Post 26: An 86-year-old priest wants “to not merely survive but to thrive with dignity, verve and joy.”

This week I want to introduce my readers to Father William O’Malley, an 86-year-old Jesuit priest who, at the end of 2017, shared ten New Year’s resolutions and his desire to “not merely survive but to thrive with dignity, verve and joy.” (National Catholic Reporter, January 2, 2018)

Some of you might remember Father O’Malley for the role he played in the Exorcist – that of Father Joseph Dyer. Dyer was friends with Damian Karras whom Regan, the possessed 12-year-old, threw out the window and down the steps near my Georgetown office.  Something to think about each time I walk by!

But fast forward some 45 years and back to Father O’Malley’s column! He begins by recollecting that he and fellow Jesuit Larry Madden (former pastor here at the Jesuit Trinity Church in Georgetown) used to write musicals based on serious, well known literary classics.  They did it as a way of avoiding the drudgery of seminary life. He writes:

Let’s hear it for arrogance — a musical version of The Odyssey. I wrote a lyric for Odysseus just as he’s trying finally to escape his gilded imprisonment by Calypso. It proved to be prescient. I’m now at an age to understand I was right all those years.

Shall I run and hide my fistful of stars

Or try to harvest them all?

Shall I sit inside secure by a hearth

When the sky’s on fire with their call?

Just to sit and be makes a no one of me

When the gods make the winds blow fair.

And it matters not if I find the spot.

In the going, I’m already there.

That’s where my soul’s at right now.

After 60 years of taunting young minds in high schools and colleges to welcome their odysseys with imagination, fine hearts and quick wits, I’m forcibly retired without the “aged wife” Tennyson gave my forebear. Now, I age along with other beached seafarers wrapped in their own myths of what more or less were our lives. Tennyson’s Ulysses exhorted his old mates:

 We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 …

 Dylan Thomas exhorted us, along with his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and a great many readers and I vibrate to Willy Loman: “You can’t eat the orange, and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit.” And again Tennyson: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life!”

 What can life legitimately keep asking of us — and we of ourselves and of life — when there’s no real demand that we obey the morning alarm clock, when kids (and even grandkids) are old enough to resist intrusion, however well-intentioned, when the carcass itself sends weary messages? I’ve learned a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two, so, here, for you as well as for me, are my prayers and resolutions for the New Year: 

  1. Help me not merely to survive but to thrive with dignity, verve and joy.
  2. Make me contagious with all the aliveness I have left in me.
  3. Encourage me to be more readily forgiving, not just of others but myself.
  4. Firm up my patience with imperfection now that it’s more difficult to avoid.
  5. Make me both prudent and patient in yielding lest I become an amiable pushover.
  6. Remind me that my caregivers have bad days, too.
  7. Allow me a reasoned opinion without becoming opinion-bound.
  8. Sensitize me to the signals that say it’s OK to ask, “How’s it goin’?”
  9. Keep me aware that, if I forget all this, I waste a lot of learning.
  10. Remind me you had a reason to create things that eventually wear out.

Just to sit and be makes a no one of me.

When the gods make the winds blow fair.

And it matters not if I find the spot.

In the going, I’m already there.

Post 25: What has happened to the virtue of magnanimity?

Today I want to introduce my readers for the first time to Notre Dame Magazine. This award-winning publication is an important part of my continuing Notre Dame education. While sharing information on campus and alumni news, each edition also contains articles and essays covering a broad range of topics.

In the most recent summer edition, Brett Beasley, associate director of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership, asked what has happened to the lost virtue of magnanimity:

I’ve posed this question to friends and family, to colleagues and classrooms full of students. I even started asking strangers through online surveys. Some guess that greatness of soul is a mythical quality, like clairvoyance or animal magnetism. Some mention a saint or an esoteric religious teaching. Others with a different definition of “soul” in mind answer “Aretha Franklin” or “James Brown.” Many people suspect the question is a trick. “Is that even a thing?” they ask.

 I tell them it is a thing. Or at least it was. In fact, greatness of soul was nothing less than “the crown of the virtues.” That’s how Aristotle described it in his Nicomachean Ethics over 2,000 years ago. For Aristotle, the great-souled person, or megalopsychos, is a person keenly aware of his or her potential. Focused on great and honorable things, the megalopsychos ignores petty slights and insults and is too high-minded to bother lashing out or holding grudges.

Greatness of soul, it turns out, did not fall into ruin along with Aristotle’s Lyceum. It survived into the Middle Ages, largely in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. “Magnanimity” — from magna, “big,” and animus, “soul or spirit” — is Thomas’s Latinate equivalent, and he includes it in his Summa Theologiae. The difference is that Aristotle admires Greek warriors and statesmen, while Thomas views Christ and the saints as exemplars of a good — meaning holy — life. So he employs humility, a virtue Aristotle did not recognize, to work alongside magnanimity.

Searching for evidence of magnanimity in more recent times, I came across one name again and again: Abraham Lincoln.

 During his lifetime and after his assassination, Lincoln was lauded for his magnanimity. Some of the most poignant plaudits came from Lincoln’s own would-be enemies. William Seward, originally a political rival and later Lincoln’s secretary of state, called Lincoln’s magnanimity “almost superhuman.” The president’s relationship with another rival, Edwin Stanton, also stands out. An attorney general for the administration before Lincoln’s, Stanton had earlier hurt Lincoln’s law career by barring him from taking part in an important trial. Stanton even had a well-known habit of insulting Lincoln, calling him a “damned long-armed Ape,” and “the original gorilla.” Nevertheless, Lincoln picked Stanton as his secretary of war because he believed Stanton was the best person for the job. It was, according to one Lincoln biographer, “one of the most magnanimous acts of a remarkably magnanimous president.”

 

We might expect that war, and in particular civil war, would stretch magnanimity to its breaking point. But the opposite seems to have been true for Lincoln. He could not put his ego before the needs of a riven country. The stakes were simply too high. “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing,” he wrote in 1862. We may say that desperate times call for desperate measures, but for Lincoln they called forth magnanimity.

 

Yet magnanimity is a lot like Lincoln’s stovepipe hat: We know him for it, but it was already falling out of fashion in his lifetime. A few years before the Civil War, the English social critic John Ruskin was already calling magnanimity “a virtue of which we hear too little in modern times.” Today, a little data mining in Google Books proves Ruskin was onto something: Readers are about seven times likelier to encounter “magnanimity” in a book written a century before Lincoln’s death than in one written a century after it.

The French Dominican A.G. Sertillanges once wrote, “Like the grass of morning, moist with glistening dew, all the old virtues are waiting to spring up afresh.” If I confirmed one thing on my search for greatness of soul, it’s that Sertillanges was right. Though on the surface this old virtue seems to have withered, its roots — in our culture, our history and even our biology — run deep. What say we tend them?

Post 24: Alan Abel, the Man who Died Twice

We have been fairly serious in recent weeks, so I feel it is time for a few laughs. My readers will remember a blog (Post #14) about Margalit Fox, the redoubtable obituary writer of The New York Times who wrote about the “joys and frustrations of an obituary writer” as she retired in June of last year. Fortunately, Ms. Fox still had some obituaries “in the can” upon retirement. One of the most enjoyable was her review of the life of Alan Able who died the following September. Able was a compulsive hoaxer who staged his own death in 1980 and earned an “earnest news obituary” in The New York Times. In her most inimitable style, Ms. Fox provided a delightful account of the many successful efforts of Mr. Able to hoodwink the press and the American public.

From The New York Times, September 17, 2018:

Alan Abel, a professional hoaxer who for more than half a century gleefully hoodwinked the American public — not least of all by making himself the subject of an earnest news obituary in The New York Times in 1980 — apparently actually did die, on Friday, at his home in Southbury, Conn. He was 94.

Mr. Abel’s putative 1980 death, orchestrated with his characteristic military precision and involving a dozen accomplices, had been confirmed to The Times by several rigorously rehearsed confederates. One masqueraded as the grieving widow. Another posed as an undertaker, answering fact-checking calls from the newspaper on a dedicated phone line that Mr. Abel had installed, complete with its own directory-information business listing.

After the obituary was published, Mr. Abel, symbolically rising from the grave, held a gleeful news conference, and a much-abashed Times ran a retraction.

A master psychologist, keen strategist and possessor of an enviable deadpan and a string of handy aliases, Mr. Abel had an almost unrivaled ability to divine exactly what a harried news media wanted to hear and then give it to them, irresistibly gift-wrapped. At the spate of news conferences he orchestrated over the years, the frequent presence of comely women, free food and, in particular, free liquor also did not hurt.

But beneath the attractive packaging lay a box of snakes on springs.

Mr. Abel’s first major hoax, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, or SINA — which sought “to clothe all naked animals that appear in public, namely horses, cows, dogs and cats, including any animal that stands higher than 4 inches or is longer than 6 inches” — began in 1959. It starred his friend Buck Henry, then an unknown actor and later a well-known actor and screenwriter, as the group’s puritanical president, G. Clifford Prout.

The campaign, which Mr. Abel intended as a sendup of censorship, proved so convincing that it found a bevy of authentic adherents, with SINA chapters springing up throughout the country. Over the next few years, the organization’s activities (including a 1963 picket of the White House by Mr. Abel, who demanded that the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, clothe her horses) were faithfully reported by news organizations, among them The Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and CBS News. The group was exposed as a hoax by Time magazine in 1963.

 “People tell me that Walter Cronkite is still mad at me,” Mr. Abel told The Washington Post in 2006. “He’s not mad at Hitler. He’s not mad at Castro. He’s mad at me because I fooled him with ‘A nude horse is a rude horse.”

“A few hundred years ago, I would have been a court jester,” he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2007. His primary intent, Mr. Abel often said, was “to give people a kick in the intellect.”

His best-known kicks included Yetta Bronstein, the phantom Jewish grandmother from the Bronx who ran for president in 1964 and at least once afterward on a platform that included fluoridation, national Bingo tournaments and the installation of truth serum in congressional drinking fountains. (“Vote for Yetta and things will get betta,” read a slogan for the campaign, which attracted a small coterie of actual supporters.)

There were also the Topless String Quartet, with which, Mr. Abel said, an unsuspecting Frank Sinatra wanted to book a recording session; the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra, which, he said, the failed presidential candidate and former Klan grand wizard David Duke briefly accepted an invitation to conduct.

To some observers, Mr. Abel’s antics were a Rabelaisian delight. To others, especially members of the news media who had been taken in, they were an unalloyed menace. But as Mr. Abel well knew, his relationship with the media in general, and the broadcast media in particular, was utterly synergistic, for they needed him as much as he did them.

Post 23: The Jesuit Brother who searches for the stars at the Vatican

Just before Christmas 2017 (December 22, 2017) The New York Times published an article by Elizabetta Povoledo, who introduces us to a delightful, witty, former Peace Corps volunteer, Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno. Brother Consolmagno is the director of La Specola Vaticana (the Vatican Observatory). His view of the heavens is a religious one.

Elisabetta Povoledo has been writing about Italy for nearly three decades and has been working for The New York Times and its affiliates since 1992. She has covered papal conclaves (two), Vatican trials (three), Italian presidents (four), Italian governments (16, in seven legislatures), and Rome’s homeless cat population.

Early in the article Povoledo asks:

How many people know that the Vatican built its first observatory in the 16th century to study astronomy for the reform of the Gregorian calendar? Or that a 19th century Jesuit priest, Angelo Secchi, is considered a pioneer of astronomical spectroscopy, “the beginning of astrophysics,” as Brother Consolmagno said? Or that 90 years ago a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, put forth a theory on the expanding universe that became what is known today as the Big Bang?

She continues about Brother Consolmagno:

A Detroit native, he first thought about following in his father’s footsteps and studying journalism. So he majored in history at Boston College, before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue science. “Originally I had the idea of being a science journalist, but the science itself was too much fun to pass up,” he said.

When he completed his Ph.D. studies in planetary sciences at the University of Arizona he said he had a “crisis of faith, not in my religion but in my science,” he said, adding: “I thought, Why am I doing science, writing papers that five people will read, when there are people starving around the world?’”

He quit academia and joined the Peace Corps, moving to Kenya in 1983 to teach first high school in rural areas and then university. He returned from the Peace Corps “filled with this passion to teach astronomy” and began working at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “I was never as happy as I was there, teaching at a small college and I realized this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he recalled.

At that point, nearing 40, he decided to join the Jesuits. “I’ve always been in love with my faith, I enjoy being a Catholic, and so I thought about becoming a brother, living with the Jesuits in community,” he said. Eventually, he was called to the observatory.

The Vatican had in-house observatories until the 1930s when light pollution in the Italian capital began interfering with sky watching, so they transferred the institute to the papal palace and gardens at Castel Gandolfo, where popes have summered for centuries. In 2009 the observatory decamped for new lodgings in a remodeled monastery on the Albano Laziale side of the papal gardens, just next to the working farm that provides the pope with vegetable and dairy products.

 “There are three vows that even Jesuit brothers take: poverty, chastity and obedience,” said Brother Consolmagno. “And the running joke is, if this is poverty, show me chastity,” he laughed.

There are four telescopes under domes at Castel Gandolfo, and on a chilly morning Brother Consolmagno draped rather awkwardly on a reclinable chair, peered gingerly into the viewfinder of one: a 19th century model used when the Vatican was one of 20 observatories to participate in the Carte du Ciel astronomical project to map millions of stars on photographic plates.

Brother Consolmagno’ spends about a third of his year on the road. “I come cheap and I tell funny stories,” he joked.

“I’ve been to every continent and encountered people of every culture who love looking at the sky,” he added. “It just reminds you that we all live under the same sky and we all have stories to share about it.”

Brother Consolmagno counts himself as lucky. “The glorious thing to me of being a Jesuit brother, it’s the one place that allowed me to use all the things I love to do,” he said, contemplating the way the universe works. “It’s not only logical, which is amazing in itself, but in its logic it is beautiful,” he said. And it is a constant sign of God’s presence.

“God wants us to be happy, God wants us to be joyful, and we are hoping we can communicate some of the reasons we find joy in the stuff we do,” he said.

 

 

 

 

Post 22: Searching for the Stars

Two thoughtful individuals “searching for stars” will be the subjects of my next two posts. One is a scientist, non believer and the other a Jesuit brother. Both will inspire us.

As I noted in a previous blog post, the most important intellectual benefit I derive from reading the National Catholic Reporter is from its reviews of books which offer spiritual enrichment. This can even come from a publication by a scientist/non-believer, as was the case in a book by Alan Lightman and reviewed by Diane Scharper in the NCR in August of 2018. Lightman was also favorably reviewed in The Washington Post by Steven Gimbel on April 1, 2018, as I note below.

Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. Currently, he is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Diane Scharper is an instructor for the Osher Institute at Johns Hopkins University and a longtime member of the National Book Critics Circle. She has published several books.

Here are excerpts from Scharper’s review of Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine:

Alan Lightman, professor and author of more than 15 books, including the best-selling novel Einstein’s Dreams, says he is not a believer in God. But he wishes he were.

If there’s a theme to this wide-ranging book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, that’s it. Part memoir, part scientific observation, part discussion of religious and metaphysical beliefs, the book contains 20 chapters focusing on topics like origins, atoms, ants, motion and truth.

Under these headings, Lightman discusses many things using religion and science, including the basics of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity and the findings of scientists like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

He does believe in the personal transcendent experience and quotes William James who said, “Having once felt the presence of God’s spirit, I have never lost it again for long.” Lightman calls this experience, “the most powerful evidence we have for a spiritual world.” It’s an “immediate…feeling [of] some unseen order or truth in the world.” Lightman says he’s had several transcendent experiences — one inspired this book’s title.

Several years ago, he was in a motorboat in the Atlantic Ocean heading to an island. He cut off the boat’s engine and, lying back, looked up at the night sky feeling at one with the universe. “After a few minutes,” he says, “my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. … I felt a merging with something far larger than myself.”

The occasion is especially noteworthy since Lightman, who even though he teaches creative writing and has written novels and published poetry, is primarily an astrophysicist who believes the universe is composed of physical substances controlled by laws.

The experience reminded him of Vincent van Gogh’s painting, “The Starry Night,” which Lightman discusses in a chapter on motion. He describes the painting — stars “with exaggerated halos” — so evocatively that it made me think of “The Starlight Night,” a poem by Jesuit Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, written not too long (1877) before van Gogh painted his picture (1889) and may have inspired the artist.

Interestingly, van Gogh, who also rejected organized religion, once wrote a letter (which Lightman quotes) speaking of his “tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion — so I go outside at night to paint the stars.”

Lightman says “The Starry Night” is one of his favorite paintings, but he doesn’t explain why. Then again, he doesn’t need to.

The Post confirmed Scharper’s take on Lightman’s thoughtful writing.

Lightman’s preference emerges for the phenomenological. “For me, as both a scientist and a humanist, the transcendent experience is the most powerful evidence we have for a spiritual world. By this I mean the immediate and vital personal experience of being connected to something larger than ourselves, to feeling some unseen order or truth in the world.”

Post 21: Positive Psychology—the strength and virtues that lead to happiness

In Post 12 I noted that Aristotle had explored the nature of human happiness and its relation to virtue. Racing forward some 2400 years, we find that some eminent psychologists are pursuing that question today, though in much more sophisticated and scientific ways.

I first heard about “positive psychology” in an issue of “Health Magazine” in the Summer of 2004. Peter Jaret reviewed a publication entitled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press) edited by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. I was especially impressed by the ten “essential traits of happiness” listed by Jaret.  They were: Love of Learning; Creativity; Humility and Modesty; Humor; Persistence; Gratitude; Forgiveness; Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence; Spirituality; and Vitality. It sounded like a good formula to me and inspired me to read further.

In a later article from the May 5, 2008 “Health Magazine,” Jaret provided more context:

Instead of focusing on what goes on when people become anxious or depressed, a growing number of psychologists are saying it’s high time to look on the bright side. … “What are the traits that allow people to lead fulfilled lives? What are the strengths and virtues that contribute to happiness?” … [T]he book celebrates characteristics like love, prudence, creativity, and leadership. It’s intended to be a counterpart to the traditional text of psychiatric medicine, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with its gloomy chapters on troubling conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

Analyzing the bright side was not as easy as you might think. Peterson and Seligman spent 3 years working with a team of experts to identify traits that are shared and valued across cultures. (Persistence just happened to end up on the list.) During that time, they pored over not only psychiatry journals but the works of philosophers and even classic religious texts.

Practicing another ideal on their list-humility-Peterson acknowledges that the classification system in Character Strengths and Virtues is a work in progress. “Our goal was to get the conversation started, to encourage people to begin to look at the strengths and virtues that contribute to emotional well-being,” the psychologist says.

The New York Times introduced us to another guru of happiness on April 22, 2008 when Claudia Dreifus interviewed Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, known on campus as “Professor Happiness.” Dr. Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness was a New York Times Paperback Best Seller, won the 2007 Royal Society Prize for science books, and has been translated into 30 languages. A few of his comments from the interview describe one element of happiness that should come as no surprise:

We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.

We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy — money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.

Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.

Oh, you can spend lots of money on experiences. People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No.

You couldn’t pay me $100,000 to miss a play date with my granddaughters.

And that’s not because I’m rich. That’s because I know that a hundred grand won’t make me as happy as nurturing my relationship with my granddaughters will.

Post 20: Moderation in All Things, Including Moderation

On the wall of the family room of our house on the Cape hangs a poster quoting the wise and late Sister Ann Marie. It was directed at the yellow-shirted and green-skirted girls of Georgetown Visitation, my daughter’s high school. One of her sagest cautions was “moderation in all things, dearie, including moderation.” I don’t know if David Brooks ever met Sister Ann Marie (or Oscar Wilde, for that matter, who proffered the same advice), but a column Brooks wrote in the era of Blackberries and Bush II is a most wonderful caution against “extremism in moderation.” It was entitled “Saturday Night Light.”

March 12, 2005, The New York Times

Let me tell you a story to illustrate that we are living in a pusillanimous age. I was in New Orleans last Saturday night, dining with a wonderful group of people at a culinary landmark called Antoine’s. Our host had arranged for a remorseless avalanche of delicious food, served in prodigious 19th-century style. There were about six appetizers, including oysters, foie gras and various lobster confabulations. There were main courses aplenty — fish, then crab, then steak.

Then dessert floated onto the table: a meringue pie roughly the size of a football helmet. And with it came coffee, but not just any coffee. It was called “devil’s brew.” A copper bowl was put in the middle of the table with some roiling mixture of brandy-ish spirits inside. Coffee was poured in and the concoction set aflame.

The waiter thrust a ladle into the inferno and lifted up long, dripping streams of blue fire, hoisting the burning liquid into hypnotizing, showy cascades. He poured out a circle of flame onto the tablecloth in front of us. It was a lavish pyre of molten, inebriating java and then, when he swung around to where I was sitting, I turned and asked the climactic question:

“Is it decaf?”

In this circumstance, this was like Nero pausing during the incineration of Rome to worry about the dangers of secondhand smoke. This was like Henry VIII, lying amid a great mound of gnawed bones and empty steins, remarking, “I’ll take the low-carb mead.” This is like the Marquis de Sade fretting nervously over his leather collection because it might be an affront to animal rights.

I blame the people at the top for setting the tone. We live in an age in which the White House is staffed by tidy-desked, white-shirted, crisply coiffed StairMaster addicts, whose idea of sensual decadence is an extra pinch of NutraSweet in the lunchtime iced tea. We’ve got a president whose personal philosophy is: freedom is God’s gift to humanity, but bedtime is 9:30.

I blame parents. Kids are raised amid foam corner protectors and schooled amid flame-retardant construction paper. They’re drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals to keep them from becoming interesting. They go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships.

I blame the titans of corporatism. Fitness is now the prime marker of capitalist machismo, so the higher reaches of corporate America are filled with tightly calved Blackberries in human form, who believe that extremism in pursuit of moderation is no vice. They have become such obsessive time-maximizers that all evening, in what used to be known as social life, they keep an eye on the need to be up, fit and early, for the next day’s productivity marathon.

I blame the arbiters of virtue. Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word “sinful” is most commonly associated with chocolate.

Now we lead lives in which everything is a pallid parody of itself: fat-free yogurt, salt-free pretzels, milk-free milk. Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture.

But at least we have New Orleans. After stumbling out of Antoine’s, some of us headed across the street to a piano bar run by Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s old flame. And there was Gennifer herself in a black leather miniskirt, belting out a song called “Ya Gotta Have Boobs.”

It was a reminder that no matter how dull and responsible you become, an alternative and much stranger moral universe is always just one slippery step away.