Monday, April 02, 2007


When did it all go belly-up?
, you were wondering one day.

My friend David Warren sends me his latest column for the Ottawa Citizen, which contains the answer. He p
inpoints the date as August 10, 1969 ("That's one small step for [a] man...."), and the documentary proof is in his high school yearbook.

I emailed him back with my thoughts on the subject, and, well, they were just so damned insightful I figured they must be shared with th
e rest of the world. (Thanks to all eleven of you.)

Sir: [that's Warren]

I think you have nailed the year quite well. I enrolled in a Catholic girls' high school in 1966. At that time it looked pretty much as it always had, staffed by the local branch of the Holy Names (Montreal-based order, thriving in Oregon) which had also staffed my elementary school and many others, as well as running their own women's college, site of their blossoming novitiate. I had never wanted to attend [name of school, which shall remain nameless], and had begged my parents to let me go to a new De La Salle school (with boys) but they refused.

When I returned for sophomore year in the fall of 1967, the nuns had taken their first step towards being part of the "new church" by doffing both their elaborate traditional head-gear (in favour of the "hankie veil") and their "names in religion". Sister Magdala Mary was now Sister Debbie if she wanted to be. [names fictionalized but characters real] At [the school] I had followed my elder sister, who had made a name for herself in many noble pursuits which I was convinced I would never live up to. During my second year I was followed by my cousin, who also made a name for herself in many noble pursuits-- and all I wanted was to get out of there and join my friends back in the suburbs at the local public monster-institution. My parents finally relented, urged on by the sight, on a parents' night at the girls' school, of a banner across one of the classroom blackboards which read "God is a marshmallow."

Two years later (1970) during my first year of college I met one of my fellow [the school] drop-outs, who told me the tale of having been in a (fortunately unconsummated) romance with her married drama teacher at her new public school, which had emotionally devastated her and turned a sweet girl very cynical. Although she had left [the school] the same year I did, she had continued to take [nameless instruction] from Sister Debbie, in whom she had confided about her miserable lovelorn situation. The nun's sage advice to the 17-year-old? "Maybe he'll get a divorce." That was around 1969.

Within another year the nuns had, on the whole, chosen to doff their habits entirely (not going nude of course, as far as I know, but donning the equally identifiable uniform of the the polyester dress and blazer), and move into downtown apartments in small clusters...

I knew it was all but over when I ran into my favourite nun on the street in my college town-- a worldly and probably somewhat liberal woman who had been in her twenties and engaged when she decided to "enter", and was therefore much more sensible and clued-in than almost any of her comrades. She had been, as I understood it, the last to want to give up the habit, the community life, and her name in religion..., but there she was walking in front of my apartment doorway in a maroon velveteen pantsuit. She had not left the convent -- it had left her. I tripped on the sidewalk and landed on my knees.

The complete, and apparently overnight, implosion of the great teaching orders and their historic mission to parish schools has always been one of my major markers for the triumph of the revolution, and something of a mystery. Or so it was until I read Ann Carey's Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities... It is a jam-packed book in desparate need of a brutal editor...but I will credit it for explaining (at great and repetitious length) exactly how and why the American sisterhood went kami-kaze. And you can certainly lodge those events, at least as I experienced them, in the festering heart of 1968-70.

I did go to the local public high school in the fall of '68, by the way. And by the spring of '69 even that whitebread and well-moneyed campus had begun its interior crumble. The long-established dress-code was removed as a result of student activism; the "fascist" vice-principal had to transfer his energies from calling the police about Minors in Possession of Tobacco (still a misdemeanour then) and dealing with the cloud of marijuana in which many students were living; an underground newspaper was trumpeting that "Nixon is A-BM" and "napalm is war-gasm"; and the annual May Fete crowning was serenaded with the theme song, "This is the dawning of your sensitivity" (to the appropriate tune from HAIR).

There are many reasons for most people not to be the least nostalgic about their high school days-- certainly for those of us who had nothing in common with "the cool kids". But I have often reflected on how little we understood about just how wretched a time that was for the well-being of the universe. On the other hand, kids in my second high school were still subject to the military (Vietnam) draft (most in our neighbourhood would have the convenience of a college deferment, but not all), so there was a fairly grave reality check driving some of what was happening. And we graduated, and looked forward to college, just a month or so after the Kent State shootings. So I suppose that's an excuse of sorts for taking oneself more seriously than 18-year-olds deserve.

Unfortunately, we are now witnessing the ascendancy of that Kent State generation in power-- the kids who became "cool kids" in 1969 were not the traditional sort who quarterbacked the football team and dated the cheerleader, but the sort who ran the student government and took on the system from within. (I believe that's also the year a high-school kid got himself elected President of our newly-minted parish council!!) They got so full of themselves, so fast, that they lived out one of the truly revolutionary inversions of all time: they actually ENJOYED HIGH SCHOOL (dear God!), and wanted it to last forever-- and they are now fulfilling that dream as they run the American congress, and probably substantial hunks of the EU and the UN.

I remember the moon landing well. I don't remember associating it with "the end of all things"-- we probably thought it was the beginning. I guess one implies the other.

Thanks for helping me get ready for Good Friday, dude.
By the way, saw 300 last night. (First time men have had to show their chests in order to get a movie role! A veritable warehouse full of six-packs. Leonidas channelled Mel Gibson, the movie channelled everything Gibson ever made except Passion of the Christ.)

Husband walked out with about 30 minutes to go-- couldn't take the schlock any more. I was willing to go with the appropriately artwork-style super-heroic depictio
n for awhile, but groaned as it descended into soap-opera 90's-guy senstivity. A Spartan sobbing about his dead kid that "I never told him I loved him best!" BARF! BARF! BARF! What was Victor David Hanson thinking!

This is a footn
ote to the above reflection insofar as the decadence attributed by the movie to the Persians inspired but one thought in me: that's us. Spring break at Myrtle Beach.