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Essay

Not Your Typical Mother

And now, something a bit different for Mother’s Day. . .

The talk around the bridge table had turned to date squares, a couple of us having just enjoyed some splendid examples brought by a fellow player.

          “Just like Mother used to make!” said my right-hand opponent.

          “Did your mother make date squares?” asked my left-hand opponent.

          It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. “Well, no.  Not exactly,” I said, with commendable restraint.  Truthfully, I’m sure she never ate a date square—something she’d have rejected as “church supper food.”  Her idea of a snack was a can of sardines on pumpernickel, topped with lemon juice. While we’re on the subject of churches, they were places she never entered, except for christenings and weddings. 

          Imagine a mix of Paul Bunyan, Tugboat Annie, and everybody’s favourite eccentric humanities professor:  that would be Mother.  We had over 20,000 books in our house, and she’d read most of them, always with coffee cup and Chesterfields ready to hand, and usually lighting one Chesterfield from the butt of another, pouring the dregs of her coffee into her saucer to extinguish the old cigarette.

          Besides being a great reader, and immensely knowledgeable about almost all non-technical subjects and even a few technical ones, Mother was a superb gardener and a fine cook.  If she had a fault, it was that of overreaching.  Her half-acre vegetable garden often went unweeded, because keeping up with the weeds was simply too much work.  Her compost heap, some 35 feet across, never fully produced because it was too big to be turned properly, which would have allowed the organic matter to fully rot.  And her fancy dinners, so delicious that you’d remember them for months, sometimes weren’t ready until 9 or 10 o’clock at night—far too late for kids to be eating.

          Even her leisure-time pursuits tended to the Bunyanesque.  While other women in the neighborhood swam or played tennis, Mother’s favorite pastime was going out into the woods and pulling up small trees by their roots.  She was also given to trying to lift things far beyond her capacity to heft.  When I was 8, she racked up her knee attempting to move a railroad tie that had been lining our driveway.  During the time it took the knee to heal, I had to come home from school and cook her lunch.

          Overall, Mother was like someone who knew the calculus but couldn’t balance her checkbook (which in fact she couldn’t).  For all her vast store of book learning, she lacked many of the most basic homemaking skills. Her housekeeping was appalling. Even weekly visits from a cleaning lady barely kept our domestic chaos in check.  Often the cigarette butts from her bedside table ashtray overflowed onto her bed, despite my warnings that she might burn the house down.  She could sew, but it would take her weeks to get to a missing button or ripped seam. She rarely vacuumed and never dusted.  And the mail and important papers might be in any of 30 different piles. Income tax day was always a nightmare, with her and Dad plowing frantically through those piles looking for W-2 forms and receipts. 

          An important part of the 1950s mother’s job was providing comfort to kids when they came home from school.  We never knew what we’d find. When she was awake and in good spirits, Mother was companionable enough, and quite happy to chat with us over our after-school snacks.  Other times, she’d be sitting completely silent, reading or staring into space.  Still other times, she’d be in bed, finishing a lengthy nap.  It wasn’t until later, after I’d studied psychology, that I realized the long naps were likely a sign of untreated depression.

          Her ambitions for us kids, and particularly for me, as the oldest, were boundless. She once told me I should become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Associate Justice wasn’t good enough.  Concerned about our math skills (despite the severe deficit in her own), she took to running math flash cards at us at the dinner table, until Dad finally exploded: “For Christ’s sake, Carol, can’t you at least wait till we’ve finished eating?”

          And she could be impossible in other ways. Though I’d “graduated” from a six-week summer typing course in nearby Norwalk as the fastest typist in the class, and among the most accurate, the teacher didn’t like my attitude, and after the last class sent me home with a handwritten letter to my mother saying as much.  The letter set her off on a lengthy, finger-pointing rant about how I would never succeed in life with my bad attitude. Given that I’d actually succeeded extraordinarily well, I was in no mood for this, and soon left the room and headed out to our backyard pool for a swim.

          Years later, at our summer house in coastal Maine, she was doing yard work, decked out as usual in her Truman-era paint-stained coveralls.  When she bent over to retrieve something, I saw, to my horror, a six-inch hole in the crotch.  “Mother!” I said.  “These coveralls are no longer decent.”  Though she at first thought me petty for mentioning such a trivial thing, she finally admitted I had a point, and went indoors to change.

          But what a sense of occasion she had, and how she knew how to excite us all and stimulate our imaginations!  A special show on TV and a fancy lunch were like a party.  A train trip to New York, whether to a museum, to Macy’s for school clothes, to the Empire State Building, or to the theatre or a ballet, was the grandest of adventures.  On these trips, we’d be introduced to new plays, new types of music, ancient history, and even different restaurants, such as Longchamps, a pioneer in cooking vegetables al dente.  Mother was particularly fond of theatre, with a catholic taste that extended from Shakespeare through the flashy early postwar musicals to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.  Thanks largely to her, I myself developed a passion for theatre, now among my most rewarding retirement activities.

          She also motivated us educationally. Three of us four kids wound up getting Ph.D.’s; the fourth became a poet and visual artist. And her mid-life switch to sociology, at age 43, done at the New School in New York, directly inspired my own, economically-motivated career switch from English to industrial relations at age 39.  Her example made me intellectually fearless, unafraid to flaunt worn-out conventions and break rules, and willing to take risks—like that of changing my career at mid-life.  

          Beyond that, the example of my mother shows that we can’t and shouldn’t judge people by their official roles.  As a traditional mother, she was an unabashed failure.  But as an intellectual and imaginative role model, as cook, host, bon vivant, and story-teller, she was an amazing inspiration.  It’s for those many gifts that she should be remembered. 

          Seven months pregnant with my youngest sister, or so she always maintained, she climbed a tree at midnight, at the end of a wedding reception, to share the last bottle of champagne with a likable but disheveled young man. Whether apocryphal or not, that story is my mother in a nutshell. Totally unsuited to the role she was expected to play, she took the hand she was dealt and played it, with panache and daring, if not always with good judgment.  And each adventure always produced a great story.

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce

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Essay News

When Reruns are Better. . .

I’ve an odd confession to make.  During this era of no live sports, I find that I’m enjoying the various hockey and baseball reruns I’ve been watching more than I was enjoying the “real things” prior to the Big Lockdown.  Even the tennis reruns, I am enjoying about as much.

          What sort of strange bird am I, anyway, to enjoy reruns more than the live events themselves? Am I also the sort of dude who, in this era of no restaurant meals, spends his evenings reading menus online, and finds this more enjoyable than actually going out to dinner somewhere?

          The answer to this last question is no, no, and a thousand times no.  Most emphatically I am not the sort of dude who prefers vicarious existence to real-life experience.  I just happen to find the baseball and hockey games of two or three decades ago, and even the tennis matches of five or six years ago, more entertaining than many of the recent games and matches I’ve seen.

          Let’s start with the issue of vicariousness.  Watching sports on TV is itself a form of vicarious experience, whether the games one watches are taking place in the moment or happened 20 years ago.  Going out to a ballpark or hockey arena and seeing a game live may be a tad less vicarious and closer to “real life” than watching the game on TV, but at the end of the day, one is still a spectator rather than a participant.  Not to mention that live sporting events of any kind, with or without a live audience, won’t be happening for a considerable length of time—perhaps not until a COVID vaccine has been developed.  As much as Donald Trump and his ilk may prate about giving people back their sports, the reality is that resuming live sporting events will be one of the last things that happens in the reopening process.  Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, certainly no foe of organized sport, recently said as much, in a remark quoted by CBC.

          Just the other day, I heard the Chief Health Officer of Japan quoted as saying he’s not at all sure it will be safe to hold the Olympics in Tokyo next year—during the summer of 2021.  That’s 14 months from now.  If this kind of attitude is all at representative of the larger world of sports as a whole, live sports fans are in for a long dry spell. For the foreseeable future, we’ll be left with the choice of retro games and matches on TV, or no sports at all. 

          To my great surprise, this really isn’t bothering me very much.  In fact, I’m liking my TV sports better than I’ve liked them in years. I’m finding that the experience of watching retro games and matches on TV differs, not just in degree but in kind, from the experience of watching live sports events as they are happening.

          There are three main reasons for this.  To begin with, the games or tennis matches we see as reruns have been specially selected, because they were particularly interesting, and generally because they were close, with an outcome that was in doubt almost to the end.  There has been real drama in almost every rerun I’ve seen so far.

          That definitely isn’t the case with the games we see live, whether at the ballpark or hockey arena or on TV.  What you get is what you get. The live Blue Jays game we tune into might be a 3-2 nail-biter that takes 13 innings to decide, or a 14-2 laugher that has most fans falling asleep or changing channels by the sixth inning.  There’s obviously no way of knowing in advance which type of live game we will get when we turn on our TV.

          In the rerun pool from which our games are drawn these days, there are no 14-2 laughers in baseball, no 8-1 laughers in hockey, no 6-1, 6-0, 6-0 demolition jobs by Roger Federer.  No network would show such a game or match.  Common sense would forbid it.  The airing of such a game or match would result in a flood of angry phone calls, texts, and e-mails.  It would be the sort of public relations disaster that the sports networks, already hurting from loss of their usual sports ad revenue, could ill afford.

          Beyond that, the TV viewing experience itself is different in reruns than in live matches.  Almost all live games and matches feature an enormous number of commercials.  In hockey games, in particular, there are special breaks set aside as “TV breaks.”  Live tennis matches, as well, have lengthy commercial breaks, generally after each odd-numbered game.  While the reruns still have some commercials, there are many fewer of them than there would be during a live game or match.  And there are none of those lengthy intermission breaks we normally see between periods of hockey games. We go directly from one period into the next, with at most a short commercial break in between. 

          In addition, some hockey and baseball reruns, though not all of them, have been shortened, so that one sees only the most exciting parts of the game.  This  makes for an even more focussed and exciting viewing experience.  I quickly noticed that I was falling asleep far less frequently during reruns than I had been during the live matches I was viewing immediately prior to the lockdown.

          “Isn’t it boring,” some might ask, “to watch a game when you know in advance what the outcome will be?” For me, this hasn’t been an issue.  In the first place, I often don’t know the outcome, because I never saw the game before.  (Many of the hockey reruns, in particular, go back to the 1980s, when I didn’t own a TV set).  And even some of the games I have seen before took place far enough in the past that I’ve long since forgotten both the final score and all but the haziest details. 

          But even when I do remember the score, it doesn’t bother me.  Watching a rerun, my focus is different than it would be were I watching a live game.  In the latter case, my main focus would be on the outcome.  While I would appreciate and perhaps even applaud great plays, I’d still be most interested in knowing who won or lost.  This isn’t so in the case of reruns. With the final outcome not in doubt (and sometimes deducible through internal evidence—you know that if a Canadian team is playing an American team, the Canadian team will probably come out on top), you’re free to focus on the game itself, on the strategy, the technique, and the style.  I find I appreciate the nuances of the game far more with reruns, whether those nuances take the form of the precision sniping of Joe Nieuwendyk, the defensive prowess of Kevin Pillar, or the indefatigable retrieving of Andy Murray. And I am actually learning things about all of these sports that I never knew before, because I never bothered to look for them in my concern with the won-lost column.

          Finally, particularly for hockey and baseball—this is not so much true for tennis, where thus far the networks appear not to have broadcast a match taking place prior to 2014—there’s a documentary quality to the old games.  For me, there’s something enjoyable, in and of itself, about being taken back to an earlier era, with its different styles of dress, different fan behaviour, and, above all, different style of play. I marvel at the players who played without helmets through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and I’m amazed (and slightly appalled) to see games, like a 1987 Cup final match between Edmonton and Philadelphia that I viewed the other night, in which none of the officials was helmeted.

          A number of current NHL players and executives have alluded to that different style of play—often quite fondly.[1] Says Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot, “It’s hilarious when you see Bobby Orr skating and some guy’s got his stick wrapped around his waist the whole trip from blue-line to blue-line.  Sometimes I think, ‘That wouldn’t be too bad if I could just latch my stick on someone and slow him down.’”

          Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who played junior back in the late 1980s, has expressed himself even more pithily on the same theme.  “What the hell was a penalty back then? It’s unbelievable watching some of these games and just the manslaughter that took place every shift.”

          While Chiarot and Treliving may have overstated the case a bit, it’s definitely true, based on the reruns I’ve seen, that players on a down-ice rush would often be forced to drag an opposing player along with them for at least part of that rush, with little expectation (or hope) that the officials would call a penalty.  I have no way of knowing whether, as some claim, the hitting was harder back in the day, but there definitely appears have been more of it—and also more in the way of post-play rugby-type scrums, sometimes lasting several minutes and leading to further, game-delaying fisticuffs.  

          Beyond that, the reruns give us an opportunity to see things that would otherwise be lost to us forever—games involving the old Quebec Nordiques team, 1993 playoff games featuring the Winnipeg Jets’ Teemu Selanie, then a rookie, and games showing a young Jaromir Jagr working in tandem with Mario Lemieux to produce one of the sport’s most potent offenses.  I find it especially enjoyable to see games from what Joshua Clipperton calls the “wide-open 1980s,”[2] the decade when Wayne Gretzky was in his prime, backed up by a strong supporting cast, and when it wasn’t uncommon for teams between them to score five or six goals in a single period.  Without the reruns, we’d never have had these insights into how the game has evolved over the past three or four decades.  I, for one, am grateful for those insights.

          What isn’t as yet clear to me is how big the networks’ stock of retro games is, particularly their stock of reasonably exciting ones, and how long it can be expected to last, assuming that, as is presently the case, each channel broadcasts an average of two retro games or matches per night.  Will it be necessary for the sports networks to “ration” their retro games and matches, reducing their broadcasts to one per night or maybe even one every night?  Alternatively, will it be necessary for the networks to start airing reruns of second-tier, perhaps even third-tier games, games of only average interest and dramatic appeal, just to have something different to fill in the time each night?  Already there are signs that, as the saying goes, some of the reruns are starting to get awfully old.  This is certainly the case for the 1992 and 1993 World Series games featuring the Blue Jays, games which I notice haven’t been shown at any time during the past three or four weeks.  Might this soon be the case, as well, for reruns of the more recent 2015 and 2017 playoff games involving the Blue Jays and Ottawa Senators?  And how far back can the networks realistically be expected to go in their search for what might be called “new oldies”?  So far, I haven’t seen anything from before about 1985. Are the hockey and baseball games and, for that matter, tennis matches as well from the 1960s or 1970s of sufficiently good technical quality that they could be rebroadcast today?

          The answers to these questions will depend largely on how much longer we will have to rely entirely on reruns for our collective sports fixes.  If (as now seems a tad optimistic to hope) some kind of live sports is on air by the fall, the networks may not have to delve too far below their first-tier, super-exciting games and matches.  If, on the other hand, it’s to be a year or more before live sports can be broadcast again, the networks may well be faced with some hard choices.  Do they cut back on the number of reruns they broadcast, or do they start using games and matches of significantly less than top quality, just to fill in the time?  And if there is a significant reduction in the number of broadcasts of “major” sports, how else will the sports networks fill their evening time slots?  The longer live sports are off the air, the more serious this problem will become.  Suffice it to say, I’m glad I’m not in the network executives’ shoes.

          For now, whatever sorts of hard choices the sports networks may be facing with regard to reruns in the months or even years ahead, I can only say that what they’re doing is working for me.  Whether I’ll be saying the same thing in six months in a year is another matter, but it works for me right now.  Bring on those unhelmeted referees riding herd on the young Gretzky, Nieuwendyk, and Ron Hextall, those shots of the young Milos Raonic introducing the tennis world to his booming serve, those glimpses of Tim Raines and Jose Bautista in their prime.  I can take quite a lot of that.

Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020


[1] Except as noted, hockey players’ and executives’ comments about the style of play they have seen in reruns are drawn from Joshua Clipperton, “Hilarious How Much the Game’s Changed,” CBC Sports website, April 19, 2020.

[2] In “Hilarious How Much the Game’s Changed.”

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Essay

The Making of a Senior Weather Expert

After I retired about a decade ago, I became something I had been training to become ever since boyhood: a full-fledged senior weather expert.  The sort of person who not only knows when it will clear over, and when the next rainstorm is coming, but what the implications are for the type of clothing people should be wearing, and for planned picnics, tennis games, and other sorts of outdoor excursions.  And, most important of all, the sort of person able to convey his knowledge of the situation in a sufficiently convincing way that others will take heed.

          You don’t need formal meteorological training to become a senior weather expert.  Such training, indeed, may not be helpful.  While the formally-trained meteorologist certainly “knows his stuff,” he is also prone to break out in a highly technical patois in which terms such as millibars, kilopascals, and occluded fronts figure prominently, leading his befuddled listeners to head for the hills—or the Scotch bottle.  Just as it is a writer’s first duty to be read, so it is a weather expert’s first duty to be understood.

          All that said, I should say that I’m also a couple of steps beyond Gramps or Granny and their sensitive joints—the traditional weather experts of yesteryear.  Instincts are helpful, and mine are a match for anybody’s, but they will carry one only so far.  The throbbing ankle or swollen knee will reveal that a storm is coming, but they won’t reveal how severe that storm is likely to be, when exactly it will arrive, or how long it’s likely to last.  To be more than a one-time wonder, the senior weather expert must place those instincts in the context of some solid factual knowledge—knowledge about statistical weather norms, past weather extremes, and the way in which weather patterns are changing.  One must know how fast cold fronts and warm fronts generally move eastward. One must also appreciate that, like characters in a play, weather fronts have both a back story and a forward one.  And one must always keep oneself informed of ongoing weather developments.  Finally, as suggested earlier, one must keep one’s presentation skills honed.  All in all, not an onerous job, but one that does requires someone to pay attention to what’s going on.

          It is knowledge of what I’ve called “past weather extremes,” spectacular events such as the New York City blizzard of 1947 or the eastern North American ice storm of 1998, for which senior weather experts are most noted.  Not only are such storms the stuff of legend; they have obvious entertainment value.  Who isn’t enthralled by a good yarn about the Blizzard of “47 (the first two digits are always omitted in serious weather discussions) or the Ice Storm of “98?  But like strong spices in the chef’s cupboard, such spectacular events must be used judiciously and rather sparingly.  Overuse is liable to turn the weather expert into a caricature of himself.  At the end of the day, the whole raison d’être behind using such extreme events is to discover what they have to teach us about our weather today.  The weather expert’s job is to provide guidance to his fellow citizens, not to do a Gabby Hayes re-run.

          Besides, if he’s to be convincing, the weather expert must be true to himself.  I’ve never lived in a rural area and am not about to start now. I look and sound much more like a professor than like the typical weather expert of yesteryear–  very possibly because I was a professor for the better part of 15 years.  I’m both more youthful-looking and more urban-sounding than your father’s or grandfather’s weather expert.  I would only make a fool of myself if I sought to determine wind direction by wetting an index finger and holding it up to the wind, or to forecast the severity of a forthcoming winter by seeing how thick a mole’s burrow was on Hallowe’en. As for the Gabby Hayes-style locutions such as “tarnation” and “by cracky,” let’s not even go there.

          How did I become a weather expert?  For starters, I diligently immersed myself in the weather stats from earliest childhood.  As a boy, I would consult the weather page of the New York Times even before turning to the sports page to check on the doings of my beloved New York Yankees.  Most of the time, at least.

          Having filled that little brain with all sorts of goodies about temperatures, humidity, and extremes of precipitation, I would demonstrate my knowledge by reciting said stats on the school playground on what I deemed to be suitable occasions.  My idea of a suitable occasion clearly wasn’t everybody’s.  Over the years, I came in for more than my fair share of teasing from the less statistically inclined among my schoolmates.  This I took in stride, as part of the price one paid for being the possessor of such arcane lore.  Let the hoi polloi rag me to their hearts’ content.  In the end, I knew, I would have the last laugh.

          Besides, it wasn’t all about numbers.  For the big picture, and I do mean “picture,” there was the amazing Tex Antoine holding forth on WNBC every night.  Dressed in an artist’s smock, Antoine, better known as “Uncle Wethbee,” dazzled us all with his rapid-fire drawings of warm and cold fronts, clouds, and impending storms.  Antoine didn’t deal very much in numbers.  In his hands, the weather report was a story, or more properly a series of stories—a front story and a back story in addition to the current story, all superbly illustrated by his flamboyantly-executed drawings.

          Not the least of Antoine’s virtues was the example he set, to an impressionable youngster, as an urban weather expert.  In his smock, and with his urbane manner, he was clearly someone who would have been much more at home in a café than out in a field staring down a mole’s burrow to discover its thickness. Thanks to old Tex, I knew I wouldn’t have to pretend to be some kind of hayseed to be a weather expert.  I could be my sophisticated urban intellectual self and still be a weather expert at the same time.[1]  That was one reason why his five-minute show was generally the high spot of my day during the 1950s.

          It was from Antoine that I learned, early on, that weather is a lot more than a set of numbers, interesting though these might be.  And thanks to my own real-life experience, as a guy trying to work in as many swims and tennis games as possible in an uncertain climate, I’ve acquired that precision of observation that’s at the bottom of any weather expert’s bag of tricks.  But now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go for my daily constitutional.  Right now, the weather is still good for it, but if I wait another half-hour, that warm front heading in from Ontario might wreak havoc with my plans.  .  .


[1] The tragic end to which Antoine’s career came, many years later, when he made a terrible joke about rape while in his cups, should not blind us to his real achievements in his younger and sober days. 

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Essay

Only the Butler Knows for Sure

Do you think you sound like a butler whenever you use the pronoun ‘whom’? The noted American humorist and New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin does, or at least did, according to a recent “Cryptoquote.” (For those who don’t know what a Cryptoquote is, it’s a newspaper puzzle in which one letter stands for another and which, when solved, yields a short and occasionally pithy quotation).

The exact words of Trillin’s quotation were: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.” Unlike any other Cryptoquote I’ve ever read, this one gave me considerable pause. What stopped me was the idea of a New Yorker writer—any New Yorker writer—seeming, even implicitly, to endorse bad grammar. Could this actually be happening in the magazine where E.B. White, he of the infamous Strunk & White style manual as well as Charlotte’s Web, had strutted his stuff for many years? Here was something definitely worth further exploration!

As I began my search for the origins of the quotation, I discovered that it has been cited many times recently. No fewer than a dozen Google references came up on my initial Google search—most from within the past month or two. But interestingly enough, most predated the newspaper Cryptoquote, meaning that it wasn’t just the appearance of the Cryptoquote that vaulted the quotation back into celebrity status. What, I wondered, what might have occasioned the quotation’s recent resurgence in popularity? Hopefully this wasn’t a sign that its author, whose work I’ve long enjoyed, is failing, or, God help us, already deceased. But why else would we be seeing the quotation so often? I hadn’t noticed that we were being overrun by wheelbarrowloads of ‘whoms.’ Had you? Here where I live in Nova Scotia, I’m lucky if I hear the pronoun twice in a week, except from my own lips.

Happily, a quick pass through Trillin’s Wikipedia biography revealed that, for the moment at least, he is still alive if not necessarily kicking. Thank heaven for small mercies. The last thing we need right now, after a month in which we’ve lost George Michael and Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (to name but a few), is to lose another celebrity.

Eventually I found the source of the quotation. Interestingly, it was from The Nation, not The New Yorker. (Another pass through Wikipedia revealed that Trillin has been the former magazine’s most prolific contributor in recent years). We don’t, therefore, get quite the same cognitive dissonance we might have had the thing appeared in White’s old magazine. Even so, The Nation has never been a magazine for lowbrows or for intellectual lightweights. While politically left, it’s culturally nearly as traditional as The New Yorker. Its average reader almost certainly has at least as many degrees as the average New Yorker reader.

Of more interest than the place of publication was the date. The quotation, it transpired, first appeared in the June 5, 1985 issue of The Nation—just about halfway through the Reagan years. Certainly the dumbing-down of society, of which we’ve all been made so painfully aware of late, had already begun. I myself had satirized the emerging trend in a 1982 essay, “In Pursuit of the Higher Mediocrity.”[1] At the same time, the universal darkness forecast by Alexander Pope at the close of his Dunciad had not yet completely descended on us. Not by a long shot. The Kingston Whig-Standard, then still a proud independent daily to which I contributed throughout most of the 1980s, offered plenty of scope for the free play of the mind and a full spectrum of political opinion, from Libertarian through Green, in its editorial pages and particularly in its Saturday magazine. Evidence of education, wit, and humour was still permissible in politics, both in the U.S. and in Canada. While danger signs had begun to emerge, genuine debate within the intellectual community was still perfectly possible. It is in this context, I think, that Trillin’s remark should be viewed. I see it as a throwing-down of the gauntlet to his fellow highbrows and high middlebrows, inviting them to lighten up a bit. It is not, as it might be construed in today’s far more black-and-white intellectual universe, an invitation to unfettered grammatical license. Which begs the intriguing question of why the quotation should have been revisited at this particular point in our cultural history. Nostalgia for a world that no longer exists? A somewhat belated attempt to demonstrate a populist folksiness on the part even of highbrow intellectuals writing for highbrow publications? The more I think about it, the more perplexed I become.

For the record, despite being a card-carrying high middlebrow, I’m not terribly bothered by people who use ‘who’ when technically they should be using ‘whom.’ In the larger scheme of things, such a minor solecism—perhaps the equivalent of not wearing a tie to a funeral—doesn’t really matter much at all. At most, it rates about a .7 on the grammatical Richter scale. The meaning remains the same whichever form of the pronoun one uses. I’m far more bothered by people who talk about something’s being “pretty unique.” And as for folks who blithely drop ‘disinterested’ into the slot meant for ‘uninterested’ or ‘bored’—well, let’s just not go there. My blood pressure is high enough already, since the installation of the Great Impostor in Washington.

All of this said, I shall continue using ‘whom’ as the objective case of this particular pronoun. While it’s true that I’m also the sort of man who still wears ties to funerals, my continuing use of the objective form goes well beyond mere obeisance to tradition. I have found ‘whom’ a very useful word indeed on numerous occasions—and always without feeling like a butler.

In my experience, ‘whom’ is particularly useful in dealing with telephone solicitors—at least a medium-sized nuisance for most of us. After the initial ‘Hello’ or at the first hint of an awkward silence, whichever comes first, I intone, in my best and most deliberate radio voice, the following. “To whom do you wish to speak?” For the timid, this succession of thudding monosyllables will often suffice. The would-be solicitor abandons the attempt and vanishes, as I imagine it, back into his or her private little rabbit warren. Oftener than you might think, the mere confident assertion of rhetorical distance is enough to rid me of the pest, at least for the time being. And even those who persist are at a significant disadvantage, both because of the rhetorical distance I have asserted and because I have taken the initiative in the encounter. They are easy prey for my next line: a Colonel Blimp-like demand that the caller “State your business and do it quickly!” The apparently contradictory need to be precise and to be quick reduces the vast majority of the survivors to babbling incoherence, whereupon I tell them tenderly, “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it seems the height of arrogance to expect anyone else to know. Goodbye!”

The above is just one example of how using ‘whom’ can benefit one’s peace of mind. I’m sure that many of my readers will have their own, similar examples to offer.

Bottom line: ‘Whom’ doesn’t, at least in my view, make me sound like a butler. I’ve never yet worn anyone’s livery and am not about to start now, as a septuagenarian, for the sake of an humble pronoun. What it does do is establish me as a person who knows what a butler is. Beyond that, it serves as a welcome corrective to the faux familiarity of our times. Though there may be times when I choose, deliberately, not to use it, it will remain, as it has been for some 60 years, a useful tool in my linguistic kit.

CONTEST: Embedded somewhere within this blog is a reference to a popular song that is at least 40 years old. I’ll give 30 minutes of editorial advice gratis to the first three readers to identify the song and the singer. Hint: the reference appears in the third-to-last paragraph of the blog. Closing date: whenever I post my next blog.

[1] This essay, first published in the Whig-Standard Magazine, has been reprinted in my Social Studies: Collected Essays, 1974-2013 (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2014).

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Essay News

J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot – and me

Jon’s essay on growing up with T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” was published in the Essay section of the Globe & Mail on July 25, 2013. You can read that essay here: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/j-alfred-prufrock-ts-eliot-and-me/article13403078/