Apple-Pie Order

“It was a neat little mansion, and every thing about it seemed, as Nancy said, in such grand apple-pie order, that it gave Rosella a strong idea of that extreme attention to cleanliness and form, which usually excludes ease and rest.”

Rosella, or Modern Occurrences, 1799, by Mary Charlton

If asked whether it were possible or desirable to put anything in perfect order – assuming the question were taken at all seriously – the inquiry would commonly elicit a hearty guffaw or a dismissive wave of the hand! The meticulous pursuit of orderliness, though for some of the herd a solemn and sempiternal agitation, inspires philosophical condescension from pragmatists who regard the contemplation of rigid absolutes with their nose well in the air. The ideal of perfection may besides trigger disapproval from the groundlings who caste it as superlative and showy, even an insufferable expression of elitism.

“Apple-pie order” – the condition of perfect neatness, order and propriety – is an idiom which may be an English corruption of the French “nappes pliées” (neatly folded linen) or perhaps “cap-à-pied” (head to foot) though there is to my knowledge no verifiable evidence of either. The expression awakens the features of complete regularity, orderliness and precision, qualities which though desirable are often aligned with obsessiveness or some quirky degree of assiduity. It was apparently first recorded in English in Sir Thomas Pasley’s “Private Sea Journals” (1780):

Their Persons Clean and in apple-Pie order on Sundays.

My first memorable encounter with the turn of phrase was in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness“:

“I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company’s chief accountant, and that all the bookkeeping was done at this station. He had come out for a moment, he said, `to get a breath of fresh air.’ The expression sounded wonderfully odd, with its suggestion of sedentary desk-life. I wouldn’t have mentioned the fellow to you at all, only it was from his lips that I first heard the name of the man who is so indissolubly connected with the memories of that time. Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later on, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush, and said modestly, `I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.’ This man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order.”

Apple-pie order, if not a exactly an absorption of choice, is for those afflicted by its delirium an unabating drive. By contrast there are those who – even if they accept the actuality of the mania – scorn what they perceive to be pointless and finicky. They consider themselves unpretentious and not bound to punctilious order while characterizing the others as restrained by demeaning slavery to picayune detail. There some within the same sphere who elevate disorder (with its winning imperfections and inconsistencies) from the cerebral to the visceral:

Delight in Disorder
by Robert Herrick

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

My personal take on apple-pie order is that it is a scheme which primarily values precision and exactness, not at the price of functionality nor as a sacrifice to convenience (though admittedly too much judgement and refinement may spoil that which at first is a delicate thing). The person who embraces the rigour of apple-pie order is compelled by duty and discrimination; duty to do things well; discrimination to discard the extraneous. It is a predisposition suited to anyone who values ratiocination and uniformity.

In spite of its cogency apple-pie order is not a predilection which most adherents are anxious to proclaim. It has more than a trace of the effete and thus promotes disdain. Though it may be camouflaged with the forgiving appearance of modesty, it is a trait which is so elemental as to make any attempt at disguise redundant.  For the advocate of apple-pie order there really is no alternative. It is an undeniable and inescapable scourge. The proponent of apple-pie order acknowledges its insular nature, the impossibility to impose universal order. This compels the proponent to adopt a personal view which of necessity is narrow and what is less charitably labeled myopic or lacking imagination. This narrowness stimulates a private world of alleged over-refinement, maybe even unmanly and as a result enfeebled. Be that as it may, the conclusion is always that the preoccupation is ineluctable so it really doesn’t matter what spin others may put on it.

The model of apple-pie order is provoked over time. It is a distillation, the slow purification of behaviour assessed as desirable and productive. In the wake of such calculated evolution (interestingly akin to Darwinism) there is an abandonment of surplusage which paradoxically produces a simple but more complex product. It is within this streamlined world of propriety that the inclination to apple-pie order propels itself. It is a highly analytical domain.

The upshot of evaluative thinking is that there is little accommodation of trifles or shortcomings. It is an exacting universe. Admittedly there are moments when the passion for precision trumps much-needed tolerance. But it is no mean task to straddle the line between apple-pie order and the alternative. Apple-pie order is uncompromising and any variation usually fails. Though the partiality to apple-pie order is almost genetic, the ambition wants attention. It imposes a hierarchy of management upon the incoherence of one’s life. Among other features it mandates a constant inventory and assessment of one’s life, always with the object of bestowing regimentation upon the operation. To imagine that one can simply “let it be” in unthinkable. While there is never an impulse to manipulate the external forces at play, there is certainly a readiness to stick-handle what one is dealt to one’s advantage. The goal is manageable order and that entails a dynamic hands-on approach.

This clinical world of regularity lacks the strength of an exotic sauce. Certainly the intolerance of variety may breed insipidity, some might say an inartistic flavour. The bland and categorical motive is strictly binary, either in or out. Its polarity exacts precise thinking and therefore imparts a diminished appetite if indeed not a suppressant. There is no room for taradiddle and it evokes a hostile condemnation of sloppy deduction or tawdry adaptation. “Apple-pie order” says there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between.

As with most abstract observation, the practical effect of apple-pie order is far less tortuous. It may for example amount to nothing more poignant than a wistful glance at the concentric arcs of a verdant crop along a country road, a casual mental summary of the state of one’s measured being, a complacent recapitulation and reaffirmation of conformity, a momentary satisfaction garnered from the regularity of one’s life, no loose ends, everything tethered. No amount of reflection will however arrest the course of life; we are forever destined to ride the rolling current of a changing river. It may help in these matters to create the appearance of control but seldom does it alter one’s progress.  Apple-pie order is in that respect as much a fiction as a tidy desktop. But for the person who sits at the desk, it at least clears the prospect of the world and permits engagement with relieving exactitude.

Post Scriptum

Our agenda in Canada this summer included medical concerns (general check-up, routine blood work, targeted areas of the body and drug modifications), eyes (routine examination and new glasses), teeth (routine maintenance and cosmetic work) and motor vehicle (annual refresh). There are for me alone renewals of passport, Driver’s Licence and Health Card. Though we hadn’t projected to do it so quickly, we have extended our residential lease for another three years until 2020.  Humming in the background is our perpetual concern about weight reduction though much to our disappointment nothing discernible has evolved. We keep struggling to accept that quantity matters!

The frills of daily living have been addressed, including a new iPhone SE for me and Tilley Endurables™ (clothing) for His Lordship.  I dipped into an Apple™ store to scope the latest iPads but nothing warranted a shift from what I have. I also teased myself to examine the merchandise of Buddha Buddha™ but thankfully the fire of my initial enthusiasm was quelled by reason.

Though it is least significant, we uncluttered our closets and desk drawers by ridding ourselves of superfluous clothing and by shredding redundant documentation. In line with this mechanical housekeeping was the filing of income tax returns for ourselves and my elderly mother (who naturally continues to preoccupy my spare time).

My on-going contractual relationship with my successor lawyer provides modest return by way of referral fees. By contrast my personal relationships with most former friends have dwindled to the point of complete exhaustion reminiscent of the slow suffocation of erstwhile romances though I am similarly relieved.

We have managed to maintain our regime of bicycling and healthful diet (perhaps improving it by opting for more vegetables, less red meat and markedly diminished quantities of sweets). Contemporaneously there has been a resurgence of raw nuts, all-natural peanut butter and two capitulations to sugar (Liberté Meditéranée vanilla yoghurt and the occasional bit of sweetened condensed milk). I have also exhumed my recipe for Gazpacho soup which has been a remarkable hit!

Our tradition of short road trips to Kingston, Gananoque, Ivy Lea and White Lake continues. We will highlight the habit by going to St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, NB in early September (a trip we wanted to pursue last year but were derailed by the overwhelming needs of my declining mother).