Yesterday my editor passed on a pair of tickets to see John Updike deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment of the Humanities. Updike was to speak on the topic, “What is American in American Art?: The Clarity of Things.” It’s not new ground, as he himself confessed in his introduction, and to be honest, he gave a somewhat baffling presentation. While not unpleasant (because for heaven’s sake what did we have to do on a Thursday night that was better than listening to John Updike talk about anything?), it seemed to stray significantly from the advertised thesis. Updike focused instead on whether works of art, predominantly from the 18th Century, had a “liney” or “painterly” quality. All of this was inconsequential though, because the gentleman (and I am indeed testing the elasticity of that word) in the row in front of us took off his shoe and began rubbing his stockinged foot in the face of the woman seated to his left.
With only one empty seat separating them, he crossed his right leg over his left and balanced his ankle on his knee. Encased in a drab green sock, his foot waggled off the end of his leg like a docked tail on a dog. He rubbed it and twirled it and generally let those of us in the balcony know that they were really working through some issues, he and his foot. Obviously, I was unable to concentrate on Updike’s assessment of whether John Singleton Copley’s 1768 rendering of Paul Revere featured disproportionately sized hands (it does.) When one has her head tilted at a 45-degree angle in utter amazement, she cannot properly contemplate American masterworks, Pulitzer Prize-winning lecturer or no.
So discomfited was I by Shoeless Joe, that we opted to skip the reception that followed in one of The Willard ballrooms. I would need something stronger than the occasional passed canapé and blah white wine. Instead, we ran like rabbits from the crowd and hid away upstairs at Cafe du Parc. I turned to the best remedy I know: assiette de fromage. And what fromage it was. Creamy, bold, accompanied by spiced fig jam and honey. Perfection. In the glow of the bistro, all was right with the world again.