Quote of The Week

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”



Wild Turkey

Many Americans seem to believe that Thanksgiving celebrates the first harvest gathered by the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621. The story goes that they feasted for three days on wild turkeys and fruit given to them by the Indians. This doesn’t sound very plausible to me. The Pilgrims, after all, were English, and the English only eat turkey at Christmas. If the Pilgrims had wanted to celebrate they would have feasted on chicken, or roast beef, or fish and chips, or possibly sausages; but not turkey, not in November.

Americans are obviously fond of the Indians-and-turkeys myth. But the truth is that Thanksgiving was not established as an annual national event until a much later date, 1863 in fact, when President Lincoln proclaimed it a day of celebration for the turning of the tide against the southern rebels in the Civil War.

But this didn’t make for a very happy national festival. The Civil War wasn’t something to be memorialized year after year, reminding everybody of the terrible scars it had left. So the origin of Thanksgiving was pushed steadily back in time, until it reached the safely mythical territory of 1621, and the much more pleasing image of the Indians happily sharing their food with the Pilgrims.

Like all such ritualistic events, Thanksgiving has changed as society has changed. The harvest doesn’t seem important to most people, unless they hold shares in agribusiness. The Civil War is ancient history. So Thanksgiving has come to be a family thing, a celebration not so much of national unity as of ourselves.

Nothing is more heartwarming than the idea of the family: the family in Florida, the family in North Dakota, the family in the photo album, the family in transit over the North Pole in a Boeing 747. But Thanksgiving reveals a certain confusion about the pleasures of family life. From year to year, people forget that, while families are wonderful at a certain distance, the family right in front of your eyes across the dining table can be difficult. It can be critical, crotchety, argumentative, and dredge up all kinds of memories best forgotten. In short, it can be very depressing.

So, as psychologists and counselors have observed, Thanksgiving is a stressful time for families, because they feel they have to be together, whether they want to be or not. Tranquilizer use goes up, alcohol consumption goes up, and suicide goes up at this time of year. Families are more complicated than they were in 1621, and not bound together by such strong religious ties. The Pilgrims based their family lives on the precepts they found in the Bible. The model for today seems to be The Simpsons.

So how do people get through this festival of family togetherness without committing mass murder? If my observation is accurate, they get through by reverting to very old-fashioned sex roles, and acting out Thanksgiving like a charade from the 1950s. The men lounge about and watch sports; the women stay in the kitchen and cook enough food to put everybody into an after-dinner coma – and thus Thanksgiving can be safely accomplished.

But if Thanksgiving is stressful for families, consider the feelings of the Turkeys.

Almost every day, I drive by Miloski’s turkey farm on Route 25 in Calverton, and I see the turkeys out there in the fields, waiting. When November comes around, I begin to worry about them, to dream about them. I have this terrible urge to go and warn them what’s in store. Sometimes I think of creeping out at night with wire cutters, like some hero of a World War II movie, to engineer a Great Escape for the stupid birds. But where would they go? If I took them home it would be grand larceny, and they would never all fit into my living room.

One year I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I went down to Miloski’s Farm to talk to the turkeys about their future plans. My wife said I was being a troublemaker. Agent Provocaturkey was the phrase she used. But I felt I had to do something. Here’s a transcript of part of my radio interview, broadcast that week on NPR.

“Well here I am, completely surrounded by very fat white turkeys. They seem strangely calm, and I think the truth has been kept from them. Listen, do you guys realize what date it is? Mid-November.”

Turkeys make hysterical noises.

“Look, this is no time to act like high school students. THINK. Do something. Lose weight. Get a lawyer. Learn to fly. Just do something.”

Turkeys continue as before.

It was no good, I had to leave them to their stupid fate as ritual sacrifices to that strange myth about the Pilgrims and the Indians. We need our myths, I know, but we should at least get them straight before perpetrating a latter-day Armageddon on this bunch of half-witted birds.

If Thanksgiving Day really celebrates the reunion of the nation after the Civil War – and that seems to be the historical truth – we should face the unpleasant fact that the dish of the day should be not innocent turkeys, but Confederates.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Table Manners

These are the sociable months. In November and December we will eat out much more, be invited to far more dinner parties, and even give a few of our own.

This raises many prickly questions of food etiquette and table manners. Although there are numerous books on the subject, and we can even hire a personal trainer to correct our unsophisticated habits, table manners are increasingly conspicuous by their absence. One reason for this is that a lot of people don’t have dining tables. They eat on the couch in front of the TV. The big difference is that a table almost forces sociability, because we sit face to face with no other entertainment than each other. On the couch all the formal rituals of the table are abandoned. Knives and forks and even plates vanish. It’s all too easy to slip back into the pre-civilized habit of simply grabbing food with our hands.

In a restaurant it’s easy to tell which families habitually eat at a table. The children know how to sit up, and how to use their utensils. They talk to each other. Couch families are equally conspicuous. The children run around the restaurant screaming and carrying lumps of food, while their parents stare vacantly around looking for a TV screen, or look down at their smart phones to avoid conversation.

This is just one consequence of living in the Home of the Free. People can choose exactly how to eat, and they do. In a democratic republic there are no artificial, aristocratic standards to dissuade people from eating with their hands, or on the street, or in cars, or on the couch, or on the floor with the dog. What are table manners anyway, if not a form of social control?

That’s exactly what they are, and why they may be very important. Anthropologists argue about this, but one school of thought says that primitive civilization began with collective eating, and that modern civilization began with the introduction of table manners. When people ate together, they would talk. They also needed some rules. When food was scarce and every diner had a sharp knife in his hand, lunch could turn very nasty indeed.

So, with food as with love, certain formalities were introduced. Modern western table manners began in the middle ages, and have been elaborated over the centuries until we have rules about everything – order of seating, what a formal place setting should look like and how to use all the utensils, plates and glasses, what to do with your napkin, and even the correct posture for eating and the correct way to pass the wine or the salt.

Of course the rules are arbitrary and ridiculous. It’s different in Japan, different in Outer Mongolia. The point is that table manners, like any other social rules, make order out of what can easily become chaos. They save embarrassment, because everyone knows how to behave. They also save the carpet, and the couch.

We don’t just eat food differently from our ancestors, we prepare it differently. If civilization began around the cooking fire it continued in the kitchen, where cooking was an excuse for more conversation and sociability. Everyone loves a kitchen. You know how hard it is to get people out of it when you have a party. But now, too often, it’s just sixty seconds in the microwave and straight to the couch. Not much chance of sociability there.

The last people to eat while lounging on couches were the ancient Romans, at the height of their imperial glory – and we know what happened to them.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Re-inventing the Holidays

National Holidays make complete and perfect sense if you grew up with them, and no sense at all if you didn’t. It’s difficult for anyone not brought up in America to get excited about Thanksgiving, for example, and Americans find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for Bastille Day in France, Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, or the Foundation of the Workers’ Party Day in North Korea.

These special days make a tremendous impression on us in childhood. Everyone around us takes them so seriously that the public holidays seem like part of the fabric of the universe itself. They march us through the year as relentlessly as the seasons: Martin Luther King Day, President’s day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving – all commemorating some more or less mythical part of the national history. On these days we celebrate ourselves, and people like us.

But, for most people like us, it’s not the history lesson that counts but the extra day off. With the notable exception of Thanksgiving, these days are observed on Mondays regardless of the exact date they are meant to commemorate. This convenient fiction gives us a much-needed long weekend. The cunning placement of Thanksgiving on a Thursday allows us to steal four whole days. This adds up to seven official secular holidays a year, or eight if we include Christmas, which has become a kind of non-denominational winter solstice shopping ritual.

It’s not enough. Other nations have many more holidays. Russia has nine, France has thirteen and Japan has seventeen, not even counting religious festivals. Only Albania has fewer national holidays than the USA. As the world’s only superpower, we should surely have more long weekends than anyone else.

This is a political matter. Only Congress can declare National Holidays and they have fallen down on the job. We need at least – at the very least – one three day weekend per month. There’s a big gap in March and April, and nothing at all in June or in August. A few more long weekends would be good for our health and good for the tourist industry. It’s almost impossible to take a real break in two days.

We can’t even call some festivals by their proper names any more. Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa are all lumped together under the meaningless title of “The Holidays,” so that nobody can possibly be offended by the suggestion that their particular celebration is not the most important day on the calendar. We don’t worry about the conservative sensibilities that may be bruised by Labor Day, for example, or about the feelings of British people on the Fourth of July.

We can’t change or move the religious festivals, too many delicate sensibilities are involved. But, if religious holidays are taboo, secular holidays can certainly be created. There are already plenty of special days that should be holidays but aren’t – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day are obvious choices. Tax day, April 15 should certainly be a National Holiday, we deserve it, and the holiday deficit in August could be nicely filled by upgrading National Relaxation Day, which falls on August 15. We deserve that too.

A few brand new holidays would also be refreshing, and I think that these should celebrate the genius of science and technology – the inventions that make life in the twenty-first century so much better than it ever was before. What about Central Heating Day, FM Radio Day, Personal Computer Day (perhaps not), Medical Anesthesia Day, Dishwasher Day, Prozac Day? If all these days are made into official national holidays, this will give us thirteen long weekends in the year. It’s still not enough, but it would be an improvement.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Plato at the Polling Booth

Democracy is a glorious idea. The notion of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the best notions that the human race has ever produced. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing – especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest. “Politics is the art of running the circus from inside the monkey cage,” wrote H.L.Mencken, and a lot of voters agree.

Public cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all time high. About half of all citizens just don’t bother to vote. Democracy, as Winston Churchill remarked, is the best of bad choices among systems of government. But the problems are huge, and not just the obvious problems of campaign contributions, and influence, and two almost identical parties. Plato suggested one big problem two and a half thousand years ago when he labeled democracy as “Rule by the appetites.” He wasn’t talking about fast food, although he might have been. Plato argued that democracy gives us so many choices that the system inevitably drifts towards mediocrity, instability, paralysis, decadence and chaos.

Of course Plato was an ancient Greek with authoritarian instincts who lived in the very first age of democracy, which didn’t last long. In terms of his own chaotic era and the Athenian political system, he was proved to be absolutely right. But surely he has nothing to say to us in our enlightened and sophisticated age?

Plato’s argument, in a nutshell is that the first principle of democracy is freedom so that, in a democracy, anything that limits personal freedom is resented. Nobody likes restrictions, and nobody loves authority. For that reason, nobody wants to exercise authority either. Politicians pander to popular whims, teachers are scared of their pupils, and parents become like children themselves to avoid the responsibility for disciplining their offspring. Democracy creates the feeling that nobody’s in charge, or that everybody’s in charge. Either way, each one of us is on his or her own, at the center of the universe. Nobody else matters much. There are so many conflicting demands that the system just cannot deal with them. Nobody can clearly tell right from wrong, or can even admit that there are such things. All standards are progressively abolished in the name of freedom. Random violence occurs but, because freedom is so important, nothing much can be done about it. Citizens become disillusioned with politics, and stop participating. Eventually, democracy falls apart.

Don’t blame me – I’m just quoting Plato here. His ideas don’t appeal to me, although some modern political theorists find them quite convincing. On the other hand other theorists argue that he was completely wrong, and that we have far too little freedom in our democracy, being oppressed by millions of laws and regulations, taxes and government bureaucracies. This is encouraging. When two groups of experts disagree so profoundly, we can assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But if we are living in Plato’s last stage of democracy, the age of appetites, there is some good news. Plato gave it as his opinion that this is the most enjoyable time to be alive, simply because we have so much personal freedom The main thing is to save our fragile system from moving on to the next stage of the cycle, which is the age of tyranny.

These grand theories of politics from ancient times are interesting. They help to put things in perspective. But actions speak louder than theories. A big turnout of voters at the next election won’t necessarily prove that Plato was wrong. But a massive display of indifference may well prove that the old curmudgeon was right.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Remember the Fifth of November

For anyone who grew up in Britain November Fifth has the same kind of resonance for children over there as July Fourth has over here. Both dates mean fireworks.

November fifth, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes’ Night, was my favorite night of the year when I was growing up in England. I remember majestic Roman candles, whizzing Catherine wheels, and unreliable rockets that we launched out of old lemonade bottles, and that might land almost anywhere. Every backyard was ablaze with colored lights, and many houses were ablaze too. The fire engine and ambulance bells clanged throughout the night, adding to the excitement.

This was long before the days of safety warnings on everything. We were allowed to hold the smaller sparklers in our hands, sometimes with painful results. The popular fireworks called “bangers” went off like grenades, and sounded even better inside an iron garbage can. Every child carried a supply of jumping firecrackers that shot off unpredictably in all directions, sometimes lodging in people’s clothing, and exploding as they went. Strategically used, these firecrackers could send elderly aunts into a state of nervous collapse, so they had to be revived with smelling salts.

This was the most fun we had all year, the most fun that any small boy could possibly hope for. Yet the real glory and centerpiece of Guy Fawkes’ night was the bonfire, a huge construction as it seemed to a child. The material was lovingly collected weeks ahead, and the fire was ritually lit at dusk. Atop the fire sat the central symbolic personage in this strange festival, the Guy, a human figure made of straw and dressed in old clothes, complete with mask and hat, who was burned at the height of the celebration.

There was great competition between small boys for the largest and most lifelike Guy. For about two weeks before the Fifth, Guys were displayed in the streets with the ritual cry “Penny for the Guy,” and this was in the days when a penny was really worth something. The money was used to buy more fireworks, especially the most forbidden and dangerous kinds.

After immolating the Guy, and by way of recycling his symbolic death into our lives, we ate baked potatoes, cooked black in the embers of the fire. It was altogether a superb evening’s entertainment.

Our schoolteachers explained, although we never listened, that our heartless execution of the stuffed Guy represented a piece of British history. In 1605, on this date, a man called Guy Fawkes and a number of co-conspirators concealed twenty barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, with the aim of blowing up King James I and his chief ministers. You won’t be surprised to hear that the plotters had a religious grievance. But they were caught before the gunpowder could be exploded, and briskly executed.

In retrospect, it astonishes me that my gentle parents enjoyed this barbaric ceremony. After all, we had just lived through a war – real rockets and real bombs had crashed around our house, night after night, month after month. We spent a lot of time in the air raid shelter. But there was my family, each November Fifth, in a blaze of fire and explosions, having a thoroughly good time.

What is even more poignant about this story is to realize after all these years that that romantic, historic figure, Guy Fawkes, was in effect an early terrorist. From the point of view of his technique and his target, he might even be considered the first modern terrorist.

He failed. In the end terrorists always fail. And perhaps it’s not a bad idea to remember them, and even to commemorate them with appropriately symbolic rituals, just to keep that fact in mind.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Back to the Dark Side

Only five year olds and witches really enjoy Halloween. The build-up is long and tedious, and the event itself is short and nasty. This year, the first Halloween candy and decorations appeared in our local supermarket right after Labor Day. Since the beginning of October the quiet highways of Long Island’s north fork featured full-scale Los Angeles style traffic jams every weekend. Pumpkin madness has struck again. Thousands of cars head east towards the great orange fields of U-Pick pumpkins, which mysteriously appeared overnight. I never saw them growing there during August and September, so I assume that they are flown in fully grown from some place like Guatemala, and arranged in the fields under cover of darkness.

I don’t like the look of Halloween. The color scheme is nasty, and the general décor is downright horrible. Normally staid suburban homes break out in an ugly rash of skeletons, skulls, vampires, artificial cobwebs floating ghosts, and hanging corpses. Plastic gravestones sprout in front yards, as if whole families had settled their differences once and for all. Every old barn and warehouse becomes a “haunted house” full of dime store costumes and cheap sound effects.

Whichever way you look at it Halloween is a very, very strange event. The encyclopedia says that it is an old Druidic ritual, but I don’t know any Druids around here. They must be hiding behind those masks. Two thousand years ago, back in the old country, before they all migrated to Long Island, the Druids used to celebrate Halloween as the day of Saman, Lord of Death.

This may have been all very well back in the Celtic twilight of the late Iron Age, before the Plastic Age. But it seems hardly appropriate in the twenty first century, when we are all so rational and sophisticated. Yet when October comes around everyone – or almost everyone – jumps to attention and plays his or her part in this theater of the absurd like members of a well-drilled circus team.

There’s enough material in Halloween for a thousand conferences and a million PhDs in psychology. What dark, repressed Freudian secrets do we see here, suddenly displayed outside ordinary suburban homes – literally skeletons out of the closet?

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. This is a permissive age, and children as well as adults are allowed to do or say just about anything. The only remaining taboos are those that come under the general heading of political incorrectness. The modern version of Halloween is an exuberant festival of political incorrectness, the one day in the year when no cows are sacred. American witches have often complained about the bad image they get at this time of year. They should have been around in Massachusetts in 1692, when they would really have had something to complain about. But every minority suffers at Halloween: short people, ugly people, crazy people, aliens, transvestites, people of color (any color – green, orange, purple), and above all dead people. They all become victims of this wild effusion of political incorrectness on All Hallow’s Eve.

The British, like other Europeans, have been persuaded to give Halloween a try, thus vastly inflating the profits of those who make orange and black plastic, bite-sized candy, and dental equipment. I’ll be interested to see how they will handle it, but I can guess. All the treats and most of the tricks will be liquid in nature, political incorrectness will rise to new heights, and children will definitely not be encouraged to take part. When grownups in England discover something really silly, they like to keep it to themselves.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Travelling Lite

Inspired by the example of Christopher Columbus, many of us travel great distances for reasons that are not always well thought out. We don’t travel by sea any more of course: we fly. It is one of the many paradoxes of the modern age that, while long distance travel has grown infinitely faster and more convenient, short distances are much harder than they used to be. No conveyance in 1492 took as much time to cover three miles as the 57th street cross town bus in Manhattan, or moved as slowly as the Belt Parkway near Kennedy Airport

That’s why we need long weekends – not to fly to Europe or the Bahamas, which is easy, but to get to and through the airport, which is not. We also need the extra time to pack. We travel fast, but we have fallen woefully behind our ancestors in the matter of traveling light. Ordinary sailors on the Santa Maria, setting out on a voyage of months or years into the unknown, were allowed only the most minimal carry-on baggage – one set of canvas work clothes. Their officers might have a small sea chest with one good shore going outfit and some spare underwear. But that was about it. The hold of the ship was reserved for important things, like barrels of wine.

Since the time of Columbus, the definition of carry-on baggage has expanded beyond all reason. The modern long distance traveler, off for a three-day weekend in Des Moines Iowa, carries enough stuff to sink the Santa Maria forty fathoms deep. It is astonishing what some people will try to carry on to a crowded plane.

Most airlines provide a small box or framework at check in, with a sign explaining that this is the maximum size for carry-on baggage. I have never ever seen anybody use one of these. Passengers arrive at the gate loaded down like refugees with great garment bags containing not human garments apparently, but cold weather outfits for hippopotamuses, plus duffle bags, purses the size of the Goodyear Blimp, portable computers, briefcases, shoulder bags, overstuffed shopping bags, and of course babies, with all their complicated equipment.

The manufacture of so-called “carry on” luggage is a sophisticated industry. The consumer can buy bags engineered by luggage PhDs to within one thousandth of an inch of the specified maximum size, while the airlines’ own experts design their seats and lockers to be precisely one sixteenth of an inch smaller. This explains those wild scenes in the cabin at the beginning and end of each flight, where voyagers punch, kick and hammer their overstuffed carry on bags into every available space and then, when the plane lands, block the aisles as they struggle to drag their tightly jammed property out again.

A heavier than air flying machine is a paradox in itself. It would seem to be in everyone’s interest to keep it as light and buoyant as possible. But no: not only do we have to carry the dead weight of all these excess carry ons, but down below we can hear (and sometimes see) truckload after truckload of vast fat suitcases being loaded into the hold. You get the impression that the owners just put their cases by the door and swept the contents of the house into them.

Columbus traveled light. But he is yesterday’s hero. The age of discovery on earth is over, and the only mysteries left are in deep space. Just think how much baggage our bold astronauts will need for a voyage of years into deep space: thousands of suitcases, numerous changes of leisure wear, tons of pharmaceuticals, mountains of toiletries, and a few babies too. We are trapped by the surly bonds of earth, not because we lack Columbus’s spirit of adventure, but because our excess baggage weighs us down.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Last Yard Sale

We held the last yard sale just in time. The mice started moving out of the basement because of the cramped conditions, and we decided that the great cleanup couldn’t be put off any longer. It was the very end of the season. Ours would the last yard sale before winter, and we hoped that the psychology of “Last gas station for two hundred miles” would work for in our favor.

Our first mistake was asking strangers to contribute extra items for sale, because this was a charity event. Asking people for their surplus junk is like offering free vacations in Hawaii in January. The response was overwhelming. Junk came at us from all directions. Rich people had it delivered by UPS. Most people just dumped it on our doorstep in grocery bags. We had enough junk to stock Roosevelt Field twice over.

Federal regulations require that every yard sale must display certain basic items: a stack of old National Geographic magazines, a set of heated hair rollers, a waffle irons, at least one never-used exercise machine, six or more broken lamps, and a dysfunctional lawnmower. These requirements were no problem: on opening day, we had three useless lawnmowers rusting in the driveway.

Yard sales bring out the worst in people. The sellers get carried away by the notion that the junk they have been hoarding in their basements for twenty years is worth real money. The buyers imagine that they are going to get a bargain. Both sides are wrong.

We had scheduled the sale to start at ten. But about three minutes after dawn, the early birds were circling like crows around a choice bit of roadkill. By nine thirty, the street looked like the starting line for the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. A grumbling and rebellious mass of citizens stood at the end of the driveway with local papers and maps clutched in their hands. In the end, it was impossible to hold the line without using assault weapons. They all rushed in, rushed straight out again without buying anything and went tearing off to the next sale on their lists.

You could see their point. When all this stuff was spread out on tables, it raised the inescapable question: why did we buy this rubbish in the first place? If you go to the mall, it’s easy to identify future yard sale bargains in their brand-new state. So why don’t we realize this at the time?

A few things sold quickly: tools, cushions, tablecloths, costume jewelry, and even a pair of bright green shoes. Some things sold eventually: a huge politically incorrect portrait of an Indian chief, a large bag of black balloons for a depressive’s birthday party, and a giant lawn chess set that had cluttered up our deck for months. Some things we couldn’t give away: old stereos and typewriters, the ancient National Geographic Magazines, the hair curlers and the mowing machines all stayed immovably in the driveway, as if they had been glued there
Salesmanship doesn’t work at yard sales. This is a meditative, inward experience for the buyers. They want to discover, not to be sold, and they have bargaining skills worthy of the bazaar at Marrakech. Suburbanites also seem to have an acute sense of the value of things, perhaps from years of watching “The Price is Right.” But they can’t bargain at Macy’s, and I suspect that the chance to haggle at a yard sale is half the fun. If they just wanted junk, they could find plenty in their own basements.

As soon as buyers stepped out of the enchanted circle of the driveway, their second thoughts were painfully obvious. I felt almost guilty seeing some of the larger, uglier objects being carried away, knowing that their unthinking purchasers will be threatened with instant divorce as soon as they get home, and forced to hold a yard sale of their own. As always, Thoreau gave the right answer to this moral dilemma. He wrote, in Walden, that when we own a truly hideous object we should just destroy it, and not pass it on to torture future generations.

By noon there seemed to be more stuff than before. It was obvious that neighbors were bringing stuff in, creeping through the rhododendrons at the back of the driveway wearing camouflage uniforms, sneaking in hideous china figurines and genuine colonial warming pans while we weren’t looking. After a long, slow afternoon, we had scarcely any less junk than at dawn, and we wearily packed it back into the garage and basement, where junk hibernates in winter. This was definitely our last yard sale. Next time, we’ll do the environmentally correct thing, and just rent a dumpster.

Tabula Rasa

As I was skimming through the latest heap of junk mail, one promotional message caught my eye. It was on a rather classy-looking white envelope, and it announced: “A special offer on new scholarship in your field.” This was irresistible. I have never been able to figure out what my field of scholarship is, and this mailing might give me just the clue I needed to find my intellectual vocation.

It was a surprise. The enclosed letter began with the words: “Dear Classics Scholar…” and I was transported back many decades to the time when I really was a classics scholar, of sorts. The person responsible was Dr. Lewis, the classics teacher at school – a tall, vinegary, cultured man who probably deserved a better fate.

I hated the classics – the great works of Latin and Greek literature. I hated them particularly because Dr. Lewis held the unreasonable theory that, in order to read Greek and Latin texts, we first had to learn those languages. To make a very long story short, I was a disappointment to him, an utter failure. I rebelled against Latin and ancient Greek. “Dead languages, they’re a complete waste of time,” I protested. The truth was, they were just too much like hard work.

How I regret it now. Dr. Lewis never told us that the real payoff for learning the classics would be self-esteem. There’s nothing more humiliating than failing to recognize a classical reference, or being perplexed by a Latin tag. I’ve known a few real classicists in my time. When I say something I think is original, they are likely to say: “Oh Yes, but don’t you think that Virgil expressed it so much better. Nil novi sub sole.” I am completely and effectively crushed.

Of course, there’s more to the classics than just keeping your conversational end up. The classics are a key to the whole human comedy. Your software may change once a week, but human nature never seems to change. Look at Halloween, for example, a grotesque festival that would have seemed perfectly familiar, although rather silly, to an educated Greek two and a half thousand years ago.

We owe an awful lot to the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks invented the alphabetical script, without which The New York Times and The National Enquirer could not exist. They invented democracy, they invented philosophy, which allows us to ask awkward questions about democracy, and they invented musical theater, which is a pretty good metaphor of democracy.

The Romans were less reflective and more practical. They gave us the inestimable gifts of state bureaucracy, the rule of law, military discipline, global imperialism, and the kind of in-your-face architecture that we see around the Mall in Washington DC today.

Both these great civilizations left magnificent literature. I’ve read fragments of them, but only in translation, which I’m told is a pale shadow of the real thing. Homer, writing perhaps three thousand years ago, created the first and best soap opera in his long-running series The Iliad and the Odyssey. It has everything – sex, violence, jealousy, revenge, treachery, dysfunctional families – it would be a mega-hit on the small screen, except that all the characters speak in verse. Socrates was a genius as a teacher, although we’ve forgotten his lessons now. There were great Roman poets like Virgil and Horace. Even Julius Caesar wrote a splendid history of the Gallic Wars, although he had a full-time job in the Roman government at the time.

Yes, I wish I had paid attention at school. I would have all this, and self-esteem too. But it’s too late to start learning Latin and ancient Greek again. Aqua Sub Pons – water under the bridge. I can hear the ghost of Dr. Lewis telling me that I even got that wrong.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Yesterday’s Pool

Riding the Long Island Railroad into New York has the great advantage that it allows you to enjoy the scenery. The landscape doesn’t rush by in a blur, as it does when you travel on the French TGV or the Japanese Bullet Train. The Long Island Railroad train jogs sedately along at the speed of a horse and carriage, so passengers can appreciate the passing show.

It’s a social and perhaps even a sociological experience because the track passes by hundreds of backyards, offering a peep show into other people’s lives. What strikes me on this particular journey is how many houses have pools: big and small, above ground and in ground, square, round and curved pools, all looking rather sad in the chilly September rain. Even if a few warm days still lie ahead, those pools are yesterday’s news. Halloween witches have already appeared in the supermarket, and the Christmas catalogs began arriving in August. The first snowstorm can’t be far away. But what do you do with a pool in winter? You can’t hide it away in the garage like a barbecue, or put it out for garbage collection like a broken lawn chair.

In fact most pools lie unused most of the time, even in the best summer. Here in the northeast a pool is a very American, very optimistic investment. In all the years I’ve traveled up and down that line I can’t remember ever seeing anyone in any of those pools. We can hear when our neighbors’ pools are in action. Apart from the splashing noises, there are shouts and screams unique to pool use, unlike any other sounds uttered by suburbanites in everyday life. But we hear these joyful sounds on only three or four hot weekends every season. It would make more economic sense for a street or a subdivision to share one big pool – but that would be communism.

Some hardy souls, who hate to waste a good investment, keep their outdoor pools running into October, and even into November. We can sometimes hear their shrieks of joy, which could almost be mistaken for shrieks of agony, when they plunge into the frigid water.

But all good things must come to an end, and a pool cannot just be ignored when winter comes. It must be expensively “closed.” This is a huge operation, comparable to mothballing in Boeing 747. Closing must be done at exactly the right moment: too early and you get algae bloom in spring, too late and you get a pool full of dead leaves. All the water must be drained out, of course, typically four or five thousand gallons, and you have to wonder what happens to all that chemical-rich water. Then elaborate rituals of purification must be carried out, with chlorine and algizide, ending with the installation of a cover strong enough to prevent visitors from the Midwest from falling right through. One advertisement in a local paper shows a baby elephant standing on the pool cover, which may be exaggeration. But it makes the point.

Closing must be a dispiriting as well as an expensive process for pool owners, especially after such a pleasant summer. But sometimes I think that backyard swimming pools are more symbolic than practical. Even the closed pool, its tarpaulin weighed down with rainwater and leaves, is a harbinger of hope, like the Michaelmas Feast in September, or bulbs planted in October, or spring fashions in January, or the darkness before the dawn. Summer will come again. The pool guarantees it.

Copyright: David Bouchier