Tomorrow is a big day for Providence College sports fans. Our men’s hockey team will unexpectedly be playing in their league’s semifinals against Boston University at 4:00, then our men’s basketball team will play in its first round NCAA tournament game against Kentucky at 7:00. Must see viewing. Oh, and tomorrow is also St. Patrick’s Day, to which I say: Meh.
A few years ago, I had a brief locker room conversation with a campus security guard who frequently tortures himself at the gym around the same time that I do. St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday that year as it does this year; my colleague noted how much he was dreading it. “I’ll be here dealing with drunk students for twelve hours,” he predicted. “It’s always the worst day of the year; on a Friday, it’s going to be especially bad” I would not go so far as to say that Saint Patrick’s Day is the worst day of the year (that would be Halloween), but it’s right up there on my list–for reasons entirely different than the security guard’s. Let me explain by telling you a story.
My brother and I seldom see each other. He is a recently retired medical doctor who spent the last many years of his career as a general practitioner inrural Wyoming, and I am a real doctor (PhD in Philosophy) in Rhode Island. But we frequently have brief Facebook conversations of the same high quality exhibited by most Facebook communication. In the midst of one of these dialogues, he made the pontifical pronouncement that “no one should ever wear corduroy clothing. Ever.”
“That shows how much you know,” I replied. “I have four or five pairs of corduroy pants and five corduroy jackets (navy blue, black, gray, tan, and some nondescript color Jeanne calls “taupe”). Two of the jackets have elbow patches, the sine qua non of academic sartorial splendor. Just because you dress like Doctor Grizzly Adams and haven’t worn anything other than jeans, a belt with a buckle the size of a dinner plate and a cowboy hat in twenty-five years doesn’t qualify you to disrespect corduroy.”
How to dress as an academic is something I picked up early on in my teaching career. I remember my first few classes as a Master’s student teaching a summer course at the University of Wyoming. As an introverted fish out of water, one of my greatest fears was being laughed at, either overtly or covertly, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes outside of class—a continuation of grade school and high school, in other words. So you can imagine my horror when, in one of my very first classes, I discovered while sitting on the edge of the desk as students arrived for class that I was wearing one black and one navy blue sock. Immediate panic set in.
But on the spur of the moment, I made a decision that has served me well in the classroom for the subsequent thirty-five years of teaching. I took control of the situation by choosing to give them something to laugh at from the start.
Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m wearing socks of two different colors. You think that’s a mistake?—that shows how much you know! There is actually an art to dressing like an academic—it takes a lot of work to look like we do. There is, in fact, a special store (AcademicsRUs) where you can go to purchase academic clothes. You know, unmatched socks, shirts with sleeves that are too short and with ink stains on the pocket, pants that go up to here on your leg when you sit down, ratty cardigan sweaters, ties that went out of style decades ago.
Which brings me to tomorrow. It is Saint Patrick’s Day, and I am not wearing anything green. I never do. This is always a bit awkward in the classroom on a campus where many of my students are of largely Irish, Italian, or Irish-Italian hybrid descent. There is a very good explanation for my failure to wear green—I’m somewhat colorblind (especially with the green family). Jeanne, who is the family color-meister and my fashion coordinator/critic, has frequently been on the road over the years, so rather than run the risk of wearing something brown or blue or teal thinking it was green, I generally choose to wear clothes for Saint Patrick’s Day so far outside the green family that I couldn’t possibly be confronted by the Irish clothing police.
Several years ago, Saint Patrick’s Day fell on the same class day that a member of the Teaching Award Committee was observing me in action—I was a finalist for the award and the committee members were showing up in my classrooms like stalkers. As I prepared to start class in a classroom filled with students with names like Sean Fonzarelli, Megan Incantalupo, Angelica O’Brien and Antonio O’Rourke, I thought it necessary to explain my greenless state to my Irish/Italian students. Since the true story was somewhat boring (they already knew that I’m colorblind), I decided to make up a better story on the fly. So, I said something like this:
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not wearing green on this very special day. The reason goes back to my childhood. I’ve always been proud of my Swedish heritage through my mother’s side of the family; growing up, I always wanted to know why Irish people got their own holiday and Swedish people didn’t. In protest, I’ve always refused to wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day.
This morning I was thinking about what the non-existent holiday for Swedes would be like. It would be on July 23rd; that’s Saint Bridget’s Day. She’s the patron saint of Sweden. Instead of wearing green, everyone would have to wear brilliant blue and bright yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag. Instead of drinking green beer and eating Irish food, everyone would have to drink Absolut vodka and St. Bridget’s Porter, eat rye bread, pickled herring and Swedish meatballs, and tell jokes that aren’t funny (“What’s the shortest book in the world? 500 years of Swedish humor”). But now that I think about it, I realize clearly why there is no special Swedish holiday after all. Let’s get to work.
I’m not particularly big on saints—undoubtedly a feature of my Protestant upbringing. But I am big on my Scandanavian heritage. On my father’s side, I am a mongrel with Welsh, English, Scottish, and French heritage. On my mother’s side, according to Ancestry.com, I am about 85% Swedish and 15% Norwegian (some questionable activity around the border in the past, apparently). Can’t get much more Swedish than my mother’s maiden name—Thorsen (“son of Thor”). I have cousins who are 100% Swedish and was much closer to my mother’s family than my father’s growing up, so I’ve always pretended that being half Swedish is the same as being a thoroughbred.
It has annoyed me greatly over more twenty-five years of teaching in the Development of Western Civilization program, a program that I also directed for four years, that Sweden is never mentioned. In response to one of my many queries as to why the native land of my ancestors never gets any face time, a historian I was teaching with once replied “because nothing ever happened there.” But remember the Vikings, the baddest and meanest of the barbarians who helped bring down the Roman Empire and throw civilization into the Dark Ages? Those are my ancestors. Don’t piss me off.
So as you spend tomorrow celebrating your Irish heritage, or at least pretending that you have an Irish heritage, mark July 23 on your calendar for a blow-out Saint Bridget’s Day celebration. Saint Bridget was not your typical Catholic saint. According to “Catholic Online” (a place where Protestants go for entertainment), Bridget was married at age thirteen and had eight children. In her early forties, after nursing her husband Ulf through an almost-fatal illness, Bridget and Ulf felt called to split and take holy orders. Bridget was a visionary in both senses of the word—she was very forward thinking and had a whole bunch of visions as well.
Her visions instructed her in excruciating detail on everything, from how to stop the war between France and England and get the Pope back from Avignon to Rome, to the habits that the sisters in her new order would wear. She spent decades writing letters to rulers and important persons who ignored her, went to Rome in 1349 and waited for the Pope to return per her instructions (he never did during her lifetime), and never saw her new order founded. As the website says, “she never returned to Sweden but died, a worn out old lady far from home in July 1373. She can be called the Patroness of Failures.” Nice. But for some reason, she was canonized in 1391. Probably because she made outstanding meatballs.
Toward the end of Albert Camus’ The Plague, one of the main characters is accused of being a saint. “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints,” he replied. “Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me. What interests me is being a human being.” The story of Bridget reveals that defeat, humanity, and sainthood are entirely compatible in one life. That’s good news.