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

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Irrelevance Of Men


Laura, wife of the Captain in Strindberg’s play The Father is a feminist’s dream and a woman far ahead of her time. Living in rural 19th Century Sweden, Laura has few marital rights and even less control over the upbringing of her daughter.  The State has conferred all legal authority on the male head of household, and the social conventions of the time rigidly adhere to this traditional family hierarchy.

Laura, however, is having none of it.  She will destroy her husband, thereby inheriting all rights and responsibility for her child.  Iago-like, she sows seeds of doubt about their daughter’s paternity, and Othello-like the Captain goes mad, is committed to a mental institution and is history.  Not only does she progressively and insidiously insinuate that the Captain is not Bertha’s father, but as he is about to be carted off, she says to him:
Now you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner, you are not needed any longer and you must go. You must go, since you have realized that my intellect is as strong as my will, and since you will not stay and acknowledge it.
She is malevolent, powerful, and as willful and determined as any Superman of Nietzsche. Men are good for one thing and one thing only, she tells her husband – the rooster’s contribution – and when he has disgustingly dribbled his seed into her, she has absolutely, positively, irreversibly no need for him at all.

Laura is more purposeful, further beyond any trace of morality than even Iago, a man with no principle, no moral code, and no guiding principles.  He destroys Othello because his will demands it.  He shows no remorse, no concern for the consequences of his actions.  Laura is cut from the same mold. 

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel have the same iron will, determination, and disdain for traditional morality as Laura.  Hedda destroys her lover.  Rebekka destroys Rosmer; and Hilda destroys the Master Builder because they can.  The profit little from their evil enterprise.  They are proto-Nietzschean and ur-Feminists.  It is only Laura, however, who makes explicit her total disdain for her husband and all men.  They are nothing more than insignificant seed-bearers, dumb roosters who peck, cluck, deposit their genetic bit, and fly up to the top of the weathervane to crow at sunup.  Useless, irrelevant, and laughable.



A lot has been made recently of the book The End of Men by Hanna Rosin in which she makes the case that the movement towards female dominance in the workplace has now become unstoppable.  There are no brakes on the express train which left the station a decade or two ago and is only now picking up speed.  Men are increasingly irrelevant in the workplace, the author contends. Women can do just fine on their own – and if the truth be known, do far better than their extremely limited, testosterone-driven, myopic male colleagues.  Women, following their natural biological tendencies to seek consensus, relate with compassion, and act with tact and diplomacy, are innately better managers, leaders, and political strategists.
“Cardboard Man” is rigid, stuck in old habits, mentally muscle-bound and unable to adapt to the fleet-footed and mercurial global economy. “Plastic Woman” (an unfortunate name choice, given the surgical “adaptability” it calls to mind) is infinitely malleable, nimble and endowed with “traditionally feminine attributes, like empathy, patience and communal problem-solving,” that make her the perfect match for the new economy. For her, the only way forward is up. (Jennifer Homans, NYT, September 2012)
This is all well and good, although I saw nary a trace of this plasticity in the character of the female supervisor I had a few years ago.  Linda (not her real name) was as unstoppably, resolutely, and absolutely male as any other director in the corporation.  She took no prisoners, ruled with complete and absolute authority, intimidated, threatened, and browbeat her subordinates; and was canny enough to fool Senior Management into thinking she was an ideal manager.  In the short term, which is all American profit-making companies are interested in, her bottom lines were unmatched.  And, I suspect, she was not alone.

This is neither here nor there, for anyone who has worked for both men and women, know that the most successful women are still the ones who have some mutated form of testosterone in their bloodstream. Those caring, compassionate, and conciliatory women Rosin talks about are kindergarten teachers.  The only legitimate point in the argument is that women are on their way to being represented far beyond their 50 percent proportion of the population; and savvy men are very happy about it.  There is no gender crisis at this simple, workplace level.  Men have wanted women to do their fair share for a long time.  Why should they be the only ones with heart attacks, stifled rage syndrome, and frustration? These alert and canny men know that doing a few more dishes and laundry is well worth the second salary and the flexibility to take a lighter workload or even take off a few years.

The problems seems to be that many women are stressed and conflicted about this rapid rise to power.  Not only do they hear the biological clock ticking, but have to wonder if denying their female biological imperative is such a good idea. In the middle of night, tossing and turning after a brutal day at the office, they must feel a visceral, XX chromosome, gene-driven angst about motherhood and responsibility.  Only women can have babies, these restless, sleepless, and overwhelmed women spin in their sleepless 3am brains.  Doesn’t that tell us something? Can we – or better should we – ignore our God-given and –ordained purpose in life?



Men understand this, and far from being sympathetic, use this feminine insecurity and indecisiveness to their advantage. After all, they never have had such dilemmas to face. Feminists are right in one thing – men are definitely single-minded and testosterone-driven and couldn’t be conciliatory and caring if they tried; and because of that singularity are automatically in a position of psychological authority.

Both men and women are adept at twisting mates around their fingers.  Shakespeare’s Cleopatra felt nothing for poor, besotted Antony who followed her around like a little puppy.  Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola in Shakespeare’s Comedies ran rings around their male suitors.  The New Age Man, however, far from being the complaisant and dutiful water boy for successful spouses, preys just as easily on women seduced by power, status, and recognition.

The rapid ascendency of women in the workplace is but one variable in the gender calculus.  Ever since the advent of women’s rights, marriage has become a contract to be negotiated, arbitrated, and contested.  It is no longer a simple, stable field of encounter.  Roles are changing as are expectations, contributions, and responsibilities; but gender imperatives are not.  I know many 30-something women who are eminently successful in their professional careers; but when they leave their corporate offices, they blubber to their female friends about their husbands’ and boyfriends’ abuse, infidelity, and callous indifference.  Their worldview – caring, conciliatory, and inclusive – runs into the male buzz saw of determined self interest every single night.

Boyfriends, however, have learned to benefit from women’s biological clock and their determined pursuit of professional success.  They can exact far more concessions from a woman nearing their pull-by fertility date than from one who unhesitatingly talks of marriage and children.

In other words, although women have made noteworthy progress in the world of the workplace, they still have a lot to work out on the home front.  Who exactly am I? is not so easy to answer.

The gender dust has not yet settled.  The thirty-something women of today are still working out their relationships with pre-Feminist mothers and traditional fathers.  Freud simply won’t go away, and men still marry their mothers and daughters their fathers.  No wonder women still start blubbering when their boyfriend/father shows indifference regardless of their professional acclaim.

On the other hand, all the thirty-something men I know are not going through any of this.  Other than a little more ‘consideration’ shown to their hard-working partners or spouses, they still do what they damn please because they know that in a shrinking market, eligible men are hard to find. Young men have serial girlfriends through their twenties and early thirties; and then are deluged by sexual offers by women who finally have to choose a mate or lose out on motherhood. 

So most men I know are totally unconcerned about becoming irrelevant.  They know, after all the corporate balance sheets have been tallied; after all the VP and SVP titles recorded, they still rule the gender roost.

This will certainly change.  Women will sort through all this gender noise and chart truer paths to complete professional and personal success.  Men’s cynical sexual games will be exposed once and for all, and all relational contracts renegotiated.  Women’s liberation is really only a few decades old, and women are still caught in the backwash of the engines taking them forward; but when they find themselves in calmer waters, they will regain both flotation and equality.

Until then men still have a pretty easy ride.  Now, there are some men who have bought into the whole women’s rights thing and still prefer the role of water boy and gofer.  They attend women’s conferences, write articles about equality and rights, and neuter themselves in the name of Progressivism, but fortunately they are few and far between.

Although superficially society has changed, and women have certainly emerged into a much brighter world than they lived in for hundreds of years, human nature – and male and female natures – have not changed at all.  The savvy, confident, self-assured men will leave far more progeny behind than those who attend women’s conferences.

Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Laura, Hilde Wangel, Constance, Margaret, and Rosalind will always be my heroes.  They are unafraid to express their will and defy men, convention, and morality to get what they want.  They have no equals, and I have met many women in real life who could have been models for Ibsen, Strindberg, or Shakespeare in their time.  Most women, however, are conflicted, unsure, burdened by their past and their XX chromosomes.  They are Chekhov people – intelligent, but hesitant.

The real gender wars have only begun.  Men are by no means irrelevant, and never will be, so equally matched are males and females.  We have the upper hand for a while, but history has shown that those on top always come a cropper.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bowling Alleys And Roller Rinks–The Best Way To Meet Girls

Picking up girls at bowling alleys and roller rinks sounds like the lamest, cheesiest, dumbest way to go about the business of finding a mate, but unfortunately it was one of only two ways we had back in the late Fifties. We, the sons of the local gentry in our small Connecticut town could either meet high class girls at the Mistletoe Ball, Holly Ball, or Spring Cotillion – black tie affairs designed to mate good stock - or meet low class ones at the Bowl-o-Rama on the Berlin Turnpike or at the Bowl-o-Rink downtown. 

We had an overblown view of our allure and thought that the factory girls would of course fall for anyone from the West End; but in fact Danuta and Carmela could care less about our pedigree.  To them we were coddled nobodies whose lives were as remote to them as climbing Mt. Everest.  We summered on the Vineyard, skied at Vail or Gstaad, were headed to St. Grottlesex, Yale, and Harvard; while their view of advancement was moving from key punch to rivet gun.  They went to New Brighton High or St. Mary’s, worked all summer at Woolworth’s and Kresge’s selling notions and paper clips, and the only place they were going after high school was onto the factory floor with their mothers.  We were a nuisance and a bother, and our diffident cool was no allure.  We were slumming and they knew it.

The town where I grew up was divided exactly into four social categories.  There were the descendants of the captains of industry who built the town and made it into a 19th century industrial powerhouse.  Next were the professionals – the Italian, Polish, and Jewish doctors, dentists, and lawyers who served their ethnic clientele. The third group was made up of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, house painters, and car mechanics who lived in salt boxes on the outskirts of downtown; and the last were the Polish and Italian factory workers who spoke no English, lived in four-story walk-ups, and took the bus.

The bowling alley and roller skating rink were the mixing bowls for the sons and daughters of the carpenters, pipe-fitters, and hydraulic press operators.  Marrying up was a short step, not a climb up the Himalayas.  The son of an electrician or a plumber looked pretty good to Danuta Rozcicki whose life trajectory looked no better than cooking kielbasa for husband Stash and their four kids in the same Arch Street tenement she grew up in.

So the arrival of the J.Press, Bass Weejun loafer crowd from Corbin Street went without much notice. Although none of us would admit it, we didn’t know what we would do with these gum-chewing, rouged girls in angora sweaters if they did accept our offers.  All we had heard was that factory girls liked to get right down to business – no glass of wine, no foreplay, no lingering over breasts and neck.  Get it over with and make it quick.

It was no wonder that they felt this way.  Two shit jobs and a fourth floor walkup on Dwight Street was not conducive to romance; and Danuta expected her fat future husband to roll on top of her, breathe garlic breath into her face, pump three times, and roll off just as she heard her father do after dinner on Fridays.

Everything about the Bowl-o-Rink was tacky and foreign. The girls’ make-up, cheap perfume, and pink sweaters were tribal.  Their boyfriends were loud and tough-looking.

At the same time we were bored at the annual round of cotillions and balls in West Hartford.  If the factory girls had gotten bad genes from the Polish and Italian peasant stock of their parents, the daughters of the 400 seemed to have been dealt cards from a blank deck. Their parents could only hope that some unsuspecting boy from a good family would fall for their daughter’s guileless charm and simple beauty; for they knew that there were no other files in the portfolio.

So, we filled out dance cards, bought corsages, and danced to Lester Lanin over Christmas break; and cruised the turnpike and downtown New Britain in the summer.  We all hoped that we would find our soul mate somewhere between the kielbasa and the mistletoe, but the pickins were slim in those days.

Being the son of the professional class I could work both worlds.  Nancy Fitch’s great-grandfather had founded Fitch Ball Bearings and her family had been comfortably wealthy since the patriarch died in 1892.  I had met her at the Holly Ball, and in the late Spring we started to play tennis at her Country Club.  One evening after tennis, she suggested that we take a walk on the golf course.  It was perfectly manicured and cared-for and had been designed by Bobby Jones.  The fairways were like plush carpets, the greens hard and true, the sand traps Japanese in design, and the flowering bushes reminiscent of Augusta National. 

We lay down on the soft grass of the 8th hole fairway, held hands, and looked up at the stars. To my surprise, Nancy started to take off my belt and gently pull down my pants.  She kneeled over me and took off her blouse.  Her breasts were full, sweet, and soft.

All my images of Anglo-Saxon New England reserve went out the window that night.  Nancy Fitch was a tiger.  Her claw marks on my back took a week to heal, and her love bites had drawn blood.  She arched and thrusted, and howled like a hyena.  Her yells echoed through the woods and off the rocky outcrops of the Meriden Mountain foothills behind us. “Now, let’s go”, she said, adjusting her dress and putting on her shoes. “I’ll be late for dinner.”

I was in love with her and felt like  the boy in Turgenev’s First Love who is smitten by a beautiful, coy, and passionate girl.  I no longer had any need to chase factory girls or to smell kielbasa, house paint, or cigar smoke.  

Especially no more Marilyn Pantalucci who was a candy striper at New Brighton General Hospital I had met one day in a nearby park.  Some dates later we had a Polack-style roll-on, roll-off affair; and once was enough.  Marilyn, however, had other designs.  I was her trip out of guinea-land, wife-beaters, and pasta fazool.  When I told her that our relationship was off, she turned into a frenzied harpy.  Our sex was either a compact of marriage or rape, she said, and her father would decide which.  No matter what the verdict, I was sure that the dumb wop would come looking for me with a shotgun, so potent was that stereotype.

Both relationships ended, one well and the other badly. It seemed like all the stereotypes in the world were landing in my lap.  Nancy Fitch turned out to be another West End airhead dealt blank cards; and the Marilyn Pantalucci family was indeed a bunch of ignorant grease ball thugs who went nuts about onore and the chastity of their daughters.

Marilyn had over-reached, and not content with going up a step or two on the rickety social ladder at the Bowl-o-Rink, tried to hook someone from Category IA, and got burned.  Nancy Fitch couldn’t remember who I was when I saw her at a Christmas party in my Junior Year.  Her parents had sent her off to finishing school in Vermont - a refuge for the dumb children of socially superior and wealthy families - and any dalliance with me on the golf course had been long forgotten.

A number of years ago I returned to my old haunts in Central Connecticut and was not surprised to find that the Bowl-o-Rink and the Bowl-o-Rama on the Berlin Turnpike had been torn down long ago.  Cruising the lanes was a right of passage for a New Brighton boy, a heads up to social class and difference, and an exercise in making sense out of it all, but the world had changed. Some things are slower to disappear than others, and the Country Club was still there.  The fairways were still as plush and well-maintained as ever. 

The Club, icon and bastion of WASP heritage and privilege had staying power and a residual cachet and was certain to remain until all the West End families had pulled up stakes and moved to Florida. On a trip back a few years ago I saw a few golfers on the third hole who looked an awful lot like Guido Pantalucci, the terrorizing father of Marilyn, so I knew that the old guard had long ago fled to Florida, and the venue for social mixing and diversity had shifted from the bowling alley uptown.  New Brighton without its sharply-edged social classes – no more Vineyard swells or Danutas from Dwight Street – looked like a far less interesting place than when I lived there. The trip was my last. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Measles, Mumps, Chicken Pops, And The Anti-Vaccination Crowd

When I was a boy in the Fifties, there were no vaccinations against childhood diseases, so you just got them.  Better to have them as a child than to suffer the horrible consequences of getting them in adulthood – like going blind or getting swollen testicles.  None of us, our junk still tiny and insignificant, could possibly imagine oversized balls, but we wanted them and hoped that the mumps would pass us by as children so we could catch it when we were ready.

Every year an epidemic of childhood diseases swept the community.  Measles were the worst because you had to stay in a room with the shades down.  Of all the diseases you could get, it was definitely the worst. You could die from it.  As a result there were a lot of old wives’ tales around.  My favorite was this one: Take a cutting of hair from the sick child, put it between two pieces of buttered bread and feed the sandwich to the dog who would assume the disease, thus curing the patient.  Needless to say it never worked, but the old Italians on Franklin Square knew differently.  If their child still had the measles after the sandwich and the dog, it could only have been the wrong kind of dog, not the treatment itself.

The Swedes believed that a tea made from the bark taken from the north side of a cherry tree would cure measles, and every year the trees in Rogers Orchards were scarred and bleeding.  Bill Rogers knew exactly who was responsible, and confronted the Bergstroms – first politely and then more threateningly – every Spring before measles season.  Knut Bergstrom and his wife knew no English and didn’t need any because working at North & Judd required nothing more than showing up and keeping your fingers out of the hydraulic press.

So when Bill Rogers showed the Bergstroms pieces of bark from his cherry trees, they had no idea what he was talking about, but assumed that he was warning them of a particularly virulent measles season to come.  Rogers was almost as phlegmatic as the Bergstroms, so flying off the handle like this could only mean trouble.

The mumps were weird because your face swelled up and even a drop of lemon juice felt like a jolt of electricity.  Bobby Blantyre’s mother knew that he had the mumps when he jumped out of his chair at the first sip of the fresh lemonade she had made for him early one summer.

Chicken pox – or ‘pops’ as most kids called it – was the most fun, because it felt so good to scratch the itchy sores that appeared all over your body. You had to be careful to scratch around each pox and not tear off the scab (“You will be scarred for life”, my mother hollered when she saw me in an ecstasy of scratching and getting perilously close to the crusted whorl), but it was worth the risk.

Some kids had it worse than others.  Lila Steinberg had pops in her throat, and her sister told us she had them ‘down there’.  At six or seven we couldn’t even imagine what ‘down there’ looked like, let alone with chicken pox, and it might be disgusting; but we all asked her if we could have a look anyway.

Whooping cough was fun too.  The cough was as deep as a coal miner’s and after a few days you sounded like a bloodhound.  Billy Babbitt bayed at us from his bedroom window as we walked home from school.  We all barked back and riled up all the dogs on the block.

Polio was a different story.  The idea of spending your whole life in an iron lung was creepy.

And although we all imitated Johnny Peabody and walked like alien tin men from Mars after he clanked by, we never ever wanted to end up like him.

Swimming pools and movie theatres were off-limits in the summer when polio seemed to strike the hardest; but it was always too nice out to see the crummy double-features at the Palace, and we had grown out of the Saturday morning cowboy and Three Stooges matinees.  The pool at Stanley Quarter Park was always crowded with kids from the public schools who lived in four-story walk-ups near the factories, and most of us went away for the summer anyway, on family vacations to Maine or the Bay Islands; so pool time was not an issue.

All of which leads me to the conspiratorial hype circulating about vaccinations.  There are now immunizations against all childhood illnesses and yet parents are refusing them on the grounds that they cause all kinds of worse problems like autism, brain cancer, and worse.  My favorite is this one:

With respect to the tracking issue, the government places miniscule tracking devices in these vaccinations. These tracking devices act as beacons for various satellites. In this way, similar to the technology found in controlling airplane traffic, the government knows where we are at all times. Indeed, it is unclear how much information is provided in these beacon devices. These beacons may, for example, provide rudimentary data, such as age, heart rate, blood pressure, or speed. They may also provide more detailed information, such as what we are saying at any given time.

I am not really surprised at this, because a few years ago I met an online journalist from Tupelo, Mississippi who had just written a series of articles on fluoridation.  He said that he wanted to warn people because more and more jurisdictions were adding the chemical to drinking water.  After a few minutes, however, I learned that he was not so much worried about the usual issues – cancer, mental retardation, early Alzheimer’s autism, and monkey tics – but about an even more pernicious effect. 

The Soviets had learned from captured Nazi scientists that fluoridation had unique properties of mind control – it made people more compliant and particularly responsive to political persuasion.  The Nazis had successfully fluoridated German water and that was why so many millions of otherwise normal people had become such rabid Nazis.  The Soviets wanted to accomplish the same thing, except this time to promote Communism; and had surreptitiously fluoridated water systems in the United States.  At the same time spies and Soviet propagandists spread information about Communism.  The result was a whole decade of pro-Soviet American Communism. 

‘Tracking’, therefore, is not that weird.

Parents in many states are organizing chicken pox parties where children use the blankets, clothes, dishes, and stuffed animals of infected friends.  The idea is to get the disease early and avoid the painful complications of adulthood; and to avoid having to get vaccinations.

The idea of deliberately exposing your child to a potentially dangerous disease when a safe, sure, and proven vaccination is available seems wacko.   Here is a list of complications provided by the Centers for Disease Control:

Serious complications from chickenpox include

  • dehydration
  • pneumonia
  • bleeding problems
  • infection or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis, cerebellar ataxia)
  • bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues in children including Group A streptococcal infections
  • blood stream infections (sepsis)
  • toxic shock syndrome
  • bone infections
  • joint infections

Some people with serious complications from chickenpox can become so sick that they need to be hospitalized. Chickenpox can also cause death.

Chicken pox is the least dangerous of all the childhood illnesses; so if infection parties were restricted only to this disease and to the remote outer islands of Puget Sound, no one would take much notice.  But there is a strong, unified, and insistent anti-vaccination movement in the United States which threatens the lives of millions – not just Dick and Jane whose parents prefer a home-remedy DIY alternative.  Herd immunity is threatened when enough children are not vaccinated, and childhood diseases can come back with a vengeance.  Not vaccinating is not just a personal preference or individual statement.  It is an immoral act.

Not so, say the true believers.  There stance against vaccination is a stand for individual liberty, religious rights; and a line in the stand against an intrusive, malevolent, untrustworthy government out to dominate, intimidate, and neuter its citizens into a pliant, complaisant blob.  We hate the government so much that we are willing to risk our children for our principles.

Over forty percent of Americans do not believe in Evolution; and more that 60 percent consider themselves Christian fundamentalists for whom the Bible is the ultimate authority on everything.  Seen within that context, the stridency and goal line stand mentality of the anti-vaccination minority is understandable. Political observers have noted that America is a divided country – rich-poor; urban-rural; black-white; gay-straight, etc. – but the biggest division is between those who use reason to make decisions and those who do not.  The twain will never meet.

I am lucky to have survived the Fifties with only mild cases of mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough, and measles; and most important of all, I did not contract the dreaded polio.  Thanks to vaccinations my children never had any of these diseases and their children will be protected against many more.  They missed out on the ecstasy of scratching a chicken pops itch, baying like a bloodhound, and looking like a Mongoloid; but life has enough nasties in store that you might as well avoid those you can.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stress, Avoiding It, and The Girl From Ipanema

In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte writes about how Americans – particularly women – are feeling stressed and increasingly unable to cope with the many competing demands on them.  Being a wife, mother, and successful lawyer or corporate executive exact a big-time toll; and if that isn’t enough, women stress about being stressed. They are ‘overwhelmed’.

Very understandable, and it is no surprise that women in the middle of their restless nights may think back to a simpler era when they were homemakers, housewives, and keepers of the flame in the family hearth.  “Maybe it would be better for everyone if I gave up my job”, they feverishly consider, “and returned to caring for my family as women once did”. After all, they reason, caring and nurturing have been women’s anointed roles since time immemorial. 

Then the reality of never-ending routine of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, play groups, dirty diapers, and the crushingly boring outings to the park hits home.  What self-respecting woman with a degree from Harvard could possibly agree to a life of pushing a playground swing and sharing mother stories.  “Well, my two-year-old…”goes the operatic overture; but alas, no Ivy League education can make Acts I-IV any more than first steps, pre-school admissions, and unprocessed baby food.  The libretto is very weak indeed.

But oh, the angst, the visceral, perhaps even XX chromosome, gene-driven angst about motherhood and responsibility!  Only women can have babies, these restless, sleepless overwhelmed women think in the middle of the night.  Doesn’t that tell us something? Can we – or better should we – ignore our biological imperative?

If all this weren’t bad enough, women have to spread their legs for a husband who is frustrated at his work and wants at least some satisfaction at the end of a hard day.  Is it any surprise that half-drunken marital sex is a fumbling, inept affair?  And how trite is his  “What was wrong? You didn’t seem to enjoy it”.

So, modern women really do have a hard time, and men don’t fully realize it.  They pitch in far more than ever before, but still pull way less than half the load of diapers, dinners, and folding the laundry. However, society’s demands for gender equality is taking its toll on them as well.

But it doesn’t stop there. I (Brigid Schulte) soon discovered that men are beginning to feel as much or more overwhelm than women, now that so many no longer just want to be the distant provider father, or just the fun Dad or helper parent, but truly involved at home. They’re doing now what women did 30 years ago—giving up time for sleep and personal care and spending almost all their “leisure” time with their kids (In an article by Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic, 3.25.14).

The children of these manic couples turn out manic as well.  Of all the supposed factors contributing to ADHD, parental mania is perhaps the most important but the least discussed.  If you were a kid with a helicopter mom and a Type A father who absolutely, positively had to play horseshoes, darts, soccer with you, and take you bowling, you too would be jumpy, irritable, and restless by the time Monday rolled around.

Something’s got to give.  One option is for women to forego their careers and rejoin the female stream that began in the Paleolithic.

Can mergers and acquisitions really compare with childbirth? Can torts and contracts possibly compete with raising a child to be a moral, ethical, and responsible adult who thanks to mothers will never see the inside of a courtroom?

Another fevered reverie in the tortured Hours of the Wolf.  Theoretical, academic nonsense.  We live in an age of outsourcing – transferring contractual responsibilities to those who are better placed to perform the repetitive, often menial, but critical tasks of the economy.  So why not outsource parenting? Even thirty years ago parents in Northwest Washington fought like rabid hyenas to get their children into St. Margaret’s, the premier pre-school in the city.  Not only would the caring teachers of St. Margaret’s provide full-time intelligent attention to their children; they would take them off their hands for six hours.

If women farm their kids out to accredited schools, make partner, and manage to maintain at least a civil relationship with their husbands, the battle is only half won. What about aging Mom and Dad in Burlington?  Or sister Mae who went off the straight-and-narrow when she was fourteen?

Last but not least is a social life. Many stressed-out, lean-in, be-all-you-can-be women are getting drunk once a month with the girls at Happy Hour on K Street, and how unsatisfying is that?

I feel a lot of sympathy for young women who are stressed out by the incredible demands placed on them; but except for those relatively few men who have bought into the sharing partnership routine and given up male independence for feminist ideals, most have figured out a way to ease the pain. First, they have not given up their millennia-old right of sexual conquest.  They have figured out a way to have mistresses, girlfriends, and slight Folies Bergère paramours just like the French.  The cinq-a-sept liaison is no longer a thing of the Paris upper classes.  It is alive and well in America. Men may pay lip-service to modern fatherhood, but they are as serially unfaithful as men of 1000 years ago.

I have a friend who used to take his kids with him for his after-work tryst with his lover.  He made love to her while little Laura and Lars played Barbies and He-Man figures in the playroom.  Sometimes he did double-duty on the playground swings, adding duty hours to compensate for his drunk Sundays rolling around the mousy rug of his girlfriend’s Adams Morgan walk-up.

Another friend calls his wife every evening from his beachfront hotel in Ipanema before having dinner with his café-au-lait Brazilian beauty.  He chose his profession – International Development Consultant – as much for the sexual opportunity as for the professional challenge. His wife suspected his dalliances, but was none the wiser despite her suspicions.  When he returned home, he was really home.  He dug into childcare and housework like a trooper, working off whatever residual guilt remained as a result of his indiscretions and infidelity, but was actually only building up good karma with his wife for his next sexual escapades. 

As far as I could tell, he never had a stressed day in his life.  He figured out early on how he wanted to lead his life and managed his choice of wife and profession accordingly. Of course there were down times.  He spent more tedious vacations where she wanted to go and agreed only to build up marital equity. As he got older the allure of sexual adventure and risk lost some of their allure.  Life became more predictable, routine, and ordinary; but there was no doubt that most of his long life was spent happily and most importantly without tension, stress, and unnecessary conflict.

Women complain about their lot in life. They are either sexual objects; called whiny and bossy; or become conflicted moms,saints, whores, and trailer-bound housewives.  I have a great deal of sympathy for these modern women because they really do have a more difficult row to hoe than men.  They, like racial and ethnic minorities, are always bumping up against some stereotype or artificial glass ceiling. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t; while men go about their business as they have for millennia.

Women’s problem is that they have too many balls in the air and too many spinning hoops to jump through.   They can’t triage and focus, do a Nietzschean will-and-power thing like Goneril and Regan, Volumnia, Tamora and scores of other determined Shakespearean women.  They are not Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Laura, or Rebekka West who understand that the complete, uninhibited expression of will is the only validation of individual humanity. They could be, but they are not.

Men still can.  For us, life is simple – sex, power, and dominance as it always has been.  Women call us simplistic or puerile for this seemingly unsophisticated worldview.  Testosterone, they say disparagingly, but secretly envy men’s uncomplicated ignorance and willful acceptance of their biology.

In any case, stress can be avoided; and I have little sympathy for women who say they are conflicted and tense; and no patience with men who unsuccessfully fight their maleness.  Have fun, I say.  You can do it!

The Paleolithic Diet–Rugged, Natural, And Pointless

The Paleolithic diet is a modern nutritional plan based on the presumed diet of Paleolithic humans. It is based on the premise that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, which marked the end of the Paleolithic era, around 15,000 years ago, and that modern humans are adapted to the diet of the Paleolithic period.

The Paleolithic diet consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. What was good for the caveman is still good for us.  Here is a romanticized picture of Late Paleolithic Man who lived only 10,000 years ago.  He indeed looks a lot like us – trimmed beard, attractively long but not shaggy hair, well-muscled and not overly hairy, strong nose, and intelligent, purposeful gaze.

Early Paleolithic Man who lived 1,000,000 years ago was a bit different, and his diet was not chopped, pounded, cooked, and spiced like his descendants. He had massive jaws to rip and chew raw meat, roots, wild prairie stalks, and beehives.  He was truly close to the land and should be the real poster boy for the modern Paleolithic diet.

One of the hottest restaurants today is NOMA in Copenhagen.  The master chef is Rene Redzepi who forages for the ingredients that go into his five-star dishes. He gathers wild grasses, seaweed, leaves, periwinkles, nuts, and berries.  Although he does not bill his fare as Paleolithic for obvious reasons, he is a chef in that tradition.  He cooks his food, which is a big improvement on early the caveman, but he still has a profound belief that whatever grows can be eaten.

                                                            Rene Redzepi foraging for dinner

As far as I an tell, the Chinese are as Paleolithic as they come.  A Chinese exchange student lived with us for a year while my children were in high school.  I would often walk with him on the C&O Canal, a narrow strip of National Park along the Potomac River and home to a surprising variety of wildlife for parkland so close to Washington.  Every day he would notice some animal – a snake, chipmunk, beaver, shrike, or caterpillar – and comment, “That good to eat”.  After a month or more of this I said that it seemed that Chinese people ate everything.  “If you can catch it in China, you can eat it”, he replied.

My son spent many year in China and agreed.  Although the food was often greasy, it was certainly eclectic and very tasty.

The old Italians were pretty Paleolithic in their tastes as well.  My grandmother always picked dandelions from our front lawn in the Spring and fixed them in salads and in soups. I don’t know how she did it because they are the nastiest, most bitter, plants around.  Italians like bitter vegetables, and although Americans have come to like broccoli rabe and endive, the light bitterness took some getting used to. 

My dinners growing up were as far from Paleolithic as possible if you discount my grandmother’s occasional dandelions. We ate Swanson’s chicken pot pies and TV dinners, frozen French Fries, peas, carrots, and lima beans; and Sara Lee cakes.  My mother was actually a good cook, but soon got sick of Paleolithic chopping, pounding, and cooking and happily filled her shopping car with all the processed food that the Fifties could churn out.  Unfortunately for my sister and me, we had gotten used to her spaghetti with anchovies, all-day tomato sauce with veal, pork, and braciole; stuffed artichokes with parmesan cheese and garlic; and pasta al brodo.  

What is this disgusting stuff?”, my sister shouted when my mother served us our first TV dinner. Tasteless turkey slices, gluey dressing, fake, cardboard-tasting mashed potatoes, and marbly peas.  “You’ll eat it and like it”, my mother said.  “We’re going out”, and left with my father in a wash of perfume and cigarette smoke.

I first had my taste of ‘natural’ food in Quito in the 70s.  A husband-and-wife team from Vermont opened Hojas de Hierba and made whole-grain food – carrot cakes, muffins, and bread. They were impossibly rugged, inedible, and tasteless; but Alma and Lars were way ahead of the curve, and little did they know that the organic, whole foods, natural, locavore movement would be all the rage today.  Fortunately both local and commercial food producers learned quickly how to turn their stone age, rock-hard products into something delectable.  There is nothing like today’s organic bran muffin, hot out of the oven – fragrant, moist, sweet but not cloyingly so, and marvelously textured. 

Two Yale professors recently conducted a review of what are considered the healthiest diets available, assembled in this table by James Hamblin in The Atlantic (3.25.14).

The researchers were not able to conclude from the evidence which was best, but since they are all based on the same scientifically accepted principle – non-processed foods are best for health – one could freely pick and choose.

I am an eclectic cook and have prepared dishes from all the categories on the chart above – foods that are low in carbohydrates, low fat, and even Paleolithic, although because of my background, travel, and family tradition – not dietary principle - most of my dishes are Mediterranean.  I still don’t get the Paleolithic as a steady diet, however.

Good friends of ours live on a ranch in Montana and are committed to organic farming, local produce, and free-range meat.  They are not Paleoliths because they eat farm-grown grains and their own home-grown vegetables, but do insist on eating only wild animals.  They prefer not to do the hunting, but buy deer, elk, moose, and antelope shot by local ranchers in the foothills of the Crazies.  I am used to urban meat – thick, marbled, dry-aged prime ribeye; a thinly-sliced veal scaloppini; tartar-grade ground beef, or the tastiest of all, slow roasted lamb shanks with whole garlic and rosemary.

Elena roasted the elk, carved and served it at the table.  It was stringy, rangy, and five-minute-a chew tough. It was a principled meal, very Paleolithic, organic, and so free-range that hunters were up in the mountains for three days in the higher elevations before they brought the animal down.  Because the elk had run in a herd, traversing the mountains and back and forth across the length of Paradise Valley, it was lean and well-muscled.  It was a mature adult so any baby fat that it might have carried had been burned off long ago. The meat was tasteless and inedible.

Other friends of ours live in the Dordogne region of France, and both Marcel and Evelyn forage for wild mushrooms and truffles in the hills above their small chateau.  The problem, however, is that both are Parisians and moved to the ancestral home of Marcel’s family only after his mother had died.  They both took to country living, fit easily into the mold of country squires, and lived a life of sophisticated rusticity.  Neither one, however, learned how to forage correctly, and only thanks to a stray dog who begged for food, are they alive today. “I’m not so sure about that one”, said Evelyn to Marcel as he was about to cook some suspicious-looking mushrooms. “Why don’t you wrap it in fat and feed it to the dog to see”. 

It is easy to see how Marcel had mistaken the deadly Amanita ‘death cap’, the most deadly mushroom on earth with the clitocybe nuda, a very tasty edible variety of mushroom; but still, he was very  fortunate not to eat it.

He fed it to the hungry dog who gulped it in one go, lapped some water from the cistern in the courtyard, and keeled over dead.

The moral of the story is to eat what you like, particularly if you are of a certain age.  By the time you are of retirement age, whatever damage a childhood of Chef Boyardee, Swanson’s chicken pot pies, TV dinners, and Oreo cookies has done, it is too late to do anything about it. No amount of marbled fat, Perdue chickens, or Monsanto GMO-laced peas is going to make any difference whatsoever.

I am lucky to have been conditioned into liking a Mediterranean diet, so I prefer pasta marinara with a squid-based tomato sauce garnished with basil-steamed monk fish over a slab of meat.  When I do get the hungries for a bloody something, however, I go to the adult section of the store, and buy a thick 16 oz. NY Strip.  I never trim the succulent fatty bits from the center-cut, bone-in pork chops, but nibble them as entremets between each juicy mouthful of meat and the cheesy, Normandy-style potatoes au gratin with fines herbes I learned how to make in France.

I first had this potato dish in Brittany at the country home of a Parisian friend.  She picked the fresh herbs from the garden, bought the cheese from the local fromagerie , and helped slice the potatoes.  When the dish came out of the old, heavy, iron stove, it was bubbling with cheese and rich cream.  Every bite was succulent, full of flavor, and completely satisfying.

I could use half-and-half, semi-skim Jarlsberg, and regular butter; but I never cut back.  I use whole cream, unpasteurized, high-fat Gruyere and Emmental, and European-style creamery butter.  It is fabulous and always unforgettable.

I once was invited to a dinner party where the hostess wanted to show off her ‘nouvelle cuisine’ and made the same potato dish with all the ‘right’ but tasteless ingredients – skim milk, margarine, and low-fat cheese. The trick was to slow-bake it, she said, thus preventing curdling and allowing the potatoes to absorb all the liquids.  The result was a pasty mess. The cheese curdled into hard lumps, the potatoes disintegrated, and the liquids evaporated to leave a mess of oregano-flecked, half-mashed potatoes.

I am sure that there are some really remarkable creations chez Rene Redzepi; but I suspect diners eat an NOMA for the exotic allure of foraged ingredients, for the chef’s artistic presentation, and his renowned food architecture.  I still am not convinced that wild alfalfa and oak fungus will taste all that good.

noma copenhagen denmark dinner

Monday, March 24, 2014

Science And Meaning–Does The Big Bang Matter?

A few days ago scientists at Harvard reported that they had observed gravitational waves consistent with the Big Bang Theory.  If the universe started with a massive explosion sending matter and energy out in all directions, then these waves would be the ‘smoking gun’ that scientists have looked for since Alan Guth predicted them 35 years ago.

These waves, however, are not just clear evidence that the Big Bang happened, but explain why it happened – how something could be created out of nothing.

Guth discovered what might have made the universe bang to begin with. A potential hitch in the presumed course of cosmic evolution could have infused space itself with a special energy that exerted a repulsive force, causing the universe to swell faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant. (Dennis Overbye, New York Times 3.24.14)

I have just now gotten around to reading the articles about the discovery, not because I was interested in this new cosmological discovery but because I wasn’t.   I have barely enough time to suss out what I am doing here let alone ponder how the whole kit-and-caboodle got started. 

As college sophomores we all banged on about being and nothingness, God and Infinity, and the space-time continuum, then went to Mory’s and forgot about it all.  Interest picked up a few years later when we saw Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey.  The Big Bang with all its power had to have produced more than just Earth and human beings.  How arrogant and senseless was the assumption that we are alone.

We soon forgot about that argument as well.  Law school and Wall Street demanded all of our time; and in my case India was hard enough to decipher without complicating limited reason with cosmology. The Big Bang may have spit off the chunk of matter that we now live on, but my challenge was to fit India into my traditional, white-picket-fence, golf club and Ivy League world.

The Big Bang seemed remote and irrelevant. So did ornithology, ichthyology, and all other inquiries into the nature of how things worked. Only when scientists started tinkering around with human nature – what made us all tick and what was responsible for the surprising similarity of culture and behavior – did I lift my nose out of my curry and rice. It was beginning to look like human nature, unchanged for millennia because of hardwiring, was in for a retooling. Soon the advances in recombinant DNA research would enable genetic selection for all traits. Not only would we be able to create offspring who looked like Scarlett Johansson or ran like the wind; but we would be able to tinker with human nature itself – get rid of the nasty bits like the selfish gene and replace it with a more kind and considerate one.  Or borrow from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and create a fundamental human engine which was even more unstoppable and willful than they ever before.

At the same time that genetic research was moving into uncharted territory, Information Technology was exploding, and there was no doubt that a brain-computer interface would soon enable a completely virtual world.   The two discoveries together would revolutionize human nature and human society.  A visitor 1000 years in the future would be unable to make any sense out of old photographs of the 2000s.

Once I understood the dimensions of these radical discoveries and understood that once the train left the station there was no stopping it, I lost interest in the science behind them.  Occasionally an article would catch my eye – “British Scientists Improve on Crick”…”Think Like A Computer?”…”Human Cloning Within Our Lifetime?” – but they all corroborated the initial scientific/philosophical projection of fundamental genetic modification and virtuality.  After 10 million years, human beings were clearly ready for a new model. So I went back to the business of muddling through and trying to make sense out of my own life.  As Chekhov said in his short story Ward No. 6, the only reasons we are on earth is to search for understanding and to scorn vanity.

In that short story Chekhov debates the issue of stoicism and suffering.  Ragin has built his life on a stoic belief of random determinism.  The dice are rolled, the cards are dealt; and one could as easily end up a doctor as a peasant.  All people die regardless of wit, talent, or intelligence.  All people suffer, and there is no point in intervening to alleviate misery.  Ivan Dmitrich counters Ragin by saying that because Ragin never suffered, his stoicism will always be theoretical, academic, and therefore irrelevant. “You will howl when your finger is slammed in a door”, Ivan Dmitrich says.

This short story gets to the heart of the issue of scientific relevance.  How does knowing that my mind is hardwired and that my actions are predictable; or that my bloodstream flows with hormones and enzymes that regulate temper, self-control, and sexual urges make any difference at all?  Is the drama of Othello any more or less resonant because some strand of male DNA is programmed for jealousy? Or because some extra drip of testosterone drove him to believe the preposterous story that Cassio was bedding his wife? It doesn’t matter what internal mechanisms were propelling Othello to his doom.  A door got slammed on his finger and he howled.

There is no doubt that much of human nature is hardwired.  Some scientists have conjectured that jealousy is as much of a human survival instinct as food or sex.  It is a protective mechanism which assures the integrity of lineage.  Non-jealous men do not produce offspring.  Basic reflexes – flight, fear, shock – are certainly pre-programmed; and sexuality, temperament, and intelligence may be dealt to us in our genes. But whether or not we are products of nature or nurture, our finger still hurts when it is caught in the door.

I am not alone in my dismissal of scientific inquiry.  Forty percent of all Americans reject the theory of evolution, believe in aliens, and are convinced that Armageddon will occur in our time,  Part of this is because we are a deeply religious, Christian nation; and our belief in the absolute word of the Bible cannot be challenged. 

We as a nation are very divided on our attitudes towards science.  In addition to the profoundly religious, there are those of us with enough of a specialized background to be fascinated by the conundrums of number theory, theoretical physics, and neurology.  Science illuminates our lives whether or not it answers the persistent, niggling philosophical questions on our minds.

There are others who appreciate scientific inquiry and realize that modern nations are built on scientific principles and applications; and will always vote for more resources to keep us at the top of the class.  We are less interested in science as philosophy than as a practical economic engine.

Last but not least, there are the tens of millions of Americans who work two jobs, drive to work in a beater, flop down in front of the TV with a beer and a box of pizza, and fall asleep to American Idol.  They don’t even know what the Big Bang is let alone be excited by gravitational waves.

Of all these, I share the most with the last.  I have no time for science.  Although I lead an easy life compared to the door latch man on an assembly line at the Chevy plant in Gary, we both are here-and-now people.

There is an exhibit of Audubon’s original paintings and Havel’s prints at the New York Historical Society in New York.  Audubon had a remarkable eye, and his paintings depict not only an accurate record of the physical bird but depict something of its essence.  He captures each bird’s grace, strength, repose, aggressiveness, and vigilance. Audubon is an artist, and he has stylized each painting to express his own personal vision. 

There are now millions of birders in America, some of whom are searching for the spirit of Audubon, but others who are interested only in identifiable songs, habitat, markings, tail feathers, or coloring.  They are the amateur army deployed at the unwritten request of the ornithological generals who are less interested in how birds look but why they look that way. They are the anti-Audubons.

There was a recent exhibition of birds in classical Chinese paintings as compelling and moving as any of Audubon if not more.

There may be ornithology behind these paintings, but their meaning is derived from the vision of the artist.

I am pleased to know that there are gravitational waves pulsing evenly through the universe, and wonder what the look like or what they would feel like if you got caught in one; but as far as relevance, meaning, importance to my life or understanding of it? Zero.