Pygmalion Revisited: A Fantasia (Part Two)

July 17, 2015

Gentle Reader: Start with Part One and, yes, it’s a long essay.

Part Two

Flashback to the scene at the airport: the paperback book which I had stuffed into the side pocket of my carry-on bag remained there until I unpacked at my apartment in Galveston. I had not the heart to resurrect Trav and Meyer after the slight we had all suffered together. I would wait until my peace and privacy were completely restored before inviting them to come out and play once more. I had other books with me, a variety to suit my moods. They increased the weight of my luggage until I sometimes felt like an overburdened pack mule but I couldn’t do without them on business trips. They were my good company in strange hotel rooms and my solace during bouts of loneliness and insomnia when far from home. After the telling of the tale, after our flights had been called and Kodaly had departed for his destination and I for mine, after I was seated, buckled, with bag stowed at my feet, I had yet a long and weary wait while the accumulated airplanes waited on the ground for take-off clearance. I rummaged for another book, still peevish that my pleasure in McDonald had been momentarily dimmed. Well! Not even Mr. Humanities himself could object to Homer although he might sneer at my reading him in Lattimore’s translation rather than in the original Greek. I settled in with the Iliad. I had worked my way through the front matter, Book One, and the beginning of Book Two when the plane, which had been held at the gate and then again on the taxiway, finally lifted off the runway.

As it was to have been a southbound morning flight, now finally airborne at mid-afternoon, I had arranged for a seat on the right hand side to avoid the glare, a useless bit of prudence, regardless of the time of day, because we flew in clouds all the way back to Houston, never breaking out of them. I sat in my seat that should have been on the shady side if the flight had been on schedule, but wasn’t because it was now afternoon and the weather had changed causing both sides of the aisle to be equally dim and gloomy. I switched on the overhead light and read Homer. All of which, my sitting in a carefully chosen spot, the advantages of which had been rendered futile by the gods, the fates, the rulers of men and the universe, which may clue you in as to how many years I have been reading The New Yorker, the workings of El Nino, and my reading the old poet eloquent on the futility of all human precautions, the story I had just heard from Kodaly, the chief moral of which, if there be one, the operation of chance and the revolution of the wheel of fortune, the operator of which, if one exists, is blind, and, if God does not play dice with the universe, then it at least appears that the welfare of individuals, human and otherwise, on this planet, matters only to themselves and to no greater power, from which one could argue equally well that it is every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost or the other way around, that we had best hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately. At any rate I found myself in an elegiac and reminiscent frame of mind.

It is the second semester of graduate school, first class, first assignment…Homer. Dr. Alvis is at the lectern. I still have my notes wherein I faithfully wrote down his immortal words, “At the beginning of the Iliad the question is raised who is to be the more greatly honored–a king or a mighty warrior. By the end of the story this question has become completely irrelevant.”

Besides the message presented by the text there is another message presented by the long survival of this work, a message not stated but implicit; neither Agamemnon nor Achilles would have been remembered at all, if it had not been for Homer. The long survival of this work fulfills the prophecy of Achilles’ fame, but ironically. It does say something about the hold that a good story has on mankind. Like the cat without the tale, Homer’s is the last laugh. I read on. Nestor is recalling the events at Aulis prior to the launching of the fleet, “For I say to you, the son of all-powerful Kronos promised, on that day when we went in our fast-running vessels, we of Argos, carrying blood and death to the Trojans. He flashed lightning on our right, showing signs of favor.”

At that moment the cloudbank visible from my seat, the entire western sky, was lit up by an enormous flash. The airplane hit a bit of turbulence and bounced. A woman in the seat behind me gave a little scream and began to pray in Spanish, “Dios te salve, Maria, Ilena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo: bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres…” She suddenly became conscious that she was speaking aloud and her voice then dropped to a whisper. That part of the feminine condition, that part of the artist’s struggle, that aspect of the human experience, has not changed. We become self-conscious and we drop our voices. I think that is when I decided to write Kodaly’s story. If you tell your life history to a stranger in an airport then you must take your chances.

Now on a flight from Austin to Houston one barely attains cruising altitude before one begins to descend. Just as well; mortals trespassing in the realm of Zeus are perhaps pushing their luck. Lightning bolts illuminated the cabin, emanating from the right side, just as I was reading the matching passage in Homer. A good omen, but for what? My life, my writing, my safety in the air, my hope of a long life? Far more probable that it was a matter of pure coincidence, however enchanting. I was clueless then and I am clueless now.

In his conversational musings, Kodaly told me one incident that displayed both his wife’s character and something of their lives together. At some point he raised an ordinary question at the breakfast table as to which of certain household bills had been paid, including the house mortgage payment. His wife replied airily and on her way out the door that she had paid none of them. Kodaly then spent the next few hours scrambling to cover this domestic deficit. He made the house payment, but he had to sell his prized and very expensive camera in order to do it. He still regretted the sale of the camera.

As I write this, due to a long and tedious series of personal reversals, my library is packed, stored, and unavailable. It is a huge nuisance. There are only three books on my computer table, an ill assorted group that landed there partly by chance and partly as a result of my interests. They are: The Knitter’s Handbook, Forshaw’s Parrots of the World, and Taleb’s The Black Swan. My second edition of Taleb in paperback runs 444 pages plus the separately numbered 33 page prologue. It is a favorite of mine. Here is Taleb’s thesis in a nutshell, but presented in the form of a joke. I have no way of knowing the age of this story, but I’d be willing to bet it had whiskers when Hector was a pup. I have a hunch it was an old story when Herodotus wrote it down.

This was told to me by a friend a great many years ago.

A man was taken prisoner by a king. Maybe he was a war captive. Maybe he was a criminal. The details do not matter. He was sentenced to die, but before he was executed he was permitted to appear before the king, in case he had anything to say for himself.

The man made the king an offer. If the king would delay his execution for a year, the captive would teach the king’s horse to talk. If he proved successful, he would go free. If he failed, the king could go ahead and execute him.

The king thought this over. It seemed very unlikely that a horse could be taught to talk. But, if the horse did learn to talk, then he would be the only man in the world with a talking horse. It would insure his fame forever.

So, the king agreed to the bargain. He had nothing to lose.

A fellow prisoner castigated the man and told him he was just plain crazy. No one could teach a horse to talk. The prisoner was not concerned by this bit of pessimism.

“A lot of things can happen in a year.” he said. “The king might die. I might die. The horse might die. Or, the horse might learn to talk.”

This guy certainly grasped the principle of exposing oneself to positive Black Swans. Obviously, at the common level, at the level of jokes and folklore, there have always been quite a lot of people who understood the event that is unlooked for and outside all our previous experience. That is the heart of fairy tales and romances.

A lot of things can happen in a year.

That brings us to the conclusion of Kodaly’s story.

In the Biblical phrase, it all changed in the twinkling of an eye. Kodaly’s wife suffered a stroke. Eventually, after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she recovered to the point that she could dress herself and feed herself. But she could not hold any job much less continue as a dean and a scholar. As the saying goes, when women attain the corner office with the window they also inherit the stress and the heart attack. As for the Kodalys, their rise had been meteoric; their downfall was a free fall without a parachute. Money, reputation, friends, house all disappeared. At the time Kodaly was relating this to me in the Austin airport he was serving as the director of a library on a small campus in a small town in west Texas. The care of his wife was a constant concern; he had no family or close friends to lend a hand. He said frankly that he hated the job, the staff, and the community. He was accustomed to a large university in a cosmopolitan setting. He was confined. He was miserable. He also needed money. He mentioned that he was hoping to sell his wife’s personal research library–a collection of scholarly books about Shakespeare.

This final twist was entirely unexpected. I was transfixed and speechless. But at the mention of the collection of Shakespearean materials I came to my senses. I broke in and said, “Maybe I can help.”

I said, “The professor who teaches Shakespeare on our campus has said that he would be able to teach the course very differently if he had the appropriate library support. There are literally no books on Shakespeare in our collection. That undergraduate Shakespeare course is offered only every other semester. Our library is small; its chief focus is the marine sciences because that’s what we do. I don’t know whether or not I can persuade the administration to purchase this collection but I can certainly ask. Go home and make a list of the books and send it to me.” I scribbled my name, title, and the university address on a scrap of paper. I didn’t have a business card. At our humble institution only the library director rated business cards. He looked surprised and grateful. That was our last exchange before our flights were called. I never saw him again.

In due course, after I had given up hope of ever hearing from Kodaly, I received a manila envelope with several pages of bibliography of about two hundred standard scholarly studies on Shakespeare. Kodaly also stated an asking price. He wanted $3,000.00 for the collection. I photocopied the whole thing and sent it to Bill, the head of the English Department, the professor who taught Shakespeare. In due course I crossed paths with him and he was delighted. “I never thought I would have a collection like this supporting Shakespeare studies in our library.” he said. “Hold your horses.” I answered. “It’s by no means a done deal, but if you approve of the titles I will go talk to Dean McClellan.” I had no intention of discussing this particular purchase with my library head.

I made an appointment to see the dean. I took the list in hand and walked over to his office. I had never spoken with the man before. I presented the matter in a few words. He said yes without any hesitation.

“Heavens,” I said, a bit startled, “are you always this easy?”

He glared at me.

“No, I am not.” He said he was willing to pay $2,500.00.

I wrote Kodaly. He wrote back, holding out for $3,000.00. I mulled this over and then I wrote the most persuasive letter I could manage. I told him that I did not expect to be in my present position or on this campus more than a few more months and that no one else here, besides Bill, was the slightest bit interested in pursuing this purchase. I advised him that he would be much better off selling the collection as a whole and that if he chose to market the books one by one it would be an enormous hassle for him. He wrote back accepting our offer.

No, that’s not the end of the story. There’s more. Eventually the boxes of books arrived. Bill was ecstatic. He also had hung around the library sufficiently to understand at least parts of our operation. “How soon can you get them processed?” he asked. “We can get it done before the beginning of the next semester,” I said, “It’s straight copy cataloging; it will all be on OCLC. I’ll ask Elizabeth to make it top priority.” I then talked to my senior clerk. “Let me finish the book truck I’m working on.” she said. “I’ll start on the Shakespeare collection first thing Monday morning.”

About the middle of Monday morning Elizabeth came to the door of my office. “Alice, this is very odd. I think you need to come and take a look.” I walked over to her work station. She was surrounded by cardboard boxes of books from Kodaly. She had unpacked several of them. She showed me one. She said, “I think every one of them is damaged like this.” It turned out that she was right. Every single book had the first few pages slashed. It looked as if it had been done with a razor blade. Someone had systematically mutilated the first few pages of every book. Luckily I had a lot of acid free reversible tape on hand. It won’t damage pages and it can be easily removed if that becomes necessary. I had undergone quite a tussle with my library director before I was allowed to purchase it because the darned stuff is expensive. I sat at one of the big worktables and spent days repairing those books while Elizabeth cataloged. I thought about Shakespeare and about Woolf’s imaginary character who was Shakespeare’s sister. I also chewed on the idea that it is almost impossible to read Shakespeare purely, to come to the experience without the burden of his great reputation. He is an icon, an institution, and an industry, all of which does tend to get in the way mightily.

At the end of the first week of repairing and cataloging the Kodaly collection we all took a break and went home. Technical Services does not work weekends. That’s one of the few advantages of a job in cataloging. We are the people in the back room the public never sees. On Sunday night I got a phone call from one of my daughters. “Honey,” I said, “I’ve got an interesting story to tell you.” I related, in brief, the story Kodaly had told me and the story of our purchase of the Shakespeare collection. I made no surmises; I presented the facts as I knew them.

“How awful,” she said. “How terribly frustrated she must have been to have attacked the books she loved.”

“It’s very interesting that you said that.” I said. “Neither of us knows exactly what happened, but your supposition agrees with what I have been thinking.”

During Christmas break I married George, having known him for years. A few months later I left Galveston. I have never been back.

So then Highway 88, black-hearted, asphalted step-mother. I am now retired. I live in rural Arkansas. I am old; George is older. When we drive the miles to town he goes slowly. Eyes, ears, reflexes are not what they once were. George pulls off the road occasionally to let the hot shots pass. We are both amused by this because generally we pull up right behind the pickup, driven by the young man who passed us ten miles back, when we get to the stop sign at the outskirts of our small town. It’s emblematic. The American Dream has run out of steam. No matter how fast we bowl along the highways there is always a stop sign.

“At the beginning of the Iliad the question is raised, who is to be more greatly honored, a king or a mighty warrior. By the end of the story this question has become completely irrelevant.”

We are none of us going to get out of this mess alive.

A university is a collection of books. We have the Epic of Gilgamesh; it’s the jstory of two buddies on a road trip. Sound familiar? We have Beowulf because one copy survived, although scorched by a library fire, Cotton Vitellius Axv. We have a few scraps of Sappho. It is estimated we have maybe one-tenth of ancient Greek literature. And, on the subject of tenths, that is the estimated percentage of books in Europe destroyed during World War II. We have the Tain Bo Cuailnge, a cattle rustling and range war story written centuries before the American West. We have those amazing Icelandic sagas.

What we do not have eighty plus years after A Room of One’s Own is economic parity between men and women and it now looks as if that is only one small piece of our huge and growing problems with regard to equal opportunity.

Here’s another story about a horse. No, the horse doesn’t talk.

When I first met George, I owned horses. He was intensely interested in the horses and asked innumerable questions. At some point I made the mistake of mentioning dressage. He immediately pounced on this new word and asked what it was. Now I was in difficulties. I was in over my head. I said, “I don’t know enough to answer that in any detail and it would not mean much to you anyway at this point. But occasionally we do have either a presentation by a Lipizzaner troop or a dressage demonstration in this part of the world and, if that happens, I will take you. It will make a lot more sense after you see it for yourself.”

It so happened that a few months after that conversation I heard, through the stable grapevine, that a dressage trained horse named High Jinks and his rider would give a demonstration at a certain riding arena in our area. There was no admission charge. I went and took George. I had never seen High Jinks but I had heard the name.

The audience was not large; we got good seats. Presently the announcer introduced himself and made someremarks about High Jinks and his show career. Then he said, “High Jinks and two other horses will enter the ring for the first part of this demonstration.” He named the other two horses and their riders.

George said, “Be sure and point out High Jinks. I don’t know anything about horses.”

I said, “High Jinks is a world champion. You will know him when you see him.” George continued to demand in an urgent whisper that I finger the horse.

Three horses and their riders rode into the ring abreast at a walk.

Without the slightest hesitation George said, “The one in the middle is High Jinks.” I don’t think I need to tell you that he was right.

The first part of the demonstration involved all three horses executing various maneuvers. After a short break the second part was presented by High Jinks and his rider solo, with no other horses in the ring. Now, in dressage, the rider is conspicuous by being inconspicuous. Cues to the horse are virtually invisible. The attention of the average observer is on the horse. High Jinks very prettily executed a series on moves on the diagonal. It was perfection. Then his rider brought him to the center of the ring where he did a classical piaffe. The announcer had stopped talking. The audience had fallen silent.

Then the announcer spoke, “What we are watching, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between craft and art.”

Guys, we’re talking about a horse.

But at that moment in time, watching that animal, I think that most, of not all, of the people in the audience would have agreed with him.

Years ago I took a car trip, traveling by myself. There is only one incident that I remember clearly from that particular junket. My itinerary took me close to Hammond, Louisiana, where my first cousin, Lucienne, was teaching art at the grade school level. I phoned. No she couldn’t take a day off, but I was welcome to visit at her classroom. It was perhaps the oddest family visit I have known. It was fall. The art lesson of the day involved pumpkins. I handed out materials, collected finished work, and generally acted as a teaching assistant. During a lull in the buzz of the kids Lucienne looked over at me and said, completely out of the blue, “What is art?” I said the first thing that came into my head. I answered, “Art is life.” Lucienne said, “That’s a cliche, but, well, maybe there’s some truth to it.”

First thought, right thought? Hell, no. What I said was idiotic. If I were to attempt to answer that question now what I would say would be different altogether. Virginia Woolf postulated that there is no poetry by Judith Shakespeare because women lacked access to education and economic opportunity and because of the drain of domestic responsibilities. That’s one way of looking at the problem. But it’s thinking inside the box. Another way is to consider how we define art. Is it what we ordinarily think it is or are we tap dancing in order to keep certain parties conveniently beyond the pale? Aye, there’s the rub

Is art a symphony played by a full orchestra in an acoustically grand building and attended by those who can afford the tickets? Is it a painting that is so prized that it hangs on the wall at a museum? Maybe, you reply, but it’s also a matter of aesthetics and great skill. And, unfortunately, it’s also about who is allowed access to the fame and the money in a winner takes all system.

All of this is well plowed ground in the art world, but it was a new way of thinking for me. That’s me–reinventing the wheel.

On Fridays I meet with a group of women at a local coffee shop. This group defines itself as women who enjoy doing crafts. We have knitters, crocheters, weavers, quilters, beaded jewelry makers, doll specialists, and painters. It’s a lively group and our conversations cover the waterfront. One day I told them the High Jinks story. They got the point immediately and in the discussion that followed the general consensus of opinion was that when craft, any craft, is carried to a certain point of extraordinary skill, exceeding our usual expectations of excellence, it becomes art. They didn’t boggle in the least at the fact that the performer in this instance had four feet.

I think it was in Introduction to Anthropology as a freshman that I first encountered the concept of culture as being everything that is man made from language and baskets to Il Nozze di Figaro. That is what first planted the seed of thinking about culture, craft, and art, not as distinct things, but as a continuum every part of which was important. Still later I realized that the act of creation extended beyond the human realm.

That brings us to Frostie. No, not the snowman, this is Frostie the cockatoo, the internet star. Go and Google “Frostie the cockatoo grooving to Ray Charles,” if you have not already seen it, and you will bring up a dancer who literally has wings. If dance is the movement of the body in time to music to express mood or emotion and to provide aesthetic pleasure then Frostie certainly meets those criteria. If you can watch Frostie without being moved to laughter then likely there is nothing on the planet that you will find funny. He is an entertainer par excellence.

So, what is art?

Consider the knotty problem of the work of Elsebeth Lavold. Unless you are a knitter you have probably never heard of her. She is a knitwear designer and one of the finest in the world. Her work is exhibited in museums. Is it art? The government of Sweden says no. Lavold was irritated by this assessment to the point of naming her company “Ingen Konst” which means “Not Art” in Swedish. This is a quotation from her website at www.ingenkonst.se/: “Should Elsebeth decide to design a sweater with three arms, size 352, and drape it on the Statue of Liberty, she would have created an object of art – or…? In Sweden, sales tax for the sweater would thereby be reduced, whereas a normal, fully usable sweater is regarded as craft, and subject to full sales tax. Can you believe it? Regardless of this the usable sweater could still be artistic in composition.”

Does it matter? It matters a great deal if you are, at least in your own mind, an artist. For quilters inclusion in the annual show of the American Quilters Society in Paducah, Kentucky is the ultimate achievement. This show is the Mecca of the quilting world. Thousands make the pilgrimage to view this exhibit. Both quilts and viewers come from all over the world. But it is presently defined as ingen konst, not art, and is unlikely to rate a review in The New Yorker. That is reserved for The Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty.

In the case of Elsebeth Lavold, the chief consequence of the government’s decision had to to with sales tax. It’s the money; it’s always the money. It is explicit in Woolf and implicit in Austen. It matters hugely. In the words of Auden:

“You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass,

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass,’

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.”

During Van Gogh’s lifetime, when paintings from his sunflowers series were considered by most to be ugly daubs, it mattered. When, many years later, those same paintings sold at the famous auction houses for gazillions, it mattered, although it certainly did not benefit Van Gogh. And how can one painting be both an ugly outrageous daub and a masterpiece of the painter’s art? If that is not arbitrary, what is? Apparently art is as subject to paradigm shifts as science.

Art is what we define it to be and that definition often does not make much sense. It’s a matter of fashion or, to use Taleb’s word, contagion. Who gets the fame and the money? Which group benefits, to use Woolf’s phrase, from the “unending stream of silver and gold?”

At some point I decided that doublethink was not such a bad word after all. To quote Taleb, “Clearly you cannot doubt everything and function; you cannot believe everything and survive.” For years now I have tried to practice a split vision of the world–the conventional way and the way necessary for my sanity as both an artist and an outlier. Money is vastly important and, at the same time, inconsequential. Art is what we ordinarily think it is and it is also a great many other things. The minute we think we’ve got it figured out along comes, if not a Black Swan, then at least a platypus, a creature that bombed the previous distinction between what was a mammal and what was not. We need categories but they are a highly inaccurate way of viewing the world–a platitude we need to repeat to ourselves daily because otherwise we forget. Success cannot be measured solely by money or reputation as agreeable as those things are. I’ve sat in just one too many writers’ workshops in which the accepted opinion was that a great book meant one that was a best seller and made a ton of money. I guarangoddamntee that is no proper measure, but we all fall into this trap; it’s part of being human and living in the world.

I am doubtful of the separation between fiction and non-fiction. I strongly suspect that it is all fiction.

I now live halfway between Ink and Mt. Ida, very close to the Serendipity Trail. Yes, it really exists. I did not seek out such a fortuitous literary address; I ended up here completely by divine chance.

Last year on another perfect day in October, when the trees were putting on a fine show of color and the hickory nuts were thick on the ground, we took a rare break from never ending chores and went for a walk in the woods, with Star, our farm guard dog. It was that season in Arkansas when the mornings are cool with mists lying close to the ground in the valleys. The afternoons are warm and sunny. Our destination was a spring that lies high up on the side of one of the Ouachita Mountains. After a drive down a properly dusty country road we parked at a locked gate. On the other side we waded through some high weeds and struck into a trail that meandered back and forth over the side of the mountain but headed steadily uphill. We encountered no obstacles greater than spider webs across the path, but they were everywhere. Part way up the mountain we saw a tumble of huge boulders that looked like prime habitat for bears, but we saw no wildlife. Even the birds were quiet, except for a lone rain crow, which is what country people call the yellow-bellied cuckoo. Eventually, after a winding ramble, nearly to the top of the mountain, we arrived at a pool of water, almost circular and about thirty feet across, edged with rock and closely fringed by the forest. The sky above was a deep vibrant blue. The leaves and the sunlight danced together throwing prancing shadows on the ground. Cardinal flowers and a few grasses nodded at the margin of the water. At the far side there was a small waterfall, about three feet high, coming down from a rocky ledge. Star plunged into the water up to her belly and began to drink. After the shade of the trail the sunshine sparkles reflected off the surface of the water were blinding. Curious as to the source of the waterfall I clambered over fallen wood and more rocks. There were no traces of people, not even the remains of old campfires, such as one often finds in such spots. Above the waterfall there was a second pool, similar to the one lower down, but smaller, about fifteen feet across, and equally lovely. Above that there was no sign of water other than a few small seeps. We were at the headwaters of one of the numerous creeks that feed the Ouachita River. I sat down on a large rock. It was not a Wordsworthian rock designed for quiet contemplation of this staggeringly beautiful spot. It was a good Arkansas rock, uncomfortable, pointed, and knobby. I had come to this country from the city for largely practical reasons and I unexpectedly found myself in a place of wonders. If Pegasus or a satyr had wandered out of the trees I would hardly have been surprised. It is natural that springs and wells have so often been held sacred. It was truly magical.

There are good aerial photographs and accurate maps of Mt. Helicon on the internet, including photos of the Hippocrene spring. The area has been criss-crossed by both Greeks and tourists for centuries so that no inch remains unexplored. If Pegasus is hiding out there still then he must be even more wary than our mountain lions. He has not been nailed by any critter cam to my knowledge. If anything survives from the Golden Age then it is as lucky as the Beowulf manuscript and must have more lives than Pangar Ban, that sublunary tomcat immortalized by an Irish monk who was understandably weary of copying out the Pauline epistles. You might say that he, like Herrick, trifled his way from light verse to greatness. I can’t remember the source of that one. If artists survive and work it is miraculous. If the work survives it is against long odds.

This is a true story. No shit. I do, at present, have a cat without a tail living with me, name of Sally Bob. I still carry a knife.

“A great book is the lifeblood of a master spirit and stored up for a life beyond life.” As a child, before I had any idea who Milton was I read those words carved in stone and embellished with gold leaf around the frieze of the reading room in the downtown public library in St. Louis. They are still there.

I went to visit a friend. One evening, after several glasses of wine, although not the true, the blushful Hippocrene, we were sufficiently blown of course to embark on a discussion of what defines great art. In defense of my thesis that it is more comprehensive than generally thought I launched into a doubtless none to lucid description of my first husband’s father. To say that Hamer was a Ford mechanic does not begin to do justice to the man. His was a dedicated life. This was a man who could pull the block of the largest truck in twenty minutes. Among other things, he prided himself on never looking up a parts number. He knew them all. Repeat. All. He knew them for every vehicle Ford made up until the day he died. I went on to say that for one subset of people art was Anna Pavlova dancing Fokine’s dying swan and for another group it was a sweetly purring engine.

Wine or no wine my friend extinguished this particular flame of rational intercourse neatly and completely. “Auto mechanics?” she said, “I’m just not interested.” She said it so decisively and dismissively that I was immediately reminded of my mother. If there was one thing of which my mother was a complete master it was the art of the sneer. As a matter of fact in seventy odd years I’ve never seen anyone else do it half as well.

That ended that conversational thread. We went on to other matters. Months later I was struggling feebly, haltingly, maladroitly, to build a website. Three score and ten years ago I learned to read with less grief. Hell, learning to knit a sock was a piece of cake in comparison. I was scrambling for tutorials and manuals. While careening about, completely disoriented, in the internet thicket, where Pan reigns as much as he does in the Ouachita National Forest, and where one can get lost in a heartbeat, I stumbled over a reference to WordPress. I pulled up their home page and began to read. I scrolled to the bottom, following the text, and encountered this footnote:

Code is poetry.

Code is poetry? Who knew?

I’ve written code, just once, years ago, as a library school assignment, I completed a short exercise. My bit was clumsy and inelegant; it got the job done, but just barely. The professor pointed out that I emphatically had not exceeded the required minimum. I hated every minute of it. Fortunately everyone does not feel that way. Obviously lots of good people at WordPress adore writing code and that is a very good thing for the rest of us.

These guys get it. They dig it. Art is where you find it. It is whatever we decide it is collectively and, at least equally importantly, individually. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Code is poetry. I know no reason why not; at least it can be when it is written by a master spirit and read by those who know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pygmalion Revisited: A Fantasia (Part One)

July 2, 2015

Warning to Readers: Lengthy essay and this is the first part only. Hang in there; there is some humor at the end of this section.

Part One

At the end of the day we were all gathered together in a room set apart, a room reserved for the privileged, for the initiated, a room such as the one with the window seat from which Virginia Woolf, seated there in the window embrasure, looked out into the courtyard at Oxbridge after that memorable elegant luncheon of soup and salmon, ducklings and partridges, each course served with the properly piquant sauces, complemented by the wineglasses alternately flushed yellow and crimson, the luncheon punctuating the centuries long flow of gold and silver, the toothsome feast that, as she so wisely said, had lit the flame of rational intercourse. After which the incomparable Virginia looked out of the window and saw, in the courtyard, making its quiet way across the quadrangle, a cat without a tail.

What a metaphorically useful beast it is, a cat without a tail! That selfsame animal was stealthily occupying a place in this room also, sitting near the glowing hearth where there flamed a delightfully crackling mass of logs and embers, oak and mesquite, judging from the smell, sitting so close to the fire that it seemed impossible that the creature could avoid scorching its own fur, basking in the warmth, as cats do. Drawn up around the lovely fire were a number of comfortable deep chairs, some covered with velvet, some with tapestry. Filling the chairs, plus a considerable part of the room, as only the early birds were lucky enough to obtain seating, were a group of men and women, the cream of their intelligent profession, low-voiced, congenial, all of them well-educated and articulate, many of them witty and personally charming as well, my fellow librarians. I have heard them called the last libertarians, good fellows, one and all, hail and well met.

Also in the room were low tables, upon which tasteful objets d’art were carefully placed, and glass-fronted bookcases containing, not incunabula, for those were downstairs, locked in the vault, except for the Gutenberg which occupied its own pedestaled enclosure, temperature and humidity controlled, dramatically lit by a single spotlight which permitted a timed inspection and then turned itself off, a sacred text transformed into a secular shrine, an object designed for use, and despised, in the days of its youth, as vastly inferior to holograph, now far removed from utilitarian ends by the inexorable workings of the invisible hand, a state of affairs that must have bemused its maker, could he have foreseen it, a man who had, by all accounts, a difficult time keeping his modest business enterprise afloat. This ultimate trophy of the bibliographic hunt was even now lying in state encased in a crystal coffin and separated from the profanation of touch by a custom-fitted glass ceiling. Hooves and horns, crude oil and cotton bales, plus a generous measure of business methods that do not bear close examination by the morally squeamish, were here transmuted into a glorious antechamber, a grand hall floored and walled in the finest Italian marble, boastful of wasted space and lavish in materials and embellishments, surrounding the Gutenberg, to astound visitors. Pecunia non olet, as Vespasian said. The locked glass-fronted bookcases in our special private room contained rarities less fabled than the Gutenberg, but very fine nonetheless and including some splendid forgeries. These shelves were separated and set off by walls covered with oaken linen fold paneling around three sides of the room; the fourth wall was pierced by a row of tall, Gothic arch-topped windows facing west and divided by leading into numerous diamond shaped panes. If we cannot buy Oxbridge and transport it here, stone by stone, as we did the Wren Chapel and London Bridge, then we can surely reproduce it in every architectural particular except the patina of age. Through these high windows streamed the late afternoon sun of an October day as pellucid as the October day of Virginia’s famous luncheon and as tenderly luminous.

The diamonds divided the sunlight that fell through them into lozenges that spattered the deep plush plum-colored carpet with sunshine sequins dazzlingly bright that played around the feet of the assembled company. We appeared to be, as a group, knee-deep in fairy dust. One brilliant parallelogram touched my glass of Llano chardonnay redoubling the alchemical transformation of grape into gold by the added dimension of light. The sunshine dapples stretched to the hearth, momentarily dimming the glow of the firelight, and causing the mythical tailless cat sitting on the hearthstone to blink with narrowed eyes. The spill of sunshine furthest from the windows touched tentatively, glancingly, the glossy black shoes of the dark-haired gentleman in the vested pin-striped suit. He was plump and sleek, dark eyes, pale skin, something unusual about the cheekbones and the beaked nose. His hair, black as a chinaberry, was combed straight back from his face without a part. He was more dapper, more carefully dressed, more formal in gesture and manner than the other men in the room. He raised his glass, caught my eye, and asked me, in a foreign accent I could not identify, of what library was I the director? I explained that I was from such and such library, not as the director, but as the head of technical services representing our institution in place of the director. Ah, that did make a difference. I was promptly catapulted downwards from the pinnacle of his esteem that I had briefly occupied while he imagined that I was a director. His manners were impeccable and his politeness was seamless but his attention quickly went elsewhere. Again there was that cat without a tail. I was not a director. My dear Virginia, I thought, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Rank, hierarchy, order, these carefully wrought gradations must be preserved, even among the last libertarians.

While I may not have had the requisite title, I did have that which others might well envy after three days spent in tedious meetings the chief and gloomy topics of which were higher book prices, runaway serials costs, and statewide budget cutbacks, namely, a chair close to the fire and a glass in hand with refills coming around regularly on silver trays. The wine was doing well what it is reputed to do and more than Milton can. I was too contented to be more than fleetingly irritated by the put down I had just received from the dark-haired stranger. I anticipated nothing more arduous than a good dinner at which I would be expected to do nothing except make a minimal amount of small talk, followed by one last night at the hotel, and the flight home in the morning. In the meantime I could amuse myself with my own private conjuration of Virginia Woolf’s cat without a tail, a creature of my own whimsy, or so I thought, but I was never more wrong.

He may have been part Cheshire cat, that fellow, but all writers should beware of believing the folly that they control their fantasies, it is the other way around. The cat had the last laugh, after all, because after he had, seemingly, melted back into the secret aperture in the linen fold paneling from whence he had emerged, he stalked me, invisibly, irresistibly, one last time, in the Austin airport the following morning, carrying with him, not a tail, for he had none, but a tale, which he brought to me, as an offering of the problematical kind that cats make, bringing a mouse or some other unhappy scrap of mortality from the great world outside, to lay at the feet of the person with whom they reside, for me to deal with howsoever I chose, to accept or to hold at arm’s length, or to dispose of as I liked, but handle it I must because there it was, confronting me, and the cat had gone off about his business. The thing was done; he would not take it back again. In the end the joke was on me after all. Like Puss in Boots he showed himself both puppeteer and master.

The trouble at the airport began, in the usual mundane way, with a change in the weather. All flights were delayed for who knew how long but passengers were advised to stay put and wait for the clouds to lift. I had just bought a cup of coffee and had settled myself with my old friends, Travis McGee and Meyer, whom I am sure you know also, but if you do not, then you should, as they are boon companions anywhere and in any weather. This pleasant arrangement was not to be. My peace and quiet were shattered yet once more by the dark-haired stranger who was also waiting for a flight and who was, in the perverse manner of both bored males and chance acquaintances at airports, as determined to talk with me that morning as he had been to shun me the previous evening.

I gave up. I was still in Austin and still in a quasi-official capacity as the representative of my institution which meant that being downright rude was not an option and nothing short of that, it soon became clear, would discourage him. He wanted attention; he wanted to tell me his life story; he wanted a psychic blow job. Had he been a complete stranger I could have given him the brush off, but we were professional colleagues who had just come from the same three-day conference. Never mind that our paths had crossed only briefly and that he had snubbed me. The Grove of Academe, alas, constituted an introduction, and he knew it. My escape routes were cut off. I put aside my book and braced myself to be decently civil and monumentally bored, except for whatever pleasure the play of my own mind could extract from the ridiculous elements that might present themselves, beginning with my present entrapment, quite like the best Jane Austen heroine.

Again I was deceived by my expectations. What happened was altogether different. He held me with his glittering eye; the mariner hath my will.

At the beginning of the conversation I was more struck by his oddly accented English than by the content of his remarks. I had a little trouble understanding him. I asked, what was his native country?

“My name is Karoly Kodaly,” he said, “I was born in Hungary, but I left there in the fifties and I never went back.”

It was at that point, I think, that my interest in him and in his story began to deepen. I gazed upon him wonderingly, speculatively, as the crowds in Houston, years later, gathered from miles around to see for themselves the manatee that had turned up, unlooked for and against all reason, in Buffalo Bayou. While not quite as rare as manatees, there are not many Hungarians in Texas. This fellow was my first.

Here was a man, sitting quietly before me in the airport terminal in Austin, who was descended from one of the followers of Arpad, one of those who, in turn, traced their ancestry to peoples from beyond the Urals Mountains in the distant mists of time. No one knows precisely when or why they left their homeland somewhere in Asia and migrated to the mouth of the Don on the Black Sea. Perhaps they were pushed out and sent forth on their wanderings by competition from other peoples; it was pressure from neighboring tribes to their east that dislodged them once again from their home on the Don. They traveled westward around the northern edge of the Black Sea to the mouth of the Danube and, then, the entire confederation of Magyar tribes, under the chieftainship of Arpad, crossed the Carpathians in 896 A.D. and took possession of the great Hungarian plain. It was tough luck for the local inhabitants who were forced, in their turn, to flee or to become slaves. It was the usual story. It doesn’t matter much what treaties are signed or what terms are agreed to by the leaders of nations, the broad strokes of history are made by streams of moving people; they have had the final say in where you and I live and work today.

What was he like, that ancestor of my Hungarian, a follower of Arpad, the Moses of the Magyars, and what were his thoughts as the tribes made their slow way up the valley of the Danube and through the pass called by later generations the Iron Gate? Dark hair, dark eyes, proud looks perhaps more Asian than European, his fingers laced in his horse’s mane, his bow and arrows on his back, resting at noon under the shade of the beech trees, standing guard at night watching for wolves and bears, finding happiness in a whole skin and enemies left behind, rejoicing perhaps in the beauty of the countryside, joking with the women in the caravan. After him a thousand years of history, very few of them peaceful, and all the uncounted and anonymous generations that bind us all to one another and to the remote and storied past, until his distant descendant, once again under pressure from people to the east, fled Budapest, not in a great column of migrating folk guarded by bold warriors, but alone and afoot. It scarcely mattered whether or not he had thrown rocks at Russian tanks in October of ’56, the men sent by Moscow to quell the uprising in Hungary were not the kind to bother about careful distinctions of who was or was not a participant. Kodaly had been a student in Budapest. Many of his friends were dead or in hiding. He took a daring chance and fled west across the countryside. He was young, strong, and exceedingly lucky. He never knew the exact hour or the exact place that he crossed the border into Austria, never again to return to the country that had been home to his forebears for a thousand years.

Two years after crossing the border he was sitting in a cafe in Vienna. He was free; he was safe; he had friends; he had a job. But he was not happy. He yearned to go to America. He had perfected his German and he was practicing his English by reading a newspaper left behind by an American tourist when an advertisement leaped off the page, as he expressed it, a single word, a Hungarian name, a small ad for a Chicago firm called Szabo Hardware, including the address. Kodaly wrote to Szabo solely on the recognition of his Hungarian name, begging for help. His luck held. Szabo and his friends sponsored the young Kodaly. A year and a half after he first wrote to Szabo, Kodaly was in America and enrolled as a student at the University of Chicago.

It was at this point in his story that I picked up my paperback copy of McDonald which had been resting in my lap and stuffed it into the side pocket of my luggage. He asked me what I was reading.

“It’s a mystery.” I said.

“Aha! You read detective stories.” he said. “I have never read them. Always when I read it is for self-improvement, not for enjoyment. I speak now six languages.”

Like his snub of the previous evening, this speech conveyed a complete unconsciousness, a naivete almost disarming, a total unawareness that I might conceivably be hurt or offended by this display of his superiority of place or attainments. Beyond that, there was an absolute assumption on his part that, of course, his dismissal of detective stories, as he was a man of learning and commanded six languages, not to mention being a library director, meant that the mystery genre was of no value. It was of no value because he did not choose to read it, quod erat demonstrandum. His was a wonderful certainty; no other thought had ever crossed his mind. He was beaming at me now, the smile of a man who, while he may or may not have a woman’s entire attention, has at least the appearance of it, because she has learned, as I had learned, and that at an early age, that this method renders him most malleable, with the least possible annoyance and inconvenience to herself. I was stung, but I refused to allow myself to be goaded into either showing my feelings or making any rebuttal. I guard my privacy well. Also, I have arrived at that stage of life at which one picks one’s fights very carefully. I save my candid opinions and my confrontational energies for the situations in which they are most needed. I therefore assumed a brisk opaque cheerfulness, deliberately turning myself into Virginia’s looking glass that “possesses the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” the sexual equivalent of Ellison’s drop of black that makes the white paint whiter, inwardly torn between sympathy produced by the poignant account of his flight from his homeland, the very natural sympathy of a citizen who has reaped the benefits of having been born in the States and at a time when we still believed in ourselves because one’s ancestors dared the difficult voyage three hundred years ago, for a newcomer who has cut the old ties and embarked on the great venture personally, and a wry amusement at the complacent, dandified, and self-absorbed man before me.

Sex, as every adult knows, is a problem. Now what has that to do with a middle-aged Hungarian telling me his life story in an airport? Nothing and everything. I have dropped one strand and picked up another, in the manner of Fair Isle knitting, the unworked thread is carried invisibly on the back of the web until it is wanted. In the hands of a master knitter with an eye for color and design the results of this technique are spectacular, but whether or not I have the knack of it remains to be seen. It is one of the oddities of our memories with regarding sex that sometimes it is the disasters, the moments of complete embarrassment or total frustration, that haunt us as long or longer than the enchantments, like the collective Texas memory of the Alamo. The recollection of one such disappointment has lingered in my mind out of all proportion to the incident itself. It threw a long shadow perhaps because it occurred at a time in my life when it served to focus my attention on all my guilt and worries.

It happened one spring. I had been sick, off and on, for weeks. No sooner had I begun to recover than I had to prepare for, and entertain, out-of-town guests. When they departed I was exhausted for days. The following week the man with whom I then shared my days began a slow and gentle teasing which should have, had the fates been kind, culminated in the usual quiet and sunny joy familiar to married couples who have been together for some years. But when the moment came for me to turn to him and say, dearest, it’s time, I found myself talking to thin air. The gentleman had fled; the car was not in the driveway; and I had not a clue as to his motives or his whereabouts. A woman secure in her husband’s affections will smile regretfully and go on about her business knowing well that her gallantry will be well repaid at some future time. Such lofty self-control was beyond me at that point and, to make matters worse, it remained beyond me for days afterwards. I was one seriously vexed mama.

And what was at the root of the dear soul’s discourteous flight? There’s no use whatever asking a man that for he can’t tell you but sometimes expressing a shrewd guess will result in a moment of complete silence. He will sit there examining his feet with complete absorption as if the winning numbers for the next lottery drawing were written on the toes of his shoes. Then you know.

Money, or, rather, the lack of it, was the ultimate cause of the present difficulty, some plan or other he had made which would have, if successful, have improved our fortunes, had fallen through. He blamed himself; he felt himself insufficient or unworthy; it was eating him. I had my own tangled emotions to deal with, as well as his, in the usual way. It took awhile to sort it all out. Meanwhile I was quietly furious with him, with myself, and still more furious with the way of the world that measures us all, but men in particular, by our ability to generate wealth, not matter by what means. He wanted to buy me a jade teapot or a chateau or armfuls of lilacs out of season when he was already giving me a far more priceless gift, day in and day out, the time to sit down and put pen to paper, the five hundred pounds and a room of my own. Oh, I was ready, or I thought I was, to make the usual sacrifices: a small house in need of repairs in a decidedly unfashionable neighborhood, one car instead of two, a lot of worries about making ends meet; but nothing had prepared me for the complicated guilt arising from facing a man who had run away at the critical moment and who was now sitting with bowed head, in contemplation of his feet, sacrificing, at least momentarily, his very virility on the altar of my literary wannabes, from some misguided though chivalrous believe that, in a world in which it is a truth universally acknowledged that it takes two incomes for one couple to live decently , he should be somehow, miraculously, capable of showering me with white Arabian steeds and rubies the size of robin’s eggs, on one. I realized that the problem was much more complicated for most women than it was for Woolf. Servants and money are not the entire answer, but they certainly are a huge help.

Nor was my guilt merely fanciful. There had been sufficient fluctuation in our domestic finances, due to some windfall money now and then, to make me well aware that, when funds were abundant, we both had a sense of well-being, however, fraudulently derived, and, although the prosperity was a short-lived accident, he was apparently as pleased as if it had come about by his contrivance. This is what the world has done to us and, while it is by no means the worst thing that the world can do, it is bad enough, surely, to make us believe, in our secret and innermost selves, lies that serve no purpose but to promote commerce and fashion, separate us as a people, and which, furthermore, shift like smoke, artificial desires and social distinctions created by incessant propaganda, manipulating us all in the interests of… Well, of whom? Whose interests are being served. I would maintain–no one’s. Consider that in a little over a hundred years we have moved from being a society that condemned a woman if she painted her face to a society that condemns her if she doesn’t, from a world in which women were property and in which the ideal wife was secluded, well-dressed, and did, or appeared to do, little or nothing, to a world in which the ideal woman does it all and has it all, with the result that women, in some of the richest countries on earth, routinely work to the point of exhaustion every day, one eight-hour shift, or more, on the job, and another at home, many for their own and their children’s survival, but many, sadly, chiefly to acquire far more property than is necessary for a comfortable life. The fashion has swung so wide and so rapidly that in my lifetime I have been married first to a man who declared that no wife of his should ever work, which lead me to wonder what the deuce kind of exercise he though raising children constituted, not to mention why he thought he had the right to make that decision on my behalf, to seeing my another man in my life completely cast down, blaming himself for the budgetary shortfall that my withdrawal from the marketplace had created. That is the crux of the matter–how to empower oneself without doing a number on one’s friends and family. Gauguin fled to Tahiti and painted masterpieces leaving behind a battered wife and essentially fatherless children. One imagines that madam et les enfants muddled through somehow, but their lives were changed forever. Woolf at least knew that she was incredibly lucky, but recommending that women work on in poverty and obscurity when one has no experience of what that involves is not an adjuration that those of us at the grassroots take kindly. From anyone who has not walked the walk, it’s piffle.

Back at the airport, returning now to the chief theme and thread of my history, Kodaly continued his recital. What happened next? He fell in love. He fell in love with an American girl, a fellow student. Her father was a dentist; her mother was a housewife; there were two younger sisters. She knew nothing beyond her parents’ bourgeois home in the suburbs of Chicago. She expressed no aspirations beyond wanting to become a schoolteacher, get married, and have children. What did she look like? Was she dark or fair? What was her name? I don’t know because he did not tell me any of those things; perhaps they were not important to him or, more likely, they were so intimately familiar that he never thought to mention them. What was important, apparently, because he stressed it repeatedly in his narrative, was her willingness to allow herself to be formed and directed by him. “I taught her everything.” he said. “She had no ambitions until she met me. I raised her expectations and extended her horizons.”

I imagined her as a quiet person with unexpressed longings in her heart and sufficient mother-wit to grasp that the dark-haired foreigner with the odd accent might well represent her best chance at a larger, more comprehensive, and more exhilarating life than anyone she had previously met. Whatever the exact nature of the dynamic between them, her ambitions were enlarged and his fulfilled by their marriage. Of course they went to graduate school together. They remained childless. She became a noted Shakespearean scholar; he eventually went into library administration. She earned tenure and enjoyed an increasing reputation. Then, at exactly the right time, she was made a dean. They purchased a spacious, two-story brick house on a leafy street. They were rising stars. He was appointed director of his first library and acquired the nickname “Mr. Humanities.” Their incomes and their luster grew. They had a wide circle of friends; they traveled in the summers; they flourished and were happy. The university life suited them perfectly and they could not, seemingly, put a foot wrong. The seductions of that world are many. There are opportunities to associate with brilliant and gifted people, the lure of scholarship, the consciousness of being inheritors of a rich and venerable past, those centuries of gold and silver.

“It’s the gonfalons.” said Roy Barnes. He was forking up a rather dubious pasta dish at the professors’ table in the cafeteria, admittedly far removed from any cuisine involving ducklings or partridges, much less any subtlety in the sauces. Banished, also, the convivial glass flushed yellow or crimson; that would have been contrary to strictly enforced regulations which stipulated that no alcoholic beverages were to be served either on campus or at any official college function, thanks to our southern Bible Belt heritage. His remark was in answer to Bill’s question as to why he continued in the teaching racket if he loathed the students, the administration, the campus politics, the lousy salary, et cetera, et cetera, as much as he claimed. Bill was, and still is, as far as I know, the head of the English Department. The usual crowd was there. Henry McCaslin of the shy smile was drawing diagrams of molecules on a paper napkin for Larry Byrd. Larry’s in marine sciences. He and his office mate and professorial sidekick, Mel Roberts, were both then deeply involved in a project to map the bottom of Galveston Bay. Serious research, they said. The rest of the table said that it was an excuse to spend golden afternoons out on the water, but, no, they were not dropping plumb bobs into the briny while winging out, “Mark Twain!” That has been superseded by expensive electronic apparatus, the mostly costly piece of which they had lost overboard the preceding week, to the high merriment of their colleagues.

“No, really, that’s what I told Donovan.” said Roy. “He invited me to his officer for a conference and I told him just what I told you about the problems in the department and with College Station. I just laid it all out for him without any equivocation. You know what he did? He looked at the ceiling and steepled his fingers. Now that I think about it, I’ve never met a college president who didn’t do that.”

“Maybe they look at the ceiling so they don’t have to look at your dour visage.” said Bill.

“‘Dour visage,’ that’s very good.” said Larry.

Roy ignored both of them, continuing on as if they had not spoken. “After he had stared at the ceiling for a period of time…”

“‘A period of time,’ I don’t believe that you actually said that: ‘a period of time.'” said Mel.

“After a period of time,” Roy repeated, “he said, ‘Dr. Barnes, how long have you been afflicted by this Weltschmerz?'”

“Those were his exact words.” said Bill, very mock-solemn.

“Those were his exact words.” said Roy, “and I answered, ‘It’s the gonfalons, Dr. Donovan, I’d have abandoned the whole enterprise long ago if it were not for the gonfalons. Every time I see them I just choke up and…'”

“I think I’m missing something here.” said Barry Long. Dr. Long was the new hire with an impressive curriculum vitae, five degrees, one of them in earth sciences from M.I.T. He was teaching geology and geography to the underclassmen. “I thought I knew my way around, but this is a new one. What the hell are gonfalons? Is it a Texas thing, or what?”

By this time they were in high spirits, rare form, and full spate. I wasn’t saying anything. I could not have gotten a word in edgewise. I was sitting at the end of the table cutting up a Granny Smith apple with a pocket knife. Unable to stomach the cafeteria food, I usually brought fruit and cheese from home. They had grown accustomed to my presence and to my brown bag meals, but the first time I had produced the pocket knife and had begun cutting up a piece of fruit I had been at the receiving end of some very dim collegial wit concerning “knife-wielding librarians.” Now I know full well that each and every one of them had spent a lifetime watching mother, wife, aunt, or sister use various sized knives in the kitchen. The food processor did not eliminate the cook’s knife. It was the fact that a woman was using a knife outside of the kitchen that they found disturbing. I found that an interesting example of cultural habits and completely infuriating to boot. I don’t know whether we have come a long way from 1929, the year Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, also the year my parents married, or if we have merely, over time, re-arranged the pieces of the puzzle. The battle of the sexes rages on.

“Or what?” said Bill. “Inquiring mind wants to know; gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

“It’s not the gonfalons that do it for me.” said Mel. “I get all misty when they begin singing Guadeamus igitur…”

“Juvenes dum sumus…” chimed in Bill.

“The fourth verse! All together now!” said Larry.

The entire table joined in, except for Barry, who was looking a bit confused.

“Vivat academia, vivant professores,

Vivat membrum quod libet, vivant membra quae libet;

Semper sint in flore, semper sint in flore.”

“You guys are having me on. I want to know about the gonfalons.” said Barry. Give the guy high marks for persistence.

“The gonfalons are an old tradition on this campus.” Roy said

“Yes, we’ve been carrying them for, let’s see, about five years now.” said Bill.

“On this campus that’s a very old tradition.” said Mel.

“The previous president of this institution, the distinguished predecessor of our present noble leader, decided that gonfalons would add dignity to our academic processions. God only knows where he got the idea. At commencement, we all file in by college, school, and department, wearing our long black robes and our beautiful colored hoods.” said Roy.

“Each and every professor wearing a dour visage.” said Larry.

“To add to the solemnity of the occasion.” said Mel.

The expression on Barry’s face was a study.

“Each dean and each department head carries the appropriate gonfalon, designed by the wife of our former president. As the Chair of the Department of Marine Sciences, I am privileged to carry the gonfalon of the Department of Marine Sciences, the device of which is Neptune’s trident, argent, on an azure field.” continued Roy. “While Bill here carries the gonfalon of the Department of English, which displays a design of…”

“Knock it off.” said Bill.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it.” said Mel.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” said Bill.

“After the wife of the former president of this campus had designed the various gonfalons and the president had approved the sketches, he then asked the comptroller’s wife to create them, as that lady was a quilter and had a reputation for being right handy with a sewing machine, but Emily told him exactly what she thought of his gonfalons.” said Roy. “You have to understand that we could undoubtedly get along without a college president more easily than we could manage without the only man here who can get a budget past both College Station and Austin.”

“The master of the purse strings.” said Bill.

“The master of the budgetary bureaucratic paperwork intricacies that control the purse strings.” said Mel.

“Her husband’s position gives the lady considerable clout, to be sure.” said Roy. “But, in Emily’s case, I think we are talking about a woman who would not be shy of speaking her mind under any circumstances.”

“However, the fact that Sam Carver has held his position since they broke the ground for the first building on this campus twenty-three years ago and has outlasted five college presidents doesn’t impair her natural tendency towards candor.” said Bill.

“The rumor was that the president next approached a kite and windsock manufacturing firm in Austin.” said Roy.

“They fly lots of kites in Austin.” said Mel.

“Testing the winds of change like good political weathercocks, to be sure.” said Larry.

Either they turned him down or the parties failed to reach an agreement as to price.” said Roy. “I am not privy to all the particulars. The campus scuttlebutt had it that the president then turned to a firm that produces hot air balloons.” said Mel.

“In Austin or in College Station where they have lots of hot air for the balloons.” said Mel.

“I think the hot air balloon outfit was in San Antonio, actually.” said Roy. “The hot air balloon specialists declined to bid on gonfalons. Finally a deal was struck with a woman here in Galveston who has a very successful local business making costumes for historical re-enactments.”

“Dickens-on-the-Strand, in other words.” said Bill.

“The lady in question is a fine seamstress. She is also well-known hereabouts for her flamboyant personality. The leads the Parade of Characters each year at Dickens-on-the-Strand wearing a large bonnet and a red wig in character as Mother Goose.” said Roy.

“What has Mother Goose to do with Charles Dickens?” asked Barry. “I don’t see the relevance.”

“There is none.” saide Bill. “Last year they had a camel and a llama. The kids loved riding the camel, but, I grant you, the tie to Dickens, or to his works, in many aspects of the festival, is tenuous to nonexistent.”

“Mother Goose made the gonfalons?” asked Barry.

“She did.” said Roy.

“Our own Betsy Ross of the gonfalons.” said Mel.

“You can see the gonfalons up close and personal at our annual commencement exercises this spring.” said Roy. “And, if you hang around this place long enough, and are a very good boy, you will ascend to the zenith and become a departmental chair. Then you will also have the honor of carrying a gonfalon in the procession.”

“I may not last that long.” said Barry.

“Until you become a departmental chair or until spring?” asked Roy.

“Either, or both.” said Barry.

“Dear me, I thought I noticed asmoker’s cough, but perhaps it’s worse. I know, it’s galloping consumption.” said Larry. “It’s always galloping consumption in nineteenth century novels, isn’t it, Bill?”

“You’re thinking of La Boheme or, maybe, Traviata.” said Mel.

“They were both novels before they were made into operas.” said Henry.

“Tsk, tsk.” said Bill. “Such a brilliant young fellow and so full of promise. Who would not weep for Lycidas?”

“Bud what is a gonfalon, exactly?” asked Barry.

“Alice, do you have any dictionaries in that library of yours?” asked Roy.

“There are four copies of Webster’s Unabridged Third Edition in the reading room, but the library does not own an O.E.D.” I said.

“What’s an O.E.D.?” asked Mel.

“Ignore him; he’s illiterate.” said Bill.

“Who’s illiterate? You can’t tell Cambrian from Cretaceous. You can’t read the Periodic Table and, as for mathematics, your wife balances your checkbook.” said Henry.

“The part about the checkbook is a slander.” said Bill.

“Barry, my friend, I suggest that you consult one of the four copies of Webster’s which Alice here assures us are available for perusal and which will, I am sure, define gonfalon to your satisfaction and edification.” said Roy.

“It’s a banner, you know, a flag.” said Bill.

“And, in the matter of the banner that represents the English Department, with a strange device.” said Roy.

“It says ‘Excelsior’?” asked Barry.

“Not exactly.” said Roy. “Bill doesn’t like to talk about it. You may study it for yourself when commencement rolls around in the spring.”

“If he lives that long; indeed, if we all live that long.” said Bill.

“You call this living?” said Roy, with a wave of his hand that encompassed the plastic topped tables, plastic chairs, plastic artificial plants in the corners, the ugly but practical fluorescent lighting, and the concrete block walls of the dining room which were, of course, painted institutional beige. Some details have a cosmic inevitability, life imitating art.

(Watch for the second part.)