On Proustian pastimes

On Proustian pastimes

As promised! Here are two of my favorite passages from the eternally impending The Curmudgeon: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the pandemic. My most ardent fans will likely recall the book’s original title was The Diary of a Curmudgeon until I discovered that non-fiction books with the word “diary” in the title won’t get you very far in the literary agent world.

So, what’s another massive editing overhaul between friends?

Though these two connected essays certainly have elements of humor, their tone is a bit more serious than the rest of the book, which is intended to be my first humor effort (I hope). That said, they certainly serve the core purpose of further describing a curmudgeon’s unique thought process and perspective.


On Proustian pastimes

In Remembrance of Things Past, the definition of the word “tome,” Marcel Proust deeply describes how lost memories can resurface during that ephemeral twilight time between sleep and waking up.

Proust, of course, wasn’t just a preeminent early 20th Century author, he was also a curmudgeon of the highest order who consistently amazes me with his exhaustively accurate characterization of the mental phenomena that tend to beset, or perhaps grace, our breed.

And sure enough! As I grudgingly returned to consciousness this morning, I started reflexively reciting a poem that sent me straight back to that 1970 seventh grade St. Nick’s classroom. That, in turn, unleashed a torrent of recollections from a very strange school year in which we endured three separate teachers and a number of short-stint substitutes.

After Mr. Dierkop was forced to resign due to a family medical issue, in what turned out to be a rather strange irony, those strait-laced sisters hired two hippies, the first of whom, Mr. Prost, had us listening to Doors albums. I eventually did become a Jim Morrison fan, but I’m not so sure any 12-year-old is truly ready for “Celebration of the Lizard.”

As you might imagine, he was summarily dispatched only to be replaced by Miss Judy, a female version of the same person. So, she didn’t last very long, either.

The best part of this Proustian process was remembering how my mother, father, and a host of other parents were furious over coughing up private school tuition for what was an entirely wasted year.

It was particularly fascinating to watch those nuns, whom our mothers and fathers almost always unconditionally supported, reel and become tentative in the face of that backlash. That was the first time I learned that authority figure facades were a lot thinner than anyone imagined. That lesson served me very well, too.

But back to the poem.

After enduring another seventh-grade teacher transition, the principal, whose face I can recall but her name escapes me, temporarily took over our English class. And for the better part of a week, we memorized and discussed John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever.”

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Proust was certainly onto something.

The truth finally comes out!

As you’ve likely already noted, there are a plethora of possibilities that drive curmudgeons crazy, but nothing does the trick like forgetting a name. And the fact that I could so vividly recall that St. Nick’s principal’s face, but could not come up with her name, gnawed at me to the point where I called Father Joe Mulcrone at the Chicago Archdiocese office for the deaf.

Father Joe Mulcrone

You see, Father Joe’s first post-ordination assignment was St. Nick’s and I figured he’d be the one to tell me who she was. But despite understanding exactly who I was talking about, he couldn’t remember her name, either.

But getting back to our current Proustian theme of how one uncovered memory can lead to another, Father Joe may not have been able to answer my question, but he did describe a series of events that finally explained what lead to that tumultuous seventh grade year.

That story starts with the pastor who preceded Joe’s presence, Father Bill Hoffman. I had no problem recalling that name because he was so wildly unpopular. As Father Joe put it, Hoffman had been part of the “Chicago Catholic Marching Band” fundraising group tasked with drumming up support for the Church. And that, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer dynamic rubbed off on everything he did.

Seeking a less stressful pre-retirement role, Hoffman was assigned to the German-founded St. Nicks Parish based upon his similar heritage. But those Evanston liberals weren’t ready for their pastor to ascend to that lofty southern pulpit only to launch into the kind of non sequitur evangelical tirade that inevitably excoriated the congregation for their vast shortcomings.

I became so annoyed at him one Sunday morning that I turned to my mother to too-loudly ask her, “Why is he shouting again?” I expected to be shushed, but even though I can’t recall her specific response, she was no more a fan of Father Hoffman than I was. We avoided his masses from that point on.

Then Father Hoffman vanished. Despite the slew of unanswered questions, none of the adults would talk about it. It was as if Father Hoffman had never existed. But thanks to Father Joe, 54 long years later, I finally have my answers.

The year 1968 proved to be a challenging proposition throughout the country, and particularly in Chicago. Under Mayor Daley the elder’s tutelage, the Democratic National Convention, co-opted by Vietnam protestors, turned into an anarchistic public relations disaster. As the great man himself said, “The police aren’t here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder,” which was pretty much the case.

Martin Luther King’s assassination provoked nationwide race riots that were particularly violent in Chicago, and then Bobby Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles. Add the Vietnam war protests reaching a fever pitch and it seemed as if the country was imploding. (Sounds suddenly familiar, doesn’t it?)

So, as it turns out, it was Father Hoffman’s refusal to lower the Church’s flag in the aftermath of the King assassination that was the end of him. That kind of bigoted defiance didn’t sit well with his classically Democratic Evanston parishioners, nor did it endear the pastor to the two more conservative lay trustees.

One of those trustees was James P. McCourt, who, at six feet, five inches tall, was quite the imposing figure. Mr. McCourt served as an Evanston alderman from 1963 to 1973, an Illinois state representative from 1973 to 1980, and a Cook County associate judge after that. The McCourts were one of the most respected parish families.

That kind of deference meant, no matter what time they arrived, their front, left of center pew at the 10 a.m. chapel guitar mass was always waiting for the five of them m to file in one-by-one.

Father Joe’s recollection was that Jim McCourt was quite the traditionalist at a time when ‘60s conservatives were under siege. But that never stopped him from doing the right thing. So, when he and the other trustee approached Father Hoffman about his flagrant flag disrespect, and he still refused to relent, they went straight to John Cardinal Cody.

And in what can only be called an uncharacteristically bold move for the diocese, Father Hoffman was “instructed” to retire, which fully explained the lack of fanfare over his abrupt departure.

That vacancy led to Father Andy McDonough’s arrival and it was like someone turned on the light switch. After enduring that disastrous 1970 year, Father McDonough replaced the principal and the rest of the old guard with a flurry of fresh young faces. And our eighth-grade classroom saw a swift return to a semblance of normality – though all of our seventh and eighth grade teachers were nuns this time.

They clearly didn’t want to take any more chances with our class.

So, there you have it! Nothing makes a curmudgeon happier than finally ferreting out the whole story through an interminable pursuit of the truth, even if it requires more than a half-century to put it all together. And all of this came about as a result of Marcel Proust’s twilight theory by which I suddenly remembered a poem drummed into my youthful head by a Catholic nun way back in 1970. 

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