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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Does Pornography Objectify Women?

The Golden Fleece Awards, sponsored by Sen. William Proxmire, were given to those government research grants which were total wastes of taxpayer money. Here are a few:

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded project by psychologist Harris Rubin for $121,000, on developing "some objective evidence concerning marijuana's effect on sexual arousal by exposing groups of male pot-smokers to pornographic films and measuring their responses by means of sensors attached to their penises
  • The NSF for spending $103,000 to compare aggressiveness in sun fish that drink tequila as opposed to gin
  • National Institute for Mental Health for spending $97,000 to study, among other things, what went on in a Peruvian brothel; the researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy

The Golden Fleece Awards are things of the past, but research projects which either prove nothing or prove the obvious are just as common now as in the old days.

One of the areas of inquiry that seems to attract more than its share of money, both public and private, is pornography.  Does it or doesn’t it affect the brain, and if so, how?  Most men have had a look at Hustler once or twice, and many have current subscriptions.  Despite the allure of the sexy, naked, and hot women depicted in these magazines, most readers go on to marry dumpy, ordinary women.  They would like their wives to be more like Taylor Vixen, but that is just whistlin’ Dixie.

They will spend years, decades, even a lifetime with women who run to fat, obsess about hair in the sink and taking out the trash.  The most frequent thing they will hear from their wives is not “Make love to me”, but “Where the hell have you been?”.  It is no wonder that they have Hustler stacked in the bathroom and porn videos in the basement. An escapism no different from Bollywood movies. 

Hundreds of millions of Indian men cram cinema halls to see impossibly seductive starlets teasingly lure men into caves, bowers, and love nests.  For three hours they are transported far from their begums into a world of fantasy.  No harm done. Few rickshaw-pullers emerge from the cheap seats at the Regal Cinema to go on a sexual rampage.  They do what every other fantasy-loving, porn-watching, heterosexual man does all over the world – enjoy the escapade, and go back to pipe-fitting, bus driving, and accounting.

A psychologist, Paul Bloom of Yale, developed what he thinks is a foolproof way to prove that men objectify women – that is, to look at them only as sex objects. He had subjects look at two pictures of the same woman, one naked and the other fully clothed (New York Times, 11.29.13).

We showed the pictures to our subjects and asked questions about these individuals — about the extent to which they were seen as purposeful agents, with the capacity for self-control, moral action and planning, and about the extent to which they were seen as experiencing beings, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear, rage, joy and desire. Consistent with the objectification view, naked people were thought of as having less agency.

Now, this is where my Golden Fleece Award comes in. Of course men think that women have more ‘agency’ when they are fully clothed.  How many naked women do you see sitting in a Senior Vice President’s office, even in today’s liberated society?  And how many fully clothed women have you seen in bed ready for hot sex?

What all men know and what researchers like Bloom still don’t, is that men – and women – are quite capable of holding two very distinctly different views of the opposite sex at the same time. Men fear tough female bosses, even if they are not dressed like Ms. Trunchbull.

An Armani suit, Gucci leather briefcase, and stylish but sensible Tieks mean business, pay attention, and mind your P’s and Q’s.  Male subordinates may wonder what the boss looks like without her clothes – this is par for the course for men – but they are really more concerned with her performance review than her tits.

Similarly, while a man may look admiringly at his girlfriend as she dresses after sex, what he really admires is her warm, soft, and supple breasts; the curve of her waist; the full contours of her behind, the slender tapering of her legs; and her sensuous lips, blue eyes, and flaxen hair.

Context is everything.  A woman in a power suit at a singles bar is a naked woman dressed up like a Senior Vice President; and men are just as likely to chat her up as they are the floozy down at the end.  They both are there for one reason and one reason only. In fact, many men find the all-business, bottom-line look very sexy.  A whiff of S&M, a little discipline. Be that as it may, it’s what’s underneath that counts at Church Key or Black Jack’s in DC.

There’s a Bell Curve for everything and sex is no different.  There are porno addicts who whack themselves red and raw over everything from hard core to Bay Watch. Theirs is some kind of twisted, fevered compulsion.  These men are way out on the asymptotic ends of the curve and have nothing in common with those living under the big bell. At the other end live the ascetics, the timid, and the bullied. They are either indifferent to women or afraid of them.

There is another, pitiful category of men who live in a social pleura.  They are neither the robust men of potent sexual desire who both love and respect women; nor the gnomes who beat off compulsively to Pamela Anderson.

They are the ‘progressive’ male feminists who take up women’s cudgels at every turn; who attend women’s conferences on sexual abuse, battering, the glass ceiling, and women’s rights. They criticize men for their predatory, troglodytic behavior; blame them for every ill on the planet, want women to rise forever to positions of prominence and leadership.  All while forcing themselves not to think dirty thoughts.

Male feminists are still men, after all, and as such think of sex all the time.  There is not an hour of the day when men don’t think about sex – rarely with their wives, OK; but with imagined lovers, old lovers, hotties on the street, Dolores from Accounting, Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett Johansson, even the bloody cleaning lady.

I remember as a young boy I was told by the priest that thinking bad thoughts was a sin, and young and naïve as I was, I did my best to control the horny images that flooded my brain.  It is one thing for an adult man to try to keep disrespectful thoughts about women in check, but another thing entirely for a young, pubescent boy.  I can only imagine the struggle these feminist men have when it comes to purifying their minds.  In many cases the women attending these conferences do the job for them. 

The modern-day Golden Fleece Awards continue

Relatedly, in another study of ours, in which participants gave people electric shocks, we found that the participants gave milder shocks to people who were partially undressed versus fully dressed, presumably because the flash of skin makes us more sensitive to others as experiencing beings.

Really? Another Yale experiment with electric shocks?  I was unwittingly part of the original, discredited Milgram experiment of the early 60s where researchers wanted to learn more about the dynamics of authority – i.e. how willing would we be to administer shocks to others simply because we were told to do so. Of course most of us figured out that the weird-looking contraption on the teacher’s desk was a fake, so we kept admitting our willingness to ramp up the ‘shocks’ to our classmates.  As I recall, Milgram and his research assistants had to call many panels before the experiment could proceed.

So in the experiment cited above, Bloom and his assistants found that subjects gave milder shocks to women who were partly clothed compared to those given to Ms. Trunchbull.  How perverse!  Egging on twisted Yalies who were just begging for an excuse to torture women.  Disgraceful.

These findings underscore the corporeal nature of many of our moral feelings. The experience of other people’s bodies can elicit empathy and compassion; it can also trigger disgust, fear and hatred. Our moral thoughts and actions are influenced, often unconsciously, by others’ smell, their race, their sex, their age, how much skin they are showing and much else.

If we want to be good people, to do right by others, it’s important to know about these influences. Sometimes we will embrace them, but often we are going to want to combat them.

In other words, despite the moral cant and academic reasonability, Bloom wants us to think only good thoughts – to combat the libidinous enemy within, to smell only fragrance, and to be good little boys. Sheer and utter nonsense.  He should return his grant money.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shopping On Thanksgiving….???

The Guardian in a post-mortem poll is asking readers if they feel stores should be open on Thanksgiving.  Not surprisingly over 80 percent of those responding said ‘No’.  There is something wrong, they feel, about desecrating a family holiday with commercialism.  There is enough time for shopping on just about every other day of the year, so why sully a near-sacred American holiday?

Alas, it is only a matter of time before all 365 days are shopping days. After all, private businesses close not because they have to but because giving a day off to employees is an easy, cost-effective benefit.  Trade traffic is always slow on Thanksgiving, so why not close up shop for a day?

However, American-born employees in retail are getting rarer and rarer; and Africans and Latinos have no problem coming to work on holidays  They could care less about the Fourth of July or Memorial day and would rather get a day off on Id or on the feast of San Pedro El Poderoso, so they would for sure work on Thanksgiving.

The question is, however, if stores were open on Thanksgiving, would people shop?  The assumption that they would not – that the pull of family, food, and football is so great that nothing could distract them from this warm and happy holiday – is false. Whistlin’ Dixie. Half the people seated around the Thanksgiving table are there because of guilt or obligation – blowing off Mom and Dad simply isn’t done – and Uncle Harry would rather be anywhere but in the same room with warty Mabel Widgens, but duty to is sister calls. 

Face it, even if you like the groaning board, the assemblage of bits and pieces of family, and the sharing of old chestnuts, you wouldn’t mind getting out for some air. Maybe some people have Black Friday off, but not everybody; and the dripping faucet that has been driving you crazy can easily be fixed with a 3/4” washer from Home Depot.  Besides, what else is there to do in that yawning space between waking up and the trip down to Auntie Angie’s? Or once the bloat wears off from the meal?

There is no logic to the perfunctory Thanksgiving closures, since there are lots of Salvadorans and Burkinabe who are willing to work.  Look at it this way – each and every one of those 110,000 people at the Cowboys-Oakland game bought something on Thanksgiving – tickets, NFL paraphernalia, ribs, beer, and enchiladas, 

CVS is open on Thanksgiving – ostensibly to be sure that customers can get their meds – but ‘drug’ stores sell drugs as a sideline.  Most people shopping at Walgreens are there for the cigarettes, candy, milk, batteries, and shoe polish.  My Starbucks was jammed on Thanksgiving morning, and people were buying scones, coffee beans, and newspapers along with their coffee. The florist on the corner kept morning hours – a fresh bouquet is always a nice way to take the edge off relatives like Aunt Tally who, by the time the turkey is done, is frazzled to the bone from all the cooking.

This is not even to mention the billions of dollars in online business that is transacted on Thanksgiving.  Not only are people getting a head start on Christmas, but they are finally getting around to ordering tablets, Apps, gadgets, speakers, and running shoes they have been putting off.  In fact, Internet speeds are notoriously slow on Thanksgiving morning.

If stores would only open on Thanksgiving, a trip to the mall would be just what the doctor ordered after sitting around with the family all day – add some glitz and pizazz to the dullest day of the year.  The Apple Store, Best Buy, Leather Saddles, and Purissimo Cigars are just the places to lift one’s spirits.

The thing to remember is that shopping is in our blood.  Hard as it may seem to some – Main Line WASPs and Nantucketers in particular – most people really enjoy Black Friday.  The no-holds-barred, extreme shopping experience is a pure adrenalin rush.  For Real X-Shoppers, Thanksgiving is just a day to store up resources for the real event. It is wrong to assume that Americans look at Thanksgiving as a day of rest and respite from commercialism.  On the contrary it is an obligatory, barely tolerated pause in commercial activity.

Full disclosure: I hate shopping and always have.  My mother bought all my clothes until I was 30 when my wife took over.  Even today I rely on my children to notice my fraying cuffs, ragged collars, and beat-up shoes and to buy me new clothes.  When I finally get around to buying something for myself, I always buy three of each.  I have always driven hand-me-down cars.  My father’s old Buicks always broke down, but they were transportation.  I could never figure out what he did to them to make them spurt oil, shave grindings off transmission gears, and overheat. 

A few years ago my father-in-law gave us an old Plymouth Volare wagon.  It was indestructible, but since it was 20 years old and had been through some bad, salty New England winters was shedding paint and looking doggy.  In fact there were rusted out holes in the floor and because of the water splashed in from the road, the carpets were soaked and mushrooms began to grow.  The front grille – a cheap plastic part and far from the snazzy chrome models I grew up with – was cracked, and finally half of it fell off when I hit a pothole. 

My daughter was so embarrassed by the car that she insisted that I drop her off two blocks from school. My mechanic – whose kids I put through school repairing cars that should long ago have been consigned to a West Virginia scrap heap – lectured me on the Volare.  “I can fix it, Mr. Parlato”, he said, “but it will break down again,.  Don’t you think it is time for a new car?”

“Just keep the rubber on the road, Tim”, I replied, “and we will deal with the new car another time”.

I know that all this is not normal.  No one hates the buying experience like I do.  No one experiences the near freeze-up when confronted with choice, the impatience, the irretrievable loss of valuable time by spending it in the marketplace rather than on the golf course.  The older I get, the worse this buying aversion becomes. I no longer check out the trim of my jib, for I no longer sail with sleek young things who would notice. I can’t get the lines of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock out of my head:

I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.

I really don’t much care if my trouser legs drag or the collars of my shirts are too big. Or put in more American terms, I am ready to pass on the shopping torch to the younger generation – 20- and 30-somethings who love to shop.  My niece – God knows where she gets it since my sister is a lot like me – has a closet full of shoes.  Whereas I have three pairs – walking, stepping out, and trips to the grocery store – she has over a hundred.  The thing is, she looks great in them. The same for her racks of camisoles, skirts, blouses, and dresses; or her drawers of watches, bracelets, ear rings, and necklaces.  She is doing her duty and looking great as a result.

If you doubt what I say about Thanksgiving going the way of all old-fashioned, non-commercial pauses in the calendar and joining the mainstream, daily, consistent, and unstoppable buying, just look around.  Ads for products are everywhere – on television, in store fronts, on posters, electronic billboards. On in-flight magazines, hotel lobbies, and taxi cabs.  Our entire life is made up of frequent purchases and even more frequent shopping experiences.  Canny marketers know that shopping is psychologically more rewarding that the actual purchase.  Shopping is the stuff of dreams, desires, and wishes.  More often than not, the item purchased ends up gathering dust someplace in the house.  We are taught from the moment we crawl out of our cribs how to value capital and labor.  We automatically know how much something is supposed to cost.  It is an internal compass, an unerring human GPS system, getting us to the right price.

What makes anyone think that Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only two days where shopping is curtailed – not completely stopped – should remain out of line?  Sooner rather than later we will be a 365/365 consumer society.  It is only a matter of time.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Do Corporations Eat, Drink, And Love? The Issue Of Contraception

A number of years ago when I was working as an international consultant, I heard an interesting story from a friend of mine who had just come from an interview with one of the largest non-profit agencies in the development business.  The firm also happened to be what had come to be known as a ‘faith-based’ organization.  Although it received federal tax dollars to dig wells, distribute food, and provide health services, its primary purpose was the collection of souls – conversion to fundamental Protestantism.  Although the NGO couched this objective in very subtle ways in their annual reports to avoid criticism from taxpayers concerned about the separation of church and state, it was as evangelical as you could get.

I once visited one of its mother-and-child feeding centers.  In this poor corner of Africa families lined up for the free US food distributed by American private contractors, like Global Vistas. Although the organizers of the ‘nutrition’ events never conceded that prayer was payment for the corn meal, wheat flour, and milk powder, all ‘beneficiaries’ had to sit for an hour and hear the Reverend Lawson Pierce talk about Jesus, the Resurrection, and Eternal Life.  It was no different from the Salvation Army soup kitchens on the Bowery during the Depression.

This extracurricular activity never got noted on progress reports submitted to the US Government, but its officials knew what was going on and winked at it with a smile. The Bush Administration was very much in favor of spreading the word of the Lord, and the number of ‘faith-based’ groups sprang up like weeds during the President’s tenure.  To be sure, the old tried-and-true religious groups like Catholic Relief Services and the Protestant Church World Service had been around a long time and took development seriously – i.e. put it at least on a par with saving souls; but for the new crop of evangelicals, the secular gloves were off.

In any case my friend went to the interview hoping for the best.  He had not had a contract for some time, and Global Vistas was offering a six-week opportunity to work in Chad.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”, asked the interviewer.  My friend hesitated.  He had never been asked that question in so forthright a way, let alone from a a corporate recruiter.  He replied that he was, and was about to ask what business it was of the rotund man sitting across from him, when the interviewer quickly went on.

“And I can assume that you have not taken Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”.  Again the rotund man did not wait for an answer.

“We are a Christian organization”, he said, “and the spirit of the Lord is what guides us in all our works.  Whether roads, water, or warehouses, Jesus Christ is with us”. Here he stopped and waited for my friend’s response.  My friend’s instinct was to get up politely and end the interview, but the idea of a long, lucrative contract kept him seated.

“I have worked in Chad many times before”, he started, hoping to convince the interviewer that his familiarity with this benighted country would trump religion, “and I worked with the Ministry of Health in exactly the type of program this contract requires.”

“Yes”, said the interviewer, “but was Jesus Christ at your side during those visits?”

My friend knew that his goose was cooked, but gave it one more try. “I have a strong faith”, he lied, “and it has sustained me on many occasions”.

“All well and good, Mr. Bernstein, but you are still a Jew”.

Now, the rotund man did not mean this maliciously, nor was he anti-Semitic.  He simply knew that a Jew would not fit in with born-again, muscular Christians.  Interview over.

I was working in Rwanda a few years later and sat at the breakfast table with two volunteer aid workers who had come to the country under the auspices of their church, a small congregation in rural Missouri.  The church belonged to a larger confederation which, as an organization registered with the US Government, was allowed to receive and distribute American agricultural products.  These women were helping out a a food distribution jamboree put on by local church of their denomination.

“We witnessed a miracle yesterday”, one woman began. “We had prepared large pots of food for mothers and children – something we do every day – and made enough to serve 50 families, the usual number who come for food.  When we arrived at the church, however, we saw that the line of mothers extended far outside the church compound and into the fields beyond.  There were at least two hundred women in line, and more were joining the queue every minute.”  Here she paused, looked over at her colleague, and smiled.  She put her hand on my arm and went on.

“No matter how many women came for food, the pot was always full.  Our stocks had run out hours ago, but the food was always plentiful.  Jesus had come down to this poor Rwandan village and multiplied the corn meal like he had done with the loaves and the fishes in Biblical times.”

I bring this all up because the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether or not a business has the right to withhold health insurance benefits for certain types of contraception, those that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb.  This, the business says, is abortion, and because it was founded by people of faith and is run and operated on Christian moral principles, it cannot be forced to go against the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Opponents say that corporations are not people and have no right to impose their particular morality on employees. I am not sure how the Supreme Court will rule on this case, but I am sure that if Global Vistas is called as an amicus curiae, they will argue forcefully that a corporation certainly can set moral standards for its employees and expect them, after full disclosure, to abide by them.  Not only that, Global Vistas would argue, it is the very evangelical Christian faith which enables its staff to work tirelessly for the poor.  Ladling gruel out of a barrel to 500 women and their squalling babies is not all that rewarding unless you know that you are doing the Lord’s work.

Many corporations have some kind of ethos which defines them – a brand, a particular professional philosophy, a well-defined purpose.  I worked for an NGO which although non-religious was faith-based in every other way. It believed in the ‘participatory engagement of beneficiaries’; or in simpler terms, designing projects and programs based on the expressed needs and wishes of their clients.  On the surface this approach resembles private marketers who use focus groups to test out ideas and products; but scratching only a little deeper, one could see a particular and peculiar faith. The people are anointed, these secular missionaries believed, and are always right.  It is wrong, manipulative, and racist to impose any idea from the top down.  Collective wisdom always trumps professional expertise; and if there is not a divine mantel on the shoulders of the poor, there is certainly a benign guiding hand.

Even truly private firms, those in business for the bottom line, try to brand themselves and tell the public what ethos drives them, what they are all about, what higher purpose motivates them.  I once worked for a company which was known in the business as a take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs firm.  It bid on all contracts offered by the US Government and knew that based on the law of averages alone, it would win approximately one-third of them.  Anything above that would be gravy. It tailored its work force accordingly, and was able to exact high productivity at low wages from young, eager workers who lined up at the door for employment at a company which worked in international development, a job far more rewarding than moving files at a government office.

One day the CEO decided that our brand was too diffuse.  “People don’t really appreciate what we do”, he said.  “We help people.  We do good in the world, and we want others to know it”.  He hired a management consulting firm to canvas employees to find out what they thought of the company – what image or brand came to mind; what was the particular ethos that motivated them.

The results of the survey may have been surprising to the CEO but to no one else. “Bottom line; competitive; win rate; hard-driving; relentless” were only some of the terms used by those surveyed to describe the firm.  No one echoed the CEO’s sentiments about helping people or making the world a better place.  Slice it however you wanted, the firm stood for nothing except bidding on contracts, winning them, managing the projects generated, and bidding for some more.

At any rate, businesses both large and small are often organized around principle.  As in the case of my Jewish friend, Global Vistas was openly and enthusiastically evangelical Christian.  They didn’t want you if you were Jewish or a non-believer; and if you had any sense at all, you wouldn’t want to work for them.  In fact, if you did choose to slip by the sentry at the gate, you had to be prepared to live and work within a foreign regime.  Stated more crudely, put up or shut up.

I see no reason, therefore, why a private firm cannot apply its particular moral or ethical principles to workplace rules, benefits, and restrictions.  Although abortion is the law of the land, doctors are not obligated to perform them; and can work in private Catholic reproductive health clinics which treat and counsel women in other ways.  If the company whose case is now before the Supreme Court objects to its monies applied to what it considers abortion practices, does it not have a right to object and refuse?

In my many years of working in a field which has many faith-based representatives, I have seen every possible expression and application of religion. Although I don’t care whether Jesus is in the driver’s seat or not, I don’t mind if others do.  If it takes a belief in miracles and in the restorative power of Christ to motivate volunteers to work long hours at no pay, so much the better.  If Global Vistas finds that it is more efficient and productive if it has a cohesive, tightly-bonded community of workers, that’s their business. My issue has always been whether or not the organization has met the secular targets it agreed to when it accepted government money.

A final anecdote.  On a trip through the Ecuadorian Amazon, I was told by local residents that an American family was living not far from town; and since the town didn’t get many foreigners, I might like to go visit. The house was the spitting image of a farmhouse in rural Illinois.  It was white frame with a porch and a glider.  It had a large, well-trimmed lawn with flower trays under the eaves.  There was a well, a tractor, and a trellis.  A tanned, muscular man dressed in overalls greeted me warmly as I walked up the path.

I learned that his work was downriver in the jungle, still home to some of the last primitive tribes of the Amazon.  His job was to bring them health care and the word of the Lord.  He told me how easy his work was, despite the heat, jungle, and snakes.  “Once they have been clothed and hear the Word of God”, he said, “they are like gentle lambs who come to nibble on the tender shoots in my pasture. It is a miracle”.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why Would Anyone Choose To Live In A Cold Climate?

I grew up in New England and one of my most vivid childhood memories was taking the train to Florida in the middle of winter – an overnight sleeper from the bitter cold of Connecticut to the saw grass, palm trees, and bright, sunny beaches of Miami.

I couldn’t sleep on that first train trip south.  What I thought were the white beaches of Daytona was only the sandy Georgian soil white in the moonlight. The train passed stands of loblolly pines and scrub palmettos and went through dark and dense forests.  As the sun came up I could see the marshy flatlands of the northern Florida coast, then orchards and fields. When the train stopped, and I walked out into the morning sun, the most fragrant, strange, and sensuous smell was in the air.  Orange blossoms. The sun was warm on my back.  I could smell dirt and growing things. The sky was clear and light blue.  I took off my sweater, and felt the warmth on my arms and my neck. I was hooked. Why on earth would anyone choose to live in the cold weather?

I love the heat and the humidity. I travel to the Deep South in August and drive with the windows down.  I want to smell the hot Delta cotton fields, the red dirt earthiness of western Alabama, the Black Belt prairies of northern Mississippi, the hot piney woods between Natchez and Meridian.  I rarely air condition my car or room.  I like to lie in the hot, moist Southern air and listen to the cars, voices, and cicadas outside.

I walk in the heat along the Tombigbee River.  When it is hot and very humid I can smell the water, the remnants of sweet honeysuckle, and the barbecue pit on the island.  I like to walk the levees along the Mississippi on the River Road to New Orleans in the summer – freighters and tankers on one side, and down the gradual grassy slopes on the other, beyond the pecan groves, and across the small country road, a grocery store, gas pump, and church.

In the cold, there are no smells.  There is no humidity to carry them.  Only the strongest city smells are held by the cold air – diesel fumes, Starbucks coffee, rancid oil from a Chinese restaurant.

During the worst part of the winter I would walk from my downtown DC office to the National Botanical Gardens – a Belle Époque glass conservatory, and spend an hour on the upper tier, at the top of the tropical canopy where the air was heavy and thick with the scent of plants and earth, and I could hear the trickle of the small stream that had been built through the low shrubs and plants below.

 

For years I travelled to hot places in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; and my most distinct memories are of the beaches.  I took long three-hour lunches by the Teranga pool in Dakar, eating grilled capitaine and looking out over the Atlantic.  I spent weeks on the palm-fringed lagoons of southern Sri Lanka.  I ate giant prawns and lobster on the Atlantic side of the long peninsula outside of Luanda, lambi creole near Les Cayes, and grilled snapper on the Playa Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic.

I wear shorts, sandals, and T-shirts well into October in DC.  I won’t let the summer go.   As the days get shorter and the sun lower, I hope that maybe this year will be different – that summer will last through November, or at least warm days.  Then I would only have to survive a few months before the crocuses, daffodils, dogwoods, and lilacs.

I can only remember one time when I felt it was too hot – in the summer in Ouagadougou.  The temperature in the shade was 115F and in the airless, non-air conditioned company car well over 125F.  After two hours of meeting, all in hot, dry, and stifling government offices I began to lose focus.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing standing in a rutted, sandy road next to a beat-up old Peugeot Break, nor what I had done, or where I was going.

There was something exotic about sitting out by the pool at the Independence, drinking liter bottles of warm beer, watching the vampire bats take off at dusk from the jacaranda trees in the courtyard.  The temperature never got below 100F, and the mosquitos were fierce; but everyone drank there.  It was the place to go for Africans and expatriates.  It had ambience, cool, and energy.  Every African city has a place like it usually at the biggest international hotel.  I loved it.  I loved the fact that it never cooled off, only cooled down; that there was no respite from the heat, and none sought.

I was probably hotter longer in India than any other place I visited.  Back in the late 60s  there was little air conditioning, and summer temperatures in May and June were never below 100F.  In the worst part of the hot season in Delhi, temperatures were close to 120F, and as the monsoon approached the air became thick with humidity.  People died of the heat in the Gangetic Plain in the summer.  In Bihar and central Maharashtra two of the hottest places in the country, heat waves killed hundreds. On a field trip to Nagpur one year, the temperatures were unseasonably hot, and daytime highs were well over 120F.  At night, in hotel rooms with no air conditioning and no cross ventilation, it never cooled off.  The stone and brick walls held the brutal heat of the day and cooked everyone inside.

 

In Delhi in late September there were patches of cool near the Lodi Gardens – little oases of fresh air under the neem, jamun, and arjun trees planted by Lutyens a century before. These cool pauses meant that the long, brutally hot summer was over.

In most of India there are three months of monsoon rains, and then nine months of progressively hot weather.  There are no clouds in the sky between the rains, no variation in temperature, no cool Siberian air masses dipping down into the subcontinent.  Just hot, hotter, and hottest; until in mid-June in Bombay the first wispy clouds appear over the Arabian sea.  In two weeks they thicken and darken, and the torrential rains begin.  It is like magic.  Nine long months of blue skies and blazing hot temperatures and then, out of nowhere, the cooling, drenching rains of the monsoon.

I recently watched a good film with George Clooney called The Descendants about a big Hawaiian family dealing with inheritance.  The story is a good one about a single father raising two young girls, trying to mediate among his brothers and sisters all of whom do not agree about the disposition of the family land; but what I remember most is Hawaii.  It is always warm there, and every shot in the movie was against a backdrop of green mountains, blue water, bright sunny skies, palm trees and flowers.  Paradise.  I cannot imagine a better place to live.

So, now that I am retired, why don’t I pick up and move there?  Nothing to stop me.  The thought of ending winter forever, leaving every vestige of ice, snow, biting wind, and frost behind is very tempting indeed.  I am always amazed at the reactions I get when I tell people of my dream to move to Hawaii or the Caribbean.  “Won’t you miss the changing seasons?”, they ask.  I have never liked the changing seasons.  I get depressed when the last warm days of summer go; and fall into an even deeper funk when winter finally comes to DC.  I put up with early Spring, enjoy the the first flowers. I am excited when I see snowdrops in late January and some early crocuses on the south side of streets in my neighborhood; but only because they mean that the hot weather is not far behind.

The colors in mid-October in New England are indeed spectacular. The trees are red, orange, and yellow; but the grass is still green and the sky a deep, dark blue.  An acid-trip kaleidoscope.  But the days are cool and the nights downright cold.  Within two weeks the leaves have all fallen, light snow begins, and by Thanksgiving all is grey, brown, dismal, and freezing.  I have never gotten tired of living in hot climates, never gotten bored of palm trees, palmettos, bougainvillea, and acacia.  A world of permanent blue and green is just fine with me.

My son is an expert skier, and snowboards the double-black diamond slopes on the tops of all the Western mountains. He is always first on the lift in the morning and last off in the evening.  He says there is nothing like standing in fresh powder on the top of a Colorado mountain with the sun just coming over the peaks.

My memories of skiing in northern Vermont during my college years are of nothing but cold.  One morning it was so cold that the gearshift oil on the old VW was frozen and the lift engines could not be started. The cold was frightening, inhuman.  Why would anyone ever want to be here on the mountain in northern New England in January?

I am writing this because today was really the first winter day of the season. A cold front moved through the area and with it snow flurries and temperatures that dropped into the 20s.  Reports were of long delays at airports to the north and the chance of significant snowfall to the west.  The warm temperatures of last week were long gone.  The few impatiens that survived the soft freezes earlier in the month were stone dead.  A few hybrid cold weather roses were still blooming in Georgetown, but they were frost-bitten, tacky-looking, and not long for this world.

As a boy I used to go out into the middle of the 7th hole fairway of the golf club near my house.  The snow was often two or three feet deep, and I could build a shelter – a kind of semi-igloo facing the sun.  There I would sit and warm up in the reflected sunlight.  I could even take off my heavy parka and gloves and pretend that it was a warm day.

In a few weeks I will head off to Beaufort, South Carolina to teach a course in theatre.  The average high temperatures for that time are in the low 60s – not really that warm, but the Spanish moss, swamps, and palmettos give the feeling that it is really not winter; that South Carolina doesn’t have a winter; and the days are simply cool.  By early February it really is warm, and I don’t have to do the New England quickstep and look behind me for the Alberta Clipper coming down to freeze everything solid.

Washington is tolerable as far as a northern city goes.  It rarely snows, and there are only a few weeks of brutally cold weather; but it is never warm until April and as much as I insist on keeping my sandals, shorts, and T-shirt until early November, I am only kidding myself.

So, I think I am here for the long haul – or actually the short haul, given my age.  I plan to spend more and more time in the South and leave just a few tail-end bits of winter to go through in DC.  I know I should listen to my wife who says, “Come on.  It isn’t that bad”; but yes, it is.  I even dream about the soft breezes of Kauai.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Talking About Mental Illness–OK, Just Not Too Much

Tom Chivers writing in The Telegraph (11.26.13) thinks that perhaps and finally the stigma against mental illness is slowly disappearing.  If we can discuss physical injury, disease, or damage, then we certainly can bring up the formerly taboo topic of mental imbalance.  Just look at the sports pages, Chivers suggests, and read about Jonathan Martin, the NFL football player who was reduced to tears because of bullying and then admitted it.  Now, anyone 350 lbs. 6’5” tall and working in an industry whose stock and trade is maiming, hurting, and debilitating others; but who is upset by some locker room trash talk has got to be a little off his rocker. 

Martin’s teammates, a pack of trained killers, fueled by off-the-charts hormones and a drive for respect and supremacy honed on the mean streets of Detroit, of course went after him, the ugliest duckling in the posse, the weakest link, and tried to chase him out of the pack. Martin could have thrown some of his weight around, bust some chops, and do some damage just like he was taught to do on the playing field, and the whole sorry affair would never have come to light. I don’t feel sorry for Martin nor am I critical of Richie Incognito, his supposed tormentor. What their colleagues have said, in careful but obvious terms, is that it is a jungle inside the locker room, so man up.

However, we are supposed to feel sorry for Martin who was bullied.  Little Jonathan should never have to defend himself on the playground, learn real-world survival skills, take a few kicks in the ribs and come up swinging. Wrong.  He should learn in fifth grade what he will eventually learn as a lawyer – win at all costs; and use sticks and stones, cheap shots, scurrility, and ad hominem attacks as long as you can get away with them.  He might as well learn right out of the gate that the world is a pretty rough place, no one is going to do you any favors, and that a lifetime of scraps, pissing matches, and behind-the-back ploys awaits.

We are also supposed to celebrate Martin’s honesty about his weakness.  Obviously although he thought he was wired for mayhem, he was not.  His wiring was defective. There was a  a stuck relay, or a bad transformer that made his knees knock uncontrollably when he was razzed, taunted, and called a faggot.  His mind was as defective and useless as that of a palsied passer.

Chivers also cites many other examples of outed mental illness.  Super macho Tony Soprano had the willies and sought help.  See, we are advised, there is nothing wrong with mental peculiarities, and as long as it doesn’t get in the way of business, it’s OK. So Tony gets some counseling so that he doesn’t go to pieces over a hit, a shakedown, or a protection money bomb through a store window.  The movie Analyze This with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal as mafia boss and his psychiatrist tells pretty much the same story.  How can De Niro kill people if his emotions get the best of him?

There is a difference between these caricatures and the real-life world of depression, schizophrenia, and mania in which people see things, suffer painful episodes of mental misery, and want to kill themselves or others.  It is this real illness which deserves attention.  My aunt lived for many years with clinical depression, but she was afraid to admit it.  She made life miserable for my uncle and my cousins.  She sat for hours in dark, airless rooms, brooding and angry.  Not only did she suffer but made everyone around her miserable. They were the cause of her desperate unhappiness.  They were the ones who unfairly criticized her, never loved her, and dismissed her as irrelevant. 

Many years into this extended period of gloom and desperation, she needed a pacemaker. The cardiologist, following a well-established post-operative protocol asked her how she was feeling, and whether or not she felt depressed.  It is common, he told her, for women to feel down in the dumps after getting a pacemaker.  An intimation of mortality.

This was the socially acceptable moment she had been waiting for for 20 years.  Hers was a medical condition, not a mental one.  Yes, she said.  In fact she was not feeling herself these days.  From then on she took Xanax for her ‘chemical imbalance’ and the curtains that had for so long closed her in a dark room were opened.

Between the two poles, however; between the Soprano/Martin caricatures and the seriously ill, there is an unbelievable range of wackos, nuts, and creeps.  At my own gym, for example there are some truly scary people.  One guy dresses and acts like Ghost Dog.

He always dresses in black, never takes off his hoodie, never smiles, and is just plain creepy. He straps on Inquisition-style belts and harnesses, runs on the treadmill all trussed up, and then sits and looks out at the gym floor filled with eager but timid 30-somethings and matrons keeping the tummy tuck tight.  Everyone at the gym gives him wide berth.

There is another member who suits up in racing silks like a jockey.  Under then he wears layers of rubber and foam insulation.  He wears a ski hat and thick leggings.  He talks to himself on the stationary bike.

I know a man who absolutely, positively cannot run counter-clockwise around the indoor track.  He is perfectly fine otherwise.  In fact after the gym he heads down to a K Street law firm and goes home to a wife and two kids.  It’s just that there is a screw loose upstairs and no matter how hard he may try to tighten it, nothing works.  Because the track direction reverses every other day, he only runs when the flow is clockwise.

There are legions of hypochondriacs wandering the streets of Washington.  I see them on the Metro rocking in mid-aisle, doing pirouettes to avoid touching the center poles, the seats, or the doors. Perfectly ordinary businesswomen avoid touching the lines on the sidewalk. I see panic attacks in the elegant lobby of the Willard; nervous hives on the bus; and irrepressible bursts of solo laughter on the elevator.

All these people are nuts in one form or another.  I never paid them much mind until sharing your disability became popular.  I took tics, funny mannerisms, twitches, and minor paranoia in stride. We all have some kind of quirk or oddity. Only when it gets weird do we notice. It is common, for example, to wonder whether we have turned off the gas and to run back into the house before heading off for the weekend; but when a friend has to make two or three trips to make absolutely, positively sure, then the screw needs tightening if not replacing.

I know one woman who has a routine established to cure her of this turn-off-the-gas obsession.  As she is turning off the burner on the stove, she holds the knob tight and says out loud, “OK.  Now I AM TURNING OFF THE BURNER!”  This bit of theatre never works, of course, and not until some trigger in her brain is pulled – perhaps after the fifth or sixth trip into the kitchen – can she quit.

For a while I could put up with her gas burner compulsion; but soon whatever was eroding the wiring in her head affected other circuits.  No sooner had we gotten onto the Beltway when she said, “Stop the car.  I’ve got to check something”.  She would not let me wait for a proper turnoff or a rest area.  I saw the panic in her eyes and knew that it was curtains for me if I didn’t stop. 

In this confessional age of ours, everyone is coming clean, apologizing, or admitting something that by rights they should be keeping to themselves.  “I have erectile dysfunction”, a friend casually told me.  Now, that was something that a few years ago was not even whispered; but in today’s Viagra climate, anything goes.  Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there.  “I could get it partially up”, he confided, “but not all the way.  Now, with Viagra, I am as hard as a steel rod”  This was far more than I wanted to know, particularly since I had to look at his withered dick and shriveled balls every day at the gym.

All this hoopla does not create a concern for serious mental illness but trivializes it. There are people who are truly and legitimately so afraid of heights that they cannot cross the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore.  They are crippled by their anxiety, and cannot make it either to the beach or to New Jersey (Delaware Memorial Bridge) because of it.  So when someone leans over one of the bridges over Rock Creek Parkway and says that they suffer from acrophobia, I have no patience.  Everybody is afraid of falling from precipitous heights, and it is a good thing that they are.

Too many normal people tell me they are taking Xanax or Prozac, seeing a psychiatrist, or having psychological counseling. They are trying to sort out a bad marriage, a bullying boss, or insidious co-workers and need to talk about it.  Talk about what? Sign the divorce papers, call out your boss to Senior Management, and start spreading vicious rumors about your colleagues. Just don’t run crying to the shrink and then tell me about it.

Brains go wrong just like kidneys, says The Telegraph’s Childers; and so we should pay them the same mind.  Yes, but within limits.  I would hope that all seriously mentally ill people seek help, and perhaps public discussion of the problem can help to dispel the social opprobrium around it.  It’s just the self-centered whiners that bug me.  I wish that my friend would keep his erectile dysfunction to himself, and that Jane Thompson would simply not lean out over Buffalo Bridge.  There are so many wackos wandering around that it takes work and strategy to try to not look at them.  I have changed my gym hours so that I don’t have to watch Ghost Dog do his Inquisition number on the treadmill. Oops.  Perhaps one of my own screws is now loose.

I Hate The Holidays

I hate The Holidays. Come Thanksgiving my spirits drop; and by Christmas, I am in the tar pits.

Women are more fans of the The Holidays than men because they want to keep tradition alive and family together.  In a world where children leave the nest early and only come back in times of penury or broken marriages, a happy Christmas with shared mulled wine and the promise of presents is an anchor, a statement of solidarity, and an expression of warmth and generosity.  She, therefore, does not understand my dark feelings.

I am not sure either why they come on like a Black Dog depression every year.  The easy answer, posited by the liberal intelligentsia, is crass commercialism. Christmas was once a beautiful holiday, they say, all white snow, holly wreaths, carolers, and good cheer.  Presents were simple – an orange, a warm scarf, or a fruit cake made by Aunt Margaret.  Nothing like today with a shopping season that begins before Halloween, the feeding frenzy of Black Friday, and a month-long gantlet of advertising for useless, senseless, and inane products.

In an article in The Guardian (11.26.13) George Monbiot rails against the hijacking of Christmas by commercial interests.

Christmas permits the global bullshit industry to recruit the values with which so many of us would like the festival to be invested – love, warmth, a community of spirit – to the sole end of selling things that no one needs or even wants. Sadly, like all newspapers, the Guardian participates in this orgy. Saturday's magazine contained what looks like a shopping list for the last days of the Roman empire. There's a smart cuckoo clock, for those whose dumb ones aren't up to the mark; a remotely operated kettle; a soap dispenser at £55; a mahogany skateboard (disgracefully, the provenance of the wood is mentioned by neither the Guardian nor the retailer); a "pappardelle rolling pin", whatever the hell that is; £25 chocolate baubles; a £16 box of, er, garden twine.

There is nothing new in the observation that the retail industry has transformed Christmas from a Grandma Moses pastoral to a Macy’s free-for-all; and that most of us have fallen for it. We are the shoppers who line up at big box stores in the middle of the night and who stampede down the aisles like a herd of buffalo as soon as the doors open.  We are the parents who listen to their children’s obscene requests, and then fight the crowds to get Sofia, The First Royal Talking Vanity, one of Toys ‘R Us hottest toys of the Season.

Not only is Toys ‘R Us the temple of American Christmas commercialism – that would be bad enough – but it is an aggressive proselytizer for shopping.  Its ads do not simply promote toys and celebrate buying, but take a broad swipe at the opposition:

Watch the latest advertisement for Toys R Us in the US. A man dressed up as a ranger herds children on to a green bus belonging to "the Meet the Trees Foundation". "Today we're taking the kids on the best field trip they could wish for," he confides to us. "And they don't even know it."

On the bus he starts teaching them, badly, about leaves. The children yawn and shift in their seats. Suddenly, he announces: "But we're not going to the forest today …" He strips off his ranger shirt. "We're going to Toys R Us, guys!" The children go berserk. "We're going to get to play with all the toys, and you're going to get to choose any toy that you want!" The children run, in slow motion, down the aisles of the shop, then almost swoon as they caress their chosen toys.

This, despite Monbiot’s laments, is an example of brilliant marketing.  It isn’t just about the toys, but about the experience. Modern day kids in a candy shop. Shelf after shelf of dolls, action figures, vanity sets, dress-up kits, army fatigues, little princess wands, Humvees, battle armor, space ships, Barbies, video games, bikes, kitchen sets….The list is endless.

Modern marketing theorists understand that the shopping experience is even more valuable than the purchased product itself.  Women are agog at the displays in Nordstrom’s, Lord & Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue; and children are bedazzled at Toys ‘R Us. Once toys and must-have blouses are unwrapped and given a short run, they pile up unused and unnoticed in closets and playrooms. The ad cited by Monbiot is part of an overall marketing strategy – Christmas is the highest of High Holidays and shopping for toys is a sacred ritual.

In the dynamics of the marketplace it takes two to tango – buyer and seller.  Economics 101 is never far from view; and if it weren’t for the rabid, materialistic American masses, Toys ‘R Us would be out of business.  And without the canny, insistent, and persuasive advertising of toy manufacturers and retail outlets, consumers can only wish in the dark.

The mastery of product retailers is that they create demand where it never existed before.  What little girl ever imagined that there was such a thing as a talking princess vanity?

So, no, the commercial blitzkrieg is not what sends me down in the dumps.  Fortunately I am insulated from most of it anyway.  I live in a leafy, traditional neighborhood of Washington and rarely see a mall, a commercial strip, or shopping center.  I watch little TV, and in my narrow little privileged strip of DC there are no bright lights, banners, or advertising posters.

Other observers have noted that the reason for Holiday Depression is unmet expectations.  The once-a-year happy family reunions that nine-times-out-of-ten turn bad. The adult children resent that parent guilt drove them to give up a perfectly good skiing holiday and spend a treacly present-opening faux-celebration with the folks. Cousin Kerry is still pissed at something Cousin George said five years ago, and as soon as she hears his catarrh, her bile rises.  The tree is a pain in the ass to put up, and old Aunt Mary knocks it on its pins every year as she tries to right it. “It’s not plumb”, she croaks, and nudges it left and right until it starts to totter.

Uncle Bill starts with hot toddies, moves on to straight single malt, drinks far more than his fair share of burgundy over his turkey wings, and by liqueur and coffee time won’t shut up about Obama and the Damn-Ass-Craps.  Nieces and nephews have other parties to go to, the dishes pile up in the sink, and everybody wishes they were somewhere else.

It is all supposed to be a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but it never, ever is.

I don’t think Christmas get-togethers are my problem either.  My mother hated ‘company’, and so we made the trek every year down to New Haven to my more sociable aunt’s house.  I loved her Christmases because of the food – antipasto, lasagna, eggplant parmesan, corn fritters, baked ham, custard pies, sfogliatelle, canoli, and boca notte.  My cousins were older so it was fun hanging out with them, and the day was all about eating.  No presents.

I think my resistance is all about obligation and routine. I resent the fact that we have to have a tree, presents, big dinners, and company.  I love my children, but I would rather see them in Boston and San Francisco, eat at great restaurants, be with them in situ, meet their friends and partners – laugh and joke on their terms and on their turf.  I would rather the impromptu visit, a free weekend, meeting up on Cape Cod or Napa. There is nothing expected, nothing dutiful, no demands or expectations.

For the first time ever my wife and I are not having a family Thanksgiving and going to our favorite resort on the Rappahannock.  A short getaway on the water, lots of oysters, Northern Neck wineries, and a relaxed, simple, and old-fashioned hotel ambience. Best of all, no turkey, stuffing, creamed onions, sweet potatoes, mince and pumpkin pies, and Aunt Julia’s lumpy mashed.  I would love to have my children join us there, but they are busy with their own lives; and besides, the resort is way too conservative and quiet for them. I love the idea of the family getting together, not just in Holiday harness.

One morning while working out at the gym, I ran into an old friend. We talked about our plans, what we were doing, and when we might get together.  He asked me about The Holidays, and I replied that I hated them.  He looked startled, and said, “So do I.” We found that we both go into funks at the first sign of a Christmas wreath, Salvation Army Santa, Toyotas wrapped in Christmas ribbon, and stands of fir trees on church lawns.  We both knew that Holiday Funk was a common American phenomenon; but this was the first time we had admitted our own personal misery to anyone else.  It was elating.

I will get through The Holidays one more time; but secretly wish that I were sitting down at Delfina’s in the Mission or eating oysters in South Boston with my children.  Last August my wife and I visited my daughter in San Francisco and went to the biggest flea market ever – acres and acres of stuff just across the Bay in Oakland – moose antlers, 1940s saws, old prints of Sausalito, medical forceps, ancient dolls, masks, and frilly dresses.  Now THAT was a Christmas to remember!