Dispatches | October 25, 2006

Going to the gym is my excuse for watching bad TV.  Every afternoon, I hop on an elliptical trainer, plug in my head phones and channel surf while burning a whopping calorie a minute.  The other day I caught a segment of Scarborough Country criticizing Madonna for adopting a baby from Africa.  The quality of their free-floating disapproval turned me off, and I switched channels, finally finding the extended food orgy scene from Tom Jones.  The contrast of tone and attitude reminded me of why I love literature, a love ignited by my first reading of Fielding’s wonderfully robust picaresque novel.  By and large, literature is inherently liberal and ultimately accepting of a breadth of human behavior.  It strikes me as a very fine antidote to politics and religion.

As an undergraduate during the early ’80s, I attended a small private Christian college in the Ozarks.  It was supposed to be Presbyterian, the denomination I grew up with, but because of the school’s proximity to the Bible belt, the campus had a strong fundamentalist vibe.  (The headquarters of Jim Baker’s former church, Assemblies of God, resided a city over.)  Here were a few of the rules:  No coed dorm-room visitation, no drinking alcohol, no smoking except in a few designated areas, and no PDA (public display of affection).

Oh how I suffered.  Once I was turned away from Sunday dinner for wearing a skort.  The serving lady said, “This is the Lord’s Day” and promptly withheld my share of roast beef, gravy and potatoes.  Of course, I could’ve misunderstood her disapproval.  Maybe it had nothing to do with skirt length and everything to do with fashion choice.  Maybe I would have received the same scolding if I’d worn gauchos, knickers, or coolats?  God only knows. 

The ways in which campus authorities found to disapprove were as varied as they were numerous.  And the progressive, more liberal professors knew it.  My English and creative writing classes had an almost Fahrenheit 451-quality about them.  Despite the repressive regime, my professors kept the arts alive by feeding us their favorite books and movies — Catch-22, Lolita, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Harold and Maude.

Of course, there was plenty of fun to be had by circumventing the rules.  You could be naughty without really being bad.  Yet, all of this social and moral prohibition can wear down a young person.  Fortunately I had literature; it provided solace and safety from the onslaught of condemnation from the second lieutenants’ of morality.  Thank you to Tom Jones and his big-hearted literary offspring:  Pip and Huck and Elizabeth and Jane to name only a few.  From them I learned what’s good, what’s bad, what’s generous, what’s selfish.  It was a good alternative to “Thou shalt not.”