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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Stubborn Conviction–How A Willful Child Became An Übermensch

Marjorie Tindal sat in her high chair and looked at the food her mother had arrayed on the tray. “I don’t like it.  I don’t want it. I want something I like”; and with that, swept her arm across the peas, carrots, tomatoes and bite-size chicken onto the floor.

Her mother stood in front of her, hands on hips, frowning and shaking her finger at her daughter.  Amanda Tindal had tried everything – anticipating Marjorie’s likes and dislikes, trying ‘tiny morsels’, giving her tidbits for her try, and crooning, “Mmmmm…Marjorie, these green beans are so good”; but true to form and as stubborn as ever, Marjorie flicked the beans on the floor and recited her mantra. “Don’t like it. Don’t want it. I want something I like.”

This time Amanda couldn’t help herself, and she recited Longfellow’s famous ditty, knowing that this would enrage her little girl.  Yes, it was mean and spiteful to rile up a child, but she deserved it; and since nothing else worked, perhaps a dose of adult medicine would do the trick:

There was a little girl

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid.

Marjorie’s face flushed red in that remarkable way she had.  Hers was not a quick blush or a flash of red around the gills, it was a slow burn, too slow to catch up with her anger and frustration, but that’s the way God had made her.  Amanda watched as her daughter’s throat reddened, then her chin, and finally her cheeks and forehead. “Don’t say that!” her daughter wailed. “I am not horrid”; but of course she was.  Loveable at most other times, but absolutely impertinent, selfish, and stubborn at mealtimes.

Like most mothers, Amanda gave in to Marjorie’s tantrums.  The little girl had to eat after all, couldn’t starve her for heaven’s sake; and so she tried one thing after another, at first trying to hold the line on sweets and then junk food, but then giving in entirely until Marjorie’s meals were largely peanut butter and corn chips.

“She’ll grow out of it”, said Marjorie’s father to her mother. “I know of no adult who eats only Skippy and Doritos.”

This was of course true; and the same could be said about toilet training.  What was the point of discipline and rigor when eventually children saw how uncomfortable, disgusting, and hugely unpleasant it was to go to playschool carrying a big load.  Marjorie was still soiling her diapers – deliberately, her mother thought, and it was not a coincidence that she chose mealtime for Number Two.  She would look straight at her mother, scrunch up her face, turn red, and squeeze out a loud, wet, and messy release. “She’ll be five before she has gotten the picture”, Amanda said to her husband.

There was nothing Marjorie didn’t have an opinion about.  “Don’t want it, don’t like it” applied to toys, clothes, and friends.  She was picky, determined, and preternaturally opinionated for such a young child. “I pity her husband”, said her father. “If she ever lands one.”

“Now, now, dear”, replied Amanda. “Kate the Shrew and Petruchio managed quite well.  Our little Marjorie will be no different.”

There it was, cloaked in Shakespearean reference, but out front nonetheless. Marjorie Tindal was on her way to becoming a shrew.

Her parents needed have worried, for her temper tantrums were far from shrewish.  It was just that her little baby amygdala hadn’t quite matured or calmed down or whatever organs do.  She simply could not understand why her mother, the most important person in the world, would dole out such unappetizing, unattractive, and inedible food.  What else could her immature limbic system manage except tantrum, fits, and frustrated anger?

As most parents know, Freud was right when he said that personalities are formed before the age of five.  What you see in the high chair is what the rest of the world will see in the classroom, conference room, or bedroom; and as Marjorie grew older, her parents could only smile ironically at each other, nod in complicity and wonder – like Kate’s father – whether she would ever control what was obviously a hardwired trait.

Both Marjorie’s mother and father secretly blamed each other for their daughter’s intemperate behavior. Bill Tindal flew off the handle unexpectedly and over small things like undercooked chicken; and Amanda gave in so readily and completely to Marjorie’s selfish demand it was a surprise that she didn’t turn out even worse.

Neither parent was right; but Marjorie’s grandmother had the answer. “Remember the stories our family used to tell about my Cousin Bob?  He was the spitting image of little Marjorie, right down to the temper tantrums and bright red face. Times were different then, of course, and my uncle used to take the razor strop to that boy every time he misbehaved; and poor Bobby ass was always as red as his face.

Bob, however didn’t give in easily; and the more that Uncle Harry punished him, the more he resisted. “Bobby was very clever” Marjorie’s grandmother said. “One time he rubbed a little fish sauce into the insoles of his father’s shoes.  His feet stank anyway, but the fish sauce made them even more potent. ‘Jesus Christ, Henry’, his mother yelled at Bobby’s father. ‘Put your shoes back on.  You’re killing us here.”

Or the time that Bobby put grease droppings on his father’s ties. His father had bad table manners, but was particular about his ties, and had a fit whenever gravy dribbled onto the Italian silk.  “Goddamn it!”, he yelled; but his wife retorted with “You’ve nobody to blame but yourself.” 

After Bobby had done his handiwork, his father’s ties looked pretty much as before, but a lot worse.  His father, of course, figured that he had simply been even less careful with the pot roast than he thought and never blamed Bobby. He suspected him, but could never prove it,

In any case Marjorie only inherited her great-relative’s stubbornness and particular demands, not his twisted idea of revenge.

For a long time her ‘don’t want it, don’t like it’ attitude got in the way of her studies.  She went to college long before ‘Shopping Week’ was a common practice, so had to put up with her early choices.  The Dean of Studies was as fed up with her as her parents were. “But Marjorie”, he counseled her, “you can’t change every course.” It was only because she was a smart girl and figured out a way to salvage courses that she made it through Yale.  “What a horse’s ass”, she told her father, describing a well-known philosophy professor’s garbled and ridiculously pretentious parsing of simple issues. “He wants to adumbrate everything”, she said. “He’s full of shit and he needs to have his adenoids out”.

She simply stopped going to class, did all the reading, was ahead of her time in giving a post-modernist nonsense twist on ethnical conundrums; and the professor had to give her a B+.

Even as an adult everything was a challenge for Marjorie Tindal.  She took absolutely nothing on face value and only considered it after she had strained it through her personal sieve. Religion was nonsense. Worship self-serving. Churches were as venal as Goldman Sachs. She dismissed out of hand the passionate causes of others – civil rights, the environment, and income inequality. Did no one look at the predictable, monotonous, repetitive course of human history? There was no give in her whatsoever.  Her able (some said brilliant) mind quickly summed up political, economic, and social issues.  Her no-nonsense (some said nihilistic) sieve was the most useful tool in her intellectual kitchen.

There was no right or wrong in her cosmology, just bullshit.  In fact she was so attuned to posturing, sanctimony, and prevarication that she was sure that some hardwired internally coded surveillance system had been installed at birth.

All well and good.  In just about every part of her life, her insistence on fitting the world’s pegs into her holes worked just fine.  She had been able to negotiate the classroom and the workplace with ingenuity, maintaining her intellectual exclusivity while making a good show of collaboration.  People were such suckers for a kind word that she got her ideas adopted with little opposition, simply by exaggerating the ‘contributions’ of her colleagues.

It was in the sexual arena where all fell apart. Before sexual encounters she always felt flummoxed.  Her nether parts worked fine and she had an extra high octane hormone fuel in her veins; but she could simply not get guys to do what she wanted. For the sake of brevity and good taste, let it be said only that her tastes were ‘unusual’ and shared by very few.  Guys would walk out when they heard her requests. “You want me to do what?”, they shouted before pulling up their trousers and heading for the door.

The problem was that compromise was not possible; and her she came face-to-face with the very adult consequences of ‘don’t want it, don’t like it’.  Either she got what she wanted, or left the bedroom cranky, wired, scratchy, and very much unsatisfied. Fantasy was no good. She ended up using the vibrator she bought for aerating the soil around her nasturtiums.  It was too disgusting to even consider doing what it was intended for.

“I will die alone”, she said in her typically melodramatic way. “I have to face facts. I am unique”. So she turned to monastic pursuits, immersing herself in the Bible (as literature, history, and theology only), Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard.  She was sure that Nietzsche had someone like her in mind when he spoke of the Übermensch; and was convinced that she would have made a great Genghis Khan or Tamburlaine.

She never did marry nor find anyone who could share space with her for any more than a few hours at a time. It was surprising that she didn’t mellow, since most people lose most of their edges by the time they are sixty and after that become pretty round and complaisant.  She remained as determined, flinty, and uncompromising as ever well into her later years.

She was one of my heroes.  She never caved in once to the forces of compassion, social conscience, and subjective morality. She was a firm, uncompromising believer in Will and the unique value of individualism.

A friend of mine who also knew Marjorie Tindal wondered why I admired her so much. “You yourself said she was hardwired”; and yes I did.  I had tea with her mother not long ago before she died at nearly 100 and asked her if her daughter turned out the way she thought she would.  “Oh yes”, said Mrs.Tindal. “Absolutely and completely. If you had seen her throw her peas all over the kitchen and howl ‘Don’t want it, don’t like it’, you would know what I mean.”

So Nature rules Nurture; but that tenet does not obviate the existence of superheroes, so here’s to Marjorie Tindal!

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