GRADUATION DAY


She Who Must be Obeyed has a Niece who this past weekend graduated from Marietta College in southeastern Ohio.  On Friday I was duly stuffed into the Mazda MPV along with half of She’s clothing (since it was only a 2-day trip She left the other half behind) and pointed north along I-77 for a few hours.

I don't know how many NRVO readers are familiar with Marietta.  It's one of the oldest cities in Ohio, founded as a trading place on the junction of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers in 1788, the first settlement chartered by the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance.  Perhaps 14,000 people live in a relatively flat and highly-flood-prone area along the north side of the Ohio.  Every now and then the river rises and after the waters recede the citizens put up another marker along Pike Street to show how far up High Water was this time.  In 2004, when Niece was a freshwoman, the water came up about four feet but the 1883 HW mark was WAY above that, something like 7 feet above street level.

Not just a flood plain with a lot of tsotschke shops, downtown Marietta contains some very bad restaurants (of which more in a minute) and the Washington County Courthouse, a structure far too imposing for the county it serves, when all is said and done.  There is also the Historic (and Very Musty) Hotel Lafayette, situated right on the river bank, where the floods can (and do) periodically come up into the lobby.

Marietta was named after Queen Marie Antoinette, who was very popular with the illiterates, roughnecks and backwoodsmen who populated the area in the late 18th Century, when it was very much on the frontier and the local Indians were a serious menace to your hair. 
Why they chose a French Queen known for her flightiness and limited intelligence as a namesake I don't know. In 1788 the US had just overthrown a king and monarchy wasn't well thought of; but we did have help from the French, and Marie Antoinette was by all reports a Babe.  Maybe they felt her name would lend an air of class to a collection of log cabins that stank of the river flats, or perhaps Babes were in short supply on the post-Colonial frontier and they thought she might come and visit.  In his triumphal tour of the US some years after the Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette stopped by (there's a marker on the spot where he landed, stating that this visit was "The Beginning of Tourism") hence the name of the Hotel.  It is reported that the young George Washington had surveyed the area, so they named the county after him.  Lesser personages have streets named after them, and so forth.

Marietta College is older than I thought: it was founded in 1835.    By 1835 Marietta was a fairly thriving port, and hence a logical place for a college[1].  It started as a non-denominational liberal arts institution, and while it remains non-denominational, it seems that the term “liberal arts” is somewhat more, well, "liberally" interpreted today than in years past.

Small colleges these days are struggling to keep enrollments up and to attract students who have been raised on MTV, the NFL, the NBA, American Idol, Gray’s Anatomy, and Dancing With The Stars.  My generation grew up in front of TV, too, of course, but the black-and-white Mickey Mouse Club on a 6-inch screen doesn’t have the overwhelming impact of today’s shows; and our parents, mostly born before the Great Depression, were naturally immune to the malign influence of TV, something that can’t be said of us Baby Boomers.  To bring in the members of Generation Y (or perhaps it’s Generation Z by now, I’m not sure) a small college has to present its “product” (and yes, they use that term) in a way that appeals to kids who can’t imagine a world without the Internet, who have never seen a TV without a remote control, who know what a “pay telephone” is only because they’ve seen one in an old movie, and who have no idea what the expression, “You sound like a broken record,” means.  Furthermore, to them the term “drafted” refers to football and basketball players, not soldiers: in the halcyon days before 1972, the applicant pool was kept full of young men seeking 4-year deferments, and filling classes wasn’t a problem.

So the process of dumbing down curricula—excuse me, “making curricula more relevant to modern life” is what I mean, of course—has proceeded apace, and nowhere is it more evident than in places like Marietta College.  Asking present day students to study traditional subjects and to learn critical thinking skills not directly related to getting a job…well, if they tried to do that, small schools would simply dry up and blow away.  Their rather generous interpretation of what constitutes “academics” and “liberal arts” is what keeps them afloat and it’s the only  way they can compete with Enormous State University for students.

Niece majored in (majored in!) “Marketing and Sports Management,” which I actually found one of the more comprehensible fields of study listed in the program.  What on earth is “Athletic Training” and how can it be a college major?  How can someone receive a degree in “Organizational Communication” or “Advertising and Public Relations”?  Marietta offers majors in “Human Resource Management,” “Radio & Television,” “Management Information Systems,” and “International Leadership Studies.” 

A few graduates had major subjects I recognized (Biology, History, and English, along with such pseudo-disciplines as Psychology) but these were few and far between, popping up listlessly from the ranks of the scholars who had probed the depths of “Graphic Design” and “Integrative Studies.”  I’m sure all these are valid and worthwhile things to know, but the idea that someone can get an actual college-level degree in them is a little baffling.  Granted I am a fossilized curmudgeon, but the curriculum looked to me more like that of a business school or a 2-year polytechnic than a genuine “liberal arts” four-year college.

The graduation ceremony itself was as predictable and as stupefying as one might expect.  I don’t know how many hundreds of graduation ceremonies I’ve attended in my career, and they’re all the same, every damned one of them, no matter what degree is being conferred.  I’ve done two just in the past two weeks and have another one scheduled two weeks hence: at least I get my money’s worth out of the Funny Clothes I bought a few years ago. 

 

Faculty in their gaudy (and expensive) regalia stood up to emit pompous nonsense about “Thisis not an End, but A New Beginning” and “You now join the ranks of our Distinguished Graduates”; the audience of 3,000 family members, friends, and well-wishers, all dressed in their Sunday best, dutifully applauded; the President of the Alumni Association urged them to send money to Dear Old Alma Mater. Everyone took his or her turn to cheer on the Beautiful Innocents about to start their long slide down the Razor Blade of Life. 

I’ve been part of longer ceremonies but this one was long enough for any purpose, better than two and a half hours of flatulent oratory and Words of Wisdom from clueless 21-year-olds giving the obligatory speech about how Marietta “…will always, truly, be your real Home, no matter where you go…” and so forth. 

The keynote speaker was Congressman John Lewis, a fat-headed left-wing gasbag from a safe district in Georgia, a former “civil rights pioneer” who has made his living for 50 years talking about the time he walked across the bridge in Selma with Martin Luther King, as if only the two of them had been there.  Lewis is even farther to the left than Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama: he has a 100% rating from the Americans for Democratic Action, whereas they each only have 95%.  His speech was, predictably, entitled “Get In The Way,” and presented in sonorous rhetoric the story of his Years Of Struggle and how he had personally achieved Greatness (about which he was of course suitably modest, but he did want you to know about it, anyway) and how the Innocents could do it to, if they were as good as he was.  It could have been worse: they might have invited the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.  Maybe next year.

Another thing that was quite forcefully apparent to me—and no, this is NOT due to my advancing age—is that, in general, college girls (and their high-school age sisters) are without doubt far better looking than girls in any previous generation.  I don’t know why this is the case: perhaps it’s the current fashion for the lean athletic look, the obsession with “healthy eating,” or the way they (un)dress for public events, but whatever it is…well, I’m in favor of it.  It makes me wonder what in the hell I was thinking in 1964 when I chose to attend an all-male college, but it’s too late now.

Then there were the tattoos.  There are going to be some really interesting autopsy reports coming out of old age homes 40-50 years from now.  Some tattoos were, well, a little bizarre.  Flames climbing up one leg, or bloody barbed wire around the upper arm, yeah, OK, I can see how that might appeal to defiant a 18-year old; but one girl had images of cat footprints across her dainty and rather shapely instep.  Cat footprints?  One tattoo looked exactly like the little flat plastic adapters that were once used to convert the big hole in a 45-RPM record to the smaller one for a 33 RPM turntable spindle.  God knows what that  was supposed to represent. 

On the whole the guys seemed to have fewer tattoos than the girls, but this was no doubt an illusion produced by the fact that there was far more female skin on display.  The guys wore trousers for the most part, while the girls (who averaged about a Size 2) wore not a whole lot more than they might have on a cool day at the beach.  Niece (who is an Absolute Babe) had on a dress that my mother might have worn as a slip one day when she felt a little risqué; if there hadn’t been a cheesecloth graduation gown over it, Niece might have been arrested.  By comparison to some of her classmates, however, she could just as well have been wearing a burka.  If I keep going to undergraduate ceremonies, I fully expect eventually to see some girl to show up in a coat of body paint and a pair of high heels.

Marietta is cursed with a plethora of truly bad restaurants.  I’ve been there for several Niece-related events, and invariably been shocked at the uniformly lousy food that people in Ohio will pay for.  Niece works in one of the “better” ones, so of course during one previous visit we all had to eat there.  I don’t remember what I had: I’ve blotted it out of my memory over the years.  All I remember is that it was utterly ghastly, but it was several cuts above what we had on this trip.

The night before the graduation ceremony we ate at “The River City Tavern,” a name which should have been enough of a warning. But She Who Must be Obeyed had decreed that I was to do whatever I was told, no back-chat allowed, so I said nothing.  The menu was as predictable as the sunrise: overcooked pasta dishes with unidentifiable “sauces” on them.  The only “sauce” that could be identified on sight was “tomato,” a glaring red concoction with a pH of about 2.5.  I’m certain this stuff comes out of a refinery in Cleveland and is transported by tank trucks to be pumped into thousand-gallon vats in the basement of every Ohio restaurant.  I wouldn’t go near it unless I needed something to strip paint off old furniture.  The other “sauces” were indistinguishable from each other, because they all looked as though someone had already eaten them and changed his mind halfway through the process.  Such “sauces” are invariably poured in great quantity over noodles that have been boiled into submission for several hours.  If you ever hear the term “al dente” in Ohio, be aware that it has nothing to do with cuisine.  It means someone is out today getting a tooth filled.

There were alternatives on the menu, as there always are: “prime rib,” which I’m certain comes from downer cows, if it comes from cows at all.  If you are naďve enough to ask for this dish and order it “rare,” it will have a small grey spot in the center; the rest will be a slab of uniformly brown, dried-out meat that could be from any random quadruped.  To make up for the fact that it’s been dried to the consistency of a cedar shingle by too much time in the microwave, it will be drenched in what is referred to as “au jus” (in Ohio Culinary French this phrase is pronounced “Oh-Juice”) with a distinct aroma of lighter fluid and a color somewhere between Burnt Umber and Black Cherry.  If you order it “well done,” the meat will be jet black and of the consistency of lignite.  Either way it’s more or less inedible.

Then there is the “seafood,” although Marietta is nowhere near the sea and hasn’t been since the Precambrian Era.  This term means farmed catfish or tilapia, and you can have it “grilled” (read: “boiled”) or “blackened” which is exactly what it sounds like:  charred beyond recognition.

To my amazement, the menu listed “Lobster.”  Now, this set me back on my heels and immediately raised some suspicions, so I asked the waitress about it and was assured it was indeed fresh lobster, and it would be steamed “to perfection,” another phrase that always sends my antennae up. But I figured, what the hell…if they put a live lobster into a steamer and set the timer, how badly can they screw it up?  The price was the same as the slabs of mule-derived “prime rib,” so I took the risk, much to She's indignation. 

This was a case of The Hope That Springs Eternal Within The Diner’s Breast, and I admit that I should have listened to the little voice that said I was making a serious mistake…but, but…the only possible alternative was something called “Gourmet Beef Tips.”  She’s brother in law had ordered that and when it came I nearly fainted at the sight.  If you can imagine a bowl of tapeworms covered with vomit, that’s exactly what it looked like.

When my “lobster” came, it wasn’t a lobster.  It was a lobster TAIL, and not a very large one.  When I asked where the rest of the lobster was, the waitress interrupted her account of her two childrens’ antics in day care, looked at me in surprise and said, “That’s all there is!” as if I’d asked her for a boiled baby. Next to the tail was a pile of—what else?—mushy pasta, the kind that’s corkscrew shaped and comes in various colors: Bilious Green, Maraschino Red, and Blaze Orange.  Next to that was a glob of undercooked Minute Rice swimming in the water it hadn’t absorbed.  

Lobster is one of those foods that doesn’t get more tender the longer you cook it, it gets tougher, and this tail had been cooked to the point where it was barely chewable[2].  I was indignant but mindful of She’s injunction to keep my mouth shut, I gnawed away at the tail—which, by the way, was certainly frozen and from some species that was absolutely not a “lobster” of any kind, but let that pass—actively avoiding the pasta and rice.  I am proud of the fact that I managed to repress the frisson of disgust that ran through me when I bit into the damned thing, but it was a lesson learned.  From now on, unless I actually see it in the tank, alive and swimming, I am never going to order “lobster” again, especially in Ohio.

There was worse to come the evening after the actual graduation ceremony.

On Saturday, the graduation ceremonies were scheduled for 1:00 PM, so we left the Comfort Inn about 11:30 to be sure of getting a parking space, and a good thing we did, too.  Within minutes of our arrival the lot was filled up.  The ceremonies were held in the huge field house on the campus, and that was a good thing, since it rained copiously at one point while someone was droning away.  We had feared it would be in the adjacent basketball arena, and that we’d have to sit on concrete bleachers, but instead we got to sit on wooden folding chairs.  The entire field house was full, and some people had to sit on the window sills.  Had we not arrived when we did, we’d have had to do that, too.

The bloviating was over by 4:00 or so, and then we milled around a bit and headed to the basketball arena, whence the food was spread out.  I will say this for Marietta College: they spared no expense to put on a first-class post-graduation reception. There were stupendous quantities of really excellent finger foods. I took on board large quantities of outstanding ham salad sandwiches and mini-quiches as well as other delicacies coming in an endless stream from the back rooms, topping off my cargo hold with a Klondike Bar.  I asked one of the culinary contractors how many they served at an event like that and he said, “We plan on 2800, but it’s impossible to get an accurate count.”  I believe that’s an underestimate, and it must have cost the College a pretty penny.  Boards of Regents are usually hard-headed business people who understand the concept of long term investment, and of course the idea is to get the families to send more of their kids to Marietta to “join the Long Blue Line” (honest, what’s what they call it) and to send donations to the Alumni Association, so I suppose they get it back.

I ate the equivalent of a full meal quite deliberately, because we were slated to go to dinner afterwards to a restaurant whose very name strikes terror into the hearts of anyone who really appreciates food, and especially northern Italian food: The Olive Garden.

The Olive Garden.  I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was going to be The Olive Garden.  Before we left, I told She that it was going to be The Olive Garden.  It’s always The Olive Garden.  Whenever a group of people who have no taste and don’t care about food decide to get together for dinner, no matter where they are, there is always an Olive Garden nearby, and that’s where they go.  I get sucked into its nameless depths in despair, wishing I were anywhere else; or that I could suddenly be stricken with a virus that would stretch me out prostrate, retching, before I have to eat at The Olive Garden.

The Olive Garden represents all that is bad in the American restaurant tradition.  Its nearest competitor in Badness is McDonald’s, but at least Mickey D’s doesn’t have the chutzpah to pretend it’s a real restaurant, let alone pretend it’s an Italian restaurant.  They could, of course: McDonald’s is every bit as genuinely “Italian” as The Olive Garden is, when you come right down to it.  So is Wendy’s. 

Quite aside from the kitschy pseudo-Tuscan decorations, the fake stucco, the plastic red “roof tiles” on the room dividers, the images of Italy on the walls, the wine bottles shaped like gourds, and all the other crap that Americans think of as “Italian,” the food at The Olive Garden is bad.  Not on the level of the River City Tavern, but bad enough to make me cringe, and thrice so when I think that there are people in this world who really do think that The Olive Garden is serving Italian food.  It isn’t.  It’s serving the Soul-Less Corporate Restaurant Chain’s plasticized, homogenized, and completely industrialized version of what their people think Italian food—worse, northern Italian food—is supposed to be.

I have been to Tuscany, possibly the most beautiful region of Europe, and I have driven its roads and eaten its food in real olive gardens in roadside restaurants.  I have never had a bad meal in Tuscany, and I have been to a few pretty unpretentious places that I’d happily fly back to Italy to eat in one more time before I die.  Anyone who’s ever been to “Cibreo” in Florence or “Cave di Maino,” or half a dozen other similar places knows that  for The Olive Garden to dare claim kinship in any way is nothing short of blasphemous. I don’t care if they do have an “Olive Garden Culinary Institute” in Tuscany, the stuff they serve in their restaurants here bears no resemblance whatever to what is actually served in Tuscan restaurants.

The food you get in little places in Tuscany is sprightly, savory, and light.  Much of it is very simply prepared: grilled or roasted, and lightly but subtly seasoned.  The “food” you get at The Olive Garden is leaden and tasteless.  Most of it is pasta sodden with “sauces” that look like pus and taste like battery acid.  If the menu at The Olive Garden says a dish is “grilled” what that means is that it’s been microwaved first, then scarified with a branding iron to create pseudo-grill marks, and comes to you swimming in some sort of unidentifiable liquid.  All their dishes are mass-produced, assembly line goo from frozen packages and cans, put together by kitchen workers who wouldn’t know Tuscan from Tosca, but who adhere religiously to The Book issued by The Home Office of The Soul-Less Corporate Restaurant Chain.  Honest to God, it’s a good thing that Italy has no military potential worth mentioning.  If they did someone over there would have declared war on us long before now, using The Olive Garden as casus belli, arguing—quite rightly—that it constitutes an affront to the Italian national honor.

There are three things in life worth a man’s serious attention: good books, good food, and bad girls.  I am outraged when I encounter bad food in restaurants, partly because it’s an insult to me and to my sense of taste; but mainly because it’s an insult to the food itself.  There’s no excuse for the kinds of horrors perpetrated by the River City Tavern, none at all: that’s a small operation in which attention to detail and quality could and should be the norm: that they are not is due to the indifference of the owners, the kitchen staff, and 99% of the people they serve.  The last can be excused: they have to be educated about what good food is.  While their patrons can be forgiven for ignorance, the proprietors of places like the River City Tavern can’t be forgiven for ignoring to their responsibility to do something about it.

But The Olive Garden and its ilk have an even greater sin on their Corporate Souls[3].  They do know their food is bad.  Such restaurants are in most cases owned and controlled by people who would not willingly eat the swill they sell, because they know it's swill and they can easily afford better.  Nevertheless they're perfectly happy to produce a “product” that’s standardized and predictable, even if it falls far short of being barely mediocre, let alone excellent.  They rely on clever advertising campaigns and terrific menu photography to conceal the gastronomic deficiencies of their offerings; and of course they benefit from the complete unfamiliarity of Americans with real food.  In The Country of the Microwave Oven, The Mediocre Cook Is King.

The Olive Garden to which I was dragged silently writhing in anticipatory agony was in Parkersburg West Virginia, across the river from Marietta.  It was Prom Night in Parkersburg and environs, so any number of high school seniors came in their finery for an Elegant Evening, cute rural kids to whom Parkersburg is the equivalent of Emerald City.  One pretty 17-year-old was dressed in a dazzling floor-length off-the-shoulder yellow satin gown…and chewing bubble gum.  Her escort wore a powder blue tuxedo with—I swear this is true—a matching top hat and a cane.  They were all out for The Big Night that for most of them would be the most lasting memory of their days of youth and beauty, before the workaday world took its toll.  They were giving one last hurrah for all the things that make life worth the effort…and at the next table sat a family with two snotty-nosed kids in diapers, Mom in a stained sweatshirt and Dad in a camouflage T-shirt and matching baseball cap to go with his torn blue jeans.  The Olive Garden, bless its greedy corporate heart, never discriminates: they are proud to provide Equal Opportunity for all kinds of Bad Taste.


[1] My own alma mater, Kenyon College, was located even deeper in the wilds of the Ohio Territory than Marietta. Bishop Chase deliberately picked a howling wilderness location because Kenyon was originally a seminary, and he didn't want his charges being corrupted by the temptations of the city.  That there weren’t any cities anywhere nearby was beside the point: avoiding wolves and Indians kept students focused on their studies.

[2] Many years ago She and I were in a gourmet dining club, one of whose events was a “New England Boiled Dinner,” presided over by a woman from Iowa who had literally never seen the ocean.  I will spare you the details, but the lobster I had at that outing was even worse.  The memory of it is so painful that I can’t really talk about it, even 25 years later.  I put a piece of that lobster in a slingshot and killed a rabbit with it.

[3] Talk about an oxymoron…