Friday, December 26, 2008

I give up, what was the big story of the week?

Open Salon's theme for Saturdays/weekends is big story, "your take on the big stories of the week." I must confess that, with Saturday looming tomorrow -- or rather not looming but sort of puffing up nicely, since I have the day off, pillowing up like the pillow I intend to sleep late on, or like a puffy warm pancake you might make for a treat for yourself at 10 am on a glorious Saturday -- with Saturday at any rate being tomorrow, I am left to wonder what I would post on, if I knew the big stories of the week.

Now there's a confession. I don't much follow the "mainstream media" anymore, so I don't know what it considers important recent affairs. I've been busy with my first week at a new job, but I don't present that as an excuse for wandering attention. I simply have, at long last, almost entirely abandoned the mainstream media deliberately, as an intellectual choice. This will sound either comically lofty or comically pathetic, probably depending on one's political views, but there it is. And as I seem to recall quoting the Chicago Tribune or Newsweek even when I was a dutiful girl diarist of thirteen or fourteen, having untied the apron strings and gone floating now does feel odd.

It's the internet revolution to blame, of course. I've noticed. But I started seriously and utterly drifting away from the media this summer, when professional journalism's deification of Barack Obama went into hyperdrive; and after one thing and another, the last straw was a news broadcast on ABC radio just a few days ago. The breathless teaser "new revelations on Obama's links to Blagojevich coming up at 4:00" was followed only by the announcement that the President-elect's staff, and his lawyer, had discovered no wrongdoing or impropriety of any kind where Senate-seat selling in Illinois was concerned.

That was the news, announced by one of the old Big Three networks, by Charles Gibson himself. The Chicago Tribune repeated it in its headline of Wednesday, December 24: Internal review clears staffers: Emanuel role called innocent, appropriate. If you want to delve into this story's paragraphs 8 and following on page 13 -- right across from Obama's farewell to grandmother and Lincoln Bible set for inaugural -- you may plow through a few hints at discrepancies and "inconsistencies" regarding the headline's baptismal cleansing of Obama. "Craig said Balanoff told Jarrett that Blagojevich mentioned the possibility of the governor becoming Obama's secretary of health and human services," etc. (this is paragraph 19). How many people are heroic enough to parse that? It's what's "above the fold" that matters. Internal review clears Obama. Everything's fine. The end. If Barack Obama were a Republican, if he were Hillary Clinton, if he were any other person on the planet, a story like this would have been pursued so fiercely that his very inauguration would now be in doubt.

So, I get my news elsewhere. It's not pique. This is serious. I have no reason to trust or be interested in what interests the professional people who have essentially long since given themselves over to celebrating and chronicling Barack Obama's magnificence, plus the happy life of the Obama royal family. (My my, when will they buy that puppy?) What are the courtiers not reporting while they carry on doing their jobs as if this were North Korea and Dear Leader's life and splendidness was the joyous All? George Will (I satisfactorily disclose myself thereat, I suppose), puts it well when he says the twenty-first century's new technology simply "allows people to choose their own universe of commentary, which takes us far from the good old days when everyone had the communitarian delight of gathering around the cozy campfire of the NBC-ABC-CBS oligopoly" ("Reactionary liberals assault the media,", December 7th, 2008).

Yes, I choose my own universe of commentary. I don't see why what I know, or what falls within my notice, is any less significant than what paid courtiers know, or are willing to transmit.

Here's some of my universe. Tom Wark over at Fermentation is talking about direct sales of liquor to retailers, restaurants, and consumers, something wholesale distributors do not like and fight against tooth and nail in every state legislature they can, frankly, buy. Test your current-events savvy: what do you know about Granholm v. Heald (2005)?

A few days ago, another commentator in my personal universe had a striking thing to say. He said, whenever some people are dependent on the government to live their daily life, they will also inevitably look around, inevitably see people who are better off than they are -- probably because they themselves are not dependent -- and will inevitably believe "the system is rigged." And then what or who, or whose promises, will they vote for? A striking summation, and yes, from Rush Limbaugh.

I had also never heard before -- not until I abandoned newspapers this summer and started getting my news wherever I like -- of the related theory, attributed it seems to science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, that once enough people in a democracy learn to vote themselves goodies out of the national treasury, the democracy is in simple account-book trouble. If you google "Robert Heinlein vote themselves goodies" you can find a bare-bones discussion site, bbsfreetalklive, from August 2006. Here one "Mikehz" teaches that a republic is meant to enshrine laws that prevent people from democratically voting to bleed the nation white, as well as from voting private rights, like the right to smoke, away from their fellows. This is an entirely new idea to me, and I'm a college graduate. Is "Mikehz" to be trusted? Is Charlie Gibson? One makes me think; the other announces what Barack Obama's lawyer says.

What else do I know this week? Willow Manor has introduced me to a gorgeous painting, Our Lady of the Fruits of the Earth, by an artist I had never heard of before, Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958). At Open Salon, Dr. Amy Tuteur of Skeptical O.B. writes most interestingly of medicine, most recently of "vaccine rejectionism" among parents for whom this faith "is about the parents and how they would like to see themselves, not about vaccines and not about children." And then just this week I read Stanley Kauffmann's article in Horizon's Spring, 1973 issue, about Sergei M. Eisenstein's classic silent movie Battleship Potemkin. The amount of film the genius director shot was originally meant to comprise a huge project called The Year 1905, "dealing with the events of the earlier, unsuccessful outbreak against czarism, ... but in the cutting room it was the Potemkin story alone that emerged."

More? There's a sumptuous design blog called Diana: Muse. Her post of December 24th explains who wrote the lyrics to O Holy Night (he was a wine seller, answering his parish priest's call to write a poem for Christmas Eve), and then leads readers to a Christmas recording of the song that I had never heard of, Leontyne Price's 1961 collaboration with Herbert von Karajan and the "silky" Vienna Philharmonic. Another design blog, This is Glamorous, is a portal into -- I believe this -- a lifetime of exploration in design, fashion, and lovely things generally. And then that same issue of Horizon had an article by Peter Quennell on Johnson's and Boswell's journey through Scotland, which reminds me that I've still got the Life of Johnson sitting on my shelves, unabridged, dipped into but not read.

It could be argued that we can all tot up a list of favorite blogs and books, and fritter away our lives in trivia while important things are happening in the world. But what important things, and according to whom? I take it there's something going on in Gaza; a headline about ultimatums from Israel to Hamas crops up from AP when I log into my e-mail. Is AP staffed by the same people telling me that Dear Leader has been cleared by his own internal review? Thanks, I'll look into any Middle East stories on my own later.

The trouble with choosing a universe of my own commentary, a la George Will, is that so far the loss of my business, or yours, hasn't put a dent in the mainstream professionals' power to define events. It's claimed that no one pays attention to them, and it's true their revenues are falling and they are laying people off and declaring bankruptcy. But curiously, they remain entirely relevant. I can look at Diana:Muse and enjoy myself and feel privately liberated, but come January my President will still be an untried man of impoverished thinking whose short path to power was fanatically carved out and protected for him by professional mainstream journalism. My fellow voters who "just want change" did the rest. He'll have four or possibly eight years to impoverish the country as any other pampered, jejune left-wing academic could only dream of doing. And there was nothing anyone could do about his deification, except vote long after it had been accomplished -- which looked like a pitiful and so very antique option amid the joy-filled hysteria. Conservative talk radio, the lively and questioning blogosphere, could follow events but in the end lacked the official credentials to shape events. And look to lack it for a long time to come. Their competitors are not going to hand out press passes to them.

So what is the point of the free citizen not paying attention to an information system that can deliver the American presidency to its own, manufactured god? Ignoring this power is not the same thing as having a comparable power. For the moment. Perhaps, just perhaps, this era and this victory will prove mainstream journalism's last hurrah. I suppose that if they really do run out of money, through you and I no longer forking over our 75 cents a day to follow the news of their careers, they will have to close up their multiple shops and this enormous leftist voice will be stilled. And then ... what will be the news of the day?

Whatever we say it is. How odd. This week, liquor laws, the battleship Potemkin, Leontyne Price, and the poetry of Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (O Holy Night). Next week, who knows? Nietzsche is supposed to have said, and I forget where I learned this, that the newspaper had replaced the prayer in daily middle-class life. If he was right, that speaks volumes on what we have wanted The News to provide for us every day: a communion, a worldview, a sacrament, always fresh, right, and repeatable. Above all, relevant. Can a million completely personal universes of commentary really provide all that?

It will have to. I've started mine. Not only because -- if -- the "MSM" is in its fevered death throes, but because the alternative for as long as it survives is to look forever out the windows of its house, someone else's house, someone who isn't particularly concerned with the state of the foundation and absolutely doesn't care what you think of the view. No, I'll be going, if you don't mind. Don't get up -- I'll see myself out.

Monday, December 15, 2008


"There is all the difference between seeing things and seeing nothing. Many travelers who see things really see nothing, and many who see nothing see a great deal."

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

(Spot the moon)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best friends

Friendship, it strikes me, is a very odd thing. I suppose I had better take the hint, and leave Melissa alone. She has not responded to a list of dates I gave her for potential meetings (just like Lucia and Mr. Somerset Maugham) and now, I would imagine, she is suffering her famous and socially paralyzing "guilt." Far be it from me to add to it. How odd to think that this could be the end of contact between us.

Of course I am not surprised that after twenty-five years, old school chums should have little in common, but I am always perplexed as to what makes friendships work. We are very much alike, she and I. Maybe that's a problem.

I went out Friday night with Nina, and Debbi and Debi, and Maria, who is not quite the cipher in the group that I am. It's a little like watching a live sitcom for four hours. They just talk and talk. I almost literally cannot get a word in edgewise. They are beginning to repeat stories of colonoscopies and mammograms, and Debbi must have forgotten that she has already told us of the two hundred and fourteen cortisone injections to her head, to combat the stress-induced hair loss she suffered when her eldest was preparing to go away to school. We got that tale again. Five bald spots, each the size of a dime, four thousand hairs per spot, the doctor said. When I stayed quiet long enough, they said "poor Nancy" in that tone reserved for young people bored by their ill elders. But I am their contemporary.

And they still eagerly share stories about arguing with their teen daughters over clothing choices and hairstyles, and about following their teen daughters' friends' Facebook pages and putative sex lives. Debi told of marching to the town hall to ask what she could do to help while the town was flooding. The men filling sandbags were not impressed with her, so she went to rescue her aunt instead. Then she made her daughters go fill sandbags the next day. Last time we got together, she had stories of badgering some authority figure in a bank to compel him to offer her a discount rate that had expired but that she wanted anyway. "I beat them at their own game," she said, "I just kept on asking to see a higher manager." And her beautiful bell-like laugh rang out, then, too. "I got through three levels of authority."

It seems that people who are capable of holding the floor and talking endlessly are also the ones most capable of friendships. And yet that personality type would seem to be the one not interested in people, and therefore unfriendly. The four of them are planning, again, to go to Nina's condo in Florida for a weekend. (They have never yet actually gone.) On the one hand, I'm tempted to go. On the other, I would not dream of going. Two and a half days of listening to them talk. No. But I'll bet they'll have fun.

There are people with whom I have broken contact, or not maintained contact, people who, once again, would seem obviously compatible with me. The sweet country mouse types, though I loathe thinking of myself in that light. So I know (back to the top of the page) what it is to do what Melissa is essentially doing. Breaking contact, and no ill will intended. "I'm just not that into you." But I do also keep reaching out -- I think -- to incompatible women, because they are there and they are my most recent associations, and without them I would know no one except my family and my in-laws. Yet I would not dream of closing the deal, so to speak, of sharing some sort of heart-to-heart with Nina, or Debbi or Debi or Maria. I wonder if they do that with one another?

Then there is Sandra, my ex-boss. The one who always clapped her hand over her mouth whenever she swore in front of me, giggling that she feared to corrupt me. "I don't want to lose your friendship," she said. Fine. We are not compatible at all, but I was the last one to, once again, offer her a possible lunch date when she asked for one. She has not responded. That's perfectly fine, natural. (What on earth would we talk about? Ex-work? Cuss words?) The last time I saw her, she came into the store talking on her cell phone, in the midst of planning a drinking date with a girlfriend. Her voice was so easy, warm, and happy. It made me wonder, as always, what do people see in each other? What do they say? I know, talking of old school chums, that Melissa has always maintained a friendship with Janet and with Linda, too, come to think of it. Across and through the twenty-five years. Calls them on the phone and visits them, visited Linda and stayed with her at her house while Linda was going through a divorce, no less. Melissa actually witnessed some of the fights, and silently took the husband's part. Incredible. What are they giving and receiving?

I know full well that I have puzzled over this since I was a teenager, when friends like Melissa used to ask casually "what I was doing this week" and I would respond with instinctive wariness, fearful that they were laying a trap and wanted me to go do some wild thing. I know full well that the answer to my friendship questions has always been directly under my nose. I am a writer and a reader, and if I wanted a huge and bubbly circle of friends I would have had one many times over by now. It can just seem, sometimes, that all the women in the world who have friends pass one by, smiling, and caress one's head absently like a pet, before attending to their real interests and to the wonderful rich secret-code joys of their friendships.

Rain. An e-mail pops up. If it's from Melissa, to arrange a dinner date, then all the above is negated, and one starts over.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Tudor Year: December

Theme: clothes

Queen Catherine Parr, sixth wife of King Henry VIII. (Formerly identified as Jane Seymour.) National Portrait Gallery, London. From Tudor History

Hans Holbein, Portrait of an Unknown Young Man at his Office Desk. 1541. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. From Olga's Gallery.

Albrecht Durer, Portrait of the Artist's Mother. 1514. Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. From Olga's Gallery

December 8th -- birth of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542)
December 13th -- Francis Drake sails from Plymouth to attempt circumnavigation of the globe (1577)
December 16th -- birth of Catherine of Aragon (1485)

The Christmas holidays ushered in the "greatest concentration" of Days of Estate, those feast days of the Church which were also marked by elaborate ceremony at court. The royal family heard Mass, dined in public, and wore their most splendid clothes on these days. The sumptuous look of portraits of the time, showing upper class men and women in rich velvets, furs, brocades, and jewels, might make us forget the one comfort that almost all Tudors lacked -- cheap and easily washed cotton clothing, especially cotton underwear. Cotton came (if at all) from the fabulous east, from Egypt and India, and the labor required to make cotton into thread and then cloth rendered the finished product as expensve as fur. Wool was the fabric of necessity for ordinary people, and wool clothes were absolutely precious enough to be bequeathed in wills. The Western world would have to wait for a combination of factors to come together - among them the slave trade, the opening up of the American South to cotton planting, and Eli Whitney's cotton gin -- before really comfortable and hygienic clothing became a norm in life.

George Edwin Fussell, The English Rural Labourer: His Home, Furniture, Clothing, and Food from Tudor to Victorian Times. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. Originally published by the Batchworth Press, London, 1949, pp. 14-16.
David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. New York: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 233.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sitting duck

Dear me, I do hate coming across old writing that I once was proud of, and finding that it seems turgid and pedantic and hectoring and trite and really, really, um -- self-absorbed? Inner-directed? Out of touch is the best term -- out of touch with any thing or any idea that might remotely have interested or amused anyone. Maybe the thing was just badly put together, amateurish (the word that strikes more horror into the writer's breast than any other). To remember that I submitted it to people with busy schedules and publishing house reputations to look after makes it even worse. Well, at least it didn't go out into the world to embarrass me (how do editors know?), although if it had gone out, I would have been thrilled, pleased, and unsurprised of course.

This particular essay was about the book of Ezekiel. I used to read the Bible a lot, and I used to teach both children and adults on it, so I got into the habit of summarizing Biblical books in what I hoped were dazzlingly straightforward and refreshing ways. My idea concerning Ezekiel was that the books of the prophets, especially, are kind of like a haphazard collection of newspaper clippings from the ancient world. They repeat themselves endlessly on subject matter that the people on the scene were familiar with. The biggest aggravation and silliness in the Bible -- the repetition, "woe unto them," etc. -- did not annoy or overwhelm them, or gather dust on a shelf, because to them it was not a collection, but simply material that they met in small pieces every day, as we do newspapers, or at least news. We are the ones who read it as a book, as The Book, and say, "Wha --?"

It would be as if, three thousand years from now, our remote posterity came across a sheaf of -- no, a collection of microchips full of the news of our day. Pick an event, a news-generating machine, a decade. The Bay of Pigs. Watergate. The fall of the Berlin Wall. O.J. Simpson, the Bronco chase, the Akita that didn't bark. War. The murder of wives called Peterson. Sarah Palin and moose-hunting. We're accustomed to dealing with this information in small pieces every day, and we're accustomed to references to it piling up and slowly being sifted through, linked, joked about, over-analyzed, and then much of it forgotten. (Remember Abu Ghraib?) Our posterity will not be equipped to do this, no posterity can be. Imagine if a smattering of it only survives, and the poor things find themselves faced with holy scripture about watergates and walls, about bays and capital cities, women, and a surprising amount of animal imagery. They will never fully realize all this had a context and that we all went on living and thinking about other things, too. They are likely to say "Wha --?"

That was my way of coping with the book of Ezekiel. I even came up with a pretty nifty ending. At one point the prophet has a vision of a man "clothed in linen, with a writing case at his waist," going about Jerusalem marking on the forehead all those who are upset at the city's sin. He is followed by six men with clubs, who kill anyone not so marked (Ezekiel 9:3-6). Therefore, I asked, "fancifully" -- can we say, if nothing else, that all those who care about stories are spared God's anger?

That kind of reaction comes from reading too many books and hearing too many sermons too preciously based on a verse or two of the Bible, a pretty one we hope, plucked out of context and smoothed down to illustrate some gentle modern virtue, tolerance or whatnot. But two thousand and more years on, what else can we do? Ezekiel (circa 550 BC) saw impressive visions, saw fused-leg creatures bouncing and flying about in fiery clouds above Babylon, accompanied by gleaming bisected wheels-within-wheels, their rims covered in eyes. He saw the underworld, filled with ghostly pagan armies amid "the trees of Eden" (31:16-18), and he saw the valley of the dry bones. He was also basically a performance artist. Among other activities, he lay on one side for 390 days and on the other for 40 days, to represent years of exile for the Jews, and he made cakes of mixed grains and baked them on dung, to show what it is to eat slops in wartime (chapter 12). God hoped his fellow Jews would wait anxiously upon him, to see what he would do next. They did.

Perhaps such shows were a part of the wider civilization of the time. The philosopher Diogenes (circa 350 BC) made fun of his fellow citizens in Corinth, while they were preparing to defend the city against Philip of Macedon, by "bowling a large jar up and down the Craneum. When someone asked him why he did this, he answered: 'I am rolling my jar so as not to be the only idle one among so many workers' " (quoted in Robert Payne, The Splendor of Greece). In fact in Athens our same Diogenes lived in a jar, and walked about in daytime with a lamp, "looking for an honest man." He sounds a miserable creature, as Ezekiel does not. Although why is it that, at crunchtime, yesteryear's philosophers and prophets seemed to have had a habit of telling people that fighting back against imperial predators was futile and ungodly? May one be annoyed by this, and write more turgid essays?

Better not, or at least not turgid on purpose, anyway. I know that the Bible outranks mere records of performance art, and is more than a collection of newspaper clippings. Exhortations to moral behavior, God's unfailing forgiveness of sins, and above all the vital cosmic need for the Jews to remain faithful and live in Israel forever, are the combined point. Visions, like that of the trees of Eden in the underworld, do seem to hint at a work that human beings could not entirely make up. Yes, I get that, to use the modern vernacular.

And I started out my rotten essay of years ago not necessarily with a mind to master the Book, but merely in noticing that time was marching on and one really ought to read the important things, inimitable things, starting soon. King Lear, Plato's Republic, and the like. The Bible, -- Ezekiel. But do these sublimities really enrich one's life, or give any more pleasure than a jolly good murder mystery? Who will know the difference?

I end on a self-absorbed note, because one of the things that also horrifies me when I look at a disappointing old piece of writing is the personal information I used to put at the top of the first page. Surely I wouldn't have thought of doing that myself. I seem to recall reading in a writer's magazine that editors need to know this about you if they end up accepting your work and then paying you. How droll! -- and we first started hearing the news about identity theft, let's see, when? (More vernacular. It's interesting how Internet writing has affected prose style. My current favorite is mmmkay.) I guess I missed it. With luck, all the manuscripts I ever sent out, blemished in that way, were instantly consigned to the circular file by honest, if pop-eyed and chuckling, people. Otherwise, I would long since have been, well,

like that. Mmmkay?

Monday, November 10, 2008

I hate Dr. Seuss

(Originally appeared in slightly different form in American Heritage, October 2005)

Theodore Seuss Giesel (1904-1991), Dr. Seuss, was already an experienced advertising man, political cartoonist, and children's book author and illustrator when Houghton Mifflin commissioned him, in 1957, to write a "new reader" primer of 225 vocabulary words for the school market. He came up with The Cat in the Hat, hailed as something new, a "karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane, and Spot," as the blurb on the back of every hardcover copy still says.

In fact it was the same old same old. From And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) to Oh The Places You'll Go (1990), Dr. Seuss' 44 books follow the same pattern. He presented, in Mulberry Street, something originally fairly clever (bright silly pictures, easy rhymes) and rendered it, through repetition, both pedestrian and shrill. His furry, long-fingered, snarly-faced creatures are disturbing in the extreme. His poetry ceased to be merely easy and became instead limericks, the dead spaces of which he filled up, endlessly, with what limericks are: jangling "sala-ma-goox" nonsense, and lazy, leaden-witted stories.

What are his books actually about? Nice enough moral themes -- be kind (Horton Hears a Who) be tolerant (The Sneetches) tyranny is bad (Yertle the Turtle) don't pollute (The Lorax) -- are troweled over hastily-thought-out, junk plots. An elephant hears voices coming from a dust-speck. A lowly turtle dethrones the turtle king by burping and thus dislodging the stack of other turtles the king is sitting on. Sometimes there is no moral theme. A boy imagines cooking eggs from different weird creatures. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is about a pink bathtub stain that gets splashed about the house during various efforts to clean it up. The shopworn conclusion to this one, as so often in Dr. Seuss books, is that the littlest creature brings forth the miraculous "Voom," and saves the day.

Possibly the best thing to be said about his career is that that "karate chop" primer helped launch the Beginner Books series, which gave scope to better writers. Dr. Seuss' own inflated reputation, complete with postage stamps and official public-school birthday parties, remains odd. Odder still is the spectacle of children being made to worship a man who liked to make rhymes about the helpless being allowed to be different. Somewhere in there is a lampoon of the age.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 6

Pearls and Roses, chapter 5

She answered an old-fashioned want ad in the paper for the old-fashioned position of secretary at a small film production company. It was Monique Productions, affiliated with the Boyd Foundation. In 1982, workplace vocabulary was still old-fashioned. A secretary was not yet an Administrative Assistant and H.R. was still "Personnel." Alice did not do data entry. She typed, and took dictation. There was only one more thing she did before going out to work, and that was to ask God for a miraculous proof that he cared what happened to her, and then to get it.

Why? In all her peregrinations in life so far, and for a nineteen-year-old she had done quite a lot, she had never yet faced a failure. An emotional failure, a failure of planning, a life failure. Now she had: divorce was that. Its stigma may have been long gone – except for her mother, who also felt vindicated by this particular one – but Alice felt foolish and imperfect. The Spanish princesses who sailed from Corunna did not then do this. Imagine Juliet, divorced. She felt as if she had jumped off the tracks somehow, or stepped aboard the wrong life. But no, metaphors of movement would not do, when her situation now was immobility and failure. She felt people would think she hadn’t meant it, that she wasn’t serious. That was galling. She was always serious.

Naturally, what more serious thing to do now than to go to God? All right: here I am: let us start afresh. Let us start at all. She thought she could recall a historian once writing that American life is simply too vigorous to permit Old World worship patterns to survive here. Very well. She did not know herself what she wanted to believe, which was why she demanded proof that there was at least the basic element out there, the source. Religious trappings, specifically, would perhaps come later. So many God-fearing women are such mousy, intellectual little souls, and Alice did not want to be like that.

She had a friend like that. Gayle had reverted to the full ‘Abigail’ in order to be more biblical. You will meet them – the really faithful women who not only bounce about in the joyous happiness of having found their "Savior," but educate themselves to the point of knowing of the death by fire of Aaron’s sons, or which Psalms are quoted in what chapter of Isaiah. And they are always so old, not in age but, paradoxically, in their swooning, withered inexperience. Abigail was like that, thirty, thin, a spinster. God was her man, her child. She was nervous and throttled. She knew a great deal and tried to be at ease with everyone but was only half-there – wall-eyed, perpetually, disconcertingly laughing.

Alice did not want to be like that. She wanted to get this matter of God or not-God cleared up now, now that she had stumbled badly and had a growing child to be responsible for. She gave herself, and the Divine, two weeks.

(Not that they didn’t already have a nodding acquaintance. Alice enjoyed reading books about medieval nuns, and for a while as a teen tried to work up the nerve to ask her parents if she could make or get a prie-dieu for her room. She never did. Later, if ever she were out driving and escaped some minor mishap – if she pulled into a horribly narrow parking space against her better judgment without hitting the cars nearby – she would feel abashed and undeserving and thank God sincerely, repeatedly. Yet the gigantic experience of childbirth struck her as all her own doing.

Of course the stars and nature were beautiful and vast, but the Bible (poor Abigail) was so often a colossal bore, and the prayers in church modern, cutesy, and dull. It seemed very sensible and very dignified sometimes, for the universe as a whole, that there should be no God. Since she loved historical associations with practically anything, and since she knew nothing and cared less about the Orient, she never for one moment contemplated some sort of religious quest outside her own historic horizons. Church and altar, as cutesy as they had become, nevertheless remained the same items they had ever been for the anonymous medieval countesses who bore babies at seventeen, and knelt at a prie-dieu in their own chambers. There was nothing for it, to her reasoning, but to ask the countesses’ God whether He was still at home.)

Two weeks. She had met a very good-looking man in her brother John’s brother-in-law Roger (Pam’s brother) at a family party shortly after her divorce came through. One would think she would be once-bitten and twice shy, and so she was, a little. But it seemed obvious to her that he had sought her out. They talked for a good forty minutes. Her doubt of her attractiveness to men – this happens to divorcees; after all, many women, most women? are simply never rejected – cured itself, a little, that evening. She fell in love with the idea of him.

One night later in the week, lying in her bed with Hunter snoring sloppily nearby, hoping against hope that Roger might have looked at her with real appreciation, she bargained with the Deity. "Let him call me, God, and I’ll believe you exist and try to go to prayers somewhere," she said. "For the baby’s sake. If you’ll help me. Let him call me within two weeks." How he was to get her phone number was his affair. Men who cared found a way. And could he write her, would a letter or a note count? No, she had better be specific. He must call.

He did call her, but under circumstances so strange that Alice doubted whether it was not the devil at work, or whether God had an angrily literal mind, or whether it was all just silly coincidence. She happened to be visiting her parents with Hunter one Saturday afternoon, well within the private, cosmic deadline, when the telephone rang and she answered it. The voice asked for Pamela McNamara, Alice’s mother. Alice said, "Yes, just a minute," and called to her mother while faintly thinking that the voice on the phone sounded oddly familiar. A man’s voice, high pitched like a tenor’s. Her mother took up the phone, and after a little confusion and laughter on her part, the call ended.

She hung up and explained that that had been Roger Lucas. He was trying to reach his sister Pam, her own new daughter-in-law. She was also Pamela McNamara now. Roger had dialed the right number for the right name, but the wrong identity.

Alice smiled casually, but was too floored to speak. So God existed. He had heard her proposal and had agreed to it and kept it. Roger had "called" her, which was all she, stupidly, had asked. But no, it all belonged in quotation marks. It was all unreal. "He" had "called" "her." She had better start going to prayers. It would be a good thing for Hunter anyway. The boy should not grow up without reference to the Almighty. Alice never mentioned a word of this revelation to anyone, least of all to her mother or sister-in-law who had been God’s unwitting handmaidens, all the while her parents’ house was a private Sinai. She also lost all interest in Roger for himself. The next time she saw him at a party – it was years later, when Polly was christened – she spoke to him easily.

It had been a private Sinai. Ever afterward, Alice’s religion remained mostly private and revelatory. All that really changed was that she dutifully excised doubt, excised the secular impulse, from her mind whenever she pulled safely into a narrow parking space, or recovered from a cold. It was easy to do. She did not become a fervent believer, an Abigail. She settled rationally into a prefigured relationship, exactly as if she had heard all her life about an absent, rich uncle, and had now satisfactorily met him. She found a new place to go to services, a congregation called Bethany Reformed.

The countesses who knelt at prie-dieux, and had babies at seventeen, probably would not have gone out searching for new people to pray with, but Alice did. She abandoned her childhood’s church because she had never gotten over the disappointment of the receptionist’s being unimpressed with her pregnancy. And further it seemed that the Masses there had ceased to be masses at all, such as any bewimpled countess would have recognized, but had become laborious concerts at which a large awkward woman no longer young screeched out jazzy Psalms from behind her glasses and a helmet of black hair. And nobody joined in.

She left, and found Bethany Reformed. When she asked Tim about taking Hunter there, he said he didn’t mind. He would prove more upset, later, at Hunter’s repeating kindergarten. Abraham, or Rebecca, had found new people to pray with, so there was some validity for Alice’s search even further back than countesses. A kind of endless historical neediness was, perhaps, her true faith. It was not often that a person of Alice’s age, with her charged look, walked in Bethany Reformed’s doors. In a year or two they began to give her tasks of some authority, which she liked very much.

Her new job paid her adequately and got her out, as Bethany fortunately also did, among adults. Monique and Frank Boyd’s joint company, in its fourth year when Alice was hired, was doing well. Legal discrepancies between the things the Boyds wanted to do with a two-headed non-profit architectural research and film production corporation had been fairly well smoothed over. Chuck had made it into a "tax-exempt educational institution," and everyone was happy.

The Boyd Foundation, headed by its five annually elected officers, researched old sites of interest in America – Frank specified that, always – voted on them, and then assigned the employees of Monique Productions to go out and write stories and make films about whatever had won the vote. Sometimes they were shrewd enough and lucky enough to catch a site already in the midst of refurbishment, and it gave those documentaries a satisfying, happy ending, and helped improve the joint company’s reputation among audiences for its interesting little films on public and later on cable television stations. Monique organized publicity and did it beautifully, all in her smooth gray chignon and pink angora and pearls.

For Alice the best things about being a secretary, apart from the money and the sheer delightful novelty, were the independent, piecemeal but not terribly responsible work, and the daily associations with older women, many of them Monique’s friends, who seemed to her very much like herself. Most of them had married young. They all had children. Like her, they wanted to survive, not have careers. They were relaxed and pleasant and church-going. In addition she had the satisfaction of being younger by far than all of them. She did her work conscientiously and was rewarded with raises once in a while, a thing which in her innocence she had never anticipated.

The wounds healed. She still missed some of the old life, or missed the appearance of it. Missed being able to say "My husband," though truthfully she did not miss not having a lumbering man in her house all the time. Most of all she missed the life of the autonomous woman at home, where, she liked to imagine, a thousand generations of farm girls and countesses alike had kept the looms working and the ovens hot, and had otherwise been allowed the use of their time, to read, to pray. More historic neediness, only it became awkward to become aware if it. She had had a baby, had worn a champagne-colored, low-necked frock at her wedding, had defiantly sworn that life meant just these primeval, loving, blood-soaked things, and not mere jobbery.

When it all failed and she found herself in a small apartment – a new one, since she could not stand the memories of failure and fighting in the old one, nor did she want to live within sight of their old high school’s front doors – with a handsome preschooler and an ordinary job, she wondered whether the whole thing had not been an effort to impress her high school girlfriends who did or did not read Austen. Or Medieval Panorama. Well. Thank God for Bethany.

Men let her alone there, at first, because she was pale and stunted, and bore small interest in anything but herself. But years flew by. In time they came to her and bantered with her after her potty little speeches at Social Action nights. One man wanted her to think about volunteering as a prison tutor. The assistant Lieutenant Governor danced with her twice at the congregation’s eightieth anniversary party, a thing which would have frightened the girl Alice out of her wits but left he woman floating in a mystified calm. "I deserve it," she thought. Anyway he was married.

Time flew. Hunter grew into a superb child, because his parents and grandparents were superb people, and loved and minded him devotedly. Alice and Tim treated each other amicably. Nobody moved away.

It was once Hunter’s school years began that time sped up so awfully. It is inevitable in the way schools do business. The children begin rehearsing songs for the Christmas pageant in October, a time when the sun can still be summer-hot and parents still consider the school year fresh. (Alice made costumes for him out of t-shirts and fabric paint, and people said they were so good she could go into business and sell them.) "At least they’re back in school now – oh, you’ve got a test already? I didn’t know that." Warnings about very important state exams to be held in March go out the previous November. The principal’s last newsletter, in May, wishes everyone a safe and happy summer, and reminds parents that registration and Open House will take place "next August." And the whole cycle begins again, rush rush, grow up, get it over, get ready for it to be over.

Alice felt sometimes, in the blur of her twenties, that she was kayaking over endless rapids, or holding a bull by the horns, or some such cliche. No – perhaps she felt like a scuba diver she had seen on a television program about the ocean. He propelled himself through the water with a hand-held little engine. Only in her case, she thought wryly, the engine was not entirely in her control and there appeared no way of emerging from that alien environment, the water.

When she was twenty-six and Hunter nine, the two of them moved again, into another new apartment, this one on the second floor of an old farmhouse. The house had creamy, real plaster walls and big windows. It was long and narrow, built precisely on a north-south axis to spare it the brunt of the winter winds, and to take in as much sunshine from east and west as possible. Alice felt a satisfaction in living in a house with some historical thought to it, a place that intelligent people, with an old knowledge of mankind’s weaknesses before nature, had built with a hundred years of future comfort in mind. She lived there, and Hunter grew up. He thrived, as old-fashioned people might have said.

"A shadow in a dream is man, but when God shines light then all is filled with brightness and life is sweet as honey." Alice was still idiotically well-read. Those words were from Pindar, not harvested at the source but gleaned from a novel. She wrote them out, in her own, self-taught calligraphy, on a piece of expensive, clothy paper, which she then framed and hung on her living room wall. She took great pride in inscribing the author’s name delicately on the paper, for who had ever heard of Pindar? The only confusion was, what of the small ‘g’ in ‘god’? Was the translator an atheist who edited Pindar’s capital-G belief out of the quote? What did the pagan Greeks, with all their Apollos and Zeuses, mean when they said ‘god’? As calligrapher she would have to decide this. No one would ever know the difference, and she was a believer. She wrote it a capital G.

Life was beautiful, just as Pindar said, just as the bandit Ramerrez says it is in the opera. The December night when Hunter was nine and a half, she took him, her parents, and her former mother-in-law out to dinner in a Chinese restaurant. (Tim and his new wife – whom Alice honestly liked – would have him all weekend.) They all had a wonderful time. Mrs. McNamara happened to mention Roger Lucas. "Do you know that of all those kids, he’s the only one who’s never married?"

The half-birthday boy ate his first egg-drop soup. They had pot stickers and Eight Precious Duck, and rice drowned (on Hunter’s plate) in soy sauce, and cup after little white cup of tea. Everyone tried chopsticks except her father, still smiling and patient. The food was so light in mouthfuls and yet so drowsily filling in bulk, and the darkness, the dim lamps swaying with red tassels, the red tablecloths and the black walls hung with black lacquered wood carvings of Chinese scenes, all conspired to make them feel warm and sleepy and very far away from the cold snowy night and the ordinary car waiting for them in the strip mall parking lot outside. They chatted with the friendly waitress, who talked swiftly and confidently, but with an almost impenetrable accent, about her life in Taiwan and her new life with her five-year-old daughter Brittany here. Alice’s mother remarked afterward how nice it was to meet such an interesting person.

The next day it snowed lightly all day. It was Alice’s day off. When Hunter got home from school they went sledding at the local park’s hill. There was only an inch or so of cover on the ground, but while they were there, snow continued to fall, heavier and thicker, and still more beautiful. It was quiet. One jet only roared, muffled, invisible, into the clouds, and then was gone.

There were two houses on the other side of the fence, just outside the big park’s boundary. These houses were utterly still and snug down amid their fifteen big oaks – Alice counted them, for oaks are rare in the suburbs – in the falling snow. The closest street was barely visible from here. If you turned your back against the one car in the distant lot, you could imagine all this was a scene from 1890. Then, nothing would have stood between this hill and a view across the farmlands to the house where Alice lived, built in 1890. All this had once been farms. How wonderful it was to feel that because your house was the oldest, you belonged here, more than other people. Three electric candles burned behind the sheers of the blue ranch across the fence at the foot of the hill, but it was easy to imagine they were real candles. The big rose-ochre house next to it was dark. Alice remembered their Taiwanese waitress’ first unhappy impressions of America. "Where is everybody?" she asked in retrospect. "So lonely. Taiwan is so crowded, it is like Las Vegas twenty-four hour a day. Too crowded. Now I like my elbow room."

Alice and Hunter skidded down the hill together on one sled sometimes, or took turns apart. The skies that had been plan white darkened to gray. The clouds began to break up, very slowly, showing the declining sun, a cold yellowy pearl. When they were thoroughly chilled, they walked back down the hill to the car and drove home, and had cocoa. Real cocoa made with milk, the way Mrs. McNamara always made it, very French.

Life was sweet as honey. Life was chocolate, and interesting people, and rice, and red clothes and the red silk chair her parents bought her for Christmas. Life was Hunter doing well in school, and getting along with his new stepmother mostly because he saw that his mother liked her and made no fuss about her. Life was Alice’s own family gatherings – the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, new and satisfying and just as legitimate as the old Michaelmas and Martinmas of another universe – where she and her brothers and sisters-in-law laughed and gossiped unabashedly, and resumed old jokes and speech patterns, some of them not very nice, from their remotest common history.

She loved it all, not least of it her new books and new friends, and her ongoing little hobby of amateur public speaker. This was very small-scale. She never would breathe a word of it to anyone at work. But she continued to give talks on Isaiah or Proverbs to audiences of ten or twelve approving people, and took compliments and questions afterward – mostly from men – and six months or a year later was asked to do it again. Soon Hunter was twelve, and she twenty-nine, and then he was fifteen and she was thirty-two: just about the ages that her father had considered interesting and romantic all those years ago when the child-parents had announced their intention to marry, and worn orange roses at their wedding.

And while this was going on, the comforting matrons at work named Helen and Anne and Marge began to retire. Their places were taken by new women – almost always women – whose lives she did not understand. Something had happened, a jump in time, the crest of a sociological wave, to render her newly alone in a circle of new co-workers who were suddenly either younger and more experienced in the world than she was, or just slightly older but much less experienced with a husband and a child than she was. Or a twisted combination of the two. They told and re-told their stories with enthusiasm, as if any life experience were valid, womanly.

This was hard on Alice because she thought her experience at seventeen trumped all others. All of these new women had been through college and "internships," or had come from other workplaces. One had graduated Georgetown law school. Some had traveled, or lived elsewhere. They shared traumas, laughing, about coping with the Los Angeles freeway system. One had been a model for nine months in Greece. "My most irrational act," she called it happily in the company newsletter. Yet few were married yet, very few divorced. None under twenty-five had children, and those who were older, who were hired as it were laterally, outranking Alice in age and authority but not seniority, might at most have a toddler or two at home. She felt outpaced, all her experiences lost in a sepia-toned high school past, the pointless mother of a giant.

And the other women all got along so well, so naturally. They could not possibly have heard of Pindar. If they went to a church it really was for the children, or because they liked "Father Mike" but hadn’t liked "Pastor Dave." How sophisticated they seemed. They seemed to have met here purposefully, by mysteriously following the straight and narrow, while her own route had been circuitous and wrong.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 7

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Tudor Year: November

Theme: education

Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, queen at last at the age of twenty-five.

November 17th is the 450th anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth Tudor to the throne, a day celebrated as "crownation day" during her reign and long after her death. While she was maddeningly indecisive with her councillors, the fascination of her personality combined with England's Renaissance flowering -- and military success against superpower Spain -- made the cult of Gloriana inescapable. If nothing else, her education staggers us. Languages, classic ancient literature, religion, penmanship, music, embroidery, and horsemanship were all expected excellencies in a Tudor lady. A gentleman like Robert Dudley added to these his skills in the joust, in tennis, and in archery. As estate owners, both would have understood things like farming, sheep-herding, and minding the books as naturally as we know how to drive a car.
November 14th: Marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, 1501

November 17th: Death of Queen Mary; Accession of Queen Elizabeth, 1558

November 30th: Queen Elizabeth's "Golden Speech" to her last Parliament, 1601

David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989. See pp. 136-137.
Carrolly Erickson, The First Elizabeth. New York: Summit Books, 1983. See pp. 99-100.
Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1991. See pp. 10-13, 115-116.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Movies that make me want to clean my house

Originally a guest post at "Sassy Irish Lassie"

There's a family legend about my great-grandmother, born Mary Swan but known in adult life as Mrs. Brizzolara, which moniker the neighborhood kids could not pronounce and so she became "Mrs. B." or, to us in stories, simply Bee. The legend is that she was always Too Busy Rolling Bandages For the Red Cross to bother cleaning her house. This would have been circa World War I.

She liked to gad about, join committees, and do things, and so I guess great-grandfather, Mr. Brizzolara, had to put up with dust in the corners and socks on the floor and such. (There aren't too many legends about him, other than that he came from Genoa, had a terrific head of snowy white hair late in life, and did not like to be disturbed while listening to Chicago Cubs games on the radio.)
Anyway, when I look at my house, I like to think I'm channeling Bee. Oh, the rooms are not unhygienic, but they are all, um, lived-in enough to make me realize what is so beautiful about the glossy photographs in home design books and magazines. It's not just that design professionals have placed flowers and knick-knacks just so. It's that everything is clean. Clean floors, clean picture frames, sparkling shower fixtures, clean white grout around the tub, for heaven's sake. So I shrug and channel Bee, and generally keep on doing what I'm doing.

But, oddly enough, there are movies that inspire me to clean. One of them is Titanic. In the opening scenes, we see the old lady's house, as she spins pottery and listens to the television report of the finding of the beautiful drawing from the depths of the shipwreck. The sun is shining, and curtains blow. A big antique steamer trunk stands against a wall. The camera angles are low, and we can see that nice clean floor. There are lots of hanging plants, and a bowl of goldfish on the kitchen counter beside the tv. I think we hear the sound of tinkling chimes.

There's something about this scene of a busy, nice but obviously middle-class home -- no chandeliers or anything, and the adult granddaughter is loading the dishwasher -- that makes me look around and see that my old iron radiators are (um) kind of dusty, and the cats have tracked litter around, and the shower curtain is unfit to be seen, and maybe I'd like some goldfish. So I clean.

And then there's the great old British television series Mapp and Lucia. People who adore this show remark that the sets and costumes alone deserve their own awards or history or website or something, never mind the accolades given the actors and story. (It's all huge fun.) I think it's the beautiful flowers and plants in almost every scene that make me want to clean my house after I've watched an episode. The main characters, Lucia and Georgie, are forever sitting in perfectly appointed, cozy little rooms, hatching social plots or playing the piano while bouquets of carnations and sunflowers stand behind them, or a potted bromeliad in the corner near the servant's bellpull. I look and think, maybe I want some flowers for the house -- and of course I can't bring flowers into a messy room, so I'm inspired to clean.

Amelie is another. Remember the scene when Amelie drops the glass stopper to her perfume bottle, and it rolls along the bathroom floor and finally knocks a little porcelain tile loose from low down on the wall? Remember how clean everything is? What, the French don't get little cobwebs on the valves and pipes behind la toilette? So I clean.

By the way, all this is not to speak of Gigi. I'm always thrilled by Gaston's outburst, when Gigi rejects his advances, that she lives in a filthy apartment with worm-ridden furniture and so how can she refuse him and his wealth and tidiness? Aha! I tell myself -- validation! A charming fictional character, and her grandmother, too busy to clean! (Gaston's Uncle Honore agrees that her disgusting surroundings "must have driven her mad.") The trouble with Gigi is that all those red interiors make me want to redecorate.

You might get the impression that I watch these movies all the time and so afterward in spite of myself I am always cleaning. Not at all. It's just that when I do pop them in from time to time -- I reserve Amelie, for example, for Bastille Day, only watching it once a year to keep it special -- I see those scenes again and I sigh at their loveliness and remember. Oh yeah. These movies always make me want to clean.

Sometimes I really spend a day at it and feel virtuous and fresh when I'm done. "Now don't trash the house," I wag my finger at the family, "I did nothing but clean all day." Sometimes I'll devote maybe fifteen minutes with a paper towel and some Formula 409 to a project, and then reason that that'll do for now. After all, Bee was too busy rolling bandages ... and I'll bet she had scads more fun.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The big picture

The history major in me likes to look at national or world events and try to shape them, for my own satisfaction, into a big, probably much too intuitive picture, one that explains trends or the Movement of Peoples in terms that are emotional (no need for too terribly painstaking research -- and who knows, it might be true) but tidy (that takes care of that). Perhaps I ought to be writing more fiction, or perhaps I have spent too much time reading large survey history books with grand themes and titles, and too much time taking the same kinds of classes years ago in college. Books and classes like these always end so neatly, and before they end the books, especially, always seem to gloss over real human tragedies and failures with many reassuring summations. In the long run all this was for the best, they say, or couldn't be helped, or at any rate all this is now explicable in some large and tidy way. There's little sadness in a survey, and I like that. I am, in short, the general reader.

Do I dare try it myself? Big survey views aren't necessarily wrong. Once in a while, talented people can do a bit of summing up, and can get it largely right with the basic tools of good background knowledge and human sympathy and imagination at their disposal. I may not be one of those people, nor am I about to dare some huge summing up. But here are a couple of trends or movements, along with the ingredients in them which some future talent may be able to click together like a puzzle in a very satisfying way: satisfying enough for the general reader and the professional both to nod and say, "in a way that's probably close to the truth."

One trend, from abroad, is that the French (of all people) are in the process, so the wine bloggers tell us, of becoming neo-prohibitionists and of "demonizing" -- of all things -- wine. Wine cannot be advertised on the internet in France. Any writing on wine, in newspapers, magazines, or on-line, must be accompanied by the equivalent of our idiotic surgeon general's warning as to its pernicious possible effects on health. This means that any innocent little wine-and-food pairing column in any French daily paper must be followed, every single time in every single paper, by the warning paragraph mandated by the state. This is in France, long home of wine and of all things sensuous, joyous, and wonderful. In addition, free wine tastings are very likely going to be banned in France. This means that large and (I presume) traditional professional events like the "en primeur barrel tastings in Bordeaux and the Vinexpo wine exhibition" either will not be held or will have to have fees set for admittance and tasting (Decanter on line, 10/31/08). This is completely new.

Why on earth would the French travel down this road? -- suddenly reacting to wine as Dracula reacts to garlic and sunlight? Power-mad bureaucrats making laws, health-faddists obeying whatever internal dictates drive them; or, is it the case that a people are slowly, intuitively relinquishing one of their most prized possessions, before their abstaining Muslim fellow citizens can attain majority status in the country and then insist that it be done on religious grounds?

A proper historian would shrug at such a silly connection, and would point to dozens of complex factors driving history every day of the year, and changing what they drive every day of the year. But someone writing a survey, five hundred years from now, might note the timing of this strange trend and say this was not a coincidence -- or maybe that it was at least an interesting one. It's a bit like approaching the solution to a murder mystery. There's a body in the library, and a knife on the garden path outside. Yes, there are dozens of other factors and clues. But fundamentally, here are two things that go together and make something wrong. Something strange is happening. There's a connection.

Another strange trend comes closer to home, and forces me to write once again about the junior Senator from Illinois. (The one who, after something like 143 days in office, decided it was time to seek the Presidency.) The mania of the mainstream press for him has been so naked and so delirious that I think even they will look back on 2008, the year of his deification, and wonder just exactly what they were about. Their worshipping and promoting the ambitions of Barack Obama, combined with his popularity all over the world, leads me to suspect that perhaps, in the big picture, what he means to many journalists is their redemption from being hated as Americans. September 11th brought home to us a little slice of the world's hatred of us, and journalists, every bit as American as the citizens they lecture, don't like being hated. The rest of us have been more able to withstand the fact of it because we recognize that maybe the hater has the problem, not us. We recognize that no one has the right to kill us because of who we are. The press doesn't seem to be so sure.

September 11th was a long time ago -- seven years, although it seems like longer, partly I think because after a few months or so, images of the day dropped rather suddenly from public view -- but ever since the delivery of that lesson, that haters can and will strike even New York City (New York! where so many thinking people and journalists live!), our powerful media has had no firm proof to offer the world that they are not like us, and should be excused associations with us. They long to prove categorically that they are different, right-thinking. George Bush's re-election by us, never mind his first election, and of course the war in Iraq not sufficiently opposed by us, have gone far to driving them frantic with chagrin at this proofless-ness. What can they do?

They have found Barack Obama, and so found what they can do. Deify the one candidate for the Presidency who is not only a committed socialist but also exemplifies the academic left's contempt for the Constitution, boasts friends and mentors who like to blow up the Pentagon, and has belonged to a racist, anti-American church for twenty years. Deify the one candidate who brags that he wants to "fundamentally change America." The more damning details have come to light about Obama, the more the media have protected him. The more they have learned about him, the more they have understood he is exactly what they want. Lots of factors come into play in this little slice of history, to be sure, but I agree with the general conservative-pundit assessment that this is emotional. I'll go further, and match up the body in this library with the knife on the path outside. The American press says to the hating world: here. This is our gift to you. We'll do our part to make him our leader. How perfect, the subconscious whispers, that he's even by way of being Muslim. Love us. We're not like them.

These are my two intuitive, big-picture, and unprovable theses on two strange trends of the past year or so. The French are acting as if they hate wine. The American press makes mass obeisance to the first anti-American presidential candidate, ever, and guide and protect his path to power. Why? Sometimes it's the very history books -- non-surveys, this time -- laying out a dozen or eighteen separate reasons contributing to this or that epochal change, which finally seem less convincing than a simple A to B emotional leap. (Perhaps this is why human beings are so susceptible to conspiracy theories about anything. They're easy to grasp, too, and don't require any more research than you care to do.) I read the fine serious books on history and sometimes think, come now, these eighteen factors cannot all have joined together in this place and time and among these people, and impelled them to do or think as they did precisely then. People, if they are not automatons, paint their lives with a bit broader brushes than that, don't they?

All of the foregoing may also explain why I blog, rather than get important papers full of painstakingly accurate and original information published in the William and Mary Quarterly, &c. I hugely respect the compiling of that information, and at long last I realize that that is what magazines and book publishers are buying and selling, not my brand of (with luck) charming speculation. But I also like the phrase that I once came across in William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill. One of Churchill's gifts, he said, was the "zigzag streak of lightning in the brain," -- confident, inexplicable, but correct intuition. Heaven knows I don't claim to have it, but it's nice to think that there's a place for some pale imitation of it at some level of historical analysis. Maybe even here. Provided it just zigs and zags usefully, and doesn't fry the circuits.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Save the bears

Photo: Grizzly bear

It occurs to me that there is little point in being an intellectual if you don't have power. Who wants to sit around reading Shakespeare -- or Marx -- only in order to privately congratulate himself on his taste and his great deep soul, his "living for the gods" as Marcus Aurelius said? And then only to go out into the world and talk to people who probably can't spell Shakespeare (then again, neither could he, consistently)?

This topic came up last night as we sat watching a television program about the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, and about how evil developers and people are encroaching on the bears' habitat and cutting down the white pine trees they need to survive, and so on. There were on the program the usual array of talking, turtleneck-sweatered heads, with Ph.D at the bottom of the screen beside their names, all gently mourning this state of affairs and trying to feel their way toward a new era when bears and people can co-exist. One lady's earrings swung delicately as she spoke. One of the guys had an earring, too.

We turned to each other and asked "why is public television so left-wing?" And why, too, are universities and big media newsrooms equally so? (It's funny. When I was growing up, the soft-spoken Bear Lady with the swinging earrings would have seemed to me simply a normal part of life, a normal part of an evening's television watching. Of course, her information was the truth and her point of view correct. Now I look at her and see someone indoctrinated. Someone who, like all the rest of us, may at times be wrong.)

At first I entertained the thought that the left's predominance on PBS must have something to do with money, with public television being funded more by taxes than by advertising, and so largely immune to the danger of disgusted and bored viewers turning off the propaganda machine and taking their consumer dollars elsewhere. To NASCAR broadcasts, for instance. But even free money doesn't explain why that money attracts left-wing people. Universities and newsrooms don't necessarily operate only through the the public dole, and yet they attract the left, too.

This is not the first time that I have puzzled over the topic. Once I even tried to put it into fiction, probably without much success. The more I consider it the more I think it must be that the left-leaning intellectual has an awfully bleak day-to-day existence unless he has power, or at least the hope of power, even on a small scale. The university professor, or even the high school or the fifth grade teacher, with his captive audience of goggling and impressionable young people; the journalist with his pulpit in print; the Ph.D. clutching his degree in white pine and grizzly bear symbiosis, the highlight of whose life may very well have been an interview with a crew from public television, filming a special on the menace of development near Yellowstone National Park. All these people would have nothing much practical to do with all the learning and passions they have amassed, unless they find the power to impose their views on other people. Teaching the young to "how to think" -- writing editorials on proper thinking and feeling, on the truth -- stopping development. All these, at least, are actions. Doing them is better than sitting quietly at home after a day at work, reading, or worse, writing great and important books and dissertations that most people will never look at.

The lust for power is a human trait and I am sure right-wing people want power, too. But there is a difference. Right-wingers may run for office and start businesses and publish books, but right-wing ideology does not seek power over the individual and his private choices in the way the progressive left does. Right-wing ideology seeks to leave people alone to sink or swim, which is exactly what the left excoriates about it. This makes the right evil, cold, and compassion-less.

But free people, left alone to sink or swim, are also free to ignore intellectuals, and this normal state is what threatens to strip intellectuals of their chance at power. Right-wing intellectuals can afford not to care, since the right by and large has no roster of collective actions it wants all of us to do for the general good. The left has an endless roster of such actions, and so to left-wing intellectuals, being ignored, being powerless, not only bleakens life -- as it does, a little, for all eggheads who bite their tongues when in the company of good people who can't spell Shakespeare -- it's also morally outrageous. The answer, to them, is proved so simple. They've seen the light. They've become left. So can others. Get power. Teach. Editorialize. Stop development. Make a documentary. Save the bears.

And so they congregate particularly in places of small-scale power, where they can revel in funded but unelected authority, in pulpits and captive audiences and the young. Of course they flatter themselves that it's just such selfless, open-minded, thought-provoking, and artistic professions which naturally attract compassionate, deep people who want to save the planet and touch the future ("I teach," as the refrigerator magnet almost purrs). They would never say, "I've cast my lot with an intellectual attitude that is meaningless unless it lets me mold other people." No more would a right-wing person say, "I've cast my lot with an intellectual attitude that is meaningless unless it lets my company log in Yellowstone and persecute mother bears."

This election and all the commentary about it has led me to wonder, among other things, if the Founding Fathers were not a most unusual group of history's intellectuals, a group which deliberately sought to give away or fence off power, especially the coercive power of the state which they formed. Perhaps that's why they annoy modern left-wing intellectuals so much. What fool gives away the only solid pleasure an egghead has, and to the people? Barack Obama's radio interview from 2001, in which he speaks of the Constitution's "negative rights" and its dreadful failure to indicate the powers the government has over the individual, reminded me of exactly what my professors from a rinky-dink community college used to say twenty-five years ago. I remember one Ph.D. in particular who used to praise the Mexican constitution, because it was who-knew-how-many-thousand pages long and spelled out exactly what you can and can't do, unlike our own feckless one which runs to at most three or four pages and explains practically nothing.

We students were all too dumb to call him on this nonsense, but as I've gotten older I've reassured myself that at least he, and intellectuals like him, remain ensconced in universities where they do their thing to nineteen-year-olds and then the nineteen-year-olds move on. Now I'm not so sure. My deeply ignorant, I might say life-ignorant old professor is now hideously close to the presidency, really. Oh, he isn't Barack. But he may as well be. It's the ideology that is campaigning, and it doesn't change for decades. And it amazes me that so many Americans who would roll their eyes in boredom at this if they were trapped in a little white drywall classroom, with homework coming, love it when they see it up on a stage strutting in a great baritone voice.

But then, I was in love with it too. Power as aphrodisiac, or, being overpowered as aphrodisiac. Yes, sometimes, even among audiences which are not yet captive.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

You need help

It was, I think, John Kenneth Galbraith who said in one of his books that every few generations, at least in the modern world, people get comfortable and start to think they can have wealth without work. It isn't possible, as on-margin investors in the stock market learned in 1929. People who bought homes -- which are a kind of wealth -- without money beginning in the compassionate Jimmy Carter years are now learning the same thing. As are all the rest of us, compelled to bail them out.

(And incidentally, the mystery is solved. I used to drive past acres upon acres of enormous new homes, or look at real estate listings featuring "starter" homes beginning in the $150,000 price range, and wonder what on earth these people did for a living to be able to afford this. In my ignornance I used to think, well, they must be in the computer field, or something. And, who knew? -- the answer was so simple. They couldn't afford them.)

This cycle will work itself out, provided the government does not get involved and make things worse with interference that no one person or committee can know is the right interference to make; I think it is interesting that this should happen just when it seems the scholarly consensus is that Franklin Roosevelt did not "get us out" of the Depression with his programs and plans, he prolonged it. This was news to me when I went back to college a few years ago, and now I see it echoed by responsible people elsewhere. Why did it take seventy years for the best and brightest to figure this out, or to dare to say it? And will it take another seventy years for this consensus to filter down to ordinary people?

I ask because yesterday I met a woman of another mindset entirely, who is well-meaning and mature and does not realize that her opinions on the issues of the day are not those of a citizen who understands what freedom is. She said that she thinks the government should be in charge of everyone's health care, because "most" people cannot manage or budget for that themselves. She was speaking of John McCain's idea to give $5000 to every uninsured American to buy health insurance. (Do the rest of us get 5 grand, too? Are we to be punished for being already insured? And if the answer to all these financial problems is to give away taxpayer money, why not simply abolish taxes and let everyone keep the money in the first place?) She said that when most people have that wad of cash in front of their eyes, they will not necessarily use it for health care, they will use it for something immediate, who knows what. In other words, they will make free choices with it and they'll reap the consequences, for good or ill.

I'm sure she's right about the human tendency to succumb to temptation, or simply the human ability to look after our own interests and make trade-offs as we see fit. But her leap of hopeless illogic -- that therefore the government can be more sensible about your life than you can -- is what I find chilling. She is an intelligent lady. She's thought about this. On the other hand, if she were to get instructions from some government functionary telling her what groceries to buy tomorrow, she would be outraged. "How can you know what I want or what's best for me?" she would ask. But when it comes to human beings in the aggregate, human choices, human problems, she is all for the idea of state control for everyone else's good. And she doesn't even realize it.

As it happens, she is a nutritionist. She wants people to eat well and make "healthy lifestyle choices." Having just opened a nutrition counseling business in February, she is disappointed that not many customers are coming to her and paying her for advice. Instead, they are making their own food choices and are spending their money on other things apart from her counseling, bills, gas, the mortgage (let's hope). She tries to persuade them that they need her, too. What is the point of getting your life in order, she asks, when after you have solved all your other problems, you are not healthy? Good point. But free people are free to ignore her and her business. Just like free people are free to budget their own health care. Or not.

Her earnest desire to help everybody live cleanly, properly, and happily may be very American, but her emotional assumption that most people need state help to do it is, I think, not so. I'm reminded of a quote from a popular biography of King Louis XIV by Olivier Bernier (A Royal Life): in seventeenth-century France, "freedom" meant the right of the weak and poor to state protection. I'm reminded in turn of stories of riotous crowds in pre-modern Russia, or France, rushing to royalty to thrown stones at palace windows and demand huge divine gifts like "Peace, Bread, and Land" whenever times turned rough. This assumption that human beings are naturally helpless, childlike, and the state is not, does not constitute the bedrock on which free people -- well, build houses.

But how do you convince still-free people, like this lady nutritionist, that her attitudes are corrosive of the very untrammeled, competitive, free market, "dog-eat-dog" economic system that has enabled her to risk starting her business and creating wealth in the first place? It's a mighty dopey business, too, in my opinion, but luckily for her my attitudes to it are beside the point. How could I have convinced this lady that, yes, in a free economy, in a free country, her fellow citizens have the right to lead messy, fast-food lives? And that banks have the right to foreclose on their homes and sell elsewhere when they don't pay their mortgage, even though it looks un-compassionate?

I don't know how to convince her of these things, but I'm learning, as the economic "crisis" goes on and I meet bright people like her, in ones and twos, who feel as she does, who still wear "Obama 08" t-shirts and still chortle about Republicans jumping off roofs on November 5th, how much appearances matter. Illusions matter. For comfortable people, the illusion of compassion, the appearance of comprehensive outrage against the great, against injustice or unfairness, is deeply satisfying and will always spur votes and that's that. Democrats are Compassionate, and want to Help the Poor. That's that. As long as there are people who don't do as well as others in life, then Democrats will have a lock on the millions of votes that witness this and see the answer as a heartfelt abstraction -- as love, I suppose. If the "rising tide that lifts all boats" ebbs considerably because large numbers have voted against the system that frees the tide to rise, tant pis, as the French say (so much the worse).

Maybe my compassionate friends will live long enough to have one of those paradigm shifts they want everyone else to have, and notice simple things. Ebbing tides lower all boats. You can't have wealth without work. Simple. Oh, and people have thought like serfs before, in other times and places. Simple.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What's a "conservative" movie?

I have no intention of going to see An American Carol because the ad for it looks stupid and I don't trust any reviewer's assurance that something is "funny." People thought -- or were told -- Charlie Chaplin was funny.

But I also think that conservative writers and commentators, and conservative screenwriters and producers in Hollywood for that matter (all two of them, it seems) are wrong in even trying to support or to make a "conservative" movie. I agree that Hollywood is chock a block with left-wing people making left-wing movies, but the public by and large give these movies the treatment they deserve by ignoring them. It isn't just the last five anti-Iraq war, Susan Sarandon-type vehicles that have failed utterly at the box office. I seem to recall reading that a few years ago, when Clint Eastwood's girl boxing film Million Dollar Baby won its Oscars, the Wayans' brothers White Chicks actually grossed more than that and all the years' other lofty, artsy Oscar nominees combined. Most moviegoers want to be entertained, not dragged through a tale of misery and deep, aching meaning for their own moral good.

But there's another reason why I have no intention of going to see An American Carol, and it speaks to the reason why manufactured "conservative" films are useless. I understand that it's a satire on Michael Moore. Why should I go see a film making fun of Michael Moore? He's not that important in my life that I need to see him mocked. In fact, what the movie amounts to is a compliment to his power. I agree that he makes tendentious, dishonest, and foolish films, but his last one didn't perform so well at the box office and he's releasing his most recent effort for free on YouTube or somewhere. Why not let it go at that?

Its theme makes An American Carol pathetic and outdated from the start. And I'm not impressed by the roster of "big name" stars in it. Perhaps I'm out of touch, but who is Kevin Farley? And talented though James Woods, Kelsey Grammer, and Leslie Nielsen are, only politeness would call them anything other than B-list performers. Jon Voight and Dennis Hopper are from another century. The stars who wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot-pole -- stars like George Clooney, who I gather is also a butt of the film's jokes -- will smile at its compliment to their stature.

Maybe the very reason why someone like James Woods doesn't seem to work much is because he's a blackballed conservative, and that's why it is all the more important that "we" support his sticking his neck out for the kinds of films he's willing to act in and the politics he espouses. But something in this equation doesn't add up. The way to make a conservative film is not to collect somewhat faded stars and then have them fall all over themselves reacting to and confirming the Hollywood left's belief that it is the most serious and important thing in everyone's daily life. Rush Limbaugh plugged the film and noted that "it's not long." No, I daresay it isn't. The implication, unfortunately, is that there is not much for a conservative film to say. Susan Sarandon would smile, too.

Then what makes a "liberal" film? A negative message, certainly, a reflexively anti-authority or anti-American message, or a theme involving liberal or, more correctly, progressive creeds that are not to be questioned: the weeping splendor of gay rights, the tragedy of melting Arctic ice. But no one can therefore flip the coin and make a conservative film about -- what? Patriotic, religious characters who hunt or stay married or start up a small business? Hollywood, in making "liberal" movies, simply makes good movies about characters who are struggling with some kind of problem or confronting some kind of injustice or evil. Of course it's tendentious that the evil usually stems from America or big business or the military, but still each individual plot line is technically plausible on its own. I'm sure In the Valley of Elah was made because its producers and stars are left-wingers who loathe George Bush and wanted to instruct us all, but the story -- grieving parents of a soldier, I think -- is humanly creditable. Antigone (not that I compare the two in all ways) is also a humanly creditable story of people struggling with each other and with authority, fate, decisions, law, and grief.

An even putatively right-wing film has got to be so different that it must set aside any story, and grapple hard with agenda first. This is especially out of character for conservatives, who tend not to want to govern the universe through progressive groupthink anyway. Laissez-faire, Don't Tread On Me, and so on. How do "we" get our agenda across? In contemplating this challenge, we approach propaganda already and the game, the game the left has mastered and which we are playing on their field, is lost already. The Hollywood left makes effortless propaganda partly because it can always point to its films as art first. No story of conflict is ever inherently left- or right-wing. And of course, its films are A-list art because the progressive idea fueling them all seems to attract to the soundstage the wealthiest and stupidest and most sheltered and most glamorous A-list artists of all. It's called self-reinforcement, I suppose.

So what could a conservative film be, and how do "we" make or support them? I say, relax. Movies are meant to be entertaining, and when they don't entertain we reject them handily. White Chicks was a conservative film. So was Titanic. So were those in my new favorite series, Die Hard -- although it's too bad some dopey left-wing screenwriter had the kid in Die Hard 4 pontificate, unanswered, about "FEMA taking five days to get water to the Superdome" after Hurricane Katrina. (Yes, kid, very good! And why? FEMA had no economic incentive to get water to the Superdome. They're a liberal government agency whose balance sheets and pay scales don't depend on satisfying customers, not like the terrible greedy capitalists. Now hand me that gun. Next!)

And An American Carol, a conservative film? Let's hope not. Will it do well at the box office? My guess is no, because conservative moviegoers don't rack up weekend "must-see, must-love" lists which they then wear as a badge of advanced moral understanding, like an Obama "Hope" button. Also -- no, because it's probably as dumb as it looks.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Diary with Hero

Sunday. Only twenty years on, I have discovered the iconic Die Hard movies. One sits through a festival of gore and profanity, in order to arrive at the scenes of heroic rescue at the end, especially the ends of the first two movies, in which the hero rescues his wife. Probably equally a male as a female fantasy, especially in movie number 1, at the end of which the hero, in shock from all the killing, hands her down like a queen from the rubble -- and then protects her again. All the while covered in his own and other men's blood. A kind of Christ figure? No; Odysseus perhaps.

Anyway, extremely pleasurable. The strong, decent man going through hell for justice and for his woman. It's ridiculous of course -- if he turned green and immense and hollered "Hulk smash!" I would have no patience with him, but he may as well do that -- but one waits for solitude the next day for a chance to slip the movie back into the DVD player, and fast forward to the scenes of rescue. He staggers, weak and bloodied, through the snow, calling his wife's name, and weeps when he finds her. He -- Bruce Willis -- proved himself a pretty believable cry-er in the first film, and so a poorer set of scriptwriters gave him more crying scenes in the second.

Tuesday. Alas, can't get the DVD player to work. It pixelates at that scene. Proof of over-use perhaps? A few hundred other human beings have also wanted to see just that, just one more time?

Friday. It's funny how the appetite for hero worship never goes away -- human nature, I suppose -- and one is really almost disappointed to learn that the actor, not necessarily this one but any one, is just another human being, who dates starlets or gets thrown out of nightclubs or whatever. And when one particular fictional crush wears off, you wonder what was inadequate about you that you needed to fall for that. In reality, there wasn't anything wrong with you, you're just a human being and you like heroes and gods. I have no doubt that plenty of the great figures of history, especially the religious figures, were handsome men. Only that first draws the human eye, and introduces the theme of -- I was going to say godliness. No; god-likeness.

Anyway. Great fun. And will be again.

Sunday. Didn't I say so? Twenty years on: Nights in Rodanthe. One sits through a festival of beautifully coiffed people dealing with fake problems. "You weren't there for me"/"I wasn't there for him," etc. The beach. Richard Gere -- and I have always meant to see Days of Heaven, it's said to be marvelous -- in whose face I can faintly see the cute-as-a-button old man he is going to become. Watch the movie: there's got to be a rescue soon, because that is tantamount to permission to make love, especially between two characters who have just argued. Ah, yes, here it comes! The hurricane. The crashing china cabinet. She is about to be crushed. He leaps and pushes her out of the way. Perfect. I still think I prefer the fantasy full-blown, a la Die Hard, guns blazing and the hero facing far more formidable foes than toppling furniture.

Great fun, and will be again. Haven't I said so?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pearls and Roses, Chapter 5

Pearls and Roses, chapter 4

She needed little time after meeting and swooning over handsome Tim Gorecki in high school to realize fate was at hand if she wanted it. He was like her, a serious boy who liked being taken seriously, or at least had gotten accustomed to it. Since his father had died young he had been told repeatedly by his womenfolk that he was "the man of the family now" – "such a cruel thing to say to a child," Alice’s mother would say many years later – and he liked the idea of getting serious with Alice while they were still very young. It made him feel proud. He knew Alice bought bride magazines with a purpose, and pored over the gorgeous photographs of gowns and flowers, rings and shoes and cakes. He pictured himself telling his friends about it, rolling his eyes patiently but proudly, like an old married Joe. But he didn’t tell them. He feared they would not be able to take it in the right spirit.

Alice loved the bride magazines. She looked at the photographs and learned all the nomenclature, and was disappointed to recognize sometimes the same models from month to month, for that took away from the fantasy and made the photographs seem staged, not like real brides and real weddings, breathless women participating in an ancient and mysterious ritual, all filled with love. She loved to learn of ivory satins with jewel necklines and cathedral trains, and Brussels point lace and fingertip veils, and tulle and grosgrain and tap pants, beaded bodices to hide flatness and off-the-shoulder pelisses tapering to a point over the stomach to hide waistlines. There was everything to choose, from traditional hoop-skirted opulence to the starkest columnar simplicity. Roses, tuberoses, rubrum lilies, pink lilac, sunflowers for summer, wheat for autumn; colors of moss green for the bridesmaids at Christmastime, purple for summer; black and white taffeta, and purple orchids, for them in January. Winter brides had their pictures taken beside golden fires and gold-decked Christmas trees in brick reception rooms. Summer brides were photographed outside, in sunlit gardens. A girl of a different cast of mind might have looked at all this and said, I want to be a clothing designer, a fashion photographer, a food stylist. Alice looked and said, I want to get married and have a baby. I want to be able to say "my husband," my son, my daughter, while I am really young.

But she also had to go through the motions of attending school and having A Little Part-Time Job, and of course she was aware of her world, watched TV, read the paper, especially listened to music. It was clear to her that the adults who created a culture saturated with love, saturated especially with endless pop songs about breaking up – very medieval, really, courtly love, always the knight who cannot have his lady – did not approve one bit of her wanting to get married. They were positively mendacious about it. They wanted her to watch social studies films about adolescent girls getting married in India, but only on the understanding that while this might be culturally interesting, it was also horrifying and pathetic. They made everyone read Romeo and Juliet because they thought the sex interest would hold, but they were horrified by the prospect of anyone’s following the great and proper lovers’ dignified sixteenth-century example. ("Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband? Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name When I, thy three-hours’ wife, have mangled it?")

Only one person did not actively discourage Alice and Tim from getting married in the summer of 1980, the summer before, before their senior year, and that person was Alice’s father. Her mother was coldly furious, and treated her bitterly, fearfully, like an adult whom she hated but who happened to live for the moment in her house. Pamela assumed that the two young people were bedded already, and that therefore marriage was the lesser of two evils – thought what the other evil was (not marrying?) she would have been hard pressed to say. An abortion, perhaps. Tim’s mother called Alice, ridiculously, a gold-digger, and thus drove him closer to her.

But Alice was a lot like her father and he was proud of her maturity. He knew that in interesting older cultures, the two young people would already be well past marriageable age, and he was not about to panic over their wishing to let excitement and human nature take its course. He liked the look of a thirty-year-old woman with a fifteen-year-old son or daughter, both of them young and blooming, both survivors. But it was also only he who gave them the words of caution that did eventually prove true.

He was big, reticent, bearded, handsome. He said in his slurry monotone, "I don’t necessarily disapprove. But I warn you. This may seem the most sophisticated thing in the world, now, and you may be very happy for a while. You may be very happy forever. What do I know? But my fear is that sooner or later, at twenty-five, at thirty, all your friends are only just going to be getting married then, after maybe three or four serious adult love affairs. And already having good careers and maybe having traveled and maybe loaded with money. I’m afraid you’re going to feel the opposite of sophisticated then. You’re going to feel like you’ve never left the farm."

He was right. There are always women who write to the advice columns about how their improbable, or even scandalous, childhood marriage has succeeded and they are now proud great-grandparents. But for every such success there must be five quiet failures, or who knew? – fifty, Alice thought later. Failures caused, if by nothing else, by the blooming couple’s frustration at having taken themselves off the marriage market before either had reached his full attractiveness, or fully realized how gloriously he can fall in love as an adult, with another adult. As to Tim and Alice at the time, they were very sweet and brave but even their church discouraged them. When Alice called to make an appointment with the rectory for the usual stint of pre-marital counseling in the May before their August wedding, she warned the receptionist on the phone, "Don’t be surprised when you see me, because I’m eight months pregnant."
Oh yes. They had gone as far as that. Alice was well-read enough to know that the legal fundament of marriage is simply the couple, of age, marrying each other. They had watched West Side Story in their Film Rhetoric class, in which Maria and Tony symbolically get married alone in the dress shop – symbolically, yes, but the point was that what good people want to do in their hearts is always right. In the Middle Ages there need not even have been witnesses, provided the pair lived together afterward and were willing to testify to what they had done. And Tim was seventeen and loved her, and was not about to quarrel with the excitement, or with the gift of her body. So fragile and yet so full of freedom, and so electrified with anonymous, fearsome sanctity, is marriage. Alice was in the same position Juliet might have been, if she had lived.

And what a glorious sentence that was, "I’m almost eight months pregnant." It sounded so full, so rich, so crammed with life. I’m pregnant. "I’m pregnant," she savored over the phone to the ordinary middle-aged lady who turned out to be unimpressed. But look at the word pregnant, speak it, the p and the r, the way you purse your lips, the full hanging g looking so heavy, on her doodle-paper and in her mind, with blood and life and slow richness. Eight, the numeral 8, fat, round, one corpulence riding atop and giving birth to another. Most women going in for pre-marital counseling are not eight months pregnant and as young as I am. But I am.

But the lady at church was not impressed. Alice thought she heard her suck in her breath, once. Then she was clinical, busy, flat, accusatory. Very mom-like. "Oh. You’re not rushing into this, are you?" she asked. Alice had half-expected to face a churchly insistence that she hurry up and marry, cover her shame and legitimize the baby, but evidently she was living in Ivanhoe if she thought that still mattered. This disinterest and distaste for her merely wishing to join the human family saga a little bit early upset her more than any churchly insistence on a moral show would have done. Rushing into it? What else in life was there to rush into, if not a wedding? What else were we here for? It was no one’s business what she was rushing into. She thought, if you have no authority to speed it up for morals’ sake, then don’t interfere to slow it down. Just because girls are not supposed to want to get married young. We’re supposed to want to be cops and salesclerks now. Well, I don’t want to be. Who would discourage marriage and a baby? She was glad to do it.

She made the appointment and they went to their pre-marital counseling classes, which did not affect her in the slightest and which she considered an insult to her intelligence as well as a humiliation to her – to anybody’s – historical sense. Spanish princesses sailed from Corunna at fifteen to marry English kings, and never saw their parents or native land again. Do you suppose they attended "pre-Cana" classes first? They were presumed to be adults, and to understand, to be worthy, of what was coming. Ah, but if there was one thing the modern world did not intend to presume, it was adulthood, in anyone. That was what Alice thought, as the counselor droned on for four Wednesday nights in succession. Soon it was over.

The baby, Hunter Leslie, was born in June. The last cheerful thought she had before going into the labor room was that she liked the idea of planning ahead, saving herself from being a scrawny thirty-year-old who couldn’t do this. Unfortunately the birth as such did not come easy. The next day her voice was gone from crying and her face spidered over with broken blood vessels. She had made it worse for herself, as the nurses told her, by her fear – You’re scaring the other ladies! – but later she triumphantly remembered everything, writing it all down in the baby journal that she showed her friends and Tim but that Hunter himself would never read. She remembered every symptom and every procedure done for her, every leak of blood and the passage of each hour. She recorded everything Tim said or did. Not for nothing was she her father’s daughter. She knew that in plenty of cultures girls go through this far younger than seventeen. After it was all over she especially liked to think of herself as one in a long line of queens and princesses, Spanish or not, and anonymous countesses and farm girls and maybe some poets, who had, like her, an even more profound time of it doing this basic human function because they did it early. Like her, they were not afraid to do it early. Or maybe they were compelled to do it early by some ducal arrangement, some kingly husband, in which case she offered up her suffering and excitement now, freely, in freely chosen sympathy across the ages with them. Alice was excessively well-read.

When she got home from the hospital and felt fully healed, her friends came to see her and the baby. There is no describing the initiate mysteries into which a young girl who has had a baby has been inducted in her friends’ eyes – particularly then, for it was only 1980 and this was not yet so very routine. She was the only one in her neighborhood. Rod Stewart’s song "Young Hearts" was popular then ("Patty gave birth to a ten-pound baby boy"), but that was just a song. Alice had gone and done it. Sitting there casually with them, in her sunny, little-girl bedroom in her parents’ house, with the big crib and the box of wipes and the diapers nearby, and the receipt for her wedding gown propped casually on her dresser, and beautiful Hunter crumpled in newborn unconscious stiffness in her lap, was worth every pain and every doubt. She felt like the Virgin of Chartres, enthroned in stained glass with the infant King.

She and Tim got married in August as planned, flat-souled church receptionists notwithstanding. Her dress was the most perfect in the world. It was champagne-colored silk, with an empire waist to hide her slowly deflating stomach and a low scooped neckline to show off the figure enhanced by her breastfeeding the baby. The orange and green braided ribbon around her waist set off her bouquet of yellow and orange roses perfectly. Tim wore a not-too-dark summer suit and an orange rose in his lapel. Hunter was there, too. Her best friends stood as her bridesmaids, all of them for the first time, and all of them wearing just what pretty summer dresses they liked – no polyester magenta uniforms. All their other schoolmates came to the wedding, too, looking sweet and nonplussed in their good clothes and good behavior. For the rest of August until school began Alice relished other, more distant reactions, especially when she heard about them second-hand. Oh my God, you’re kidding! They got married? Yes, we did. What’s the big deal? Adults marry and raise children. No, I don’t live with my parents, she said gently to another middle-aged lady when she went up to the desk to apply for a new library card. "I live with my husband and my son." The lady burst out laughing pityingly, as if to say, Well yes, you might do that honey, but you needn’t say so in front of everybody. You think you’re the first one I’ve seen today?

When school resumed she walked the halls on air, the very height of emotional sophistication. Tim’s mother watched the baby for those short four hours of Alice’s senior-day, and Alice made sure her friends knew her breasts were engorged by noon. And Tim walked on clouds with her. He was tickled to death to be able to say "My wife," "my son." He liked the idea of work taking priority over school, because he had to support a family now. He liked the experience of having more in common, now, as another man, with his father-in-law than with his young guy friends – his father-in-law whose kindliness and honor, he saw, held more sway over Alice’s mother and brothers than many a family man is ever strong enough to command. They shook hands afresh whenever they met.

Marriage was the most wonderful thing in the world for both of them, for a while. Alice said "my husband" not too frequently, but frequently enough to sound casual, she hoped. The rings on their fingers blazed forth their news to all who had not heard it over the summer. She knew everyone watched them greedily as they drove away to pick up Hunter and then go home to their apartment together every afternoon. First she fed the baby and then cooked dinner, as she explained to everyone. Then they did their homework and took care of the baby, and of course she forgot, Tim went to work, and then they did dishes and there was laundry all the time, and tidying up and writing thank you notes and paying the bills, and getting Hunter to the doctor and getting the car fixed, and before you knew it, it was time for school again. That year, Alice’s English teacher assigned Pride and Prejudice to the class. Alice spoke up often there about Lydia, who elopes to Gretna Green with Wickham, and returns home showing her ring. There is a perfect little scene when giddy Lydia purrs to her oldest sister, "’Ah Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, for I am a married woman.’" Alice quoted that in full. A few of her classmates tittered, and she turned red.

On top of everything else, Alice and Tim by marrying had proven gossip wrong, which whispered that the school would permit a girl to stay and graduate even if she were pregnant, but would not permit her to do so if she were married. ("They won’t let you do what? Why not?" Alice and her girlfriends had exploded in earlier years. The one who had somehow unearthed the information said importantly, "Because at least if you’re only pregnant you’re probably still living with your parents and they can still trust you to pay the tuition. If you’re out of the house and married to some guy flipping burgers, they can’t trust to that anymore." Alice remembered how they had all rolled their eyes and sucked in their cheeks at the mendacity of the school, only concerned with money.) In fact the school’s winking at Alice and Tim’s new legal status had everything to do with their parents having paid the tuition in full in August. The young people had triumphed over both worlds, the adult and the adolescent, and yet kept a secure foothold in both. They passed through their last year without mishap and graduated with all the others. Now it was already the next summer. Hunter, eleven months old that May, wore a white baby tuxedo to the ceremony. "Commencement," it is always called. Beginnings.

But the mendacious adults were right, of course. The marriage grew impossible. That August, while Alice and Tim celebrated their first wedding anniversary, another batch of seniors went back to their old high school for the last year of official childhood. They could see them filing in the tiny red doors from their fourth-floor apartment half a mile away. Many of their own friends went away to college, which neither Tim nor Alice could afford to do, with either their money or their time, nor would they have been inclined to do it. One course at a time at a local community college was all she and her husband could manage. Alice had thought to be beyond schooling.
But more schooling certainly seemed de rigueur for everybody else.

Being left behind was the oddest feeling. Their friends had gasped in awe at the wedding and the baby; but now, only a year later, they had all changed their hairstyles and absorbed themselves in brochures, travel plans, financial aid, and buying or borrowing household things for their "dorms." It was as if they were all adults too, and had made decisions without consulting the married couple, without even thinking of them. The friends seemed to have made a decision which opened up the possibility of all future decisions to them, while Alice and Tim had made one which would confine them to one type of life forever, in the very place their friends were leaving. Of course, the friends were not fertile, and they did not love. They didn't have Hunter. Yet neither did they care anymore whether she had. They had things to do.

Alice and Tim still loved each other and still in general liked being married, but at eighteen, with a baby at home and both trying to work and even study part time, and no more audience to watch them play house, both soon enough found love and play far less absorbing than the prospect of life and the future, outlined for them as it might have been by their friends’ choices. Soon enough, how to get the future empty and available again became the problem. They both fell in the habit of going home separately to their parents’ houses to visit every Saturday. They tried to share the holidays equitably, maturely, with both sides of relations, and resented it.

Another year went by. The friends were now college sophomores. Hunter was two. They were nineteen. They did nothing but work. Contempt set in, and after its initial explosion and tears of fright and embarrassment – "divorce," one of them said – there followed a calmer kindness. It was like the trembling relief after illness. Frankly, the world was full of good-looking people whom they both very much wanted to meet. They admitted they had made a mistake, were nothing but ill-matched children. The baby would never know the difference, but they did not even think of that.

If they had been a little older, their breaking up might have been a horrible trauma, without kindness, and if they had been just a little older still, they might have gritted their teeth, loved anew, and stayed together, to become more interesting people than all their stupid friends still single at thirty-five because they "hadn’t found the right person," or "weren’t sure they were ready." But they lacked the strength. You may encourage no man to martyrdom except yourself, as Alice had read somewhere.

Alice’s handsome father, who ardently loved another woman besides his wife anyway, was right. He forbore to remind them of it. Alice and Tim divorced, with that fortunate, childish lack of ill will on either side. Tim stayed in the same town, working, paying child support, seeing Hunter all the time. Alice asked her parents, and her former mother-in-law, to watch the baby while she, with real pluck, put aside even part-time college (where no one was reading G.G. Coulton’s Medieval Panorama anyway – no one was reading the great Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings – 1950), and went out and got a job.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 6