Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bathroom Babble



“If Donald Trump dresses as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t use the little girls’ restroom.”  So said Senator Ted Cruz of the great Princeton class of 1992 shortly before throwing in the towel.  There is a context, but you can skip it, as it only makes things worse.  As a medievalist who tries not to read too many books written since the advent of movable type I rarely find myself on the frontiers of contemporary thought, but on this public bathroom stuff, I have been way out ahead of the curve for years.  An enlarged prostate is a stern tutor of bathroom philosophy.

My party has a three-pronged program concerning public bathrooms.  (1)  There ought to be many more of them [axiom], and they ought to be salubrious [corollary].  (2)  In particular, there ought to be a crash program of public bathroom construction in New York City with the aim of approximating the ratio of comfort to pedestrian mile to be found in London, Paris, and other civilized cities.  (3)  Any woman ought to have access to any public bathroom anywhere.

I hope that this third plank does not lure me too close to the cutting edge of the culture wars or, for that matter, of Mr. Cruz’s not quite rapier-like wit, which I find more to resemble a fungo bat, actually.  The need for gender justice in this matter needs no progressive political theory for its justification.  It is a matter of anatomical empiricism.  Simply observe the queues outside the ladies’ room at the Eighth Avenue end of Penn Station at rush hour, or at the Metropolitan Opera entr’-acte.  In my house both men and women use the same bathroom, and I can remember that arrangement going back as far as the time of my grandparents.

Of course when it comes to elimination the distinction between public and private is of great anthropological weight, and it is easier to eliminate it in a blog essay than in general social practice.  But doing so, even on an accidental basis, can lead to anthropological insight.

This anecdote concerns a woman I know intimately and who was many years ago my companion in attending a series of Gauss Seminars.  The Gauss Seminars in Criticism are a prized cultural institution on our campus.  Famous literary scholars, artists, and thinkers in many fields come to town to deliver a series of seminars before an invited blue-ribbon audience of their peers and votaries.  The animated discussions following the talks are meant to be as probing and brilliant as the talks themselves.  They take their name from Christian Gauss (1878-1951), a once famous Dean of the College, literary critic, and mentor of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.

            The venue for the Gauss Seminars has not been constant, but they usually command something of architectural nobility.  In the year of which I speak—it might have been 1977—a mansion on Prospect Street, home of a recently defunct all-male undergraduate dining club, had been bought up by the University—and the Gauss was meeting there to hear the late great anthropologist, Dame Mary Douglas.  The audience was properly august, and Douglas’s lectures highly stimulating.

            The “break” between formal talk and informal general discussion arrived, and my aforementioned female companion left in search of a jakes.    After a certain amount of wandering about marble halls, she found one.  It was denominated “LADIES” on a scarcely visible, hand written three-by-five card.  She was not surprised to find in it in addition to the stalls she sought a wall of stand-up urinals.  This place had been, after all, a men’s club.

Sequestered in her stall, attending to her business, she was alarmed to hear two loud, hearty, male voices burst confidently into the bathroom and head in the direction of the urinals.  Furthermore, the voices were unmistakably those of two local, eminent, semi-public intellectuals well known to her, Professor X (a philosopher with a distinctive and carefully preserved German accent) and Professor Y, a patrician, prize-winning litterateur, one of the ornaments of our neighboring state university.  You would probably recognize the names of these gentlemen; but they some time ago went to their eternal rewards and deserve their peace.

The split second in which she might have made known her presence came and went; she was forced to adopt Church Mouse Mode.  As these guys did their business they conversed loudly.  After a few damning remarks of faint praise for Mary Douglas’s lecture, they began talking about their own most recent books.  Both had recently published one, and to acclaim.  But the inadvertent eavesdropper could not help noting a certain edge to the ego-heavy self-congratulation.  Years earlier she had studied Beowulf at Oxford.  She remembered the scene in which Beowulf and his nemesis Unferth indulge in a bibulous argument about Beowulf’s swimming prowess as once revealed in a contest with somebody called Breca.  That form of semi-ritualized competitive male boasting or verbalized testosterone is known in Old English as gielping.   I think that the equally expressive if somewhat more vulgar expression in our contemporary tongue is pissing contest.






























































































































































































































































































































































th Avenue end of Penn Station at rush hour, or at the Metropolitan Opera entr’-acte.  In my house both men and women use the same bathroom, and I can remember that arrangement going back as far as the time of my grandparents.

Of course when it comes to elimination the distinction between public and private is of great anthropological weight, and it is easier to eliminate it in a blog essay than in general social practice.  But doing so, even on an accidental basis, can lead to unique anthropological insights.

This anecdote concerns a woman I know intimately and who was many years ago my companion in attending a series of Gauss Seminars.  The Gauss Seminars in Criticism are a prized cultural institution on our campus.  Famous literary scholars, artists, and thinkers in many fields come to town to deliver a series of seminars before an invited blue-ribbon audience of their peers and votaries.  The animated discussions following the talks are meant to be as probing and brilliant as the talks themselves.  They take their name from Christian Gauss (1878-1951), a once famous Dean of the College, literary critic, and mentor of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.

            The venue for the Gauss Seminars has not been constant, but they usually command something of architectural nobility.  In the year of which I speak—it might have been 1977—a mansion on Prospect Street, home of a recently defunct all-male undergraduate dining club, had been bought up by the University—and the Gauss was meeting there to hear the late great anthropologist, Dame Mary Douglas.  The audience was properly august, and Douglas’s lectures highly stimulating.

            The “break” between formal talk and informal general discussion arrived, and my aforementioned female companion left in search of a jakes.    After a certain amount of wandering about marble halls, she found one.  It was denominated “LADIES” on a scarcely visible, hand written three-by-five card.  She was not surprised to find in it in addition to the stalls she sought a wall of stand-up urinals.  This place had been, after all, a men’s club.

Sequestered in her stall, attending to her business, she was alarmed to hear two loud, hearty, male voices burst confidently into the bathroom and head in the direction of the urinals.  Furthermore, the voices were unmistakably those of two local, eminent, semi-public intellectuals well known to her, Professor X (a philosopher with a distinctive and carefully preserved German accent) and Professor Y, a patrician, prize-winning litterateur, one of the ornaments of our neighboring state university.  You would probably recognize the names of these gentlemen; but they some time ago went to their eternal rewards and deserve their peace.

The split second in which she might have made known her presence came and went; she was forced to adopt Church Mouse Mode.  As these guys did their business they conversed loudly.  After a few damning remarks of faint praise for Mary Gordon’s lecture, they began talking about their own most recent books.  Both had recently published one, and to acclaim.  But the inadvertent eavesdropper could not help noting a certain edge to the ego-heavy self-congratulation.  Years earlier she had studied Beowulf at Oxford.  She remembered the scene in which Beowulf and his nemesis Unferth indulge in a bibulous argument about Beowfulf’s swimming prowess as once revealed in a deep-sea contest with somebody called Breca.  That form of semi-ritualized competitive male boasting or verbalized testosterone is known in Old English as gielping.   I think that the equally expressive if somewhat more vulgar expression in our contemporary tongue is pissing contest.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Gain and Loss




For bears of little brain like myself certain abstract concepts encountered daily in the newspapers—“city planning,” “community organization,” “social dislocation,” and many others—tend to take on meaning only through instances of small, local, and sometimes even trivial exemplification.  I am prepared to follow my thought-leaders in the belief that Robert Moses, who carved up New York City’s old neighborhoods and repackaged them with gaudy ribbons of expressways and flyovers, is one of the great sociological criminals of the last century.  But my censure is as tentative and imprecise as the phenomenon was huge and consequential.
           
            The reshaping of Dillon Gym is a different matter.  This week is my second without a morning swim.  The Dillon pool is closed for two months as part of a major upgrading of the whole gymnasium.  The sense of dislocation is intense.  There are of course alternative pools, and their opening hours will be more convenient for my own particular needs beginning in May, when I should also be recovered from a minor surgical episode and ready for the plunge.  When Dillon does reopen in the summer, however, everything is likely to be changed as much as if Robert Moses had pierced it with the West Side Highway.  The Men’s Locker Room is to be gutted, and all the old rusting metal lockers scrapped.   Their replacements, of which we have already seen a sample model in mock up, will be in spiffy red, with built-in combination locks like those in hotel room safes or (as I imagine it) the offices of CIA bureaucrats.  They will obviate the need for the clunky portable locks we all have now, so easily forgotten or accidentally attached to someone else’s locker.

            All this will be part of Princeton’s Great Leap Forward in Fitness—except for one unfortunate consequence.  A reconfigured gym will undoubtedly destroy the adventitious communities that have grown up over many years of people who for a variety of reasons happen to show up at the same long row of lockers each weekday at about the same time.  I have mentioned “my” locker community several times over the years in the blog.

            I had reason to think about all this last week.  One morning Joan found resting on the windshield of her car in our open carport a copy of William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.  I understood immediately what for her had to be a puzzle.  The book had been dropped off for me by one of my locker room buddies, Steve S., a financial expert in the Budget Office.  He is one of a very large number of top professionals in many fields whose work enables the vast and intricate enterprise that is a university.  In the normal course of events few faculty and fewer still students ever encounter these men and women—even though we couldn’t be here without them.

            I have locker-room bonhomie to thank for meeting Steve, a sage and witty commentator on the current political scene and a voracious reader of interesting books.  My conversation with him is usually limited to about forty-five seconds a day, though every six weeks or so he and another locker buddy and I spend forty-five minutes together over coffee and gab at Panera.  It is he who had told me about American Ground, offering to let me have his old copy.  I had forgotten about it, but he hadn’t, and he took the trouble to seek out our house and drop the book off.  American Ground, which I think enjoyed a certain acclaim upon its publication in 2002, is about what happened at Ground Zero after the devastating attacks.  What happened in a nutshell was one of the most humongous, technically challenging, and politically charged cleanups in world history.

            I read it within forty-eight hours of posting my last blog entry, “Earth Works,” in which I had dramatized the difficulties of redistributing a cubic yard or two of topsoil over a couple of hundred square feet.  The irony did not escape me.  At Ground Zero the workers were faced with acres of dangerously unstable debris, mountainous in its contours, incalculable in its weight, containing an unknown number of rotting bodies.  There were unremitting lethal threats of avalanche, flooding, and uncertain toxins.  There were all sorts of things that you would never have thought of—at least I would never have thought of.  There was the danger posed by the large quantities of Freon that had been needed to keep thousands of stock-brokers cool.  A collapsing skyscraper, it turns out, is the world’s greatest pile-driver, requiring the expertise of mining engineers to redress.  There were indeed heroes galore, but also major conflicts between policemen and firemen as to which were to be more heroic.  This recalled to me the medieval fist-fights between Franciscans and Dominicans over the issue of which group should be given the humbler position in ecclesiastical processions.  Looting was endemic, and of heroic proportion.  There were after all computers and executive suite tchotchkes lying around everywhere.  But above all there were the staggering piles of concrete, cement dust, and steel.  How could you possibly pick it all up?  What could you possible do with it if you could?  But they did find a way, and I suppose that if the Financial District can get used to such a dramatic relocation of its neighborhood, I will eventually get used to a new locker room.  But what will I do without my bibliographer Steve?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Earth Works



            Spring arrived in these parts in a big rush, as though it must hurry as fast as possible into summer, and I have been forced to try to keep up with it.  Last year the summer vegetables were particularly succulent, and as through the winter I remembered all the delicious pasta sauces, salads, and ratatouilles I came up with a bold—or as I might describe it now, foolhardy plan.  I would expand that part of my agricultural enterprise that gets the best southern sunlight.  This could mean, if all went well, even more and better pasta sauces, salads, and ratatouilles.

            We are not talking agro-business here.  By my rough-and-ready reckoning I am planning to add to the total agricultural production of our country about an additional .00459 acre of land.  The trouble is that every square foot of it must be wrested from the combination of jungle and veldt abutting the current cultivated plot, and then protected by a high wire fence from the large deer herd that even now stand off at a distance licking their chops as they watch me sweat.

            The jungle and veldt aspects of the challenge, while different in kind, demand a similar response.  First: the jungle.  We have in these parts a horrible invasive vine of Asiatic origin—New Jersey’s answer to kudzu--the Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, sometimes called porcellainberry.  It is capable of overwhelming and strangling even large trees.  Ruthless cutting back offers temporary relief, but porcellainberry has the sinister regenerative powers of the Hydra.  The only way really to get rid of it is literal deracination—a task only slightly less difficult than that presented by bamboo.  (We have that in profusion, too, but one menace at a time.)
The dreaded vine on the march

            As to the veldt, where there is neither forest nor jungle around here there is rich grassland.  The sod is particularly luxuriant.  Indeed local farmers of cultivated sod made a small fortune during the first phase of the housing boom supplying developers with instant lawns.  (During the second they made large fortunes selling off the farms themselves.)  There is a reason that the first agricultural settlers on the Great Plains, destined to be our national granary, were called sod-busters and why so many of them went mad in the attempt to bust it.  If you want to have thriving tomato roots you have to get rid of the grass.
           
I don’t go in for power tools, except for the indispensable one, a pickup truck.  Several years ago I spent a pleasant semester of my post-retirement as a visiting professor at Colgate.  One day, knocking around the country roads, I came upon a roadside junk heap in which there was a sturdy steel frame, three feet by four, into which had been fitted and stoutly welded a mesh of heavy steel wire.  I have no idea of its original purpose, but I could easily imagine a use for it—as an industrial strength sieve or screen for breaking up heavy clods of New Jersey top soil.  I tossed it—well, truth to tell I manhandled it up into the truck bed and eventually brought it home.

a home-made topsoil strainer

So for the past couple of weeks I have been straining roughly .00459 of an acre of Mercer County separating the precious top soil from a tangle of vine roots, many the thickness of my thumb, removing the odd splinter or fragment of schist, and above all separating every possible fleck of rich dirt from its grassy wig.  The remaining turves add some solidity and opulence to the compost pile; but the wretched vine roots are consigned to the untender mercies of the town’s monthly pick-ups of brush and vegetable debris.

Nothing is more allegorical than a garden.  In fact, I have written books on that subject.  The garden would seem to be one of the great cultural archetypes.  But for me one of the finest of emblematic gardens is neither biblical nor medieval.  It appears in what is perhaps the sweetest work of the genius philosophe, Voltaire.  At the very end of Candide, one of the immortal short fictions of our tradition, the young man who gives his name to the work, meets an old Turkish farmer.  This simple man teaches him what a quest for exotic experience and abstruse philosophy has failed to provide.  It might be called the “meaning of life”.  Speaking of his few arpents of small-holding, the old Turk says “I cultivate them with my children; the labor shields us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and want”.  Hence Candide’s motto: il faut cultiver notre jardin, we must tend to our garden.  I don’t know about boredom, vice, and want; but it doesn’t do much for an aging back.

 Voltaire in his garden at Ferney

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Clerical Error



 Archbishop Justin Welby

Among the steadying qualities of Anglicanism, a certain reliable boringness has always rated high on my list of admirable clerical qualities.  Very little ecclesiastical business makes it to the pages of the National Enquirer or the News of the World.  In the last couple of weeks, however, a sensational story concerning the maculate conception of the sitting Archbishop of Canterbury has raced like a cheetah through the Anglophone press.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby himself remains, we have every reason to believe, above reproach.  But a large blot has appeared in the ‘scutcheon.  For all these years he thought himself the legitimate issue of his mother and Gavin Welby, an international whisky salesman.  But DNA testing has proved beyond doubt that his actual father was Sir Anthony Montague Browne, one of the confidential aides and high-level secretaries of Winston Church in the post-war years.

So far as historical records might indicate, replacing Gavin Welby with Sir Anthony Montague Browne as one’s father could definitely be regarded as “trading up”.   Gavin Welby was an alcoholic poseur who had abandoned the name (Weiler) of his German Jewish forebears and successfully infiltrated himself into a very okay Anglo-American social set that on the Anglo side included important Conservative politicians and on the American important Democratic politicians.  He almost married Patricia Kennedy in America and Vanessa Redgrave in England.  Between the might-have-beens he actually married a blueblood named Jane Portal, who was one of Churchill’s post-War low-level secretaries.  The future archbishop was born almost exactly nine months following the exchange of vows in Baltimore, where the couple had eloped.  While I hate to be unAnglican or prurient, I do conclude that there must have been an intimate exchange between high- and low-level secretaries no more than about forty-eight hours before the prelate’s mother and long supposed father eloped.  Learning about all this for the first time years after the deaths of both an unknown actual father and an imperfectly known, mistakenly assumed father would have been a shock for anyone.  In an age in which we are all obsessed with the question of “identity”,  Justin Welby has handled the astonishing revelation with what I must regard as great aplomb; and he has become of the object of well-deserved sympathy and admiration.  As the great poet of ancient Jewry put it so many centuries ago, and as the entire Church sings today: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Not that a medievalist is likely to be shocked by evidence of irregularity in the sexual histories of the higher clergy.  In general, it is true, we are dealing with irregular begetters rather than the irregularly begotten, but there are numerous examples of the latter class as well.  One of the more distinguished archiepiscopal bastards of medieval England was Geoffrey FitzRoy, Archbishop of York from 1189 to 1212.  He was one of the several illegitimate children of King Henry II, more famous for his dealings with Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Geoffrey had managed to become Bishop of Lincoln without ever having been ordained a priest—which was a pretty good trick even in those days.

The REVE was a sclendre colerik man

There were large numbers of priestly offspring in the good old days, and they had to be cared for.  In fact clerical paternity could have a good deal of social cachet. In Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale” the thieving Miller who is the chief butt of the satire is said to have a high-born wife (“ycomen of noble kyn”), since the local parish priest is her father.  She can boast of having the “blood of Holy Church” flowing through her veins.  The priest, who is wealthy, intends to leave the parish treasury to his handsome granddaughter, who is the other female lead in the fabliau.

As the Welby news was breaking I was as usual in the midst of some random reading.  I happened to pick up Du Pape by Joseph de Maistre, the arch-conservative thinker of post-revolutionary France.  This book argues that the rescued unity of Europe, indeed of the whole world, depends upon a recognition of a supreme papal power subject to no secular authority on earth.  But it includes, almost incidentally, a learned dissertation upon, and warm defense of clerical celibacy, here regarded as essential to the health of the body politic.  De Maistre considered a married clergy among the worst horrors of Protestantism, and it is doubtful that a viewing of Spotlight would have changed his mind.
 Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821)
His argument jogged my memory, and took me back to records of the trial of one of Welby’s more eminent predecessors in Canterbury, Archbishop Cranmer, who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1556.  One of the papalist prosecutors, the oleaginous Thomas Martin, a doctor of civil law from Bourges, and the author of an admired work on clerical celibacy, sought to amuse the court by asking Cranmer, with obvious sarcasm, whether the prelate’s children “were bondsmen to the see of Canterbury”.  Without missing a beat the archbishop responded with a question of his own: “whether, if a priest at his benefice kept a concubine and had illegitimate children, those children were bondsmen to the benefice or not”.  Merry England was still pretty merry, and the milieu of the “Reeve’s Tale” had by no means disappeared.  “I trust you will make my children’s cause no worse,” said Cranmer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The New Provost




Since I will not long be able to disguise the genre of of this post, the parental brag, I must at the very least make a few preliminary remarks by way of extenuation.  I recognize that the most important thing I have done with my life is to have been a father.  Years of experience and observation, however, have led me to a tempered and perhaps even pessimistic view of parental agency.  It is this.  While there is nothing parents can do to guarantee that their children will turn out well, there are about a dozen things they can do to make it likely that they will turn out badly.  While it is only natural to delight in the achievements of one’s offspring, it would be folly even in imagination to take credit for them.  One can, however, be grateful for the hand of Providence.  Furthermore as a student of classical culture I am aware that not everybody wants to hear you going on about how great your kids are.  One could cite numerous instances in which parental boasting got so out of hand as to cross the line between bad manners and actual tragedy.  Think of poor Niobe transformed forever into a weeping statue!

Now, having dutifully laid out the prefatory required legal boiler-plate, I have to report that it was announced two days ago that our daughter, Dr. Katherine Elizabeth Fleming, is to be the new Provost of New York University.  This is a really big deal, and the reason I am putting it in my blog is that the message is too long to fit onto a bumper sticker on my pick-up truck.  “My Daughter is an Honor Student” just doesn’t cut it.

There is a quaint, old-fashioned character to many of our academic titles—our deans and vice-chancellors and such—that recalls the real or imagined medieval origins of the offices they denote.  A provost, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, means simply an “official set over others (in various specialized senses).”  Some version of the word appeared quite early in most of the European languages, including Old English, deriving from the Latin pre + positus, “set before”.  Like numerous other such words, provost “came into” English twice, one through the Latin and once through French, so that in certain settings it is pronounced in the French manner, without the concluding consonants, as in the military term provost marshal, or Provo, Utah—named after an early French trapper, Etienne Provost.  The top academic official of Worcester College, Oxford, is a “provost”, and in my time there the Latin pronunciation vied with the French.

What the word means in contemporary academic English is a dauntingly challenging and important job.  In 1963 Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California, gave a series of lectures at Harvard in which he introduced the term multiversity.  It was needed, he argued, because the incremental complexity of American higher education had in effect left the comparative simplicity of the university behind.  How do you?—how can you?--govern an institution that has within it, not always harmonious as they jostle for finite resources, a liberal arts college, advanced scientific laboratories, an engineering school, a law school, a medical school, a business school, a dozen other professional schools, etc., etc.

By chance that was the very year, 1963, that I took my doctoral degree; and it was about that time that most of the larger American institutions of higher education adopted the position of provost.  Certainly my own years of active academic life were ones in which the demands on college presidents expanded nearly to the breaking point.  Almost all large schools in this country have now gone through an administrative restructuring designed to liberate the President for the already crushing responsibilities of the unique leadership role.  The provostial job description varies somewhat from institution to institution, but the job’s major elements are the same. “The Provost is the University's chief academic officer,” reads the official NYU document “who is responsible for setting the University's academic strategy and priorities, working closely with the deans of the schools, and identifying and cultivating interdisciplinary areas of excellence and collaboration within and between schools.  All deans and directors of schools and institutes report to the Provost. The Provost also has direct responsibility for all academic support units. In addition, the Provost has institutional responsibility for the allocation of financial resources in accordance with academic priorities, working closely with the Office of the Executive Vice President.”

To me, that is a rather terrifying document.  New York University has an annual operating budget of several billions of dollars.  Even in the context of New York City it is a huge private employer.  It has nearly sixty thousand students, fifty thousand of them undergraduates.  The administrative apparatus required of such an operation is formidable.  Furthermore, it is an ambitious institution at a major inflection point.  A new President, Andrew Hamilton, the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, has been in office for only a few months.  Our daughter—my little girl!—is going to be his lieutenant in guiding such a great enterprise.   The concept of parental pride, as expansive as it is, seems inadequate to the task.  You can see why I had to write about it.  Once every five years is, I hope, not excessive.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Shield the Joyous


           


Egged on:  John Henry Fleming and Ruby Fleming in hot pursuit

        

            The giant Easter egg hunt sponsored by the Pez Candy company of Orange, CT promised on paper to be an imaginative initiative of corporate outreach as well as a jocund community event.  The candy mavens had hidden—or at least distributed—as many as 10,000 eggs over several adjoining fields in such a way as to present graduated levels of challenge for mixed age groups of youngsters beginning with toddlers.   According to press reports, alas, it all went terribly wrong.  Too many of the parents who showed up with their little kids proved unable to contain their own hyper-competitiveness.  Without waiting for the official starting whistle, several hundred large persons, who combined the worst excesses of Little League partisans and bargain-hunters in Filene’s Basement, rushed into the happy hunting grounds intent on scooping up as many pigmented eggs as they could carry.  The infants who simply got left behind were the luckier ones.  The less lucky were jostled or trod upon in the stampede.  There is one report of a four-year-old not merely muddied but bloodied. 

In the late morning of Easter Sunday in our own back yard in Princeton we had a rather less sanguinary event.  Five of our six grandchildren—the sixth being a young professional woman who as it turns out was on her way to the beach in Southern California at the time—were gathered, along with their parents, at our house.   The five grandchildren, young cousins of three families, were of two generations: three of them in the toddler to kindergarten set, and two somewhat older sisters just on either side of the cusp of teenagerism.  The older girls had played the principal role in the coloring of the eggs, and, without having lost a certain sense of excitement in the search itself, took on the more detached public role of preceptor to the infants.  The closeness and camaraderie of the cousins, who are but rarely all together,  is a particular source of pleasure for their grandparents.  “How good and pleasant a thing it is,” says the Psalmist of this familial harmony, which he likens to the ointment running down from Aaron’s beard onto the hem of his garment—a particularly apt image for youngsters in a nearly continuous state of drip and ooze from nostril or lip.

There is a beautiful old prayer now assigned to the infrequently experienced evening service of Compline that goes as follows:  “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

One phrase in the prayer might seem a little puzzling both in meaning and in context: shield the joyous.  If you have ever seen a toddler at an Easter egg hunt, however, you certainly will know the meaning of “joyous”; the account given above suggests why the joyous might need shielding.

We had dyed about three dozen real eggs, mostly in unambitious solid colors, though there were a few daring polychrome experiments.  I had supplemented the offerings of the battery hens with a couple dozen more cheap and nasty plastic simulacra from the Dollar Store.  Experience had taught me that by no means all of the eggs would be found, that some would remain in the elements for many weeks, and that on the whole it is better to fertilize the garden in a more conventional and less odiferous manner than that afforded by the sulfurous exhalations of decaying ova.  Also, plastic eggs at least have a chance of surviving being found by a four-year-old.  I doubt that any of our infants noticed the difference.  Those completely captivated by the Spirit have scant time to worry about the Letter.

John Henry and Ruby, both of whom have entered the Tromping Ages, high-kicked and goose-stepped around the yard in a state of high excitement, spotting at least one in three of the bright ovoids so preposterously resting on grass tufts, in flower pots, or at the base of trees.  Frequently their older cousins offered helpful hints of considerable subtlety, such as “I wonder if there could be any on the gravel path?...I wonder…”  Their baskets grew heavy, but so great was the bounty and so great the excited urgency to move on to the next, that there were still plenty for toddler Hazel as she came like a modern Ruth, a gleaner following the harvesters.

Innocence, wonder, joy.  How often do we see such things truly on display?  “Verily”, says Jesus, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  To my mind this is not a threat, not even an admonition, simply a statement of the way things are.  Wordsworth puts it in a slightly fancier way that demonstrates the Romantic habit of rationalizing Transcendence:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
            Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
            He sees it in his joy…

Shield the joyous.

Photo: Joan Fleming


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Breakfast of Champions



Frank Norris

            Now and again in a spare moment I will take from a shelf one of my beautiful volumes of the Library of America—not exactly at random but with a certain element of caprice.  It is never hard to find new things that need and reward reading.  Recently I took down the volume of Frank Norris’s Novels and Essays.  In college I learned that Norris (1870-1902) was a “naturalist” and a “muck-raker,” but as we never actually read him, that didn’t mean much.  Years later I did take up The Octopus in a “social novel” binge mainly centered on Dreiser.  I just read Norris’s first novel, Vandover and the Brute; it turned out to be pretty good for a book written in a Harvard undergraduate writing course.  The setting is fin-de-siècle San Francisco—young men about town.  Its subject is moral decay.  To one anesthetized by post-modernism, it is almost shocking in its moral clarity.  Norris seems entirely unembarrassed to use words like depravity, degeneracy, corruption, etc., and to analyze the sins of the flesh from a perspective other than the merely quantitative.

            It is, however, a very minor aspect of the material culture described that is the inspiration for this post: the carnivore breakfast.  Vandover and his pals spend a good deal of time chowing down in various Frisco taverns and bordellos.  Standard evening snacks are large platters of oysters and “Welsh rabbits”—neither Welsh nor rabbits, of course, but a delivery system for scrumptious, cheesy calories devised by our ancestors before the blessings of pizza came to the land--washed down with goodly quantities of beer or champagne.  But they regularly start off their days with a huge chunk of quadruped flesh.  The standard conversational gambit for chums meeting up during the course of the day is a report on the avoirdupois of the morning’s meat.  The fourteen-ounce beefsteak is apparently the favorite breakfast, though the odd chop or cutlet will do in a pinch.  Pork products—ham, bacon, sausage—are for people on strict diets.

            If you are used of a morning to facing half a grapefruit, a few choice grains of granola, or even a whole bowl of steel cut oats, the young carnivores of Frank Norris may be a cause for alarm.  But it was not always thus.

            In the autumn of 1958 I sailed for Europe with a cohort of my fellow Rhodes Scholars-elect.  The ship was very grand, a floating city block from the Upper East Side; and though we were in the twilight of the Age of the Atlantic Crossing, everything about the arrangements seemed specially designed to boggle the mind of a young man from the sticks.  The food, served up by an abundance of waiters clad in bright, starchy white, was endless in its variety and apparently inexhaustible in its quantity.

            I was eager for knowledge of the old culture I would soon be encountering.  Someone had given me a light-hearted book full of advice for Americans about to visit the Mother Country for the first time.  I cannot remember its title, and I lost the book itself ages ago.  Still one or two of its gobbets of advice have stuck with me.  “It is quite easy to get three good meals a day in England,” said my author, “so long as you eat three breakfasts.”  The gastronomic scene in the British Isles has long since undergone a revolution, but in the late Fifties, if you happened to be taking most of your meals in a college dining hall, the advice proved prescient. 

While I never disdain the information offered by textbooks, I try always to test theory with observed practice.  I discovered on shipboard that the “full English breakfast” invariably included—in addition to fried eggs, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, and apparently deep fried bread—both sausages and bacon, the bacon being of the genre usually called “Canadian” on this side of the Atlantic.

There was among our fellow passengers on the ship a middle-aged guy who struck me as the quintessence of Britishness.  He had a ruddy face adorned with a large russet moustache.  He was never seen without a coat and tie, and rarely without a suit of coarse-threaded tweed that looked about as thick as a Bokhara carpet and about as comfortable as a wire brush.  From his general demeanor one sensed he had not gotten the memo about having lost India.

Excess being addictive I was already by the fourth breakfast of the voyage looking for new worlds to conquer.  Eschewing the “full English breakfast” I boldly ordered from the meaty sub-section of the huge menu kippered herrings and something called “Köningsberger Klopse”.  How the waiter could accept this order with a straight face astonishes me in retrospect, but he did.  The Klopse turned out to be meatballs in a kind of caper-flavored gravy and could have on their own constituted an ample evening meal.  It’s not the kind of dish that required a supplement, especially a supplement of kippers.

Just as this breakfast was arriving under its gleaming metal dome the Imperial tweeded gentleman whom I mentioned earlier happened to be ushered in and seated at a nearby table in my sight-line.  We did not speak or even acknowledge each others’ presence; yet we shared a Jamesian moment.  I could not help noticing the slight recoil on this man’s face when he saw what lay on the plates before me.  He quickly recouped, averted his eyes, and gave his own order to his own waiter.  The distance between us was not great; I could not help overhearing his order.  “Please bring me a cup of tea,” he said.  “And a bowl of corn flakes.”