The Breakfast Table

Patty Marx and Daniel Menaker

Morning. You and I have run across each other in person here and there from time to time, and we have a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, but we’ve never busted a crust–virtual or real–before, so I feel a little awkward sitting down at the table here, especially since our assignment (which we have apparently decided to accept) is to talk about the news, as opposed to, say, last night’s new episode of The Simpsons, which had an extremely cheerful guest voice appearance by Stephen Hawking, who taught the Springfield Mensa chapter a lesson about the limits of high intelligence when it comes to sorting out age-old polity issues. (He probably would have a few words to say about someone who tries to use the word polity in a would-be blithe fashion at 10 a.m.–or any time, for that matter.)

There seems to be no way of doing this kind of thing without sounding too personal and sloppy or too jaunty and knowing, but I’ll try to find some happy medium or at least a convincing dodge. With so much rage in the news–the word “anger” appears in three of four major Times pieces today–and with my testosterone level ebbing a little more with each passing day, I’d like to take refuge in one or two of the news’s nooks and crannies.

Remember learning the various kinds of sentences and clauses? When I was in eighth grade in Nyack Junior High, we had a kind of final grand piece of homework to do on this subject, and being a smartass, I handed in something like this: Declarative sentence: “The dog chased the cat.” Compound sentence: “The dog chased the cat, and then the cat chased the dog.” Dependent clause: “After the dog chased the cat, the cat chased the dog.” Noun clause: ” ‘That the dog chased the cat’ is a noun clause.” Relative clause: “This is the sentence that says that the dog chased the cat.” Etc. I got an 85. Even though there were almost no technical mistakes, Mrs. Giles said I hadn’t lived up to the spirit of the assignment. Mrs. Giles’ second-most-hated composition failure, after comma splices, was “weak” verbs. She exhorted us to avoid the verb “to be,” and passive constructions were objected to, as well. Take that, Mrs. Giles. It is to be hoped that that was taken by Mrs. Giles. Mrs. Giles had little use for seem, appear, and become, judging them all as cowards’ ways out of finding really active verbs. Well, the person who writes the weather report for the Times must have had Mrs. Giles or someone like her for English somewhere along the educational way. “High pressure will promote plentiful sunshine,” “some potent thunderstorms will erupt,” “as the cool air encounters the warmer air,” “elsewhere, dry weather will prevail.” Whoever is doing this work has been at it for a while, pleasing weather nuts like me not only with active verbs but with anthropomorphic, sometimes even suggestive meteorological prose. Today we have “sultry air,” and the aforementioned “potent thunderstorms.” The weather page always gives you a breather for a minute or two from the bombings and shootings and police atrocities–a touch of poetry glittering in the rubble.

Here’s a question: Do you have predictions for the week in the public sphere–politics, culture, science, anything? And, if you saw the piece about the Lembe tribe, in Southern Africa, many of whose males have DNA associated with Jewish biblical priests, did you find it as–well, haunting–as I did? And do you ever eat real eggs for real breakfast anymore? They’re trying to make yet another dietary comeback.