A Brief Lesson in Civilization

It was an instructive, well-earned and ridiculously warm weekend.  The wife and I managed an escape from house and children to spend two nights holed up at the Goose and Turrets, a charming little inn on the coast at Montara, twenty miles south of San Francisco.  The grand three-storied house is a century old, set on a green property thick with fuchsias and fruit trees and wrapped about by a giant hedge like a castle wall that keeps out everything but the fog and the hummingbirds.  In the black of night, reading before the fireplace of our pine-floored room, the crash of colossal autumn breakers at the shore can be heard from a half mile away.

We spent Saturday and Sunday in the city.  San Francisco is famous for cold summers, but the latter half of September is gorgeous.  This year, that late September glory passed well into October and we found ourselves in shirtsleeves seated outdoors for afternoon tea, carrying our jackets rather than wearing them as we threaded a path below the skyline – astonished, despite the calendar and the fear for the economy, by the great parade of flesh and credit cards in the Union Square shopping district, and the children playing in shorts while parents dozed comfortably on the grass at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Given the passions of the presidential election and the daily carnage of the economy, it’s an odd time to indulge in a weekend away.  But such are the sacrifices we make for civilization.  It’s a raid on the barbarism of the age to sit at breakfast with strangers, to argue what is true patriotism and what sentimental claptrap, to map out schemes for agriculture, healthcare, and market reform, and to revisit all the absurdity, demagoguery, and serial elations and disappointments of a long, long campaign cycle.  It’s an even greater triumph of democratic discourse to change the subject – without drawing blood – to the lovely patterns on the china, the portrait of Marcel Marceau on the wall, the economics of travel by small plane, or the question of where to get a decent dinner. 

There is a peculiarly American habit of thought that allows us to imagine we are so individually determined as to owe little or nothing to the nurture of our country or the contours of its history, and that we owe even less to our fellow citizens.  It is a pleasure to be reminded now and again what a lie that really is.

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