Unhindered by custom

The U.S. Air Force used to be a unit of the Army. That made some sense in the beginning, when you couldn’t carry a large payload on a plane. Airplanes weren’t good at evasive maneuvering, they weren’t very big, and they couldn’t cross an ocean.

As World War II approached, however, the Air Force wanted a way forward as a separate branch of the military, and they set out to make a name for themselves. They began planning on larger planes that could carry bigger bombs and go farther, faster. Some would be sleeker to handle evasive moves, others would be larger people and bomb movers.

In 1929, a small group dubbed The Bomber Mafia began developing the larger bombers. Their motto? Proficimus more irretenti. We make progress unhindered by custom.

Malcolm Gladwell did a couple of episodes on them in Season 5 of his podcast Revisionist History.

The leader of a Masonic Lodge is addressed as Worshipful Master. This is not a divine title; in 1717 England, where modern-day Freemasonry was founded, “worshipful” was a nice thing to call a good person.

A new Worshipful Master will hear on his first night, in jest, and, if he’s done anything important, many times throughout the year in earnest, “That’s not how we did it my year.” Sometimes it’s phrased “That’s not how we’ve always done it.”

But sometimes you need to move forward and break the mold, even in a traditional setting that maintains its ritual as supremely important. Unhindered by custom. The way you’ve always done something gets you the same thing you’ve always got, whether that’s an old fraternity or the food you eat or the ways you goof off at work. The ritual can stay, but some stuff just has to go.

The novel coronavirus the world has faced this year has thrown a lot of wrenches in the works. People out of work. Businesses closed. Governing teams going to remote work. Schools doing the same.

And the protests. Dame Helen Mirren said she was glad to see the young people having balls again. Yes, those were Helen Mirren’s words. That’s their job, she said.

There are a lot of things about this year that have been uncomfortable.

It’s not just SARS-CoV-2. Not just the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and, interestingly, in a few other countries around the world. Not just Trump vs. Biden. Not just the people we’ve lost — not just the collective we, but our family specifically.

People have had to come up with creative solutions. Our closest precedent, the Spanish Flu pandemic a bit over a century ago, was devastating. And that was a much different world: many fewer people, much less technology, much less overall knowledge — both in the professions and available to the populace at large.

This time requires an evolution of the world, unhindered by custom.

My home has become the repository for old family photos when they come off the walls during redecorations. In the home office, where I’m typing this, there is a portrait of my grandfather, whom we called Zadie, after his upsherin, the ceremonial first haircut for a boy, typically around his third birthday. It has his hair braided around the outside of the portrait. You wouldn’t recognize the clothing, and it’s tough to tell whether it is a drawn-then-painted portrait or a photograph with some painting around it (I’d lean toward the second). This would have been circa the fall of 1926.

Next to that image is a portrait, probably a painted photograph, of his maternal uncle or great-uncle, from whom he took a middle name. The man is younger, perhaps middle aged. I have no idea when the portrait dates from, but I know he died in 1923, months before my grandfather was born.

My grandfather enjoyed chatting with his grandkids on AOL Instant Messenger. It was a slow process for him, but this is a man who was born before most homes had a radio, and in-home refrigeration was about a decade old.

He always drove giant Cadillacs, one or two of which had car phones, back when they were big old bricks. He died in 2008, not long after the first smart phones were invented. When he was born, they were still doing studies of the human head to decide how to design the handheld telephone. They finished laying the second transcontinental phone line less than a year before his birth.

If we assume normal life spans, for as much as the world we die in barely resembles the world we were born in, consider what my grandfather would think about the world I’m going to die in. In fact, go back to his grandfather; if we consider a 25-year average per generation (and my first child was born when I was 42, so that’s not always accurate), that man would have been born in 1873. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, among others, were still working on the technology for the first telephonic transmitters. His grandson died in a world with iPhones.

If my daughter has a child when she’s about 25 and that child lives to about 85, that will be sometime around the year 2129. I remember cars with bench seats and rear-facing back seats. Seat belts were recommended but not required. Kids could sit in the front. There were no air bags. There wasn’t even a third break light. Parents could run into the store and leave their kids in the car, with the car running. I certainly won’t recognize the world my grandchildren will die in.

Every generation, or sometimes more often, we decide which pieces of custom stay, and which go.

The 1960s saw a shucking of a lot of social mores.

The 1980s saw an overhaul in the U.S. regulatory culture.

The past 30 years have been a whirlwind of style, sound, technology and more.

I feel like we’re on the verge of something else, though, unhindered by custom.


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