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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Good Life–The Story Of A True Individual

We are living in an abstemious age. Excess is out, moderation and temperance are in. We are concerned about health, restoring moral values.  We wish to lead moral, compassionate, and considerate lives, to do good, and to invest in the future.  The devil-may-care, come-what-may dissociative and hedonistic life are things of the past. We get regular check-ups, watch our diets, and drink socially but never alone.

Brent Linins was a throwback, a high-liver, big spender, and boulvardier. He was a womanizer, an aggressive financier, and an atheist. No one could have predicted his life trajectory since he was the son of a solid, faithful bourgeois family.  His father taught the family the importance of social propriety, good taste, and a respect for others. They went to church on Sundays, summered at respectable, pleasant but unremarkable beaches on the Connecticut shore, and preferred parochial schools.  Bert’s father was a doctor who took his profession seriously.  He kept his fees low and the quality of his practice high. He believed that not only was medicine a worthy profession, but one which responded to a higher calling.

His mother was a dutiful wife, member of the Hospital Auxiliary, avid amateur golfer, and attentive, concerned mother.

Brent had been a difficult child, always in trouble, disrespectful, and headstrong. To his parents chagrin, they were often called in for one-on-one teacher evaluations sessions during which they were told that their son was becoming an anti-social menace.  He teased, bullied, and disobeyed, and seemed to care less about the feelings of others. He was a good if not gifted student,but his social skills were sorely lacking.  He seemed, even at his very young age, to have few if any moral pillars.

Brent’s father had many man-to-man talks with his son, but nothing seemed to take. At times he seemed like someone else’s child, and his uniqueness caused no end of suspicion and doubt between his mother and father.  Yet since both could vouch for his paternity and legitimacy, the assumed the blame for his unexpected and increasingly shameful behavior.

Brent was not a mean boy.  Far from it.  He simply marched to the beat of his own drummer; and as he grew older realized that this sense of defiant independence was exactly what attracted girls. Women, he quickly found out, were indeed drawn to bad boys, especially those like Brent who was physically appealing, smart, and athletically talented.  They somehow didn’t mind his cavalier and dismissive treatment of them.  Just the opposite.  The more diffident and dismissive he was, the more they wanted him. Even as a young teenager he realized that absolute self-confidence and resolute personal ambition were not traits to be avoided as his father had counseled, but the keys to success.

Investment banking was the perfect career choice for the young Brent.  Wall Street cared little for anything but acquisitions, mergers, and financial reward; and finally and at last he felt loosed from the conservative moral fetters of his family. He was finally on his own with no responsibilities to anyone but himself. Moral compunctions were things of the past, left behind in New Brighton, never to be revisited.

Although Wall Street has often been characterized as amoral and venal mif not indecent in its pursuit of profit, the reality was far from this distorted, idealistic vision.  His investments enabled new enterprises, made millions for investors, and was the engine of America’s prosperity. Of course Brent never thought in these philosophical terms.  He was only happy that his unalloyed ambition and indomitable will and self-confidence were valued and appreciated. .

He spent his wealth according to his own tastes. He had no concerns for image or social acceptability.  He knew for every woman who wanted a Nantucket, polo-playing, Porsche-driving executive, thousands more wanted a ride in his Corvette, a swim in his heated pool atop 314 Lexington Avenue, and vacations in Acapulco.

“Isn’t it about time you thought about a family?”, his mother had asked him, predictably on one of his dutiful pilgrimages home. “And children?”; but he had no interest in either, and was happy with his very satisfying life of personal pleasure.  He, better than any nihilist philosopher, understood that there was no higher purpose for being, no divinity guiding his fate, no celestial rewards.  The only tragedy in life was not living it fully.

Many of Brent’s Yale classmates, although impressed with his success were a bit surprised at his lack of philanthropy or commitment to broader social issues. To be honest they were privately critical and his indifference to ‘giving back’.  A Yale education conferred not only privilege but responsibility.  Brent of course had no time for such reflections, enjoyed the company of his colleagues, and went back to New York as happy as ever with his life.

“What ever happened to Brent Linins?”, asked an old friend whom I had known since Yale.

“Nothing”, I replied. “He has retired to St. Bart’s and is living with a Sierra Leonean princess. I think his Yale days are over.”

I always liked and admired Brent Linins, the only true individual I have ever known.  He was a man of philosophy without ever speaking of it. He lived as pure and uncomplicated a Nietzschean life as the philosopher himself.  He had no need for explanation, justification, or context.  He was my hero.


Avoid Unpleasantness–We’re Too Emotionally Fragile

In a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article, Judith Shulevitz writes about the emotional fragility of college students and how they are influencing administrators to help keep trauma away.

At Oxford’s Christ Church College last November, for example, students demanded that the dean (whose title is “censor” in Oxfordspeak) cancel a debate between two men on abortion and were “relieved” when they succeeded. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.” (Maggie Gallagher, National Review)

Christ Church College

On the other hand, as Gallagher reports, Chris Hernandez, a cop and former combat Marine says:

If your psyche is so fragile you fall apart when someone inadvertently reminds you of “trauma,” especially if that trauma consisted of you overreacting to a self-interpreted racial slur, you need therapy. . . . I must be old-fashioned, but I always thought coming to terms with pain was part of growing up. I’ve never expected anyone to not knock on my door because it reminds me of that terrifying morning decades ago.

It certainly seems as though we are living in a mollycoddled age, afraid of our own shadows, and pleading others to be nice. Everything is off limits – race, gender, ethnicity, physical size and characteristics, accent, religious beliefs, and moral judgment. Bullying, which is no more than ugly duckling natural selection and a preparation for the tough adult life ahead, is outlawed.  Shaming, the best way to enforce conformity to majority norms, is considered hurtful and unfair. 

At the same time, public discourse has never been more divisive. Liberals have no problem mocking Christian fundamentalists, openly and aggressively criticizing their ignorance and retrograde beliefs. Steam from conservative Southern boilers is scalding when it comes to Washington progressives. Left and Right lambaste each other online, on the stump, and in every political forum available.  There is no concern for political correctness when it comes to calling out the political opposition.  Why then, do we tread so lightly when it comes to individuals?

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The cult of diversity is a good place to start.  In primary school every child is taught that they are special, each gifted with a unique talent or ability.  A student may be as dumb a a knot on a tree, but praised for his ability to jump or color within the lines.  No student should be ragged, razzed, or even mildly criticized.  Self-esteem is more important than academic performance, and no one’s feeling should be hurt.

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In higher grades, awareness of race, gender, and ethnicity is reinforced; and children are put into these arbitrary categories and encouraged to define themselves by them. No one is allowed to impugn, criticize, or mock any other. They are sacrosanct and untouchable. Open discussion of the persistent ineptitude of black communities to right themselves is forbidden. Challenges to conservative fundamentalism and Biblical absolutism not allowed. Discussions of the social implications of gay marriage or the moral considerations of abortion are off the table.

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Members of each group are told that their beliefs are valid, right, universally defensible, and therefore immune and protected.  This sense of righteous entitlement continues in college where progressive theology is pervasive.  Defamatory, insulting, and ‘hateful’ speech is outlawed. Lecturers are screened to keep the campus a debate-free zone, one which can remain philosophically pure but isolated and insulated from contentious debate.

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Parents, too must share the blame for emotional fragility.  They have become risk-averse and over-protective of their children while at the same time promoting them shamelessly regardless of their ability or talents. Intimidating parents demand good grades and special attention.  They are quick to cry racism or reverse favoritism, and are unremitting in their demands. They have an exaggerated and fantastical opinion of their children, and want to shield them from criticism and promote them at all costs.  Again, it is no wonder that children grow up with an unrealistic self-appraisal.

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Finally, American culture is all about happiness, positivism, and good feeling. Death and dying are no-no topics – morbid, negative, and depressing.  Moral values and religious faith are considered the bedrock of American values and should never be challenged.  The righteousness of American political action is the basis for patriotism and love of country. A belief in American exceptionalism shields us from European realism. Our long history of isolation has allowed us to be simplistic and comfortable in our assessment of international affairs. 

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The irony of all this self-protective and insulating behavior is to drive resentment, hostility, and aggression underground. Virulent racist, misogynist, and prejudiced sentiments do not disappear simply because a liberal establishment outlaws them by diktat. In every home in America, every private club, and every self-selective enclave such sentiments are expressed.  They will disappear  only when social equality is achieved, and if history is any guide, that is unlikely to happen.  Human society has been stratified, unequal, suspicious, and hostile ever since the first human settlements. 

Children will continue to be artificially protected and coddled until risk-aversion erodes enterprise; self-esteem degrades academic performance; and diversity retards assumption of moral responsibility.  The country cannot maintain its intellectual and economic superiority unless the constraints which limit children’s will, ambition, and energy are removed.  Not all people are equal, the fittest survive, and the most talented and able rule.  A reconfiguration of childhood rearing and education is needed to focus on these essential, unmediated realities.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Rumor, Innuendo, And The Nature Of Neighbors

“Garbage in, garbage out”, said Blaine’s mother when she saw a story he had written about the neighbors next door. “And I’m not referring to your writing.  I’m talking about the Kitters”, who everyone knew were ne’er-do-well degenerates. “Anything anyone writes about them will have to come out reeking and putrid.  What did we do to deserve neighbors like them?”

Like any family the Fandos had moved to the suburbs looking for more house for the money, a roof over the cars, and decent schools.  They got all that, and although the High Meadows was not exactly high-class and far from the gated communities of Hilton Head, it would do fine. 

Hilton Head

As a matter of fact Marge Fando had no clue about the golf clubs, tennis courts, croquet lawns, and multi-million dollar homes of these exclusive enclaves.  In fact she had no idea about any of the wealthy residential areas of Great Falls, McLean, Short Hills, Rancho Mirage. She had grown up ‘normal’ as she was proud of saying, daughter of a mill worker and school teacher, who married at least slightly up to an accountant, and who had managed a small second-hand clothing store in the city.  She had done quite well for herself, worked hard for a living, and brought up two children who had turned out well.

McLean home

Blaine, the writer, had always been a pill, a “rambunctious trouble-maker”, his grade school teacher had noted on his report card, which meant that he was always in high spirits, snooping in other people’s things, and leaving cryptic notes in them. “Is it true?” was one, that made sense only when paired with “Or false”, left a week later, and finally, “Does it really matter?”

“It shows an existential streak”, said his father; but the teacher wasn’t happy with the remark since one of the students – humorless Janie Simmons - had claimed harassment and under the new rules the alleged infraction had to be addressed.

In any case Blaine wrote stories about the neighbors, most of which he made up, but there was always a lot of truth because he noticed things and scribbled them down in his notebook creating a composite of the target family. “Extra vodka bottles in the trash…discarded Bible…why would anyone throw that away?….cat food tins but no cat…bloodied bandages….phone bills with repeated calls to Minneapolis…”.

Helen Flutie woke to the sound of dishes being washed.  She was surprised because there was always a pile of them in the sink and no one in the family seemed to care….

Bibles discarded

This bit of information Blaine had gotten by hoisting himself up on the trellis outside the Kitters’ kitchen window.  The sink was not only piled up with dirty dishes, but the counters were gross and disgusting, ants had swarmed around the bits of apple, lumps of mushy cereal, and smears of peanut butter and had formed a supply line into a crack behind the faucet, into the foundation, and out the back wall under his feet.

She noticed the empty, warm folds of the bed where her husband Frank slept.  “It must be him”, she thought. “But at 3am?”. She heard the sound of crockery smashing and a loud, long wail. “Why has He forsaken me?”

This part of the story was based on the discarded Bible and the frequent calls to the Mayo Clinic. Mr. Kitter had terminal cancer, finally confirmed by the extensive tests that had been run, and in a moment of angst and fear, he had thrown away his Bible, convinced that there was no God, for why would he allow suffering?

The pain was worse, deep down in his gut, and Frank Kitter saw the pile of dirty dishes as a symbol of pain and suffering – spiritual detritus in the form of crockery – and he knew that he had to destroy them.  He picked up each piece – a chipped cup, a stained saucer, and a greasy serving platter – smirked, and sent it flying into the far wall, smashing the porcelain owls his wife had neatly arranged as tacky sentinels of the feeding trough.

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Ever since Blaine’s mother read her son’s story, she wondered if any of it could be true. Frank Kitter looked fine, even dapper, as he left the house every morning (Marge peered through the curtains so she wouldn’t be seen, and ducked back if he looked her way).  He always wore a clean, starched white shirt, tailored suit, and new Florsheims and gave no sign of the godless anxiety that her son had written about.

Her Kitter family composite was based on rumor and innuendo.  Whereas her son was a little Peeping Tom, she could never bring herself to invade people’s privacy; but she could keep her eyes and ears open. There were whispers at church that Frank Kitter was gay.  It was one thing to dress snappily for work, but those outfits he wore on Saturday afternoon! They were as swishy as anything Liberace ever wore, and if you walked past the driveway after he had left, you could still smell the slightly feminine scent of his cologne. Others dismissed that rumor and said that he indeed have a lover but a female one; and that despite his good and conservative taste in professional attire, he simply was out of touch with casual wear and dressed like a fag simply because he didn’t know any better.

The rumor was that because of her husband’s trysts and continual infidelities, his wife had become an alcoholic, and the regular appointments every Thursday at 5pm could only be AA.  She needed those meetings to keep her on the wagon, and so like clockwork she headed out in her Subaru, turning left towards Farmington where the AA’s Hartford County Chapter met.

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It was impossible to keep track of the many conflicting stories about the Kitter children.  One was a slut, the other pious and ready to enter the Convent of Jesus and Mary, the third a dope dealer who peddled meth to the Polacks on Broad Street.

To an outsider, the Kitter family displayed none of the behavior that would suggest such dysfunction.  What the natives saw as surreptitious and suspicious (Bobby Kitter was seen on a street corner on Broad Street one winter evening, huddled with another boy) could easily have been explained otherwise.  It was a Saturday afternoon, dark and cold, but the boys could have been going to confession at St. Mary’s the biggest Catholic church in New Brighton with a reputation, thanks to its young priests, of being more forgiving and understanding. 

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Jennifer was no slut, only naturally sensual as some young women are. Although not particularly pretty in an Elle way, she had a natural sexual allure that was obvious to men and women alike.  The kitchen may not have looked so distressed all the time, but only after a messy sleepover or teenage party.  The vodka bottles the result of housecleaning, and the regular left turns to Farmington only for bridge dates

“Rumor and innuendo are nothing more than textual exegesis”, wrote a Post-modern, deconstructionist professor at Duke. “A natural human instinct to reorder the world according to personal observation.  There is no such thing as truth in such a world, but only composite realities. The best way to understand the behavior of others is to build the mosaic with as many fragments as possible.”

I never bought this academic double-speak.  People simply like to feel superior, and the easiest way to do so is to make things up.  An abstemious family can snicker at the vodka bottles in the trash.  A reserved and demure family sees sexual profligacy over the hedges and everywhere. Anyone straggling in to Mass just before the Consecration must have just crawled out of an illicit bed. Strange hours are signs of dereliction and social indifference.

Our next door neighbor insisted that the Lebanese couple across the street had poisoned their dog; and once that rumor got started, no one on the block could look at either of them without thinking of poor Belinda who one morning coughed up green bile, lay down on her bed and expired. 

Explosive yells and yelps were heard in the summer coming out of the upstairs windows of a house four doors down, and the neighbors were sure that it was because of domestic violence.  After the family left and the truth came out – the man had suffered from both Tourette’s Syndrome and sleep apnea; and the combination of the two was the cause of the commotion.  The sleep apnea had woken him up with a start and the Tourette’s kicked in.  His loud barking and shouting of violent obscenities was no more than an expression of his disease.  If he and his wife had preferred air conditioning and kept the windows closed, no one would have heard anything and the Smythes would have been considered model citizens and neighbors.

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I can only imagine what the neighbors have made of me and my family. Lord knows Blaine Fando would have had plenty to write about although we have been models of rectitude and proper socialization. Of course every family thinks this way, but the curiosity and inventiveness of neighbors is limitless.  Each family on our block has a story, each invented, all subjective creations, all twisted composites based on completely innocent events like bottles in the trash.  An outsider listening to them might well think that a circus freak show had come to town and settled in Fairmount University Park.