Categories
Essay

Summer Groundhog Day?

As of yesterday, we had come halfway from the summer solstice to the fall equinox.  This day is the mirror image of Groundhog Day, which is more or less halfway from the winter solstice to the spring equinox.  From here on in, the days will become significantly shorter, just as they become significantly longer after Groundhog Day.

I find it curious that though much is made of Groundhog Day, with huge quantities of journalistic ink spent chronicling the doings of critters like Punxsutawney Phil and Weirton Willie, little or nothing is ever made of Groundhog Day’s summer equivalent.  At most, we’ll see a passing reference to the “dog days of summer.”

Has this disparity come about because in early August most of us are too busy enjoying the summer weather to have any time or energy to talk or think about it?  Or is it that we would rather not think about the shorter and cooler days that lie ahead?  Alternatively, could this be because most of us (in Canada, at least) have just celebrated a long civic holiday weekend, and are in no need of a further event to celebrate?

Categories
Essay

The Death of the High Middlebrow? Part II

If I seem, in the first part of this essay, to have spent a lot of time elaborating the characteristics of the High Middlebrow, and showing how the High Middlebrow differs from the pure Highbrow, I’ve done so to help explain why I continue to be uneasy throwing my lot in with the Highbrows.  For I know what a real Highbrow is, having grown up with one—my father.       

          Dad seldom read fiction at all, and when he did, never anything written after 1870, at the latest.  At home, he played only classical music, and even within the classical stream rarely played composers from the second half of the 19th century, let alone the 20th.  In the car, he listened only to WQXR, the radio station of the New York Times, whose musical offerings were purely classical, with the exception of a couple of hours a week of jazz, to which he never listened, at least not in my presence.  When he took me to classical concerts, as he did quite often, he would listen politely to the works of composers such as Mahler, Bartok, and Wagner, but it was clear from his expression that listening to these “romantic” works gave him pain.  Bach and Mozart were his favourite composers.  About Brahms, he was at best lukewarm. Much the same for Mendelssohn and Schumann.  Beethoven was perhaps the last composer from the standard repertoire with whose work he felt fully comfortable. He did, I recall, feel a certain grudging respect for Igor Stravinsky’s craftsmanship, but could not deal with the raw energy underlying that craftsmanship.  I can only imagine what his reaction might have been had he been confronted by the music of Aaron Copland or George Gershwin.  When, in late middle age, he took up the piano for himself, the only composers he played were Bach and Chopin.  While he did a fairly decent job with Bach, whose highly symmetrical music was to a degree amenable to his plodding, metronomic playing style, he made pretty much of a hash of Chopin, whose romantic nature he seemed never fully to grasp, at least not in his playing.

          Dad did occasionally go to the theatre, but I suspect only under duress.  It was Mother who was the real theatre-goer in that pair.  By the time I was 12 or so, I was more likely to be accompanying her to a show than Dad was.  I never once heard him talk about a play—positively or negatively—and the only Playbill I remember seeing him with was one for The Late George Apley.  I also can’t remember him ever going to a movie.  As an architect, he certainly appreciated the visual arts, but was a good deal fonder of the medieval art at the Cloisters than of the 19th and 20th-century works to be found at the Metropolitan Museum or Museum of Modern Art.  He was also quite fond of the art exhibits at the Morgan Library, which was only a few blocks from where he worked in New York’s Pan-Am Building.  But here again, he was safely insulated from any modern or modernizing influences.  The exhibit I remember him recommending to me (and which I visited and did enjoy) was one of the portraits of Sir  Joshua Reynolds, the leading society artist of 18th century England.

          The only newspaper we had in the house, aside from the town’s local weekly, was The New York Times, which both he and my mother read religiously. The closest he came to a middlebrow taste of any sort was baseball, for which he did occasionally show a bit of enthusiasm.  But that enthusiasm was severely qualified.  For the most part, he was far more interested in talking about teams of the past (the St. Louis Cardinals of the Gashouse Gang era, or the Philadelphia Athletics under Connie Mack) than those currently playing.  Having taken me to one Yankees game, at Yankee Stadium, when I was seven, he never took me to another, nor to a Dodgers or Giants game either.  Even baseball was something of a museum exhibit for him.  As for other professional sports, such as football, basketball, and hockey, I’m not sure he was even aware they existed.  He certainly never talked about them, nor did I ever see him reading about them on the sports page, a section of the paper he was always happy to turn over to yours truly, unread.

          So much for the Highbrow.  In the sharpest possible contrast to my father’s narrow, exclusionary attitude toward things cultural is the attitude displayed by the noted American author H.L. Mencken.  Though he never attended university, Mencken was immensely well-read, and had drunk deeply at the springs of music and visual art as well.  The following passage, from Mencken’s 1914 book, Europe After 8:15,[1] offers the clearest and most detailed exposition of High Middlebrow beliefs I’ve ever seen. The broad, eclectic nature of Mencken’s cultural and even personal enthusiasms may readily be inferred throughout the passage:

I prefer Tom Jones to the Rosary, Rabelais to the Elsie books, the expurgated parts of Gulliver’s Travels to those that are left. . .I delight in beef stews, limericks, burlesque shows, New York City and the music of Haydn, that beery and delightful old rascal.  I swear in the presence of ladies and archdeacons.  When the mercury is above ninety-five I dine in my shirt sleeves and write poetry naked.  I associate habitually with dramatists, bartenders, medical men and musicians.  I once, in early youth, kissed a waitress at Dennett’s.  So don’t accuse me of vulgarity; I admit it and flout it.  Not, of course, that I have no prejudices, no fastidious metes and bounds.  Far from it.  Babies, for example, are too vulgar for me; I cannot bring myself to touch them. . .But in general, as I have said, I joy in vulgarity, whether it take the form of divorce proceedings or of Tristan und Isolde, of an Odd Fellows’ funeral or of Munich beer.

          The tone throughout is hearty and enthusiastic.  Here, clearly is a man who delights in associating with all sorts and conditions.  Like the Highbrow, this High Middlebrow is aware of “high culture” and even enjoys some of it (e.g., the music of Haydn and Tristan und Isolde).  Unlike the Highbrow, he allows his high culture enthusiasms to sit cheek by jowl with middlebrow or even on occasion lowbrow ones (e.g., limericks, burlesque shows, Odd Fellows’ funerals).  There’s also a distinct earthiness here, even within the realm of what would normally be considered high culture, as demonstrated by his liking for Rabelais and preference for the expurgated parts of Gulliver’s Travels.  His almost encyclopedic hearty enthusiasm is death on prudery—well, most kinds.  In addition to babies, Mencken cannot bring himself to have anything to do with actors—a prejudice whose origin isn’t entirely clear.  But for the most part, his is a posture of inclusion rather than of exclusion.  Fully aware of high culture and what it has to offer, he doesn’t kowtow to it in any way. 

          The tone of this passage is well-suited to its subject matter.  For the most part it is simple, straightforward, and breezy, even to the extent of bordering on the colloquial.  There are few abstractions and a wealth of concrete details.  The sentence structure is simple, as well, with few complex sentences.  But a single phrase, “fastidious metes and bounds,” gets away from that colloquial tone.  (For those who, like the present writer, were not previously familiar with “metes,” it is an archaic word meaning boundary).  Here, for a split second, we get a glimpse not of the informal boulevardier, but rather of the encyclopedic linguist, whose monumental writings on the English language in the early 20th century rivaled those of Samuel Johnson in the 18th century.  But even this archaism, though seemingly a bit of unnecessary and unnecessarily arcane rhetoric, is useful in seeing the larger picture of Mencken as a whole.  What this word tells us, and most economically, is that here is a man who would, if he so chose, be quite capable of functioning as a full-scale highbrow.  But in point of fact, he does not function as one for the vast majority of the time—by his own choice, even if it’s fun to play at being one every now and again, as a form of showing-off.  At the end of the day, it’s a lot more fun enjoying limericks, burlesque shows, hearty beef stews and the works of Rabelais, not to mention brass bands rubbing up against his high German culture, than to restrict oneself to the narrow range of traditional high culture.

          Fast forward seven decades, to June 5, 1985.  That was the date when Calvin Trillin, generally best-known for his work for the New Yorker magazine, declared in The Nation: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”  The passage bears some examination, both on the score of its content and the context in which it appeared, both initially and in around 2017, when it cropped up as a Cryptoquote on the puzzle pages of the daily paper.

          Unlike any other Cryptoquote I’ve ever read—I find most eminently forgettable–this one gave me considerable pause.  If the word “whom” reminded Trillin of butlers, then, presumably, he would have been quite all right with somebody’s using “who” as an objective pronoun!  Here is indeed clear evidence of a High Middlebrow at work.  The quotation shows that Trillin knows the rules of grammar, but would apparently rather break them on occasion than be thought of—or think of himself—as a stuffed shirt.

          Of even greater interest is the phrase’s revival at such a late date as 2017, past the point, at least given what my little survey had shown, of any meaningful intellectual debate between High Middlebrows and Highbrows.  I studied it intently, as an archaeologist might have studied a particularly well-preserved pot.  How had such a nuanced cultural perspective made its way into print in our by then all but totally monochrome world? Were there more High Middlebrows than I thought existed, lurking somewhere in the shadows just waiting to be discovered? Or (which appeared to me more likely), had the quotation somehow caught the attention of the desk editor in charge of putting together the Cryptoquotes section? Presumably this would have been a person of a “certain age,” and of sufficient educational and cultural sophistication to have appreciated the distinction between a High Middlebrow and a Highbrow, and to have been interested enough in the matter to have thought the phrase worth bringing before the public, as an example of the richer and more nuanced cultural universe we have left behind.  In all likelihood, this person would himself have been a High Middlebrow.  Why else would he have selected the quotation?  For the first time since I’d administered that little Facebook survey three years earlier, I had the sense that I might not be alone in my beliefs, after all.

          Having found at least one more fellow traveler accompanying me on the cultural journey, I no longer felt so uneasy defining myself as a High Middlebrow, and began doing so on occasion, when in appropriate company.  Where there was one such person, after all, there could well be more.  Birds of a feather, and all that.

          Flash forward three more years, to 2020.  In search of a novel to read to fill in evenings left much longer by the loss of televised live sports, I discover something entitled Rules of Civility, [2] by an author bearing the unusual name of Amor Towles.  This book, acquired at a secondhand store in Ottawa some years ago, had sat unread on my bookshelf ever since.

          Like many such long-neglected books, Rules of Civility quickly revealed itself to be a buried treasure. Many signs of a High Middlebrow cultural universe can be found here.  To begin with, the novel evokes the New York of my mother’s youth more clearly than any other novel I’ve ever read, including even E.L. Doctorow’s monumental World’s Fair.[3]  But it does more than that.  It evokes a world in which culture is again a major preoccupation, as it was in my youth, when the release of a new book by Saul Bellow or Gunter Grass was a major event, and the release of the “egalitarian” Third Edition of Webster’s International Dictionary set off a veritable firestorm of intellectual debate, even at sleepy little Amherst College, my alma mater.

          A sense of the all-pervading importance of culture in the world of Towles’ novel can be derived from the following excerpt.  The heroine, Katherine (Kate) Kontent, who has been hired at least partly because she is not an ex-debutante, but a workingman’s daughter, has just been summoned for an interrogation by her boss, Mason Tate,[4] editor of Gotham magazine. Not even inviting her to sit down, Tate cuts straight to the chase.

          —–Tell me about your personal situation, Kontent, he said at last.

          —–I’m sorry, Mr. Tate.  What is it you would like to know?

. . . .Mr. Tate smiled coolly.

          —–How would you describe your ambitions?

          —–They’re evolving.

          He nodded his head.  He pointed to the draft of an article that was on his desk.

          —–This is something of a profile by Mr. Cabot.  Have you read any of his pieces?

          —–A few.

          —–How would you characterize them? Stylistically, I mean.

          Despite its wordiness, I could tell that Mr. Tate generally appreciated Cabot’s work.  Cabot had a good instinct for the intersection of gossip and history and he seemed to be an unusually effective interviewer—charming people into answering questions that were better left unanswered.

          —–I think he’s read too much Henry James, I said.

          Tate nodded for a second.  Then he handed me the draft.

          —–See if you can make him sound a little more like Hemingway.

          Though relatively brief, the passage offers keen insight into the actual work of creating culture, work being performed here by two High Middlebrows of the first order.  To the High Middlebrow, culture isn’t something to be kept on a high shelf and taken down for special occasions, as the pure Highbrow would have it.  Nor, on the other hand, is it something to be passeled out indiscriminately, like bowls of gruel at an orphanage.  Every person’s taste is not equal to every other person’s taste, as the pure Middlebrow would have it.  Lawrence Welk is not an adequate substitute for either Oscar Peterson or Leroy Anderson, any more than a Harlequin romance is an adequate substitute for Agatha Christie or Simenon, or than a steam-table hot turkey sandwich with instant mashed potatoes and canned peas would be a substitute for a real, homemade turkey dinner.  While the High Middlebrow’s cultural tastes are catholic, they are also discriminating.  The quality of any cultural output matters very much indeed.  Helping to craft high quality culture is a job worthy of the best efforts of the best minds.

          As if the above passage were not sufficient proof of Towles’ High Middlebrow proclivities, here’s a passage from a bio which accompanied an early review of the novel.  If this isn’t a modern-day High Middlebrow, then I’ve never seen one.

          “Mr. Towles, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children, is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950’s jazz, 1970’s cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, obsolete accessories, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers.”

          I think it no accident that both the hardcover and paperback editions of Rules of Civility spent time on the New York Times Bestseller list.  The novel speaks to a real hunger in its readers.  In part, this is a hunger for the unabashed luxury of a bygone New York, for glittering hotel lobbies and beautifully-dressed men and women and huge parties in the Hamptons, its frosty cocktails and sumptuous lunches and dinners.  But it’s also a hunger for a world in which culture really matters, a world in which one can hear Billie Holliday live, in which painters and painting matter, and in which, as we’ve already seen, a writer’s style matters very much indeed.  All of this and more may be found in Rules of Civility, which may help to explain why I felt peculiarly satisfied on finishing the novel—a feeling that fiction hasn’t provided me with for at least two decades, in the works of the late Carol Shields.

          I now know I have at least two fellow travelers on my cultural journey: Towles and the unnamed desk editor from 2017.  But given Rules of Civility’s immense popularity, there are almost certainly a good many more (even if they haven’t yet taken to calling themselves High Middlebrows) from the ranks of fellow readers of the novel. 

          It appears, then, that those earlier reports of the High Middlebrow’s demise, penned by yours truly, were in fact exaggerated.  It also appears that the Passenger Pigeon isn’t the most precise analogy for the High Middlebrow after all.  Maybe we should, instead, be looking at the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a beautiful bird once found throughout the Southeastern U.S. and Cuba,[5] which some ornithologists have declared extinct, but which numerous others, as well as some “lay” birdwatchers, have reported seeing in recent years, suggesting there’s a serious possibility that the Ivory-Bill yet lives.  Or possibly even (at the risk of sounding hopelessly optimistic) at the Whooping Crane, a species reduced to about 20 by the beginning of World War II, but which has since then, thanks to careful nurturing and impassioned conservation efforts, come to number about 800. Or maybe at some bird in between (in terms of both size and numbers) that we haven’t even thought about yet.

          Whichever species of bird turns out to be the most exact analogy, I’m now encouraged enough that I shall henceforth no longer hide my High Middlebrow light under any sort of bushel, pretending to be the full-scale Highbrow I am not, and could never be.  How this will all play out, in a post-COVID cultural universe, is anybody’s guess. For what it’s worth, my prediction is that in that cultural universe, in which we will arrive after a serious and lengthy surfeit of all manner of virtual culture, there will be a great hunger for the traditional culture of the past, and that the High Middlebrow, while not the dominant figure (s)he was in New York between the two world wars, will nonetheless have an important role to play in creating and maintaining that culture, whatever forms it may take.

Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020, Dartmouth, N.S.


[1] H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, Europe After 8:15 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1914).

[2] New York: Penguin, 2011.

[3] New York: Random House, 1985.

[4] Tate appears to have been modelled, at least to some extent, on the volcanic first editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross.

[5] I am fond of this bird both because of its great beauty and because one of my favourite American authors, Tom Robbins, saw fit to use it on the cover of one of his novels, Still Life with Woodpecker.

Categories
Essay

The Death of the High Middlebrow? Part I

“Martha,” the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.  Maine Senator Olympia J. Snowe, the last remaining moderate Republican in either chamber of the U.S. Congress, left politics just short of a century later, in 2012, thereby rendering moderate Republicanism in the U.S. extinct to all intents and purposes.  When the last moderate Conservative or “Red Tory” left Canadian politics, I don’t know for sure.  I do know that no such person has been seen in Ottawa for at least a decade, if not longer. 

          The end of the High Middlebrow, a once thriving species in both Canada and the U.S., cannot be as precisely ascertained as the two aforementioned American events, but it may perhaps have occurred at some point between 1985 and 2014.  While the High Middlebrow was clearly imperiled by the former year, there was still evidence, some of which you will see later in this essay, that the breed still existed. By 2014, that could no longer be said with any certainty.

          To clarify, 2014 was the year in which I, desperately seeking fellow members of this by then rare breed, put out a call on Facebook.  Not only did no one self-identify as a High Middlebrow; no one appeared to have the foggiest idea what one was.  The Facebook friends ignorant of what a High Middlebrow was included many extremely well-educated individuals, some with graduate degrees (including doctorates) and others with professional degrees.  Almost without exception, these were highly intelligent people, well-versed in literature, history, politics, economics, and the creative and performing arts.  Their inability to understand the term was a reflection not on them but on how the world had changed.  Given the world’s many changes over the preceding quarter-century, from innumerable technological advances to a serious decline in educational standards, it was perhaps as unreasonable to expect someone to know what a High Middlebrow was as it would have been to expect a cook to know how to prepare a Floating Island, or a man to know how to don spats or pince-nez spectacles. 

          What my survey suggested was that if High Middlebrowism were to continue, I might well have to take up the banner single-handedly.  Having no desire to lead a church of one, I publicly gave up and announced I was throwing in my lot with the Highbrows, in opposition to the unlettered rabble making up the rest of the cultural universe.  But I was not at all happy to do so, and have to this day privately maintained my old High Middlebrow identity and cultural standards, in hopes of finding at least one or two fellow adherents somewhere—anywhere.

          Why, you might ask, should I be concerned with such an arcane matter as this?  The development is of concern to me because I believe we are all the poorer for living in a world in which there are, simply, people who are cultured and people who are not—a world in which there are no shades or gradations of culture.  In such a black and white, either-or world, there is a greatly reduced capacity for self-deprecation and irony, let alone any sort of balanced perspective on the follies and foibles of members of the intelligentsia.  Indeed, in a world in which “you are either with us or against us,” there is precious little room for cultural maneuvering of any kind.  Just as the political arena is poorer for the loss of its moderates and occasional fence-straddlers, so would the cultural world be poorer for the loss of this important intermediate category.  I, for one, would rue the loss, which is why I have continued to “keep the faith,” if only in my private devotions.

          What, then, is, or was, a High Middlebrow?  As one who proudly and publicly bore the label for over half a century, I’m probably as well-qualified as anyone else to attempt a definition.  To begin with, a High Middlebrow is, broadly speaking, a member of the intelligentsia, or cultivated class of society, just as much as is a Highbrow.  On average, a High Middlebrow is as well-educated and as well-versed culturally as the full-fledged Highbrow.  Indeed, while the Highbrow is likely to confine himself to one or two areas of interest, the High Middlebrow will typically graze a good deal more widely.  Whereas the Highbrow tends toward narrow specialization, the High Middlebrow is normally a generalist, of eclectic intellectual and cultural interests.

          It’s a bit of a stretch to apply the French distinction between a gourmet and a gourmand to this broader cultural issue.  But only a bit of one.  The distinction actually gets us a good bit of the way toward understanding the difference between the two types under consideration here.  While the gourmet has extremely cultivated tastes in food, (s)he is often quite a picky eater. There are many things (s)he won’t eat.  Gourmands generally have equally cultivated tastes, but aren’t picky eaters at all. When they hit on something they like, they will eat a whole lot of it.  And their tastes in food are generally quite broad, even catholic with a small C.  Depending on the occasion and their mood, they can be just as happy with a good hamburger and a glass of draft beer as with a four-star meal at a French or Italian restaurant. 

          This isn’t to suggest that the gourmand is simply a glutton, or has undiscriminating tastes. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the gourmand hits on something (s)he can’t abide, (s)he will be quite vocal in informing the world about it—perhaps even more so than the gourmet, whose temperament is generally far more reserved.  But by and large, there are many more things that the gourmand likes than that (s)he dislikes.  It’s much the same for the High Middlebrow in the broader cultural context.

          Related to the above distinction is the matter of temperament.  While High Middlebrows are typically people of great enthusiasms, folks who revel in the wealth of God’s cultural plenty and aren’t in the least afraid to let others know how they feel, Highbrows are reserved, even guarded in their expressions of approval.  Enthusiasm of any sort is a trait disapproved of by almost all full-fledged Highbrows.  To the true Highbrow, overt displays of emotion of any sort are at the very least unseemly, at worst a gross violation of the unspoken rules of etiquette.  Enthusiasm, the Highbrow would say, is to be distrusted. It’s for the little people, the hoi polloi.  The Highbrow may express approval by smiling, or clapping politely.  But that’s the extent of it.  And it’s important not to do too much even of this kind of discreet approval.  To be too easy in granting approval is to lower standards.  And a fear of lowering standards is what the true Highbrow culture is all about.  It is far more distinguished by what it excludes from its canon than by what it includes in it.  To say that the traditional Highbrow defines himself in negatives is a stretch, but only a bit of one.

          Finally, there’s the matter of the individual’s attitude toward cultural and aesthetic rules and norms.  These rules and norms, both official and unofficial, apply to everything from language to food and dress.

          In the area of language, cultural norms dictate never starting a sentence with a conjunction like “but” or “end,” never using a split infinitive, never using the word “disinterested” to mean “bored,” and never using the word “hopefully” at the beginning of a sentence.  In the area of dress, they dictate never wearing a straw hat after Labour Day and never wearing a tie with any kind of pattern with a shirt with any kind of pattern.  If your shirt is striped or checked, you can wear only a plain-coloured tie with it.  In the area of food, they dictate never serving certain starches with certain proteins, never serving food all of one colour together at a meal, never drinking iced water, and on and on.  I don’t know enough about music and the visual arts to know which strictures would apply specifically to them, but I do know that they have their own, equally comprehensive lists of “do’s” and “don’ts—especially the “don’ts.

          The Highbrow’s attitude toward such rules and strictures, some of which may still be in general force but many of which are regarded by most people as at least bordering on the archaic, is one of reverence and strict observance, particularly in his or her chosen field.  This really makes perfect sense, since Highbrows are all about exclusion, and how better to exclude large numbers of people than to do so on the score of their violation of the rules (written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken).  Overall, their attitude is one of extreme deference to authority, even authority that lacks any real credentials, or authority that has (as in the case of William Safire, well-known conservative writer on language and also a former speechwriter for Spiro Agnew) given us good reason to be suspicious of its motives.

          The High Middlebrow knows these rules as well as the Highbrow does, but has a far more complex attitude toward them and is far more selective about observing them.  Some of those rules, such as the distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested,” the High Middlebrow genuinely believes in and accepts.  About others, he or she is not so sure, but will accept them because he or she doesn’t think them worth fighting about.  Still others—say, the rule against ever using a split infinitive—he or she regards with amused skepticism.  Others—the stricture against wearing a straw hat after Labour Day or against a sentence-opening “hopefully,” he will simply laugh it, and quietly or not so quietly disregard.  Toward the “cultural obedience tests” that are the Highbrow’s stock-in-trade, his attitude is generally to consider them guilty until proven innocent.  A true child of the philosophes, she accepts little on blind faith.  She has enough faith in her own judgement to believe that if a cultural norm doesn’t make sense to her, and can’t be made to make sense, then she won’t follow it.

          A good example of these differing attitudes toward “cultural obedience tests” occurred some years ago, in a dispute about art I was having with a former Facebook friend, whom I finally unfriended after many moons of putting up with her aggressive stridency on all sorts of issues, from art to politics.

          This woman was appalled at my dissing  Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in one of my threads.[1] Citing several experts in the field of modern art who thought Pollock the bee’s knees, she suggested I should consider changing my attitude on the basis of their views.  Right from the start, I knew this was a battle nobody would win.  So I did my best to deflect her, citing the Roman writer Horace on taste, and doing so in the original Latin, no less: “De gustibus non disputandum est.”[2] Undeterred, she plunged on doggedly, hauling out several more of her experts, as if the sheer accumulation of the weight of authority would have changed anything. The argument ended only when I logged off Facebook after telling her it didn’t matter how many experts she quoted; to me, a Jackson Pollock painting resembled, and would always resemble, something produced by emptying what was left of the dog’s dinner onto the canvas from a height of six feet.

          To my late Facebook friend, the views of those various art critics, none of whose work I ever bothered to read, had the weight of Holy Writ.  To me, they were irrelevant.  I was (and am) quite capable of coming to my own conclusions about any given artist for myself.  It may or may not have been a coincidence that this particular woman had spent the bulk of her career in the military prior to becoming a religious defender of modern artistic orthodoxy.  In any case, the debate, which was soon followed by even more acrimonious debates about literature and politics, offers an excellent example of the differing cultural stances of the Highbrow and High Middlebrow.

          What, then, are some of the tastes and attitudes that have caused me to label myself a High Middlebrow?  I like my own homemade sweet and sour spaghetti sauce as well as Coquilles-St-Jacques, a baked potato stuffed with creamed tuna or turkey as well as Beef Wellington.  I love Bull Durham, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Grand Budapest Hotel, National Film Board documentaries, tense dramas from early postwar Russia and Czechoslovakia, and all manner of screwball comedies from the 1930’s and 1940’s.  I adore Tom Jones, Middlemarch, The Master and Margarita and The Tin Drum, but I’m also extremely partial to the comic novels of Peter de Vries, the simple honesty of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and the weird and wonderful characters who populate The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I love baseball, tennis, and hockey but can’t stand American football, golf, or NASCAR racing, and am only ho-hum about basketball. 

          On stage, I love farces such as Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace, the screwball comedies of Norm Foster, taut murder mysteries like Double Indemnity, and plays halfway in between comedy and mystery, such as Anybody for Murder and Habit of Murder.  I’m equally fond of Bertolt Brecht’s powerful political dramas (Mother Courage and Caucasian Chalk Circle) and cornball musicals like Sound of Music and Oklahoma.  As for music, I enjoy Mozart and Vivaldi in the morning, mid-range classical such as Brahms or Rachmaninoff in the afternoon, and all manner of jazz at night, from early Dixieland through to Ornette Coleman’s improvisations.  Folk music I enjoy almost any time, and am as likely as not to wind up singing along to it.  I love pops concerts, especially those held outside, brass band concerts, and also all manner of dance, from square dancing to contact improvisation, that wild crazy modern hybrid that I pursue to bring out my inner anarchist.

          All of this is not to suggest that I am undiscriminating in my tastes.  Far from it.  I absolutely cannot abide instant coffee, oleomargarine in any form, Kraft dinners, instant mashed potatoes, the abstract noise of Philip Glass and Ann Southam, or the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian and Barnet Newman, let alone the ludicrous and pathetic productions of the all-too-numerous imitators of Andy Warhol, for whom a feed bag nailed onto a plank of wood or a bunch of cereal cartons tied together with baler twine represents “art.” At the other end of the scale, most ballet leaves me cold, as does most opera when I see it live, though I admit to a lingering fondness for The Nutcracker and for certain comic operas such as Cosi Fan Tutti.  And I positively refuse to see anything remotely resembling an “action” movie, drink a pre-mixed cooler or cocktail, read anything written by Ayn Rand or anyone of her ilk, or listen to rap or heavy metal music, or any other kind that hurts my ears.  I was, after all, given but a single pair of ears; it behooves me to take good care of them.  And I have neither time nor patience for bullies, religious fundamentalists who insist on imposing their views on others, or anyone else prone to believe there is “one best way” of doing things.

          These pronounced dislikes–some of which rise to the level of full-scale prejudices–notwithstanding, there is much more in this world that I like than that I dislike.  Even at my advanced age, an age at which most people are supposed to be persnickety about a whole lot of things, I’m much happier saying “Yes” than “No.”

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce, Dartmouth, N.S.


[1] For more detail, see my essay, “Paint Like the Masters:  Lesson 1, Jackson Pollock,” at www.jonpeirce.ca. Posted June 14, 2020.

[2] Yes, it’s true. . .the High Middlebrow is by times given to a bit of showing-off.  Why not?

Categories
Essay

You Got Soul, Brother!

Monday, Monday. Greeting me across the breakfast table is the headline from an old–probably too old–“Wheels” section of the local paper. “Can a motorcycle designed by a focus group actually have soul?” A coffee-slobberer if ever there was one.

The brainworm planted by this most extraordinary header will take some time to expel. Even turning to the full story, on a back page, and discovering that by “soul” the author means “sales success” doesn’t help. It is too late. The header’s unholy union of business jargon and religion has already created a long succession of bizarre images, each more disturbing than the last. Trust me. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Has the sleepy old Herald suddenly morphed into a secret sci-fi journal? Either I’ve lived too long, or this was an exceptionally slow news day for the “Wheels” editors! The latter hypothesis, I must say, takes on a certain salience from the fact that the review of the motorcycle in question is given a full page. Another coffee-slobberer–if only there were any coffee left to slobber. I mean, really. Two thousand words and a three-column, full-colour photo about one motorcycle, when stories about the major events of the day are lucky to be given 700 words. It’s hard to know where to begin in analyzing this particular concatenation of facts.

One thing is clear. Whether I’ve lived too long or not, the newspaper is staying too long on my dining table. I simply can’t afford any more nightmares of the sort this header is sure to inspire. From now on, the maximum allowable stay on my table is 72 hours. After that, it is straight to the recycle bag, whether I’ve read the section in question or not. If this means I never see any more headers of the type under discussion here, so much the better!

In closing, I pray that I never meet up with one of these “motorcycles with soul” on the open highway. If I do, it will likely go hard with one or both of us. The thought of one of these machines negotiating a hairpin curve out near Peggy’s Cove is really more than I can bear–even with a full quota of coffee in tow.

Categories
Essay

The Bizarre Battle of the Big Bombers

Seeing Milos Raonic and John Isner matched up against each other in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2018 reminded me of this strange match the two had had at the Miami Open three and a half years earlier.  For the first two sets, it appeared we might be seeing a reprise of that earlier match.  Both were won in tiebreaks without any service breaks having occurred.  But in the third set, Isner broke Raonic’s serve.  He broke him again in the fourth set, and before long, the match was over. It turned out that Raonic had suffered a leg injury late in the first set.  Had he not done so, we might indeed have seen a reprise of that earlier match.  But eventually, we got that reprise after all, when Isner faced South African Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon semis. This time, Isner came out on the losing end, in a 6 hour, 36 minute marathon.

The following was originally written in 2015, the morning after the aforementioned Miami Open match.  Upon rereading the piece, I see no reason to change anything.

In the end, it may only have been the tiebreak games that made the “Battle of the Bombers,” the 2015 Miami Open match between Milos Raonic and John Isner, at all bearable.

          The three-set match, eventually won by Isner in the third set tiebreaker, did not include a single break of serve.  Indeed, the entire match saw only four break points, Raonic facing one, and Isner, three.

          By the middle of the first set, it was becoming increasingly clear that absent a dramatic development (such as an injury) or major mental lapses on the part of either or both players, the set was likely to end in a tiebreaker.  Watching the games leading up to the tiebreaker was about as exciting as watching a round of artillery practice.  The 6’10” Isner and 6’5” Raonic would load up, aim, and fire—mostly with predictable results.  Rallies of any length were few and far between.  A great many of the points were decided on the basis of the serve, or the return of serve; many more on the basis of “rallies” of three shots or fewer. As the evening wore on, the eventual denouement of each set—the tiebreaker–became ever more predictable.  You could, if you wished, step out for coffee, a drink, or even a light meal.  The basic situation would not have changed one iota in your absence.  So long as you were back in time for the tiebreaker, you really would not have missed anything of importance.

          One reason to be grateful for the tiebreaker is that we have seen what happens in some Isner matches in situations where there is no tiebreaker (such as the fifth set of major tournaments such as Wimbledon).  The matches can go on. . .and on. . .and on.  In 2010, Isner was part of the longest tournament match ever played, an 11-hour marathon that stretched on for three days at Wimbledon.  He would eventually win the first-round match by the incredible score of 70-68.  Two years later, he was on the losing end of a 5 hour, 40 minute second-round match at the French Open.  Who knows how long Isner and Raonic might have gone on in Miami without the availability of the tiebreaker to lead to some kind of resolution?

          Most important for our purposes, the tiebreaker, by changing the scoring system, introduces a totally different dynamic into the match.  The basic unit of measurement becomes not the game, as in “regulation” play, but the individual point.  This lent a greater intensity to last night’s proceedings since (unlike in regulation play) the players could not let up for a single point.  One point could mean the difference between victory and defeat in the set.  Thus there were some real rallies—arguably the best rallies of the match occurred during the three tiebreak games—and some “mini-breaks” of service, where the receiver was able to wrest points away from the server.  The drama of the tiebreak games was heightened by their contrast to the utterly predictable “regulation” games that had led up to the tiebreak.

          Early on in the second-set tiebreaker, it appeared that Raonic had the situation well in hand.  Not only had he won the first set, beating Isner decisively in the first set tiebreaker, but he had a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker.  Just four more points, and the match would be his.  But then, his previously reliable first serve deserted him.  So did his ground strokes.  At one point, he put an utterly routine forehand return into the net.  Isner was quick to take advantage, soon tying Raonic and before long winning the tiebreaker by a score of 8-6.          

          One could fairly ask why Raonic continues to have so much trouble with Isner, whom he has not beaten in three matches, despite his being clearly the more coordinated athlete and the better all-around player, as reflected in the two players’ respective rankings entering the match.  (Raonic was ranked #6 in the world, while Isner was ranked #17).

          One possibility is that the 29-year-old Isner’s greater tournament experience puts him at an advantage at crucial points in matches with the 24-year-old Raonic.  Two or three years ago, when Raonic was still a largely unknown up-and-comer, such an explanation might have had a certain salience.  But since then, Raonic has made it to the semi-finals of Wimbledon and the quarter-finals of various other Grand Slam events.  He has beaten Rafael Nadal and acquitted himself well against other members of the “Big Four,” such as Roger Federer. His lifetime earnings are in the $8 million range—somewhat greater than Isner’s $7.2 million despite his significantly shorter period on the tour.

          In short, despite his comparative youth, Raonic is no longer an unproven youngster, but rather a battle-hardened veteran much like Isner himself.  So Isner’s greater tournament experience doesn’t really go very far toward explaining his perennial dominance over the Canadian.

          Another explanation may be that when playing Isner—one of few players on the tour who is significantly taller than him, and possessed of as hard a serve—Raonic is forced into an unfamiliar role, that of (by comparison) the little man.  Isner is one of few opponents he cannot simply overpower.  The American (as we saw last night) will always be able to serve at least as hard as the Canadian.  To beat him, Raonic must move him around from side to side, and engage him in longer baseline rallies—the sort of strategies that his opponents normally use against him.  It may be that, up until now, at least, the psychological adjustment to a different role has just been too much for the young Canadian.

Alternatively, the explanation could be simpler—namely that in the end, size did matter.  At least for the time being.  What this explanation suggests is that at the end of the day, size and strength prevailed—if only by a whisker—over quickness, agility, and superior tennis skills.  Sometimes Goliath does beat David, despite David’s best efforts.

Categories
Essay

Slow-Acting Advice Through the Back Door: The Method to a Method-Acting Director’s Madness

At the time community theatre director Howard Lenters gave me the advice described in this piece, I thought he was nuts.  I still have that thought every now and again.  But maybe old Howard was crazy like a fox.  He somehow planted the theatre bug deep within me, for life.

What?  Had I heard that right?  I mean, could a sane person have seriously suggested—indeed all but insisted—that I go for three days, in the middle of a New York-area heat wave, without bathing, shaving, washing, or changing my clothes?  But no, it was not a bad dream.  I had heard it right.  And the man who had just made that incredible suggestion, community theatre director Howard Lenters, was standing not three feet away from me, looking me in the eye, and awaiting my response!

This all came about in the context of a post-rehearsal discussion, during which Lenters began by expressing his frustration at my apparent inability to get inside the head of my character, a starving Spanish orphan, one of the leads in a turn-of-the-century Spanish melodrama in which the Catholic Church figured prominently, and to display emotion.  After looking me over a good deal more thoroughly than he had during the audition, Lenters said “You haven’t suffered enough.”

Coming from a man who barely knew me, who indeed had never met me prior to the audition, the remark was enough to induce a state of shock.  Granted, I may not have suffered in the way my poor orphan character had—few people in modern First World countries had, after all.  But I had just spent four years in a Massachusetts boarding school run by a headmaster from West Point, with its half-mile trudges through snow to the dining hall, terrible food once you got to the dining hall, lack of girls, and teachers who positively got off on flunking people. That had certainly been suffering enough for most of us.  In response to Lenters’ words, my lower jaw dropped at least three inches, which should have answered any question he might have had as to my ability to display emotion.  Jaw agape, I stood, motionless and speechless, for the better part of a minute.

“Do you know any way of learning about suffering?” he finally asked, a little more gently.  Still unable to speak, I shook my head. 

“I’m not sure I do, either,” he said.  “Still, we’ve got to try something.”  There was an ominous pause, and then came the suggestion about going without washing, bathing, or changing clothes. “That should teach you something about suffering!” he concluded, not without a certain smugness.  This time, my jaw dropped at least four inches.

“Suit yourself!” I said.  What I wanted to say was, “Are you crazy?  Might I recommend a good psychiatrist?”  But he had, after all, cast me—perhaps against his better judgement.  And he was The Boss.  I therefore felt I owed it to him to at least try out his experiment, whacky though it might be.

“See you Friday night!” he said, almost cheerfully.

“See you then,” I mumbled as I left the rehearsal hall.

The next day, the temperature hit 90.  By Day 3, it was 98 at 12:00 noon.  We were in the grips of one of New York City’s infamous heat waves (I lived in a Connecticut suburb just outside the city).  Through it all, I faithfully followed Lenters’ instructions about not bathing, shaving, washing, or changing clothes.  What I hadn’t told him was that we had a swimming pool in our back yard, in which I swam for at least an hour each day.  Without those swims, I’m sure my body odour would have been unbearable, and my fellow actors would have revolted and thrown me off the stage. As it was, the mud-caked, increasingly stiff chino pants and T-shirt looked like an outfit better-suited to a criminally insane fugitive than an innocent Spanish orphan.

 “I think you’ve suffered enough,” Lenters said as I entered the rehearsal hall on Friday.  “You can go back to washing and bathing and changing your clothes.” A good thing, too.  I was finding the filthy outfit unbearable by this time, and might well have dropped out of the show rather than wear it even one more day. As if in gratitude for my deliverance, I displayed more emotion than I ever had before, to Lenters’ obvious approval.

Soon enough came the dress rehearsal.  Facing a real audience, I managed to display plenty of emotion.  For the two actual performances, I displayed even more emotion, winning a rave review from the local paper.  In contrast, the actor playing the bullfighter, who had been ranting and raving and generally going way over the top during rehearsals, showed far less emotion during the actual performances, and drew barely a mention in the paper.

Was there a connection  between Lenters’ bizarre request of me and my sudden ability to display emotion? When I took an introductory theatre course in college the following year, I immediately recognized Lenters as a disciple of Stanislavski, the Russian method acting guru who believed that the best way to prepare for a part was to go and live that part.  It seemed utter malarkey, on the face of it. Surely it was beyond ludicrous to think one could actually be another person.

But was there more to all this than met the eye?  After all, the bizarre experience would stick in my memory throughout my adult life, long after apparently saner but more conventionally expressed advice offered by professors and other mentors had been forgotten. Whatever else you could say about Lenters’ approach, it had gotten my attention.  I was, in fact, still thinking about this experience in my first play when, some five decades later, I tried out for my second one, the classic comedy Harvey, at a community theatre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  By this time, I recognized that Lenters had hit a raw intellectual nerve, making me obsessed with the question of how an actor engages in learning.  Had I not still been obsessed with that question, I wouldn’t even have considered auditioning.  As it was, I did audition, and was eventually cast.  The role would lead to another and then eventually to eight more, plus a gig as assistant director. In retirement, theatre has become a serious pursuit.  And all from that one crazy suggestion!

Looking at it now, I suspect that Lenters may in fact have been issuing me a challenge rather than expressing any true belief in the method of Method.  “All right,” he may have been saying.  “Here’s one approach.  If it doesn’t work, it’ll be up to you to find a better one.”  To this day, the most important part of any acting venture for me continues to be how I learn the role, and what, at the end, I have learned as a result of having played that role.

The lesson here may be that not all the best advice looks wise on the surface, and not all of it kicks in, like a headache remedy, within 30 minutes.  Whatever advice Lenters may initially have intended, it has taken a lifetime to sink in and it is still working.  He has long been gone, but if I could have one minute with him, I’d say, “Break a leg on that celestial stage, Howard.  You done pretty good despite yourself!”

Categories
Essay

Back Stories as a Route to Empathy and Understanding

One of the things I most enjoy about being a community theatre actor is creating “back stories” for the characters I’m portraying.  These stories give depth and substance to the role and help me feel more empathy for my character.  If I’m playing an alcoholic, who drinks ouzo at breakfast when everyone else is drinking coffee, what life experiences drove him to drink like that?  If I’m playing a weepy old guy with dementia who wants nothing more than a friend, how did he get into such a predicament?  Often, the script itself will offer clues, in the type of language a person uses or the way he relates to other characters.  When it doesn’t,  then I’m free to start inventing.  All that matters is that the story be plausible, given what we already know about the character.

          There’s generally quite a good reason for why our characters are the way they are, if only we’re willing to take the time and trouble to find it.  My alcoholic, I decided, had been shunned and bullied in boarding school, and also suffered from his father’s totally unrealistic expectations for his future. My weepy old guy had never really fit in his working-class community (his good grammar tells us that), and had then experienced the death of the only person who really understood him (Mel, the grandmother, whose funeral sets in motion the events of the play).  I’m sure that other actors reading this could provide equally good examples from their stage experience.

          But back stories need not be confined to the stage.  Knowing how to discover or, when necessary, create them can improve our personal relationships and enrich our everyday lives.

          My first foray into the world of back stories began with my parents, whom (like many others) I was inclined to blame for most of my adult shortcomings.

          Truthfully, they weren’t very effective parents.  Though intellectually brilliant, they were emotionally clueless—rather like people who knew calculus but couldn’t add a column of figures.  For years I looked, invariably in vain, for emotional support from them in my struggles.  When that support wasn’t forthcoming, I grew resentful.  What was wrong with them, anyway?  Could they not hear my cries for help?  And why did they never communicate anything of an emotional nature?

          Taking stock of my “emotional inheritance” one day when I was in college, I found that it amounted to absolutely nothing.  I’d entered college totally lacking in emotional development, and with precious little in the way of social and communications skills.  I would, therefore, have to wrestle with emotional issues that were second nature to most other people, who’d known about these issues since early childhood.

          Would I ever achieve the emotional maturity needed to function as a healthy adult?  Bitterly, I cursed my fate, and then sought professional help, having no idea how to proceed on my own.

          Even the best of the professionals I consulted couldn’t tell me why I was the lost soul that I was, let alone what I could do to change things.  And so my resentment increased with each passing year.  I was particularly incensed at my father for literally fleeing the room each time I attempted to raise any emotional issue.

          Then, one day, when I was in my 40’s and the father of three myself, I started to think about what my parents’ childhood and adolescence would have been like.  My examination of their back stories would prove most revealing. 

          My father, who fled the room whenever any emotionally charged subject arose, had never seen his father.  My grandfather, a chemist, had been killed in an industrial plant explosion before my dad was even born, leaving my grandmother, a physician, with three young boys and pregnant with a fourth (my father).  Quite understandably, Granny suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for some time, leaving my father to all intents and purposes an orphan for his first year of life.  Though she eventually recovered sufficiently to be able to resume her medical practice, she was never the same again.  The boys were left not only fatherless, but also to a degree motherless, since Granny now had to function as both father and mother.

          As for my mother, she’d undergone the trauma of seeing her parents divorce when she was 4.  After that, she was shunted back and forth from relative to relative and then from boarding school to boarding school until time for her to go to college.  As if that were not enough, her mother, whom she adored, had been hit by a drunken driver and crippled when my mother was 9. After some years in a wheelchair, she’d died at 43 while my mother was in college; her father had died a year earlier.

          Thinking about my parents’ horrific childhoods filled me with intense pity for both of them.  While it didn’t make up for the social backwardness from which I long suffered because I hadn’t learned basic social and communications skills at home, it did help me realize that my earlier expectations had been completely unrealistic.  How could someone who had never been parented herself be an effective parent?  And how could someone who had never had a father himself communicate effectively to his son as a father?  You can’t teach what you’ve never learned. 

          Freed of those unrealistic expectations, I was able to achieve a passable if still somewhat distant relationship with my father during his last decade, and to again become close with my mother, as I had been in childhood.

          From there, I moved on applying the technique to other relatives, whose behaviour had previously also appeared quite unaccountable.  While it didn’t always lead to a sea change in the relationship, it did at a minimum help me understand them better.

          The pace picked up once I went into community theatre about six years ago, and started thinking up back stories for my characters as a part of my standard operating procedure.  With practice, I got better at thinking up stories for the people I met off the stage.  A look of sorrow on a deeply-wrinkled face was like a key, opening up a vault containing hitherto unknown treasures.  Indeed, even something as simple as a locket or a watch chain might yield significant insight.

          There’s a part of our Anglican service that never fails to move me.  It comes right before the Peace, and it goes, simply: “Forgive others.  Forgive yourself.”

          You needn’t be an Anglican or even a Christian to appreciate the wisdom in those simple words.  By forgiving others, we clear the way to forgiving ourselves—the most difficult, but at the same time most important thing we are called on to do. 

          I’ve found understanding other people’s back stories a critical first step to achieving forgiveness.  And because forgiving others is an integral part of forgiving ourselves, understanding or if necessary creating those back stories is a key element of self-forgiveness, and thus of self-care. The wisdom these stories have to impart to a knowing heart is beyond measure. 

          For me, at least, there’s no better way to acquire that wisdom than by going on stage and literally putting myself in someone else’s shoes for a few months.  That it’s all great fun into the bargain is simply the icing on the cake.

Categories
Essay

The Dad I Had, or, Charlie, We Hardly Knew Ya

What to make of a man with whom I never in my life had a serious conversation on an emotional issue, a man who didn’t come to my first wedding but instead sent a cheque for the same amount as his plane fare would have been? A man who showed a documentary film about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at my younger sister’s third birthday party? A man who once walked out of a Sandy Koufax no-hitter that was being pitched in the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium he’d had a large hand in designing, explaining that nobody was getting any hits and he found the lack of action boring? A man who cared enough about me to accompany me to my conscientious objector hearing in Norwalk, CT, coming up all the way from New York to do so, but who, six years earlier, even faced with ample evidence that I had a serious drinking problem, hadn’t cared enough to get me the psychiatric help I was practically begging him and my mother to get me? And who, two years before that, had apparently been so determined to get rid of me that he took time off work to drive me all around New England in search of a boarding school where he could deposit me, my straight “A” average at Darien Junior High notwithstanding? A man who was such an inattentive driver that on superhighways he sometimes let the car bob and weave all over the road, like Floyd Patterson attempting to elude Sonny Liston in a championship bout? A man who was supportive enough of my interest in cooking to give me a wok and a fish poacher, but who never wanted to cook alongside me? A man who was allergic to cats, but nonetheless lived with two of them for many years? A man who continued to smoke despite having been told by his doctor that his lung capacity was 13%–one-eighth of the normal?

          It isn’t easy to put together any sort of coherent portrait out of such disparate and largely fragmentary recollections, but I’ll try.

          The first and most important fact to bear in mind about my father, Charles Peirce (1919-2002), son of Dr. George Peirce and Dr. Ethel Girdwood Peirce, is that he himself never had a living father, George Peirce having been killed in an explosion at the Colgate & Company plant in New Jersey in which he was working at the end of the First World War.  At that time, Ethel Peirce, already the mother of three young sons, was pregnant with my father.  As the story goes—I’ve never seen written confirmation but have no reason to doubt its veracity—my grandmother had a nervous breakdown either shortly before or shortly after my father’s birth, and had to be confined to an institution, leaving him to be raised by domestics, a virtual orphan for his first year of life.  This fact, together with the fact that after her recovery Granny had to be both father and mother to her four boys, all while maintaining her practice as a rheumatologist, inevitably left its mark on all four.  On my father, the biggest effect appears to have been that he was left emotionally frozen, incapable of expressing any emotion other than anger. It also meant that he never acquired any fathering skills, or indeed any nurturing skills of any kind, his mother, by her own admission, having been unable to be much of a mother to her boys, given the situation.  One can’t teach skills one has never learned oneself.

          As I became more aware of my father’s back story, I grew more able to understand many of the previously inexplicable lapses in his parenting.  This didn’t make the lapses any easier to take, however, nor did it make it any easier for me to acquire my own parenting skills, when the time came to do so.  Never having learned any parenting skills at home, I was forced to resort to trial and error in my quest to learn them.  Sometimes this worked.  More often than not, though, the results were unfortunate.  My own failures as a father, however inevitable they may have been given my lack of a role model during childhood, have continued to dog me to this day.

           Our best moments together were our weekly shopping trips to the Darien, CT, A&P.  For reasons still not clear to me, Mother never participated, except by writing the list.  I would walk to the store bearing with me the list, divided into two parts.  On the left-hand side: the meat and the produce.  On the right-hand side: all the remaining items, including frozen goods.  Arriving a few minutes before Dad did, I would start in on the non-perishables, handing him the meat and produce list as soon as I saw him. 

          There was definitely a kind of quiet camaraderie about these trips, almost a sense of being workmates at the job of bringing home the bacon (both figuratively and literally).  There was usually a bit of banter with the cashier at the check-out counter, and sometimes we would bet which one of us could come closer to guessing the total cost of the groceries.

          The last time I ever saw Dad, in 1999, was in Maine, at our summer house in Hancock Point.  We spent part of one afternoon going to Ellsworth and laying in a few modest supplies at the supermarket.  Each of us picked up six or eight items.  “Not like the old days,” he said, with a grin.

          “No,” I replied.  “Not quite!” I was secretly delighted that he’d remembered.

          Far less pleasant were the annual drives to Maine, on which I accompanied Dad to keep him company, or at least keep him awake. I envied my sisters who got to ride up with my mother on the old “Bar Harbor Express” train from Stamford to Ellsworth.  While they got to enjoy a night in a Pullman berth and meals in the dining car, I had to sit for 10 to 12 hours in a car with a seriously uncommunicative man, from whom I would be lucky to elicit six or eight sentences during the entire day, choking in the fumes of his cigarette smoke and nauseated by the stench coming from our two Springer Spaniels in the back seat, who often as not had become carsick by the time we’d entered the state of Maine.  Between the cigarette fumes, the stench of the dogs, and motion sickness from Dad’s erratic driving over bumpy roads, I would not infrequently become carsick myself, though fortunately I was always able to keep my puking outside the car.  Given that the best part of Dad’s and my relationship revolved around food, it’s no small irony that nearly all of those Maine drives resulted in my bringing up most of what I’d eaten that day somewhere between Kittery and Portland, along the Maine Turnpike. If I made it to Hancock Point (three hours past Portland) without puking, I considered it a minor miracle. These were definitely not memories to cherish.

          At home, Dad was as uncommunicative as he was in the car, scarcely involving himself in our lives at all, beyond providing occasional rides to ballet classes, evening basketball games, or Saturday music lessons. Throughout my boyhood, he was an all but completely absent figure, who spent the vast majority of his time at home either engaged in herculean construction projects, most destined never to be completed, or encased in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke behind the New York Times

          Granted, he was far from the only absent father around. From talks with my friends as well as some reading I’ve done, I get the impression that being largely absent from family life and any sort of emotional issues was almost the norm for fathers in the 1950s.  Certainly a great deal of poetry and fiction from that period revolves around absent or missing fathers.  But my father carried things to extremes.  His inattention to even such basic issues as whether we were in the house or not was such that I used to joke that if I’d run away with my bike to ride to California, starting from our home in southern Connecticut, I’d have been at least in western Pennsylvania, if not Indiana, before he’d have noticed I was missing.  No one ever disputed me.

          On the rare occasions when he did notice something about our personal lives, he was as apt as not to be completely off the mark.  The one time he ever commented on my public school grades, he criticized me for having gotten a “3” (average) effort mark along with my “A” in math.  I actually believe that the math teacher, who was very fond of me, had given me that effort grade as a kind of joke, or perhaps a suggestion that I belonged in a more advanced class.  In any event, I found the criticism laughable.  “I got an “A” in the course, Dad,” I said.  “How am I supposed to improve?” At least he had the sense not to pursue the matter any further.

          Searching for an image with which to sum up my relationship with my father, I can’t come up with anything better than the flickering signal from a radio station somewhere at the outer limit of the catchment zone.  This term may bear a bit of explanation.  If, as often happened to me as a kid, you woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, you would sometimes pass the time by playing with your radio dial, trying to “land” a station as far away from you as possible.  My dad was like a station on the extreme outer edge of that catchment zone.  Not like WBZ in Boston or powerful KDKA in Pittsburgh that you could get every night, or even the Chicago station that you could get two nights out of three, but the little station in Kansas City, or Miami, or Montreal, that you could get one night in five if you were lucky and hear for a minute or two before it faded away.   You never knew from one night to the next what you were going to get.  Depending on the night, the Montreal station might yield a few sentences of near-incomprehensible spoken French or the closing bars of an old Quebec folk song. The Kansas City station might send out some lovely jazz chords, or the ugly rant of a reactionary talk show host.  And so it went. Even more to the point, it might be a day or two—or a month—before you got that same station again. There was, in short, no consistency either as to the regularity of your contact with the station, or what you would hear when you did finally establish contact.

          Like my ever-futile attempt to develop some kind of consistent relationship with those flickering late night radio stations in Miami or Kansas City, my life with my dad was a near-constant, sometimes desperate attempt to establish and maintain some kind of contact—in this case, emotional contact. Though he was generally companionable enough, at any attempt on my part to raise a subject of an emotional nature, he would literally flee the room, vanishing as surely as that Kansas City station would whenever I was beginning to really get into one of its jazz numbers. I never heard a single song through to completion on that Kansas City station, and I never had a single conversation on an emotional issue with my dad, at least not any conversation lasting more than one sentence.  Ironically, his favourite saying was, “I feel for you, but I can’t reach you.” That sums up my relationship with him to a “T,” except that I was the one doing the feeling, and forever coming up short in my attempts to reach him, no matter how hard I tried.

          Our final moments together, in Hancock Point during the summer of 1999, in many ways epitomized our entire relationship. I was preparing to head back to Nova Scotia on the fast ferry from Bar Harbor.  Along the way, I planned to enjoy a lobster dinner in Ellsworth.  I offered to treat him to a lobster dinner, but he declined.  Instead, we just had a drink together, getting into the hard stuff despite the early hour (it wasn’t yet quite noon).  I had a gin and tonic; he opted for a bourbon on the rocks.  We clinked glasses, just as if we’d been two strangers enjoying a nooner together in some bar in Havana or Madrid.  We talked about trivial stuff, like the forthcoming Democratic presidential primaries (both of us supported Bill Bradley), never coming close to any emotionally-charged issue. After fifteen minutes or so, I heard the honk of a horn outside. My cab had arrived to take me to Ellsworth.  I believe I gave him a hug as I rose to leave, but frankly don’t remember. 

          As I ate my lobster at Jasper’s Restaurant in Ellsworth, I felt a certain emptiness inside, wishing that Dad had been there with me. But he’d been firm in his refusal, so there was no point in my punishing myself with regret.  I’d done the best I could.  He simply could not commit, even to the extent of sharing a meal. Of one thing I was certain: I would never see him again.  He was 80 and still smoking, despite his long-standing emphysema. The question wasn’t whether his emphysema would take him, but when.  (It wound up taking him about two and a half years later).

          To the very end, he remained as inscrutable as he’d always been.  While the fabled Charlie of the Kingston Trio’s “MTA Song” was the “man who never returned,” this Charlie, my father, was the man who’d never been there in the first place.   As I finished my coffee and got up to pay my bill at Jasper’s, I realized that even though we’d shared the planet together for nearly 55 years, I barely knew him.  Truthfully, I’m not sure anyone did.

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce

Categories
Essay

In Defense of the Humble “Very”

As a writer, I find the three-quarters educated the bane of my existence.  Thinking that they know better than full-time practitioners, on the basis of some strictures against this word or that acquired in Miss Gibson’s or Mr. Thorne’s Grade 9 English class, they make writing into a slalom course or even a minefield—and lose sight of the bigger picture.  The strictures of some of those three-quarters educated against the humble but useful word “very” are an excellent case in point!

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Though it has served writers of English well—I almost said “very well”—for centuries, the humble adjective “very” is held in disdain, if not outright contempt, by no small number of them.  Some time back, in a Facebook interval between political rants and quizzes designed to reveal what colour one was in a previous life, I read a lengthy post dedicated to ways of ridding one’s vocabulary of the word.  After a brief introduction, the post consisted of a list of phrases including “very” on the left-hand side, and on the right, single words which could replace such phrases.  For “very cold,” one could substitute “frigid.”  For “very bad,” one could substitute “abominable” or “egregious.”  “Very stupid” could be replaced by “imbecilic.”  Etc., etc.

Up to a certain point, I take the point.  The word “very” can become, well, very tiresome, particularly if it is overused, or if it serves as a substitute for all other adjectives and adverbs.  When used to the exclusion of all other modifying words, “very” can create the impression—which is sometimes not mistaken—that the author is rather simple-minded.  In one sense, the authors of the aforementioned Facebook post were absolutely right.  There is almost always a more specific word that can be used instead of “very” this or “very” that.

But banish the word altogether? That seems just a bit much.  While it’s true that there is almost always a more precise substitute for “very” this or “very” that, such substitute phrases are not without their own drawbacks.  Most notably, those phrases tend to call more attention to themselves than would the humble “very.” Suppose we are talking about an error that a student has made on a law school exam.  If the student has made a “very serious” error, then he or she may be disqualified from further consideration on that particular question.  But if the question is hard enough or students have been deficient enough in their study, his or her error may not in any way stand out.  It may be that a dozen other students will be found to have committed the same error.  An error can certainly be serious without being unusual.

If, on the other hand, the student has made an “egregious” error, then that error will stand out.  By definition, it must, since “egregious” means conspicuously bad.  If the student’s error is one committed by a quarter of the class, it doesn’t make much sense to describe it as “egregious,” no matter how bad that error is.  The term “egregious” also has a slightly official connotation to it.  “Egregious” errors are apt to be those which justify awarding a failing grade to a student or administering discipline to a member of a profession.

We may also not wish to call all that much attention to the student’s error.  When an educated reader comes to the word “egregious,” her mental jaw is likely to drop.  The mere sight of the word is likely to make her re-read the sentence two or three times.  Often, we don’t want readers to stop and re-read a particular word or phrase.  We would prefer that they simply note it, and keep reading.

Here’s an example.  In a short story I wrote a good many years ago, I referred to a dancing school’s piano player as someone who “played very badly on a piano it was against anyone’s religion to have tuned.”  (The dancing school was conducted in a church hall).  Does it make sense, here, to describe the man’s playing as “egregiously bad,” or even “abominable”?  I don’t think so.  What I was primarily concerned with here was the fact that the instrument was out of tune, and had been for years.  Also, in fairness to the unfortunate pianist, while he was no Oscar Peterson, he might have risen to something approaching mediocrity had he been presented with a presentable instrument on which to exercise his skills, such as they were.  Beyond that—also in fairness to the poor man—I don’t really know enough about music to know whether his playing was outstandingly bad or just run-of-the-mill bad.  Not knowing, I figured it made more sense to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It is the mark of the truly precise thinker and writer to know the limitations of his or her knowledge.  To replace the humble “very” with a more precise word such as “abominable” or “egregious” would, in this case, be using a degree of precision beyond the author’s knowledge, in addition to (as we have already noted) calling unwanted attention to a simple but relatively unimportant fact.  Outside of formal legal or academic contexts, the word “egregious” seems to strut like a peacock.  The humble “very,” on the other hand, like a mildly embarrassed latecomer to a concert, slips quietly into its place and disappears.  Often this is just what we want it to do.

But why re-invent the wheel?  The issue has already been covered—dare I say far more elegantly than it would ever be by yours truly—by the English lexicographer and stylistic authority H.W. Fowler.  I refer particularly to Fowler’s delightful essay on “Elegant Variation” in his Modern English Usage.  Granted, the two contexts are not exactly the same.  Fowler is talking about writers who invent endless substitutes rather than repeating a word.  I am talking about writers who produce endless synonyms rather than use a common, perhaps somewhat trite word.  But the basic point is the same.  As my dear friend Harold Tausch has so often said, “Why be a slave to variety?”  Just as attempts to avoid repeating a word within the same sentence or paragraph can lead to far greater problems than the slight dullness and monotony attendant on repetition, so attempts to substitute more specific, gaudier, more rhetorical substitutes for “very” can lead to far greater problems than the slight dullness and monotony attendant on use of that word.

As what we might refer to as a simple intensifier, “very” serves pretty much the same purpose in writing as black pepper does in the kitchen.  It heats things up a bit without imparting any precise flavour of its own.  It adds a bit of interest without calling undue attention to itself (except in cases of severe overuse).  Granted, anyone who thinks of himself as any sort of cook would be embarrassed to admit he kept only black pepper in his spice cabinet.  But even the most sophisticated cooks, people with six dozen different spices in their cabinets, are likely to enjoy many standard dishes seasoned with nothing more than a bit of black pepper.

There are reasons why most of us keep pepper shakers on our tables, but not shakers containing cardamom or chili powder.  Similarly, there are reasons why experienced writers generally use “very” far more often than they do its longer, gaudier, and more precise substitutes.  “Very” ups the ante a bit without going into excessive detail or calling too much attention to itself.  More than enough reason for it to maintain an honoured place in the writer’s toolkit.

Categories
Essay

Paint Like the Masters: Lesson 1, Jackson Pollock

No expensive courses or materials are required. All you need do is study these instructions diligently.  Within the hour, you’ll be able to produce something fully the equal of anything the old master ever did.

Before starting, carefully line up everything you will need.  Many a promising project has had to be abandoned, mid-stream, for want of one or more critical materials.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Be prepared!

          Required materials and tools:  One dinner plate full of spaghetti and red clam sauce, well heaped.  Be sure to put at least one tablespoon of oil in the cooking water for the pasta, so it will slide better at the appropriate moment.  Grated cheese, while not required, is a welcome addition.  One plastic table, almost any size or shape.  (Plastic is recommended over wood because it can be cleaned more easily).  One smallish canvas, 8.5”x11” or 11”x14”.  A second canvas of any size you like.  Epoxy glue.  Cotton rags or paper towels.  Camera.

          Optional tools and equipment:  Most artists will want to use one or more of the following.  Mason’s trowel (preferred) or small garden trowel, putty knife, or kitchen tablespoon.  One or more butter knives. One dinner fork.  Cotton work gloves or disposable Latex gloves.  If late-stage edging work is desired, a small ice pick or, if that is not available, a corkscrew.  Chef’s apron.

          Procedure:  Serve up the spaghetti and clam sauce in the kitchen, making sure that the plate is fully heaped.  Maintain a steady grip on the plate as you bring it to the table.  As you are placing the plate on the table, allow your wrists to twist slightly inward, toward you.  This should be a relatively subtle motion; you don’t, after all, want to lose the entire plate full of pasta. The right kind of twist will send anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of the contents of the plate onto the table, away from you.

          Whatever else you do, do not stop to clean up the table before you eat.  The material should be taken directly from the table, not from a secondary location. And it will be far easier to work with once it has cooled.  Most important, seeing the stuff lying on the table directly in front of you should put you in a good frame of mind for creative endeavour, assuming you look at it in a positive light.

          Granted, it isn’t uncommon, particularly if you aren’t used to creating art in this way, to feel a wave of nausea at the sight of congealing food. My advice is to look away for a second, and then tell yourself this really isn’t congealing food; it’s material required for the creation of a Great Work of Art–and go on eating.  But if, after two or three tries, you’re still unable to convince yourself, you should not attempt to continue. Jackson Pollock isn’t for the squeamish. With all due respect, you will probably find one of our later lessons in The Eighteenth-Century Miniature or Early Canadian Landscapes more to your liking. Clean off the table and send out for a pizza.

          Eat at a normal pace. When you’ve finished, don’t bother washing your hands. That would only be a waste of soap and hot water.  Do, however, don your chef’s apron if you feel you need to do so, to protect your clothing. Apply the Epoxy liberally to your canvas, using cotton rags or paper towels to ensure it’s spread fairly evenly across the surface.  Once this is done, put the cooled spaghetti dish onto the canvas with a trowel, putty knife, or tablespoon.  If a fairly level surface is desired, use butter knives to spread the spaghetti dish evenly across the canvas. If a more three-dimensional effect is desired, use the trowel along with a fork or tablespoon, or heap it into peaks using the putty knife.

          You can also create your masterpiece “bareback” (i.e., without implements) by simply slathering the pasta dish onto the canvas and spreading it around with a gloved hand.  This will make for a more sensual if perhaps less aesthetically precise experience.  If you choose this option, it’s important to work fairly quickly; too long a delay may mean that the food congeals too much for you to be able to work with it at all easily without the aid of implements.

          When you’ve completed the work to your liking, clean up the work area, and then yourself, and allow the work to set for at least 30 minutes.  Then take a picture of your magnum opus, and print it out if you have full-colour printing capacity.  If you don’t, you will have to send an electronic copy to a commercial print shop, from which you can pick up the completed print at a later date.

          Once you have your print in hand, mount it on the second canvas, using more Epoxy, and then put the work up on your wall.  You are now a full-fledged modern artist, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.  Congratulations!  At this point, you may start trying to market your work. But if you feel you need more practice, you can attempt a second “painting,” this time using a slightly different medium, such as Shepherd’s Pie or roast turkey with cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed turnips, peas, and mashed potatoes.  Whatever you do, don’t throw away the original canvas.  It could be valuable as an example of Performance Art some time down the road.  Keep it in a cool, dark place at least 50 feet away from the kitchen, and put out several good strong rat traps nearby just to be on the safe side.

          In most situations, the above way of creating a Jackson Pollock-style work can supplant the time-honoured method, which was to take a plate full of leftover food and drop the plate onto a well-Epoxied canvas with some force from a height of four to six feet, leaving the food exactly where it landed.  Most obviously, the approach suggested here means less breakage and far less mess to clean off the floor.  Secondly, and even more important, this new approach allows room for the artist’s intention to be displayed, while remaining true to the original spirit of Jackson Pollock.  I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, this method of creating a modern Pollock work will be recognized as at least as great an advance on the previously-accepted technique as laparoscopy is on conventional “big-slash” gall bladder surgery.

          Bon appétit!

Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020