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.


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.”

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.


Farewell to Nova Scotia, Part II

With community theatre, in which my career began in 2014 with the role of Judge Omar Gaffney in Harvey, it was much the same as it had been at the Seniors’ College.  A promising beginning, including being cast in three of my first five auditions—one at each of the three major local community theatres—Dartmouth Players, Theatre Arts Guild (TAG), and Bedford Players—soon gave way to repeated rejection and disappointment.  The last major role for which I was cast was that of crime writer Edgar Chambers in Bedford Players’ Habit of Murder.  After that, I was never cast again at either TAG or Dartmouth Players, and only landed cameo roles in two biopics at Bedford, and in the comic murder mystery Habit of Murder, also at Bedford.  After succeeding in three of my first five auditions, I went something like three for twenty-five. And this despite the fact that I was physically stronger and more flexible after my two hip replacement operations in 2015, and a significantly better, more knowledgeable, and more experienced actor than I had been my first two years in theatre, even to the extent of taking workshops and private lessons in an attempt to hone my skills. As I kept getting better at my craft, my audition record kept getting worse.  Again, trying to riddle this out proved increasingly frustrating, so I finally gave up the attempt.

          By the fall of 2016, frustrated by my seeming inability to crack the literary and theatre communities, as well as by my continuing lack of a relationship, I recognized that I probably had little future in Nova Scotia, and should seriously consider moving.  One place that quickly caught my eye was Victoria, B.C., which in addition to its equable climate, offered a strong theatre community and an equally strong literary community.  But the city’s high rents and the huge costs entailed in moving there made such a move an economic non-starter.  Reluctantly, I crossed Victoria off my list of possible relocation destinations.

          My second possible destination was West Quebec, just outside of Ottawa. There I would be close to the two children I had who were still speaking to me.  Equally to the point, there I had two very dear friends:  my old workmate Denise Giroux, who lived in Cantley, and my old literary friend Elena Calvo, who lived in Hull.  Having such good friends close at hand would be a big help when it came time to actually relocate.  And Ottawa had a strong literary community featuring OIW, which had been such a big part of my life when I’d lived there, and a vibrant theatre community as well, of which I had been a tangential part as an understudy for an Ottawa Little Theatre production.  West Quebec had a vibrant theatre community as well.  The rents appeared manageable, and the moving costs, while significant, were far less than those entailed in moving to Victoria.  Early in the fall of 2016, I began to explore both drive-it-yourself and commercial moving options.  

          I’d just begun packing when U.S. Election Day came. Against all the odds and all the polls, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.  Trump’s election sent me into a deep depression from which it took months to recover.  Any thoughts of moving were put on indefinite hold, as I once again hunkered down in Nova Scotia for security. 

          The continuing need for security kept me from seriously considering a move until the spring of 2019, even as I realized I had next to no chance to grow so long as I remained in Nova Scotia. On the relationship front, with the exception of a fairly brief (three-month) fling with a Halifax woman about my age, I continued to strike out completely with the dating services and in personal encounters with possibly eligible women.  Now it was becoming hard for me to get even a second date after the initial meeting,       

          Meanwhile, my theatre career was yielding mostly a growing (and increasingly frustrating) string of rejections.  On occasion, my rejection was due to the fact that the director already knew who (s)he was going to cast for the part.  More than once, I heard an older male actor say, straight out, that he had been invited to audition for a particular role—one in which I was interested.  Though I kept on going to those auditions, in the hope that the “chosen” actor might become ill or have a conflict that would keep him from accepting the role, in my heart I knew I had little chance.  Worse yet, I lost out on three roles I arguably should have had at Dartmouth Players because the entire play was recast by the director in such a way that it no longer contained any of the parts specifically written for older males. In the face of such chronic systemic ageism, there is absolutely nothing an older actor can do, except move to a more promising locale. By the middle of 2019, I’d had no fewer than 20 audition rejections since the beginning of 2016–enough to have made a less determined character give up on theatre altogether. 

          What kept me going, and what may have kept me here slightly longer than I would otherwise have stayed, were I two amazingly powerful experiences, experiences that convinced me I had something special to contribute, and in dramatic as well as comic roles.  The first of those experiences was being cast by new director Lita Llewellyn in local playwright Joanne Miller’s comic murder mystery, Habit of Murder. I was cast in two different small roles:  that of a dim-witted and foul-mouthed but occasionally funny construction worker, whom I nicknamed “Archie” after his model, Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” fame, and that of a plain-spoken but intelligent and articulate farmer, “Poppy.”

          I had lots of fun doing Archie, poking around on the ceiling with a long stick that resembled a pool cue with a long bridge and ticking off my fellow construction worker with my obscenities and cynicism about local customs.  But the part that really stretched me as an actor was “Poppy,” the first serious (albeit small) dramatic role I’d played since age 18.  During my time on stage, I get into a serious argument with the much younger hockey coach “Leo,” who is also my business partner on the financially failing farm. Leo wants to burn down the barn for the insurance money, a scheme I refuse to have anything to do with.  Before long, our altercation turns physical; there’s a serious fight scene, for which Lita brought in a professional fight choreographer to work with me and my acting partner, Rafael Franco.  Doing that scene, which Rafael and I would rehearse every night at intermission (the scene came early in the second act) helped me tap into huge, hitherto unknown reserves of physical and emotional energy, and discover important things about my masculinity—most important of all that there was plenty of it there.  As I often told Lita, Rafael, and others in the cast, doing that scene every night taught me more about my essential masculinity than five years in a men’s group.  The potential for this kind of powerful emotional discovery is why I do theatre.  And the experience convinced me I’d done the right thing in sticking to theatre despite my many bitter disappointments, and despite the exceptionally severe “post-partum” blues I experienced after the run ended in March through most of the spring, a condition that two further rejections that spring did little to alleviate.

          The other experience was a comedy and introductory film acting workshop I took in Parrsboro at the end of August.  The workshop was facilitated by noted TV actor Sheila McCarthy.  I was paired with a chap named Robert More, then director of the Parrsboro Creative Centre, which was hosting the workshop, and someone who had had professional theatre training, followed by a number of years’ experience as a professional actor.  Together we worked up a fairly extended scene from Neil Simon’s classic, The Odd Couple.  Without blowing my own horn too much, I can say that throughout our time together, I was working as Robert’s equal—a fact he generously acknowledged. 

          What this experience told me was that my Habit of Murder experience hadn’t been just a flash in the pan.  I did have something powerful and important to offer to audiences.  At the same time, the experience reinforced the feeling I’d already had, that I would need to leave Nova Scotia to realize that potential, whether because my large size, equally large vocabulary, and high energy level frightened people, or because, as an outsider, I was a threat to established groups and cliques, or for some other reason altogether.

          For by this time, I was definite about leaving Nova Scotia.  It was during a meeting with my three old literary friends, Elena Calvo, Adele Graf, and Ralph Smith at an outdoor café in Centretown in late July of 2019, that I finally decided, once and for all, to make my move back to the Ottawa area.  Being with these three long-time friends, even if only for a short period, made me realize I wanted to live near them and be able to meet them fairly often.  Over the iced tea and latte, I pledged to move back to the area within one year (it was then late July).

          Shortly after this second, highly positive theatre experience in Tatamagouche, which I followed by a week-long visit to relatives in Maine, my whole perspective on doing theatre in Nova Scotia changed.  On returning from Maine, I found that, for the first time in several years, I was no longer passionately interested in when the next audition was, what the next show would be and at which theatre, who would be directing, etc., etc.  To say I no longer cared at all would have been a bit of a stretch.  But I did now feel a measure of detachment I hadn’t felt at any time since I started in theatre in 2014.   For I knew, now, what I had to offer—a lot if the director had the mother wit to recognize it. If I didn’t fit in one or other of the local theatre companies, it probably wasn’t my fault.  I always came prepared, learned my lines, followed the director’s instructions and worked as hard as I could, never giving any show less than my best effort, while at the same time making sure I was an easy guy to work with.  I couldn’t do any more than I’d been doing.  If my best efforts were not enough, then leaving was a no-brainer, if I wanted to have any future in theatre at all.

          Even as I packed my book collection, from which I would prune over 300 items by late winter, I was hit anew by the nagging question of why Nova Scotia, which had worked so well for me in 1970, when I’d first moved here, seemed to be working out so badly for me in 2019.  It was Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which I’d re-read that spring for the first time in many years, that provided me with the answer.  In 1970, my needs had been the primary ones of economic and physical security.  Dalhousie met those needs amazingly well, even giving me, as a sort of plus, a place I could call home for a few years, which as I mentioned earlier met some of  the “belongingness” needs we’ll be talking about in more detail shortly. 

          In 2019, my situation was almost completely different.  As a pensioner, I had enough to live on, and a bit to spare.  Materially, I wanted for nothing.  But I was (as I still often am) bitterly lonely–lonely for friends, lonely for a family that scarcely existed for me any more, and lonely for a close, physically affectionate relationship with a significant other, of the sort I hadn’t had for many years.  In short, what I was missing was a sense of connection.  None of the plays I’d been in, board meetings and church services I’d attended, and hours I’d spent at the tennis club had managed to provide me with that.  I was striking out completely on Maslow’s Level 3, his “belongingness” level.  Recognizing this was a key factor in solidifying my resolve to move, as it demonstrated the futility of attempting to do anything more about the situation where I was.  Nine-plus years was more than a fair try.

          I will admit to having had a few second thoughts during the fall of 2019, after Dartmouth Players posted an audition notice for Much Ado About Nothing, long my favourite Shakespeare comedy.  Given my Ph.D. in English, acting experience, and the fact that the play contains several good parts for older men, I figured I would be a shoo-in for one of those roles, and even began to nourish the fond hope that this gig might restart my flagging Metro Halifax theatre career.  But I wound up not being cast at all. The part for which I’d read, designed for a man of at least 60, was given to a man less than half my age. Indeed, the vast majority of parts were given to actors under 40, although it is clear from the play that at least five or six of those parts are intended for actors of late middle age or older. Once again, I’d been left completely helpless in the face of systemic ageism, an ageism applied ruthlessly and comprehensively enough to distort the playwright’s original intentions.

          Any second thoughts I’d started to have about the move died aborning when I received my e-mailed rejection for Much Ado. As painful as it was, the rejection had the effect of galvanizing me into action on the move.  No longer could I maintain even the pretense that Metro Halifax would have anything to offer me. I returned to the tasks of packing, checking out moving options, and looking for available apartments in Ottawa and West Quebec with renewed energy.

          More than one friend, on hearing of my plans of leaving, has asked if it is really wise to leave a place in a fit of pique. Won’t I simply find that I bring the same state of mind, and therefore emotional problems and emotional baggage, to whatever new place I go to?  In the first place, it’s important to point out that I am not leaving Nova Scotia in a sudden fit of pique.  As you’ve already seen, the decision is one that has been nearly four years in the making. 

          In any case, my friends’ argument seems to me simply a restatement of the old story about someone leaving one place and going to another, and asking an inhabitant of the new place how the people are there.  The response of the inhabitant is to ask the person how the people were where he was, and to say they will be exactly the same in the new place. While the old story is not altogether without foundation, it is, like many expressions of the conventional wisdom, a significant oversimplification. 

          It’s true that our state of mind is an important determinant of how we will get along in any particular place. But it’s far from the only determinant.  The suitability of the environment can’t simply be written off.  Not all places are created equal for all people.  Most of us do do better in some places than in others. 

          Consider the case of Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista.  Before being traded to the Blue Jays, Bautista was playing for Pittsburgh—but not every day.  Once traded to Toronto, he was made a regular, with all the confidence-building that that entails, and before long he had hit 50 home runs for the Jays. A guy who hadn’t even considered good enough to be a regular for his old team was hitting a near-record number of home runs for his new team. It was much the same with David Ortiz, an average player for the Minnesota Twins who, on being traded to the Boston Red Sox, became anything but average—in fact, the heart of their offense and a spark plug to two World Series titles for the Sox.  Now retired, Ortiz seems a good bet to be elected to the Hall of Fame in short order, once he becomes eligible. 

          Try telling either of these guys that environment doesn’t matter.  To them, it mattered very much indeed.  For my part, I think it entirely possible that I might have my own “Jose Bautista” experience on moving to West Quebec and finding my literary and dramatic skills once again in demand. 

Part III will appear tomorrow.


Farewell to Nova Scotia, Part I

This is it—finally.  After nearly four years of off-again and on-again, after dozens of calls to movers and U-Haul companies and hundreds of searches of apartments in places as scattered as West Quebec and Victoria, B.C., you can count on my being out of this city and province by the end of August, unless some utter disaster should transpire between now and then.  By utter disaster, I mean contracting COVID or some other life-threatening illness, or being hit by a bus. At this point, nothing less could keep me here.  I’ve rented a place in the Hull quarter of Gatineau, in West Quebec, just outside of Ottawa.  The moving truck is due to come on Wednesday, August 26.  Two days later, I’ll be driving myself and my most fragile items out of town in my trusty old Camry. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be unloading that Camry at my new home late in the afternoon of Sunday, August 30.

          How can I even think of leaving such a beautiful place?  Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that same question at least a hundred times over the past few years. All the things you’ve heard about the place’s funky charm, its sheer liveability, the presence of all kinds of culture at a fairly reasonable price, and the clean air, ready access to the sea and excellent seafood are absolutely true.  And these are definitely things I’ll miss in my new home, though West Quebec (as well as Ottawa) has plenty of culture of its own available—provided that COVID allows us to access it.

          The short answer to the previous paragraph’s tough question is that, beautiful though Nova Scotia is, I really don’t belong here.  This has been made clear to me, over the past two years in particular, in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ranging from total rejection from the one close family member I have living here to a complete inability to find a life partner, despite a decade’s diligent searching both on the Internet and through more personal channels, and taking in numerous rejections from Metro Halifax’s theatre and literary communities along the way.  After years of blaming myself for all these failures and rejections, I concluded that maybe it really wasn’t me, but the place, and that if I wanted to make the most out of my remaining years, I would need to leave the province.

          No one could say I haven’t given Nova Scotia a good, thorough try.  In addition to having become thoroughly acquainted with both Halifax and Dartmouth (much of the latter a mystery even to many life-long Haligonians), I’ve seen a good deal of the rest of the province, ranging from Yarmouth and Annapolis Royal to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck and the Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay, and including even such remote spots as New Ross, dead in the middle of the province.  I don’t think there are all that many residents of Nova Scotia (including lifelong ones) who have seen more of the province than I have.  There remain only two places of note on my Nova Scotia “bucket list,” the military fort at Louisburg, in Cape Breton, and Old Sherbrooke Village.  The latter, at least, I hope to get to see before decamping.

          Necessary though it may be, this change of venue isn’t something I undertake lightly. Moving is a major hassle at the best of times, particularly in old age, when one must sort through the detritus of an entire adult life in preparation for the moving van’s arrival.  There are so many things, big and small, to attend to, from possessions to be packed or discarded to insurance policies to be changed, that the most careful sort of planning is required if one is to avoid being overwhelmed the final week before the move.  Even with such careful planning in place, I’m already beginning to feel occasional moments of panic, three weeks before my scheduled departure date.  The normal stressfulness of the situation has been significantly aggravated by the COVID epidemic and by a sudden flare-up of my longstanding hernia condition, which means that I am physically unable to do much of the packing and loading of the car myself, and must therefore hire people to help me.

          The thought of leaving gives me no joy. As I prune my books and papers and decide which pieces of furniture to keep, I feel the same kind of grief I might expect to feel at the end of a long-term relationship, perhaps even a marriage. 

          There’s a lot of history to get over.  I’ve invested 16 years of my life in this province—six years in my first stint here, during the 1970’s, and now another ten-plus in my second stint, which began at the end of 2009.  Not only did I do my graduate work in English here, I met both my wives here, started writing poetry and doing Yoga and modern dance here (during my first stint) and started doing theatre and singing here (during my second stint).  My older daughter was born here, at the Victoria General (VG) Hospital.  And the place has been a refuge and a haven to me, not once or even twice, but three times.  All of this is hard to give up.

          Nova Scotia in general and Halifax in particular were little short of a promised land to me when I arrived in September of 1970 to take up graduate English at Dalhousie. Before coming here from the U.S., I’d had practically no money, no job and few prospects of one, and no sense of what my future might be.  Those familiar with the late American psychologist A.H. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” will recognize the situation as one involving deficiency with regard to the basic physiological and safety needs at the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  Failure to satisfy these needs in the U.S. bred in me some pretty extreme anxiety, which resulted in a major panic attack during the spring of 1970 and steady mid-level anxiety throughout much of the summer of that year.  Becoming a graduate student in Dalhousie’s English department satisfied most of those basic needs in one fell swoop, and thus eliminated most of the anxiety I’d had earlier in the year.  I had a job (as an English student and teaching assistant) and would continue to have one, provided I performed well enough, for the next several years.  My fellowship, though modest, was enough to pay tuition, room and board, and even provided me a small amount of spending money each month.  The fact that Canada, unlike the U.S., had public health care available relieved me of any possible concerns on that score. 

           Soon enough I had a fair number of friends, as well as a lover or two, most though not all drawn from the same English program in which I was enrolled.  Though few of us had much money, we all managed to have a pretty lively social life.  In many ways, my first three years at Dalhousie were the happiest of my entire life.  It wasn’t until the later years of my doctoral program, when I began to get close to completing the program and preparing to go out into the academic world in search of a teaching job, that the seamier side of Nova Scotia life would start to reveal itself.

          As had been the case in 1970, when I first learned I was going to be moving back to Halifax, at the end of 2009, my feeling was one of great relief.  At the Ottawa head office of my employer, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), I was in senior management’s bad books for having, in my capacity as union-side health and safety representative, strictly enforced the health and safety law.  It had been made abundantly clear to me by senior management that they would make my life hell for me for this capital offense, at least as long as I stayed in Ottawa.  In the case of my union-side colleague and dear friend, Denise Giroux, who unlike me was not in a position to leave the area, they made such a hell of her life that she was forced to take stress leave.  Being unattached, and not owning a house in or around Ottawa, I was able to leave. I figured there would be a lot less management interference in my life if managers had to board a plane and fly for two hours to see me than if they simply had to walk down two flights of stairs, as had been the case in Ottawa.  And I was absolutely correct.  I was never again bugged by senior management once I arrived here.  Workwise, the place was everything I could have wished for.  I had what strikes me in retrospect as the best of all possible arrangements for my two final years of doing the always difficult, conflict-ridden job of being a labour relations officer for a union.

          Outside of work, however, it was quite a different story.  During my first stint in Halifax, I’d had, as noted above, many friends and an active, even lively social life.  Before my first marriage, I’d even been a bit of a lothario, sowing my wild oats fairly freely in a graduate program where there were plenty of bright, attractive women available.  On my return, 31 years after my departure to take an out-of-province teaching job, I found that many of my old friends had left, some no longer wished to see me, and a couple had died.  I did have a few friends left from my time in Ottawa, when I would often spend summer vacations in Nova Scotia, and I made one more friendship on the tennis courts.  But people were busier now, and (aside from my one tennis friend and a work colleague who became a friend), I’d be lucky to see any of them even as often as once a month.  Far more nights than was good for either my physical or mental health were spent alone, listening to music and drinking single malt Scotch.

          If my quest for a lively social life proved difficult, my quest for a relationship proved downright futile.  An arduous search on several different dating sites yielded little but rejections—mostly polite but occasionally downright rude.  More than once I had great correspondences with women, and sometimes even great telephone relationships, only to find the women in question fleeing me as soon as they decently could once we’d met in the flesh.  Except for one six-month out of town relationship, with a woman from North Carolina I’d met through the E-Harmony dating service, no other relationship I had between 2010 and 2014 lasted more than six dates, with most being of considerably shorter duration than that.  Two platonic relationships, between 2014-5 and 2015-6, did last longer, but since 2017, I haven’t made it past three dates with any woman from Nova Scotia.  It’s all part of a now-familiar pattern:  As I’ve kept growing in knowledge and understanding, and improving in physical health as well, I’ve had a harder and harder time being accepted. For years I tried to riddle out how this could be, before finally giving up on the attempt last year.

          It may or may not have been coincidental that starting in late February of 2010, just a couple of months after I’d moved back to Halifax, I was hit by what I now realize was a moderate-level depression.  Had I been more in touch with my feelings, I might well have recognized such a depression as a symptom of the things I was lacking in my new-old city: love, affection, close friendships, and literary fellowship chief among them.  Not until the summer, when I was playing lots of tennis and doing plenty of swimming at the Waegwoltic Club and looking forward to an epic cross-country trip in August, did the depression finally lift.  After it had lifted, and I had taken that epic trip (much of it by train), I was hit by a number of other health problems ranging from a large boil on my rear end to high blood pressure and the beginnings of prostate cancer—afflictions which may or may not have been connected to that earlier bout of depression.

          The province’s literary community would come to be a major source of disappointment.  Although I received Writers’ Council (professional membership) status in the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia around 2011, this did not for many years parlay itself into any workshop or teaching gigs.  Every year I would apply to be a Writer in the Schools, and every year I was turned down, until finally, in 2018, after I had just about given up hope, I landed a 1 ½-day gig in a middle school in Kingston, in the Annapolis Valley.  My attempts to land other workshop gigs were equally unavailing.  As for any sort of fellowship resulting from my membership in WFNS—forget it.  Here there was nothing like the monthly talks and/or readings we’d always had at Ottawa Independent Writers (OIW), sessions often followed by lively conversation over beer and munchies at a nearby pub.  Most of my time here, I’ve felt like one writing in a vacuum, just as I would if I didn’t belong to WFNS or any local writers’ organization at all.        

          The Nova Scotia Seniors’ College and community theatre seemed, at first, to offer more promise.  Having, to my amazement, discovered that one of my old Dalhousie English professors, Harry Whittier, was teaching for the Seniors’ College in 2010, I decided to give it a shot myself.  So at the end of 2012, after I’d retired, I applied, and was accepted to teach a course on “Getting Started with Writing.”  My approach to teaching writing, which featured minimal lecturing on my part and the maximum possible amount of student participation, at first proved popular, and over the next couple of years, I would teach a sequence of three writing courses as well as an introduction to poetry course, generating considerable repeat business along the way.  But the writing sequence would be nowhere near as popular the second time around, and by the middle of 2017, by which time I had taught half a dozen courses, my star was no longer in the ascendancy. I would never again be given a course to teach in Metro Halifax, though I did manage to get three to teach in Truro, an hour’s drive away, between 2018 and 2020  thanks to the understanding of the course coordinator there, Phil Warman.

Part II will appear tomorrow.


The Big Turn

Last week, we had our big turn from summer toward fall. One day, it was sweltering. You felt warm again as soon as you got out of the pool. The next day, there was a bit of a nip in the air by about 6 p.m. If you didn’t towel off immediately, as soon as you got out of the pool, and put on your shirt, you would start to shiver a bit. And the days are shorter, with night coming an hour earlier than it did less than two months ago.

As often happens, some heavy rains marked the transition between the two mini-seasons.

With nighttime temperatures dropping into the mid teens, the weather is much better for sleeping. On sunny days, the air is lighter and crisper as well as a bit cooler. Motion has started to return to much of nature. No longer having to slow ourselves down to adjust to mid-summer heat, we ourselves go about our business more briskly and, I dare say, more purposefully. Joy at the beauty of the season is mingled with regret for what has gone by, but at this early point in the transition, joy still outweighs regret. I shall probably immerse myself a couple more times at the Lido Pool at the Waegwoltic Club, if only for old time’s sake. But at the moment, going for a walk holds more appeal than going for a swim.

Welcome to the swing season.


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?


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.


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 Posted June 14, 2020.

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


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.