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

Pearls and Roses, Chapter 4

Pearls and Roses, chapter 3

And what was the place that had prompted all this furor? Not the cafe in France where an American party had gone awry, not the town where the party-goers had stayed, nor the abbey they had plodded around, nor the archives they had explored, a little. The cause and heartbeat of their furor lay not even in their own homes, for at home they could retreat from each other. It lay in their pasts, of course, but what a cliche to say so. Who can help having a past? No, it lay in their workplace. Strange places they are. You are just about as intimate and may be as outraged, there, as with your own family; maybe moreso, because with your family, love or at least familiarity smoothes many rough spots. You know you have not chosen them and yet there they are, forever, whenever you like. At work it is different. There they are, every day, looming large, knowing and doing as only you also do. It’s your job. You care enough to wring their necks sometimes. And yet when they, or you, move on, it is as if you had never known each other. "You had co-workers, not friends," – so writes the advice columnist to the woman who cannot understand why she is so alone in retirement.

This workplace, Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation, had its headquarters in a tony section of downtown Naperville, amid the dark boutiques and glassed-in jewelry stores showing one or two expensive Chinese vases beside the diamond solitaires in their windows. It was an odd workplace. The joint firm’s origins went back to only a few years before Alice began working there, back to one of the minor vacations that wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Boyd had taken during their retirement. Mr. Boyd was an amateur lover of architecture who had not pursued the profession partly because he had inherited his family’s clothing store, and partly because he liked his avocations being amateur. Mrs. Boyd, for her part, in retirement developed what had always been a minor avocation for archaeology. She liked the image of herself as a spry old lady in khaki shorts and string-tied hat, out in the desert, brushing sand off a new petroglyph. And she liked the work for its own sake. She took courses at the university’s extension center, and went on field trips with young people. When this fine old couple vacationed together, each had something to prove, and each secretly wondered why on earth the other didn’t climb down and give the everlasting subject a rest. They enjoyed life and each other immensely.

One summer day, in the midst of a driving tour of Mark Twain country, they walked about the decrepitude of what once must have been an elegant early nineteenth-century waterfront in a town on the Mississippi. They noticed moldings and windows, joints and woodgrains and jigsaw work on parapets. "If you ask me it’s as sophisticated as any little town in Europe would have been able to build," Frank said. "And all going to wrack and ruin. What a shame."

"Look at the quoins on that old building," Monique pointed. "You never see work like that anymore. What was it, the bank do you suppose?"
"Maybe the brothel." Frank was craning his neck up at the third floor. Monique giggled. After walking in silence some time he said, "You know, I’m damned if I don’t think there must be something we can do. Look at this. It’s an actual wooden sidewalk. Like in the movies."
"Yes? What do you mean, ‘do’? You mean sweep it?"
"No. Call attention to it somehow, show it on the news, preserve it."
"I’m sure local people know it’s here," she said.
"Not if they don’t care. I mean it doesn’t matter, if they don’t care."

A beat-up small car drove slowly, menacingly past. Monique began to notice that as charming as the old ruins were, they still constituted a half-living neighborhood that was not in good health now. There were boarded-up windows, and vacant lots strewn with garbage. There was a smell, not so much of fish, for that might have indicated an industry and life, but of rotten water. She suggested they hurry on, and think about everything at their nice hotel way up in the green bluffs of the state park.

There they talked over dinner. Frank had been revolving the subject in his mind. "What we want, I suppose," he said, "is to try to restore these places or to show how badly they’ve been neglected. Or both."
"But ... the property must belong to someone who obviously can’t make a buck restoring it. You said, if they don’t care .... The past is not to everyone’s taste," she prodded him.
"Oh, I don’t know. I saw quite a few ‘for sale’ signs around."
"Well, okay. We can’t buy all that."
"I know." He chewed silently.
"You know how it is in Chicago. They’re forever tearing down gorgeous old robber-baron mansions. The land is always more valuable than whatever old thing is on it. Look at that new Walgreens."

"I know. But that waterfront didn’t look like it was jumping with new growth. Who would care if we ...." He drifted off. "There must be dozens like it all over the country, too. Dozens, what am I saying? Scores, hundreds. Do you know that it’s the same distance between New York and Los Angeles as between London and Baghdad? We want to call attention to these places, without being ourselves ..." and he trailed off again.
"Without being ourselves experts in anything," Monique said. "And like you said, who’s going to care?" She bit her lip, feeling suddenly ashamed that she was not acting the supportive wife. It was so hard sometimes to judge what men wanted to hear.

"We could make a home movie about it," she offered. "I could show it at the club. Peggy is on the Historical Society board."
"True." They ate for a while in silence, while the sun sank in gold behind the black forested river bluffs.
"I wonder how historic sites get preserved," Frank began again. "I wonder how you get on the National Register of Historic Places. What kind of people decide that, what kind of people do the work."
She sipped her coffee. "Scientists, engineers, preservationists," she suggested. "Society ladies like Peggy." Monique did not consider herself a society lady.

"I suppose. Maybe you apply for grants or have people sign petitions or something."
"Well, why don’t we film these buildings, seriously? I could show it to Peggy. She might have ideas. It’s a start. And if nothing else, we’ll have a record of the site and a little souvenir of our trip. No harm done."
"I can’t imagine what Peggy would know how to do."
"Well, maybe Janet then. Janet lives right next door to the guy running for Congress."
"This is not his district. We’re not even in the same state."
"So, he’s bound to know the guy whose district this is. If he wins. There’s no law against using a telephone, is there? Look, all this was your idea. I’m just trying to be supportive. If you want to have a hand in somehow saving that old brothel, I’m all for it."

He smiled at her over his own coffee, seeming to return to himself. "You know," he said, "making a home movie may be the best idea of all. Remember that tenth-anniversary TV show a few years ago about the statues at Abu Simbel being cut off the rock face and moved so they wouldn’t be flooded? That was a great show."
"Yes, it was." We’re not the Egyptian government, she thought.
They gazed out the black window, closed off by the wilderness night, now, to any sight but their own reflection. "Well," she began. "Why couldn’t we start a foundation ... why couldn’t we found a film company to film these rundown places and show them on television like that? Kind of like glorified home movies. We could send people anywhere."

He stared. "I don’t know anything about TV. Really."
"We wouldn’t have to. Or anyway we could learn. But if we started a foundation I’ll bet we could hire, well, would you say five decent people who know about cameras and production and things?"
"Where do you hire people like that?"
"I don’t know! But if we can find five people who know how to make a good film of this waterfront, or of other projects like it, all we have to do is sell a film like that to television. People do it, you know, people who are no smarter than we are." This was one of Monique’s favorite expressions. She used to drum it into their children’s heads, and it had encouraged them to attempt things they were otherwise afraid to do. Now she drummed it into her grandchildren’s heads.

"But even that is no guarantee the place would then get fixed up afterward. That’s what I’d really like to see. Beyond home movies. That’s the point."
"It might be a start. The ripple in the pond – I mean the stone thrown in the pond. Any use of the media is so powerful. Speaking of TV, remember that show the other day about the women who started their own radio call-in show by just picking up the phone and calling Information to ask for the number of a radio station they could start with? And they called the station and got an appointment and were given air time, and now they have this radio show that’s broadcast all over the Midwest. And they’re absolute nobodies. Or were. Now they’re handling millions for charity, besides their own pay."
"Sure. It can be done. We don’t have to break into WGBH Boston immediately, you know. Maybe we never would. But why couldn’t we look into opening a film company?"
He leaned back in his chair. "You want to make a foundation to make a film company to make documentaries about ramshackle places in need of architectural help. Fixing up."
"That need historic preservation, yes. What do you think?"
"I think I don’t know my ass from my elbow in any of this," he laughed.
"Neither do I, but what are lawyers for? Let’s ask Chuck when we get back. Hasn’t he got a sister in Hollywood? Maybe she’ll know something."
"She’s a model."
"Well, anyway. There must be some way to get it done. That’s how these things start. Someday we’ll be writing our memoirs and dedicating them to Peggy because she encouraged our first crummy little 8 millimeter film, or whatever they are. Tell me no one would want to touch our money. There’s an interest group for everything. This could be great fun."
"That it could." They sat happily in silence. Their coffee was cold. Already she had named the company "M-Unique Productions" in her head, and pictured the building in a nice section of downtown Naperville, among the antique shops, where they could set up their offices.

"I like it," Frank said at last. "I like it very much. And we’ll make everything non-profit, too."
"All right. What’s the point of that?"
"No taxes. And we’d certainly be providing a public service to somebody, I would think. We’ll have a foundation to pick what projects we want to film, and we’ll start a film company to do the work."
"Wonderful," she smiled broadly. "Whom shall we hire?"
"I don’t know," Frank drummed his fingers on the table. "Come to think of it, I wonder how we’ll pay them."
She looked blank. "Through the profits of selling the films, I suppose. Or through the money we raise as a foundation anyway?"
"That’s the thing. There are rules about that. Non-profit corporations can’t have profits."
"How bizarre."
"Yes, but those are the rules. I don’t know how it’s done but I know there are rules. We’ll ask Chuck, he’ll know. Hospitals do it all the time. They are non-profit, but they must have to pay their employees. I know that’s why they give you practically everything in the room except the water in the toilet bowl when you’re discharged, because they’re non-profit and they have to show they’ve spent all their money on supplies. I suppose that includes salaries."

"I’m sure it can be done," Monique said, faltering after a little quiet.
"Oh, heavens, yes." He waved his hand. "This is very exciting. If only we had some champagne," and Monique relaxed and smiled happily. "Shall we make it official?" he asked.
"Why not? But no champagne. We’d better be careful of our money, now that we’re film producers and public servants and all."
"And artistes." He raised his nearly empty coffee cup to hers. "Well. To our new career," he pledged, "and to us."
"To us," Monique repeated. They clinked their cups together nicely, with a low, scratchy, porcelain heaviness.

This was 1978, which explains why Monique Boyd spoke of home movies but not home videos, and why Frank was still impressed by the Egyptian government’s rescuing the ancient colossal statues at Abu Simbel, which would have been drowned by the diversion of the Nile and the opening of the Aswan Dam more than ten years before. Alice was fifteen in 1978, so idiotically well-read that she had already been able to write in her diary – long past, on the occasion of her eleventh birthday – that she looked forward to her body’s development, to a baby someday "suckling at rounded bosom." She had already read things like The Song of Hiawatha, and would shortly struggle through Jane Eyre. Her sensibilities could not even be called Victorian, if Victorian is meant to imply stiff or prudish. They were pre-Victorian. She belonged in Austen. She was Lydia. At fifteen, she had a boyfriend. At seventeen, in 1980, while Frank and Monique’s company was really getting underway, she went even further than that.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 5

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A serendipitous quote

"I have a reason for telling the story now. You know what people are saying in all parts of the world, that the present system of government deserves to die. Because some people have easier lives than others and a larger share of worldly goods, they want everything changed. To achieve complete equality -- or what they hope will prove equality -- they are willing to forego the personal freedom we have won so slowly and painfully over the ages, the right to think and say and do what we please. They are willing to bring back the tyranny of absolute government. Ah, if they only knew! If they could look back into the past and see for themselves what mankind has emerged from!"

Thomas Costain, Below the Salt (Doubleday, 1957)

Monday, September 22, 2008

No, they can't "marry"

Luncheon in Fur, Meret Oppenheim, 1936. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Working at a wine shop is not quite like being a bartender, but one does hear stories, and one does get a chance to observe human nature. What I notice more than anything else in my customers across the counter, it seems, are the love troubles of an aging Baby Boom generation. To be fair, I do see them at a certain time of the day, and when they are soaking up a certain kind of influence on their emotions and garrulity. One man, a widower nearing sixty, is frankly "trying to meet women," but he's an anomaly. More often, I see women coming in, in groups of friends, not necessarily admitting that they are looking to meet men but certainly free, dressed to show it, -- and wounded. Divorce, not death, is where they come from.

Among these Boomer women I've seen more drawn faces, stiffly composed blonde hair, and half-exposed, shrunken breasts than I ever cared to. I look at them and, in my mind's eye, I strip away the makeup and wash the hair gray. The resulting image is often that of an instant seventy-year-old. This makes the words coming out of their mouths still more jarring. "My boyfriend," "then he asked me out," "we broke up," sound odd and artificial. "My grandchildren" would be more dignified, and would make these women sound, and probably be, more happy.

I don't require them to go home and knit booties and be old. We get our share of plump, or wizened, graying grandmothers in the store, who look every day of their age and who are not necessarily therefore better people or more pleasant customers than the anxious, bejeweled blondes. But the anxious, bejeweled blondes have an insurmountable problem which the forthright grandmothers don't seek: they cannot hold a candle to young women, as far as looks, sheer scrumptiousness, are concerned. They simply can't. And yet, with the hair and the decolletage and the makeup, they are obviously choosing to compete for men's attention on fields of battle where the young must win. There is a whole opera about this, isn't there? At the end of Der Rosenkavalier, young Octavian is paired with young and lovely Sophie, exactly as his former mistress, the nobly fascinating -- and aging -- Marschallin knew he would be.

All this has led me to think about marriage, and especially about what our society is now compelled to call "gay marriage." Of course it's an absurdity, but unfortunately the very bored and childish people who control large chunks of our public discourse have plunged the absurdity into everyone's lives, and so require rebuttals where, properly, they should not even deserve the dignity of a hearing. (My grandmother would spin ....) No, homosexual men and homosexual women cannot "marry" each other, and the reason why parades before me in the wine shop, in the faces and bodies of these rejected, mature women.

I've come to the conclusion that marriage, at its crudest and most fundamental, is a promise from a man to a woman and to society that he will stay with this woman even as she grows older and un-nubile. Infertile. "While girls are growing up in neighboring fields" (I quote the nineteenth-century teen diarist Marie Bashkirtseff, who I think used to be rather popular in college Women's Lit courses). Oh, he'll grow old too, but not necessarily inevitably at the same pace and that's a fact.

Therefore a man cannot promise another man and society anything like a marriage vow, because men age at the same rate and because, by their choices, homosexual men show that there is no logic in their looking out into society at their opposite, the fleshly ideal of nubility who has vanished slowly and naturally from the home. A woman cannot promise another woman and society anything like it for much the same reasons. Women also age at the same rate, and -- by their choices -- they too show there is no logic in their being tempted away from respect for a sacred union, maybe decades on, by any personal concerns to effect anything on a stranger's nubility.

So homosexual partners are in no danger of creating, and then fraying, any bond that society has a stake in protecting. Society, the public sphere where endless fresh new cohorts of young fertile women are off-limits to aging but everlastingly fertile married men, because the men have given their word about it, can take no interest in love affairs or inheritance problems among homosexual partners. These partners can't "marry," any more than two nations can have a "peace treaty" who have never been at war, nor two companies "merge" where there is only one company. The conditions for a meaningful contract do not obtain.

If you look at pictures of gay Hollywood "weddings," you'll notice that there is something inchoate missing (not to put too fine a point on it) in the whole look and feel of the affair. What's missing, amid all the flashbulb laughter and white clothes, is risk -- the sense of risk that makes peace treaties and mergers good but scary things, and that makes a bride and groom on their wedding day feel not only excitement and joy but also, maybe even more so, fear and palpitations. This is It, people say. This is it. A gay "marriage" is not It. There's not that thing that the husband, especially, denies himself, sight unseen and decades into the future, that all husbands have always vowed to deny themselves as condition number one of marriage. The "married" gay, of either sex, is a promiseless fraud.

Of course there are many more noble attributes to marriage, and many more sophisticated reasons, not to say religious reasons, against "gay marriage" than what I've just put forth. Of course, most men love their wives (would collapse in a heap without her) and are not seriously chomping at the bit to get out. Most women love their husbands (ditto) and aren't chomping at any bits either, and of course a woman's vows to her husband are as important as his to her. There are reasons for each divorce apart from a man's rejecting a wife -- and when marriages fail, that is irrelevant anyway to what the institution is, just as the existence of war is irrelevant to what a peace treaty is.

And of course, talking of fertility and when it ends, some couples never have children and never want any. Of course there are always excellent men and women who choose to remain single. Some men and women meet and marry, or not, happily in middle or old age. (They might even meet at wine tastings.) Of course homosexual partners love and respect each other too. Of course some men do not only age, but rush up to and topple off a cliff of frailty that leaves a vibrant woman, to her shock, either a caretaker or alone. All moot points. The sacrament of Western marriage has been always, every day, up and doing something entirely different. The root of its dignity lies in the life of man and woman, who knowingly unite their different identities as individuals and appetites and fates as male and female, say Yes come what may before witnesses, and become miraculously one.

Advocates of "marriage" among homosexuals might argue with disgust that if I think it can't be done, then my contentions are already hollow, and they do no harm to me in merely acting through the impossible. That's a straw man. Their very eagerness to pursue the charade shows the value they put on attacking the truth of what marriage is, for who knows what interior reasons, really. Possibly it is boredom, "shocking the monkey," the fact that the left's political work is done and something like this fills the vacuum. Possibly it is just the enjoyment of titillation, and that goes for all of us. I don't notice the outraged public boycotting People magazine when it puts pictures from a gay "wedding" on its cover. I looked at the pictures, too.

But we come back inevitably to the man, the husband who doesn't age. Not like a woman does -- not like his wife. At some point we women pass a barrier, and we see that what unites the women on the other side is just that they are young. What keeps them young is something that men share, too, for decades. My widower friend of sixty presumes to show an interest in women in their thirties, and is disappointed when they look on him as a father figure. "That's not what I want," he complains. But there's hope for him. When he dates a woman in her fifties, who knows? -- he may adore her. Or he may be settling and they both may know it. Whereas for her, the situation could not possibly be reversed. Marriage knows that, and marriage, ideally, protected her.

Still have doubts? Your best friend met the love of her life at fifty, at sixty -- or, European men have always been more interested in ripe, older women? Or, what about Compassion, and insurance problems?

Since Hollywood especially loves gay marriage, let's finish with a scene that they do so well. You're watching a movie where the hero is trying to rescue his wife. Let's say you're watching Die Hard 2. Silly, to be sure. You missed it back in the '90s because you were busy having babies and avoided gory films regardless. But you're watching. It's almost the end and John McClane is desperately trying to convince the helicopter pilot to fly down in front of the jumbo jet and block its escape. The bad guys are getting away and somehow he thinks that if he can stop them, the other plane circling overhead with his wife on board will be able to land safely elsewhere in the airport. (Okay, the scriptwriters didn't think this one through.)

He's a husband. He's pale and dry mouthed and past tears, and exhausted and bloodied. He can't convince the pilot to do as he asks. A flight number is announced over the radio. "That's my wife's plane," he pleads. "My wife is on that plane."

Now imagine Ellen deGeneres is sitting next to him. She's pale and past tears, too. "So is mine," she says.

He turns to her.

What does he do? Why?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Why are there liberals?

Of course, liberals will be appalled and offended at the question. One may as well ask, they will say, why are there trees or clouds or people. And why are there conservatives? But their genuflections before the child-king do, ah, render them culpable to a little friendly curiosity.

Call me a slow learner, but I have only just in the last week listened to Rush Limbaugh's radio show for the first time, Rush ("talent on loan from God") who has been on the air for who knows how many years. Though repetitive, it is great fun, even downright addictive. But I can't listen to it at work because I suspect it would drive customers away. The people who buy wine would probably tend not to want to hear Rush eviscerating the Messiah, Lord Obama, on entering their quiet and good-smelling domain. And therein lies a tale.

Rush likes to try to explain liberals, as do other media figures of his stamp -- Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism, or most of the fun people contributing to the site Townhall.com for example --
in a variety of ways. I've been collecting "tropes" on the subject. One of the latest, from Thomas Sowell, suggests that liberals tend to be sheltered and petted souls, celebrities, highly paid journalists, federal judges, big important professors, "or what have you," who have never matured and lived a life of painful trade-offs and disappointments out in the real world. Year to year survival is not their concern, so they can devote themselves to Obama-esque abstractions which they fancy should make life better, more just, for the little people who they dimly realize are busy, not with abstractions, but with surviving. They rarely meet anyone unlike themselves, but they tend to live in big, bustling urban areas and this fosters within them the illusion that they are at the vital center of things.

That's one of the friendlier tropes. A less kind one is that liberals, especially Obama, are all frankly socialists or Marxists who know exactly what they are about, are outraged by "inequality," and desire the personal power to redeem this flawed world by recreating the United States as another Cuba, living out the Marxist abstractions of From Each According to his Ability, To Each According to his Need, and Jail for Those who Disagree or would like to keep their own Money or manage their own Property. Or not be taxed to death. ...or they may just want power.

A third trope is that liberals, especially intellectuals and artists, despise American "exceptionalism," for whatever reasons shuddering at the possibility that the country's founding on individual freedoms protected by a government deriving its authority from the consent of the governed, has indeed fostered the nation's peace and well being. Liberal intellectuals would much rather feel, according to this trope, that any nation's well-being comes from obedience to brilliant Them.

Want more? Yet another explanation for Why Liberals Exist -- moving down the ladder from celebrities and academics -- is simply that the core constituencies believe as they are told. Burt Prelutsky, one of the fun people contributing to TownHall, said this. Poorer blacks, he thinks, accept that government must solve their problems and create a better world (with other people's tax money) because they've been told for decades that this is so. Middle class blacks accept it because their ministers tell them to. Jews accept the idea of the regulatory nurse-state "helping" people because this sounds like social justice, and social justice is most religious Jews' substitute for Judaism; for non-religious Jews, social justice, a la the Democratic party, is religion.

These are all interesting ideas -- tropes, what an intellectual word -- but they don't necessarily fit the nice liberals who enter the wine shop, for the sake of whose feelings I hit the "Mute" button while I'm listening to Rush. I've heard them. Nice people. They say, smiling:

Oh ... we're not the type to listen to that station. Without going crazy ....
Oh, I can't wait to listen to the speeches tonight. The governor of a five-and-dime state, who will be president when a seventy-two year old, cancer-ridden ....
Heh ... we just got back from Alaska. Gas there is the most expensive in the country. She didn't do much about that, did she, while she was 'reforming'....
...and if you're a conservative, and always setting yourself up as better than other people, how do you have a pregnant teen daughter? Shouldn't your values have affected your family in some way?

These are nice, ordinary Americans who are neither isolated intellectuals nor movie stars nor highly paid smug journalists nor flat-out Marxists. They are not necessarily blacks or Jews. One was a woman. They are of all age ranges. Their loathing for Sarah Palin is visceral. Equally so is their continuing excitement, turning fierce now that he seems to be in trouble in the polls, about Obama. A few weeks before Palin arrived on the scene, one young white man bought a bottle of champagne the morning that the Senator was officially to cinch the nomination at the Democratic national convention. "Me and my friends have been waiting a long time for this," he said. He couldn't possibly have explained what. It's visceral.

No, none of the above proffered explanations for "why there are liberals" fit them. They, of course, would say Well of course we're liberals. Decent people are.

So I've spent some time thinking about what I can add to the collection of ideas, based on what I see and hear. Great big important explanations stretching back toward history or philosophy or economics don't seem to fit my nice customers either. Choosing one of two basic beliefs about human nature -- either that it can change and improve through enlightenment and forward thinking, or that it remains forever flawed and in need of guidance by tradition and experience -- is not something they have consciously done. Apparently no community college professor ever startled them at nineteen with the pronouncement "You can have either freedom or equality, you can't have both," prompting them to choose their political affiliations accordingly. They don't see themselves as bought off by Franklin Roosevelt, who created the American welfare (more taxes) state in the 1930s, (says Rush) so as to permanently bind the American people to the Democratic party as clients rather than as free citizens responsible for themselves. They don't fret about being classic liberals ("hooray for the free market") or Progressives ("you must reduce your carbon footprint for the good of all, and if you don't we'll make it a law").

The good people who come into my wine shop are simply emotional liberals. They are as rock-ribbed Americans as "the conservatives." They work hard, are good neighbors, watch football, pay their taxes, eat and sleep and read, love their families, and aren't home studying Saul Alinsky every night. I've come to the conclusion that what liberalism gives them, as they look at the flawed world where Ability and Need go begging, is a feeling of interior power -- grace, perhaps -- a confidence that they understand the wicked, slimy workings of the great, even if they can't always do very much about them right now. It's a satisfying bolt of psychic electricity connecting them with divine truth and with a future when the truth shall be vindicated and all flaws corrected. It's a jolt connecting them with each other now.

This is why they relish emotional bumps, inconsistencies, hypocrisies, or even surprises of circumstance -- the conservative woman's pregnant, unwed teen daughter! -- anywhere near political candidates or ideas that are illiberal. To them, politics is an emotional radar tuned to eternal abstractions, eternal problems, injustice and greed, the fact that there are rich people. If you are unlike them, if you lack the radar or interpret its reports in some other way, then you may as well be among the slimy great. If you are going to muck about in concreteness and dull old daily life and personal choices and such, then they'll pay you back in kind: every circumstance of your life is therefore a potential joke and a corruption. Liberals, on the other hand, even a candidate like Obama, can attend the church that he did for twenty years and be excused. His emotional commitment to an abstract Justice, to "Hope" and redemptive "Change," is what matters. He's got the radar. He lights up the radar. We won't talk about taxes.

Coming to the profound conclusion that liberals are emotional, unreasonable, sounds too trite for words. Any sensible liberal is going to say the same of conservatives. Both sides use the same language and make the same complaints about the other and about themselves. They're divisive. They're not rational. We don't do a good job telling our story. The mainstream media are biased.

But listening to Rush is quite a lesson, if nothing else in exposure to the just plain old bold statements of a man who comes to similar conclusions, but without apology. There is a corollary to the conclusion about liberal emotionalism, which I can just hear him whispering in a marvelous portentous rumble: their world view is not benign. And yes, both sides could say this of each other, especially liberals since they've mastered the smear that conservatives are wealthy and heartless. But in their case, whether they are sheltered movie stars or my nice wine shop customers, it's true. Their worldview is not benign, and this is a startling conclusion to come to about fellow 'Mericans. A future filled with hope and change, when all injustice and inequality will be wiped away by the imposition of wealth redistribution schemes (taxes) that have been historically proved to impoverish everyone just for a start, is not a benign future.

It's odd. Throughout the modern era liberals were quite right to ask the good questions they did: why must kings always govern, or why should men of property, only, vote. But I suspect their basic problem now is that logically there is nothing much of their fundamental work left to do. You can't extend the vote to children (probably); certainly you can make something like gay marriage or abortion pet issues, but that neither reduces hereditary privileges nor shrinks government's reach into life or the market, nor reflects the people's wishes. Those were classic liberalism's jobs. There is nothing left to liberal politics but emotion and the search for power, somewhere. And, for all that electric jolt of interior grace running through them and connecting them intuitively with a perfected future, I don't think my wine shop customers would be any too thrilled if really aggressive wealth redistribution schemes kicked in now, pulling a lot of tax money out of their pockets now, even if it was all for the sake of hope and change. I don't think they'd realize what was going on. To them, untoward events are by definition caused by the slimy great -- by power, by inequality, by conservatives. My high school-age children have been taught that conservatives are the ones who want a powerful government to control more of everything.

"Moral guardians of the permanent revolutionary attitude." In his book Citizens Simon Schama defined the French Revolution's Jacobins, the left-est of the left, thus. My wine shop customers aren't Jacobins, nor are the bloggers out there displaying Obama's blue-and-red "Hope" portrait as a badge of moral superiority, but anyway it must be satisfying to have a version of that attitude always simmering, always ready to ladle out. They're very proud. (How many conservatives would walk into a Starbucks -- or a wine shop -- hear National Public Radio, and then relieve themselves of some comment to the effect that of course they don't listen to that?) Obama's simple embodiment of their pride in understanding injustice is what has deified him. Important political commentators who think that the Democratic party has only been able to win elections by becoming centrist had better re-think that analysis.

I'm not sure what would ever change their attitudes. Being mugged, perhaps, as the old joke goes. Not that I require them to change. But it must be difficult for them to see a future of perfect human behavior and righted injustices forever spiraling out of reach, every time their fellow citizens vote improperly. Yesterday an opinion column in the Chicago Tribune demanded that, in these days of financial worry, the government take steps to limit greed (Jim Wallis, "It's the Morality, Sinner," September 19, 2008). Last night someone in the wine shop said that we shouldn't buy advertising on WLS radio, because the demographic there makes no sense for us to reach. "It's a very conservative, right-wing station -- the kind of people who listen to Rush Limbaugh." And he rolled his eyes and gestured that it would be of course distasteful to elaborate.

I just said "Oh really?" because I couldn't think of a quick riposte that would tie up an equal number of ignorant assumptions, unspoken insults, and self-congratulation as that statement did. What's a clever and accepted way, a trope, to dismiss left-wing liberals based on the talk show hosts they like and the beverages they may not? And yet, he's got a point, the very point I began with, an emotional point. I hit the Mute button on Rush myself, when I'm there. Why? I spare their emotions. It's only disturbing -- revealing? -- that the emotion involved, among these nice liberal caring people, is so like hate.