Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Swan Song VI--what's proper
The news reports it this way. The singer Rihanna was somewhere up in rural Ireland doing some kind of photo shoot in a meadow of sorts when she decided to doff her top. Pleasant enough, I suppose. But the farmer who owned the land, who happened to be out on his tractor, came over and politely asked her cover her famous bosoms because he simply couldn't have her strutting about thus unadorned. "I had a conversation with her," said Farmer Graham. "I hope she understands where I'm coming from. We shook hands." After all, what's a man without a dress code?
Then there's this. A young and gorgeous Canadian legislator named Rathika Sitsabaiesan, 29, lost her considerable cleavage when some Farmer Graham in the government admin photoshopped it away for her official portrait--now you see it, now you don't.
Someone apparently thought that shadowy line not proper.
At strange times lately, I've been thinking about the virtual disappearance of the word proper, a word possibly relegated to the same waste receptacle as the word righteous, even though self-righteous remains in current usage. What I'm saying is that you just don't hear this phrase much anymore: "what's proper?" You don't hear it as a question nor as an answer.
My experience in this town and at this college reaches back nearly a half century, and some changes are not only dramatic but almost magnificent in their amplitude. In ye olden days, I was, more than once, unceremoniously bounced from the food line at dinner for wearing jeans. Not proper. It was the late 60's and the times, they were a changin', but not here. No sir. The oddly jittery Dean of Students would take my arm and aim me back to the dorm to get into something proper. Sandals, the footwear of flower children, were frowned upon too. I'm not making this up.
Back then, people knew what was proper, and what was proper often translated into what was righteous.
When that happens, life can get scary.
In the depth of winter, early January, young women back then were permitted to wear slacks to class--not jeans, of course, only slacks--but only when the temperature on the college radio station (not any other) at six o'clock (not a minute before) was -20 (not -19 either). Only then. Otherwise, slacks weren't proper--only skirts were. Pure idiocy.
Such an edict ruled, ironically, despite the fact (mark this) that the late 60s was the era of the mini-skirt. I remember sitting at dorm windows with a bunch of guys, for fun and relaxation, just sitting there looking over slippery icy sidewalks, waiting for female disasters happening every fifty minutes because they happened with that kind of regularity. "Oops--you see that? I'n't that great?" Those were the righteous years, when things were proper.
A half-century later we've all gone plain liberal. A couple weeks ago I asked a young colleague, privately, whether or not he noticed that there was more Calvinist cleavage per square Kuyperian inch these days than ever before in his classes, and then felt great relief when he sat up tall and said, "No kidding."
It's one thing to grow old, after all, another to grow old and sleazy. I was greatly relieved.
But it's hard for me to know what's proper these days. You stand up in front of class, as profs are want to do, and look down at a row of coeds hunched over their books and suddenly there are more ripe peaches before your eyes than in all the state of Georgia. But you can't look. Or you shouldn't. Or, as my Grandma used to say, you mightn't. Not especially if you're an old fart. I try to be proper. I really do. But there they are, considerably more than bushel.
I have no doubt the Dean of Students, a woman, would show up, just like Farmer Graham, should some young lady decide to pull a Rihanna. That far we wouldn't go; but it seems without question that, a half-century ago, the college administration was vastly more sure of what is and isn't proper. As are we all.
And, after all, what we're talking about is little more than fashion, finally. If I were teaching in 1880 in some Fiji mission, my finest students could well be sitting before me in birthday suits. Some early missionaries among the Dakota in Minnesota, some missionaries of the female persuasion, at times would remark on how, gulp, strangely disconcerting it was to preach the gospel to buff young braves bedecked in nothing more than a breech cloth.
Fashion. Necklines rise and fall, after all.
In Dortrecht, the Netherlands, this summer, I noted in some craftsman's hand-carved re-enactment of the famous Synod of Dordt, the very confab that gave this college it's name, that just about every last delegate--even the greatly hated Remonstrants, those devotees of that heretic Arminius-- wore a beaver hat. See for yourself. I suppose it simply wasn't proper to show up at synod without one.
It's almost 400 years later, but here we are at a place named after that famous creedal council, a place where staunch Calvinists stood foursquare against free will and thereby blessed the Calvinist world with T-U-L-I-P and this institution with it's own odd name. All of that doctrinal disputation accomplished in proper beaver hats.
The truth is, in fifty years at this place, I've never once seen anyone wear a beaver hat.
That's okay. I rather prefer the cleavage.