Warning: this is a philosophical, and deeply weird, post. If I’m lucky, it will go unnoticed in the holiday rush and I won’t have to answer any difficult questions; if not, I can just say that the end of the year has always been the time when I am most prone to consider deep and philosophical thoughts. (Of course, that is patently untrue; deep thoughts, ones about the meaning of life or the passage of time or the inexorable approach of death, come to me at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m watching repeats of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or when I’m ironing a shirt.) At any rate, the thought I’m about to articulate in this post is a doozy, even for me, so you might want to put on some heavy waders, because we’re about to plunge into some fairly deep shit.
First, a little background. Some months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC’s fantastic radio show In Our Time that focused on zero. Full disclosure here: I have not really considered mathematics seriously in any capacity since, well, since ever. It has always been a tool for me, something that I have to do in order to cut a recipe in half, average students’ grades, or create a grading system with weighted assignments. So why I listened to this podcast, other than simple curiosity, is a bit of a mystery. But listen to it I did, and I have to admit it fascinated me. I learned all sorts of things about zero: when it was invented and who invented it and when it came into general use in the Western World. I mean, to start with, I didn’t realize zero actually had to be discovered; I always thought it just appeared, like the rest of the numbers, with all of its properties neatly attached to it. But apparently zero was invented, or discovered, by the ancient Babylonians, who needed it to keep track of tax records, as a place-keeper along with numbers that were set out in rows for easy and quick addition and subtraction.
You can listen to the podcast to find out more about the number zero, or you can read a book I just finished, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, which provides a thoroughly understandable overview of the subject. I find it all interesting, intriguing even, but what got me really thinking was how useful zero is without actually being anything. Calculus and physics, for example (not that I know anything about them) are apparently impossible without a concept of zero. The ancient Greeks and early Christians were averse to considering zero, being terrified of the idea of nothingness; Babylonian and Indian culture had no problem dealing with the idea of a void, so they ran with the idea of zero. It would take the Western world until the middle of the Renaissance to really begin to experiment with the concept of zero, and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions simply couldn’t begin until zero became accepted as a legitimate number.
For the first time in my life, I could see that zero is really, really important. And here’s the interesting thing about zero: it means nothing–literally. It is nothing. But without the idea of it, things just don’t work right. We can’t achieve a level of mathematical knowledge that allows us to have computers, space travel, medical breakthroughs–almost anything we associate with the kind of lives we live today. Zero, while being nothing, is a critical idea around which the entire universe as we encounter it seems to hang.
So I began to think about this, and how intriguing it is that the our concept of the universe depends on something that isn’t there. Maybe my age is showing–I went to graduate school during the heydey of deconstructive criticism, after all–but I find this to be a really satisfying conundrum. Zero is nothing. Yet it is in fact incredibly important, and without a concept of it, we can’t really understand anything beyond elementary mathematics; without it, we can only make fairly simple and elementary natural observations. In short, the nature of zero is a puzzle, and it’s so contradictory that I find it pleasant and satisfying to consider it.
But thinking can be dangerous, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands and allow your mind to wander. Thinking about zero in this way led me to another idea, one that is heretical but at the same really intriguing, namely, what if the concept of God is analagous to the concept of zero? In other words, what if having God as a kind of moral placekeeper is more important than having God as a real entity? God, in this scenario, would be nothing–an evanescent, empty idea–but the concept of God would be all-important. Without this concept of God as simple place-holder, nothing works as it should. The idea of empathy, of ethics, of morals, of duty, or of simply “doing the right thing for the right reason,” these things are easily jettisoned without a belief in or a sense of a higher being. The concept of God as a placekeeper, though–that could be just as useful, and perhaps less prone to corruption and deviance, as the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful divinity.
Consider: God is zero. It seems like nothing, but without this zero, the entire trajectory of human existence simply doesn’t work right. Belief in God would then represent not a belief in a traditional deity with superhuman powers, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of God, which in turn grounds human experience in a meaningful way. I think Seife comes close to saying something like this early in his book when he writes: “Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity’s view of the universe–and of God” (p 3). My theory is similar but not exactly identical to Seife’s, however. Rather than suggest that our concept of God was shaped by our view of zero, I’m arguing that zero and God could, with a little bit of imagination, occupy the same location in their respective theoretical frameworks.
Ultimately this theory is important only to those people who, like me, struggle with a belief in God. It’s easier for me to think of God as a function or a place than as an omnipotent Being. But I think my theory might be fun for anyone to think about , even those with a strong traditional faith. It turns traditional religious ideas upside down, which, after all, is always fun.
At any rate, I’ve thought about this idea long enough to cause me to change my behavior in a real, and hopfully, a positive way. I’ve actually signed up for a college algebra class at the local community college this coming semester. That in itself is nothing short of a veritable Act of God, which I owe to a belief in the power of zero.
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.
Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.
The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.
The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.
And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.
Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.
I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.
My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.
I have been writing much less frequently, for the simple reason that I find I have nothing much to say, perhaps because it’s been a busy summer filled with outdoor activities and a new puppy, or because I’ve been in reading rather than writing mode. I used to push myself to write here in order to present material, as a kind of gift, to my readers. That was before I realized that my readers are ephemeral, ghost-like entities who may or may not exist in the real world. Since that realization, I’ve not only given up on gift-giving of this sort, but also actively discouraged (if you can count de-linking this blog from Facebook as discouragement, which I do) readers from finding The Tabard Inn. I did this originally in a fit of pique, but now I believe that it was a healthy thing to do, and the sum total of this paragraph is this: if you have somehow found this blog and are reading it now, you are one of the few, the special–not to mention the exceedingly strange–people who actually read what I write. So thank you for that. I think.
Anyway, I have something to say this morning, which explains this post. Having seen an advertisement for Mona Awad’s new novel All’s Well (Simon and Schuster), I decided to read it, and even convinced a friend (thanks, Anne!) to read it as well. And now I’m moved to write about it, not because it’s good, but because I hate it.
Fair warning: the book may indeed be very good, so don’t look upon this as a bad review. After fifty-odd years of reading critically, after a career in teaching literature at the college level, after immersing myself in the world of books and reading for my entire life, I find I no longer have any confidence in my own judgments on literary works. I mean, I know that I personally think Tintern Abbey is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever written, just as I know that I personally love pretty much any book by Dickens or any Bronte (but not Anthony Trollope, who can sometimes be a huge arschloch)–but I don’t know if that constitutes great literature, or something that other people will enjoy or find value in. I seem to be entering a period of extreme intellectual solipsism, which is worrisome, yet not too worrisome considering all the crap that’s going down in the world at this point in time.
So, to continue, I hated All’s Well for several reasons. First, and most intensely, because Awad does what I have tried to do in the two novels I’ve written: identified a literary subtext and play a textual game of cat-and-mouse with it as I develop the characters, setting, and plot. For Effie Marten, it was of course Jane Eyre; for Betony Lodge, it was Far From the Madding Crowd, or perhaps The Woodlanders, or any of several Thomas Hardy novels (other than Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure–I know enough to leave those two novels alone). Seeing someone else do what I’ve tried to do with uneven success sets my teeth on edge, which may not be charitable of me. To be honest, I don’t think Awad was any more successful than I was, and maybe that’s the problem.
It bothers me, too, that Awad chose a Shakespeare play (or really two, perhaps even more) as a subtext, not because Shakespeare is inviolable or holy, but because she spins her novel out of the most pedestrian, superficial reading of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. I have long held the opinion that most Shakespeare plays are monumentally misunderstood by modern audiences, a fact that is exacerbated and perhaps even caused by the fact that the plays are by and large mis-titled. The Merchant of Venice, for example, is not about the Merchant Antonio–it’s more about Shylock, or even Portia, than it is about Antonio. Is Othello about Othello or about Iago? Julius Caesar seems to focus much more on Brutus than it does on Caesar, who is killed fairly early in the play. As for the comedies, the titles are simply throwaway phrases designed to get attention.
When I used to teach Shakespeare, I would tell my students that the plays we studied could be boiled down to one word. This may or may not be true, but it is a good way to get students into reading and understanding a Shakespeare play. I’ll give a few examples below, but it’s important to realize that there is no one “right” word to describe a play. You can use this method like a tool–something like a slide rule or a kaleidoscope to lay over each play, dial up a word suggested by the play, and get to work interpreting it.
Much Ado About Nothing: Interpretation
The Merchant of Venice: Gambling
Romeo and Juliet: Obedience
Whether this method works or not isn’t the issue here. What matters to me with respect to Awad’s novel is that she picks the limpest, flimsiest interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. Granted, it is a problematic play (though I disagree with the tendency to call it a “Problem Play,” as if, like an unruly child, this label can explain everything and short-circuit any attempt to make sense of it). The whole plot, in which the heroine Helena falls in love with the idiotic but presumably handsome Bertram, who rejects her until the last line of the play, is pretty distasteful and downright stupid. But that, I would argue, is not the point of the play. Rather, I believe the play is about how Helena empowers herself in a patriarchal system, ending up in a far more powerful position by using the very tools of patriarchy to do so, while also helping other women “beat” patriarchy at its own game on the way. Granted, this limited victory is nowhere near as satisfying as it would have been had Helena smashed patriarchy to smithereens and performed a wild dance upon its writhing body parts, but that kind of action was simply not possible in the world depicted by Shakespeare. Helena, I’d argue, did the best she could in the world she found herself in.
So, to get back to Awad’s novel, my biggest problem with the novel is that it rests on a sophomoric interpretation of the play. And so, what I thought would be a witty and erudite use of All’s Well that Ends Well became a kind of albatross that made me wince while reading the book. In other words, I thought I might be getting Shakespeare ReTold (a really fine set of retellings of five plays produced by the BBC), but instead I got a mashup of Slings and Arrows plus “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It felt cobbled together, and, frankly, kind of pointless. In the end, Awad uses a kind of trick to grab her readers’ attention, then spins off into a tale that is full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.
That, however, seems to be how I see a great deal of contemporary literature these days, full of sturm und drang but ultimately useless in my trek through life. As I said above, I don’t have the confidence or the desire to argue that my approach is the correct one–rather, I question my own judgment, wondering whether I’m the only one who feels this way. And so, rather than push my own view of this novel, I’m satsified to register my own objections to it here, acting like King Midas’s barber, who whispered that his employer had donkey ears into a hole in the ground just because he had to tell someone his grand secret.
Donkey ears? That would be A Midsummer’s Night Dream, wouldn’t it?
For the past few weeks, I’ve been ambivalent about posting on my blog. I’m tired of serious topics, tired of politics–tired, it seems, of just about everything. I’m not interested in adding to any online conversations, in garnering more hits, in making this blog anything but a personal record of thoughts and ideas that should interest no one so much as myself. That, it seems to me, is a good enough reason to stop writing completely.
And yet here I am, writing a blog on a topic of marginal interest to 99.9% of humanity. In a way, it’s just like the old days, when I routinely held classes on Victorian literature at the rural community college where I taught. Perhaps the best, indeed the only reason, for me to write anything at this point is simply because it interests me, on the off-chance that it might actually interest one or two other readers in the vast cultural repository that is the blogosphere. We can go with that, anyway. So, today I’m posting about a fascinating (but utterly trivial) discovery I made about an almost forgotten Broadway musical that, in my opinion, deserved a lot more attention than it ever received.
Last week, I happened to listen to one of my favorite radio shows: “Footlight Parade” with Bill Rudman. I like Broadway musicals, but I have a decided preference for pre-1970s Broadway, and Rudman often spends time on the oldies. The episode I listened to was “Classical Goes Broadway,” and I found it very enjoyable. Better yet, it led me to explore one Broadway musical in particular, a klunker (98 performances) produced in 1961 that was based on Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, called The Happiest Girl in the World.
I’m interested in any adaptation of Lysistrata, because I’ve just finished reading it as part of my university re-dux syllabus. Let me pause here to say that the original play is well worth reading: it’s about the women of Athens protesting their city’s endless war with Sparta by withholding sex from their husbands. In an interesting side plot which gets much less attention than Lysistrata’s plan to end the war, all the old women of the city take over the treasury and barricade themselves in, freezing war expenditures. Indeed, their actions have as much to do with Lysistrata (the heroine) achieving peace as the young women’s sex boycott. Power rests not only with young women, but with old women, says Aristophanes–a lesson we would do well to remember.
Before hearing of The Happiest Girl, the only adaptation of Lysistrata I knew of was a strange episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mrs. Howell convinces Marianne and Ginger to join her in a revolt against male obnoxiousness by completely boycotting the company of the men and moving to the other side of the island; obviously, as always on the desert island, no mention of sex occurs. You can’t withhold what isn’t given in the first place, I guess.
Back to the topic at hand, I have to thank Bill Rudman for setting me on a search that has taken up several days of my rather sparsely filled schedule. It turns out that The Happiest Girl is well worth spending a bit of time on–not, perhaps, as much time as I have spent, but still worth some attention.
The wikipedia entry gives some bare details about the musical, and the soundtrack is available on Spotify. If you give it a listen, the first thing you’ll notice is that the music sounds familiar, because it is recycled from the opus of Jacques Offenbach, the composer who is responsible for the “Can-Can” as well as “Barcarolle.” This alone might put listeners off; we still follow the Romantic Era’s prejudice in favor of “original” work, despite the fact that there is, in fact, nothing that is truly original. Perhaps, with the penchant for Broadway “repackagings” such as Mamma Mia and Beautiful, audiences might be more understanding of recycled work these days, but at the same time, I’m not sure lack of originality had anything to do with The Happiest Girl‘s failure at the Box Office. As I’ll discuss below, Leonard Bernstein’s amazing treatment of Candidefared even worse than The Happiest Girl back in 1956, with almost a third fewer performances before it closed, and it contained some amazing music that Bernstein himself composed.
According to Jaime J. Weinman, in his excellent blog on The Happiest Girl, the musical was doomed to failure because it relied on well-known melodies that originated from operetta at a moment in time in which mock operetta was decisively passe. Weinman points to Candide‘s dismal 78 performances just a few years earlier. Sadly, artists can’t always time their work with their audience’s taste in mind, and many a fine work of art has gone unappreciated because popular tastes shifted unpredictably. (I’ve always put Shirley Jones into this category. Her massive talent, evident in Oklahoma and The Music Man, was worth so much more than what she became famous for–Mrs. Partridge of the 1970s television sitcom The Partridge Family–and all because popular taste had shifted from grand musicals to paltry rom-com schmaltz.)
The music alone from The Happiest Girl is worth a listen, but the lyrics are what make the soundtrack really intriguing. Written by Yip Harburg, the same lyricist who gave us songs from The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, as well as the songs “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in addition to one of my personal favorites, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” the songs burst with a clever but subtle humor. For example, in the song “The Glory that is Greece,” there’s a not-so-veiled reference to the classical penchant for bisexuality in Greek mythology. The song insists on the pre-eminence of Greece (more on this in a moment), and urges, as a few reasons why Greece should be celebrated, “Strike up the cymbals for the glory that is Greece/ The land of lute and lyre and the golden fleece/ We give you sex/ that’s ambi-dex/ we give you Oedipus for future wrecks.” Harburg is clearly having fun with his lyrics, the kind of fun that makes you listen twice (or more) to them.
Of course, no video recording of the musical exists, and so, to understand how it works, I took the trouble to look up the script and read it while listening to the soundtrack. Doing so showed me two things: first, Fred Saidy and Henry Myers, who wrote the book for The Happiest Girl in the World, departed freely from Aristophanes’s play, often shifting the perspective from events in Athens to those on Mount Olympus; and second, there are numerous topical references to contemporary events in the script, which are all obscured in the soundtrack. In other words, if you don’t read the script along with the soundtrack, you’re really missing the most important part. For example, one of the first things I noticed was that the musical shifts the names of the gods from their Greek forms to the Roman ones. I initially assumed this was an egregious mistake, or perhaps a dumbing-down of the original material, but now I am convinced that this was done on purpose. Using “Jupiter” instead of “Zeus,” for example, plays into more familiar usage (thanks to the naming of the planets in our solar system), while also forcing the audience to take the play as a less than accurate version of Aristophanes’s play, which in turn makes it more applicable to contemporary times.
As a case in point, take a look at the following statement by Pluto (who takes on the role of a kind of trickster, a Paradise-Lost-Satan antihero determined to mess with humanity and bring it down). Pluto masquerades as various people throughout the play, and early in the first act, he declares, “In my present alias as Chief of State of Athens, I’ve been waging awar against Sparta for the past twenty years. You have your hot wars and your cold wars. I’m conducting a sort of cool war. We’ve been doing very well. We’ve gained 80 yards in the past 12 months.” This is clearly a direct reference to the US-USSR Cold War that had been ongoing since the end of WWII. In addition, minutes later, Pluto must field the criticism of one of his advisors, who blames him for a military defeat by saying, “Your fault! Choosing a young, romantic General!” Pluto’s answer is, in 1961, poignant, referring as it does to the young JFK in his first months as president. Indeed, Pluto responds, “How dare you! Youth in high places is the latest thing. Rather chic, don’t you think?”
Reading the script also allowed me to see the way the play sets Greece up as an obvious analogy to the United States, an analogy that wasn’t clear to me from listening to the music alone, although it was there all along. Consider the following lines from “The Glory that Is Greece,” in which Pluto boasts that Greece is “the only great democracy on Earth,” continuing ,”Each backward nation is our protege and ward/ We bring them culture with our cultivated sword/ We set them free from tyranny/ And woe to the foe who refuses to be free.” Harburg is lampooning the aggressive stance of the United States in its drive to make the world safe for democracy.
Another song, “The Greek Marine” is a direct rip-off of the United States Marine Corps Hymn, using the melody and merely substituting “Macedonia” for “Montezuma.” The song paints the image of a worldwide empire swollen on its hubris: “From the shores of Macedonia/ We will set the whole world free./ We will blot out Babylonia/ And mop up Thermopylae.” In the conversation afterwards, Pluto deflects criticism, defending a Greek surprise attack on the enemy by explaining it was merely “preventive retaliation,” using the very language of gunboat diplomacy before it was invented.
In a departure from the original play, the action then shifts to Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods are in a panic over the war breaking out again, because they are tired of the nuisance of hearing the Greek women praying for peace. In an attempt to come up with a solution, Juno says, “I know! Inspire their wisest men to work on the peace problem — their statesmen and philosophers.” Jupiter’s answer is caustic: “Statesmen! Philosophers! They’ve ravaged the earth! Why even Diana [a junior goddess] here could do better.”
And Diana does do better: it turns out that she’s the origin of the idea of withholding sex from the warriors until they promise to end the war. A perpetual virgin herself, she has been watching human behavior from Mount Olympus and has discovered that even hale and hearty men turn into quivering jello when sex is denied them. She carefully avoids mentioning sex outright, however, and the song in which she introduces this idea, “Whatever That May Be,” is delightful in its innuendo and clever rhyme, containing vintage Yip Harburg lyrics to describe sex: The man “offers her/ The whole big world/ For something that/ The maid has got/ Why, each new tot / That is begat / Cannot be got/ without that that / Whatever that may be…”
And so the gods decide to send Diana down to earth to suggest her idea of a sex boycott to the Greek women, using Lysistrata as her spokeswoman. After which, all of Mount Olympus breaks out into a lively song, “Eureka!,” declaring victory: “We’ve got the girl to put the gods back on god’s earth again / Diana will solve the paradox / and save paradise.” Which, they add, is a darn good thing, since as Diana points out in the song; “We got to last until at least A.D.”
These clever lyrics continue in Pluto’s number “Vive la Virtue” which explains the whole virgin/whore complex: “This is man’s ambivalent taste/ Whatever is chased has got to be chaste/ Paradox is deep in his blood/ He’s after the rose but leaps at the bud.” However, the standout song of the musical has to be “Adrift on a Star,” set to the music of Offenbach’s “Barcarolle,” an understated love song that reminds us that the Harburg who created “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” also created the ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This peculiar but lovely song asks existential questions in the most delightful melody, even containing a bit of self-referentiality: “Is there a bright shining goal/ Ending this brief barcarolle?” These lyrics are certainly a reference to life in general, but also to Offenbach’s song itself, perhaps the most famous barcarolle ever composed. Indeed, according to Bill Rudman, “‘Adrift on a Star’ was Harburg’s personal favorite among all his lyrics,” which, given his prodigious output, is saying quite a lot.
There are continual surprises in The Happiest Girl in the World, one of which is a clear reference to the 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady (the film had not yet been made) in a line from the song “That’ll Be The Day,” in which the Greek men attest that they’ll never succumb to their women’s demands: They’ll take back their wives, they say, “as soon as the rain in Spain is pink champagne.” It seems Harburg is not above making pointed jabs to other, competing musicals.
One of the highlights of The Happiest Girl occurs when Pluto appears as Aristophanes, telling the women holding the citadel that he is actually writing a play about them, another touch of self-referentiality. The women, flattered by his attention, ask if they qualify for being in a play. His answer: “Eminently. You are touchy, immature, and unreasonable. Prime requisites for theatrical characters.” One wonders whether Pluto is talking about characters in plays or the actors who depict them. He goes further, however. A few lines later, he declares, “At the first sign of reasonable behavior by people in plays, the dramatic literature of the world would collapse.” The criticism is both sharp and funny, and perhaps true as well.
All in all, The Happiest Girl in the World, which I’d never heard of, occupied my time and attention for longer than I care to admit. Undoubtedly a box-office failure with a mere 98 performances, it proves interesting for its connection to ancient literature (sorry, Aristophanes), as well as for its clever use of language, its piercing wit, and its references to topical events. And, while I will never get back the four days I’ve spent immersing myself in it, I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on it at all.
When I was teaching college English courses, my best students, the ones who really paid attention and were hungry for knowledge and ideas, would often come up to me after a class and say something like, “You brought up the French Revolution today while we were talking about William Wordsworth. This morning, in my history class, Professor X also talked about it. And yesterday, in Sociology, Professor Y mentioned it, too. Did you guys get together and coordinate your lectures for this week?”
Of course, the answer was always “no.” Most professors I know barely have time to prepare their own lectures, much less coordinate them along the lines of a master plan for illustrating Western Civilization. It was hard, however, to get the students to believe this; they really thought that since we all brought up the same themes in our classes, often in the same week, we must have done it on purpose. But the truth was simple, and it wasn’t magic or even serendipity. The students were just more aware than they had been before, and allusions that had passed by them unnoticed in earlier days were now noteworthy.
I’ve experienced something of this phenomenon myself in recent days, while reading Colin Tudge’s book The Tree and listening to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies–two books, one on natural science and the other on philosophy, that would seem to have few if any common themes. In this case, the subject both authors touched on was nomenclature and definitions. Previously, I would have never noticed this coincidence, but now I find myself in the same position as my former students, hyper-aware of the fact that even seemingly unrelated subjects can have common themes.
There’s a good reason why I am experiencing what my students did; I am now myself a student, so it makes sense that I’d see things through their eyes. All of which leads me to my main idea for this post: University Redux, or returning to college in later life. It’s an idea that I believe might just improve the lives of many people at this very strange point in our lives.
I happened upon the concept in this way: after five or so years of retirement, I realized that I had lost the sense of my ikigai–my purpose in life. I am not exactly sure how that happened. When I took early retirement at the end of the school year in 2015, I had grand ideas of throwing myself into writing and research projects. But somehow I lost the thread of what I was doing, and even more frightening, why I was doing it. The political climate during the past few years certainly didn’t help matters, either. And so I began to question what it was that I actually had to offer the wide world. I began to realize that the answer was very little indeed.
Terrified at some level, I clutched at the things that made me happy: gardening, pets, reading. But there was no unifying thread between these various pursuits, and I began to feel that I was just a dilettante, perhaps even a hedonist, chasing after little pleasures in life. Hedonism is fine for some people, but I’m more of a stoic myself, and so the cognitive dissonance arising from this lifestyle was difficult for me to handle. And then, after drifting around for three or four years, I discovered a solution.
A little background information first: I have a Ph.D. in English, and my dissertation was on the representation of female insanity in Victorian novels. I’ve published a small number of articles, but as a community college professor, I did not have the kind of academic career that rewarded research. (I should say I tried to throw myself into academic research as a means of finding my ikigai, to no avail. I wrote about that experience here.) As a professor, I taught freshman English, as well as survey courses, at a small, rural community college. Most of my adult life revolved around the academic calendar, which as a retiree ususally left me feeling aimless, even bereft, when my old colleagues returned to campus in the fall, while I stayed at home or headed off on a trip.
A year and a half ago, however, I found my solution, and although I’ve had a few bumps in the road, I am generally satisfied with it. Armed with the knowledge that I was, intellectually at least, most fulfilled when I was a college student, I have simply sent myself back to college. Now, I don’t mean by this that I actually enrolled in a course of study at a university. I did, in fact, think about doing so, but it really made little sense. I don’t need another degree, certainly; besides, I live in an area that is too remote to attend classes. Yet I realized that if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was how to create a course. I also knew how to research. So, I convinced myself that living in the world of ideas, that cultivating the life of the mind, was a worthy pursuit in and of itself, and I gave myself permission to undertake my own course of study. I sent myself back to college without worrying how practical it was. I relied on my own knowledge and ability (Emerson would be proud!), as well as a certain degree of nosiness (“intellectual curiosity” is a nicer term), and I began to use my time in the pursuit of knowledge–knowing, of course, that any knowledge gained would have no value in the “real” world. It wouldn’t pay my rent, or gain me prestige, or produce anything remotely valuable in practical terms.
This last bit was the hardest part. I was raised to believe, as are most people in American society, that one must have practical skills, the proof of which is whether one can gain money by exercising them. If you study literature, you must be a teacher of some kind. If you play music, you must get paying gigs. If you like numbers, then you should consider engineering, accounting, or business. The rise of social media, where everyone is constantly sharing their successes (and academics are often the worst in this respect), makes it even more difficult to slip the bonds of materialism, to escape the all-consuming attention economy. My brainwashing by the economic and social order was very nearly complete: it was, in other words, quite hard for me to give myself permission to do something for the sake of the thing itself, with no ulterior motives. I had to give myself many stern lectures in an effort to recreate the mindset of my twenty-year-old naive self, saying for example that just reading Paradise Lost to know and understand it was enough; I didn’t have to parlay my reading and understanding into an article, a blog, or a work of fiction. (Full disclosure: having just written that, I will point out that I did indeed write a blog about Paradise Lost. You can’t win them all.) One additional but unplanned benefit of this odd program of study is that it fit in quite well with the year of Covid lockdown we’ve all experienced. Since I was already engaged in a purposeless aim, the enforced break in social life really didn’t affect me that much.
What does my course of study look like? Reading, mainly, although I know YouTube has many fine lectures to access. I read books on natural science (trying to fill a large gap produced during my first time at college), as well as history; this year, the topic has been the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. I study foreign languages on Duolingo (German, French, a bit of Spanish) while occasionally trying to read books in those languages. I have participated in a highly enjoyable two-person online reading group of The Iliad and The Odyssey (thanks, Anne!) Thanks to my recent discovery of Karl Popper, I foresee myself studying philosophy, perhaps beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I’ve taken FutureLearn classes on Ancient Rome, Coursera classes on The United States through Foreign Eyes, and several others. I’ve listened and re-listened to various In Our Time podcasts. I have taxed the local library with my requests for books from other network libraries, and I swear some of those books haven’t been checked out in a decade or more. To be honest, I don’t understand a good part of what I read, but this doesn’t bother me as it used to do the first time around. If I’ve learned one thing from serving on the local city council, it’s that you don’t have to understand everything you read, but you do have to read everything you’re given. Sometimes understanding comes much later, long after the book is returned–and that’s okay.
I’m not sure where this intellectual journey will lead, or if it will in fact lead anywhere. But I’m satisfied with it. I think I’ve chanced upon something important, something which society with its various pressures has very nearly strangled in me for the last thirty years: the unimpeded desire for knowledge, the childlike ability to search for answers just because, and the confidence to look for those answers freely, unattached to any hope of gain or prestige. It takes some getting used to, rather like a new diet or exercise program, but I’m pleased with the results at last, and I am enjoying my second dose of college life.
The last five months of Mom’s life were spent in an assisted living apartment just about two miles away from my house. I was able to visit her every day, despite the pandemic, because she was listed as a hospice patient—for which I was very grateful. Some days I would stay for an hour and a half, some days longer. A few times we would get caught up in an old movie and I would stay to watch it to the end, and three hours would go by before I’d get home. It didn’t matter to me, as I had nothing special to do, anyway. I knew the time with Mom would be short, and I was glad to spend what time I could with her, which is why I didn’t dare miss a single daily visit.
I’m not sure how much she was aware of, but I don’t think it was much. There were good days and better days, and a few bad ones. She was, however, always happy to see me when I came into her apartment, and I think she always remembered who I was. When I came to see her last Wednesday (I think), she was at lunch, and I went up to her small table to say hello in the dining room on my way to her apartment. She looked at me with recognition in her eyes, and said, “Oh, I was wondering where you were! I’ve been waiting for you!” It was a good day, and we were able to take a few minutes later that afternoon to call my sister. It was a short call, and at the end of it, my sister said, “Bye, I love you, Mom.” Mom replied, in a surprised voice, “You do?” It was quite funny, and we all laughed, Mom especially. It was always good to hear her laugh.
There were some wonderful people at her building who helped her. She was very popular with the aides, because by this point in her life, she was easy-going and pleasant, and completely gracious. She seemed to really connect with Peter, a handsome Jamaican man who somehow ended up in the Frozen North. Peter was caring and gentle. He’d come into her room and say, “How you doing today, Mama? Let’s go get some lunch!” Yesterday, in Mom’s last hours, he’d stroke her hair and say, “What you doing now, Mama?” I have the feeling that Mom, always flirtatious, reacted to his guileless charm. I know I did, and I don’t consider myself flirtatious at all. But Peter was extremely kind to me, bringing me food the last day from the kitchen, showing me how to wet Mom’s mouth with small sponges to alleviate her thirst, and just chatting with me about all sorts of things.
Alicia helped in the last days, too, despite being eight months pregnant. She broke into tears when we called her into the room to report that Mom had died. Michelle was amazing with Mom’s showers, and when I happened to be there during them, I would wait on the loveseat for Mom to get done, and Michelle would bring her out of the bathroom, a little shaky on her pegs, with her hair wet and clean, and dressed in her ridiculous flannel pajamas—at three in the afternoon. Michelle and I would get Mom settled into her chair, recline it, and cover her with a blanket. Then I’d bring her a cup of instant flavored coffee—I would always make her some when I came in to visit, just as I’d always feed her cat Prissy some canned catfood—and we’d watch a show about animals, which she loved (she once told me she liked it when they fought, which I found quite odd, but, oh well), or a classic movie (I had no idea she loved Spencer Tracy so much—she was absolutely bonkers about him), or Gunsmoke. She loved to point to Matt Dillon when he appeared on the screen and say, “There he is!” Again, I had no idea she even knew who Matt Dillon was, much less that she liked that show.
Theresa did Mom’s wash, and she was extremely kind and patient, especially during the last days, when there was a lot of wash to do. Tracy, another aide, also helped those last few days. She was new to the facility, but she learned the routines quickly, and she was very caring, not only to Mom, but to me as well. We had several conversations about children, and families, and aging parents.
The nurses were more than capable: Natalie, the Hospice nurse, had a matter-of-fact attitude that made dying seem normal, which I suppose it is, until it happens to someone you love. But she was also really sweet during her last visits, and I took comfort from them. Wendy was the nurse on the desk at American House; a slightly built young woman, she was capable and tough—and, surprisingly, ambidextrous, which I noticed soon after I first met her, when she was signing me in per the Covid protocols. She had a preference for her left hand, she told me, but used whichever one was more convenient.
All in all, while I wish Mom hadn’t been so far gone in her dementia when we moved her to be closer to me from her previous living situation, I really don’t think things could have ended up better, given the circumstances. Mom was happy, as far as I could tell. She had Prissy with her, who came out from under the bed when no one was there but Mom. Soon after Mom got settled into her apartment, I stopped knocking before I came in because I didn’t want to scare Prissy under the bed. My tactic worked, and I got to see her little smushed face for longer and longer intervals, until by now she is completely used to me and comes to me for petting and purring sessions. She seems even to have forgiven me for my part in shaving her to free her of the matting in her long fur. It’s true that my husband did the shaving, but I was the one who held her. We did an abysmal job, and she ended up looking like someone had tried to butcher her but changed their mind midway through, her fur was so uneven. But she was much more comfortable afterwards, and Mom didn’t mind our wretched handiwork.
Taking care of my mother in her last few months wasn’t really such a heroic task. It was, in fact, quite easy to go over there and sit with her and knit silly projects while we watched television. To be honest, I found it challenging to sustain a conversation with her, so I just sat and occasionally pointed out something that was happening on screen. To my surprise, I found that Mom loved watching slapstick movies, guffawing at Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers’ antics. She loved watching Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and she hated seeing monkeys, except for baby monkeys. Actually, she loved seeing any babies, whether they were baby animals in a program about the zoo, or human babies on a silly commercial. Perhaps this delight was displaced from her love for her great-grand-babies Henry and Daphne, whom she always loved to see on the Grandpad.
The last day wasn’t so easy, but it was just one day, and I was glad to be there for it, even though it was hard to witness. All in all, I feel like it was a privilege to have had my mother under my care for these last few months. I realized that my siblings were entrusting me, the youngest one, with an important task. I was determined to do it as well as I could, not only for Mom’s sake, but for them, since they were prevented from doing it by circumstances beyond all our control.
My mother died at the ripe old age of 90, something no one would have predicted in her wild and wooly youth. She left behind a passel of grown grandchildren, all of whom loved her in their own ways, and two great-grand children, as well as her own three children and their spouses. She also left behind a legacy of flamboyant hats, watered-down martinis with ice in them, and some really wonderful stories that will live long after her death.
The United States is a mess right now. Beset by a corrupt president and his corporate cronies, plagued by a — um — plague, Americans are experiencing an attack on democracy from within. So just how did we get to this point in history?
I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I’ve come up with a theory. Like many theories, it’s built on a certain amount of critical observation and a large degree of personal experience. Marry those things to each other, and you can often explain even the most puzzling enigmas. Here, then, is my stab at explaining how American society became so divisive that agreement on any political topic has become virtually impossible, leaving a vaccuum so large and so empty that corruption and the will to power can ensure political victory.
I maintain that this ideological binarism in the United States is caused by two things: prejudice (racism has, in many ways, always determined our political reality), and lack of critical thinking skills (how else could so many people fail to see Trump for what he really is and what he really represents?) Both of these problems result from poor education. For example, prejudice certainly exists in all societies, but the job of a proper education in a free society is to eradicate, or at least to combat, prejudice and flawed beliefs. Similarly, critical thinking skills, while amorphous and hard to define, can be acquired through years of education, whether by conducting experiements in chemistry lab or by explicating Shakespeare’s sonnets. It follows, then, that something must be radically wrong with our educational system for close to half of the population of the United States to be fooled into thinking that Donald Trump can actually be good for this country, much less for the world at large.
In short, there has always been a possibility that a monster like Trump would appear on the political scene. Education should have saved us from having to watch him for the last four years, and the last month in particular, as he tried to dismantle our democracy. Yet it didn’t. So the question we have to ask is this: Where does the failure in education lie?
The trendy answer would be that this failure is a feature, not a bug, in American education, which was always designed to mis-educate the population in order to make it more pliable, more willing to follow demogogues such as Trump. But I’m not satisfied with this answer. It’s too easy, and more important, it doesn’t help us get back on track by addressing the failure (if that’s even possible at this point). So I kept searching for an explanation.
I’ve come up with the following premises. First, the divisions in the country are caused by a lack of shared values–this much is clear. For nearly half the American people, Trump is the apotheosis of greedy egotism, a malignant narcissist who is willing to betray, even to destroy, his country in order to get what he wants, so that he can “win” at the system. For the other half, Trump is a breath of fresh air, a non-politician who was willing to stride into the morass of Washington in order to clean it up and set American business back on its feet. These two factions will never be able to agree–not on the subject of Trump, and very likely, not on any other subject of importance to Americans.
It follows that these two views are irreconcilable precisely because they reflect a dichotomy in values. Values are the intrinsic beliefs that an individual holds about what’s right and wrong; when those beliefs are shared by a large enough group, they become an ethical system. Ethics, the shared sense of right and wrong, seems to be important in a society; as we watch ours disintegrate, we can see that without a sense of ethics, society splinters into factions. Other countries teach ethics as a required subject in high school classes; in the United States, however, only philosophy majors in universities ever take classes on ethics. Most Americans, we might once have said, don’t need such classes, since they experience their ethics every day. If that ever was true, it certainly isn’t so any more.
Yet I would argue that Americans used to have an ethical belief system. We certainly didn’t live up to it, and it was flawed in many ways, but it did exist, and that’s very different from having no ethical system at all. It makes sense to postulate that some time back around the turn of the 21st century, ethics began to disappear from society. I’m not saying that people became unethical, but rather that ethics ceased to matter, and as it faded away, it ceased to exist as a kind of social glue that could hold Americans together.
I think I know how this happened, but be warned: my view is pretty far-fetched. Here goes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory poached upon the realm of philosophy, resulting in a collection of theories that insisted a literary text could be read in any number of ways, and that no single reading of a text was the authoritative one. This kind of reading and interpretation amounted to an attack on the authority of the writer and the dominant ideology that produced him or her, as it destabilized the way texts were written, read, and understood. I now see that just as the text became destabilized with this new way of reading, so did everything else. In other words, if an English professor could argue that Shakespeare didn’t belong in the literary canon any longer, that all texts are equally valid and valuable (I’ve argued this myself at times), the result is an attack not only on authority (which was the intention), but also on communality, by which I mean society’s shared sense of what it values, whether it’s Hamlet or Gilligan’s Island. This splintering of values was exacerbated by the advent of cable television and internet music sources; no one was watching or listening to the same things any more, and it became increasingly harder to find any shared ideological place to begin discussions. In other words, the flip side of diversity and multiplicity–noble goals in and of themselves–is a dark one, and now, forty years on, we are witnessing the social danger inherent in dismantling not only the canon, but any system of judgment to assess its contents as well.
Here’s a personal illustration. A couple of years ago, I taught a college Shakespeare class, and on a whim I asked my students to help me define characters from Coriolanus using Dungeons and Dragons character alignment patterns. It was the kind of exercise that would have been a smashing success in my earlier teaching career, the very thing that garnered me three teaching awards within five years. But this time it didn’t work. No one was watching the same television shows, reading the same books, or remembering the same historical events, and so there was no way to come up with good examples that worked for the entire class to illustrate character types. I began to see then that a splintered society might be freeing, but at what cost if we had ceased to be able to communicate effectively?
It’s not a huge leap to get from that Shakespeare class to the fragmentation of a political ideology that leaves, in the wreckage it’s produced, the door wide open to oligarchy, kleptocracy, and fascism. There are doubtless many things to blame, but surely one of them is the kind of socially irresponsible literary theory that we played around with back in the 1980s. I distinctly remember one theorist saying something to the effect that no one has ever been shot for being a deconstructionist, and while that may be true, it is not to say that deconstructionist theory, or any kind of theory that regards its work as mere play, is safe for the society it inhabits. Indeed, we may well be witnessing how very dangerous unprincipled theoretical play can turn out to be, even decades after it has held sway.
Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with the Aged Parent , and one thing we do together–something we’ve rarely done before–is watch television shows. My mother, deep in the throes of dementia, perks up when she sees Matt Dillon and Festus ride over the Kansas (it is Kansas, isn’t it?) plains to catch bad guys and rescue the disempowered from their clutches. Daytime cable television is filled with Westerns, and I find this fascinating, although I’ve never been a fan of them in the past. Part of my new-found fascination is undoubtedly inspired by Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s theory–presented in her online lectures as well as her Substack newsletter–that the United States’s fascination with the Western genre has a lot to do with the libertarian, every-man-for-himself ideal most Westerns present. I think she’s got a point, but I don’t think that this alone explains our fascination with Westerns. This, however, is an argument I’ll have to return to at a later date, because in this blog post, what I want to talk about is nuns.
Yes–that’s right–Catholic nuns. What was going on in the 1950s and ’60s that made the figure of the young, attractive nun so prevalent in films and television? Here, for example, is a short list of the movies that feature nuns from the 1960s:
The Nun’s Story (1959) with Audrey Hepburn
The Nun and the Sergeant (1962), itself a remake of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier
The Sound of Music (1965), no comment needed
The Singing Nun (1966) starring Debbie Reynolds
The Trouble with Angels (1966) with Rosalind Russsell and Hayley Mills
Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968), the sequel to #6
Change of Habit (1969), starring the strangely matched Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley (!)
The fascination with nuns even bled over into television, with the series The Flying Nun (1967-1970), starring a post-Gidget Sally Field. This show, with its ridiculous premise of a nun who can fly, seems to have ended the fascination with nuns, or perhaps its bald stupidity simply killed it outright. From 1970 until 1992, when Sister Act appeared, there seemed to be a lull in American movies featuring nuns. Incidentally, the films I’ve mentioned here all feature saccharine-sweet characters and simple plots; in a typically American fashion, many of the difficult questions and problems involved in choosing a cloistered life are elided or simply ignored. There are, however, other movies featuring nuns that are not so wholesome; Wikipedia actually has a page devoted to what it terms “Nunsploitation.” These films, mostly foreign, seem more troubling and edgier. I leave an analysis of such films to another blogger, however, because what I really want to investigate is this: why was American culture so enamored, for the space of a decade, with nuns and convent life? I’ve argued previously that popular culture performs the critical task of reflecting and representing dominant ideologies, so my question goes deeper than just asking, “Hey, what’s with all these nuns?” Rather, it seeks to examine what conditions caused this repetitive obsession about nuns in a country that prided itself on the distance between religion and politics and, at least superfiically, religion’s exclusion from American ideology.
I have some ideas, but nothing that could be hammered together neatly enough to call a theory to explain this obsession, and so I will be looking to my readers to provide additional explanations. Surely the box-office success of films starring Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds, Sidney Poitier, and Julie Andrews count for something: Hollywood has always been a fan of the old “if it worked once, it should work again” creative strategy. But I think this might be too simple an explanation. I’ll have another go: perhaps in an era when women were beginning to explore avenues to power, self-expression, and sexual freedom, the image of a contained and circumscribed nun was a comfort to the conservative forces in American society. It’s just possible that these nuns’ stories were a representation of the desire to keep women locked up, contained, and submissive. On the other hand, the image of the nun could be just the opposite, one in which women’s struggle for independence and self-actualization was most starkly rendered by showing religious women asserting their will despite all the odds against them.
I think it’s quite possible that both these explanations, contradictory as they seem, might be correct. Certainly the depiction of women who submit to being controlled and defined by religion presents a comforting image of a hierarchical past to an audience that fears not only the future but the present as well (we should remember that the world was experiencing profoundly threatening social and political upheaval in the late 1960s). Yet at the same time, the struggle many of these nun-characters undergo in these films might well be representative of non-religious women’s search for meaning, independence, and agency in their own lives.
As I said, I have more questions than answers, and I will end this post with an obvious one: what effect did these films have on the general public? We’ve briefly explored the idea of where such movies came from and what they represent in the American ideology that produced them, but what did they do to their audiences? Was there any increase in teenage girls joining convents in the 1970s, after these films played in theatres and later, on television? What did the religious orders themselves have to say about such films? I’d be interested in learning the answers to these questions, so readers, if you have any ideas, or if you just want to compare notes and share your impressions, please feel free to comment!
I do a lot of reading in my spare time, and I have tons of spare time right now, so it follows that I have been reading a great deal. As I indicated in my last post, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone (Victorian and early 19th century novels and poems) to learn a bit about environmentalism and the natural sciences. One book I recently started to listen to is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of her attempt to train a hawk as a therapeutic attempt to cope with her father’s death. I have to be honest: there’s a part of me–a part I’m not proud of–that is just a bit critical, perhaps more than a little impatient, with Macdonald’s musings. I began to talk back to the book in that way we do when we’re feeling a little bit snarky. (I assume we all do this–at least, I hope I’m not the only one in the world who talks back to books.) In short, I wondered what my foray into avian behavioral training would like if I deigned to tell my story.
This is my long-winded way of saying that for Helen Macdonald, H may be for Hawk, but in my world P is for Parakeet.
I must have been about six years old when I acquired my first parakeet, a blue-breasted beauty that sat in his cage all morning long, patiently awaiting my return home from school, only to burst into song when I charged through the door of our Brooklyn duplex. His name was Fluffy, short for Fluffernutter Ike, a compilation of the two things I loved most in the world at that age: fluffernutter sandwiches (a noxious peanut butter and marshamallow combination that was guaranteed to make anyone over ten years old gag) and Dwight D.Eisenhower. I liked Ike because he was a war hero and a fine president, but most of all, because his birthday was the day before mine.
At any rate, I had had Fluffy for perhaps a year when he succumbed to a draft in the house, dying on Christmas day. Aside from the all-too-real grief this inspired in a small child, Fluffy’s untimely death presented another problem: what to do with the body. I’m sure my parents suggested disposing of it in the trash can outside, but I was adamant that he deserved a proper burial. I’m not sure who came up with a plan so brilliant it was doomed to fail, but this is how we solved the problem of what to do with the dead parakeet. Amid the Christmas debris of opened presents, strewn wrapping paper, and red-and-green ribbons was a gaily striped gift box, perfectly sized for Fluffy’s small, inert corpse, and into that he went. Even I realized that it was too gross to keep the box in the house, so we agreed that it seemed best to put the box with Fluffy inside it into the metal milkbox that sat outside, just below the kitchen window. Into that milkbox went Fluffy’s casket to await a proper burial, hopefully within the next few days, when the Brooklyn ground thawed.
It’s pretty obvious by now where this story is going, so I’ll be brief. Our milkman must have been of English descent, because he took Fluffy off with him, undoubtedly thinking that since it was Boxing Day, we had provided him with a nice little gift. It was a gift redolent of the meal that Bette Davis serves Joan Crawford in the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? When I came inside that afternoon, after playing outside with my new Christmas toys, with the news that Fluffy’s casket had mysteriously disappeared, my parents were aghast. I’m not sure what they did in response: perhaps they actually went out and got the milkman a proper present. I’d like to think that they did. All I know is that by the following afternoon, the box–with Fluffy still nestled peacefully within it–had been discreetly returned to the milkbox.
Perhaps I was inconsolable at the loss of Fluffy, because I got another parakeet fairly quickly after his demise. This parakeet was named Dinky, and he was present at the break-up of my family, a spectacular and somewhat tragic event in which my parents had one last dramatic and prolonged argument that ended with my mother taking the three of us children and our beagle Honeybee to Texas with her. In the chaos preceding our departure, my mother forgot about Dinky, but I must have protested loudly, because she supplied me with a shoebox and a Schrafft’s bag and told me to put Dinky in there for the duration of the airplane flight. This was, of course, long before security checks and TSA, and it was relatively easy to sneak things onto a flight, and Dinky, secure in his well-ventilated cardboard box at the bottom of the paper shopping bag, got on board without a hitch. I sat, somewhat shellshocked by the knowledge that things would never go back to normal for my family, clutching the Schrafft’s bag on my lap as the plane taxied onto the runway and took off. Once we leveled off, however, the stewardess (it was a stewardess in those days, not a flight attendant), came by, glanced at the bag that I was clenching, and took it from me, saying, “You don’t have to carry this on your lap for the whole flight, dearie. I’ll put it up above you.” I watched, tongue-tied with horror, as she took my bag, turned it upside down, and jammed it into the overhead bin. Fearing that I would get in trouble for sneaking my beloved bird aboard, I said nothing even though I was convinced that the jolting had killed him. I simply sat there in my aisle seat, blinking back my tears, the picture of nine-year-old stoicism.
But something surprising happened about midway through the three-hour flight. Dinky, far from being dead, perked up and started chirping–quite loudly. In fact, his song got louder and and louder until everyone on that plane, it seemed, heard it. It was an insistent chirp–thankfully not a screech–and it crescendoed until it was the only sound I could hear. I’m not sure what my mother was thinking, as she was in the row behind me; goodness knows she had enough to deal with. “Do something,” said my sister, who was next to me; however, I had no idea what to do. It turned out that I didn’t need to do anything, because just then the stewardess walked up to my seat. I squeezed my eyes shut, certain that I was about to get in big trouble. There was a pause, and then, leaning over me, she patted me on my shoulder and handed me the Schrafft’s bag, with Dinky still singing inside. “Here,” she said. “I think you need to keep this with you, after all.” I hope that stewardess understood what a difference she made to a young girl who had a lot on her plate that day.
Fluffy and Dinky have been followed by several other parakeets. Most recently, I’ve fallen into the trap of multiple bird ownership. Having found out that parakeets do well in pairs–at least mine do–I keep two together, thinking they provide companionship for each other, and always intending that this pair is the last pair I’ll own. But somehow I can never extricate myself from parakeet ownership. People have actually given me parakeets that they no longer want, and, like a sap, I accept them and take care of them. I suppose, in a way, taking care of parakeets is one of my functions in life.
And while I like parakeets a lot, I can’t say that I feel anything like the veneration and awe for them that Macdonald feels for hawks. But there’s a bright side to that–my peroration on parakeets is a hell of a lot shorter than hers on hawks is and, I hope, a bit less pretentious as well.
Like many other people my age, I received a fairly narrow education in high school. I compounded the damage done by willingly narrowing down my fields of interest even further once I got to college, and by necessity, still more when I was in graduate school. It follows that now, as a retired professor of English entering my seventh decade on this planet, I can discourse endlessly about William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and the fact that the former gave the latter a gift of a Border Terrier dog named Pepper (honest!), but until recently, I couldn’t tell you a thing about how trees grow and what happens in a forest.
Had I become aware of this lacuna in my education earlier in my life, it probably would not have bothered me. Many people, perhaps most people, live with their own ignorance staring them in the face. I was no different; if I was ignorant in one topic, I had other areas of knowledge to compensate for it, right? Perhaps what is remarkable isn’t so much my ignorance, but rather my decision to remedy it, although this scenario must be repeated endlessly among human beings, in adults and children alike. One day, seemingly out of the blue, we decide we want to know more about something, and so we take it up, read about it, perhaps compulsively, until we educate ourselves out of our own ignorance.
The event which sparked my self-education is simple to identify: my husband and I bought a forest. Describing it in this way, however, makes me cringe with distaste. I hate using the term “bought,” which denotes a mere cash transaction. It’s better, I think, to say that I acquired a forest, becoming its guardian and its careful observer. By acquiring it and walking in it hundreds of times, I fell in love with it. And like any new lover, I wanted to know everything about it I could; so, when I wasn’t in the forest, or doing the endless quotidian tasks that make up the greater part of a person’s life, I set out on my journey to learn as much as I could absorb at this late date about trees, ecology, and conservation.
One of the first books I read was Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, which is pretty much the Lyrical Ballads (for you Wordsworth lovers) of ecology writing. The idea of a Land Ethic was new to me, but I could see that it was as important, in its way, as the idea of negative capability was to Keats. I took two full pages of handwritten notes from Leopold’s book, which I won’t go into here, as it deserves its own blog post. For now, I’ll just say that several generations of conservationists and ecologists have been influenced by Leopold’s book; I was late to the party, as usual, and had never even heard of it–evidence of my flimsy natural science/ecology education.
Leopold’s book is important, but I have also been touched by a book I picked, at random, from the shelf of my local library: The Biography of a Tree, by James P. Jackson. It is just what it says it is: the life story of a white oak tree, from acorn to seedling, then on to forest giant and finally as a dead trunk rotting on the forest floor. This may not sound interesting, but Jackson pulls it off beautifully. The writing is careful and precise, while at the same time evocative. Jackson’s work, however, seems to be virtually unknown. (To prove this, I’ll just point out that his Amazon best-seller rating is even lower than that of my own two novels, and that’s saying something.) He seems never to have written anything else. In this age of instant contact, I found myself wanting to email him, or to follow him on Twitter to thank him for his painstaking work–but there’s no digital trace of him at all.
Alas, it is a sad and lonely business being a writer–as many of my readers know from first-hand experience. Pouring one’s heart and soul into a labor that will go unacknowledged is a risky business, and a thankless one, but at the same time it is a vitally important one. Can we take some slight solace in the fact that once published, a work may go unread for decades (The Biography of a Tree was published in 1979), only to spring to life, on cue, in a new reader’s hands, inspiring new thoughts, emotions, and passions decades after it was forgotten by an inhospitable public? Reading Jackson’s work, I realized that a writer’s life resembles that of the seventeen-year cicada, a recurring character in his book, a forest denizen that burrows itself below the soil for almost two decades, only to emerge into the sun for a mere month or two of life in the sunshine. The majority of its life is invisible, almost dormant–but it can accomplish so much during those short days it spends above the ground. Jackson’s book is the same: it may be inert and ineffective while it sits on the shelf of libraries, but once in the hands of an interested reader, what power it has! What influence! And though my appreciation of James P. Jackson comes too late to do him any good, at least it has done me worlds of good to have read, and appreciated, his work.