December 23, 2007
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Big Babies

by Michael Bywater

I read much of this book while being coddled, delayed, fed, and delayed some more in Heathrow and then flying home to Boston. That's the best and the worst way to read this delightful, insightful book. It was such a good environment that I didn't trust myself to write about it. And then I procrastinated. And now it's another season, and the paperback has come and gone, and you're going to have to work harder to get a copy of this book.

Which you should do right away. Bywater has hit upon a knack, of late, of attaching titles that seem preachy to books that are light, witty, and far more thoughtful than you expected.

Big Babies addresses our propensity to behave like infants. In the street, waiting in line at the bank, dressing for work, choosing our school curricula: we act like helpless victims and we want an Authority to protect us and reassure us and to redress our complaints. We play dress-up.

So the pilot watch on the non-pilot wrist first of all says 'pilot' which in turn says 'make-believe pilot', which in its turn says 'lost epitome of manliness which never really existed.’ The watch is an icon of saudade, that Portuguese musical genre which sings of yearning for something which never was.... There is nothing authentic in the entire charade; and yet we still do it; and at the far extreme of this idiocy I take my place. Let me remind you: (1) I am a pilot, and (2) I wear a pilot watch.

A few pages later, the author returns from a pleasant lunch with an old friend, the distinguished Jesuit Fr. Joe Christie. His wife, a set designer, has left a large block of polystyrene in the living room; the two lunchers, "slightly illuminated", see a polystyrene altar and hilarity ensues. Naturally, this involves old dressing gowns and the Great God Reborzo bin j'Ja'abli. At this point, Mrs. Bywater returns.

"What," she said after a while, "the hell are you doing?"

There was another pause, then Joe — Father Joseph Christie,SJ, orator, administrator of the sacraments, clerk in Holy Orders and a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech — said with commendable dignity:

"We are pretending to be priests."

What is the source of this strange impulse to pretend, to dress in underwear, to rely on Someone Else to cook your food, to entrust our government to political dynasties and to rely for our safety on kabuki theater that confiscates perfume bottles shaped like pink hand grenades but has no particular objection to the employment of private mercenaries?

Best point: Bywater points to the virtue of commensality. "The art of dining together," he reminds us, "is one of the great cornerstones of civilization."