could tell -- identical to it.

The Illinois farmers who planted such rows -- my grandfathers among them -- understood the economics and biological benefits of precise field geometry. They planted efficiently, with order in mind, and harvested the same way.

From early summer through harvest each year when I was a boy, I would pass all these regular rows -- agriculture's rhythmic patterns, its lines and angles, tacks and turns, its repetitious calculus, its sensible drillings and expectant hopings.

And in ways that it has taken me decades to understand, all this necessary order, this important preference for everything-in-its-place has imprinted itself on me in almost a genetic way, sculpting me quite irrevocably.

I do not function well when I do not know the rules. I am, in such times, like a river without banks, which, in the end, is no river at all, but only run-amok water falling where the magnet that is gravity draws it.

This is not to say that I am never given to spontaneity or to what my family and friends at times might call a certain craziness, some lightly volcanic goofiness. I enjoy such looseness, such free flying. Without some level of comfort with that, in fact, I would not have been able to write my column for as long as I have.

Column writing, as Robert Frost once said of poetry, requires moving easy in harness. There simply is no way to write five newspaper columns a week and do countless other professional tasks without a disciplined routine that, from the outside, may look like drudgery or even regimentation. (It is neither.) But it's not just column writing that needs order. Creativity of any kind requires it, demands a certain discipline.

I'm certain that each of us has some need for order, for planning, for the reassurance that not everything is left to unreliable chance, to improbable probability. It's partly why little children are often reactionaries, wanting no change at all in the routine structures and movements of their lives. ("No, Daddy, you're reading it wrong.")

I think it helps to know how deeply imbedded in us is a need for rules, a grasp of life's canons, and where that came from so that we may honor its source or -- if it threatens to overwhelm us and tie us up -- reject it and find a different template for our lives.

As a society, of course, we impose order on ourselves, as we must. We elect legislators who pass laws to tell us what part of our earnings will go to taxes, how fast we may drive and what we may build where in our cities. Our tendency is to honor this fundamental system of order at its core but to gripe about it and cheat on it at its margins. So we drive 60 in a 55 mph zone. And we overstate our charitable deductions on our tax forms.

What strikes me profoundly as I pass these orderly rows of young corn marinating in the Midwestern sun is that where we learn order may have a great deal to do with how attached we are to it.

I seem to have learned it from a beautiful, natural, organic source, the fertile farms of northern Illinois. It has stamped itself on me, made me its own. And now that I see that truth, it pleases me.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved