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December 2011

Marmite Sighting

Monday night my wife and I were watching one of the new Inspector Lewis mysteries (The Gift of Promise). There was a scene of a woman fixing breakfast, spreading something on a slice of toast. It was already past when I exclaimed "That's it!", hit rewind (or whatever it should be called now), and watched the scene several times.  Yes, there it was: a knife spreading a thin layer of brown stuff (I would have assumed something sweet, like apple butter) over butter on toast. And then, backing up a little further, I could see a little brown jar with a yellow top. 


I found the web site of the shop here in town that specializes in English imports. They have a food page but I don't see Marmite listed there. (And when did scones get to be meat?!) That doesn't necessarily mean they don't have it, though. Maybe I'll stop in this weekend. I have become very curious about this stuff.


Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2011

It was about twenty years ago that I worked briefly with Idell. I was still pretty new in my job, and was not at all happy in it. In fact I was considering whether my decision to take the job would rank among the top five worst mistakes of my life—I was pretty sure it would make the top ten, at least. I had fled from a situation where I was expected to do software development of a very demanding nature and at the same time manage a group of half a dozen programmers. I was in over my head in both capacities, and in addition I hated the second one. So I had left the corporate high-tech world and taken a job at a small liberal arts college, where the work was a huge comedown in the level of technical skill involved: a mixture of programming and general support for the users of the administrative database system.

It proved much more challenging than I expected, not because the technology was so advanced but because it was so crude and backward: the mid-1970s hardware (a PDP 11-45, if that means anything to you, with a 20-megabyte disk drive the size of a washing machine) was falling apart, the software was a badly designed mess implemented with the crudest tools—even then, PCs were far more capable—and there was no documentation. There were supposed to be two programmers, but my predecessor had recently been fired, and the other had resigned, with only her last two weeks overlapping with my arrival. Worse, the most important part of the job was something I really hadn’t anticipated: the users expected me to know as much about their jobs as they did, and of course I had no idea what people in a registrar’s office or an admissions office, to say nothing of a roomful of accountants, did, and moreover didn’t really care and couldn’t make myself get interested, except to the extent that I was facing unemployment if I failed.

I think it was sometime within the first year or so of my tenure that Idell was hired as the admissions office manager: by “office manager” I mean not the director, who was in charge of the whole operation and was focused mainly on strategies for recruiting students, but the person in charge of the internal workings of the office, specifically the maintenance of the database. That was one of the most important parts of the job, and she wasn’t very good at it. She was a middle-aged woman and in 1991 it was pretty likely that someone over fifty or so had little experience with computers or sense of how to work with them. For those who remember the PCs of the time: in 1991 PC applications were still DOS-based, with Windows 3.1 not arriving till early 1992; only the Macintosh had a point-and-click graphical interface. And our administrative system was 15 years or so behind even the PCs in clarity and ease of use.

It was pretty obvious to me that Idell wasn’t comfortable with computers and didn’t really understand that part of her job, and was trying simultaneously to hide that fact and remedy it. Complicating the picture was the fact that she was black. As anyone who has ever been in a situation like this knows, some degree of awkwardness is almost inevitable, and friction and tension are not unusual. There will be people who expect black employees to be less competent and are not sorry to see them fail; there will be others who want them to succeed, or are afraid of being accused of racism, and ignore their deficiencies, which of course causes resentment on the part of those who have to work around those deficiencies.

Part of Idell’s way of coping with this seemed to be to adopt a certain truculence in her manner—at any rate, she had it, whether it was deliberate or not. So I was a little put off in my first dealings with her. And, being frustrated and angry about my own situation, I was pretty impatient, especially with someone whose shortcomings appeared likely to create more problems for me. So I remember thinking that she and I were not going to get along.

But I was also sympathetic to the feeling she must have had of having been thrown into deep water and of struggling to stay afloat—after all, I shared it. And anyway it wasn’t her fault that I was in the situation I was in. And anyway one ought to be nice to people. So I tried to be nice to her. When I worked with her I tried to stifle my impatience, making an effort to explain things when I could, rather than just assuming that she already knew them or would figure them out on her own. That was all: no great deed of virtue on my part, just a small effort to be decent and not to be the slave of my own worst impulses.

So Idell and I got along pretty well for what proved to be her fairly short stay at the college. I think it was probably less than six months. I don’t remember now whether she left on her own or was fired. On her last day she came by to see me. She told me that she had enjoyed working with me and would miss me, and that I was one of the few people she at the college who had seemed to care about her and been willing to help her when she needed it.

I was very much surprised by this, and didn’t know what to say. I thanked her and wished her well. I kept thinking about the disparity between the little effort I had made and what it apparently had meant to her. Was that all it took to make someone’s life a bit less difficult? Just trying not to be a jerk? I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind since then; I’ve certainly had plenty of occasions to need the reminder.

Well, in spite of the rocky start, I have remained in that job. One day some years after Idell left—more than five, not more than ten, I think—I had something to do in an office that I don’t ordinarily work with. The secretary there, Frances, had been a friend of Idell’s and had stayed in contact with her. Idell had moved away and was now living in Florida, Frances said, if I remember correctly. She had told Frances to tell me hello. And Frances went on to say that Idell had been diagnosed with cancer and wasn’t doing too well. And she gave me Idell’s address in case I wanted to send her a greeting and a good wish.

I really meant to do it, too, but as is often the case with me I put it off, and then one day I saw Frances again, admitted that I hadn’t gotten around to writing Idell although I still meant to, and asked how she was doing. But now it was too late: Idell had died some weeks before.

It still bothers me that I never wrote to her. It would have been, again, only a little thing, but this time I failed to do it. I hoped she had plenty of family and friends around, so that the gesture that I didn’t make would have had less relative importance if I had made it.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I brood over this. I don’t think of it very often, but I happened to see Frances one day last week, and that always reminds me of Idell, and recalls a bit of the surprise I felt when she thanked me on that last day I saw her. I hope she’s with God, and that maybe she’ll put in a good word for me.

Dangerous Books?

Here's an interesting piece by Simcha Fisher, Dangerous Books for Teenage Girls. She's talking about books that are not bad in themselves, but may feed unhealthy tendencies in the mind of a teenage girl. Interestingly, she names Walker Percy's novels as an example from her own youth. I can see the point: Dr. Thomas More's lusts, for instance, are very significant as theological ideas, but they are certainly treated pretty lightly morally, and a naive reader can get the wrong idea.

Anyway, this started me to thinking about books that were similarly dangerous to me. One that comes to mind is--no surprise here, I expect--The Catcher in the Rye. I think it was considered a somewhat immoral book at the time. If nothing else, its extensive profanity made it unacceptable in the eyes of many parents and educators. But there wasn't much harm for me in that--all my friends cussed like sailors, and so did I. The harm lay in its encouragement of my already-present alienation, self-absorption, and self-pity. Worse, it suggested that the reason I was so unhappy was that I was better than everyone else, perhaps even that my unhappiness was itself a sign of superiority. Not a good message for a 15-year-old.

I don't know that all the science fiction I read in my teens did me much good, as it  mostly assumed a more or less atheistic and materialistic philosophy, sometimes explicitly. Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star" definitely disturbed my imagination; I think I half-believed it might really have happened (there's a synopsis here). On the other hand, sci-fi fed my sense of wonder and my love of the mysterious, so it was certainly not all bad.

Although I was barely still a teenager when I read it, as I was in at least my second year of college, Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell was very definitely an unhealthy influence. With this, though, I may be getting out of the category of good books which may have bad effects and into books which are simply bad. "Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained"--what a nasty bit of poison that is for an adolescent male.

Among the worst of all was not a book but a movie, Zorba the Greek. It was very popular among artsy-bohemian people when I was in college: "a celebration of life" and all that. I saw it two or three times. There is a scene where the earthy vital spontaneous life-affirming Zorba tells the more timid city fellow that (quoting from memory) "God is merciful and forgives many things. But there is one thing he does not forgive. And that is if a woman calls a man to her bed, and he does not go" (emphasis as I recall it from the movie). I might have been just as well off to stick a needle full of heroin into my arm as to have those words embedded in my consciousness, which is what happened. It's not so much that I did or didn't follow this counsel (sorry, no confessions forthcoming) as that it gave me an entirely wrong idea of what a man ought to be, what I ought to be, what sex ought to be--as if sex wasn't already a big enough problem. It's bad enough to fail in following one's ideals, but you're really in trouble when the ideals themselves are wrong. 

December 7

I think most people my age and older, and perhaps down to ten years or so younger, immediately associate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with this date. Those who actually remember the day, and the ensuing war, are growing fewer and fewer. Those of us born within the following ten years or so grew up accustomed to having the date noted prominently every year, because the war was very much a living memory to our parents. And so we still notice it, though it doesn't mean to us quite what it meant to those who lived through it.  I doubt that people under forty are nearly as conscious of it. In another thirty years or so, perhaps, or a little longer, when even the children of the veterans are gone, it will begin to be simply a date in history which has little or no personal significance to the living. 

It has seemed to me that the general observance has been diminishing for some time now, but today it seems to be prominent. It was on the front page of the newspaper, and on both the Fox and CNN web sites. I wonder if that reflects an awareness that the memory is beginning to fade, and a sense that it shouldn't. But of course it must and inevitably will. 

The Roots of Declining Middle-class Income

It's definitely happening, has been happening for some time, and most reasonable people think it's a bad thing. But it's not the simple phenomenon that the Occupy protesters and others make it out to be.  Bill Gates didn't become a billionaire by grinding the faces of the poor, or by grabbing up most of some natural resource and selling it at a price of his own choosing, and most of his employees are quite well paid. I'm not against the rich paying more taxes than many of them currently do (in principle--the trick is to make that happen without unwanted side effects). But we can't get out of this situation just by taking money from billionaires. This column by David Brooks, and this rather lengthy article at The Atlantic, Can the Middle Class Be Saved?, get at the most crucial part of the problem: the dwindling number of what we used to call blue-collar jobs, the jobs that were available to men with high-school educations and paid enough money to support a family. I don't agree with everything in either of these pieces, but overall I think they make important points. 

One thing that I don't believe either of them mention, though, is something I often wonder about: what role has the now nearly universal entry of women into the paid work force had on wages? If there's anything to the law of supply and demand, doesn't it follow that wages in general might be higher if that hadn't happened? Also, for a long time, that second income for many middle-class families represented a real increase in buying power: did that have anything to do with the rising cost of housing? I don't know, but I wonder.

Upstairs Downstairs: Journeyman Art

Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2011

Perhaps you’ve noticed that for some time now I haven’t said much on the subject of movies. Part of the explanation for that is that watching movies is something my wife and I tend to do together, and she’s now in graduate school and has far less free time. (I’m not sure why, but I’ve taken surprisingly little opportunity to empty our Netflix queue of things that I chose and she isn’t likely to enjoy.) The bigger part of the explanation is that the time we have had has been spent on watching the entire five years—sixty-eight episodes!—of Upstairs Downstairs. As those of my age or somewhere close to it may remember, it’s an English television drama which aired in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theater from 1973 till 1977 (and a couple of years earlier on the BBC). It follows the lives of an upper-class English family, the Bellamys—the upstairs people—and their servants—the downstairs people—from 1903 till 1930, a span of time which obviously provides many opportunities for interweaving the affairs of the household with great changes and events in the larger world. I remembered enjoying what I saw of it on that first go-round, and when an updated mini-series was produced last year, I thought the original might be something my wife would like, so we got the first DVD from Netflix, and off we went. That was back in June, and I think it was this past Tuesday night that we reached the end.

We liked it, yes, but it was also very convenient, considering our limited time, to have something that came in neat hour-long episodes. Sixty-eight hours of anything is a lot and I have to admit I was tiring of it by the fourth season, and by the fifth was downright impatient. My interest was renewed toward the end, but still it seemed that the producers and writers had pretty well run out of things to do with the material they had to work with. However, they had done something impressive: created a set of characters who came alive, whom you came to care about, and in whose lives you were interested, so that even if you weren’t really all that taken with a particular episode (and each episode is a self-contained story), you wanted to stick around and find out what was going to happen to the people in the longer run.

In that respect, also, the series is an impressive achievement, which must have been partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of commitment on the part of the principal actors. The only other TV series I know of which attempted the same sort of thing is The X-Files, and it, after a promising start, was not so fortunate: in addition to the usual uncertainty about whether the series would be renewed each year, after the first few seasons the producers apparently never knew whether the two actors who played the crucial main characters were going to return. And although many episodes of The X-Files were self-contained stories, many were not, and that larger narrative fell apart completely. The Wire, which I consider eminently successful, took a smarter approach: individual episodes did not necessarily stand alone as stories, but each season did, so that if there was doubt at the end of a season whether the series would be renewed, or a certain actor would be back, there would still be a reasonably satisfying resolution. The Upstairs Downstairs producers did have to cope with the departure of a few important actors who decided to quit after the first couple of seasons. One of the characters was killed off in a way that was dramatically effective and continued to have effects through the rest of the series; the other, less convincingly, simply went to Canada and never came back. It was an advantage, too, that there was no need to work out in advance exactly what would happen over the five years: if you start with a family and their servants in episode one, you can proceed with the broad plan of following them through the years without needing to know that you are working toward, for instance, an alien invasion in episode forty.

I don’t remember how much of the series I saw at its initial release, but I certainly don’t remember anything of the later episodes. I do remember thinking, after a certain number of episodes, that it was essentially a high-quality soap opera, made to seem better than it was, at least in American eyes, by its classy British tone and subject, helped along by the general popularity of Masterpiece Theater and the mild Anglophilia of what used to be called the middlebrow audience. I remember a reviewer or two saying something similar. And it’s not a completely unfair judgment. This is not great art. But it is good solid work, what you might call journeyman art.

From today’s point of view one can see that the producers were laboring under pretty severe restrictions. Like other Masterpiece Theater productions of its time, it clearly had a pretty limited budget. Especially for the first couple of seasons, a small number of sets provide the setting for almost all the action. It was only later, when the series had become a great success, that the producers were able to shoot on location, or on complex exterior sets, or with crowds. If a visitor arrives in an impressive carriage, we see someone observing and describing it from a window, with some canned clippity-clop on the soundtrack. And I wondered if it was for budgetary reasons that in so many episodes one or more main characters are entirely absent—“gone to Southwold with her ladyship” disposes of two characters in a few words.

But the acting and the writing are almost uniformly excellent. Even when the overall narrative of an episode is weak, the details remain interesting. Anyone who’s ever gotten hooked on the series soon comes to think of Rose and Hudson and Mrs. Bridges (downstairs) and Lord and Lady Bellamy and their children as real people, and I found myself really wanting things to come out all right for them. Partly that’s the acting and writing, of course, but it’s also partly the length of one’s exposure to them, something a long-running series has going for it that a two-hour movie doesn’t.

One comes away from the series feeling that one has really learned something about life in England at the time, of the relations between classes, of English history between 1903 and 1930, and of the effects of events and technological progress on the Edwardian world. Whether what one thinks one has learned is accurate or not, I don’t know, but it is certainly convincing. The series as a whole is essentially a good piece of naturalistic fiction, not as good as Dickens, maybe, but probably as good as many lesser writers in that tradition (I am not naming any because I’m insufficiently familiar with the field). It touches the great philosophical and religious areas of life only glancingly and implicitly, and its strengths of plot and character are not of the same order as those of Dickens. But it does not, like so much art of our time, present trivial or mocking answers to the big questions, and it is never simplistic or sneering—much less, thanks be to God, self-congratulatory—about the social and political questions it inevitably raises. The deep injustices of the class system, for instance, are clear, but so are the stability and sense of order it provides for those who have a place in it. You might call this entertainment, but entertainment as it should be—art of a lesser but far from worthless order.

Judging by the reviews on Netflix and Amazon, Upstairs Downstairs remains popular, as it deserves to do. A recent three-episode revival was, in my view, only so-so, although I'm curious now to see it again. If you're a devotee, there is a great deal of information about the series, old and new, including episode guides, at this site, which appears to be unofficial but pretty thorough. If you're not, but are curious, the site is still worth a look, but be aware that the episode guides may contain plot spoilers.

NOTE: comments here may contain spoilers, too.

Christmas Is Happening

You must see and hear this: a sort of online Advent calendar (I know, it doesn't actually start on the first day of Advent) with music. I think the link will take you to day 2 now--be sure to go back and see/hear day 1. (Thanks, ex pat!)