Russ Ringsak

Imperfection at its Best

May 16, 2008

There's a truckstop just south of Bangor, Maine, called Dysart's (Exit 180, I-95). I made the comment at dinner one night that it was about the best I'd ever seen and someone said what would it take to make a perfect truckstop and I found myself at a loss to put it into words. I finally said something about tone or feel.

I am arriving at a useful conclusion here late in life, one that if I had understood it earlier I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. It is that perfection is an impossible illusion and seeking it is a waste of time. Even if you set the standards for yourself only, for instance deciding there is no perfect car for everyone but there is a perfect car for you, you will be wrong. There's no such thing. The universe isn't built that way. You probably already know this and are surprised to hear that a truck driver in his late nineties, or getting close, is just now figuring it out.

Or perhaps this concept can only be realized by experience and can't be understood by reading about it. Maybe you can't just tell yourself that this old guy says this and he's been there and figured it out and now I won't have to think about it any more. But I come from a time when young people actually did listen to the elders and sometimes found it useful.

So to clarify the statement and produce evidence to back it up, I offer the simple example of tuning a piano. Even though I don't play or tune one myself. But chords don't sound quite right when it's tuned to 12 perfectly spaced intervals. A quick googling through the subject of tempered tuning will explain why not, but it tells us right there that nature simply doesn't deal with perfection. Everything out there just gets by as best it can, and none of it deals with the perfection abstraction. I've never heard it to happen in architecture or engineering, nor in politics nor truck driving. The pronghorn is a nearly perfect running machine but it's not perfect. We have a nice orbit here around a somewhat friendly sun, but neither sun nor orbit is perfect either. They're good enough for what we need right now. We are the products of imperfection. We've been born into it. A perfect anything would be unnatural.

The more I think about it, the more reasonable it seems to teach imperfection as a subject, like geology. It's surprising a religion hasn't sprung up preaching it, just as some religions teach perfection as an attainable good. With all the goofiness that goes on in colleges these days, there should be an Imperfect Chair at the university.

This wouldn't be the same as a Lowered Expectations Chair. This would be more a Reality Chair. They'd promote discovered imperfection as a means to leading a fuller and richer life. They could use for example a baseball hitter. Say this guy, maybe through cloning and genetic engineering and a relentless training program, could always hit any pitch in the strike zone exactly where he wanted it to go. Every time, any pitch. The opposition would just walk the guy. A walk would always be better than giving up a hit because a walk is one base and a hit can yield more than that. So the perfect hitter wouldn't get any hits at all. His on-base percentage would be 100% but he'd have a .000 batting average. No home runs. Worst hitter in the league.

Natural competition would deal with the perfect athlete. They'd find a way to frustrate him, or her. That's how it'd be for anybody in any field. If you get perfect they'll find a way to deal with you. So forget it. It won't happen in the first place and if it did happen they'd find a way to wreck it for you. It's the way nature is.

And this in no way precludes the occasional perfect moment. These of course are possible and actually make life worthwhile. Nor does it preclude seeking to do things well and to lead a good life. It encourages that, in fact, because it allows the person to get very good at something without being frustrated when they get super good.

Understanding imperfection makes life livable for the gifted. Eases the torment of approaching but not attaining the impossible.

What make Dysart's a most agreeable place is due partly to its imperfection. It has the fuel pumps on just one side, meaning that the driver has to fill one tank and then slide the nozzle and hose underneath the truck to fill the tank on the other side. Knowing how today's drivers have become accustomed to pumps on both sides, the management has hired a guy to come out and fuel your truck for you. He cleans the windshield at the same time. You are free to check the oil and update your logbook.

That's not the only nostalgic aspect. For another thing, the diesel market up there is limited and they don't need a gigantic parking lot, meaning the walk from where you park to go in to the restaurant is shorter than it is on the big cross country interstate superslab truckstops. On top of that the walls are graced with old black and white photos of early logging trucks. In one, a loaded semi trailer lies on its left side on the shoulder of the road, with its jackknifed tractor standing at a 90-degree angle, vertical, its nose to the sky. The unsmiling driver is posed next to it as if it were a fresh-caught fish, a gigantic trophy marlin or a very fat shark.

The food is terrific in that restaurant. A big menu, lots of seafood including lobster rolls and lobster stew. Steak. Blueberry pancakes. Best truckstop food I've had in the last ten years. Maybe ever.

The shop is big and has about anything the trucker might need, from replacement lights and load bars and ratchet straps to shorts and socks and jackets. I needed tools at the time, which is another story.

Anyway, the best thing about the place is the fact that it's a local institution. Saturday night I was in there after our show and prom goers came in. Formals, suits. Cleancut kids, all smiling and goofing around; sat down at the next table and made us all kind of grin. I asked about that and was told everybody comes in there for any occasion. Weddings, graduations, anniversaries, workdays, Sundays. And what a difference from the usual overmanaged chain setup.

Truckstops underwent a metamorphosis back in the eighties when they went to the high speed pumps on both sides of the truck. Nowadays you can barely get the hood open, check the fluids and squeegee the windshield before you've got both tanks full. Go inside and give 'em their eight hundred bucks, no need to comment on it, and you're outa there.

Those pumps on both sides began the death knell of the mom 'n pop truckstop. Most couldn't afford the cost of new tanks and pumps and the downtime for putting it all in, and one by one they closed up. Now it's mostly Petro, Flying J, TA, Pilot, Ambest, and a few others like Roady's and Sapp Brothers.

It was a sad thing to watch as the small stops showed fewer and fewer trucks sitting in the lot. I hung in there with them for a while but the time saved and the convenience of not getting under the truck when it was wet and snowing — and the fact you didn't have to put that nozzle on the ground — made the difference.

The reason I needed tools at Dysart's was that our locked up truck was broken into in the lot of a motel on Interstate 40, the next night after the Hot Springs show. After checking in I had gone back out there in the rain to fetch my guitar, as much from longtime caution as anything, and in the morning was most grateful for that habit. They got my duffel bag full of clothes dirty and clean and a pair of decent shoes, plus my tool bag and its contents. And the real target, the CB radio. (Which had only recently been brought to full song by an expert.) They got in without scarring the truck finish but it took a dealer to repair the damage and I ended up losing nearly a day.

It's the fourth time in 28 years that a truck of ours has been breached. It's happened in New York, California, Arizona and now Tennessee. It's never happened when I've been sleeping in it and I'm glad of that because I wouldn't be able to handle the legal fees that would follow the confrontation.

It did surely put me in foul mood for a while. It took a place like Bangor and like Dysart's to get me out of that mood: a place full of hearty-looking working people in the logging and fishing trades who, if they weren't outright jolly, at least seemed well adjusted and capable of raising optimistic and not-quite-perfect children. Just a quick impression, of course. But it made the trip back to Minnesota much easier than the trip out. The return ride wasn't perfect either but it was close enough.

© R.Ringsak 2008

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