Wednesday, February 14, 2018
In the digital Times magazine I recently came upon an engaging essay by Wesley Morris entitled “The Cost of Being ‘Savage’ in a Supposedly Civilized World.” It’s not exactly about philology, but it’s not exactly about politics either. It perhaps illuminates some of the problems of what I call politology—the study of social abrasions exacerbated by a want of linguistic sophistication. I ran into an interesting politological instance in my scholarly reading a few months ago. In one of his numerous dedicatory sonnets to the Faerie Qveene (aka Fairy Queen)—this one addressed to the Earl of Ormond and Ossory—Spenser invites the dedicatee to accept his offering of “a simple taste of the wilde fruit which saluage soyl hath bred.” What I take this to mean, in simpler English, is this: I wrote this poem in Ireland, and it shows. A critical book I happened upon draws from the postured language of this obscure poem a plenary indictment of Spenser’s imperialism—indeed of three centuries of English foreign policy. And the adjective savage is “racist.”
Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner as they (supposedly) say in France. To understand all is to forgive all. I don’t believe that, but I do want to suggest that even full-throated condemnation is more plausible when founded in a certain degree of linguistic comprehension. When it comes to city slickers and country bumpkins such comprehension might begin with an acknowledgement of our tongue’s undisguised bias against the country, also known as the sticks, the boonies, the backofbeyond, flyover country, rural idiocy, etc., etc.
At first blush our old literature often idealizes rustic life. Cicero celebrates what modern sociologists call the “twilight farm”—that place that most of us dream of retiring to. Rural simplicity trumps urban complexity in several of Horace’s poems. One of the most famous meters of Boethius extolls the human felicity of the Golden Age—a mythic time prior not merely to urbanization, political organization, and commerce, but even before the first plow had cut the first furrow. But if we look to philological history, all that is exposed as philosophical posturing. Cities are good, the countryside—not so much so.
Let us briefly revisit savage. It would be hard to find unambiguously benign uses of that word in today’s English. But Spenser, who loves to write in pseudo-ye-olde half Latin, has the form saluage. The U is in there because in written Latin there was no distinction between the vocalic and the consonantal (V) graphemes. We still write double-V (W) but call it double-U. But the intrusive L shows you that Spenser knew that what was savage was characteristic of the silva, that is, the forest or woodland. Now it seems to me that living in a forest is not, in and of itself, evidence of moral turpitude. Yet aside from some Romantic authors from Rousseau to Fenimore Cooper, most folks would seem to think so. Live in a city (civitas) and you are civil and enjoy civilization. Live in the woods and you are a savage practicing savagery. Live on a rural route in the country (rus, ruris) and be a rustic. Live in a town (urbs) and be urbane.
The examples of this sort of thing in English are very numerous. An annotated glossary could easily make a volume. Here I have time for but a few, beginning perhaps with villain. This word in modern American English is limited to literary usage, meaning the bad guy (almost always masculine) in a work of dramatic or narrative fiction. From there we derive the general metaphoric sense of “the villain of the piece,” meaning the bad actor in any number of situations. But if you watch enough British cop shows on Netflix you will hear the word used of actual criminals. Yet a “villain” was originally simply a person living in or associated with a villa, or farmhouse. Thence came the associations of low social status characteristic of indentured agricultural labor in the medieval feudal system and also, of course, of all the vile characteristics of such persons as viewed through the eyes of their social superiors.
Farmers have gotten a particularly bad linguistic rap. The German word for “farmer” Bauer, is still relatively neutral, though it is not entirely free of the negative social implications of peasant and other Romance terms derived from Latin pagus (a rural area), which also gives us pagan. The old Germanic root seems to have meant simply a “dweller” or “inhabitant”, and in old agrarian societies the dwelling place was the country-side. But the Dutch version, boer (as in the Boer War) hints at what happened in English. If you came from down on the farm you were likely to be a boor, pick your nose, eat your gruel with your fingers, fart in church, and do other unpleasant, boorish things. What is uncouth can also be comical. This fact perhaps explains the semantic development of the word clown. Though more linguistically obscure than the other examples I have given, clown was another term for countryman or farm hand. Ben Jonson wanted to connect the word with Latin colonus, a dweller in a particular region, but I have my doubts. From its first early modern appearances it seems to invite the associations of risible contempt that come with yokel, which first appears in sporting lingo of the nineteenth century. This word, says the great philologist C. T. Onions, is “identical in form with the dialectical yokel green woodpecker, yellowhammer, of which it may be a figurative application.” Who knew? But better a peckerwood than a savage.
My next post will probably be delayed, once again, as we shall be for a spell in indisputably urban Santa Monica. Harry Shearer, a very funny guy whose weekly show I used to listen to on NPR, called Santa Monica “the home of the homeless.” We have social problems in this country so severe that you’ve got to laugh if you are going to keep from weeping.
Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
From the two mini-posts of the last week a faithful reader will know that I spent some of it traveling by car with my granddaughter Sophia over a somewhat erratic course from Little Rock in Arkansas to Murfreesboro in Tennessee. It was a wonderful experience, worthy of an extended essay of its own, did I not feel obliged to return to more professorial pastures. Thus I mention only its one down-side. I left Princeton with a mildly infected tooth, which abandoned the mildness part on my way to the airport. I would not have believed that it is possible crave root canal work “like as the hart panteth after the water brooks," but I did, and achieved it within hours of my return. This seamless segue brings me to today’s real subject, and that is Richard Henry Dana’s wonderful book, Two Years Before the Mast.
I always travel with some book or another, even when I know that the opportunities for actual reading will be few and brief. And I want a real book, not an electronic device. I grabbed my Library of America edition of Dana mainly on the basis of its comparative slimness. Dana (born in 1815) was a Harvard undergraduate in 1834 when he fell dangerously ill with an attack of measles that threatened his eyesight. The recommended therapy of the day was fresh air and travel. What the medicos had in mind was probably something like a cossetted visit to Baden-Baden, but Dana, thinking outside the box, instead signed up as a common merchant sailor on a boat sailing to California to gather a vast load of cowhides to bring back to Boston. His account of his experiences is not merely one of the world’s greatest sea stories; it has deservedly achieved the status of a literary classic. No less is it precious as a witness of social history.
On the return journey, as the crew faced the daunting prospect of rounding Cape Horn in terrible winter storms, Dana was attacked by an infected tooth, facial swelling that seemed to double the size of his head, and agonizing pain. There was no root canal for him, nor palliative medicaments of any kind. The few drops of laudanum in the medicine chest had to be saved in case something “serious” arose. He just had to tough it out. Wooden ships and iron men, indeed! This narrative episode was naturally of special interest to me under the circumstances, but it was not what struck me most forcibly about Dana’s book.
Dana was among the first Americans (meaning here, as it generally did in his time, citizens of the U.S.) to visit and describe California, then a Mexican backwater, though destined to be the great dynamo of western expansion and to this day a beckoning American mythscape. Dana never got far inland. He spent a year coasting back and forth between San Francisco and San Diego, stopping at the few sleepy mission settlements for periods of back-breaking labor required by the cowhide trade. But he was a sharp observer and a plain speaker, and his judgments of the californios (Hispanic Californians) are arresting.
The heroic version of the “Turner thesis” that was the stuff of my primary schooling—rugged, aspirational Anglo-Saxons and other European pioneers manifesting national destiny with yoked oxen, plowshares, and pickaxes—had already been supplanted, by the time of my children’s schooling by a grimmer, racialized legend featuring distilled greed, rapine, and genocide. Anyone who has watched Ken Burns’s “The West” will be familiar with its drift. Dana’s description of Californian society fifteen years before the Gold Rush is from this point of view fascinating. He sees a sparsely populated, backward and culturally desolate colonial outpost abandoned to political corruption and misgovernment by a distant and ineffective Mexican capital. It is riven with race-based social inequities, with the mission Indians oppressed in de facto servitude. The social dynamic, if one can call it that, is the privileged indolence of Castilian blood. Here we have a country, writes Dana, “embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, with several good harbors; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate, than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold. In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!” But, alas, according to Dana, the whole land seems subject to “the ‘California fever’ (laziness).”
At the time of the Gold Rush there were precious few real American authorities on California. Two Years Before the Mast sold like hotcakes among the rushers eager for any authentic information, even the incidental musings of a seafaring Harvard undergraduate, about the new land of their dreams. And they doubtless thought of themselves as “an enterprising people”. Dana himself was very far from a jingoist or a money-grubber. Indeed he was a man of high principles and admirably progressive opinions. Before the Civil War he was an ardent abolitionist. After the War he was a civil rights activist. His major cause was the amelioration of the state of the working classes, especially the merchant mariners whose life he had shared and permanently memorialized in a literary masterpiece.
Saturday, February 3, 2018
A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words. This one is worth more than that, and way more than the unwritten eight or nine hundred that I chose to sacrifice last week while I played hooky from GLGT to drop in on a road trip undertaken by our eldest granddaughter, Sophia. She is in the process of switching jobs and coasts and was driving with all her gear from Los Angeles to New York. According to Alexa, that’s 2,797 miles by the quickest Interstate route. Sophia, giving the interesting priority over the hasty, added the better part of another thousand miles to that. She picked me up in the Little Rock airport on Monday morning and we drove north to my old homestead in Baxter County, now occupied by my cousin Millie and her husband Doug, lovely people with whom we had a delightful, mellow visit. It was a joy to introduce Sophia to parts of my youth that thus far have been for her only legendary. We stomped around the farm a very little bit, enough to verify visually that my own couple of hundred adjoining acres still seem to be there, and indulged in a long show-and-tell with family memorabilia. The next day we drove eastward toward Memphis—meaning that we had made half of the full circuit of the most beautiful parts of the Ozarks. From Memphis we drove next morning to Murfreesboro, in Middle Tennessee, where we had lunch with John and Betty Dixon, the parents of our daughter-in-law Katie. I don’t know any technical term for that particular status of relationship, so “superb hosts” will have to do. Thence Sophia drove on eastward without me, and I flew home from Nashville the next day. I reckon I made only about fifteen percent of Sophia’s miles with her, but I think that neither she nor I shall soon forget them.
O, yes, the photograph. Here are granddaughter and grandfather on the bank of the White River at the spot where the Shipps Ferry Road deadends, about seven miles south of Mountain Home, Arkansas. The ferry had long since disappeared like so much of my childhood. But Old Man River—he just keeps rolling along. May the beauty last forever.
Wednesday, January 24, 2018
This is a photograph of two of my close blood relations. The man is my younger brother, Richard Neville Fleming, born December 2, 1941. The woman is his niece, our eldest granddaughter, Sophia Elizabeth Fleming-Benite, born June 19, 1993. They are standing outside a perimeter fence of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico on January 22nd. Our latest ludicrous government shutdown lasted only three days, but one of them happened to be January 22nd, so that the monument itself was closed.
Like most family photographs this one will be of interest only to a small circle of people who actually know the subjects of the photograph and the circumstances in which it was taken. But—as is also doubtless true of thousands of other such photographs--it might, were it able to be given voice, prove to be an eloquent testimony to currents of social change in post-War America so powerful as to merit the adjective “revolutionary.”
Rick, as he is known in the family, was born to two parents with high-school educations and chronic financial challenges, children of the Great Depression. He spent the War years, while his father fought in the South Pacific, with his maternal grandmother in Denver. After that he lived intermittently on a farm in Arkansas and in numerous places in the West and Southwest to which his parents took him in their peripatetic, rather quixotic, and (it must be said) futile search for prosperity. The permanent results of traumatic birth injury conspired with an unsettled life, and he never finished his public schooling. He has lived for many years in Las Cruces, N.M., the last place our parents landed. Before his retirement he worked on the maintenance crews of New Mexico State University.
Sophia was born in California, half a century after Rick. Both her parents were Ph. D. college professors. At the age of five she moved to New York. She grew up on Washington Square and attended excellent schools. She spent her four high-school years in Paris at a demanding and prestigious academy, at which she excelled in her academic work, became fluent in French, and generally exploited the resources of a great world capital. She returned to America to attend Johns Hopkins, to which she was a successful “early action” applicant. There she took her degree, with distinction, in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences. Though the job market for new graduates was not robust three years ago, she immediately secured a dream job with one of the glitzy, fast-moving social media outfits. Her first assignment was in New York, but she was soon transferred to the mother ship on the West Coast.
This is not a tale of two cities, but an abbreviated account of two members of a single American family. There is more to “diversity” than is sometimes acknowledged by our cultural arbiters. It’s more diverse. Sophia is at heart a New Yorker, and at length concluded that she had sufficiently imbibed of the lotus slurpies of Venice Beach. She has resigned from the world of nineteen-year-old entrepreneurs and is returning to New York to take up a challenging executive position in a very different though equally innovative enterprise: one that deals with solid real property rather than evanescent pixils. She has always wanted to do a leisurely continental road trip, and here’s her chance. She had a yard sale, crammed her remaining lares and penates into a big car, and took off some days ago in a vaguely easterly direction, with the second stop being Uncle Rick in Las Cruces. What a lovely young woman!
Realizing that a long drive could be a lonely drive, Sophia has lined up several other visits with friends along the way—a way that includes Marfa, TX, Austin, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, and Washington. Those are only the stops I know about. Her plan to avoid solitude likewise exploits the madcap nature of her family. Her young sister Cora will fly out to Dallas (or is it Austin?) to hang out for a day or two in Austin (or is it Dallas?) And her grandfather, who has clearly lost his mind, will next Monday fly out at the crack of dawn to Little Rock, where in theory he will get into Sophia’s passenger seat to be driven north to his old stomping grounds in Baxter County and an overnight with a cousin. We then hustle across to Memphis (Graceland being a must), and the following day on to Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee, the site of a significant Civil War battle and—of more immediate relevance—the home of our friends the Dixons, whose daughter Katie vastly enriched the social cachet of the Flemings by marrying our son Richard. There Sophia and I shall part, and I shall return from Nashville to Newark on Thursday while she speeds ever eastward through the Cumberland Gap and into some state or another that borders on the Atlantic. In telling you all this I am under no illusion that it is comprehensible, let alone engaging, but I hope to explain in advance why there will be no timely post next Wednesday. I mean, what the hell? If you can’t let your hair down a bit in your eighties, when will it ever happen?
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Last week’s essay about an icon (a real, painted one) set me to thinking briefly about Anna Jameson, an early Victorian “independent scholar” (to use the current term) who introduced me to the fascinating topic of Christian iconography long before I had developed any serious leanings toward Medieval Studies. Two of her books in particular—Sacred and Legendary Art and Legends of the Monastic Orders—opened up for me a world of early European painting years before I would ever lay eyes on an actual painting.
So persistent was the male domination of her cultural world that her title pages generally identified the author as “Mrs. Jameson”. That put her in the same class with several other Victorian writers I stumbled upon in my early years, including the poet “Mrs. Hemans,” the novelist “Mrs. Humphry Ward,” and the novelist and popular historian “Mrs. Oliphant”. Anna’s most famous work, a study of Shakespeare’s heroines, is enjoying a revival in the feminist turn taken by literary study.
One thing (Anna Jameson) leads to another (Harriet Martineau). During the week I was surprised to come upon a review from the pen Henry James of a biography of Anna Jameson (1878).* The biographer was Anna’s niece Geraldine Macpherson, one of whose principal motives, according to James, was to do “justice to a memory cruelly disparaged by that very heavy-handed genius, Miss Martineau…” A “very heavy-handed genius” being even more intriguing than a “very stable genius”, this naturally sent me off to search for some cruel disparagement in the pages of Harriet Martineau’s memoirs.
(Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876)
But I never got there, having been providentially sidetracked by an extraordinary essay by Martineau entitled “The Martyr Age of the United States”. There are not too many obscure nineteenth-century journal articles that every thoughtful American ought to have read, but I dare suggest this is one of them. Martineau published it in the December, 1838, number of the London and Westminster Review. She had made a long visit to the United States in the 1830s, her fame preceding her. Her fabulously successful Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) was a great international best-seller, which in its sales left the novels of Dickens in the dust.
Ostensibly “The Martyr Age” is a review of three anonymous pamphlets she attributes to the Boston abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, each entitled “Right and Wrong in Boston in ---,” the blank being filled by the dates 1835, 1836, and 1837. It is actually a spirited account of the principal abolitionists in New England, their character, their modus operandi, and their tribulations. Martineau hardly suppresses her own attitudes toward chattel slavery, but she writes as a sociologist, not as a polemicist. “There is a remarkable set of people now living and vigorously acting in the world, with a consonance of will and understanding which has perhaps never been witnessed among so large a number of individuals of such diversified powers, habits, opinions, tastes and circumstances,” she writes. “A well-grounded faith, directed towards a noble object, is the only principle which can account for such a spectacle as the world is now waking up to contemplate in the abolitionists of the United States.”
Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885)
While is it historically inspiring that a woman of Martineau’s moral character could so praise a large group of our American forebears, there is a cascade of less welcome news around the edges. Some of the sobering facts that a reader picks up incidentally in reading the essay include the following. She entitles her piece “Martyr Age” because of the great physical danger that faced public opponents of slavery not in Charleston or New Orleans but in Boston and New York. Abolitionist meetings in the North were frequently barracked and mobbed, sometimes with lethal violence.
The abolitionist movement, though broadly based, is extraordinary for its female leaders. Such famous male abolitions as William Lloyd Garrison and the Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing were generally shunned by elected politicians (all of whom were of course male). The abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly and explicitly Christian in its inspiration, but it was vehemently deplored by many church leaders. As at so many other moments of social crisis, the conflict tended to be “generational”, and in a way that sheds little honor on the elders. At a Presbyterian seminary in Cincinnati (Lane) virtually the entire student body was expelled by a scandalized faculty—the offense being the public endorsement of the words of Jesus and Paul. Large swaths of the white population of the northern states opposed slavery but were more or less enthusiastic proponents of various “resettlement” schemes, often thinly disguised efforts to transport as much of the black population as possible to Africa! Even among highly educated Americans belief in the social equality of black and white, even of its eventual possibility, was exceedingly rare. That is another way of saying that white supremacy was the national default.
Martineau reports that in 1834 a group of “Young Men” in New York City “pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, (in the language and spirit of the Declaration of Independence), to overthrow slavery by moral assault, or to die in the attempt.” Whether Henry James would hold that Harriet Martineau is “heavy-handed” in her essay on “The Martyr Age of the United States” I cannot say for certain. But given its power to startle and shame an American reader a hundred and eighty years later, and to remind us that the “words and spirit” of the Declaration still await plenary fulfillment, I’d say that heavy-handedness is perhaps a virtue. I’ll have to wait for another day to find out what Miss Martineau said about Mrs. Jameson.
*Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature /American Writers/English Writers (Library of America, 22), pp. 1067-68.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Saint Thomas Ken by Michel Lafleur (2017) 6" x 8", oils on toile
Thomas Ken (1637-1711), though a somewhat obscure English ecclesiastic, is nonetheless a household name in certain obscure American households, and one particularly well known to me: viz, my own. A saintly character who became the Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was most notable for two public acts of conscience. In the summer of 1683 he refused the request of King Charles II’s advance man to give temporary housing to the famous royal mistress, Eleanor (“Nell”) Gwyn, maintaining that “a woman of ill repute ought not to be endured in the house of a clergyman, and especially the king’s chaplain.” More famously he was one of the non-jurors: a few bishops who at the time of the Glorious Revolution refused to take an oath of fealty to the new king, William of Orange, on the grounds that the old monarch, James II (abdicated or deposed, depending upon your ecclesiastical politics) was still alive. When I was talking about the inconveniences of resolutions and vows last week, I should have included oaths.
Both of Ken’s actions, and especially the second, took cojones; but his fame in the Fleming household is based on mere calendrical accident. Ken’s is remembered in the Anglican calendar on March 20. That is the day Joan happened to be ordained to the priesthood, making him a kind of spiritual patron for her.
That is the first part of the “set up” for this essay. The second introduces the “Haitian barbershop art” project of our formidable son Richard. He spends a good deal of time in Haiti, and has taken a great interest in the Haitian art scene, being a regular at the Ghetto Biennale. There is on the island an amazing flourishing of “tonsorial art”—that is, paintings (rather in the genre of British pub signs) identifying and adorning barbershops and beauty salons, very numerous in Haiti’s service economy. Richard has been trying to connect some of the artists with potential American clients.
None of this was at first in my mind as I slowly was developing an idea for the perfect Christmas gift, the idea of a commissioned icon of Thomas Ken. I knew that, if nothing else, such an image would be unique. Initial investigation revealed problems. The first was the problem of a model or prototype. Ken’s extant iconography is meager. There is a portrait in New College, Oxford; but aside from that there is little more than the usual author’s portrait etchings in old books--a gloomy-faced senior citizen wearing what look like ecclesiastical pajamas. The second is that there are not all that many Anglican icon-makers. I did come upon a very promising one, a woman in New England who does exquisite golden pieces in neo-Byzantine style. She was game to give it a go, but at a price I could not afford. Then I thought of the Haitian portraitists with whom Richard is connected.
Richard has been helping some of the Barbershop Painters to supplement their income by doing commissioned portraits, based on photographs, in their distinctive vernacular styles. You send an artist a photo of Uncle Fred with a few general suggestions about size and so forth; the artist does the rest.
The word “icon” perhaps requires a little demystification. It is the Greek word for pictorial representation as image (imago) was the Latin word. It has come to mean particularly a “religious picture”, though we also have “Civil Rights icons,” computer icons, and other secular icons galore. In Christian history icons/images have been used both in the decoration of churches and for private devotion. In popular thought they are particularly associated with the eastern Orthodox churches, though in fact the surviving iconography deriving from Latin (Roman Catholic) traditions is more extensive and more diverse. Religious pictures have been controversial. There were major movements of theological image-smashing (iconoclasm) in the East in the eighth and ninth centuries and in the West in the sixteenth.
We do not know the names of most of the creators of medieval religious art, and the small works of Orthodox devotion we are most likely think of as “icons” may seem characteristically anonymous. But the name of the fifteenth-century Russian painter Andrei Rublev became widely known through a famous Soviet film. We think El Greco began as an “icon”-painter, and there are others. The creator of the world’s first known commissioned icon of Saint Thomas Ken is named Michel Lafleur, and more of his work (both tonsorial and portraiture) can be seen here.
The process by which he created the icon was wonderfully medieval. In writing a doctoral dissertation on the illustrated manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose I discovered the extraordinary degree to which medieval painters regarded themselves as technicians rather than expressive creators. A scribe needing an image of Lady Fortune might write the simple instruction: “Draw a picture of a woman with a wheel here” and get what he wanted. Above all, the painters were expert copyists of approved models. Unfortunately, the only model I could provide for M. Lafleur was a grim neo-classical line-etching. He did a wonderful job of “byzantinizing” with golden hues; but he couldn’t do much about the weird cameo thing at the bottom of the oval architectural frame.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Some of the new lockers in Dillon gymnasium
When it comes to New Year’s resolutions I am a bit of a trimmer. While I recognize the logic and perhaps even the inevitability of making a mental connection between the desire for personal reformation and the rebooting of the calendar, I grow wary. The problem is that I have an exalted understanding of a resolution. In my mind a resolution is the secular analogue of a religious vow. A good deal of my academic work has concerned medieval monks and nuns for whom vows were inflexible moral contracts imposing awesome responsibilities that ordinarily could not be abrogated without invoking a terrible social opprobrium in addition, of course, to the mortal sin.
Linguistic manipulation frequently offers an excellent salve to the conscience. You have undoubtedly run into the remark of the historian Tacitus concerning the Roman mode of military pacification. “They create a desert and call it peace.” So I do not speak of New Year’s resolutions. My term of art is intentions. We all have intentions. Some we achieve, others we fail to achieve. Such failure may be disappointing or discouraging, but it carries no necessary moral indictment. I won’t list all my current intentions, but they include remembering that garbage pickup day is Friday, hanging no more than three garments from the back of any one chair, flossing under my dental bridges, and reading Don Quijote in Spanish. My intention most like to succeed is to continue regular physical exercise at an early hour in the Dillon Gymnasium swimming pool.
The gym is never open on New Year’s Day, but I have noticed over the years that on the second of January, the number of people who show up as the door opens is considerably larger than at any other time of the year. This augmentation in pre-dawn athleticism generally lasts about ten days to two weeks: the average time a New Year’s resolution takes to fall by the wayside. Well, yesterday morning I supercharged my intention by deciding that I would be the very first person to enter the men’s locker room in Athletic Year 2018. So I set off especially early into the frigid blackness intending to be at the very front of the line. There is a walk of two or three hundred yards from car to gym door. The campus was very dark, very cold, and very empty. I saw not a soul, and I was at first simple enough to believe that I had indeed achieved my intention.
What had actually happened was that the guy who monitors the door had opened it some minutes early, doubtless as an act of charity, as the temperature was, I believe, seven degrees Fahrenheit. As I entered the locker room I could hear door-clanks from several quarters, and my friend Gary, already in his workout gear, greeted me with a hearty “Happy New Year!” I was big enough to admit to him that the irrefutable evidence that I was approximately the eighth person to enter the locker room in AY 2018—evidence of which his mere presence was a crushing part—had already made it less happy than it might have been. This confession elicited friendly guffaws from other, unseen sooners behind various locker banks. The locker room is fairly small, and has annoyingly good acoustics.
But there was further unintended mirth ahead. I had not been swimming since before Christmas. I was in Montreal for a week, and the gym was shut over the long New Year’s weekend. I had taken the opportunity to put my favorite swimming trunks—actual a pair of green Champion athletic shorts inscribed with fading letters that read COLGATE ATHLETICS—through the washing machine. I do this on general principles a couple of times a year whether they need it or not. Naturally they went through the tumbler dryer as well—a material fact relevant to this narrative in a Chekovian sort of way.
For as I stood in the buff preparing to put them on, surrounded by the overachievers who had already and quite without malicious intent blasted my own New Year intention, a funny thing happened to me. The swimming suit, which I had carried to the gym rolled up in a towel, seemed slightly heavy to me. I was puzzled. I shook it a little with both hands. From one of its legs a kind of neutral colored satiny something slithered to the floor. It was unmistakably a pair of women’s panties.
You have doubtless yourself experienced the odd effects of static electricity on the well-spun contents of a clothes dryer. Ours is a somewhat unusual locker room. Here “locker room talk” sometimes includes disquisitions on Kant or the Kuiper Belt. One of the gawking sooners was actually an electrical engineer, and could have made of it a teachable moment; but no matter. The whole room went momentarily silent. For of course we are absolutely culturally au courant around here. Among the improvements made to the Dillon Gymnasium during its long rehab was the installation of a “gender inclusive bathroom”. I nonetheless gathered up the fallen garment as quickly as possible. When later I related the anecdote to my wife, she was mildly amused. “But what I am really missing,” she said, “is one of my black stretch socks.” I intend to keep my eye peeled.