A Yankee Notebook

January 4, 2016


MONTPELIER – Patience is not just a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera lampooning the 19th-century Aesthetic Movement in Great Britain, and in which Lillian Russell played the heroine at the Bijou in New York in 1882.

Patience – and its adjective – are words most of us have lived with all our lives. From our parents’ admonitions to “wait your turn” to the hoary gag we played out almost every skit night at summer camp (“Patience, Jackass, patience!”), it’s long been a part of our consciousness. It’s derived from an ancient Latin root meaning “to suffer,” which implies that exercising it is going to be at least a little painful. In these days of airport security checks and crowded flights, most of us are all too familiar with that pain. The apostle Paul, one of my least favorite saints, recommends it as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Saint Augustine, in a maxim more congenial to my nature and age, says, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

We immigrants to what’s now the United States of America have never been known for our patience. “Restiveness” more nearly describes us. Smarting under plutocratic and religious rule in Great Britain, our ancestors braved threatening seas in tiny, leaky ships to exercise their beliefs without official restraint. Angered by the apparent indifference of the British monarch and parliament, and finally touched off by the cynical indignity of the Stamp Act and the monopoly granted the East India Company, they dumped the Company’s tea into Boston Harbor and began a series of rebellious acts that led shortly to Lexington and Concord. (Meanwhile, just to our north, the patient and forbearing Canadians managed to achieve the same independence without violence, their only lingering imperial problem being that they spell funny.)

The need for patience and its accompanying wisdom is currently in demand in our republic. Engaged in the most chaotic, and even bizarre, primary campaign for the Republican nomination for President, we find our attention demanded by and focused on one person whose headlock on the media is nearly complete, while his fitness for the office is, objectively, more and more doubtful. His attacks on his fellow candidates, which are more personal than ideological, remind me of nothing else as much as an experience I had about 65 years ago in central New York.

I was fishing in the springtime for brook trout in a tiny wooded stream, and happened to pop out of the brush onto a soggy old logging road, to find myself about ten scary yards behind a pair of very grumpy and presumably hungry black bears. They walked side by side, more or less, each in his own rut, growling at each other, and every few yards turned to smack each other, lock jaws, and wrestle. I watched them out of sight, and reflected that, wherever they were headed, they weren’t going to get there as fast as they might if they’d just leave each other alone. And yet, just like the dysfunctional comedy of the current primary campaign, it was fascinating to watch. Nowadays I’d simply whip out an iphone (if I had one) and film it – like the primary – for everybody to see. But that was the 40s; my state-of-the-art equipment was a large Kodak black box camera. Yet, because I can only describe it, everyone sees it in his own mind, which may be better.

The little state of Vermont is currently abuzz with the news that the Great Panjandrum has rented Burlington’s Flynn Theater for the evening Thursday and is distributing free tickets (past tense; I hear they’re all spoken for) to the event over the Internet. Why in the world he would attempt, in a winner-take-all electoral system, to bring his message to the nation’s second-bluest state is a mystery only he or his minions can explain.

Naturally, the local social media have lit up with discussions about the ideal response to the golden-maned bloviator’s appearance. Some want to stand across the street from the theater with signs and chants. Not a great idea, unless the weather warms considerably; and the object of the signs probably won’t see them, anyway. Others want to be in the audience, and when the speaker is introduced – where can they find a Vermonter to introduce him? – stand up at their seats and turn their backs to him. Can you hear the shouts of, “Down in front!”? Still others favor shouts of protest, daring the security bullyboys to eject them.

The trouble with all these ideas, beyond ineffectiveness and danger of frostbite or mayhem, is that all of them will provide irresistible targets for the horde of television cameras and reporters that accompany the candidate like remoras around a shark. They miss the all-important fact that the man is – according to our psychological practitioner brethren – a classic narcissist: shallow and unable ever to get enough attention. If he can arouse Vermonters, either for or against, and see the footage of their responses on national television, he will sleep better that night, at least.

Far more effective, I should think, would be signing up for tickets and either not show up or show up long enough to protect the seats and leave quietly and unostentatiously as the great man is ushered onto the stage. The theater apparently holds only 1400 people, anyway, so even chock-full, it won’t reach the usual “huge crowds!” rating from the chief appraiser. If he happens to criticize Vermont’s junior senator, the comments will tell us more about him than the object of his derision.

Most of all, I think it vital that we remember the virtue of patience. Who of us believes that the current “incredible lead in the polls” will last? We might remember the crucial order given at the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill: “Don’t fire, boys, till you see the whites of their eyes.” Let’s let the bears cuff each other till one of them emerges triumphant. Patience. Then, boys...then!

Photo by Willem lange