Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Standard of Living

If you are experiencing a certain slackening of the midriff as you bustle as carefully as possible through your fifth decade, you may take heart, as I do, from the brilliant opening paragraph of Dorothy Parker’s story “The Standard of Living” (1940):
Annabel and Midge came out of the tea room with the arrogant slow gait of the leisured, for their Saturday afternoon stretched ahead of them. They had lunched, as was their wont, on sugar, starches, oils, and butter-fats. Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate gritty with nuts. As alternates, they ate patties, sweating beads of inferior oil, containing bits of bland meat bogged in pale, stiffening sauce; they ate pastries, limber under rigid icing, filled with an indeterminate yellow sweet stuff, not still solid, not yet liquid, like salve that has been left in the sun. They chose no other sort of food, nor did they consider it. And their skin was like the petals of wood anemones, and their bellies were as flat and their flanks as lean as those of young Indian braves.
The petals of wood anemones (Anemone quinquefolia), also known as nightcaps, are—surprise, surprise—soft, white as snow, and, incidentally, native to Connecticut. Any anxieties arising from the hint of excess at this date may be dispelled by the fact that the story first appeared in The New Yorker four months before Pearl Harbor. The prose style is, of course, brilliant. Who has not observed “beads of inferior oil,” or at one time or another eaten pastries that are undeniably limber?

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