The ancient mariner over by the punch bowl

Author: Paul R. Hundt ’60

In my extended family of cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews, I have cultivated a reputation as a literary man, perhaps even as a bit of an eccentric. The football fanatics who comprise most of my male relations, and who fondly remember Senator Joe McCarthy, probably view me as an effete liberal snob. Among their wives and daughters, however, especially the New York City school teachers for whom linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky may be a wee bit conservative, I am viewed as slightly to the right of Louis XIV.

Maintaining this pose of a political and literary Janus has been a challenge over the years, but props help. Years ago, weary of the conformity in dress required of senior corporate executives, I rebelled in a modest way by adopting a slight flair: the bowtie. In our buttoned-down environment, a bowtie was about as “in your face” as I could safely get without being sent off to the corporate shrink.

Since I once had heard, “You’re not a gentleman if you can’t tie your own bowtie,” mine were not the 50 cent clip-ons favored by my schoolteacher father throughout his career. And the clip-on suspenders that they implied would have been just too tacky. We were a Fortune 500 company, not a pawn shop.

I began to wear my self-tied bowties on family occasions as well, and adopted tweed jackets to complete the ensemble. As a result, I was excused from spending afternoons at family parties watching the Giants or, even worse, the Jets. I also avoided most invitations to engage in that very male ritual of standing in the freezing stadiums and parking lots of the New Jersey Meadowlands, trying to have a decent conversation while surrounded by thousands of howling drunks.

Now long retired, I continue to wear my professorial gear on every family occasion not requiring a bathing suit. It reconfirms the impression I have so carefully nurtured and enables me to linger by the punch bowl in my own bubble amid heated discussions of Obama’s place of birth and the latest New York City teachers’ contract.

My interest in bowties has not been as isolating as the foregoing might suggest; I have on occasion been able to save a marriage that I am sure would have otherwise foundered before it even got started. Young grooms and their numerous groomsmen have dressed in office-casual for so long that even a regular necktie is now a challenge. They usually discover about two hours before the wedding that the formal monkey suits which bridezilla and her mother have selected do not come with clip-on bowties. When these young plebeians panic, a desperate call goes out for good ol’ Uncle Paul to report to the male dressing area in the hotel. Pronto!

I can knot my own tie only when facing a mirror, and thus, as the groom and his fellows bounce up and down in their anxiety to get to the church on time, I must calmly stand behind each, reach around and do my thing. To look over their huge shoulders, see what I am doing in a mirror and not strangle the poor lugs in the process (I am often tempted), I usually need a step stool or a chair. The gratitude lasts for years — or at least until the divorce.

My imposture as a literary man has disadvantages as well. Come significant birthdays and other gift-giving events, I receive thousands of pages of challenging tomes. I am expected not only to send out thank-you notes but also to read these texts promptly and be prepared, bowtie and all, to comment learnedly at the next family gathering.

Thank God for book reviews! They are my CliffsNotes. I can be reasonably confident that my generous benefactors have never read the books themselves. In all likelihood, they have better spent their time perusing the New York Post’s excellent sports page, from which I am happily emancipated. If I sense a quiz coming up, I Google a quick summary. Good preparation, as they said in law school, can usually carry the day, and those brief bumbling examinations can be finessed with little real danger of exposure.

Gift books are the bane of my reading life. Most people have no idea what really interests me, and as far as I am concerned The Life and Political Philosophy of Gen. George McClellan, Sigmund Freud’s Bathing Habits and The Complete Minor Poems of Aristotle, at 700 to 900 pages each, are suitable only for holding down loose papers on a windowsill. But having been a good Catholic in my youth, there is always a subliminal fear that, if I do not read them cover to cover, Sister Consuela will be standing over me with her ruler ready to strike.

I expect that Dante has a special quadrant in one of his circles in hell for lazy readers like me. I am yet to read books given to me 15 years ago with respectful requests for my opinion. I think particularly of The Power Broker by Robert Caro, a well-regarded biography of Robert Moses, that man of many titles and much political power in the State of New York in the mid-20th century. Robert Moses may have been a significant figure in urban development but he is not the Moses, so why almost 1,000 pages?

In this case I must admit my problem is maternal; my mother, God rest her soul, couldn’t stand Robert Moses — for what reason I was never able to ascertain. Family feuds have that Lamarckian quality of being passed on to the next generation, and the thought of attempting more than 900 pages, no matter how well written, on someone my mother absolutely hated and who will ultimately be a minor figure in the history of the world is beyond me. Two hundred pages OK, but almost a thousand?

It’s not that I have anything better to do, but why pick up such a word log and lug it around for a few weeks when I would much rather read, in the same amount of time, a P.D. James mystery about Adam Dalgleish, a Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin sea story, anything by Virginia Woolf or some George Eliot novel other than Silas Marner? They aren’t as heavy, and they’re more fun. There is just so much time in life and even less for well-intended reading assignments.

Since I can never throw a book away, I occasionally resort to regifting these screeds to free up space. The problem is that I have to be careful that there isn’t an embarrassing inscription to me tucked away somewhere inside or that I am dumping the unread shovelful on its original giver. As a result, my shelves and my hod of guilt grow ever more overloaded.

Sometimes I, too, give a book. I don’t like to lose arguments and, when some young whippersnapper at a family event has smugly carried the day because I couldn’t pull out an impressive citation for my position, I will in short order dispatch a few pounds of authoritative text, belatedly proving my point.

I also take real joy in the perverse pleasure of giving doorstops to those who have been so generous to me. When I am in a truly vengeful mood, I include an endorsement on the inside cover which glowingly recommends the snoozer and implies that I expect to discuss it in-depth when next we meet. Ah the satisfaction, if, having taken the precaution of reading one of those reviews in advance, I can engage in some extended and knowledgeable discussion with the poor soul about my generous and thoughtful gift.

Like the ancient mariner, I lurk by that punch bowl, getting on ever more intimate terms with its contents, peer around in my bowtie and tweed jacket as the party goes on about me, and look for my victim, who is desperately trying to avoid eye contact.

Fortunately, at the end of the evening, my wife is always in shape to drive home.

Paul Hundt retired as vice president and general counsel for a then-Fortune 500 company in 1996. His essays previously have appeared in Palo Alto Review, and this magazine.