Sunday, June 29, 2008

Memories of a Clubman

I've let my membership lapse, but I used to belong to quite a nice city club. You know the sort of thing: old wood paneling, cushy leather chairs, gas lamp to light your cigar by. Classy. Once I quit the rat race to become a happy and fulfilled itinerant barber I couldn't swing the dues anymore, but I remember the place fondly. There were annual events that were unique to the club which gave secret meaning to the calendar and made membership a great honor. I've dealt with the sense of geographical ungroundedness that my chosen career requires, but I've never quite recovered from the temporal ungroundedness that the loss of these events brought on.

The Feast of Reason
: A sumptuous 20 course elimination banquet that lasts the better part of a week, and resembles nothing so much as a congressional filibuster in a five star restaurant. The most rhetorically gifted members of the club compete to see who can deliver the best speech giving a rational basis for the next course. Speeches are judged on eloquence, universality, and ability to make the mouth water. The weakest speakers are removed from the table at the conclusion of each round/course, until one man remains who will be awarded the title of Dessert Demosthenes. The one year I made the cut to compete (a fluke, I assure you) I was eliminated after the first sorbet. The winning 1986 oration ("Sherry Trifle Considered as an Ouspenskian Model of the Universe") is still widely quoted in certain circles today.

The Musical Rhubarb Forcing Festival: A strange legacy of the founder's horticultural madness is the suite of rhubarb forcing sheds that the club counts among its many outbuildings. As everyone knows, forced rhubarb grows so fast that one can actually hear it shooting up. Since all sound has the potential to be music when properly organized, some of the more musically inclined members of the club decided to see what could be done with the palette provided by burgeoning rhubarb. Through trial and error involving grafting, experimental soil mixtures, subtle manipulations of temperature and other arcane minutiae, they managed to produce several differentiated strains of rhubarb that can be relied upon to produce a specific tone upon being forced. The festival takes place throughout the growing season, with daily concerts to show off works new and old. It's an eerie experience: rhubarb forcing by necessity takes place in complete darkness, so one sits in the sheds blinded, taking in the creaking tones of pieces like Muller's Sonata in A Minor for Strains 1.2684 and 1.2684b and Langston's seminal Cantata Rhubarbica.

The Founder's Day Pageant: Unlike the previous two events, this one is not only open to the participation of all members but actively requires it. It began as a simple affair lasting 10 minutes and featuring three characters: THE FOUNDER, THE BANKER, and THE ARCHITECT. By the time of my membership a performance took six hours and had over three hundred speaking parts. This growth happened slowly over the 200 year history of the club, each chairman inserting his own additions. Some of these were simply a few lines added here and there, or a short scene memorializing the death of some eminent member. Others were impressive works of dramaturgy, radical re-imaginings of the history of the club that placed it in a cosmic and mythic context that it perhaps did not deserve.

For the first 120 years the pageant took place in the main library, but eventually this space was no longer adequate for mounting a full performance. The spectacle moved to an open air amphitheater for the next decade. When a new chairman was named, he found this far too rustic, so he commissioned a special theater to be built on the club grounds. This theater was only to be used for performances of the pageant, though an exception was made once for a speech by President Coolidge. To drive home the Wagnerian pomposity and hubris of the whole thing the theater was actually designed as a quarter scale model of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The pageant is a ludicrous and self-aggrandizing spectacle, of course, of course, but I have seen grown men moved to tears (myself included) by scenes like the death of the 27th chairman during a mustard gas attack in Flanders, or the heroic efforts of the junior sommeliers to save the liquid treasure of the cellars during the 1902 flood. And if you'd ever heard the death soliloquy of the youngest of those brave men, gurgled out as he sinks beneath the waves clutching a crate of Château Mouton Rothschild that tragically proved to heavy for him, you wouldn't judge me.

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