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Volume 37 Issue Three • May 3-16, 2007 now in our 37th season

The Joy of the Neophyte

by Robert P. Barsanti

Daffy Day took me by surprise this year.  It appeared on the horizon amid all of the rain, wind, and tragedy of the recent days about as welcome as a birthday cake in a rainstorm.  It was that time, of course.  The asparagus was up.  The forsythia was burning in the thickets. The silly hats appeared in the silly hat store and, just as sure as time and tide, Daffy Day was upon us. 

Soon, they will return.  They will open the windows, air out the rugs and sheets, and they will wonder when the porch is going to get fixed.  The restaurants will make them tilapia and spaetzle, the stores will get out the silk and the pima cotton, and the roads will be buzzing with Hummers and Escalades.  The pleasant torpor of the winter is gone like a snatched blanket—morning has come to a new year.  They have returned.

With each returning year, they become more and more professional.  It is no longer good enough to have an old car in the garage that gets cranked up, it needs to spend its winter in the hands of the car wizards being brushed and tuned.  It is no longer good enough to pick handfuls of daffodils to scatter over the lunch basket and the bumpers; the flowers have to be specially grown and artfully arranged.  Someone has to create a lunch that matches the theme of your vehicle.  A silly car ride on a foggy spring morning has become a joyless Vogue photo shoot. 

Summer has become professional.  Professionals play golf and tennis with you.  Professionals mind your kids.  Professionals make your meals, clean the bathrooms, make the beds, and turn out the lights.  For some of our visitors, coming to the island is only slightly less intensive than going to the hospital. 

The times change, of course.  The recent past will become the distant past in a few years.  The egalitarian Nantucket summers when the yard went to hell and the roof leaked because the banker took his kids crabbing has left us. It has been replaced by a professional who will take the little deductions to a surf instructor while the banker golfs and the yard grows professionally.

More of our preppy past washed away with the loss of David Halberstam.  Like the loss of Frank Conroy a year ago, his death came as the loss of a house on bluff.   For years, it stood perched over the ocean and rested in our eye as a familiar landmark.  Then, in one moment, it toppled, disappeared, and left us lost, staring at the blank air.

I remember the Pulitzer Prize winner as a huge man striding down Main Street with the papers but without socks.  Others remember him as a lover of cheese specials, an indifferent softball player, a reliable and quiet fundraiser, and the Ahab of the Bluefish.  Professionally, he was mourned in both the political and sporting communities.  His aggressive reporting of one war stands in stark contrast to the toadying lickspittles who write whatever the professionals hand them in this one. 

Most of the obituaries I have read referred to Halberstam as a hero.  He was a hero to young sportswriters for his book The Breaks of the Game about the trials and tribulations of the 1979 Trailblazers.  The political reporters praised his coverage of the Vietnam war and of Kennedy’s wish to be rid of him.  Personally, I admired his book on crew called The Amateurs and their grace under pressure.

Whenever the obituary writers chose out the heroes, they gloss over all of the facets that made their subjects human.  Instead, they praise those elements of the great man’s life that fall into their particular arguments and mindsets.  By selectively picking and choosing our items, we make a great man a hero for our causes and a weapon in our arguments.  To a political journalist, he can be the tough guy we need right now.  To me, Halberstam can embody a Nantucket that has gone away.  We each choose our shard from the broken statue, hold it up and say “What we have all lost…”

Eulogies sell the living short.  Very few of us will win Pulitzer Prizes, but we all do our heroic work quietly.  The nurse, the father, the policeman, the teacher, even the restauranteur have moments of grace and honor which, in the hands of the eulogist, could be raised up into the pantheon.  To the writer, a death is ink for the pen.  In the right hands and in the right argument, every corpse can be a hero. Even you and I. 

Our truest eulogies come for ourselves.  In the half-breath, as the building loses its balance and hangs in the vacant air, what can we say?  To me, I hope I think the word “Joy.”  When I think of a life well-lived, I think of people who have experience joy in their every day.  Halberstam may have written every day as a path to joy.  Frank Conroy may have found his joy teaching others to write well.  Dorrit Hoffleit may have felt it showing the stars. 

The new, professional Nantucket seems to be a little short of joy.  A catered lunch coming from an “artfully” decorated car has the dull, perfumed air of a magazine ad.  Like American royalty, these new visitors move from set-piece to set-piece without investing time, sweat, and love.  In return, they will get joyless photos for the mantel and country club envy. 

Instead, give me the MG with the steadying sail.  Give me the mustang with the daffodils in the rusted-out holes.  Give me the daffy yellow VW Bug sputtering its way out to Sconset.  Give me the cheering kids in the back, the “Herbie” stickers, the tools in the trunk (just in case), the yellow ears, the tongue, and the eyebrows.  No one at the Westmoor will envy the Bug, but they should.  That Bug, and the other labors of love that rolled or  got towed out to Sconset, is soaked in amateur joy.  Those cars are truly the “Best and Brightest.” 

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