Runoff

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

As often happens when I am in Provence I have a sense of living parallel lives.

I no longer think in terms of “back home” when I am either in Cambridge or in Fox-Amphoux. They are co-extensive. Or, I suppose, I should say co-existential.

My sense of privilege in this regard, that is, having two places to call home of equal merit and with equivalent worries attached, has heightened in the past seven or eight months. The quotidian details of what there is to be concerned about in either place are of equal merit, or equal unimportance, depending on my point of view. There are leaks of tiny size here and there both here and there. There are stuck doors, or ill-fitting ones, and windows in the same disorder in both places. This is of little moment.

The question of privilege is an important one. Stanley Fish, the redoubtable professor, now of law, formerly of English language and literature, reminded me of the privilege in a recent blog entry of his on The New York Times site. His theme was his own grouchiness, and his brief private war with the ridiculous, yet official, corporate syntax, of his telephonic nemesis, AT&T. It seems he must contend semi-annually, as he closes down one household and prepares to occupy another, with old Mother Bell to have them minimize his service in his absence.

As he said, he knows at least 50 people will rebuke him for complaining about conditions which only the privileged suffer. Hence my allusion. However, I am, of course, not complaining, not by any means.

As much as there are similarities, there are as well many differences. Which explains the title of my book that is mainly about the nature of life over here insofar as I can construe it from my parallax view (the book is Same Difference / Life in France: Peter Mayle Got Some of It Right, and you can buy a special edition, with a special limited edition cover photo and design and other rare appurtenances, here: https://www.bertha.com/same_difference/private_edition.html ). The book aside, I do have plenty of time to ponder the Franco-American duality of my life.

Here, there was a rare and powerful snow storm, which paralyzed the entire region. It occurred four days ago, and the natives are still recovering. At worst, here in the heart of the heart of the southeast, which is referred to as Haute Provence, because of the elevation, we had perhaps five or six inches of the white stuff. The local daily paper is still printing photos, today’s shots being aerial views that they repeatedly refer to as “un vrai carte postale de montagne.” Or such was the description of, among other localities, our little village, as shot from the air, making the rear page of the paper. The publisher, Gantié, must be hard up for talent. One wonders too what they make of the world-wide reputation of the region in general at all other times of the year, in all seasons, and of which one has one’s pick from thousands of true post card views of the mountains, not to mention the valleys, the grape vines, the lavender fields, the Alpine snows, the Alpine lakes.

Day before yesterday, the big headline, on the front page of the paper, was “Haute Provence paralysé par chutes de neige,” in case anyone who happened to be in the territory (and you couldn’t get out, because they closed Marseille airport and one of the major autoroutes for two days—the paper yesterday and today was festooned with powerfully stupefying photojournalism showing the six-hour traffic jams on the secondary roads) missed the prevailing conditions.

I shouldn’t be so cynical I realize about what are truly rare conditions. I’d say once in a lifetime (they used to speak of 100-year snowfalls, they came so rarely; only they now come, well, about every eight years or so, but that’s climate change for you—no one in France, a country unencumbered by a mistrust of science as we in the U.S. experience it, speaks of global warming, perhaps because warming does not explain temperatures averaging six degrees cooler than usual, and 10 centimeter snowfalls, instead of crippling rainstorms that last for days). But it’s no longer once in a lifetime unless we speak of the lifetime of fruit flies. Here it’s nevertheless truly news (les vraies nouvelles), far more so than the same inane images and hyped prose that passes for news every winter and summer, as ordinary conditions on local U.S. stations and the dying newspapers crowd out real news happening outside our native North American borders.

What happens within our Yankee borders, aside from the weather, seems ordinary enough as well. I note that the Senate has been sworn in, save two seats, left empty because of our biennial political snafus—not precisely hundred-year affairs, far from it.

Except for primaries, runoffs are rare in our country. I am no student, never mind a scholar, of such matters, but I assume there are few if any runoffs to settle electoral disputes, at least for the highest offices. I believe there are local and regional contests that are settled by runoff. But in the main, that is, for state-wide and Federal offices, they are increasingly rare. Rather for the most part, and sadly for democracy, these matters are now infamously decided by courts.

The less than redoubtable Coleman of Minnesota has elected, so to speak, to challenge his challenger, the now formerly jocose Al Franken, in court, because after repeated recounts Franken is now a hair’s breadth, electorally speaking, in front in the Senate race.

I wish there were a runoff. It seems the only fair way. Yet it is always positioned as undemocratic, without substantiation. What it is is expensive and time-consuming. And cost is the ultimate political factor in a capitalist republic such as ours.

Given the deeper costs of seating compromised candidates, I wonder at the wisdom of such economies—not to mention the inevitable price to the public of the allure to so many politicians who finally attain the offices they seek of exploiting their hard-won mandate, and the power and the glory that go with it. To speak of power and glory with regard to a seat in Congress may seem like overstatement, but we are now living the nightmare of unchecked, that is, unregulated, activity in a wide spiral of financial manipulation… and all because our sworn representatives failed in their responsibility to take adequate steps to leave legislation in place where it existed, or to create it where it didn’t, that would have been at least a stumbling block for the greedy.

Some will long lament, and for a long time to come many will make an industry of studying, the effect of having the sitting Supreme Court of December 2000 determine the legitimacy of George Bush’s presidency. And all because a recount was aborted in a single state. Never mind a runoff.

Given the vagaries of the constituents of the Florida election debacle that was settled by the nine old men and women of the Supreme Judicial Court of the nation, we might still be attempting to settle that one.

Nature, implacable as we understand it to be, has nothing on the sense we have in the United States (and likely almost every other “stable” government on earth) that nothing, but nothing must be allowed to stall the progress of civilization as embodied in the transition from one sitting administration, or office holder, to the next one, duly elected. As if an election had the mystical power of an ineluctable body; usually of the sort we believe to derive its authority from some other source than the world, or, more broadly, the entire physical universe. As in, the infallibility of religious leaders.

Who are we to thwart such an inevitability as the installation of a political officer at his appointed time in the appointed place? We might as well else stop a typhoon or a hurricane. Impossible? Of course, but we’re working on it.

In the meantime, in a much smaller way, but equally ineluctably, there is a runoff here in the higher reaches of the littoral. The snow, so much a burden and an obstacle, was doomed to a short life. And, just as every spring, even in the highest reaches of every inhabited corner and cranny of America, there is a runoff, from the high places to the low, the snow has quickly turned to what it is after all, and all in all, but simply water.

For four days, what does not simply melt into air, melts into streams and rivulets and slim threads of drainage. I have been listening to it run, just outside my door and windows. Listening to it drip from the eaves. Just as it is all over the region.

The sun has re-asserted itself, and temperatures even in the barely lengthening days of mid-January reach back into the high 40s and 50s. And with the runoff, which will end deepening the water table, in check for the coming thirsty grapes, comes some hope, once again, of spring not being too far off. We mark the new season here, as I have noted elsewhere in the past, somewhat earlier than in the northeast of the U.S. Spring unofficially arrives on the day, usually in February, though last year and the year before, pace climate change and all that, it arrived in late January, when the almond tree just outside the cemetery gate blossoms. As if Persephone had passed a spectral hand across its boughs.

By then, I will be back in the United States, and dreaming of my village, and with waking thoughts imagining those blossoms and their promise of renewal. I will think of the runoff here, life-giving. There is no other way to think of it.

And I will hope, as millions of others will hope, that our fears that the fiscal snows, blindly raging as they have been, unstoppable, freezing us in place, ineluctable, if not, for good and all and finally, as in our worst fear, implacable, will also melt away. And there will be that runoff that augurs spring and rebirth, and a blossoming.

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