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Essay

Happy Centennial, Mother!

If my mother were still alive–which, given her lifestyle, would be beyond a freak of nature–she would be 100 years old today. Supremely unlucky through most of her life–her parents divorced when she was 4 and she spent her childhood and adolescence being shuttled, first from relative to relative and then from boarding school to boarding school–she was perhaps nowhere less fortunate than in her “choice” of a birthday. Not only was March 15 the notorious “Ides of March,” and cursed on that basis, but it was, at least until her mid-30’s (at some point in the late 1950’s), income tax day in the U.S. While other women could have expected to be taken out for a birthday dinner, or at least have a special one prepared by their husbands, she had to spend all of her birthdays, until the tax date was finally changed to April 15, frantically scrambling through drawers and cardboard boxes looking for receipts and tax slips so she and Dad could make the midnight deadline for postmark of the tax form. I can’t remember if they even ate dinner on income tax day.

It has now been very nearly 30 years since Mother died, on March 31, 1991, having just barely attained the biblical threescore and ten. Given her four-pack-a-day smoking habit, she was probably lucky to have lived that long. The mother of a good friend of mine from college days, also a heavy smoker but probably not as heavy a one as Mother, died, also of lung cancer, before reaching age 45. But it was that same woman, who essentially spent the final five decades of her life committing slow suicide through self-asphyxiation, who was years ahead of her time in nutrition, proclaiming and in her own cooking practicing the virtue of cooking vegetables just to al dente, long before anyone else I knew had thought to do so. And it was that same woman who, despite never being able to muster the discipline to complete her own Ph.D. in sociology, even after I offered to help ghost-write her thesis, who raised three children who went on to obtain doctorates, including one (yours truly) who very nearly obtained a second doctorate.

There are many things I could say about Mother on this occasion of her centennial. To put down even a small fraction of those things would require far more space than I have available here. So I’ll simply identify my most important legacy from her: the recognition that life is extremely complicated, and that before we start passing judgement on a person for the life that they’ve lived, we should be sure we know the life fully and in complete context. From my post-retirement involvement in theatre, I’ve learned a similar lesson. It’s probably no accident that Mother loved theatre, and that my lifetime passion of it was first nurtured by her, when she took me, even as a small boy, to Broadway shows and musicals.

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Essay Interview

Occasional Observation #35

In my darker moments–of which, these days, I have an increasingly large number–I suspect that political correctness is a strategy devised by the Right to divide and conquer the Left. Whether or not this is the case, it is clearly having that effect.

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Essay

Requiem for a Retailer

Just this past week, I decided to part ways with my long-time high-end clothes merchant, L.L. Bean.  I’d been at least an occasional Bean customer for over 40 years.  You’d have thought the decision would have been tough after so many years, but in fact, it wasn’t.  I found it surprisingly easy.  Truth is, I didn’t leave Bean’s.  They left me.

          Back in the Jimmy Carter years, when I first started shopping at Bean’s, the Bean label meant something, and I was proud to wear it.  Above all, that label meant durability and reliability.  The company’s catalogues, which I may say made quite passable winter evening reading, would often contain stories about customers who had returned items with defects after five, ten, even fifteen years, and received a full refund or replacement, no questions asked.  My own early experience with Bean items bore out that proud claim.  A Tattersall check dress shirt I’d been given in my mid 30s lasted a full twenty years.  Even then, I could easily have got another decade out of it, but for one sad fact.  By my mid 50s, I’d gained enough weight that the shirt no longer fit properly.  With much regret, I gave it to Goodwill.

          A pair of herringbone tweed pants I was given at about the same time as the shirt lasted even longer.  These pants, durable and altogether extraordinary enough that I celebrated them in an essay I published a number of years ago in The Globe & Mail, hang in my closet to this day, a proud if now only occasionally worn part of my wardrobe.  Last fall, they marked their 40th anniversary with me; occasional alterations have enabled them to adapt quite nicely to the shifting demands of a now-expanding, now-contracting waistline. It may be worth at least passing mention that the pants were made in the U.S.A. and bore a union label.

          Seeing me wearing these pants at the office on a -20° January day, a colleague remarked that they reminded him of the pants his grandfather used to wear for duck hunting.  Some might not have been pleased by such a remark.  It didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was actually slightly flattered that my colleague had noticed the pants’ most essential quality—their timelessness.  Certainly company founder L.L. Bean would have been flattered.  He’d gone into business specifically to provide warm, durable clothing to be worn outdoors in Maine’s harsh winters.  Had he still been alive, he might well have used the remark as a testimonial for the catalogue.

          Unfortunately, old L.L. is long gone.  So, too, at least from Bean stores and catalogues, is anything even remotely resembling those grey herringbone pants.  These days, you’re lucky to find all-wool grey flannels there.  Over time, the once-proud purveyor of indestructible, warm outdoor wear has morphed into a vaguely countrified, more than slightly yuppified supplier of casual and informal clothing to the young and beautiful people of the world.  Even if most of the catalogue pictures are still shot in Maine, there is no longer anything distinctively “Down East” about them.  They could as easily have been shot in Ohio or Minnesota.

          As L.L. Bean migrated farther and farther away from its core business concept, I found that it had fewer and fewer items of interest to me.  My disillusionment with the company began around 2010, when I ordered a parka to replace one I loved, and that was still totally serviceable after nearly twenty years, except for a broken zipper, which would have cost more than the parka was worth to replace.

          The price tag for the Bean parka was steep, but I figured I’d at the very least be getting a comfortable and serviceable garment that would last me for many years.  If anybody knew parkas, I figured, it would be L.L. Bean. It turned out that I was sadly mistaken.  The first thing I noticed about my new parka, on receiving it, was that the box in which it had been shipped was absolutely enormous. The second thing was that it had been made in Bangladesh.  What did the Bangladeshis know about parkas, anyway?  I would soon see!

          The Bean parka, as I found the first time I wore it, was half again bulkier and at least twice as heavy as the Canadian-made parka it was meant to replace.  It was so bulky that when I wore it for driving, it was difficult to get the seat belt around it.  And it was so very, very heavy that simply putting it on was a challenge.  The garment’s massive weight bearing down on my shoulders aggravated the already severe arthritis I had in both of them.  I probably should have returned it, but the garment had no actual defect that I felt would justify a return; it simply wasn’t right for me.  As well, the postage for a return would have been prohibitive.  In disgust, I gave the parka to a Sally Ann, and eventually wound up buying a much lighter winter jacket which, while not perfect, at least didn’t make my shoulders ache with its weight every time I put it on.

          I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my little parka escapade would be the beginning of the end for me and L.L. Bean.  By around 2015, there were just two items for which I really needed Bean’s:  their cotton flannel sleeping shirts, which at the time I could only obtain at Bean’s, and their Oxford cloth button-down collar dress shirts, which for some inexplicable reason I could not obtain in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was then living.  Slowly but inexorably, these last two bastions would crumble.

          In 2016, a Bean shirt then less than two years old ripped down its back seam.  I had the rip repaired, only to have the experience repeated less than six months later.  When a new rip appeared, in another place, I threw the shirt away in disgust.  By this time I was used to the fact that Bean’s shirts in the Obama years would not last anywhere as long as the old Tattersall shirt, from the Jimmy Carter years, had.  Still, I didn’t think it unreasonable to expect to get five or six years out of one of those shirts, especially since I had quite a few of them and even as the quality was going down, the price wasn’t.  The only thing that kept me buying those shirts from Bean’s was the near-impossibility of finding an Oxford cloth shirt in any colour other than white anywhere else.

          It would be the sleeping shirts—by the Obama years the one Bean item left bearing any resemblance to the company’s storied past and its old core business—that would finally drive me away from Bean’s for good.  For about a decade, I would order a new one every couple of years.  While I wasn’t pleased that the El Salvador-made shirts tended to wear out after four or five years, I was prepared to live with the fact. 

          Sometime around 2017 or 2018—I can’t place the year exactly—Bean’s simply discontinued their men’s sleeping shirts.  By this time, I’d discovered a new source of supply—the Vermont Country Store.  The only catch was that, unlike Bean’s, VCS didn’t provide free shipping to Canada.  So steep was the shipping charge, in fact, that it increased the total cost of the garment by about 50%.  For me, at the time, this was a non-starter.  I dusted off my improvisational skills, checked the Bean catalogue to determine what would be the equivalent women’s size to my XXL, and started ordering Bean’s women’s plaid flannel nightgowns.  To all intents and purposes, these were the same garment as I’d been wearing for years, though the women’s nighties lacked the men’s breast pocket and were a bit snugger around the arms.

          Then, early this year (2021), one of the women’s nighties developed a tear.  Worse than the seam rips that had afflicted my Bean shirts earlier, this was a major tear near the armpit.  I wasn’t (and am still not) sure whether it will even be possible to repair the torn nightgown, which was less than two years old when I discovered the tear.

          The tear reduced me to two serviceable nightgowns, which is simply not enough, given that during our current pandemic I will often spend entire days in a nightie.  With a sigh, I went to Bean’s online catalogue, only to discover that they had discontinued their entire line of women’s flannel nightgowns.

          Could this be for real, I wondered? Surely flannel nightgowns must have been a big-selling item.  I’ve certainly ordered enough of them, in their various guises, over the years.  But no, it was no mistake.  The nightgowns were, and are, nowhere to be found at Bean’s.  Which left me with no other choice than to order  replacements at Vermont Country Store, exorbitant shipping charge and all.

          Though I deeply resent having to pay $45 U.S. in shipping for two nightshirts that between them could not weigh more than about three pounds, the inevitable switch to VCS is not without its positive side.  First off, I’m back to men’s nightshirts, which are better tailored to fit my body than the women’s nightshirts from Bean’s were.  And second, and more important, VCS guarantees its nightshirts for life.  I don’t expect my nightgown nightmare to be repeated, but if it is, I’ll be given a replacement, free of charge.

          That guarantee is worth quite a bit to me, actually.  It takes me back to the good old days of L.L. Bean.  Who knows but that in the near future, Vermont Country Store may simply acquire its old rival outright?  My sleeping shirt saga suggests it may be well on the way to doing just that.

And what about those Oxford cloth shirts? I haven’t found any yet in my new home of Gatineau, Quebec. But I feel fairly confident of finding some, when I need to, in nearby Ottawa if not in Gatineau itself. Meanwhile, I’m wearing more flannel shirts these days, and fewer dressy Oxford cloth ones. My current ample supply of the latter seems likely to last me several more years, even given the greatly reduced workmanship and longevity of today’s clothing.

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Essay

Editorial: The Senate Republicans’ Death Wish

It defies all logic, good sense, morality, and even rational political calculation that there should be any debate over Donald Trump’s possible conviction in the Senate.  In the 1950s, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for doing a tiny fraction of what Trump had done even before his attempted coup.  Richard Nixon was forced out of office for doing a small fraction of what Trump did.  So was Spiro Agnew.

          At the risk of repeating and overstating the obvious, let me point out that what Donald Trump did—incite a coup with an eye to overturning the 2020 election results—is the most serious crime a U.S. President can be guilty of.  As that flaming socialist, Chris Christie, pointed out shortly after the coup attempt, if such an act isn’t worthy of conviction and removal from office, what is?  Utah’s Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, said pretty much the same thing.  And various other Republicans, including not just Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for impeachment, but GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy, who did not, admitted that Trump did indeed incite the attempted coup.  Given the fact, the next step should be obvious.  No nation which permits such acts to pass unpunished is likely to survive for very long.

          Earlier this week, Senate Republicans attempted to evade their constitutional responsibility by supporting a motion, introduced by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, to the effect that a trial conducted after an official had left office would be unconstitutional.  Never mind that such “after the fact” trials have been held in the past.  Never mind that most constitutional experts are quite OK with such trials.  The measure nonetheless garnered considerable support—support from 90% of the Republican Senate caucus, in fact.  Only five Senate Republicans joined all 50 Senate Democrats in opposing Paul’s motion, which suggests that Trump’s conviction by the Senate is quite unlikely, since it would require at least 17 Republicans to join all 50 Democrats in supporting conviction.

          Well-meaning people, including at least a few liberals, have suggested that the Senate would do better to turn the page on Trump and get back to the normal business of governance.  Their argument appears to be that since Trump’s removal is now moot, there’s little point in holding a trial, which would serve only to exacerbate already serious political division in the country.

          I must respectfully disagree.  In doing so, I would suggest that a trial held after the end of an official’s term in office serves a totally different purpose than a trial held with the primary objective of removing that official.  The former type of trial differs from the latter not in degree, but in kind.  The rationale for holding a Senate trial of Trump now is twofold:  to disqualify him from ever holding public office again, and to send a signal to the American public that there is some behaviour that is so heinous, so contrary to everything that is decent and honourable and humane that it is necessary to condemn such behaviour in the strongest terms. I’m sure that few Republicans have thought of the trial in such terms.  Frankly, I’m not even sure that all Democrats have.

          Perhaps a simple analogy will help in explaining the situation.  Trump’s Senate trial, at this point, is less like a “conventional” impeachment trial aimed at removing the official in question, and more like a professional association’s disbarment proceeding against a wayward member of the profession.  What conviction would mean is that Trump would, effectively, never again be able to practice politics in the U.S.

          Once again, the case should be open and shut.  The verdict should be unanimous.  Suppose that instead of being President of the U.S., Trump had been a lawyer.  He flouted the law and Constitution throughout his time in office, expressing outright contempt for restrictions the Constitution imposed on his freedom to do exactly as he pleased.  This even before the coup attempt, for which I continue to have no words, even three weeks after the event. 

          Suppose he had been a doctor (bearing in mind, now, his bizarre recommendation that people drink disinfectant or inject bleach to ward off COVID—a recommendation that filled emergency rooms across the U.S., and led to actual loss of life). The Hippocratic phrase “Do no harm” comes rather quickly to mind here.  Suppose he’d been an accountant.  Just how much does this man owe in back taxes, in how many jurisdictions? Maybe we shouldn’t even try to go there.

          It is, indeed, impossible to imagine a single profession from which Trump would not long since have been expelled for doing even half of what he did during his time in office.  Why should the profession of politics be any different? This isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, any sort of partisan matter, any more than a disbarment hearing from the legal profession would be.  It is a question of maintaining a certain, very minimal standard of morality and decency for those wishing to continue practicing politics in the U.S.  “If you’re going to do politics in this country, you can’t participate in coups or incite others to do so” is a pretty low bar.  Anyone who can’t meet this minimal standard belongs not in the White House or House of Representatives, but the house of correction.

          As horrific as Trump’s actions have been, one might see some rationale for the Republicans’ condoning them if they appeared likely to help their party brand.  But clearly they have not, and will not.  Trump’s bizarre challenge to Georgia’s presidential election results, which included an hour-long phone call to the state’s Republican Secretary of State in which he attempted to induce him to change the results, arguably cost the Republicans the two Georgia Senate seats that went to a runoff election—and therefore control of the Senate.  And this was before the coup attempt. If the same Senate elections were held now as were held in November, God knows how many seats Trump would cost the party. 

          By failing to convict Trump, and therefore disqualify him from further participation in the political arena, Senate Republicans are saying that in their view it is perfectly OK for a politician to incite a coup against the federal government.  To say that this is not a winning strategy is to understate matters considerably.  By failing to convict Trump, Senate Republicans would allow Democrats to hang the “seditionist traitor” label on Republican Congressional candidates for at least a generation to come, thus ensuring that they remain a minority party for the foreseeable future.

          Any Republican Senate leader capable of taking the long view would immediately see that if all, or nearly all Republican Senators voted to convict Trump, the ex-President would be left helpless.  He couldn’t possibly turn on all 40-50 Senators voting to convict.  Blocked from further political participation, and without even an appreciable number of allies in the Senate, Trump would have no choice but to slink away and go rot on his golf course.  A Senate conviction, preferably by a near-unanimous margin, would ensure that Trump would remain a spent force. For Senate Republicans not to convict him suggests that they, as a party, have a strong death wish.

          If only the Republicans had a Senate leader capable of taking the long view.

          Copyright © 2021, Gatineau, Quebec

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Essay

“Wrapping if Necessary”–a Christmas Eve Essay

One of the unanticipated negative impacts of the online shopping that has become the norm during the COVID pandemic is the loss of the gift wrapping service that was generally available with live shopping.

          I came to the business of getting Christmas presents gift-wrapped where I bought them very early on—at the age of seven, to be precise.  Knowing, even then, that I was simply terrible at any sort of wrapping, I took to patronizing stores, such as the Shop for Good Living in my home town of Darien, Connecticut, that offered free gift-wrapping.  In gratitude, I became a most loyal and regular Christmas patron of the Shop for Good Living and one or two other similar stores, showing up every year in a ritual that the stores’ proprietors and I both came to enjoy.  When, as occasionally happened, family members would compliment me on the wrapping job, I would simply smile, knowingly.  At first, only my sister, Mary, whom I often pressed into service to help with those few items that I couldn’t get wrapped “at the source,” was in on the secret. And she had the good grace not to say anything or even crack a smile when the compliments started pouring in for the excellent wrapping jobs performed by the Shop for Good Living, Grieb’s Pharmacy, and one or two other kindly local merchants.  On the rare occasions when I put a package I myself had “wrapped” under the tree, it would look like something a dog had dragged through a swamp.

          Through most of my adulthood, I continued to get the majority of my presents wrapped “at source.” As I matured into middle age, I more and more often had to pay for the service, and occasionally, instead of having a present wrapped at the store where I’d bought it, I was obliged to take it to a central Christmas wrapping station.  This was definitely the case with the gifts I would buy at the Rideau Centre during my previous stint in Ottawa.  Each present would cost somewhere between $2 and $5 to wrap, depending on the gift’s size and the complexity of the job.  I didn’t mind a bit.  Rarely did I drop more than $20 on all the presents I needed wrapped.  To me, this was money well-spent, keeping me in festive spirit by freeing me from a job I found frighteningly difficult and keeping the gifts’ recipients happy by giving them a professionally-wrapped package instead of something that looked as if the cat had dragged it through its dinner dish.  (I had improved by that much over the years).

          Fast forward a couple more decades, to the present.  I’m little better at wrapping now than I was as a small boy.  The difference is that, in this time of pandemic, I’m not doing my shopping live, at stores that gift wrap for you.  And I also don’t have my loving sister available to help out.  I still use a roll of Scotch tape for every three to four mid-sized packages I wrap conventionally, just as I did during my boyhood.  But now, as of this year, I no longer even attempt to wrap things conventionally.

          In old age, I’ve hit upon a system of “wrapping” that achieves wrapping’s prime objective—to conceal the present from plain sight so the recipient doesn’t know what it is—with considerably less expenditure of time, energy, and raw materials than my feeble attempts at conventional wrapping did, and with fewer (though still a far from negligible number) of my most unchristian, unChristmaslike profanities and obscenities. 

          The system makes liberal use of small to medium-sized mailing boxes, which thanks to all my online shopping, I have around the house in goodly numbers.  What I do, first, is stick my gift into one of those boxes.  If the box is a good fit for the present, that’s a plus, but a good fit isn’t essential.  I can always fill up any empty space with crumpled newspaper, crumpled tissue paper, or other materials of that sort.

          Having put the gift into its box, I then tape the box shut with one or two small pieces of Scotch tape, before setting about seeing if I can cover the box in some way. For this purpose, I am using tissue paper of various colours.  Some might argue that given my extreme ineptitude as a wrapper, I would more properly be using tinfoil.  They might have a point.  But my supply of tinfoil is limited; it must be carefully husbanded to ensure I have enough for the roasting of small birds, the covering of pies, and other critical Yuletide tasks.  So I stick with the tissue paper, which I attach to the box with more Scotch tape—probably more than I should be using. The result still doesn’t look like anyone else’s wrapped present, but at least it no longer looks like something a dog (or cat) dragged through a body of water, large or small.  Now it looks as if I had started to wrap the item but had been called away, mid-job, on an urgent matter and had forgotten to get back to it. But, to repeat, the item is at least fully and decently covered. That’s the main thing.

          I describe this new system as “Wrapping if necessary, but not necessarily wrapping.”  Hopefully this will be the first and last year in which I’m obliged to use it.  Next year at this time, with a COVID vaccine universally available, I plan to do most of my shopping “live,” as I did for most of my life—and to get my presents wrapped, no matter how much the job costs.

          In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all my readers.  See you again in the New Year, if not sooner.

          Jon

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Essay

A Short Dissertation on a Hitherto Neglected Aspect of Colour Theory

Black and white; white and black. Early on, at the age of around 16, I learned from the famous Jack Daniel’s label that these are not just abstract ends of the colour spectrum, but powerful, expressive colours in their own right. Later, I would take away the same message from the documentary and retro films I saw, from political campaign signs, and even from some of my own shirts and fleeces. Even now I turn with pleasure to some of those old films as an escape from the overly colour-saturated world we seem to inhabit.

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Essay

Walkin’ My Cats Back Home, or, Feline Resistance Unleashed

In September of 1964, my parents rented a small apartment on New York’s Upper East Side so that my mother could get to her graduate classes in sociology more easily than she could have from our home in Darien, Connecticut.  I was delighted with the new arrangement, but our two cats, Gypsy and Rhody, were less than enthralled.  Instead of a three-acre property filled with trees to climb, a huge lawn to roll around on, and birds and small rodents to hunt, they had only a four-room apartment to explore.  Gypsy and Rhody soon discovered that there are only so many different ways to climb a curtain, and that killing cockroaches on the kitchen floor really wasn’t in there with hunting moles and Flickers.

          We didn’t dare let the cats go outside, for fear they’d be hit by a car.  But as they grew more and more restive, I started to take pity on them.  People (including us) took their dogs for walks on the sidewalk all the time.  Why not cats, I reasoned?  And so it was that one mild, pleasant day over Christmas vacation, I attached two of the dogs’ leashes to the cats’ collars and loaded them into the elevator.  My plan was to walk down 89th Street, where we lived, east as far as Park Avenue, and then to turn right on Park and walk down as far as 86th Street. Then we’d turn right on 86th, and walk back west to Fifth Avenue, where we’d again turn right and walk back up to 89th.  From there, one final right turn would bring us back to our apartment building.

          Ignoring the stares of our fellow elevator passengers and the snickers and guffaws of people entering the lobby, I got the cats out of the elevator, through the lobby, and out onto 89th Street relatively easily.  The walk down 89th to Park was also uneventful.  Perhaps the experience of walking on a city street was novel enough to the cats to keep them from trying to break away.

          We then turned onto Park for the walk down to 86th.  Not only did we make the turn without incident, but Gypsy and Rhody continued to behave as we walked down to 88th Street.  It actually seemed, for a moment, that the two cats were enjoying themselves.  I began thinking about longer routes we might take in the future.  Once again, I wondered why more people weren’t taking their cats out for walks.

          It didn’t take me long to find out.  No sooner had I stepped off the curb to prepare to cross 88th Street than Gypsy and Rhody suddenly turned wild, pulling and tugging at their leashes so violently that it took considerable effort on my part to get the two across the street.  Gone was my vision of peaceful mid-afternoon strolls with the two felines.  Now I was beginning to wonder if I could get them home without help.  I had (and still have) no idea what made them change their tune so quickly.  Nothing about 88th Street seemed particularly threatening, or even unusual.  To me, it looked pretty much the same as 89th Street had.  Perhaps Gypsy and Rhody had simply tired of the venture as such, and were letting me know in the most direct way possible!

          The two behaved better once we stepped back onto the sidewalk after crossing 88th Street.  Maybe the incident at Park and 88th had been just an aberration, and we could actually finish the walk?  But just before we reached 87th Street, the cats started pulling and hauling at their leashes even more violently than before.  This time, they pulled so hard that I was surprised one or both of them didn’t break their leashes.  It was all that I, a strong, fit 200-lb. college boy, could do to keep them from breaking away—and in all likelihood getting run over.

          With herculean effort, I got the two cats turned around and headed toward home.  Possibly sensing that the end of the walk was close at hand, they behaved somewhat better on the homeward journey, though every so often they would pull and haul quite strongly, as if to remind me not to attempt such a venture again.  I needed no such reminder.  What I needed, I told myself after I’d finally gotten the cats through the lobby, up via the elevator, and back into the apartment and off their leashes again, was a hot bath.  And some physio for those aching arms.

          I wasn’t, and still am not, generally a believer in the conventional wisdom.  But every so often, it does have its uses.  There was some reason, I reflected, as I sipped a badly-needed bourbon highball in the bathtub, why most people didn’t take their cats for walks on city streets.  Taking leashed cats for an urban walk might not be quite as difficult as herding cats.  But it would definitely come a close second.

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Essay

On Sociology

Ah, sociology. A field that started out well, but that has in recent years all too often proven the last refuge of the intellectual charlatan, as it has taken over the groves of academe like some noxious weed imported from another country. No–I don’t do sociology. Never have. Never will.

This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate what sociology can bring to larger intellectual ventures. In some of his U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Justice Louis Brandeis showed us how sociology can, and should, be done. But in Brandeis’ decisions, sociology is never used apart from other intellectual disciplines. It is when it becomes an end unto itself that sociology runs into trouble, all too often choking off rigorous intellectual inquiry in a frenetic bid to make sure all the appropriate demographic boxes have been checked off. This seldom ends well.

Using sociology as one’s sole or even main intellectual tool is akin to using black pepper as one’s sole or main spice in the kitchen.

I will admit that the fact that my mother did graduate work in sociology in her middle years, earning a Master’s and completing most of a doctorate at the New School in New York, has something–perhaps more than a little–to do with my jaundiced view toward the subject. She was a more interesting person to talk to before she opened her Durkheim, Veblen and Weber. At his worst, Benjamin Disraeli is a more agreeable intellectual companion than Max Weber at his best. Once Mother started her New School program, there were no more references to Disraeli, and precious few even to Fielding, Trollope, Sterne, and her other favourite novelists. She became, to all intents and purposes, a one-dimensional person, intellectually.

It is possible that a sense of humour may yet be found somewhere in the thousands of pages of sociological tomes and treatises. But even if that is the case, I’ve never found it. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, a discipline that you can’t laugh along with is a discipline to be laughed at.

Good morning.

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Essay

Coda to “A Cardinal Career”

Generous to me while I was selling their cards and stationery, the Cardinal Greeting Card Company would prove equally generous long after I’d given up my little business.[1]

          About a year after I’d quit, I was surprised to receive a small but fairly heavy package from Cardinal.  What could they possibly want with me? Intrigued, I opened the package, still addressed to “Mrs. J. Peirce,” as all Cardinal’s previous correspondence with me had been, to find a solid metallic object about three inches long.  Closer inspection revealed the object to be a shoe.  And when I read the promotional literature accompanying the shoe, I discovered that it was a bronzed baby shoe, and that Cardinal’s idea was that I should go to the same people to whom I’d formerly sold Christmas cards and writing paper and try to sell them on the idea of having their babies’ shoes bronzed for posterity!  I laughed outright, never in my life having heard of anything so ridiculous, even grotesque.

          “You know, there are some people who’d like to remember what their baby’s shoes looked like,” my mother said.  But she said this with a kind of half-smile, as if she herself were not totally convinced. 

          “You’ve got to be kidding,” was my reply.  “Why would anyone even want such a thing in the house?”  In any event, whatever her take on the thing was, I knew there was no way I’d go up and down the street trying to convince my friends and neighbours that they have should their babies’ shoes bronzed.  Still laughing, I put the shoe back in the box, resealed it, wrote “Return to Sender” in large, clear letters on top, and took it out to our mailbox for the postman to take away the next day. 

          This process would be repeated at least twice over the next year or so.  Finally, the third or fourth time, I decided to keep the shoe, figuring this might help stop Cardinal from sending me any more of the ludicrous trinkets.  Instead of stashing the thing away in a drawer, I went whole hog, putting it up on prominent display on a window sill in the kitchen, for family and guests alike to see.  (Our fireplace, unfortunately, lacked a mantel). At first, people (other than my mother) didn’t seem to know what it was.  But soon they were catching on.  It wasn’t long before I was hearing occasional wry chuckles and even the odd outright belly laugh.  People were clueing in to the thing—and they were loving it.  The little bronzed shoe was more than earning its keep.

          I was bang-on in my guess that my keeping the shoe would stop Cardinal from sending me any more of them. Clearly, even their generosity had its limits.  And in due course, the little game lost its appeal to me.  I stuck the bronzed shoe away in a desk drawer while I decided whether to use it as a paperweight or to give it to someone I didn’t particularly like as a Christmas present.  Five years later, I still hadn’t decided, and the shoe was still sitting inside my drawer.

          But if you were to say that that was the end of the bronzed baby shoe saga, you’d be sadly mistaken.  For years after I’d put the shoe away, it would remain a small but significant part of our collective family life.  When something particularly ridiculous or untoward would happen, all anyone would have to do is say “The bronzed baby shoe” to evoke loud peals of laughter from everyone in the vicinity.  The mere mention of the thing enlivened more than one otherwise drab afternoon or evening.

          Whether such was their intention or not, Cardinal had truly provided me with the gift that kept on giving!


[1] As some of my readers will know, my time with Cardinal has been described in “A Cardinal Career,” published in 2018 in the Chicken Soup anthology “The Power of Yes.”  I sold Cardinal cards and stationery when I was in fourth and fifth grade.  As my Chicken Soup piece notes, Cardinal always addressed their correspondence with me to “Mrs. J. Peirce.”

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Essay News

Adios, Andy

Yesterday (Sunday, Sept. 13), I had the pleasure of watching the entire U.S. Open men’s singles final between Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.  It was an extraordinary match, with the final outcome in doubt until, after four hours of play, well into the fifth set tiebreaker, Zverev missed on a routine forehand, leaving Thiem the overjoyed but utterly exhausted winner, barely able to hobble off the court to claim his prize.

          While this particular final was more physically demanding than many, it was far from unprecedented in the history of the U.S. Open, or of men’s major tennis finals generally.  Some major finals, at tournaments like the French Open (which still does not use the tiebreaker), Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, have run as long as five or even six hours.  Such matches are a test of courage and physical and mental stamina as much as they are of the players’ tennis ability.  They demand the very best of totally fit young men, compelling them to draw on physical and emotional reserves that in many cases they hadn’t known they possessed.[1]  Such matches are not for the faint of heart—or for those who are in any way infirm.

          Up until about 2017, when his numerous injuries started to take a severe toll on his game, Scottish tennis star Andy Murray might well have been one of the two U.S. Open finalists.  His 15-year career has included three major titles (one at the U.S. Open and two at Wimbledon), eight other final appearances at majors, two Olympic gold medals, a Davis Cup title, and nearly a year as world number #1.  He has also made the semi-finals at ten majors and the quarter-finals at nine more. Over that long career, Murray has earned more than $60 million on the courts, making him the fourth all-time leader in earnings.  Clearly he is one of the sport’s all-time greats.  And clearly, at this point, he has—or should have—nothing further to prove regarding his ability to play the game.

          The memory of what Murray has been makes it particularly painful to see what he has become since his two major hip surgeries, in 2018 and 2019.  At least one of those surgeries involved the insertion of a metal plate.  On the court, he is still the gamer he always was, giving his all on every point and frequently showing flashes of the brilliance and tactical excellence that propelled him to the top of the men’s ranks. But he sometimes misses shots that would have been routine for him prior to his surgeries, and on occasion doesn’t even go after balls that he would likely have hit successfully in the past—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he knows he has no real chance of even getting to the ball, let alone hitting a successful return.

          As I say, the sight of this former world #1, struggling to make shots that in many cases would have been routine for him four or five years ago, is a sad one indeed.  And I can probably empathize more than most, as a near-lifelong tennis player myself who now attempts to keep on playing despite two hip replacements in 2015.  (I confine myself to doubles and to singles rallying, and to clay courts.  A full set of singles, even on a clay court, would likely leave me unable to walk the next day.  If I should be so unwise as to attempt to play singles on a hard court, I’d almost certainly end up in Emergency). 

          Before my first hip replacement operation, I did some reading on the Internet in an attempt to determine the likelihood of my being able to play tennis again after my recovery. The literature I saw suggested that about half of all tennis players are able to return to doubles after the operation, but fewer than 10% are able to return to singles.  This suggests that any sort of competitive singles, let alone world-class singles, including occasional five-set matches on hard courts, is distinctly against the odds for anyone who has undergone such surgery.  Despite these odds, and despite having been in such pain following his first-round loss in the Australian Open earlier this year that he was unable to board his plane back to Britain the next day, Murray has continued to attempt to compete in the majors, entering the same U.S. Open ultimately won by Dominic Thiem.

          In his first-round match against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, a player I have never before heard of, Murray barely survived, requiring five sets and two tiebreakers to get past his opponent.  I did not see this particular match, but am frankly just as glad I didn’t; it would surely have been painful to see Murray leaving the court at the end of the five-set marathon. The commentators said it took all he had to get through the match.  Next up was his second-round match against the young Canadian phenom Felix Auger-Aliassime, who handily dispatched Murray in straight sets, allowing the Scotsman to win just nine games over those three sets.  While Auger-Aliassime was a seeded player for the U.S. Open, and might well have beaten Murray when he was in his prime, or at least given him a good run for his money, I very much doubt he’d have given him this kind of a drubbing.  Hopefully this match and its results have given Murray reason to think seriously about his future in professional men’s singles tennis.  No less than John McEnroe said the same thing after Murray`s loss to Auger-Aliassime.  As a long-time tennis champion himself, he should know.

          Even worse than seeing Murray miss or not even try for shots that would have been routine for him four years ago was seeing him limping around on the court between points and games, looking more like a man of 63 than one of 33. It now seems increasingly clear that if Murray continues to play competitive singles, he will be risking his future mobility, his ability to engage in the ordinary activities of daily life.  Is it really worth it for someone who has been one of the greatest players in the world to risk ending up in a wheelchair so that he can obtain, at best, third-tier status by occasionally, and at great effort and physical cost to himself, surviving into the second round of majors he used to have a decent chance of winning?

          Regrettably—and I say this as one who has always enjoyed watching him play—the time has come for Andy Murray to give up competitive singles altogether, and to start thinking about other things he wants to do with his life.  He owes it to himself, his family, and his fans, as well as his fellow players, not to continue to torture himself any more by putting demands on his much-abused body that it is simply unable to meet. If he quits singles now, and takes a few months off to rest and rethink things, he may be able to continue with competitive doubles, which he said in the past did not cause his body any pain.  Even that is a decision he should only make after consultation with his doctors, his team, and his family.  As for his continuing in singles, we have twice seen the results of that, and they were not pretty. Those results offer definitive proof that Murray will never again come close to being the player he was. If he starts listening to what his body is telling him, his decision should be easy.  I hope he makes it soon, before inflicting even more damage on himself in a futile attempt to continue with competitive singles.   


[1] Readers unfamiliar with modern professional tennis may wonder why I have excluded women from this sentence. The reason is that, even in major tournaments like the U.S. Open, women’s matches are the best two of three sets.  While a three-set match can certainly make considerable demands on players (men as well as women), they are not quite the same demands as those made by five-set matches—particularly five-set matches that go for the full five sets.  Whether there is any justification for having women’s matches shorter than men’s at the majors is a question I’ll leave to wiser heads than mine.