During this season, lists of “bests” for the last twelve months appear. Why isn’t it a slam dunk that at the top of best American athletes is Simone Biles or Mikaela Shiffrin? Or better yet, they should share it.

          The temperature was in the 50s two days before Christmas, and I thought it was silly for the dog to be wearing a coat in the balmy weather. But as I got closer, I realized that the garment may not have been for warmth, for I could see inscribed on the back “Hanukah.” I did not check the Brooklyn pooch’s circumcision state.

          I was driving midweek in central Pennsylvania. Signs seemed to be everywhere for a weekend church festival. I was sorry that I was not going to be there then because the festival offered not just the usual music and food, but something that I have never experienced and could not entirely imagine: A Polka Mass!

          The newspaper headline read: “Is There a Religious Way to Get Angry?” My reaction: “You’re goddamn right there is!”

          “Question: Why are there plenty of televangelists in America, but not a single tele-ecologist?” Lawrence Millman, At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic.

          ‘Tis the season: Athletes get athletes foot, but astronauts get missile toe.

          A thought for the season: “The pleasures of acquisition are well known—says the thief, the former thief—but who ever mentions the quiet pleasure of letting things go?” John Banville, The Blue Guitar.

The Clear Midnight

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout. . . . And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples’. . . .”

Luke Chapter 2.

A Spectacular Christmas Kick (concluded)

While the Santa-is-not-real portion of the present Radio City Christmas Spectacular was not my favorite, my major criticism of this pageant is its lack of diversity. While a sprinkling of color can be found, the cast is overwhelmingly white. New York has many wonderful singers and dancers of all shades, and one wonders why more non-whites weren’t on stage. The audience, too, is heavily white, but I doubt that that is the conscious choice of Spectacular producers. I am sure that they are happy to take everyone’s money.

This Christmas Spectacular, however, retained two of its most important elements. It had the Living Nativity, although it has been shortened from back in the day. It has dropped the part where a sonorous baritone intones words that are projected on a scrim. This told us that Jesus was important even though his life had been limited: he never wrote a book; few knew about him while he lived; he never traveled more that fifty or hundred miles from home, etc, etc. I believe it ended with an explicit reference to Jesus being the Messiah. The Living Nativity today still has a religious component, but it seemed dampened down from what I (perhaps incorrectly) remember. (In today’s New York, where many people automatically say “Happy Holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas,” it is noteworthy that this is still a Christmas show that, although overwhelmingly secular except for the Living Nativity, is devoid of a menorah or any reference to kwanza.)

This Living Nativity does not have any reference to a census or to a no vacancy sign at the inn, but centers on the Magi. (Quick New Testament trivia. How many wise men do the Bible mention? You’re wrong. It says that three gifts were brought, but not the number of wise men. Radio City has it right. It says that “tradition maintains” that there were three.) A caravan of humans and animals cross the stage, including sheep and a donkey, but the audience is always most impressed with the camels. (Questions abound. Where are the kept? Where are they the rest of the year? Do they ever have an onstage accident? I have never seen this, but friends have: Late at night or early in the morning the camels and perhaps the other animals are exercised by walking them through the streets of midtown Manhattan. It is a sight I would like to see.) The Living Nativity concludes with a magnificent rendition of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. No Sunday school could even dream of competing with this pageant.

However, what the Christmas Spectacular is most known for are the Rockettes, an amazing collection of women all of the same height, all of the same body type front and back, all of the same shapely legs. And, of course, all who can kick at the same height in precision with all the others. They are on stage more than I remember when I went in the NBP’s youth, with many costume changes, including as Santa’s reindeer and as Raggedy Annes. But their defining performance, which has apparently been included in every show since their first one in 1933, is the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. I am sure you can see it on YouTube, but I have now seen it on the Radio City stage many times, and I have marveled at it each time, especially when the Soldiers are “shot” down. I loved it again.

I liked the show and it brought back warm memories of when the NBP was young and other times the spouse and I spent with the NBP. But this show did more than that. Sitting to my right was a ten-old girl with her seven-year-old sister. When the Mighty Wurlitzer’s overture ended, the show began with the stage, which must be a hydraulic wonder because it can do so many things—portions can go up and down and also glide over each other–impressively ascended out of depths that could now be seen holding an orchestra and conductor. I heard next to me barely breathed “Wows.” I looked over and two pairs of eyes were as wide as eyes could ever be. Seeing those wide eyes and the breathless “Wows” made me realize again that Christmas can be magic. And if it magical for those young ones, it can be magical for me, too. It still is, and I hope for you, too.

A Spectacular Christmas Kick (continued)

For our recent trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Christmas Spectacular, we did not have the seats in one of the first rows as we once had. Instead, we sat quite a way back and slightly off to the side, but we could see fine. We had not selected where we sat. Part of the reason we went is that I got discount tickets through TDF, the source I use for most of my New York City playgoing. I have to take whatever they give me, and I can only pick up the tickets shortly before showtime. I don’t know where I will sit when I use TDF until I walk into the theater. Our seats were highly acceptable.

The cost for tickets in New York, however, often shocks. I had spent $147 for the three admissions, but these were discounted. When we got home, I looked to see what full price was for the next day’s performance at the same time–$160. The rack rate for seats we had had in olden days? $450!! On the evening we went, there was a family of four to my right. A family of six in the row in front of us. Even with discounted tickets, it is amazing that so many people can afford or are willing to pay the price. At full price, I can’t imagine it. And many of these people are from the suburbs. They have the expense of getting to the City, and no doubt many are going out to dinner afterwards. Even so, 6,000 seats for a 5 P.M. performance on a rain-soaked Monday were filled.

Given the ticket prices, I hope the performers are well paid. They work hard, almost all nearly nonstop, during the ninety-minute show. They have to be exhausted after a performance. And there are many performances. Some days have five shows; others four; and the remainder three. The Christmas Spectacular will be performed twenty-nine times this week. I have no idea what the average ticket price is after discounts and group sales, but even if it is as low as $60, at 6,000 seats, the box office is raking in over $10 million a week (and if the average ticket is closer to face value, the take is double or triple that.) While I would not be surprised that it is otherwise, I hope those hard-working, talented singers and dancers get a sizeable portion of that money. (At Yankee games, I look around and wonder how any but a well-to-do family can go to the games, but at least I know there that the performers are getting excellent compensation.)

We could see the show without straining, and as old devotees of the Christmas Spectacular, we noted changes from back in the day. Of course, there was more high tech—lasers, light show effects, and some 3-D projections. I can’t recount what else was excised, but the abbreviated version of A Christmas Carol was gone. (No big loss.) There was still a skating segment where a rink appears on stage (I always wondered if it was real ice or some other surface that can be skated on), but the segment seemed shorter than before.

A new set piece was added where a teenage boy and his younger brother seek a gift for their sister. The teenager is of the cynical persuasion, and this was the I-don’t-believe-in-Christmas-or-Santa-but-something-will-happen-that-will-give-me-belief-again portion. It did offer the opportunity for many, many Santas, real and projected, to dance. I thought it had some appeal, but the NBP thought it was “creepy.” Some in the audience laughed when the “teenager” said that he was fifteen. I guess these audience members did not think someone of that age should not look as if he might shave twice a day.

When I want that I-don’t-believe-etc. stuff, I turn to something much better, the movie that I have watched more often than any other movie, the old Miracle on 34th Street. This was an extended tradition for me. It was not Christmas season until I saw the movie, and I would search TV listings religiously until I could find a time to watch it, and I usually watched it two or three times in a season. I may have seen this film fifty times. I know many of the lines. Even so, I cry regularly when that little Dutch girl is on Santa’s knee. (Hey, don’t you doubt my testosterone! A real man can be moved by a soppy movie. Haven’t you ever been like me and teared up at The Parent Trap?) The I-believe moment of finding the cane in the otherwise empty room is much better than anything on the Radio City Music Hall stage. (I cared about Miracle enough that I wrote my only letter to a TV station when its showing of the regrettably colorized version dropped a scene, a crucial scene in my opinion, of the Miracle on 34th Street.)

          [Digression. Of course, there are a lot of holiday movies, but I was surprised when Die Hard made lists of top Christmas movies. Although I did not think of it as a Christmas movie (it does take place during an office Christmas party), I watched it when I saw it playing on one those obscure cable channels on Christmas night. Probing my memory, I could not remember having seen it since I saw it in its initial release thirty years earlier, and I started to watch even though the movie was into its last hour. I was enjoying it again, finding that the impossible physical heroics were outweighed by the Bruce Willis banter, but the ending, unfortunately, brought back more disturbing memories other than of my first viewing. Bodies come out of the skyscraper; the bad guys blow off the roof of the building, and for a few moments, I had remembered being on the street thirteen years after the movie’s release. It was September 11, 2001, and I was watching the World Trade Towers from a few blocks away. I couldn’t be overly fond of Die Hard for bringing back those memories and have not watched it again.]

          [Further digression but it is still about Die Hard. David Foster Wallace in his 1995 essay David Lynch Keeps His Head writes about the moral manipulation of film directors and cites movies “where we are so relentlessly set up to approve the villains’ bloody punishment in the climax that we might as well be wearing togas. (The formulaic inexorability of these villains’ defeat does give the climaxes an oddly soothing, ritualistic quality, and it makes the villains martyrs in a way, sacrifices to our desire for black-and-white morality and comfortable judgment. . . . I think it was during the original Die Hard that I first rooted consciously for the villain.)”]

(concluded December 23)

A Spectacular Christmas Kick

I don’t remember when going to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular became part of our family’s Christmas tradition. And by Christmas tradition I don’t mean that it was a tradition of ours during the holiday season. I mean it was our tradition to go on Christmas Day.

This tradition at least partly came about as did another of our holiday traditions—going to movies on Christmas Eve Day—for the same reason. Before becoming parents ourselves, the spouse and I only had parents, sibling, cousins, and the like hundreds and thousands of miles away from our Brooklyn home. There are pluses and minuses to not having a nearby extended family to spend time with during the holidays. Whether it is a plus or minus, there is holiday time to fill up.

Christmas Eve Day was empty of activity, and the spouse and I had found going to a slew of movies during that time to be fun. The NBP  (if you would only go to this blog more regularly you would know that the NBP refers to the child, aka the nonbinary progeny) joined this activity after entering the family. We would each pick one movie and then plot when and where to see them.

This was a good time to go to movies because the theaters were seldom crowded on Christmas Eve. Most of the good Christians were spending time in church or with their families. Sometimes the spouse and I would look around the theater and say to each other, “We are the only goyim here.” (Many Jewish people have a tradition of going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas; many seem also to go to movies the day before.)

Nowadays, the NBP and I often see a movie on Christmas night, but it is hard to get into a theater. Apparently, many good Christians are sick of other family members by then, want to get out of the house, and head to the movies.

On Christmas, as we have done for years, we open presents in the morning to the sounds of Christmas choral music. Stockings are taken down from the mantle in the dining room and plundered while we eat breakfast. That completed, we head to the tree and open the presents under it. When the NBP was a child, Christmas night we would go to dinner at a friend’s house. That left an afternoon hiatus from stuffing the shredded wrapping paper into a black bag until dinner departure time.

I don’t remember the inspiration, but one year we decided to go to the Radio City Hall Music Christmas Spectacular, which has been presented annually since 1933. Even though we had been in New York approaching two decades, the spouse and I had only been to Radio City Music Hall a few times, and then it was for a movie. So off we went to experience this New York City extravaganza. And yes, it was spectacular. Of course, the Christmas show always teeters back and forth on the kitsch line, but we loved it. The incredible rising, descending, and gliding stage; the Mighty Wurlitzer; the singers; the Living Nativity; the ice skaters; the blissfully truncated Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. But most captivating of all were the Rockettes—ah, that kick line; ahhh, the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers . We all loved it. A Christmas tradition began.

The next year we got tickets early, and our seats improved. The Radio City auditorium is vast, with over 6,000 seats. It has three “mezzanines”—no balconies in this place. We never sat upstairs, but you can sit in the orchestra and still be a long, long way from the stage, which was true for our first trip to the Spectacular. The second time we were a lot closer to the action, but still a long way from it.

During the third year I started looking for the initial ads for the show in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times and noting when the ticket sales started. As soon as the sale began, I went to the theater’s box office. Our seats dramatically improved. We were now sitting very close; one year we were in the first row. The Spectacular was even more spectacular. Sometimes we were so close I could see the lines in some of the Rockettes faces and their makeup, which spoiled the effect a bit. But still, to be sitting just a few feet from this stage was exciting. And the NBP was enthralled.

After the fourth or fifth viewing, however, the excitement for the spouse and me began to wane. I don’t remember what the tickets cost, but with our limited income, they weren’t cheap although still possible as a holiday splurge. The spouse and I decided to cut expenses, save sanity, and have only one of us go each year. We swapped off for the next three or four years bringing the NBP. And then we stopped going.

There were a number of reasons, but one of them was that even with an early attack on the ticket booth, we were getting seats further and further back from the stage. Part of the reason we had gotten those choice places is that not many of those who might be attracted to the show went to it on Christmas Day. Those good Christians were at home, or in church, or at Grandma’s, or at Uncle Bill’s. They weren’t coming into midtown New York City after the presents were open and before the ham was served.

But then the appeal of the Christmas Spectacular on Christmas Day broadened from its domestic base to tourists, primarily Asian visitors. Somebody convinced the Japanese and Chinese that a traditional way to celebrate Christmas in New York was to go to Radio City on Christmas Day. Ticket prices increased, and alas, alas, even paying more, we could no longer get our seats. Soon we could only get tickets for the twentieth, then the fiftieth row. We had been spoiled. We stopped going.

Until now. This year the spouse, the NBP, and I went again. It was not on Christmas Day but two weeks before for a 5 P.M. curtain. I am glad we went. We loved it .

(continued December 20)

Kingly Morocco

Morocco has a king. It is one of over forty countries with a monarch. I have only been to a handful of these nations, and the impact of the monarchy on me has varied. Spain is a kingdom, but I don’t remember being aware of his highness at all in my week in Barcelona. I was somewhat aware of the Cambodian king, mostly because of an excessively expensive structure built by a previous Cambodian king in the early twentieth century. In Thailand, in contrast, reminders of the monarchy were everywhere. Almost every block had larger-than-life portraits of the royal family. The Thai monarchy, however, has little power. When I was there, the country was under martial rule, but the royalty was left intact. Our guide maintained that Thais loved the royal family, and although not necessarily against the law, it seemed as if Thais thought it would disrespectful to say anything to slight any royal personage. (Our guide said the movie The King and I was banned in Thailand even though the governess Anna Leonowens is respected in Thailand for the many modernizing influences she brought to the court and Bangkok. The movie, however, is seen as making fun of the King of Siam, and thus it is not shown today in Siam’s modern incarnation, Thailand.)

Americans seem most aware of the British royal family. Any tourist shop I have gone into in England is filled with royal memorabilia—tea towels and tea pots, ashtrays and serving trays, mugs and figurines carrying a royal likeness. Seeing this stuff it is hard to believe that Brits love their Queen since much of what is displayed for sale is, to put it generously, tacky. But any mention that the British monarchy is an anachronism brings the response that it is an ºimportant unifying force for the UK. Of course, the United Kingdom hardly seems unified these days, but even in less turbulent times, I wonder about that shibboleth. Is that country any more unified than monarch-less countries such as France, the United States, or Mexico? (I will leave for another day to discuss the unfathomable fascination that some Americans have with British royal succession and royal family dramas and scandals. What could be more unAmerican than to be in love with British royalty?)

Moroccan royalty had a certain ubiquitous presence on the recent trip. There were various public pictures of the King—Mohammed VI—and his family, but not as many as in Thailand. On the other hand, tschokes celebrating the king were not in the shops as in Britain. The royal presence, however, was mostly felt because almost everywhere we went there was a royal palace. He has thirty-five of them! We were told that each one had to be in a continual state of readiness in case he came to stay without warning. Readiness includes keeping his bedroom in each palace at a constant 65ºF. so that he can immediately hit the rack if he so desires. His presence is also constantly felt in the country because he owns much of the arable farm land apart from the and because he is at least a partial owner of many important Moroccan businesses and most of its mines.

The Moroccan monarch is not a figurehead. The country has a parliament, but the king has much more power than the elected legislature. He controls the military, foreign policy, and religious affairs of the country that is almost totally Sunni Muslim. He appoints the prime minister and other government officials. He can issue decrees that have the force of law. Our guide said that the king sets governmental policies and basically the parliament only has an advisory role to the monarch.

The authoritarian nature of the government that has been the norm for most of Morocco’s history has been somewhat relaxed recently, but our guide admitted that the press is still not free. All the Moroccan television stations are state owned, and dissidents have been convicted of crimes for what they have published. On the other hand, our Moroccan guide was not uncomfortable in telling us about the press limitations, which are undercut because satellite TV is available, the internet is not censored, and Moroccans get much of their news from social media.

Even though he wished for more press freedom and labeled the previous king, the present king’s father, a “tyrant,” our guide said that he, while wishing that the monarchy was less greedy, wants a king. He said that the king provides “stability” for the country. He did not explain that, but certainly a hereditary king provides continuity: “The king is dead; long live the king.” Furthermore, elections in Arab countries without a strong monarch have often brought instability, as well as civil and religious conflict.

However, there is another aspect of the king and his policies that could be seen as stabilizing. The Moroccan king wants a country without radical Islam. Imams cannot preach politics in the mosques. That does not mean that there is a separation of church and state. It’s clear that religion and the government are intertwined. For example, there is religious training in the schools. When we visited a pre-school, the young children (I haven’t traveled much, but I have learned that three- and four-year olds almost everywhere are cute) sang us a song in Arabic that we could not understand except that it concluded with the repeated chant of “Allah” and an accompanying arm movement. But that training, we were told, shuns radical Islam. Morocco does not have madrassas similar to the Saudi-funded ones in Pakistan that helped train many of the Taliban. Even so, the choreographed repetition of Allah was a bit shocking to this secularist who does not think we have enough separation of church and state in America. Perhaps, however, a Moroccan would have a startled reaction to American schoolchildren standing with hand over heart, facing the flag, and pledging allegiance to one nation under God. (We visitors were asked to sing a song in response to the Moroccan kids after they finished. I quietly suggested, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” but we sang—poorly–“The Wheels on the Bus.” We differed on what verse came after the wheels going round and round and blew it.)

Moroccan Snippets

Traveling in Morocco reminded me of the cliché that Japanese tourists constantly take pictures. That is still true, but the Japanese no longer stand out. Now all tourists are continually photographing with smartphones. But in the old days, the photographers snapped a picture of a person squarely facing the camera in front of some monument or other. Today many people, especially young women, have learned to imitate models when they are to be photographed—a hip jutted to the side, a leg slightly bent and in front of the other, full profiles with the nose aimed up at the trees, and practiced smiles or mysterious faces. Smartphones have not only made nearly everyone into a compulsive photographer; they have also made many into semi-professional posers.


I learned that Morocco is famed for fossils from the novel The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne. In that book, a British couple hurrying in their rented car (or hired car since it is a British book) to a decadent party in the Moroccan desert hosted by a gay couple hit and kill a roadside collector and seller of fossils and subsequently get involved with the dead young man’s father.

 I am glad to say that we did not have this excitement, but we did see that Morocco is an important source for fossils. I learned on the trip that eons ago the Moroccan desert was under the sea and that many, many fossils became embedded in marble when the waters receded. A guide describing the painstaking work necessary to chip a fossil out of the marble said that those in the fossil trade had a saying: “Europeans have a watch, Berbers have time.”


The American writer, composer, and translator Paul Bowles, who wrote The Sheltering Sky and Spider House, both set in Morocco, lived in Tangier for more than a half century. Both he and his wife Jane Bowles might be described as having a fluid sexuality. They entertained many artists in Morocco, some of whom were gay, including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Aaron Copland. I asked our guide whether in Bowles’s day Morocco was accepting of gays. He said that Tangier was, but not elsewhere. He said that nowhere today were gays accepted in Morocco. Gay sex is outlawed.

On the other hand, we went to the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech. This was created in 1923 by the French painter, Jacques Majorelle and contained his residence. He died in 1962 and the garden and house deteriorated until they were bought by Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in the 1980s. After the deaths of these two, their ashes were scattered in the garden. A memorial to them and an Yves Saint-Laurent museum were created in the garden. The garden and house are now owned by the French nonprofit Foundation Pierre Bergé—Yves Saint-Laurent. The garden and its museums are a major tourist attraction. In this case, the Moroccans seem quite accepting of these gay men, or at least quite happy for their largesse to Marrakech.


Aspects of family law have been modernized in Morocco. The divorce laws, for example, have been reformed. A man can no longer divorce his wife unilaterally. A court proceeding is required to determine such things as child support and custody.

Polygamy is still permitted in Morocco, but the law now requires that a husband get the consent of all wives before he marries another. The guide said that fewer than one percent of marriages are polygamous. My reaction to polygamy has been to wonder why anyone would wish to go through a wife’s menopause multiple times.


The guide says that women, who can vote, have advanced in society and now hold jobs in the police and military and elsewhere that they could not have had twenty years ago. The majority of women I saw in Morocco had their heads covered, but only a few veiled their faces. The guide said, probably correctly, that more Muslim women in Belgium and the Netherlands cover their faces than in Morocco.

Moroccan Snippets

Two women were in the row in front of me on the flight from Paris to Casablanca. I could hear the pair taking about routes. They looked like the two fat women on the British cooking show who rode around the countryside on a motorcycle with an extra-large side car.

I was more than a little surprised, then, when I found out that this pair was discussing what roads to take to take as they bicycle in Africa. One was planning to bike for a month; the other for ten weeks, and although she had not planned her precise path, she was heading for Dakar, Senegal, a journey of 2,400 miles. The longer-term one was from Alaska—the other was from Montana—and she was in the Alaskan tourist industry. She did not work in the winter, and she took a long bike tour each year in her non-working months.

They don’t train in advance for their biking. Instead, they start slowly on their trips and work up to fifty or sixty miles a day. I asked if they were concerned about safety. The Alaskan said that she carries a stick and waves her arms like a crazy person if she senses a problem, and so far had had none.

They had shipped their bikes in the belly of the plane. The weren’t going to start biking from the airport, though; instead they had arranged transport to a hotel. I last saw them waiting for a van outside the airport.

I already knew that you can’t judge a book by its cover. I have now learned that you can’t judge a bicyclist by the size of her backside.


One of the first things I noticed in Morocco were red and green decorations hung over the street that, at first glance, looked like Christmas decorations. Instead, they were in place to honor the national Independence Day, which occurred in 1956. Green is the color of Islam and represents peace or serenity and together with red, which is associated with the royal dynasty, are the national colors of Morocco, much like red, white, and blue represent the U.S.

In this 95+% Muslim country, the displays were not for Christmas (but I did see commercial billboards proclaiming Black Friday), and the many six-pointed stars I saw were not Stars of David representing Judaism or Israel. The old Moroccan flag had a Star of David, or perhaps it was called the Seal of Solomon, and six-pointed stars are carved into many buildings and appear in mosaics and many other places. I saw no effort to obliterate those Stars of David, but apparently after the founding of Israel, Morocco abandoned the Davidic Star. Now the Moroccan flag displays a five-pointed star.

Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 until 1956, and I learned just enough of this history to leave me confused. Morocco existed before 1912. Morocco was neither incorporated into France during the protectorate nor was it a colony. While it seems that Moroccan sovereignty was largely a myth during the protectorate, the country seems to have still existed. Even so, Moroccan independence is measured from 1956.


I saw two sets of Roman ruins in Morocco. I had not known that the Romans were in Morocco, but the remains of their structures looked much like the other Roman ruins I have seen around the Mediterranean. The Romans may have held sway for a thousand years over this vast territory, but I sometimes think that they had only one architect for all that time and space, for the ruins always look the same.

One set of ruins was different only because storks were roosting in them. I had never seen storks or their nests before. The goofy dance of the storks brought a smile. They looked like white boys who had not been drinking.

The birds also excited a fellow traveler who is now an American living in Virginia but was born and raised in Germany. Arriving storks in her small town were the harbinger of spring. They nested in the chimneys of the breweries.

To my complete disappointment, I did not see any storks in Morocco carrying a baby.

The Class of the Bar (concluded)

          My encounter with the two women in a bar who had a lower class led me to think about another young woman I met in a bar. She was tending bar, and her surname, she told me, was Dumas with the “s” pronounced, and I always addressed her by that last name. Without consciously thinking about the topic, if you had asked me after I first met her, “Was she from the lower middle class?”, I would have said definitely not. But I could not have said what it was about her that would have led me to that opinion. I was not surprised, then, to learn eventually that her father was a doctor in South Carolina, where she grew up, her older brother was a partner in a prestigious law firm, and her younger brother was attending a top-tier law school. When I found out that she was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, I said, “Oh, you are one of those fucking smart women.” She paused, smiled, and replied, “Yes, I am one of those fucking smart women.”

          She may have been smart, but she did tell me that she had not read much since leaving Penn. I gave her my autographed copy of The Black Count: Glory, Evolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the author Alexandre Dumas. I told her that she ought to learn more about her ancestors. (She was as white as the snow that does not fall in Charleston, and I am not sure that she got the racial joke in the gift.) She stopped working in the bar shortly after I gave her the book, and I never found out what she thought of it or whether she even read the biography.

          Dumas was different from other bartenders and servers in the biergarten not only because she was an Ivy League graduate. Almost everyone who works there has some sort of other career that they are pursuing—actor, videographer, music editor, writer, podcast comedian, lead singer in a covers band, Ph.D candidate, psychologist, saving to buy their own bar, tour guide—but she mentioned no aspirations. This also made her different from the athletic director whom I met in the offended-me bar.

          Kris had mentioned that she had a master’s degree, but I did not get in what or from where, but when Maggie mentioned the book I had put down in front of the way-too-expensive Scotch, Kris said that she would like to read more books but that she did not have the time. Most people who claim to want to read and say they don’t have the time are really saying they prefer watching TV or listening to podcasts or searching for online videos or playing videogames in their leisure time rather than reading. They make the perfectly acceptable choice to do something other than crack a book.

          Kris, however, went on to say that in addition to her two jobs as athletic director and soccer coach that she was studying for a Ph.D. I admit that I did not know the field—educational leadership—and I did not know the school–the University of New England. She was pursuing her degree online. When she got home at night, she turned to studying for that Ph.D. I asked if this was hard, and she spit out, “Oh, yes. It is a lot different and easier going to classes with lots of other people than it is sitting by yourself in front of a computer.” But she was determined to get the degree. She was determined to learn more; she was determined to become even better.

          But the deck is stacked against her in ways that it was not for me. In this land of opportunity, increasingly opportunity is available only if you are born into it. In a better country, the strivers like Kris would make it to the head of the class. I hope she does.

The Class of the Bar (continued)

          The athletic director and the lacrosse coach who I talked to in the I-am-never-going-there-again bar told me that some of the students in their expensive private school acted entitled, but most were good kids and that no parent had unduly tried to influence them. I had asked about this both because of the recent scandals involving fake athletic credentials and college admissions and because I was told that a professional at a squash club had been berated by a parent when the pro had moved a kid to a lower place in the club’s squash hierarchy. The parent, apparently, was worried that the demotion would harm the chances of the beloved and special child going to some selective school.

          But, still, I thought to myself, even if my two new companions did not feel any overt pressures from the school’s parents, many of them most certainly are status conscious. Without consciously registering why—perhaps if I were a good psychologist, sociologist, or novelist, I would have the reasons–the two struck me with an aura of lower middle classdom that they had not completely transcended. It certainly was not their clothing because their dress fitted in well into a Brooklyn neighborhood bar where just about anything goes. I don’t think it was accents or speech patterns because nothing had stood out to me. It was partly from some of their comments. When one stressed that she was from northern Connecticut, she was indicating that she did not want to be associated with what many see as the rich part of the state. Somehow the comment that my old Harris tweed jacket made good wedding apparel said something to me. But it was something more than just a few comments. It was no doubt congeries of factors hitting me subconsciously that led me to the feeling of their social status.

          It made me feel a kinship with them because I, too, come from the lower middle class, or at least on a good day, maybe right after the father’s payday, my childhood family made it all the way up there. I don’t think, however, that I now give the immediate impression that this is my origin. I wondered why and found that I was not sure of an answer.

          I did consciously change some of my mannerisms because of experiences at my expensive college. I found that my ties were not the right width and that it was acceptable to wear a blue Oxford button-down with a frayed collar and that some of my pronunciations seemed funny to others—e.g., the-ate-er. Some of my lessons caused me a bit more discomfort than others. For example, in my first year at college, I spent the night at the home of a very rich girl. Her grandfather had invented something essential for airplanes that had made a lot of money, and the house where I was staying was the grandest I had ever been in. I had hardly ever slept overnight in anyone else’s house before, and not surprisingly I had not slept well in this one. The next morning when I wandered out bleary eyed, the mother pointed down a hall and told me to go to the breakfast nook and have something to eat. Maybe I had heard of a breakfast nook, but I had never before seen, much less eaten in one. No one else was there. I sat down on the bench seating. On the table was a box of cornflakes, one of my least favorite cereals, and a pitcher (certainly not a carton) of milk. I thought that I could get those dry, tasteless flakes palatable if I made them extra, extra sweet. The only other item on the table was a tiny, tiny bowl of a white substance with an even tinier spoon. It seemed odd that the sugar was in such miniscule container, but there it was. I scooped well into the double digits of the sugar onto my Kellogg’s. I was about to start eating when the mother returned and said, “I am so sorry. I forgot to put the sugar out.” Thinking as fast as I could, I put a spoonful of cornflakes into my mouth, chewed, swallowed, and said, “No problem. I don’t put sugar on my cereal.” It may have been the saltiest food I ever ate.

          But even if I came off as working class in a way that might have held me back when I was nineteen, I think I have shed that cloak. (My parents, however, as an adult reminded me in countless little ways of my less than upper-class origins. For example, I told my parents that I would be visiting them and that I would arrive in time for dinner. Hey, when do you eat dinner? I had forgotten that for them that that was the noon meal. I showed up five hours after they had the table set and the food prepared, which was, how shall I put it, a little dry by that point. Another example: The father was visiting us in Brooklyn. Our parlor floor has ceilings twelve feet high with plaster moldings and plaster rosettes that date to the 1870s. The father almost immediately after his arrival started explaining to me how I could lower to ceilings to a more sensible eight feet, a change that would save me much in heating costs.) On the other hand, those interesting, pleasant women in that no-name-to-me bar still had a lower-middle-class aura. I realize that that made me feel superior to them, and I did not like that feeling. I have been lucky in many ways. I was born into a time where social mobility in this country was real. Today, a child born into the bottom half of society has much less chance of moving out of that status than in almost any other developed country and much less chance than when I was born. (You can look it up.) We still have a Horatio Alger myth, but it is a myth. The rich have insulated themselves and their families by invasion from the “unworthy.”

(concluded December 9)