Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Notre Dame

The Saint Joseph River, which flows laconically for a couple of hundred miles in a generally western direction through parts of southern Michigan and northern Indiana into Lake Michigan, cannot be counted among the great watercourses of our land, but in my present circumstances it looms large.  For I am writing this from a snug apartment on the campus of Notre Dame University, where I am very much enjoying a week’s sojourn as a visiting lecturer at the Medieval Institute.  The lectures I am giving, unlike the one that was the subject of last week’s post, are not impromptu.  I have been thinking about them for quite some time, and the opportunity to discuss some of their ideas with knowledgeable and interested experts is exhilarating.

            But it is the river that is on my mind just at this moment.  Our amazing country is composed of a hundred, or maybe a thousand micro-geographies that all the power of a homogenizing and standardizing commercial culture cannot efface.  I suppose everybody knows that Notre Dame is in South Bend, but it never occurred to me, at least, to inquire: the south bend of what?   It’s the south bend of the Saint Joseph River, which is mainly in Michigan but loops a few miles in a southern mini-meander into northern Indiana.  Of course the political border between Michigan and Indiana, laid out nearly two hundred years ago at forty-one degrees, forty-six minutes north, is culturally meaningless.  Around here they speak of “Michiana”, an area with a population upwards of a million souls, centered in South Bend and including the old industrial towns along the river, now ravaged by the unsettling forces unleashed by an insufficiently premeditated buy-in to economic “globalization”.

            One of my medievalist hosts, Sarah Baechle, took me with her on Saturday to the South Bend Farmers’ Market, even this late in the season overflowing with the bounty of delicious agricultural produce.   Especially tempting was the sumptuous fruit on offer from the orchards of southern Michigan, which enjoys the blessings of a much vaunted “micro-climate” that produces the sweetest apples on earth.

            The outsider gets the impression that Notre Dame University is the house that Knut Rockne built and Father Theodore Hesburgh rehabbed and gentrified. Many months ago, when we were negotiating the scheduling of the Conway Lectures, three lectures to be distributed over a roughly ten-day period, I was struck by one feature of the discussion.  Though I was offered a good deal of calendrical flexibility, it was important that the week-end punctuating my stay be one on which the Notre Dame football team was scheduled for an away game.  For a mad moment I entertained the fantasy that this stipulation suggested that I would be lecturing on a Saturday and they didn’t want my prolusions on medieval asceticism to be cutting into the perhaps sizable income generated by the Athletic Department. 
            But…no.  Not in fact.  People don’t lecture on Saturdays here any more than they do anywhere else.  The point is that on football Saturdays the only thing that happens on (and immediately around) the Notre Dame campus is the football game and its penumbra of ancillary festal, commercial, and fund-raising activities.  Unless you are really into it, which only a couple hundred thousand or so of the locals are, you want to be somewhere else.  At least so I am told by credible witnesses.  I am also told that a good number of the residents in the immediate area of the campus make a small fortune on football weekends by renting out their houses on AirBnB.  The nearest supermarket I’ve found is about a mile away through a tidy, modest neighborhood where some houses advertise back yard parking for twenty dollars and an apartment house is called the “Stadium Club Apartments”.  Every second townsperson sports some kind of distinctive “Fighting Irish” apparel or license plates.  Even on the campus, which boasts an art gallery well worth the visit, the most visible piece of public art is a huge exterior mural-mosaic high on the tower structure of the Hesburgh Library.  Its official title is “The Word of Life”, by the artist Millard Sheets, but for reasons that will be obvious at least to my American readers, it is more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus”.

            The local athletic culture has trickle-down benefits even for the likes of me.  My hosts very kindly arranged for me to have guest privileges at the swimming pool, one of several athletic facilities that bear the name “Rolfs”.  I don’t know who Mr. Rolfs was, but he certainly contributed magnificently to the corpore sano side of the rich college experience on this campus, just as the fabulous library of the Medieval Institute has been ministering to the mens sana.  Olympic pools terrify me if I am forced to do the long lanes; but at least for “Recreational Hours” you can do the short ones here.  When I apologetically explained to the welcoming pool manager my normal speed is one mile per hour, he simply smiled and said “Slow and steady takes the prize.”

mens sana in corpore sano