One of the most memorable stories that my father told me as a child was a vignette from his own youth. My grandfather (“The Doc”) was a medical doctor who worked long hours and, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s had one of the largest private practices in Cleveland, Ohio. The Doc was the son of Slovenian immigrants and many of his patients were from the same community. A tremendously intellectual man, he was also, like Horace, a man of simple tastes. The Doc loved birds. As a youth growing up in the 1920s, relatives recount how fascinated he was with nature, even taking to being an amateur taxidermist with the birds he might catch. His wonder at the natural world continued into his adulthood. The Doc also enjoyed the simple tastes in food. It was essential that a good breakfast include fried eggs, bacon and buttered toast.
It seems that my father also shared The Doc’s love of a good breakfast. He apparently arose one Saturday morning to the smell of eggs cooking in butter. The smell so captivated him that he went downstairs to see his father just delivering the perfectly cooked fried eggs to his plate. Like only a surgeon could, the Doc prepared his meal to perfection, the eggs—slightly crispy, yet with the yoke perfect for dipping a piece of toasted rye bread. Having seen his son enter the room—probably noticeably licking his chops—The Doc likely reacted as any father would react to a son about to impose upon his feast: “Beat it, son.” My father, undeterred, quickly cooked up a plan by which he could seize the longed-for breakfast. Casually, my father drifted towards the back door—which was off of the kitchen—he stood looking out the door for a moment while The Doc began savoring his culinary handiwork. Suddenly, and with all the drama and excitement of one seeing an indescribable portent, my father shouted: “Dad, Dad, come quick! A yellow-bellied sapsucker!” The amateur ornithologist sprang from his eggs hoping to view the rare woodpecker. Momentarily forgetting the pleasure of the breakfast, The Doc scanned the trees in the backyard and the sky to no avail. When he turned round, my then-youthful father, was seen running out of the kitchen fearful of the consequences of his thievery, but no doubt delighted at his ruse—and the eggs!
This story was one of my favorites as a kid and told—likely not without embellishment—numerous times, probably as Dad was making breakfast. As I reflect on this story years later, it loses none of its humor (especially as told the way Dad tells it) and, I believe, it offers a glimpse into the simplicity, excitement, and never-ending adventure that is human life.
Bound up in this story are all the things that are part and parcel of life—family, food, nature, humor, wonder and, yes, even punishment. All of these things are never exhausted sources of reflection. Indeed, reflection is a source of reflection—something that makes us uniquely human. Aristotle said that wonder lies at the beginning of philosophy. Man wants to know things—this is the way that God has created us. That is also why God created the rest of creation. I am reminded here of several lines from Chesterton’s dedicatory poem “To Hilaire Belloc” in his book The Napoleon of Notting Hill:
For every tiny town or place
God made the stars especially;
Babies look up with owlish face
And see them tangled in a tree:
You saw a moon from Sussex Downs,
A Sussex moon, untravelled still,
I saw a moon that was the town’s,
The largest lamp on Campden Hill.
God did make the stars especially for every tiny town or place. Likewise did he make eggs and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. All sources of wonder and excitement! Who was the first person to put bacon, eggs and toast together on a plate? He is far more brilliant than any president, pope or philosopher! Whence did we come to imitate and continue the tradition of such an arrangement for the first meal of our day? What mystical union of souls must make up the League of Fried Eggs and Bacon! Or take another example. How did the yellow-bellied sapsucker come to inhabit the environs of North America? Why not somewhere else? How did he come to be painted the way he is? Michelangelo can only sub-create, in a way, sub-paint. The original Creator-Painter was the true brilliance, the artist par excellence. What is it about the generational repetition of a son wanting to be like his father? Imitating his tastes, his mannerisms, his creativity?
Wonder at the simple things of the world is the essential frame of mind for the distributist—strike that—for the fulfilled human being (as much as we can be fulfilled on this earth)! If we truly believe that God created us and knows what will make us happy, should we not be enamored of the natural world that He has given us? Today it is easy to be taken with the advanced mechanical things of man’s intelligence: iPads, iPods, and the world-wide web. Aren’t lily pads, peapods and spider webs equally—if not more—fascinating? This is not to say that we shouldn’t wonder about the brilliance of the human mind in constructing modern technological marvels. We should. But all is in vain if we are not fascinated with the human person whose reason created these things. Likewise, we should critically look at the things of technology and advancement and ask whether these are truly advances. This is not Ludditism. Are the things of technology helping us to be more fully human? Or is there something human lost in exchange for convenience or utility? Are microwavable eggs, bacon, and buttered toast equal to or better than the real thing?
Wonder is the beginning of philosophy. It is also the beginning of thankfulness. It is no secret that the last voice on the earth defending reason is the same one defending the ability of one to say “thank you” vs. the determinists and the thinly-veiled compulsion of the wizards of smart in government, the academy and technology. That voice is the voice of the Catholic Church—the voice that preserved the culture that produced sipping wine under a trellised vine, watching birds, and—dare I say it—bacon, eggs and buttered toast.
Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
Displicent nexae phylira coronae;
Mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
Sedulus curo; neque te ministrum
Dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
Horace, Ode 1.38
Boy, do I hate Persian adornments;
Garlands woven with bast are displeasing;
Seek not to find where, in whatever places, the rose,
Attentive, I care that you take no trouble
With simple myrtle; for myrtle is neither unbecoming
for you serving, nor for me
sipping under the trellised vine.