Saturday, September 24, 2016

Travelblogue


The westbound transatlantic flight is, comparatively speaking—and we all know that most of our judgments are comparative ones—a piece of cake.  We left London at noon and landed in Newark just before three—a flight of about eight hours.  United now offers, for a modest increment in fare, what they call “Economy Plus”—the “plus” being about two extra inches that for me determine the difference between Inquisitorial torture and mere nagging discomfort.  This left me if not exactly band-box fresh at least compos mentis and capable of reflecting with satisfaction on both the unique pleasures of a homecoming and the memories of so many beautiful sights and uplifting encounters of the previous three weeks.  Three weeks, but six great places, and in all of them meetings with old friends, in most instances friends of more than half a century.  Here’s a brief run-down.

Salernes: the town square on market day

            Our first stop, Salernes, a typical Provençal village a bit inland from the Côte d’Azur, must be in the Var (though I am not absolutely sure).  One of our oldest Oxford friends, Andrew Seth, has a fine old house there.  This was not our first visit, but for several reasons it was the mellowest.  We were among three couples, guests of our widowed host, all of us “seniors”, making up a delightful house party composed in equal parts of binge reading and seemingly endless conversations prosecuted over long, exquisite outdoor dinners that began in the dusk and devolved long into the night.

 28, avenue de Suffren


            Then a TGV (high-speed train) whisked us to Paris and “our” apartment and more very old friends (among Joan’s oldest, indeed), more dining, more lunching, more hassling with our French telephones, the usual rush of temporarily forgotten familiarities of sight, sound, and smell.  Tourism in Paris is down, according to the press, though you couldn’t prove it by me.  But a conspicuous feature of the streets is the large presence of heavily armed security officers.  A big chunk of our Paris stay was actually spent in the countryside near Poitiers, where we again visited Joan’s cousin Gavin and his wife Val, who, after various physical and metaphysical wanderings, have ended up with advanced theological degrees and in a gorgeous rural place called Brux.  More splendid trains that really work rendered toing and froing from Paris not merely possible but easy.

 Notre-Dame of Poitiers

            From Paris we flew to Edinburgh.  It was something of a cattle-car flight but too short to be really unpleasant, especially as in less than an hour after touchdown we found ourselves ensconced in the lovely village of Whitekirk, home of our next hostess, Margaret Richards, another cousin and indeed the sister of Gavin.  Just then she was basking in the glow of the receipt of a lifetime achievement award from the Scottish Society of Architects.  Her own digs, a spectacularly converted set of stables approximately forty yards from the village’s medieval church, probably could have merited the award on its own.  In St. Mary’s church I attended in the morning my first ever Kirk of Scotland Communion and in the evening my first ever performance of Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht,” a haunting piece from the composer’s early Romantic period, before he went all strange and atonal.

St. Mary's, Whitekirk (East Lothian)

            A leisurely train journey that began in Dunbar and for many lovely miles hugged the coast eventually brought us, after a couple of transfers, to Norwich and our friends Michael and Heather Nicholas who now live in the attractive riverfront village of Reedham.  From Reedham we sallied forth over the next couple of days for beautiful excursions through the Norfolk countryside and to Norwich itself: pub lunches in sunny gardens, the cell of Saint Julian, tea in the cathedral refectory before Evensong amid its chancel choirstalls.  The decoration of the Julian chapel was beautifully spare, a significant feature being a small silver dish filled with plump hazelnuts—a detail that will be meaningful to readers of the saint’s famous book and no doubt mysterious to all others.

The Yare at Reedham

           Thence to London, where we “overnighted” (see next paragraph”) before moving on for three days to Joan’s brother and sister-in-law in their gorgeous village, Wye, a few short miles from Canterbury.  Our stay there was mainly slow-paced.  On two of the trains we had been on there had been two different girls sitting directly across the aisle from me reading something called The Girl on the Train.  I interpreted that as a sign, so I spent the better part of a day reading it myself, though I did have several hours on my own in Canterbury as well.

            The trip to Wye was bracketed by two nights in London—at a fleabag hotel (fortunately flealess in fact) near King’s Cross.  This arrangement allowed us to see and take meals with yet three more dear friends.  We came down from Scotland on Friday.  On Saturday, before moving on to Kent in the late afternoon, we had a wonderful long visit with Margaret Davies, one of our fellow English “readers” at university nearly sixty years ago, who came down from Oxford specially to see us.  And on Tuesday night, before an early start for Heathrow the next morning, we had a mellow evening meal with John and Fiona Smith, who came in to join us from their house in Barnes.  The area behind King’s Cross/St. Pancras has been considerably upgraded since I was last there and is now a kind of London Dumbo full of wine bars, theaters, and hip restaurants.  One of them I am prepared to recommend with enthusiasm: the Greek Larder, on York Place.

            So there you have it: twenty-one days, seven major venues, thirteen beloved old friends, and all treated utterly inadequately in nine hundred and sixty-one words that serve at least to reanimate the blog.

   King's Cross development (including "Greek Larder")        

Monday, August 29, 2016

Blogger Cops Out


A NOTE TO MY READERS

            For nearly eight years I have religiously published an essay each week--without the slightest justification in religion or anything else.  You may have wondered how anybody could have so little better to do.  I myself have certainly pondered in that direction.  But now I am about to set off on a European trip devoted as exclusively to hedonism as is safe for the octogenarian constitution.  I am not of the generation for whom schlepping laptops about is second nature, and all our phones are as dumb as I am.  The Internet Café hardly exists anymore, and you can perhaps imagine the clientele of the few remaining specimens.

            Hence I am unilaterally declaring September “Blogger Cop Out” month.  Since I shall have a great deal of work facing me when I return—and therefore will need as many excuses as possible to avoid it—I shall probably gladly resume then.  Best wishes to all my friends in the “Back to School” world.  One of the purest pleasures of retirement is taking off for the Côte d’Azur just as so many associates, colleagues, children, and grandchildren are facing a new semester.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

American Personality Types



I am an admirer of David Brooks, one of the regular opinion writers for the New York Times.  He used to be the token “conservative” on that paper’s editorial page, but he is so disgusted with Donald Trump that he appears to have abandoned partisan representation and political advocacy altogether to become a one-man Greek chorus of generalized lamentation.  Though I frequently agree with Brooks, it is not actually his opinions that attract me.  I find there are more ideas per square column inch in one of his essays than in any other part of the paper.  Very often these are other people’s ideas—always scrupulously credited—gathered from his impressive weekly reading.  Many years ago a cynical senior colleague, anticipating my tenure review, gave me what he considered sound advice.  There are two kinds of professors, he said: those who read books and those who write books.  Neither the advice, nor the bizarre intellectual aberration in which it was based, escaped me.

            One of Brooks’s recent columns is entitled “Is Our Country as Good as Our Athletes Are? In it he confronts a widely shared and often articulated sense of “American malaise” with the outstanding success of America’s athletes in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.  That our country faces repeated humiliations, that we are in economic decline, that we “don’t win anymore” are propositions central to Donald Trump’s campaign.  “Yet when you watch the Olympics, we don’t seem like some sad-sack country in terminal decline,” wrote Brooks.  “If anything, the coverage gets a little boring because we are always winning!  And the winners have such amazingly American stories and personality types (Biles, Ledecky, and, yes, Lochte).”

            Brooks’s essay was published, I believe, on August 19, by which time we knew, or could have known, some of the precise details of the  “amazingly American” personality type Ryan Lochte, the famous swimmer, exhibits.  After partying all night Lochte and some of his team-mates were returning to their billets in the Olympic Village when their cabbie stopped at a gas station to refuel.  The passengers took advantage of the pit stop to visit the toilet.  One or more of them exercised, noisily, the drunken frat-boy privilege of vandalizing bathrooms, breaking furnishings, and peeing on the results.  The armed security guards at the gas station detained the incontinent revelers.  There was the matter of reparations. Much of the episode was captured on closed-circuit television.


           The account of the gas-station stop given by Lochte—perhaps one should say accounts in recognition of the considerable narrative evolution—was that he and his mates had been robbed at gunpoint by criminals dressed in police uniforms.  The gunmen had relieved the swimmers of their wallets.  This was a bald-faced lie apparently invented by Lochte but, sad to say, supported by at least some of his team-mates.  It was also a gross, injurious insult to the Brazilian hosts of the games.  That American Olympians are world-class athletes is implicit in their having been chosen from large numbers of talented competitors to represent our country.  That they should also be world-class jerks and liars is a matter of individual ethical choice deeply shameful to any, should they still exist, so old-fashioned as to think there might be more to sportsmanship than winning.

            What about the politicians who propose to be our leaders?  Are they more the political equivalents of a Simone Biles or of a Ryan Lochte?  Donald Trump is such a fabulist that one hardly knows where to begin.  He got to know Vladimir Putin “very well,” though he later had to allow he had never actually met him.  He was an apparently unique eye-witness to the festival reaction of large numbers of Muslims in Jersey City as the Twin Towers crashed to the earth.  One of Mr. Lochte’s claims was that although one of the robber-cops put a gun to his head, he refused to “comply”.   Thus did he refute Wayne La Pierre.  The real answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with an--attitude.  So far as I know Mr. Trump has not sought to exemplify his personal courage with reports of his indifference to bad guys with guns, but it is surely only a matter of time.


            However, his adversary Hillary Clinton has stolen a march on him here.  By now her famous account of her dramatic arrival at Tuzla Airport in Bosnia has gained canonical status in the World Anthology of Greatest Fibs.  “I remember landing under sniper fire,” she said.  “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”  The ceremonial arrivals of famous visitors tend to attract even more elaborate video coverage than the bathrooms of Brazilian convenience stores.  What greeted Mrs. Clinton upon her arrival was a fawning welcoming committee including the obligatory schoolgirl with a bouquet of flowers.   Hillary Clinton might appropriately hang her head down, though not out of fear of sniper fire.


           Mr. Lochte eventually pleaded guilty to “over exaggeration,” but that was to misunderestimate the gravity of his offense.  He embarrassed our entire nation.  But we must get back to David Brooks’s implied question.  Are those who present themselves for presidential leadership as good as the athletes who present themselves as our representatives in sport?  One has to give the nod to the athletes.  Only some of them are liars.

           

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ralph Freedman


 Ralph Freedman (1920-2016)

           This week I have had to take time out from my garden, my heat-prostration, my grandchildren, my Netflix, and my scheduled writing to work on a “memorial minute” or short obituary essay about my recently deceased colleague, Ralph Freedman (1920-2016).  It is the custom of our faculty, and the faculties of many institutions, to remember our defunct colleagues in such fashion; and a fine custom it is.  Contemporary American culture is awash in cheap fame, celebrity, notoriety, and vulgar adulation.  It scrimps on respect for genuine cultural achievement and  licit admiration for the stewards of our spiritual treasury.

            Ralph Freedman was one of those stewards.  I did not know him particularly well.  We were friendly colleagues, certainly, but not close friends.  He deserves a better Boswell, but fell victim to his own longevity.  Stately old institutions, which may seem to the outside observer to move at the gait of exhausted turtles, actually move apace.  Since Ralph retired about thirty years ago, there are not many people around here who knew him personally.  Am I alone left to tell the tale?  He was one of the three original members of our Department of Comparative Literature.  The others were its founder Robert Fagles (d. 2008), the eminent translator of Homer, and Joseph Frank (d. 2013), the biographer of Dostoevsky.  I was already a professor of English when in the ‘Seventies I, with others, was invited to a shared appointment.  Ralph told me I had the one essential for success: a surname beginning with the letter F!

            I had my doubts about the solidity of the idea of “comparative” literature.  One cynical definition of “interdisciplinary studies” was “an English professor with a slide projector.”  In like manner I sometimes thought that a “comparatist” was a French professor who having read all of Balzac had read some Dickens as well.  But medieval European literature was radically “comparative” in a different way, and the new department offered me new teaching opportunities.  Medieval vernacular literature has the character of an iceberg.  Its submerged base, international Latin culture, is almost always as important as what rises into view.  Medieval literary education, the aim of which was to teach young boys to read, write, and declaim Latin, was rigorous, prescriptive, and fundamentally unchanging over long centuries.  When the national languages of Europe eventually emerged as possible vehicles of “serious” literary expression, a writer was likely to be self-conscious about choosing to use one.  Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a major step in the creation of the Italian literary language, wrote a whole book in defense of the vernacular language, but wrote it in Latin.  Chaucer, who appeared on the scene at a time when many conservative English aristocrats still operated in a French-speaking world, had quite consciously to decide whether to write in Latin, French, or English.  He also knew Italian literature to an impressive degree.

            So “comparatism” made sense to me as a medievalist.  Later I would come to appreciate the survival of a similar, quasi-medieval linguistic cosmopolitanism among my new modernist associates.  Professional colleagues come to know each other very well, and then again they may hardly know each other at all.  I knew Ralph as a cosmopolitan and polyglot expert in European Romanticism, with particularly impressive command of its German roots.  One does not too frequently hear Hölderlin cited on the question of academic calendars, but it is memorable when it happens.  I knew him—how to put this delicately?--as a charmingly flustered and challenged administrator of the graduate program, a man who almost seemed to revel in the faintly facetious stereotype of the absent-minded professor.   I was vaguely aware that he had had an “adventurous” youth, but only now, after his death, did I learn just how adventurous.  He was raised in Hamburg in a Jewish family that faced, and miraculously survived, the deadly hostility of the Nazi regime.  At nineteen he made his way to England.  This was in 1939, and just in the nick to time.  It is hard enough to be a writer at all.  Fate now decreed that he would have to write in English, though all that for a time was pushed aside by emergent occasion.  He soon made it across the North Atlantic despite the U-boats.  He began college at the University of Washington, became an American, became a front-line soldier in North Africa, in Sicily, and in the Italian push, became an intelligence “asset” in post-War Austria—the background to one of his two published novels.  He studied philosophy as a graduate student at Brown before landing in the graduate program in Comparative Literature at Yale.  His doctoral dissertation there would eventually lead to a study that can rightly be called famous: The Lyrical Novel.  He would go on to write numerous other important books, including well-received biographies of two giants of modern German literature, Rilke and Hesse.

            One should insult no man by suggesting that his bibliography is his life, but in an academic context it would be wrong to pass over its distinction.  He moved to Atlanta after leaving Princeton, and I saw him only once in the last three decades.  He told me he was considering writing up his memoirs, and I learned from some of the newspaper obituaries that he was in the process of doing so at the time of his death.  I hope they were left in publishable form.  He certainly deserves a better biographer than I, though my own most recent days are all the richer for the intentional remembering of him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rue Monsieur le Prince





I am a great admirer of Arthur Koestler, by which I mean the man’s writings rather than the man himself.  I consider him to be one of the major intellects of the last century, as well as one which exemplifies in a striking fashion modernity’s quest to preserve some space for immateriality and even transcendence in a world in which traditional religious belief has for so many intellectuals become impossible.  Several of his books seem to pursue this project, but especially The Roots of Coincidence (1972).  “Hard” scientists have been rather hard on this work; but to those who continue to believe that man does not live by bread alone, it is full of interest.

As for me, I continue to be struck by the number of “coincidences” or Jungian “synchronicities” that I run into in life.  Boethius long ago persuaded me that there is no such thing as chance, if by chance is meant an effect that has no cause.  This week’s essay begins with a confession: I am a lover of ghost stories.  It then moves on to an anecdote.  While my son Luke was visiting recently, we snuck away to one of our “secret” bookstores in south Jersey where I indulged myself in the transgression of a single purchase: an anthology previously unknown to me entitled Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, compiled by Marvin Kaye.  Its table of contents is enough to remind one that the genre has been dear to many great writers, and that Koestler’s obsession with the uncanny had deep Victorian roots.

            There is in the Latin Quarter in Paris a small street, probably a quarter of a mile long, approximately linking the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Boulevard Saint-Michel.  Its charming name is the rue Monsieur le Prince, a reminder of the ancient mansion of the princes of Condé, a cadet branch of the reigning Bourbons, which once rose there in all its magnificence.

 an early Monsieur le Prince himself

For a few frigid weeks in the winter of 1962-1963 my wife and I lived in a cheap hotel in the rue Monsieur le Prince.  This was your grandmother’s Paris.  Cheap hotels were part of its still post-war dowdiness.  Richard Wright, who lived in the street immediately following the war, has written about it somewhere.  I went off each day to the (old) Bibliothèque Nationale where I consulted medieval manuscripts and kept warm.  First impressions being lasting, the “old” rue Monsieur le Prince will always be my “old” Paris.  We have good friends who live just on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens, so I occasionally passed by the street over the years; but my next real visit was in 2010.  My daughter has just collected a prize and delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne.  I was included in the celebrative dinner following the event, the venue for which was a fancy restaurant in the rue Monsieur le Prince.  Everything in the rue Monsieur le Prince was now fancy—including your grandmother if she could afford to live there.  I sat next to the head honcho of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, and we talked about Luis de Camões.

By now it is over sixty years since my first visit to the rue Monsieur le Prince and more than five since my last visit.  Fanatical readers of this blog, should there be a couple, might remember that six weeks ago I wrote a piece about the oddball British architect Bligh Bond, a man who believed that fifteenth-century monks were communicating to him through the automatic writing of a spiritualist intermediary.  I included the information that Bond’s friend, the great American architect Ralph Adams Cram, believed every word of it.  Well, Cram happens to be a person who has had a significant influence on my cultural development.  His works on the Middle Ages—and in particular a beautiful little book called Walled Towns—infused in me a rather romantic and Chestertonian vision of medieval Europe that I eventually came to reject, but only long after it had hooked me on my life’s work.  Cram was a man of parts—architect, art historian, theologian, and upper-crust bon vivant.  I knew that he was also a “creative” writer, though I knew little of his creations.  I was unaware, for example, that in 1895, Cram published in Chicago a half a dozen tales of the supernatural under the title Black Spirits and White.  No less an authority than H. P. Lovecraft, in his influential essay on “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” had high praise for one of his stories.  In ‘The Dead Valley’ the eminent architect and mediaevalist Ralph Adams Cram achieves a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description”.  But the story included in my new anthology is a different one: “No. 252 rue M. Le Prince”!

Despite the fact that a street so short as Monsieur le Prince is most unlikely to have addresses in the two hundreds, Cram’s narrator did spend one night in one of them in 1886.  That turned out to be enough.  Cram’s story is of the sub-genre “Things That Go Bump in the Night”.  One should never give away the whole plot of a supernatural tale, but I feel justified in giving you its flavor.  Suddenly a wet, icy mouth, like that of a dead cuttle-fish, shapeless, jelly-like, fell over mine.  The horror began slowly to draw my life from me, but, as enormous and shuddering folds of palpitating jelly swept sinuously around me, my will came back, my body awoke with the reaction of final fear, and I closed with the nameless death that enfolded me.  You get the picture.  And I got my third visit to the rue Monsieur le Prince.


R. A. Cram at the door of his private Gothic chapel in Sudbury MA

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Agricola Suburbanus




Despite all the annoying Turnpike Exit jokes, they call New Jersey the “Garden State” for a very good reason, the reason being the rich fertility of its soils.  Most people don’t think of the state as a particularly fluvial place, but in fact it is a network of medium and small waterways that have for eons been banking up flood plains obviously designed by God to be truck gardens.  The divine plan has not yet been entirely frustrated by “developers” hawking macmansions—only mostly frustrated.

            In my back garden the vegetables are on the march as though in audition for important roles in a Stephen King novel.  The tomatoes, somewhat stunted by a premature heat wave as they were being put in, are only now beginning to ripen.  Very few are presenting themselves as early candidates for even a red ribbon, but they do promise succulence.  The other ingredients of the ratatouille, however, and especially the squash, are astonishing in their profusion and in the speed with which the fruits appear and expand.  I put in two kinds, an ordinary green zucchini, and a yellow “summer” squash (both cucurbita pepo).  I always forget just how large these plants grow in rich soil, so that I now have considerable trouble treading among them to gather the harvest.  This must be done on a daily basis to get them at their young and tender best.  I will now also be harvesting the green peppers (capsicum anuum) and eggplant (solanum melongena) on more or less the same principle.


            Fruiting is all about the sexual reproduction of the plants, which in squash is done in a particularly spendthrift fashion, with each individual vine producing enough seed-filled fruit to produce, with agricultural help, a thousand offspring.  But agricultural intervention can arise from differing motives—as suggested by our phrase “nipped in the bud”.  We have only recently discovered just how delicious is the squash flower, very lightly battered and delicately sautéed: squash family planning with a gastronomic reward.  Of course every form of the squash is delicious—roasted, grilled, baked in casserole, blended into a scrumptious soup.  My young neighbor Anna, a high school sophomore, shared with me her great recipe for zucchini bread—if you can called a baked good with two cups of sugar in it anything but “cake,” that is.

            One of the peculiarities of this year’s growing season has been the combination of extremely hot, dry periods, and occasional downpours.  We got a real sousing on Saturday afternoon, when at least five inches of rain fell over a period of about three hours.  There were the usual phenomena of flash flooding in these parts—roads under water, cars drowned in underpasses, popping manhole lids, and the intermittent collapse of various parts of the electrical grid.  Wind had blown the metal cover off the top of our fireplace chimney, so that we got a gallon or two of sooty water oozing into the living room; but we were on the spot and combatted it successfully.  Later I received an email from the University Librarian with the alarming news that my office, which is in the library, was inundated, with a so-far undetermined loss of books and papers.  I went over and checked the office out the next day, but it was practically empty, most of the books having been removed to a special drying room (which sounded good) and the most badly damaged to “Conservation” (which didn’t).

I suspect the aberrant rainfall pattern accounts for the very poor performance of the wild raspberries this year.  We still have many jars of last year’s jam.  This year I haven’t been able to beat the birds to enough berries to make a single pie.  I went out for a final try just before dinner the day after the big rain.  There is an historically rich spot across the street, not fifty yards from my front door.  I thrashed about long enough to get wet and scratched before giving up.

What you lose on the roundabouts you make up for on the straightaways.  Returning the short distance from the berry canes empty handed, my pessimism confirmed, I had to cross before reaching the street a patch of moist greensward.   The grass, over which the University’s mowing machines had passed but a few days ago, was already in need of cutting once again.  In this grass I stumbled upon a scattering of small white blobs, so insignificant that I spotted them only when I was walking among them.  It was a colony of infant field mushrooms (agaricus campestris).  About half were still in the button stage.  Those that had opened had caps about the diameter of a nickel and the thickness of a dime.  Their gills, which in older specimens would have been a rich dark brown, were still a pastel pink.  They had probably sprung up that very dawn following the drenching.  Joan was just about to prepare the first course: sautéed zucchini flowers.  I was just in time to add the baby field mushrooms, fresh and fresher.  A great combination, for which I intend to file a patent.




Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Summer Visitors


two visiting grandchildren

The best part of the summer is rapidly approaching, the part during which the five youngest of our grandchildren are likely to be about the grandparental homestead, sometimes en masse and sometimes in discrete family groups.  The brevity of their infancy is underscored by the fact that our eldest grandchild, the college graduate, is now pursuing an exciting professional career on the West Coast.  This makes me especially conscious of the wonder of young childhood, and especially eager to attend it, to pay close attention to it, as it unrolls before my wondering eyes.  Of the many palpable blessings of retirement none is more prominent than its attendant emancipation from the awareness of having to make a living, the goad to “getting ahead,” whatever that absurd phrase might actually mean.

Just at this moment the two Montréalers, as we call them, are briefly with us.  They are actually on their way to South Carolina and their maternal grandparents.  They will travel with their mother, while their Dad, our son Luke, hangs out with us for a week and luxuriates in the anthropology holdings of the Firestone Library of Princeton University.  Then we’ll see the kids again for a day or two on their way back home.  By then our two “Washington Squarers” will also be here.  We hope, too, that a fifth, Ruby the Brooklynite, also somewhat daringly known as the Red Hooker, will be able to make an appearance during that time.

Though it has been a relatively brief time since we saw the Montréalers, the signs of their mental and physical growth are dramatic.  Hazel turned two fairly recently, just about the time I was turning eighty.  However I have not been able to observe the terribleness of her twoness, so much spoken of by her parents.  (The awfulness of eightyness is another matter, and on prominent display daily).  Her verbal skills have improved dramatically in the brief period of a couple of months, and to her increasing mastery of the spoken word she is adding a certain prowess in bel canto.  At her play-group she has been strangely indoctrinated by her Filipina minders, so that she arrived here burbling out a quite recognizable version of  “O, Canada!”.  Those are the only two words of the anthem she has so far mastered, and this means that she and her grandfather are at exactly the same level.  However, I am apparently wrong in believing that its tune is identical with that of “O Tannenbaum…”  She reacts adversely to my attempts without, however, being able to supply me with more positive guidance.  Her elder brother, John Henry, only days away from his fourth birthday, is now quite the lad.  He has a delightful temperament (most of the time) and a distinctive sense of style that manifests itself in a sailcloth fedora hat and a penchant for really bad Knock-Knock jokes—not that I wish to imply the possibility of a good Knock-Knock joke.  He now talks a blue streak, and in his conversation one finds many intimations of his two professorial parents.  Just the other day he correctly used the subjunctive in an introductory contrary-to-fact clause: “If I were…”

As somebody who spent many formative years out in the deep woods of the Ozarks I think of my current suburban circumstances as pretty unexciting and conventional.  But for the young children who visit us here the back of our house, which features a dense bamboo patch and opens onto several acres of dense woodland with a pleached path leading down to a lake, the place has all the remoteness of the little house on the prairie and the exoticism of Camp Olgagaloka.  And we have the wildlife to back it up.  Deer are abundant and likely to show up anywhere—especially at the fence line of my tomato patch.  Groundhogs—identified by John Henry as beavers (more Canadian brainwashing, I presume)--prefer to be inside the fence.  But there are also innumerable squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks.  Occasionally a fox appears, holding out its tail as stiff and unmoving as a hunting dog.  There are birds galore including some interesting and brilliantly colored ones.  If you step outside you couldn’t escape birdsong even if you wanted to.  Nocturnal raccoons make a mess of the garbage bins once or twice a month, and there is the odd opossum now and again. All of these creatures are for these children potential sources of a Wordsworthian infantile delight that confirms all my deepest religious instincts.  Amazingly, perhaps, their favorites are the two box turtles—Chloë and Hector—resident among the lush woodruff and impatiens pots of our home’s internal atrium.  John Henry and Hazel look for them the first thing in the morning and say goodnight in their direction as they head off for bed.


two resident turtles having a morning swim