"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I Left My Heart In Ouagadougou –The Romance Of Foreign Travel

Bill Bailey was an international management consultant based in Washington, DC.  An MBA from Harvard, clerkship with Justice Allen, proper New England pedigree, and, given the effort and his parents’ financial support, surprising little ambition, he chose foreign enterprise as his profession.  It was not that he felt the Third World would ever, at least in his lifetime, manage to rise to the level of a proper economic bar let alone exceed it.  It was that there was something appealing about places in disarray that appealed to him. 

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Angola, for example, had just emerged from a decades-long civil war when he arrived.  There were no hotel rooms to be had, car-jacking and kidnapping were routine, and the price of an ordinary meal was over $100.  It was a frightful, chaotic, shambles, run by a dictator who, realizing his good fortune to rule a country with vast oil deposits and diamonds to boot, consolidated his power, restricted access to opportunity, and was indifferent to rising poverty, violence, and civil mayhem.  Yet Bailey was not unhappy there.

After making his way out of the city to the Peninsula, a narrow strip of land bordered by the Atlantic on one side and a calm, protected harbor on the other, he was at ease, at home, and in his element. The shrimp were jumbo and fresh, the Portuguese rosé dry and fruity, the breezes off the ocean and through the palm trees cooling and delightful, and the service impeccable.

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It took some doing to get from downtown Luanda to the peninsula – everyone jammed the corniche out , tired of nastiness, hungry, and impatient for soft sand, caring concern, and impeccable service – but it was always worth the traffic and the heat.  The breezes were indeed delightful, the shrimp and grouper impeccable, and the wine as good as advertised.

Bailey had spent a rough two weeks during his first visit, but by his second he had gotten the lay of the land.  He hired a fixer, an ex-combatant de guerre who had fought with Savimbi in the civil war, who had come out with more friends than enemies, and was agile, deft, and canny in his exploitation of a post-conflict country.  For $100 João met him at the door of the aircraft, shepherded him through immigration, health, and customs, and drove him to his hotel.  For another $500 he was Bill’s personal driver, security guard, and major domo for the entirety of his visit; and for a final $100, João  got him on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

Bill did  his work as best he could.  Given the traffic, he could only have two or three meeting per day, but his colleague with whom he shared the armored, guarded SUV was a sweet young thing from Raleigh who was as indifferent to the challenge, risk, and threat of Luanda as he was.  Given the circumstances, the opportunity, and most importantly given the improbability of Angola, they hooked up and remained involved for the three week mission.

For anyone who has travelled to these uncharitable, unfamiliar, and difficult places, such an affair would not be at all surprising.  Temporal love affairs have happened between secular and religious missionaries to Godforsaken places since time immemorial. It is almost de rigeur to share companionship. misery, and ultimately physical intimacy as an anodyne, an idyll, and above all an easy, uncomplicated, guilt-free remove from wives, husbands, and lovers back home.  Otherwise responsible, respectful, and reasonable moral people throw convention to the winds in the worst parts of Africa, Asia, or Latin America.  There is something about the confines of threat which lubricate sexual interest.  Why not when the tontons macoute could break into the room or when the Salafist insurgents could take you hostage? Or when Ebola or fulminating River Fever could take one off? Or most honestly when no one is looking?

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Bill Bailey’s wife had a passing understanding of the international consultant’s life.  She, a woman of rectitude and fidelity, was surprised and offended when a colleague on a rare trip to Chad, a mission to help eradicate river blindness, wandered off into the bushes with the daughter of the American Consul – she sick and tired of life in the desert under the abominable control of her father; and he desperate for any human kindness in this last outpost of the Foreign Legion.  Yet she never suspected her husband of such frivolous and childish infidelities; and when he came home satiated, tired, hungry, and indifferent to her welcome, she only assumed the best.  Her husband had done his duty.

All of which, of course, was the perfect storm.  A surprisingly innocent and complaisant wife, the opportunities of a lifetime in a pool of young, ingénue, and innocent young women out to do good but quickly disillusioned, unhappy, and alone; and 5000 miles from home without telephone, email, or text.

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Bill’s critics never let up.  His indifference to social justice, his lack of concern for the very people he was supposed to help, and his cavalier exploitation of his favored opportunity and good luck were nothing less than a capitulation and a dereliction of moral responsibility.

Bill of course disagreed.  He did not create the culture of dependency, calculating subservience, and venality of the Third World.  He did not invent the godchild of American idealism – the honored ‘noble savage’ of more primitive and less-evolved cultures.  He was bequeathed them.  He was their beneficiary.

On the crasser end of the spectrum Bailey had indeed been propositioned by a young Romanian doctor who wanted a US visa, been asked for money after a Sulawesi weekend, and had been asked favors by a Bornean princess; but this was their moral problem, if any, not his.

Every man wants what Bill Bailey had – a loving wife and children, secure heritage and inheritance, respect from his colleagues, friends and neighbors; but four months of the year when he was free from their yoke, the harness of respectability, honesty, and responsibility.  In most men’s eyes Bailey had it all.

There is much talk these days of sexual irrelevance.  That is, that sexual activity, when mediated through the filters of race, gender, and ethnicity loses its salience.  It is no longer the primal signifier of human relationships a la D.H.Lawrence , the essential, undeniable, fundamental characteristic of society.  We live, according to some post-modern observers, in a sexually neutral world, one characterized more about the implications of sex than sex itself.

The progressive vision of the Coasts has not caught up with Angola or Haiti or Romania where sex and sexuality have not budged off the mark.  Male pursuit and female compliance are still the rule.  Sex is still the shelter from the storm, and questions of purpose, rectitude, and responsibility are irrelevant and damned.

Bill Bailey had to pay the fiddler more than once; but enough residual patriarchy remained for him to be off the hook.  “I’m sorry and I will never do it again” was still enough to calm the waters until another international enterprise.

Yet  Bill Bailey was not at fault if fault must be assigned.  Lay blame to the tropics, to Amin El-Saidi, to the Luanda peninsula, and to foreign lands in general.  It is simply too much to expect rectitude, fidelity, and honesty 5000 miles from home, on a tropical beach, in a refuge from the ordinary, the expected, and the predictable.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Lost-And-Found–Never Rummage Through The Past For Old Girlfriends

Leonard Barnum had led what seemed an ordinary life.  Married in his early thirties, successful career, two children, a home in one of the best neighborhoods of the city.  All in all it was a life to be respected if not envied.  He and his wife were invited to dinner parties not because they had something unusual to offer, but because they did not; because they sat well, mixed well, and spoke well. 

Dinner parties were as light and uncomplicated as around town where marriages were off limits and personal private lives left alone, as gated and shuttered as the homes of the Vances, Lincolns, and Pomeroys. Everyone knew about or suspected particular infidelities, but this was not the venue to conclude who, with whom, and where.   Saturday evenings were once-a-week respites from  boredom, fidelity, and ordinariness.  Sex was off limits, potentially disruptive and slightly antisocial;  but Barnum couldn’t resist Helen Bailey’s eyes – dark like a Turk’s, outlined and shadowed, young, and soft.

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Like many men of late middle age who realize that the deal they had struck with their partner was unfavorable; that the price of marital stability and good sense was far higher than they ever expected; and that picking, sorting through and rearranging the pieces of a long marriage to try to assemble something more remarkable than ever was, often turn to the past for satisfaction.  The present is too risky at best, and a sad affair for any man in his mid-sixties among young women whose attention is to attracting a mate, not maturity.  The future depends only on personality and perspective, not fact.  

The optimist hopes that one’s life might still be reordered; that one’s routines might be reversible; and that physical intimacy might still be in the cards.  The pessimist assumes that one’s lackluster,
predictable, and unexceptional life will continue ad infinitum.  The cynic cares for neither, knows that he has been billiard-balled on smooth felt since he was born, and romance has and will never exist.

It is the past that rules such men’s lives.  No man has reached his thirties without falling for someone, his forties without refreshing his marriage with other women,  his fifties a more insistent search for that combination of beauty, allure, intelligence, and wit that never could even have existed, and his sixties endless reminiscing about his twenties.  The past is the only validating period of our lives, said Nabokov, a self-described memorist who trained himself to remember the smallest detail of particularly happy experiences of childhood and beyond.  The present is fractional and meaningless; the future speculative and subjective; and only the past has substance and reality even though itself might be composed of half-memories, fill-ins, and suggestions.

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So it was that Leonard Barnum began the search for Lucia Stafford.  He knew that even if he could find her, she would have certainly changed.  No one can live forty years without insult and some injury; and at best one’s bits of might have come through unchanged; but who is to say which bits?  He had always assumed that personality and character do not change regardless of circumstances.  We are how we react, and Lucia had always reacted – and acted – well.  There was no reason that the good bits would have been lost or damaged beyond repair.

Leonard was never sure why he had so quickly been taken by her.  It was not her looks, a bit of the library and the upper stacks about her; nor her allure. She had not the slightest notion of come-hither; gave off no bee-to-flower scent; and was absorbed, serious, and  very, very singular.  It was just one of those things – unexpected, unplanned, and arising out of some weird combination of family genes, his mother’s own quietly seductive ways, the lighting, his disaffection with the first days at university.

Lucia was at first uninterested and diffident.  If she was to look up from her Kant, it would be for confidence and pursuit, not queer hesitancy and uncertainty.  Barnum was nice enough, respectful, and interested; but frankly not male enough, never a mate, possibly a friend, but never a lover.   They had coffees and drinks over a few months but then she disappeared back to her books or someone more suitable; but the damage has been done.  The friendship had not lasted long enough to make an impression on anyone even slightly more sexually or socially aware for that matter.  It would have been passed off as a cheap losing ticket, nothing to think twice about, easy to forget, and in a few months lost without a trace.

For Barnum, however, the impression lasted for decades – a first love complicated by sexual bumbling and immaturity – and it was therefore both because he had something to prove and because the image of the girl would simply not disappear, that he had decided to find her.

It took him a year to find her.  She was happily divorced, no children, near retirement and living not far from him in a close-in, wealthy suburb of the same city.  She had left no easy trail – no social media, no publications, no awards or no record – but when he did finally connect, it took her over a month to answer.  She was too polite to tell him in their first meeting that she had no idea at first who he was and only after a few weeks did she remember their brief friendship only recalled because of a random mnemonic connection between him, her chemistry assignment, and a cold lunch in Harvard Yard. 

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They spent an hour over drinks, pleasant enough for her with shared recollections of school and Cambridge; difficult and awkward for Barnum for whom not only had no bits survived the years; but the composite was totally unrecognizable – a puzzle whose pieces fit but made no sense together.  He never let on that he had been in love with her let alone admit his obsession. That one recognizable and unpleasant bit – her diffidence – had unfortunately survived and now as then, he bumbled and stumbled when he tried to speak of his feelings.

As importantly her face had changed. There should be at least one recognizably retained feature – like Helen Bailey’s eyes – even after decades.  Some feature, expression, gesture that at least would remind him of her.  He would have been happy enough with just a suggestion; but there was nothing in that old, jowly, implacable face that he recognized.  What was he thinking?

After Lucia had left him the first time, he claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line – ‘There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice’ – as his own.  Of course Fitzgerald was a hopeless romantic whose short stories appealed only to adolescent boys of an earlier era and never read now; but the line was still his.  Even after lunching with the fleshy, patient, but uninterested Lucia Stafford, it made sense.  He had been in love with her young version, one that had nothing to do with what she had become.  They were two separate women; but the irony was that he still felt himself as young as he was then. It would be a matter of pure luck for personality to remain intact over forty years.  Most men who have been married for years no longer recognize their wives; and why should they?

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So Barnum finally put aside his obsession and went back to business.  It doesn’t pay to rummage around the lost-and-found.  Memories are rarely one’s own but composites of the reflections and add-ons of others.  What we were as young adults bears little resemblance to what we are now.  The past is a jumble and at best should be taken only for the random combinations of genes and events that cause the present.  It is unlikely that we can find anything whole there, anything of integral value.  If only emotional lost-and-founds had antiques or old paintings in them – items of unquestionable desirability and worth.  No such luck.  Better to try a grab-bag.  At least that offers some promise.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Donald Trump, The White House, Congress, And Washington DC–Finally Looking Like America

Presidents are supposed to be presidential, or so it is said.  Only men of rectitude, honor, ability, courage and compassion belong in the Oval Office; and with few exceptions our presidents have fit the mold.  In some cases like that of FDR, JFK, and the Bushes, a patrician upbringing has assured a certain moral authority and noblesse oblige.  In others like Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton,  and Harry Truman, a difficult if not poor childhood gave a less complicated, less philosophical righteousness.  The values of hard work and belief in the American dream plus an innate ambition and confidence enabled them to rise to power. 

In a few cases – Nixon, Harding, Garfield, and Buchanan come to mind – presidents fell far short of the modest standards established by tradition.  Few Presidents have matched the intelligence, insight, and canniness of Jefferson and Adams and most of the Founding Fathers; but all in all they have been in consistent company.  They were not of the people but for the people.  No one expected an American president, a French one, or a British Prime Minister to be of the hoi-polloi.

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The standards of American leadership were best expressed by Cato the Elder, educator of the Roman elite whose diptychs enunciated the principles which must guide those who were to lead the Empire.  Honesty, intelligence, courage, discipline, respect, compassion, and diligence were among the attributes deemed necessary for leadership. 

Thomas Jefferson, of all American presidents, was a Roman model.  He epitomized greatness in leadership.  Schooled in world history, philosophy, art, and science, Jefferson was the ideal person to configure a new nation.  He of course had his own particular political philosophy – democratic populism – and he necessarily ran up against conservative colleagues like Alexander Hamilton who was wary of popular rule; but Jefferson was always an uncompromised, legitimate, and respected leader.

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These men – and even the slightly ragged and disreputable among them – represented the ruling class.  Even though they may have had more affinity with the poor and disadvantaged – like LBJ and FDR – and even though they may have risen from humble roots, they were of the elite.  By the time they had ascended to the Presidency, they had lost whatever they had in common with dust bowl farmers, oil riggers, or factory workers.  Their past may have inspired their political philosophy and provided an incentive for their policies and programs, but they were a world apart from their origins.

This was as it should be, according to popular and academic wisdom.  A leader must be aware of the nature of his national constituency, but there is nothing which suggests that he be of the same makeup, leanings, and aspirations.  Americans have been conditioned to admire their Presidents but to like them from afar.  They have understood that leaders are of a different breed than followers and have unashamedly sworn an oath of allegiance to a ruling elite. While Americans may have rejected the idea of aristocracy a priori and out of hand, classism has been ingrained in them as it has been in all societies and cultures.

What then to make of Donald Trump who is the most American president since 1789.  Who but Trump has better expressed American social ambition, tinsel, glitz, glamour, beauty, and wealth? Who better to represent the country than someone with the morals of a street-fighter, a Wall Street investor, a real estate fixer, and a Hollywood mogul? America, taken in the aggregate, is not a pretty place; and Americans have achieved their economic success and international clout thanks to bare knuckles, insider trading, and a preference for victory over good.

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Trump is hors de série, one of a kind, unique, and indisputably American.  Who better than a man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York to lead the country?  Who better than a street-fighter to go up against the Russians or Kim Jong-Un? A man of enforcer mentality and take-no-prisoners ethos to run America? A man of supreme egotism, bombast, and arrogance to send the progressive Left scurrying?

Why do Trump’s approval ratings remain high despite his antics – scurrilous tweets, precipitous firings and immediate hiring, fake news, bare-faced, bald distortions of the facts?  Because he, for the first time in American history, is one of us.  Forget the current progressive idealism – the fight against injustice, climate change, and predatory capitalism can be won and a new and better world can be had – Americans want no part of pie-in-the-sky fantasies that deny history, human nature, and social dynamics.  Trump is a an opportunist, and a manipulator; a gunfighter, a lone wolf interloper afraid of and intimidated by no one.

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Most Americans do not want Pablo Casals, Picasso, or Brahms.  We might have been enamored by the sophisticated JFK White House, but this was just a princess fantasy.  We might admire aristocratic taste, but what we really want are pole dancers, neon lights, slot machines, hot starlets, and Hollywood scandal.  We love Trump’s Miss Universe and Mar El Lago;  his private jets, Fifth Avenue apartments, and private sojourns.  Of course he consorted with models, runway queens, porno stars, and the pleasure-dome mob.  Of course he was and still is a bronco. No corral can hold him, no justice but frontier justice need apply.

Despite Trump’s unapologetic dismissal of the Washington establishment; his outrageous, provocative, and shoot-from-the-hip tweets; his chaos; and reports of his sexual exploits, a significant percentage of Americans are still very much for him.  Are his precipitous moves rational and in America’s best interest? A trade war with China, an abutment against free trade on the Southwest border; a free-for-all cascade of uncertain fiscal, economic, and financial policies; and a wild circus of in-Washington, out of Washington presence are neither criticized nor examined by the 40 percent of the American electorate who support him.

This significant support has nothing to do with policy, white papers, or official proclamations.  It has all to do with the support and embrace of the first president who is like ‘us’.  Of course Donald Trump does not reflect the principles, ethos, or personality of the coasts – no inclusivity, multi-everything pluralism, environmental idealism, and social reform – but that is exactly why he is so revolutionary.  He is neither classically conservative like Reagan, Buckley, and  Friedman; nor muscularly assertive like the Bushes; nor as internationally innovative as Richard Nixon; but he is as fundamentally conservative as his 40+ percentage of supporters.  Regardless of his coincidence with many classically conservative positions, his appeal is social, cultural, and emotive. 

What most progressive and international observers cannot understand is the parallelism of Trump and his American electoral base.  They cannot understand the visceral appreciation and approval of this outrageous, uncontrollable, exuberant political outlier. They look only through the narrow lens of ‘rational’ political consideration and opinion and the presumption of a consistent standard of national leadership. They miss the point entirely.

Trump is likely to make the 10 Worst Presidents list; but this will have been compiled by those with a traditional political perspective; but anyone looking more closely, will rank him near the top.  When a President embodies the zeitgeist of a time and place, expresses its fundamental principles, and evokes visceral support, he cannot be ignored.  Is Trump’s populism or liberal progressivism the real zeitgeist? Only time will tell; but it is more likely that Trump’s uber-bourgeois Presidency is the one most Americans will remember.