Bacon on the Bookshelf

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Friday Night Special: John and Allison Beasley in The Villa on the Hilla

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Allison and John Beasley

“John Beasley is Vanderbilt University” for many alumni and friends of the school, said then-Chancellor Joe Wyatt on Beasley’s retirement after a five-decade career. John has been a wit, a wag, and an institution himself, widely admired and respected.

Does it sound too old fashioned to say that Allison Beasley has been right by his side? I’ll just say it. She’s been right by his side for a long time. She’s known for her great listening skills, her lifelong friendships, her love of animals – especially dogs – and her commitment to fitness. 

I’m so honored for them to spend a little time at Bacon this Friday night…

What times we are living in, John and Allison. How are you doing? 

John: Allison and Cleopatra (our black mostly-lab with a touch of coonhound) and I are surviving peacefully in what I call The Villa on the Hilla. Observing the strictures of lockdown with reasonable equanimity, even pleasure.

Allison: I’m in my eighties with AFIB, among those most vulnerable, so I was pretty frightened at first. Now, not so much. I stay at home which isn’t hard for me, since I’m a nester. I think it is harder for John who is a gadabout. Our house is large enough that we may not see each other for some hours, then we do and are so happy to be back together.

What does your daily life look like?

John: Up fairly early, feed Cleo and let her out, settle down with coffee. Since I am retired, my days are not greatly different from before, except that I can’t get out. Finding, however, that I don’t miss that as much as I thought I would. Mask up, glove up, and make weekly trips to the grocery and Costco and one or two other places. OBSERVE social distancing and the other guidelines.

Read, do the Sunday Times Crossword (it takes me a week), play a little Gershwin or Richard Rodgers, even Sondheim, spend some time at the computer in a small bedroom upstairs which I call The Home Office. Pay bills.

For twenty-five years we had a house on the coast of Maine, and the children and grandchildren would be there in the summer.

“John on our deck in Maine, at dusk, in a familiar pose”

There was always a jigsaw on the card table. Beth Stein gave me one of a New Yorker cover, a thousand pieces, not a rectangle in the bunch and every one of them shaped like a long worm. It took me three years and a pandemic, but I finally got it finished. Gave it to a young friend who is a junior at W&L, and got a picture from her two days later, almost done. HUMBLING!

Allison: On the mornings I get up early, I love to spend an hour reading. Up in a bedroom I have made into my own office, with a cup of coffee and a couple of crackers with some peanut butter. With no household help nowadays, there is then lots of housework. Once, sometimes twice, a day I walk down our long steep driveway with Cleo. The man from Franklin who put it in told us it was 18 degrees, three times mountain grade, so coming back is taxing. Halfway up there is a frog-shaped rock that has been there forever, and from there to the top of the drive I shoot for 84 steps, seldom achievable but always a goal. Yesterday, it was 86. Yay! Twice a week I have a session in FaceTime with my Pilates guru, Allyn Hinton. It’s amazingly effective. Most nights John brings in something tasty – a lasagna, a rotisserie chicken – and we watch the “News Hour” on NPT, then “Antiques Roadshow” and “Outlander” (are you reading this, Tom Sherrard?).

What’s the best part of the day?

John: The whole day is fine, but that first cup of coffee, sitting in the sun room which has a skylight and a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass, with the sun warming my back, is about as good as it gets.

Allison: Reading, walking with Cleo, listening to John playing the piano.

What’s the hardest hour of the day – or night?

John: Taking the trash out after a couple of pops of bubbly and a good supper.

Allison: After dinner at bedtime, when worries seem to descend.

What do you miss that you never imagined you would?

John: I never thought I would miss my very modest workouts. I hated doing them, and now I miss them. I’d go to the Fitness Room around noon at Belle Meade Club, and being the lazy sloth that I am, I would drag myself, then feel virtuous when I finished. I’d see the same few people every day, and I miss them.

Allison: I never in my life imagined a time when I would be unable to hug my children or my grandchildren. Misery!

What do you NOT miss?

John: Charity balls.

Allison: An overactive social life.

What is the best thing about Life in the Time of Corona? (Is there a best thing.)

John: It has caused a kind of re-focus on what’s – and who’s – important. We get caught up in the everyday, and when that pattern changes, the challenge to reassess arises. I don’t think that having the challenge is worth having the pandemic, but it is probably a useful side effect.

Allison: It allows us time we didn’t have before. I intended to spend these weeks sorting and decluttering. As I have turned out to be my family’s repository for memorabilia, three generations of it, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Alas, I have accomplished nothing. But there is still tomorrow…

What have you learned about yourself in the Time of Corona? What have you learned about others?

John: At 89, I don’t think I have learned anything I did not already know, but I have had to  face myself  – particularly the warts that are always there – and think about being a better boy. As for others, I have been surprised at how well some of my friends have met the isolation rules.

Allison: I’ve learned that I can plan my work, but cannot work my plan.

Has anything surprised you?

John: I’ve been surprised at the cooperation most of the populace has exhibited, the sense of a shared responsibility for the health of others and of the nation. And stunned that some religious groups have asserted the right to ignore the necessity of behaving responsibly. It is a self-ishness that I find irreligious and abhorrent. The hubris of the president and vice president, even in a medical setting. Infections in the White House suggest those chickens are coming home to roost.

Allison: It’s been a surprise to understand that we’re in this dilemma for months, years to come.

How is your family doing? Your friends?

John: Children and grandchildren healthy, greatly inconvenienced and missing their friends. Granddaughter Julia Nahley had to cut very short a semester in Australia, our two college grandsons on the web taking their classes and exams. But the absence of serious complaint has been reassuring. Friends are coping, and hoping.

Allison: Friends, great. They are minding the guidelines. I worry about our grandchildren, who must be worried themselves, facing an uncertain future in a world forever changed.

What are you reading/watching/listening to? 

John: I remember the second world war vividly. Rationing, the Selective Service. I was in my early teens when it came to an end. I have been fascinated by how the war came to be – actually, some startling parallels today – and how other countries – and, finally, ours – comported themselves. I think I have read just about everything about Churchill that there is, including Erik Larson’s new book.

 It ends just after Pearl Harbor, when America was finally forced into action. Allison had read William Shirer’s book Berlin Diary, and I am listening to that now on CD in the car. Those two books have thrown me back into a reread of Freedom’s Forge, America during the time before 1941, and after. 

Roosevelt’s dithering while London was being bombed, Churchill  begging, and Britain the last bulwark before the Nazis invaded them or starved them out. Then America’s idled manufacturing might being ramped up by private enterprise to save the world, in spite of Congress and the Unions. GM building bombers, Packard building the finest fighter aircraft engines, Henry Kaiser, who had never built a ship in his life, building Liberty ships for America and its allies.

Also reading Moscow Nights, Van Cliburn’s win of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in the midst of the Cold War in 1958, just moments after the Russians put Sputnik in orbit.  

He became a rock star all over Russia and America, and got the first and only Wall Street tickertape parade for a pianist in history on his return. It was a major breakthrough for relations between our countries. He was a tall skinny Texas boy from small-town Kilgore who studied the piano with his mother until he went to Juilliard. When he wowed the international jury, two of whom were famous Russian concert pianists, he was just 23.

Can’t remember who said it, maybe Emerson. “There is properly no history, only biography.”

Allison: I read William Shirer’s Berlin Diary and found much of it frighteningly similar to some things in America today. 

I enjoyed Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, charmed by her love for the natural world. 

 Now, dog lover that I am, I’m reading A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron, an emotional tale of a dog’s many lives, told in the dog’s voice.  

Most mornings, I begin with poems by Mary Oliver.

How do you think our city/state/country is dealing with this crisis? 

John: City leadership, great. State leadership, less great. Country leadership, like a ship with no rudder. And yet, the citizenry has been, for the most part, aware, compliant and cooperative.

Allison: A recent Tennessean reported that our state’s testing levels are among the best in the country, which is great. I’ve been impressed by our mayor’s leadership. Dr Fauci and Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN are my heroes, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo with his calm, steady leadership of New York. I think the federal government’s leadership has been disastrous.

How will our society be changed? Our world?

John: Of course, it changes every day. This pandemic has caused us to face the fact that we are all in this together, and what affects one ultimately affects all. Will it last, or will selfishness reassert itself immediately, rather than gradually? In the end, I fear that reassertion is inevitable.

Allison: Before this pandemic, I had felt our country was fractured and tribal. Now with this crisis, it has come together in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’ve wept over the heroism of our healthcare workers and the kindness of neighbor for neighbor. I pray those loving kindnesses will remain.

How will you be changed?

John: I believe – I hope – I will be more patient, more understanding. And more aware of my responsibilities to my fellow man.

Allison: I’ll be happier if I can accomplish the decluttering.

And now for a few speed dating questions to wrap things up…

Favorite cocktail during the Time of Corona?

John: Bubbly. I am not a connoisseur, so my palate is an accepting one. I’ve found a French bubbly – not from Champagne – that I can afford at Wine Chap, and a startlingly good Spanish Cava at Costco for less than 8 bucks. At that rate, I can afford to be an alcoholic.

Allison: A gin martini. John can make a mean one.

Favorite comfort food ~

John: Crescents. Shortbread, I guess, full of little pecan pieces and covered with powdered sugar. We called them that in Franklin where I grew up. I think they call them Wedding Cookies around here.

Allison: Leland Riggan’s caramel cake, and “World’s Best Butterscotch Sauce” which John makes from a recipe in an old Christ Church cookbook that belonged to my mother. Two sticks of butter, two cups of sugar, a pint of heavy whipping cream and, well how could it not be good?

Favorite room of your house ~

John: The sunroom. My chair, my lamp, my table, my books, the forest rising behind me, Allison through the big window to the kitchen.

Allison: My room upstairs with its sofa, large desk, big windows to the tree tops.

Favorite place to be outside ~

Allison: Any spot around our house – looking up at the forested hill behind us, walking down the drive with Cleo. And the Warner Parks. I’ve found a trail less travelled for Cleo and me, where few people are and she can run without the lead. She’s incredibly faithful about returning when called, ready to accept the lead when it is necessary.

Favorite source of the news ~

John: NPR, NPT, New York Times, CNN for breaking news, local TV for bad weather.

Best advice for staying sane in the Time of Corona ~

John: Get out of yourself and think about somebody else. We all have problems, but the poorest among us is better off than most of the world. It would be criminal not to be thankful. And for those who ARE less fortunate, I think I need to think about my responsibilities there.

If all else fails, have some bubbly and a crescent.

Allison: Stay on some kind of a routine. Read and read! And walk outside!

JP: I hope you’ll enjoy your bubbly and G&T tonight, John and Allison! I’ll be enjoying my white bordeaux I hope. Gus will have a G&T but he’ll have to make it himself. xoxo

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11 Comments

  1. I so enjoyed getting to know John and Allison via this post. Thanks for kicking my weekend off in the right way.

  2. Two of my favorite people are living high on the hill (and hog)! Love to you both from too far away!

  3. These two totally warm my heart and inspire me. I love their frank take on the national situation and their clear affection for each other.

  4. Two of the most wonderful people we know and love!! May God bless and keep them always.

  5. Serendipity! to be assigned Lupton 5 as a Vandy freshman and meet the Beasleys and then to reconnect three decades later. Wise and witty– then and now.

  6. Wonderful peep into your lives! Allison, I miss you and Pilates! And, my very first dog was named Cleopatra. Cleo was a beagle whose eyes looked like they were lined with an Egyptian kohl pencil.

  7. They are inspirational, Jennifer!! Thank you for allowing us to hear them!!!

  8. I’m going to save this Bacon to re-read when I start feeling suffocated by how small my world has become. Thank you for sharing these two gracious people with us.

  9. Wonderful interview! I appreciate the World War II perspective and the thoughtful approach to our current times.

  10. The Beasley’s are total and complete Rock Stars!
    Two of the most interesting, fun, and thoughtful people on the planet! Proud to know you.

  11. Martin and I LOVED this virtual visit with two of our favorite people in the whole world who are always #1 on our list for an interesting and thought provoking dinner party! Such style, grace and zest for life! And, now I’ll add resilience and acceptance with joy! Thank you, Jennifer for bringing them closer.

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