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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good Manners

Kazunori Nozawa, one of the world’s premier sushi chefs, retired from his restaurant in New York City after 47 years. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/dining/kazunori-nozawa-of-sushi-nozawa-in-los-angeles-is-set-to-retire.html?src=dayp Patrons can no longer witness his ballet with a sushi knife; his elegant pirouettes and the graceful movements of a dancer combined with a tunnel-vision intensity.  All fish were not only sliced to the perfect, unique thinness appropriate for their flesh and contours, but done with the precision and speed of a laser. His intermezzo creations were simple but elegant placed before you at just the right time, perhaps after you have let the last bit of soft, velvety uni melt in your mouth.  They were miniature architectural masterpieces, little towers of radish and tiny bell flowers, or one piece of marinated fish garnished with a cross of dark green seaweed.

There is nothing like sushi for its clean, brisk, sea taste; or the buttery silkiness of toro, salmon, or yellowtail; or the pop of fishy, savory, ikura. I always eat sushi alone, and I always close my eyes as soon as the full flavor of fish and vinegary rice fill my mouth.  The taste, the texture, the blend of ingredients cannot be disturbed.  Sushi is a singular pleasure, one of the greatest discoveries of culinary history.  Once at a sushi bar, I only stop when I think I should not when my appetite says I have had enough. Neither the clickety-clack of the internal calculator, ringing up hundreds of dollars, nor feeling satisfied can stop me.  Only some sense of obligation – I am eating up the mortgage payments, spending ten times the normal lunch price – slows me; or the image of my Program Assistants eating wraps at Quiznos. 

One time a sushi chef did stop me.  After I had ordered three rounds and showed no sign of slowing up, did he say, politely but firmly, “Don’t you think you have had enough?”.  I obviously had gone way beyond the limits of Japanese propriety when it came to dining.  This interdiction came at a time when Makoto had just opened, its clientele was all Japanese, and when a gaijin was a rarity.  I suspect that he would have berated me five years later when the restaurant got so popular that the sushi rarely was made with fish, and that the atmosphere – the howled greetings and good-byes, the geisha-looking waitresses, and the formal sushi chefs behind the polished wood bar – dismally compensated for the exotic delights of real, fresh, artistically-prepared nigiri

Mr. Nozawa was also known for his strict discipline.  He, like me, felt that sushi – any good food for that matter – should be eaten with no distractions.  Patrons should look at him, quietly, as they would listen to Heifetz or Rubenstein, with respect, admiration for his artistry, and awe at the beauty and elegance of his creations.  Murmurs of appreciation among diners was the only conversation that he tolerated.

“I feel I’m responsible for teaching Americans what the etiquette is when eating at these kinds of places,” Mr. Nozawa said. “It’s customary in Japan to give the chef their full respect while dining in their venue. I have never appreciated people who can’t respect the art or the food itself when they come to this place. Disrupting the experience. Talking too loud. Not having good manners. I hated it when my customers who displayed great etiquette were disrupted in their dining experience by people talking loud.”

All of which got me thinking about manners in general. I had been brought up well enough, I think, and I don’t remember any special hectoring from my mother other than “Keep your elbows off the table”; but I was sure that whatever manners I had must have eroded after almost ten years eating at prep school, college, and university dining halls, when my wife – very politely and carefully-  suggested that I was eating like an animal in a zoo.  According to her I was hunched over my food, shoveled it in, ate with my mouth open, waved my fork around like an orchestra leader’s baton, flicking food around the dining room, smeared my clean cloth napkin with swaths of chicken grease and salad dressing, picked food off the serving platters, and far worse.  

Although I had been raised properly and went to the best schools, my era was one where certain habits – such as manners – were considered bourgeois.  Manners were reserved for the court of Louis XVI and we know what happened to his head, removed by the uneducated and mannerless, but democratically spirited rabble.

My manners took a turn for the worse during my many years travelling in the Third World. In Africa I felt very much at home because picking bits of fish and scooping handfuls of couscous out of a common pot was what one did as well as sucking the delicious juice from the chicken ti bou dienne off my fingers.  I liked Indian-style eating – sit around chatting for a couple of hours, belly up to the serving table, pile your plate high, and scarf down the alu gobhi, chicken murgh masala, and dhal makkani in minutes.  Belching was also permitted, although not in the best homes. My daughter could get through half of a belch alphabet when she was ten, and my poor wife could only groan, “Why did you teach her that?”.

I can’t blame my bad manners wholly on foreign culture.  I often ate alone on my two- and three-week in-and-out Lone Ranger consulting trips, so dining was rarely a leisurely, candle-lit affair.  I would search out the hotel buffets where I could put my Indian years to good use.  Before even sitting down at the table, I would fill my plate with meat, fish, vegetables.  Before even pulling in my chair all the way I had wolfed half my plate. 

My children in their early and middle years of course imitated my manners, such as they were.  It was far easier to slouch, scarf, suck, and wipe than to sit up straight, hand in the lap, cut properly, etc.  My son, catching on very quickly once asked why he should sit up straight.  His mouth was so far from his food.  “Because it is good manners”, my wife replied.

“Actually you have a point”, I said to my son.  My wife looked on quizzically. “Tomorrow I will get that old kiddie chair from the basement for you to sit on.  Then your mouth will be exactly at the level of your plate and you can just shovel the food in”.  He looked at me for a moment, wondering if I could possibly, hopefully, be telling the truth.  It was so plausible, reasonable; but somehow not right.  He darted a look to my wife who was grimacing.  “I’m kidding”, I said. 

“You always lie to us”, he replied angrily. 

“No”, I said, I test you.  That’s the way you will learn fact from fiction”.

One day, both my children and I were again hunched over our food.  It was like a perverse orchestra with many parts.  The oboes picked at their food with their fingers.  The violins chewed with their mouths open.  The bassoons shoveled it in and alphabet-belched.

“This is disgusting”, said my wife. “I can’t stand to look at you!”

“We’re just eating”, replied my son, innocently.

“Yeah, we’re just eating, Mommy”, echoed my daughter.

“You’re not eating, you’re feeding”, my wife retorted.  “That’s not food, it’s fodder.  We might as well install a trough outside and have you pigs eat out there”. Actually, I had thought of this when my daughter was very little, eating in her high chair, flinging food at the walls, dropping it on the floor, messing her bib, pants, and shoes.  “Why don’t we feed her in the bathtub”, I suggested to my wife. “Let her eat however she wants, and then we’ll hose her and the tub down together”. 

One evening after a particularly offensive mannerless meal, my wife, in total exasperation pleaded, “Can’t you please sit up straight and eat properly?  Please?”

“Why should we?”, asked my son.  “Daddy said it was bourgeois”.  Oops.

“You should do it for me!  I don’t care how badly you embarrass yourselves when you are out of this house, but here eat properly out of respect for me.  I’m the one who has to sit across from you and see your gross, slovenly eating.  Not you.  You’re doing it and I’m seeing it, and it is disgusting”.

Silence.  The real reason for manners had hit.  Respect and consideration for others, for the food, for the social experience.  After that, all our manners improved – not immediately, mind you.  It took more than a few weeks to cure the years of indifference; but gradually, the hunched shoulders and torso stoop disappeared, serving forks were used, mouths were patted clean rather than smeared, and fingers were reserved for corn and bread, nothing more.

So I thought of the purgatory we had put my well-mannered  wife through.  She had been infinitely patient and never for a moment considered going over to the dark, easy side to the trough.  Women are supposed to be the repository for and guardian of traditional mores; and this case was no different.  Manners, in the scope of things - in the long, difficult, and often turbulent years of child-rearing are but one, minor piece; but in retrospect an important one – one that has as much to do with being socialized as looking good at the table of Louis XVI. 

I have to admit that when no one is looking, when I am cooking my own dinner with no one to join me, I will eat standing over the sink, shoveling it in and letting the bits and pieces scatter as I push the food in, falling directly into the Disposal; but the point is manners are for when people are looking.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Billy and Needles - New Brighton Socialists

It wasn’t long after Billy Barnes got yanked from the school play that he was caught with his pants down in the woods behind Mrs. Roberts’ house with Nancy Bosh.  He had no answer when his father demanded to know what the hell was he doing back there.  Billy was very communicative as a child, and in fact didn’t know how to shut up, which is why he got the lead role for the lead in the Sixth Grade play, Captain Martin, written a local playwright.  The playwright was a fan of Jack London, and taken with the socialist sentiments and rhetoric in The Sea Wolf and decided to adapt it for the stage.  Admittedly, the New Brighton stage was not much and catered more to Polish plays about the old country than anything so provocative as Captain Martin, but it was a stage nonetheless; and although Herman Neville had hoped for more than the Vance School Sixth Grade, it was still a premiere of sorts, and got some attention in the local press.

The only reason why the play was put on by Mrs. Olsson’s class was because she was a Socialist and Herman Neville’s lover.  This was the early 50s, and they could only meet in musty basements with a few other believers like Needles Fogelson who got his nickname when he was in grade school because he was tiny.  He had to constantly explain to his classmates that he had a rare digestive disorder and he could only eat cake. In fact he had a nervous disorder which gave him the shakes as soon as he got within five feet of the dinner table, and despite his mother’s attempts to feed him pot roast, spaghetti, or latkes, the only thing he would touch would be cake.  To get some nutrition in him, Mrs. Fogelson loaded the cake batter with butter and eggs, which sounds good in principle, but made the cake leaden.  It was more like eating custard, but Needles didn’t care.  It tasted good and he didn’t get the shakes. 

New Brighton was not a place where you admitted that you or any other member of your family had a psychological problem.  There were no psychiatrists, and if you went totally off the wall you went to a referring physician in Bristol, then off to the State Mental Hospital.  Being wacko was no picnic. 

In any case, Needles eventually grew out of his ‘problem’, but it took years of progression, graduating from sodden cake/custard to sweet potato pie to sweet potatoes to regular potatoes to French fries, and eventually to a normal meal.  More or less normal would be a better way of describing it because Needles had this thing about ‘bits’ in his food – a tiny fragment of a nut that strayed into the frying pan and onto his plate; or a strand of cheese that had not been grated into a fine powder and blended into the spinach (Mrs. Fogelson was tirelessly diligent in her responsibility to give Needles a balanced diet).  He even freaked out over pepper flecks that had somehow found their way from the edge of the McCormick’s tin to his food.  Actually, despite his progression and progress, Needles always had some kind of food tic.  He went through phases.  He would only eat fried eggs and only if they were cooked until the yolk was hard and the white rubbery and floppy.  Or he absolutely could not eat the crusts of bread.  He would bore out the soft innards of Kaiser rolls, peel bagels, and meticulously slice off the edges of Wonder Bread.

How all of this morphed into Socialism no one knew, except that maybe his empathy for the poor and downtrodden had something to do with his exclusion from any social group in New Brighton. At the school cafeteria he sat in a corner picking away at his food, putting it into his mouth so that the tines of the fork would not touch his lips, dividing the meal into exactly ten portions.  He was so tiny (this was before the days of Human Growth Hormone could be piped into his veins to bulk him up and give him some height) that gym teachers gave him a ball to bounce away from the other children.  He had to wait until the rest of the class thundered upstairs to Latin so he wouldn’t get trampled.  No wonder he ended up a Socialist.

The playwright, Mrs. Olsson, and Needles Fogelson were perfectly suited for each other.  They came to Socialism via very different but personally needy paths.  Mrs. Olsson’s father was a Lutheran preacher with the rigidity and ironclad morality of a New England Calvinist.  There was no give in this stern, unforgiving man who would have thrown the likes of Needles Fogelson down the coal chute before he would tolerate his selfish, egotistical behavior.  When his daughter, Margaret, entered puberty he tied,bound, corseted, and wrapped her more tightly than an Indian papoose.  Not only would her budding breasts be flattened out of sight, but he trussed her like a turkey to keep her hands and arms from making impure and provocative gestures. 

Her father was worse than the the rock-ribbed granite preachers of Nathaniel Hawthorne; more wild and fanatical than Faulkner’s Reverend McEachern who tormented Joe Christmas or his stepfather Hines who, in his demented religious vision, went after him with a shotgun. The Depression in which Margaret grew up was a sign from God that the end of the world was near, and that depravity, promiscuity, and godlessness would presage its coming.

Luckily for her, Margaret Olsson’s father fell off the roof where he was putting up a hundred lightning rods, inviting, he said, the full fury of an angry God who would hurl thunderbolts at the wicked, him included.  After his death, she and her mother moved to Akron where Margaret went to Normal School, and then to Connecticut where she got a job with the New Brighton schools.

Socialism for Margaret Olsson was the secular religion that she was denied in her youth.  Her father would have been pleased that at least some religious sentiment remained in his wayward daughter.  Her faith in the kindness, generosity, and equality of Socialism was as powerful a motivating force as the blinding and distorted religious passion of her father, just quieter, more temperate and measured.

The playwright, Herman Neville, was a different story altogether.  He was a mental drifter – an undisciplined dreamer who thought that Socialism with its lofty ideals was romantic; that theatre was romantic in its ability to distill human passion on the stage; and that the two together represented an apotheosis, a grand fulfillment of an artistic and intellectual vision.  He had no clue about Socialism or any political theory for that matter.  His plays were unformed plots within a brushy and indistinct setting.  His characters were indistinct, really only mouthpieces for his endless monologues which he thought were impassioned pleas for justice, but were just thuddingly boring ten minute rants.  His plays were no more than a series of overflowings, water pouring out of unwatched faucets and down the sink.

So Herman wrote the first draft of Captain Martin, Needles Fogelson edited, and Margaret Olsson produced it at the Vance School. She put as much energy in the play as a Broadway producer.  She was producer, director, set and costume designer, musical coordinator, and acting coach, all in one.  At the very least, the parents of the Sixth Grade would come, and because it was going to be performed on Parents' Night, many more would attend.  The message would, finally, get out to the reactionary Babbitts of New Brighton, even if it was spoken by the dismal students of the East End.

Margaret Olsson really loved Herman Neville.  When others saw in him a maddening imprecision and illogic and a total inability to make sense, she saw an ineffable spirit in touch with himself and the beauty of the poetic world of ideas and their theatrical expression.  Both Herman and Margaret were very unattractive, and unlike the true Socialists of the Thirties, eschewing fashion and style as bourgeois affectations, their frumpy, rummage sale look was unintentional.  Margaret’s hair, bound in a bun – one of the last holdovers from her trussed and corseted days – was never successful.  Grey straggles fell over her face like the beginning of the Medusa look of many years later.  Although she was a fastidious person in her personal hygiene, she always had grime under her ragged nails.  She simply forgot to take care of them.

Herman was no different and no better.  He didn’t exactly look like a bum, although some of the burghers on Main Street often mistook him for one.  He just had a tattered and disheveled look even though there was not a thread dangling from his suit jacket, nor a shirttail hanging out over his trousers.

Margaret and he had their assignations in his dingy tenement apartment on Arch Street. She went up the back fire escape and entered through the small door to his kitchen.  Some days after their lovemaking, they sat out on the fire escape in the dusk, watching the silhouettes of old industrial buildings disappear into black shapes and listening to the new arrivals from Poland yak away on their back porches and stoops. 

Their lovemaking was tender and simple.  It wasn’t as though they wanted to get it out of the way so that they could commune with each other and their ideas; but it was quick and perfunctory.  Actually, an unseen observer would have been disgusted at the sight of his bony back and spindly arms arched over her greyish body, his rhythmic humping more like the calibrated thrusts of the big water pump you could see through basement windows of Fafnir Bearing on Broad Street, cooling the lathes.

Needles Fogelson had no love life to speak of, but never expected any after the childhood he had had.  He had plenty of fantasies and tried to insert them in Captain Martin, but the playwright caught every innuendo, every oblique reference to sexual hijinks and erased them.  He accepted his lot, sublimated his passions to The Cause, and eagerly helped with the production.

Billy Barnes had the lead in the play and had his lines completely memorized.  He liked Captain Martin, although he understood absolutely nothing of what he said.  Despite Needle’s editing and moderation, he pronounced the most intellectually and dramatically garbled speeches ever.  Herman, Needles, and Margaret Olsson made no concessions to the fact that these were Sixth Grade actors and dumb ones at that.  The performance was to introduce the philistines to great ideas.  The supposedly lyrical language talked of mountains, birth, bedsteads, jousting, pillories, and visions with no rhyme or reason.  Herman’s inner eyes saw a Socialist vision in a very particular poetic way.  Needles focused only on doing his job as a good lieutenant, and Margaret, smitten with love and with The Cause thought it all made perfect sense.

On the afternoon of the performance, Billy Barnes started off well, than hit some kind of hysterical wall.  He saw Herman’s image of a great carrion bird carrying the hand of a capitalist over the heads of the damned, and began to laugh.  The absurdity and absolute ridiculousness of the play appeared to him as surprisingly as if he had actually seen some nasty bird overhead.  He repeated one line over and over again: “The bird of rotten flesh, dripping with carrion juices, flew over humanity, and dropped its decaying load”.   All he could see was this giant vulture with a bloody hand in its beak, shitting on everyone in Walnut Hill Park.  He tried to control himself, but his giggles continued, and were infectious.  The entire cast started laughing.  They too, like a contact high, had seen what Billy had seen not what poor Herman had written.  They started flapping their arms, crowing like roosters, and hopping around the stage. 

Mrs. Olsson, livid with rage, disappointment, and bitter shame grabbed Billy by the arm and roughly yanked him off the stage.  “Get up there”, she shouted to Art Michaels, the understudy.  She shoved a sheaf of papers at him and said, “Read these, you dummy”.  Art wasn’t a real understudy.  He was given the job of actually reading the play just in case, and he could fill in for anyone.  By this time, the auditorium was a circus.  Even the most prim and composed matronly mother had cracked a smile, and the rest of the parents were howling. 

The next day, Billy Barnes was asked by Nancy Bosh to play doctor with him in the woods behind Mrs. Roberts’ house.  On reflection, there probably really was no connection between being yanked from the play and having his little pecker fondled; just that the world of the pre-pubescent New Brighton-ites was far, far removed from the desperately needy adult world of Herman and his Socialist compatriots and far, far better.  Billy ended up on the railroad, and never gave a second thought to either the play or Nancy Bosh.

Body Image

This is a fascinating article about why black women feel better about their bodies than white women (http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/black-women-heavier-and-happier-with-their-bodies-than-white-women-poll-finds/2012/02/22/gIQAPmcHeR_story_2.html).  The article is interesting not only because of its specific socio-cultural focus on the black community, but because it illustrates how normative behavior is so important, and how behavioral change is so difficult. 

The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.

The most telling reason for this phenomenon, according to the author,  is the following:

In 2008, Heather Hausenblas, a University of Florida professor of exercise physiology, co-wrote a study looking at the role the media played in body image among white and black women. Both groups were exposed to the ideal tall, thin white woman’s physique, and their moods were compared before and after. White women felt badly about themselves after viewing the idealized physique; black women were unaffected. Black women “are just not comparing themselves to these white models,” Hausenblas says. Caucasian women are internalizing the images; black women are not.

Self-image is a complex phenomenon with social, cultural, physical, psychological, and historical roots. There appear to be three factors which are operating: 1) the class-income-education phenomenon where people in poor communities have higher BMIs ; and 2) the psycho-social phenomenon of conformity to the group.  Recent studies have shown that people tend towards the norm, even when it comes to weight. Bernheim and others have documented this fact.  That is, you tend towards the weight norm of the socio-economic and cultural milieu in which you live; and 3) the thesis of the author of the article – that the norms of the majority community (in this case white women) are rejected by the black minority. 

Regarding the first factor, low-income communities in the United States tend to be heavier and more obese because of: a) low income which prohibits them from purchasing higher-cost healthy foods; b) living in poor neighborhoods which are often underserved by upscale food chains such as Whole Foods which focus on organic and other ‘healthy’ options; c) low levels of education which limit an understanding of food and nutrition and the ability to negotiate claims, counterclaims, and nutritional data.

[The author of the study] attributes the higher BMI among African American women to work demands, which he says lead to fast-food lifestyles, less exercise and fewer healthful eating options in majority-black places such as Prince George’s County.

Income has always been a predominant factor in weight and image. A full-figured woman in the days of Rubens – a far cry from the svelte woman of today – was the norm, and has been during various periods of history.  Weight in poor societies (whether in 17th Century Holland or in Africa or Asia) was a sign of wealth and prosperity and therefore beauty.  Thinness today is also a sign of wealth, for trim women and men show that they have the money to afford imported fish and health spas. In low-income communities where weight gain is inevitable, given the factors indicated above, a full-bodied and –proportioned body has become the ideal.

Regarding the second factor, overweight people who live in an overweight community perceive obesity as the acceptable social norm even though they may be receiving information from the majority – commercial images, government-sponsored nutritional and health information, etc.

Middle class black communities, however, tend towards the majority (white) norms.  In Washington, for example, the many black lawyers, lobbyists, media personalities, and business executives conform to the white weight norm, and the article suggests that more black women, regardless of income or social class are beginning to look to slimmer black celebrity role models.  On the whole, however, the images of black beauty are likely to be slow to change:

[Black women] grew up listening to songs like the Commodores’s “Brick House” and hearing relatives extol the virtues of “big legs” and women with meat on their bones.

Essence and Ebony magazines offered their own visions of black beauty. The Ebony Fashion Fair took black glamour on the road. “There was no Anna Wintour saying yes or no. The aisles at church were a runway, ‘Soul Train’ was a runway, the first day of school was a runway,” Davis says. “Jet magazine began offering its beauty of the week — aspiring dental hygienists, complete with measurements — and skinny women need not apply.”

Every generation had celebratory songs blasting from the radio. “I have a very clear image of hearing the Commodores playing ‘Brick House,’ and all my cool aunties in high-waist jumpsuits got up to dance. It was an anthem for them to shine.” In the lexicon, women weren’t fat, they were “thick,” “healthy,” “big-boned.” They had “nice futures” behind them.

It is the third factor – the influence of media - which is the most complex.  Assuming that black women do in fact ignore the commercial image of svelte white women as irrelevant to their own body image, why is this true? There appear to be a number of principal factors: 1) the poor black community is still isolated from white society; and therefore individuals within it feel that white norms are irrelevant and/or unattainable; and 2) there is a more deliberate rejection of white norms regarding weight just as there has been a rejection of good black students who ‘act white’; and 3) members of this community feel that the socio-economic factors which have produced obesity are inescapable and inevitable, and that a potent psycho-social accommodation has taken place. 

Given the current focus on obesity, there are many articles, transcripts, and professional journal articles on the subject, many of which focus on black female obesity, most of which address the issues I have brought up here as well as many more.  Some are from the popular media:

1) NPR summary of radio program: “Obesity in America is a problem across the racial spectrum. But columnist Debra Dickerson suggests that African-American women are more inclined to be overweight because African-American men prefer them to be so. Dickerson defends her argument and is joined by a blogger who disagrees in this week's Behind Closed Doors.”

2) BET Online: Why Do Black Women Have the Highest Rates of Obesity in the U.S.? Kellee Terrell: "Some experts believe that poverty and lack of access to healthy foods are not the only factors in why African-American women are disproportionately large.

Others are scholarly: Explaining the Female Black-White Obesity Gap – A Decomposition Analysis of Proximal Causes, Johnston and Lee, Journal of Social Sciences.

 

 

The three factors mentioned above are suggestions based on some of this research, but a more detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article.  

In summary, this article and the studies and surveys on which it is based, offer an insightful look into behavior and behavior change, and in particular the relationship between weight and body image.  Obesity is undeniably linked to health problems, yet changing behavior to reduce weight is a complex issue of which calorie in – calorie out is but one issue. Self-image is a potent and resistant factor in this equation.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Growing Up On Commonwealth Avenue

There may have been a reason behind Barky Hampstead’s stubbornness, but we never found out what it was.  He kept pissing on Mrs. Helander’s petunias and swearing it was the cat even though she yelled at him every time she saw the perky little blossoms brown and droopy from his urine.  “Now, Barky”, she would threaten, out on the front lawn in her smock, apron, and mules, yelling across two neighbors’ yards at him.  “Don’t you dare do that again, or I’ll tell your parents”.

“But I didn’t do it”, said Barky. “It was the cat”. So Mrs. Helander crossed the two yards and banged at the screen door of the porch.  Barky’s mother, dressed to kill by comparison to the dowdy Mrs. Helander – tailored suit, silk stockings, high heels, and stylish hat – opened the door.  “Why Mrs. Helander”, she said, “What on earth is the matter?”

“It’s your…your….”., Mrs. Helander spluttered, ready to spit out “vile…uncontrolled…nasty….intemperate” but settled simply on “your son”, this being a very quiet corner of New Brighton, Connecticut in 1948 where bad adjectives stayed indoors.  As much as she hated Barky’s mother – more because she was his mother than anything she had done herself (bringing this wild wretch into the world was a sin in itself, an original sin on Commonwealth Avenue) – she could only be polite.

Mrs. Helander loved birds and watched lovingly as a robin nested in the mountain laurel outside her kitchen window.  “Look at the lovely little blue eggs”, she cooed, for a moment forgetting the hellion at her side.  The next day the eggs were gone, and she found what was left of them, gooey and drying on the basement window, shards and fragments of the eggshells littering the window well where toads, hopping in the same petunia patch that Barky had watered, had fallen down the three feet to their doom, and where their bones were littered.

Mrs. Helander, a good Catholic nearly choked with rage as she sat in church behind the Hampsteads and watched evil Barky, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer, walk solemnly up the aisle to the communion rail. “No confession can cleanse that boy of his sins”, she hissed to Mr. Helander, who was nodding off.  “He has the devil in him, and only an exorcism can cure him; and maybe not even that”.

The Hampsteads became an obsession of Frieda Helander, especially Barky’s mother who left the house two times a week looking like the cover of Collier’s, all gussied up, putting on airs, sashaying down the walk to her Desoto, a car that they certainly couldn’t afford, not on a shoe salesman’s salary.  “Bleeding that poor man to death”, Frieda thought, “and for what?”.  She had plenty of ideas such as steamy assignations at the Burritt Hotel.

“You always look so lovely, Mrs. Hampstead”, she said one summery day.  “I wish I had your sense of style”.  She smiled, but her insides were all grimace.  The smile felt stretched and false, the tilt of her head a bit too perky, and it took every ounce of self-control to keep her from yelling and spitting at her like at Hester Prynne – adulteress, fornicator, seed of Beelzebub.

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Helander.  It’s nothing really, just something cool but stylish for a warm afternoon”.

“Why that bitch”, Frieda thought.  “Right out of Gone With The Wind.  ‘Something cool but stylish’ indeed.

“I’m going to play bridge.  Do you play bridge, Mrs. Helander?  If so, you might like to join our little group.”

“Of course I don’t play bridge, you presumptuous twit”, she thought to herself, “And neither do you!”; but instead demurred, thanking her for her interest, searching for a quick repartee, something insinuatingly nasty but not too obvious, but failing dryly, mumbling something about biscuits and Harry, her husband.

“Well, then”, said Mrs. Hampstead, “I’ll be running along.  Oh…before I forget, could I ask you a small favor?  Keep an eye out for Barkley.  He’ll be fine, I’m sure.  He’s up in his room reading comics, and I’ll be back before you know it”.

The scythe of the Grim Reaper had just come a little bit closer to this corner of New Brighton.  The skies had noticeably darkened.  Frieda looked up at Barky’s window, opened halfway.  A light breeze blew across the honeysuckle bushes by the back fence and carried a sweet perfume over her, ruffled the curtains, and softly entered his room. “How could such a beautiful expression of God’s grace end up in that vile demon’s den?”, she wondered.  She was a very religious person, but felt tested every day by the Hampsteads.

Laura Hampstead did, in fact, have steamy assignations every Tuesday and Thursday, but not at the Burritt.  She drove the five miles to the Berlin farmhouse of her lover, a very youngish retired doctor who managed an apple orchard off of Route 72.  His family had money, so at 50 he got divorced and decided to pack in the house calls and rounds at New Brighton General Hospital, and do what he had always wanted to do – grow things.  He bought the orchard from a Polish family who could not keep up the payments.  The orchard, cows, and chickens could not cover the mortgage and pay for the essentials.

The doctor had fixed the place up, turned it into a rustic Currier & Ives print.  It was so quaint and perfectly New England that you could almost see the sleighs, the horses, and the hounds.  Except that it was located in the Connecticut equivalent of Crackerland – a rural, run down, poor corner of the state where old goats and broken roofs were the rule; and upscale, seasoned wood-and-maple, hearth-warmed, houses appointed with Goddard and Townsend 18th Century cabinets were the exception.

Laura Hampstead was Dr. Moore’s tart.  She was dimwitted and slow, except in bed.  She was much younger than he, and her youthful and boundless sexual energy kept him young.  He couldn’t believe his good fortune – his reputation in the community was unimpeachable since he was a scion of one of the First Families of New Brighton, the ones with second homes on the Vineyard, large but tasteful residences on the Park, and memberships at Harthaven Country Club.  As a doctor – a working professional contrasted to the genteel no-need-to-work First Families – he had a universally untarnished reputation; and what’s more this double-whammy of a pedigree insulated him from the usual gossip.  “So what if Dr. Moore has a tart visit him every Tuesday and Thursday”, the First Families said.  “He deserves it”.

Mrs. Barkley was of course not a tart.  She was simply sexually charged, and the thought of her shoe salesman husband, coming home smelling of feet and leather, was enough to make her retch.  Even at her most needy, she had to bring herself off, turning to the wall away from her snoring husband, curled in a fetal position, exciting herself until, despite her effort, bucked and moaned when she came.  Her husband, opening an eye, pulling himself awake after feeling the rocking and shaking of the mattress, never guessed what she was doing and only spluttered something incoherent about chicken or Florsheims.

It wasn’t long before Laura Barkley came on to the good doctor.  She had gone to him just before he retired, and loved his strong hands on her as he palpated her abdomen, or rubbed her neck, trying to diagnose what he thought had to be psychosomatic ailments of the beautiful Laura Hampstead.  The ailments were not psychosomatic in the true sense of the word, but they were inventions to get his hands on her in as many different parts of her body as possible.  Since he was a good and responsible professional, he dismissed any thought of sexual overtures, but since he was divorced and ready to start a new life, he gave in, saw her complaints as what they were, and invited her to his newly-renovated farmhouse. 

Their sex was heroic.  Dr. Moore had no idea that this is what sex was all about.  Although his wife was nowhere near as stagnant and unresponsive as Laura’s husband, sex with her was almost as perfunctory; and, unlike Laura he remained a good sexual spouse until not long before their separation.  ‘Money hath its privileges’, he knew, and he could change wives like Henry VIII just because he was tired of them. 

Dr. Moore and Laura Hampstead were simply acrobatic in their lovemaking.  She was insatiable, coming three, four, even five times, each loudly and ecstatically.  It was good, the doctor thought, that they were way out in the country, for her screams and howls got the dogs barking in the next farmyard a quarter of a mile away. 

Meanwhile, back on Commonwealth Avenue, Mrs. Helander waited with fear and anxiety for Barkley Hampstead to get tired reading Captain Marvel, and to come out into the summery afternoon.  Every day it was something different.  One Tuesday he and an equally vile friend blew up Mrs. Fox’s trash can with explosive fireworks that he had saved from the Fourth of July.  They were the kind that went off underwater, so he sneaked around the side of Mrs. Fox’s house, filled the old zinc trash can full of water, dropped in three XXX Ashcans, and scurried behind the hedge between the two properties to watch.

In about ten seconds, there was a massive explosion, a great, thudding boom as the water in the trash can expanded, burst its seams, and blasted up and onto Mrs. Fox’s porch.  All scraggly-looking and dressed only in a ratty bathrobe, Mrs. Fox, yanked awake from her afternoon nap by the explosion, threw open the upstairs window and hollered, “Goddam you, Barkley Hampstead.  Goddam you!”.  But she, like Mrs. Helander could do nothing.  Mrs. Hampstead, if she was not off fucking her doctor, was at the beauty parlor or actually playing bridge; and Mr. Hampstead was so tired and dispirited by his horrible job of fitting New Brighton matrons with ugly shoes, that he simply didn’t give a shit about his son

Another day, Mrs. Helander heard the anguished cries of the Potters’ cat which Barky Hampstead and his vile band were chasing with a hoe, hacking away at it as it scrambled over the rose garden, under the privet hedge, and up the oak tree.  It was so badly mutilated that Mr. Potter had to take it to the Animal Hospital where, Mrs. Helander supposed, it was disposed of because she never saw it again. 

Barky loved rock fights, and he taunted the neighborhood kids to engage him.  They went up to the new road that was being built behind his house, squared off, and fired.  Barky practiced his throwing every day, knew exactly the size, heft, and feel of the best rocks – the ones that would fly most true and do the most damage.  One Sunday morning in church, Mrs. Helander noticed Billy Henninger with a great big, egg-sized, tumorous-looking bump on his forehead.  It was all purple and yellowish, with red streaks.  Dr. Moore had had to sew up split scalps and the ragged cuts which Barky, alternating between the round, symmetrical rocks for raising welts and the jagged, slimmer kinds that curved and slashed, inflicted on cheeks, arms, and heads.

In short, my little corner of New Brighton, so bland and conservative on the outside, was nothing more than the usual, predictable mess of rumor, lies, innuendo, sexual doings, indifferent husbands, and irremediably bad kids. The saga of Barky, his parents, Mrs. Helander and the rest eventually came to a close.  Barky got hauled off by the New Brighton police.  There were no progressive social service agencies in those days to ‘understand the needs of troubled youth’; and Barky got locked up in reform school.  His parents did not protest.

The torrid affair between the doctor and Mrs. Hampstead ended, as most do; and when he got tired of his tart and sent her packing, he found another lover.  So did she, but when the comatose Mr. Hampstead finally realized what was going on, they moved to another state, leaving Barky to finish his sentence in Meriden. 

By the time of this dĂ©nouement, Mrs. Helander was too old to care; but she did appreciate being able to walk into her back yard, smell the lilacs, honeysuckle, and roses without the menace of Barky Hampstead.  The neighborhood changed – new residents, some additions to the older houses.  It became more uniform and predictable.  Fewer Barkies and more serious college-bound students. 

I once told my son about the rock fights with Barky Hampstead.  “You actually had rock fights?”, he asked, incredulous but with admiration.  “Yes”, I said. “But that was a long time ago.”  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Nature of Innovation–The Bell Labs Lesson

An important article in today’s New York Times (2.26.12) by John Gertner http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/innovation-and-the-bell-labs-miracle.html?pagewanted=1&ref=opinion chronicles the rise of Bell Labs, the institution responsible for some of the most important technological discoveries of the last century:

Consider what Bell Labs achieved. For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. On any list of its inventions, the most notable is probably the transistor, invented in 1947, which is now the building block of all digital products and contemporary life. These tiny devices can accomplish a multitude of tasks. The most basic is the amplification of an electric signal. But with small bursts of electricity, transistors can be switched on and off, and effectively be made to represent a “bit” of information, which is digitally expressed as a 1 or 0. Billions of transistors now reside on the chips that power our phones and computers.

The silicon solar cell, the precursor of all solar-powered devices, was invented [at Bell]. Two of its researchers were awarded the first patent for a laser, and colleagues built a host of early prototypes.  They created and developed the first communications satellites; the theory and development of digital communications; and the first cellular telephone systems; and they built the first fiber optic cable systems

The article goes on to suggest how Bell Labs was able to achieve such a startling degree of innovation and contrasts it with today’s Silicon Valley.  The difference he says is that while Facebook and Google are all based on ‘breaking things’, lightning speed and response, Bell took its time and not only developed new ideas but applied them to products:

[The experience of Bell Labs] shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

It is worth looking at the specific elements of Bell Labs that contribute to innovation:

1. Physical Proximity. Kelly (the founder) was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do.  Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof – purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.

2. Aspiration. Bell Labs was sometimes caricatured as an ivory tower. But it is more aptly described as an ivory tower with a factory downstairs. It was clear to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organization was to transform new knowledge into new things.

3. Organization. Kelly set up Bell Labs’ satellite facilities in the phone company’s manufacturing plants, so as to help transfer all these new ideas into things. But the exchange was supposed to go both ways, with the engineers learning from the plant workers, too.

4. Freedom. Some of his scientists had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorized their work.

5. Time. One might see [allowing years to develop a product] as impossible in today’s faster, more competitive world.  Nobody had to meet benchmarks to help with quarterly earnings; nobody had to rush a product to market before the competition did.

Gertner asks what innovation should accomplish:

By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job  “better, or cheaper, or both.” However ‘innovation’ can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the [Bell Lab]type, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

He concludes:

To consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

The experience of Bell Labs, however, cannot be replicated because it is from an earlier era – one of big monopolies like Bell Telephone which, without competition, could afford to spend money and enormous amounts of time in basic research.  Bell did not tell the researchers at the Lab to come up with a laser, or the digital basis for communication.  It simply asked them to work within a general context – how to make communication faster, more efficient, and more economical.  From there, the workers were on their own. While the article does not spell out the innovative process at Google or Facebook, it suggests that it is more narrow, focusing on the smaller steps – e.g. a new phone app – than the larger, more fundamental and revolutionary changes to improve communications in ten years.

I am not so sure this is true.  Every day I read about computer ‘chips’ that are microns small.  Recently, a discovery was made that will enable one atom or a microscopic fragment of DNA to be today’s transistor.  These discoveries are not made in one, giant laboratory, but in university laboratories all over the United States. Innovation in basic research as well as in product design is now done by thousands of smaller institutions –start-ups and individual laboratories.  The market seems to be working well.  The research laboratories are working for profit – to be able to patent their new invention and realize royalties whenever their new discovery is used by Apple or Google. Start-ups work feverishly to outdo the competition for new product design and applications.  

While this narrows the focus of research facilities somewhat, and gives them a shorter time horizon, the end result appears to be the same.  The same is true for the product designers and manufacturers.  Apple, for example, recently upgraded its I-Phone.  This was not a product that would enable you to levitate – the quantum leap of technology sought by Bell Labs – but it did improve the camera, add advanced voice recognition software, and other features.  The voice software already existed as a Siri app, but the innovation of Apple was to integrate it into the I-Phone’s operating system.

Some of the other elements of Bell’s success are still important today, but in a different context. The functional link insisted upon by Kelly between ideas and things is still important, but Steve Job’s insistence on a glass screen, for example, heavier but better than a  plastic one that scratched easily – he almost instinctively understood the very nature of the device he had built and exactly how consumers used and valued it – was translated into a product within weeks by outsourced, inexpensive, disciplined, and tireless Chinese factory workers.

Kelly’s argument for an integrated workplace is still valuable and the basic idea has been expanded, adapted and modified for a modern setting.  Not only are workplaces more integrated, but they are integrated across product lines. A variety of creative people  working on different ideas and products, but all in the innovative phase of thinking, are put in proximity.  Entrepreneurs have understood that the very process of innovation is critical and common to all, and that by sharing space and thinking, all design work will be enhanced. 

Kelly’s insistence on two-way flow of communication has been a staple of management for decades, but with limited success.  Kelly understood that actual face-to-face communication was not essential, but that communication between people in different areas of the world or different stages of the design or manufacturing process was essential.  We are adapting slowly to virtual communication links.  The live, ‘real’ handshake, and ‘look-‘em-in-the-eye’ mentality still persists, but economics if nothing else will force a change.

Innovation is such a fascinating subject because as President Obama has said in his recent State of the Union address: “Innovation is what America has always been about.” Over the last 100 years, America has been the uncontested leader in innovation in manufacturing, finance, technology and communications, among other important areas; and, despite the remarkable and revolutionary new ideas and products that come from America, the future may not be as productive. 

Our educational system, for example, is still mired in the 19th century.  Innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, and risk-taking are discouraged rather than encouraged.  Religious conservatism has held back what could have already been dramatic life-saving innovations in stem cell technology.  Public outcry over what critics consider the negative impact of genetically modified products has slowed innovation which could help feed the world.  The practical potential of the spectacular discoveries concerning DNA, such as the understanding of the human genome and recombinant DNA techniques, have been held in check because of 18th century conceptions of human nature and reason.  Human nature itself is not outside the reach of an engineered genome.

Innovation, therefore, is possible only when the most favorable environment is possible within our very diverse democratic society – where politics, religion, philosophy, organization, economics, and genius coincide.  This conjuncture is very uncommon; and that is why the increased attention paid to innovation is critical and essential.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Neighborhood Games

“Would you like to come in and have a look around the house?”, asked Joan Taylor perkily.  She and her husband Jack had just remodeled.  There were still bits and pieces of shingling, cedar wood, and gutter copper by the back steps.  “No thanks”, I said, not wanted yet another traipse through bumped out dining rooms, over varnished parquet floors, invited to gaze admiringly at bathroom skylights which had to have been installed to give more natural light to read when you shat, because there was already plenty of brightness from track lighting.  I had nodded appreciatively at shiny new Crane sinks, specially molded in pink faux-Carrera marble; or at five speed Moet showerheads, designed to caress or stimulate like gym jets. 

I had been towed down to refinished basements, up to new third-floor offices, through butcher-block kitchens with new Viking stoves as big as a dumpster, floor-to-ceiling refrigerator-freezers roomy enough to store moose meat; sewing rooms, dens, workrooms with complete sets of Craftsman tools in neat rows above the workbench.  I had even been given a tour of the plumbing and electrical systems.  I was sick of it.  Yet I knew once the words had left my mouth, I had committed the worst faux pas of the Spring Park neighborhood. You don’t say no to house tours.

Our neighborhood was uniformly professional.  “No boat trailers on the lawns here”, said one real estate agent after we entered this corner of the Washington upper middle class  and left the much more modestly priced bungalows in the bottom lands by the River.  Justice Department lawyers, World Bank technicians, Capitol Hill aides – all socially liberal, inclined to conservatism in certain matters like reducing the onerous tax rate of DC, but Democratic, community- and family-minded, and reasonably well-off. 

A world of difference, however, separated us from the residents of Park Hill across the avenue where lived ambassadors, Senators, inherited wealth from the old families of Washington, members of the Cosmos Club and the Society of the Cincinnati, “an organization in the United States and France founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the Revolutionary War officers who fought for American independence”, but really the last redoubt of WASP culture in the area.  We were country cousins compared to them.  Our houses, the value of which was inflated each year even in down times thanks to the incessant in inexorable expansion of government, was still half that of theirs.  Most of our children went to the local public school while all theirs went to private.  Their cars were newer, more expensive.  I am not envious, just admiring.  My favorite walk for thirty years has been called the Park Hill Walk, meandering as it did past elegant Georgian mansions, manicured lawns, professional landscaping, and quiet, leafy streets.  The rich know how to take care of their property.

For a fleeting moment, I had almost accepted Joan Taylor’s offer.  Could it be that the coquettish Reverend’s wife was giving me a veiled invitation not to see her bathroom fixtures but her bedroom?

Joan was the wife of the priest of the local Episcopalian Church.  “Why don’t they just shut up and admit they’re Catholics”, my mother had said; and it’s true that ceremonies of the High Church are very much Rome with its vestments, acolytes, communion,and ashes at the beginning of Lent; but old money always seemed to be Episcopalian, and there was the difference.  In any case, Jack Taylor ruled the roost at St. Paul’s; but in his blue jeans and work shirt in the alleys of our neighborhood, he seemed like just another liberal professional.  He was never sanctimonious – only Baptists and Methodists are ever guilty of that – and always pleasant and gregarious, all important in a ministry.  What bothered me was that he was so ordinary. 

Venal may be too strong a word, but Jack Taylor certainly approached it in his constant references to his remodeled house, new Saab, and successful children.  I don’t know what I was expecting.  I guess the Vicar of Christ label for Catholic priests – there was supposedly a direct line from Christ to Peter to the Pope and down the line to the parish priest – must have gotten a toehold early and kept its grip; for I always believed that a man of God was supposed to always be a man of God, not nattering on about mortgage rates, trash pickup, and New England prep schools.  In a weird way I wished that Jack Taylor was a fire-breathing Southern Baptist preacher rather than a bowl of oatmeal.

Joan Taylor may have wished for some fire-breathing as well, for there was an obvious and evident diffidence in her relationship with her husband.  She was pleasant enough to him – Episcopalians are not supposed to yell and scream like penitent Catholics or take chunks out flesh out of each other like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – but she saved her coquettish behavior for other men.  She was never sexy.  She was too strait-laced to be so overt; but she sure did a great Park Spring version of batting her eyelashes at her male guests.  I was never sure how serious she was – the eyelash-batting was too universal.  She never singled anyone out with particular attentions.

One day Joan and Jack invited us to join them and a few other neighbors in their hot tub; and I thought that would be the perfect place to discover her attentions.  I had recently come back from India where ‘hot tub’ to me meant the heated swimming pool of Brad Langley in Madras where guests stoked up on hash brownies, shed their clothes, and churned the water to froth.

When I arrived at the Taylors, they and another couple were already in the tub.  They were fully clothed and were sipping from plastic glasses.  It was all very tacky.  The view from the tub was the Anchor fence and the trash bins in the alley.  The Taylors had not bothered to clean the yard of all the construction debris, and you had to pick your way through lengths of PVC pipe and window casings.  “Come on in” said the Taylors in unison, and then the Barkley’s. 

It was the most thuddingly boring evening I have ever spent.  Not only was everyone fully clothed, but the women wore full-body one-piece bathing suits – just in case, I guessed, an errant hand might drift to supple, exposed flesh.  The arrangement was boy-girl-boy-girl, but the distance between each was even farther than at the dining room table.  Worst of all was the discussion which labored over taxes, the school board, the idiot in the White House, and potholes in the street.  Such a discussion would have been intolerably boring inside and dry, but out here in the alley, hearing the toilets flush from the neighbors’ houses and the greasy smell of hamburgers lingering on their grills, it was the pits.

I was a slow learner in those day, especially when it came to women – or should I say women from a particular milieu, and in very particular Park Spring.  I thought I might be able to meet some of the young mothers who took their kids to the local park.  I was half a stay-at-home dad, half-travelling consultant; and when in Washington, I had plenty of time to take my own children to the park.  They were both independent and happy and required little attention.  I actually hated the park, especially the endless pushing on the swings.  “Don’t stop, Daddy. Don’t stop.  Higher…higher!”, but I loved being with my kids.

Actually I was a more engaged father than most who only came to the park on the weekends, exiled there by their wives who both wanted them out of the house and who insisted that they at least do this little bit for them (their children) and for her (the real reason).  These distant fathers pushed the swings while reading the Wall Street Journal, oblivious to the shouts of glee and the real happiness of flying upwards towards the treetops. 

The worst case of father-at-the-park-on-Saturday was two lawyers, cigars jammed in the corners of their mouths, yakking on about codicils and precedents, all the while dropping ashes on their tightly-wound infants, asleep in their Snugglies.  These fathers had only one thing on their mind – getting the hell out of the park and on the golf course or back to the office.  During the week the atmosphere was very different.  All women, for one thing; but what I thought would be open season for adventure was nothing of the kind.  The women banded together like hens in a coop while the fox prowled around outside.  It was worse, even, than a military perimeter, outside of which lurked the sapper or the invader. It was the early 80s and a stand-alone father was suspect – an oddity, a gender peculiarity.

Eventually I learned the ways of the community, stopped any intent to poach, invade, or disrupt.  The last neighborhood invitation I accepted was to the house of a couple who had just returned from a trip through South Asia.  What I thought might be an interesting evening sharing impressions of India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal was no more than a paralyzing two hours of family slides. Margie sitting on the stone Ganesh in Bombay.  Bob standing before the Golden Temple.  Margie ‘holding up’ the high minaret of the Qutb Minar.  There is nothing worse than listening to other people’s dreams, the old adage goes, and absolutely nothing more painful than hours of family photographs regardless of the exotic setting in which they were taken.

My kids grew up and the temptation of the park dissipated and disappeared.  I stuck to my own kind – old friends, some from the neighborhood, who were international professionals, writers, and teachers – retreated into the comfort of the familiar while still being stimulated by what was said.  In the final tally, the neighborhood, after 34 years living there, is home.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barely Surviving ‘Children Are Life’

Children Are Life – or just ‘Children’ -  is a non-profit organization funded in part from the donations generated from its late-night TV ads.  You have seen them - children with cleft palates, flies crawling in their eyes, or just looking up, mournful and pitiful at the camera. “Please”, implores the chisel-jawed announcer, just a trace of graying chest hair peeking out of his bush shirt …There’s not a minute to waste”.  He turns to the waif in a tattered dress, standing in the dirt.  A dog snuffles in the dust.  “Her life depends on you.  Give now, and call the number on your screen”.

Children Are Life also profits from the largesse of the United States government – large grants given to non-governmental organizations with a mission.  The mission can be religious or, as in the case of Children, secular.  In the government’s eyes there is very little difference.  Both types of agencies are free from local government interference and both spread the message that the United States is a caring, humane, and generous country.

The offices of Children Are Life are in a non-descript ten-story bottom-line building typical of the many that line L Street – not exactly K Street, the home of lobbyists, litigation lawyers, and national trade associations and the real power alley of the city, but one street away, a do-good ghetto with offices of organizations equally flush with government money.  The offices are deliberately uninspiring – no bright colors, Danish-inspired furniture, modern art on the walls, track lighting, or attractive carpeting.  The image must always be one of selfless denial, and humility in the face of poverty and disease.  The only color on the drab walls is that of traditional African or Asian garments worn by women drawing water from a well, or walking elegantly with brass pots on their heads.  The lighting is florescent and harsh, the furniture government-issue, and the dress of the employees standard and institutional.

While the mission of the organization may be reducing poverty and saving children’s lives, the boardroom has only one mission – more contracts, more market share, and more influence.  “We are fourth in revenue, fifth in total contracts, and only sixth….sixth, mind you…in health, the biggest growth industry in Africa” said the President of the company.  “AIDS is decimating the continent, malaria still is the biggest killer, and diarrhea – remember the squirts? – is not yet under control.  And where are we?  Sixth!.  I want new numbers, people, higher numbers.  A balance sheet we can be proud of. You know what you have to do”.

In the pit, meanwhile, the minions worked because of mission not despite it.  They believed in what they were doing and were willing to take low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions to promote the cause.  In fact the reason why Children are Life was so successful was exactly because of their low overhead.  These young people were the professional equivalent of undocumented workers, and if one did not perform, out she went and one hundred were there to take her place.  This alone provided the incentive for hard work and dedication.  The marketplace was at its most efficient in the development business.

The overseer of the minions was an unreconstructed Sixties liberal, Mildred Buckley.  The older she got the more she railed against the unwanted and untoward intrusion of the private sector.  She turned purple at the mention of NestlĂ©'s, Monsanto, or Pfizer – predatory, immoral, and scabrous companies making millions off the backs of the poor.  She was immune to arguments which demonstrated the effectiveness of these companies in meeting emerging market needs for milk products, agricultural products whose yield had increased tenfold since genetic modification, or miracle drugs that were slowing the spread of HIV.  She only saw the capitalist demons of her younger days.  Her visions were like the worst graphic images of the Soviet bloc – demonic, bloody, fanged faces of capitalists in Monopoly top hats standing astride the working poor. In fact, she was as disciplined as a Communist block monitor and as efficient in detecting the first signs of flagging commitment.  She was like the second grade teacher that you feared because she would put you in the creepy closet with the floor mops if you misbehaved.

Mildred – no one ever called her Milly – ran a project called NGO (Non-Governmental-Organizations) Systems, designed to link small community organizations together to form ‘synergistic unions’.  Mildred could be very persuasive and had convinced the technocrats at USAID that this concept one day could unify all NGOS in Africa and create professional links with similar networks in Asia in Latin America.  Without explicitly stating it, her vision was global.  Mildred had one foot in each of Children are Life’s camps – she was a fierce and aggressive hunter of new business and a defender of her Sixties belief in collaboration, cooperation, and community participation. 

The idea was flawed from the very start, but both she and her government handlers looked through the same prism of idealism.  Small community organizations being so close to the people where the real truth lay, simply had to be the answer.  Top-down, vertical programs of the past where the community were only recipients of aid but had no power or say in their design, were erratic anomalies.  Never mind that every wacko religious group, women’s crochet society, or men’s political rant group lined up to become an NGO and benefit from US largess; and never mind that because of the neo-religious faith that people’s organizations could do no wrong, few monitoring and oversight measures were put in place (if they could do no wrong, then why should they be enslaved in the white man’s traces?) and the NGOs diverted funds to their relatives just like the autocrats in power in Luanda, Kinshasa, or Nairobi. 

Mildred was obviously loved by her beneficiaries when she went on tour.  Although, by company regulations, she was forced to travel in the back of the plane and stay in shit hotels on stopovers in Brussels, once she arrived in Africa, she travelled in style.  In Luanda, the head of the biggest recipient of project funds, N’Goma Fula’Ne, an organization constituted to help the families of ex-combatants of the recently concluded civil war, came to the airport to greet her.  Because Luanda was a lawless, crime-ridden, pestilential city with choking traffic, corrupt officials, and a barely-working infrastructure, Mildred willingly rode in the Mercedes 4x4 of Mr. Gomes, the Director and accepted the offer to stay in his villa in an exclusive part of town.  From that comfortable vantage point, and in Mr. Gomes’ reliable and bulletproof transportation, Mildred would be able to visit a number of the small organizations within the NGO System.

It was later found out that Mr. Gomes still had ties to the MPLA, the rebel movement which had outlasted the government and its South African allies, and ran guns from Portugal via Guinea-Bissau to still unpacified groups of insurgents camped in the diamond region bordering Congo.  Much of the money from Children are Life was siphoned off to these groups, and although it was not much, it gave them enough support supplies to last for at least two years.

Mr. Gomes was also a charmer, a Portuguese-Angolan half-breed who wore his mestizo colors with pride.  He was indeterminate enough of race that he could have been a Sicilian Don Juan or a Brazilian lover from Copacabana.  Mr. Gomes was the real reason why Mildred spent so much time in Angola.  He was a lively, sporting lover, with great staying power even with the over-the-hill, faded, and rumpled Miss Buckley.  “Oh, Jaime”, she would coo after a night of satisfying lovemaking, “I do love you so”.

Jaime, of course, had no sentiments whatsoever for Mildred, but knew as soon as he saw this tightly-wound woman, that she would be easy prey.  As with all of us who justify questionable actions when they suit us, Mildred saw no contradiction in screwing one of her beneficiaries.  In fact, in her moments of reflection, considered that it was a particularly good thing for her to truly understand Angola and its people. 

The small NGOs which comprised Jaime Gomes’ network were a rag-tag bunch, but he had his advance men do their work, and when he and Mildred arrived in the village, the residents were all out to greet her and show her what they had accomplished.  Children had been assembled in their best clothes, the girls with pink ribbons in their hair and the boys in clean, white shirts; Children Are Life posters on malaria and diarrhea prevention were neatly tacked onto the newly whitewashed walls of the school, and the smell of cooking – preparations of US-donated cornmeal-soy blend in Angolan spices filled the courtyard.  The books had also been cooked and neatly arrayed on the headmaster’s desk for inspection. 

Mildred, with a look of serious intent, pored over the ratty notebooks and smeared scrawl, and smiled.  Who cared about numbers, she thought, when the children looked healthy and happy.  Mr. Gomes, of course, did not drive his Mercedes through the back rutted lanes of the village where the real poor lived.  Mildred would have recognized the faces and tatters from Children’s TV ads, but reality was another thing altogether.  The only students in school were from the wealthiest families in the community, even if they had little money.  Money hath its privileges in a shithole African village or Washington, DC.

As they travelled over the bumpy tracks from village to village, Mildred happily let her legs bump against those of Mr. Gomes, and grabbed his hand and squeezed it lovingly every time they tipped into a pothole.  This is what development is all about, she thought.  A mission, adventure, and a man.

Back in Washington, a deal with the devil was being concluded.  Under USAID’s new ‘Private Sector Initiative’, the agency was looking for new ‘public-private partnerships’ and over the outcry of many of its older members, those of an unleavened liberalism, Children Are Life agreed to mount a malaria program in Angola with the generous support of Exxon Mobil.  It was a sweet deal.  The oil company would give a $ 5 million grant to USAID to be then awarded to a non-profit agency which would design and implement a program of prevention – drug distribution, the production of insecticide-treated bed nets, and an extensive marketing campaign. 

When Mildred returned from Angola and the arms of Jaime Gomes, she was livid, apoplectic.  The company had given away the store in her absence, used this quiet hiatus in her liberal hectoring to negotiate a deal which allow them to move out of their now cramped offices to more spacious (and sumptuous) ones on K Street, to refresh the bottom line, and enter the mainstream of corporate-government deal making. 

“How…could….you….do….such….a…thing?”, she spluttered.  “It is unthinkable, abominable, regressive, immoral, and irremediably evil”. 

She did not have her way, of course, since, although she often forgot it, she was only an overseer, not a decision-maker.  And she was given to very elegant self-deception, especially when it came to Jaime Gomes.  This new contract meant even more trips to Angola, and more blissful nights with her lover.

Gomes, on the other hand, saw the $5 million with absolute glee.  He would no longer need to fuck the old bag, for the money would just keep rolling in.  The US would never let the Angolan Government see a penny of this money (although Gomes and his compatriots would have to kick back 10 percent to them, so what did they care), so it would flow directly to the NGO network.  So, no Jaime and no Mercedes showed up at the airport, and Mildred had to take a local taxi – in the development business the no-no of all no-no’s.  Her cell phone did not work in Luanda, there were no diplomats on whose coattails she could ride into town, so trembling and clutching her stomach where money belt was tightly wound, she chose the most roadworthy vehicle and the most reputable-looking driver.  She had a last minute moment of panic, and thought she should perhaps stay in the airport overnight and take her chances in the morning; but the thought of sleeping on cracked, dilapidated chairs with thieves and rapists prowling in the deserted building was far worse.

The ride in from the airport took three hours instead of one.  The driver had to stop many places in between, mysterious in-and-outs in dark lanes and darker houses, packages transferred.  In the end she had in fact chosen a reputable driver because he only took her cash, nothing else, left her with her suitcase of bush clothes and leaflets, and in fact dropped her at the Tropicana Hotel before heading off into the night. 

It is always this way.  You know when it is time to hang ‘em up.  You may have enthusiasm in one area – sexual acrobatics in the case of Mildred Buckley – but none in others; and the travel, the danger, the lurking corruption (even she opened her eyes enough to see the flaws in the system), and the inevitable fading of professional passion led to her retirement.  She was not that old, too young to formally retire, but she withdrew from the international life.  She went out to Colorado to stay with her sister for a while until she was able to draw her breath, get the stink of Africa out of her lungs, and think what she was going to do with the rest of her life.  She moped for a while, worked at her sister’s clothing store in Colorado Springs, then disappeared.  The few friends she had Googled her from time to time, checked Facebook and LinkedIn, but soon gave up.

Not only was she not missed – who could miss that vinegary, demanding soul? – but she was the subject of a game similar to Five Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon.  “Where is Mildred Buckley now?”, the minions queried each other; and the responses varied from ‘back in Africa’ to an Idaho shed like the one the Unibomber lived in.  Only one person guessed that she was with Jaime Gomes somewhere.  “Are you kidding?”, replied Melinda Barnes.  “That mothafucka is daid”.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Surviving the World Bank

I had Brenda Beckworth eating out of my hand.  Brenda worked in the HR Department of the World Bank and besieged me daily with requests for completed W-1090s, pay grade adjustment forms, vehicle tax release vouchers, and revised travel allowances.  I hated coming into the office and seeing the piles of new interoffice memos, all initialed BB, and all containing more instruments of torment and torture.  I had joined the Bank after years as a consultant because I wanted a rich, high-powered environment – i.e. smart people; an institution of international renown – i.e. a place people listened to rather than put up with; and a multi-cultured organization with attractive and alluring members. 

The Bank only partly met my expectations.  It was definitely a high-powered organization, but because of its sharply pyramidal structure – very few positions at the top and a pack of hungry dogs salivating and barking at the bottom – most of the effort of Bank staff was spent securing position, funds, and influence.  It was listened to – loans were only given if the borrowing country agreed to ‘conditionalities’, terms which imposed rigorous compliance to repayment and both financial and technical performance – but not heard.  Countries knew that soft loans never really had to be repaid, so they went about their usual business of siphoning off resources, diddling in project management, and ultimately failing.  Finally, it was most definitely a multi-cultured organization, but all this meant was that Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos fought each other for influence and primacy. 

As far as ‘attractive’ and ‘allure’, I was smitten with Josephine Levy, a 6’2” Jamaican with sense of humor that would buckle my knees, and a devouring sexual appetite.  I was later also smitten with Amanda Worthington, who, in the rear view mirror of time was a tiny New Zealander with a bird-like walk but who had a voice like an angel.  The first time I heard her sing, I looked around to see where the aria was coming from; but it was Amanda whose pure, crystalline, soaring soprano filled the Third Methodist Church with celestial, uplifting music.  I could not resist that voice; and who was the woman behind it?

All in all, however, the Bank was an unmitigated grind.  Managing projects was purgatory, and Brenda Beckworth fed the flames with her daily correspondance.

I decided to be especially nice to Brenda in the hopes that perhaps we might find another way around the administrative hurdles.  We had drinks, lunches, late morning coffees outside the office, and frequent chats in the kitchenette on the 4th floor.  I had absolutely no interest in her whatsoever.  She was so fat that her Caucasian face looked like a Filipino’s, for when she smiled her eyes disappeared into Asian-looking, angled folds.  She waddled, and her arms banged against her stomach rolls when she walked.  She had a squeaky voice and very hairy legs.

As time went on, I saw that my solicitousness was working.  It wasn’t that the flow of BB-initialed administrative abuse ceased; all she did was to apologize for giving me so much work.  This was obviously not enough.  I began to ask her about her life, taking an interest in the career trajectory that would have led to such a boring, dead-end, infinitely repetitive and irremediably unfulfilling job.  She told me that she had been born and raised in rural Iowa, and after Community College got a job with an Agricultural Insurance Company in Nebraska.  “They insured corn, soy, and wheat crops”, she told me.  This seemed an incredible deal.  Farmers who already got a guaranteed price for their products by the government also were covered by state-secured crop insurance. 

“It wasn’t much of a job”, she went on.  “I was just the Assistant Secretary to the Personnel Director”; but it gave her the independence from her family that she had long sought, and Omaha was the bright lights compared to tiny Bedford.  “I was lonely in Iowa", she said, “but I was even more lonely in Omaha”.  At home she at least had her family; but in Omaha she shared a cheap third-floor apartment over a tattoo parlor and never met anyone.  “Washington is different”, she said. “I’m not lonely here”.

Brenda wasn’t a mean person – the kind you often find in bureaucratic cubbyholes doing no-exit shit jobs in a department of eraser-heads who held a perverse power over you.  Without the proper paperwork you were fucked.  Brenda was just stupid, and adopted this overly regimented, by-the-book approach to HR administration because she couldn’t think on her feet.

She was now, after two months of friendship, was sending me fewer administrative requests.  She took care of them herself – exactly what I had hoped.  I could now shift down a gear or two, lighten up on the social time, and enjoy the rewards of my solicitousness.

It turned out that although she knew that I was married, she still thought she could bore through the marital wall.  She had the kind of determination which assured that, along with her size, she would never find a compatible mate.  “When do you think we can take this to another level?”, she asked one day at Flaherty’s Bar.  I should have known that this day would come. Everyone has the right to love, I had always assumed; but I was still taken by surprise.  I demurred, said that we should talk this over at another time, and stopped chatting by her cube.  

“Hell hath no greater fury than a woman scorned”, said my mother, always fond of old saws, reminded me – a reference more to some steamy and unspoken love in her own life than to mine; and when Brenda realized that I was not going to pursue her, she upped the ante. Not only did she stop helping me, but she got more niggling, nitpicking, and irritably impatient. She had me, and unless I moved departments and transferred to something which required little or no authorizations from HR, I was to be her pin-stuck voodoo doll for some time to come. .

As luck would have it, the Bank reorganized about a year after I joined.  The Bank, I was told, always reorganizes, usually about every seven years.  Nothing ever changes, however, no matter how structural the upheaval might be.  It was just shifting and replacing, like kindergarten chairs moved for storytelling then back again for coloring.    After every reorganization, the Annual Development Reports still offered gloomy news – bad loans were non-performing; health status was deteriorating, not improving; money was disappearing – but offered hope: “Now that we know what the problems are, the future will be different, for we will solve them”, wrote the Bank President; and so the Bank swapped Technical Departments for Regional Departments and back again; put the support divisions together in one department, then farmed them out to individual regional or technical departments.  ‘There is no change but change’ goes the Buddhist adage and it was never more true than at the World Bank.

The only benefit of my reorganization was that I was out of the clutches of Brenda Beckworth.  I was able to land a technical job – Nutrition Advisor to the India Division of the Asia Department; and my principal responsibilities were to mine the current research on pellagra, rickets, goiter, anemia – not to manage anyone or anything.  This by no means freed me from the bureaucracy.  The Bank has always been known for its thoroughness, and every research or policy paper and every formal project agreement had to go through ‘the colors’ – draft reports with blue covers, red covers, pink covers, green covers, and a final, finished grey cover – before they were completed.  This meant endless revisions, consultations, advisory committees, technical reviews, and finicky editing.  The end result was usually worth reading, but the process of getting there was almost as bad as negotiating Brenda Beckworth’s administrative mine fields and snake pits.

Reorganizations were not to be missed, however, because if you paid attention, you could learn a lot.  I realized that the bureaucracy at the Bank was an organic whole – a kind of ectoplasm, an amoeba-like blob that when pricked in one area, blobbed over and changed shape, but kept its mass.  It moved at its own volition and responded to outside stimulus by shifting, changing, and reconfiguring.  It was the same gooey, bureaucratic blob, just a little fatter over here and less globular over there.  It had its own inertia; its own momentum. 

The other thing I learned were survival skills.  The Bank was organized by national cabals – protective, informal societies of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis which helped their members.  In reorganizations, they acted like labor unions, advocating for promotions, salaries, and positions.  They were very successful.  The only group that always lost out were we Americans.  Because of our exaggerated belief in democratic ideals, hard work, and independence, we never bothered to organize – our merits would be enough – and we were outmaneuvered and outflanked every time.

We were also bigmouthed blatherers.  We simply couldn’t keep our big traps shut, despite the fact that in the hi-test environment of the Bank – where octane was added during reorganizations – information was power or poison.  I was as rumor-conscious as the rest of my American colleagues, and was always ready to try them out on others.  “Where do you think Hendricks will go?”, I asked Beyene, my Ethiopian colleague.  He answered vaguely, then turned the conversation to static heads, convection currents, and brick latticework, the stock in trade of low-cost sanitation.  I saw, after repeated inquiries, that he was getting impatient.  One day, over lunch, he told me his background.  He had been a civil engineer in Ethiopia in the worst days of the Haile Mengistu.  Life under the dictator was as bad as that of Honecker and the Stasi if not worse.  One slip of the tongue, and you spent years in prison. 

So when the dust had settled after the reorganization, and the bodies of Americans, goodwill Canadians, Aussies, and a few Europeans who had not read history were strewn on the battlefield, heads began to pop up – an Ethiopian here, a Nigerian there, a Congolese there – popping up and surveying the desolated landscape like Meer Kats.  Keep your head down and your powder dry roared the African lieutenant across the plain, and after the battle, the Africans emerged to take the plum positions in the Bank.

I stayed four years at the Bank, one good and three bad, two of those intolerable, but I was swayed by the legions of wannabees who said, “Nobody leaves the Bank”.  Leaving the World Bank would be like renouncing the Vatican, tossing your crimson cardinal’s robes in the Tiber and returning to the priesthood in Iowa, losing your salary, perks and privileges.  It simply wasn’t done.

I was much happier after I left the Bank.  I re-launched my independent consulting career, and once again went ricocheting around the Third World, having fun, eating well, enjoying adventures, narrow escapes, and well-watered times on palmy beaches.  I liked the Lone Ranger aspect of independent consulting.  You went, you worked, you solved, you left, and you never returned.  No slug’s slime as a telltale trail.  Accountable only to yourself and the client who usually was very happy with very little.  Never again, I often said to myself, will I ever return to the World Bank; and I never did.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Drones in US Airspace–More Invasion of Privacy

An article in today’s (2.18.12) New York Times reported on the newest threat to privacy and personal liberties:

A new federal law, signed by the president on Tuesday, compels the Federal Aviation Administration to allow drones to be used for all sorts of commercial endeavors — from selling real estate and dusting crops, to monitoring oil spills and wildlife, even shooting Hollywood films. Local police and emergency services will also be freer to send up their own drones.

But while businesses, and drone manufacturers especially, are celebrating the opening of the skies to these unmanned aerial vehicles, the law raises new worries about how much detail the drones will capture about lives down below — and what will be done with that information.

As I have written before, it takes two to tango, and the positive public reaction to the these drones, focusing on the good they will do – as above, tracking oil spills, fires, drought, etc. in a cost-effective way in a straitened economy – will make their use for unauthorized government surveillance easy.  Here is an example of how delighted drone users are:

The possibilities for drones appear limitless. Last year, Cy Brown of Bunkie, La., began hunting feral pigs at night by outfitting a model airplane with a heat-sensing camera that soared around his brother’s rice farm, feeding live aerial images of the pigs to Mr. Brown on the ground. Mr. Brown relayed the pigs’ locations by radio to a friend with a shotgun.

He calls his plane the Dehogaflier, and says it saves him time wandering in the muck looking for skittish pigs. “Now you can know in 15 minutes if it’s worth going out,” said Mr. Brown, an electrical engineer.

From pigs to our bedrooms. 

What’s more, the bands playing the music for the tango are the courts which in the past have been strong supporters of the Patriot Act and other laws designed, at least on the surface, to keep the country secure:

American courts have generally permitted surveillance of private property from public airspace. But scholars of privacy law expect that the likely proliferation of drones will force Americans to re-examine how much surveillance they are comfortable with.

“As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage,” said Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “I don’t think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public.”

That’s not all.  Nanotechnology, the science of miniaturization, has already produced mini-flying machines, bug-sized winged robots which can fly almost anywhere undetected.  While the courts may eventually slow the advances of drone spying, it will be almost impossible to control nano-drones.  They can buzz in and out of houses, cars, bars, libraries with no more notice than a pesky fly.  And in the event that someone swats one and it falls into their beer, Homeland Security can say, “Oops.  Sorry.  Just a little off course”.  From an article from Cornell Chronicle Online:

Studying the flight mechanics of the pesky fruit fly is helping scientists develop small "flying robots," which are raising important questions about the risks and benefits of emerging technologies to society, said Cornell Professors Itai Cohen and Bruce Lewenstein at the Sept. 13 Science Cabaret, before an enthusiastic, standing-room only crowd of all ages at Delilah's on Cayuga in downtown Ithaca.

"When it comes to locomotion ... at the moment, we're far from having a technology that beats what these animals can do," said Cohen, associate professor of physics.

To get closer, his research group uses high-speed cameras to collect flight data from fruit flies and then generates computer simulations of fly flight. These data and simulations, he said, are used to break down each component of wing motion that allows flies to hover, propel and navigate themselves through space.

Cohen also studies microscopic fly body structures that make this type of flight possible, such as a structure that is essentially a microscopic "fly gyroscope" -- the so-called haltere senses body rotation and allows the fly to stabilize and control its flight. Without these halteres, fruit flies are incapable of flight, he said.

I can just imagine the commercial sales pitch: “Don’t let rodents invade your home.     Let NanoFly help you out.  Newly designed NanoFly can spot rat droppings in the most out-of-reach corners of your basement, and you can take action.  Don’t waste a minute.  Call 1-800-555-1212 now!”. 

As with any government surveillance of American citizens, it needs a cover.  It needs a reasonable commercial use that interests sellers; and a compelling retail interest on the part of consumers.  “Cookies are great”, say both Amazon and the consumer delighted to see an ad tailored precisely to his taste pop up on the website.  “Cookies are great”, says the government, happy to know exactly what you buy, from whom where, and when.

The point is, the invasion of privacy by government is gradual but progressive; and at each step of the way, it has the explicit or tacit agreement from us.  We like cookies because they help us save time shopping, and we love NanoFly because it can find stuff.  And today’s courts, as interested in protecting commercial interests as they are individual liberties, grease the wheels.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Brighton Memories - Church

“May the Peace of the Lord be with you”, intoned Father Brophy, pausing to adjust his magnificent vestments – his flowing silk chasuble, gold crucifix and chain, and gold and silver rings embossed with the emblems of The Holy Father, the Vatican, the Third Crusade, and The Blessed Virgin Mary.  He tugged at the sleeves of his surplice so only the ruffled lace of his alb showed from under his robe.  He dabbed at his lips with a silk handkerchief, and continued, “Today I want to talk to you about sin”.

“Oh, no”, I said to myself.  “Not again”.  Sunday after Sunday, jammed between parishioners smelling of aftershave, cologne, and whisky in the airless church, I was forced to listen to Father Brophy’s sermons on sin.  Sins of the flesh, sins of omission and commission, sins of thought, word and deed, blasphemy, fornication, bestiality – we were regaled and harangued with more sins than I ever thought possible.  He began slowly in a measured, moderate voice, slowly but progressively upping the amps.  After ten minutes he was exercised.  His clerical collar was soaked through and jagged dark stains appeared down the emerald green vestments.  His face was beaded with sweat which dropped onto the pulpit.  After fifteen minutes his face was red and apoplectic, his eyes were turned to the ceiling, and his face contorted by grimaces.  It was though he was looking into his own pestilential world of vipers, fire, and brimstone; flesh-eating devils of sin.  It was horrible but compelling to watch.

Then, predictably, he took his foot off the gas, for he, peering out of his tortured reverie realized that he was bumping up against a far more evil world – that of the Bible-thumping Baptist preachers of his native Alabama.  The tachometer dipped out of the red and into the calmer green, then idle, then stopped.  Sweating, spent, disheveled, and disoriented, he looked out over us and said, “Go with the Lord”.  It was over.

I should say, the sermon was over, but not the Mass; and I had a good half hour more of my own purgatory of bowing and scraping, ringing bells, consecration, and communion.  Communion itself added at least ten minutes to the Mass, for by the time the Brighton faithful had rolled their way out the pews, up the aisle to get ninety-year-old Father Brophy’’s saliva-dripping palsied fingers jammed down their throats with the Host, and back again we still had twenty minutes at least to go.  The only words of the Mass I paid any attention to were Ite Missa Est – Go, the Mass is ended; but in fact there were another five minutes to go with end-of-ceremony blessings, crossings, and good will until at long last, the organist tromped his feet down on the base pedals and blasted out the Recessional.

My sister, however, never made it to the sermon.  She turned a bleached parchment white and tipped over onto my mother after ten minutes, and my father had to carry her out to the car.  My parents tried everything – the lightest, airiest dresses, cold compresses, and psychological preparation and support (“Boy, isn’t it cool in here?  So nice and breezy.”), but nothing worked.  Like clockwork my sister turned white and tipped over.

I was only ten at the time, so I dutifully accompanied my parents for another five years until I went off to Lefferts.  No one was watching there so I never went to church, unless you count the obligatory daily chapel and the eternally long full-blown service on Sundays.  It was bad enough, I thought, that I had had to undergo the torture of Catholic Mass, I now had to endure a Protestant brand of suffering. 

I escaped the misery of the Sunday service only once.  The chaplain came up to me one day and asked if I could give a short sermon.  “As a Catholic”, he said, “you must have a lot to say to us”.  I agreed, and my friend – who had grown up in the Southern Baptist churches that Father Brophy abhorred – helped me prepare a fire-and-brimstone sermon that would, he assured me, shake these unbelievers to their roots.  It was based on Jesus’ admonition, “Ye hypocrites.  Ye generation of vipers”.  We knew that there was enough adultery, fornication, and slovenly drunkenness to go around, so that the hypocrite theme would be appropriate.

I was a very good speaker even then, and given this dramatic opportunity, I was superb.  Besides, I had a good teacher in Father Brophy.  I started slowly, quietly, almost serenely.  I welcomed the congregation, humbly thanked the chaplain for the opportunity to speak, and then began.  Bruce had given me his family Bible and it was floppy and well-worn, and the viper passage was bookmarked.  I preached with passion, modulating my phrasing, ascending waves of feeling, then descending into a quiet, but penetrating silence.  I fulminated.  I looked directly at the teachers we knew were the greatest sinners and transgressors.  “Hypocrites”, I spat, “Living a Christian life on the surface, but debasing yourself in sin”.  You could hear a pin drop.  I had them.  I was only seventeen, and I was a Bible thumping preacher.  People came up to me on the way out and thanked me, they held my hand with both of theirs and looked me in the eye.  “Thank you”, they said.  “Thank you”. 

Of course word got around that it was all bullshit, that Bruce and I had concocted the whole thing, and the teachers were pissed; but they could do nothing, because I had, after all, spoken the word of the Lord. 

When I got to Yale, I decided that I would give the Church one more go and arranged to meet a young Catholic chaplain, a Yale graduate and not much older than me.  I told him that I had left the Church, but was open to reconversion.  He had been chosen to be a chaplain because he was a Yale graduate.  He, the New Haven diocese reasoned, would be exactly the right person to talk sense into godless undergraduates.  However, just because he was convinced that he could speak our language, he chose exactly the wrong battlefield and armaments – logic and reason.  He invoked St. Thomas and St. Augustine who had laid the intellectual foundation for Catholic faith.  Both had come to God through reason, the chaplain argued, and so should I. 

In session after session he skirmished, sallied, and charged; but my berms and battlements held.  Finally he realized his mistake and sadly gave up.  He was apologetic, but he had come to his senses more than I had.  Religion will always be more a matter of faith than reason.  Amen.

I vowed (alas, Father Brophy is still with me) never to set foot in a Catholic Church again, and was true to my word until about five years ago I agreed to go to a big Catholic wedding.  Not just any Catholic wedding, but one presided over by the Archbishop of Houston and assisted by clerical representatives of the Papal Nuncio.  The bride’s father was a prominent Catholic with ties to the Vatican, and the Pope himself wanted to return the favor of his untiring support of the Catholic Church.

It was a ceremony of high pomp and circumstance.  Father Brophy’s vestments were nothing compared to that of the Archbishop, the Papal delegation, the acolytes, and minions.  It was like a Renaissance pageant, the glory of Venice.  I loved it.  I even had patience for the Mass itself – a high mass where the liturgy is chanted and sung.  After much pageantry, the Archbishop ascended to the pulpit.  “May the Peace of the Lord be with you”, he began; and then after the same familiar adjustments of his chasuble, cassock, cross, and rings; and after a few desultory remarks to the bride and groom, he continued.  “I want to talk to you about sin today”.

I couldn’t believe it.  There was no way to avoid this perpetual onslaught of sin and damnation.  I hung my head, but not so low as my Jewish friend next to me.  He hung his head down past the missals, and held it in his hands, pushing his thumbs into his ears so he wouldn’t have to listen.

That was it.  The Catholic saga was over.

The Christian saga, however, was not.  I attended church more in Eastern Europe than I ever had in the United States.  I loved the dark mysticism, the very Oriental rituals, and the energetic participation of the faithful.  They wandered freely through the church, kissing icons, crawling over and under the sarcophagi containing the bones of Orthodox saints, watching the priest and his retinue prepare for the Mass behind the gold iconostasis, then emerge, censers clanking, filling the church with the fragrance of frankincense.  I thought this would be a great place for kids, especially the crawling around part.

During my many years in India, I attended many Hindu ceremonies.  If fact, they were hard to avoid.  India is the most religious country in the world, even more than the United States because there religion really is a part of your life, every day.  There are traditional places of worship like the great temples built by the Gujaratis in Bombay, the temples along the Ganges in Allahabad and Benares; but there are shrines everywhere – shrines to Vishnu, Siva, Ganesh, all the gods in the Hindu pantheon.  There are parades, floats, and ceremonies, invocations and devotion.  I loved the music, the flowers, the incense, and the offerings. 

My travel days are pretty much over, and if I go to church it is for a special occasion – a guest pastor honoring an American playwright or poet who has an affiliation with the church or a wedding in the family.  I take whatever I see with great equanimity.  I feel I have been around the Mass-and-Service block many, many times.  I occasionally meet clerics, pastors, priests with whom I have spoken at length.  I remember a Muslim imam in Dhaka with whom, over tea and biscuits at his noisy residence in the old part of the city, we talked about Islam and Hinduism.  Or the Methodist minister in Tuscaloosa who discussed the Bible with me as a work of literature and faith, and compared it to the very spiritual work of Tennessee Williams or the unbelievable insightful theatre of Shakespeare.

My most vivid memories, however, are those of the apoplectic Father Brophy, turning his eyes to see his own viperous personal hell, fulminating, hectoring, charging his sweaty way through the congregation of St. Michael’s Church in Brighton, Connecticut.