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.