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

Friday, January 28, 2022

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary–Tale Of A Modern Shrew

Mary Canton was a cute little girl with pigtails, freckles, rosy cheeks and a sweet smile.  All her parents’ friends adored her, and thought she was the most adorable thing.  They loved their own daughters, of course, but to be honest there really was nothing like the Canton girl.  She was destined for the screen, they thought, recalling pictures of the young Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Temple.  Mary not only looked like a child star, but acted like one – pert, charming, and just a  bit coquettish to suggest a wide audience appeal.

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Unfortunately, beneath the calico dresses, ribbons, and dancing shoes, lay a nasty, rebellious, and selfish little girl.  Where she got this very disagreeable streak no one knew.  Her mother was a model of propriety – hospital auxiliary, charity, and church – and extremely good taste (Dior, Chanel, and Vreeland); and her father was as socially tailored as his wife (Rotary, Chamber of Commerce; and Cary Grant flannels).  Yet before she had passed her fifth  birthday, she was a little shrew – demanding, selfish, unloving, and impertinent.  She threw her clothes on the floor and stomped on them; mashed her food into a pile on her plate and tipped it over the edge of the table, laughing while it slid, wobbled, and finally toppled onto the linoleum.

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She deliberately colored outside the lines, threw her watercolors at the loathsome girl at the next easel; interrupted, banged, and yelled in class; and was a little vixen on the playground.  Her parents were called into the principal’s office many times over, and told that if this were a private school, their daughter would be out the door and on the curb in an instant.  Yet as often as her parents were counselled and as often as her teachers disciplined her (these were the days before woke tolerance, and disruptive children were put in the broom closet), she was unchanged and unrepentant.

The thing of it was, Mary was a very smart girl, gifted and talented actually, able to figure out math problems many grades above her own, a reader at three, and bi-lingual (her grandmother was French) by five.  “What a waste”, said her parents’ friends, the school principal, and the nuns at St. Catherine’s.  With her looks, intelligence, and obvious strong will she could be anything.

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s tale of a young woman very much like Mary Canton – disobedient, demanding, and selfish; but smart – who meets a man who ‘tames’ her.  Yet Petruchio does not become her master, her overlord; but her lover, confidant, and friend.  He, a strong, virile, but attentive and sensitive man is just as attracted to Kate’s volubility, energy, and will as she is to his confidence and stability.  She, thanks to his love, loses her shrewishness, and her bitter resentment of her family.

A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.

Image result for Elizabeth Taylor Shrew

She is not committing herself to a life of servitude, but one of complementarity and equal love; and with her story, Shakespeare anticipates D.H. Lawrence who dismissed considerations of class, education, background, and upbringing as criteria for true union, and turned to sexual dynamics – a complementarity of wills, a satisfaction of dominance and submission without concern for traditional roles.   Kate’s soliloquy expresses this complementarity, this acknowledgement of sexual difference but a delight and pleasure in it.

Literature is filled with stories of men who are attracted to and tamed by willful, confident women.  Shakespeare’s comedies and romances are all stories of such women – Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola – who run rings around the inferior, weak men who are besotted by them.  They ignore their solicitations and promises of wealth, status, and respect; and insist on finding complementary lovers who will satisfy them as women.  

Turgenev in his short stories Asla and First Love tells about beautiful, alluring, and demanding women who want more than the simple affection and predictable desire of simple men.  “I want to be broken in two”, Asla says, anticipating Lady Chatterley.  Antony cannot resist Cleopatra but she, having bedded Julius Caesar and Pompey want nothing to do with this lapdog.  She jests with her female attendants about Antony’s insipidness and na├»ve fidelity. 

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Life imitates art and young women have always been attracted to bad boys.  The might want fidelity, honesty, duty, and family responsibility in a husband, but just the opposite in a lover.  The more shrewish the woman, the more demanding she is of a complementary mate.

And so it was with Mary Canton who spent much of her young life looking for the right man. 

Feminists of course laugh at this idea.  There is no such thing as ‘the right man’, but only a serviceable one.  Their literary champion is Laura of Strindberg’s The Father who emotionally castrates her husband, commits him to a mental institution, and gains full control over their daughter.  “Now you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner, you are not needed any longer and you must go”, she says to her husband before his exile. Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel of Ibsen’s plays are equally illustrative of a woman’s sexual role – independent from men.

Mary had no time for those politically obsessed women for whom a lesbian relationship was ideal – a joining of two independent, strong women for sex and reproduction.  Mary’s heterosexuality and Lawrentian will made male sexual conquest essential – conquest not in the sense of domination or manipulation, but of taming, fitting sharp edges into grooves while keeping the puzzle intact.

Mary was most like Portia of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who tolerates the many pompous, affected, ignorant suitors who come for her hand:

God made him and therefore let him pass for a man. In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he!—why, he hath a horse better than the Neapolitan’s, a better bad habit of frowning than the Count Palatine. He is every man in no man. If a throstle sing, he falls straight a-capering. He will fence with his own shadow.

If I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands. If he would despise me I would forgive him, for if he love me to madness I shall never requite him.

Image result for images portia merchant of venice

Mary’s suitors came and went, dismissed like the princes of Venice obliged to guess the content of Portia’s ‘caskets’ in her manipulative game of chance.  Mary never gave an inch, and never resorted to second best.  It was a matter of essence, not pride.

Socio-biologists are not surprised at women’s testing of men’s mettle.  After all, the choice of a poor hunter or a dunce in battle meant insecurity and weak genes.  Men chase women, but women are the final arbiters of worth.

It is hard to describe Mary’s approved relationship just as it would be to account for that between Lady Chatterley and Mellors.  Sexual dynamics are by nature ineffable.  As much as researchers can deconstruct the social, economic, cultural, and psychological factors that contribute to sexual choice, they are as bad at predicting success as old weather models predicting rain. ‘You know it when you see it’, or something like that – a sense that women have that corresponds to what they know about themselves but rarely admit.

Kate never admitted her shrewishness and only acknowledged it once it had been erased by Petruchio; and so Mary could never have put in words why she fell for X, but she also never doubted her instincts.  The marriage was a good one, not necessarily a faithful and consistent one, but a respectful one.  Marriage did not and does not mean closure, closeting aberrant desires, limiting sexual choices; but the best marriages are the ones where partners keep each other on their toes and taming has its wrinkles.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Pasties, Sequins, Glitz, Glamour, And Tinsel–And The Penitential Humorlessness Of The Woke

When asked why progressives couldn’t crack a joke, a member of the Washington-based Progressive Coalition for Social Action said, “There is nothing to laugh about”; and there in a nutshell was the reason for the hopelessly pontifical attitude of the woke generation.  

Not only that, but anything other than expressionless behavior would be unseemly.  How could one possibly enjoy a Las Vegas show – America’s most carefree entertainment – when children were suffering, women were oppressed, and black people were still struggling under the boot heel of the white man?  How could any self-respecting serious woman wear anything but comfortable shoes and off-the-rack dresses. It was a matter of principle.  One had to empathize with the less fortunate.

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This wasn’t always the case.  Before the onset of social justice penitence, that infection of the seriously committed, there was plenty of hanky-panky, high spirits, shenanigans, and boozy dips in the Reflecting Pool. The representatives from the heartland were no aficionados of Pablo Casals and Robert Frost but of tight-fitting dresses and high heels, lots of perfume, arm candy, and male camaraderie. They couldn’t wait to get to Washington to be  treated like pashas who received supplicants and had harems. For what else did they scratch and pay their way up the ranks in forgotten districts of Nebraska and North Dakota?  

Besides, in those halcyon days governance was not a matter of bitter rectitude and holy crusade; and Washington was not the venue for exorcism and witch trials.  Good ol’ boys reached across the aisle, got drunk together, shared their love for floozies and tarts, and had a great old time.

The morbidness, endemic worry, and holy fear of Armageddon which took root a few decades before and had now become a Washington ethos, was happily disrupted by Donald Trump, a man who not only appreciated the glitz and tinsel of Las Vegas, but who embodied it.  Trump was a President without a serious bone in his body, a man of Hollywood, Barnum & Bailey, vaudeville, the Borscht Belt, and most of all the runways and catwalks of Sin City.  Arm candy, hundred-foot yachts, tropical resorts, and boozy galas.

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Bill Clinton who prided himself on his intellectual prowess, his logic, and his thorough command of the facts, hosted Renaissance Weekends, retreats for the nation’s intelligentsia to mull over and discuss the important issues of the day.  One might have a few drinks at the end of the day, but only if over a final parsing of the fine points of nuclear parity, women, or Russia.  ‘Fun’ was a relative term.  It was a social lubricant, a modest, temperate way of resolving differences.  Fun was never had for itself. 

Donald Trump was far removed from Bill Clinton’s Renaissance Weekends, Kennedy White House high culture, and especially the grim and joyless caucuses of liberal Washington.  As a true conservative, he understood that while governance demanded attention to resolving problems, there was nothing absolute in any of it.  The same problems have occurred with predictable frequency for millennia.  Man’s inhumanity to man is to be expected.  After all what else could come from an aggressive, self-interested, territorial human nature? 

Sad but true, the parade of indignity is a permanent feature of human society, and those who are intent on creating a more perfect world are just whistlin’ Dixie.

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What was the point of dogged seriousness when the world would never change; and when the pompous sanctimony of those who refused to accept the fact is itself hilarious? They are caricatures, puppets, mock images. 

Bob M had been a progressive since birth – a serious, easily upset child, a worried adolescent, and an adult on the frontlines of every cause for social justice.  He saw no humor in anything.  Human oddities were not funny at all, slipping on a banana peel was misfortune, not comedy.  All black people resonated with the pain of Jim Crow and tenant farming.  Women were never alluring, attractive, or seductive but victims of misogyny and male deceit.  

He was a Deconstructionist’s Deconstructionist.  Things were not what they seemed, but what they represented.  Historicism was not funny, Derrida and Lacan were not comedians.

No matter what the circumstances – dinner with old friends, coffee with classmates, casual conversation at a hotel bar – Bob was able to insert his concerns about women, blacks, and the environment. Before long, gab about football turned to Colin Kaepernick and social protest; reminiscences about topflight meals became disquisitions about the exploitation of restaurant workers; jokes between men about sexual exploits were deflected and replaced by considerations of sexual abuse, No Means No, and abortion rights.

He was insufferable, a throbbing, thudding bore; and yet he could not stop himself.  He could not hear even the most oblique, joking reference without taking umbrage and calling out the speaker.   All the women marching on the Mall were Saint Marys, all black men were images of Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King.  Bob  would abide no pimp walk, ghetto attitude, or black-speak.  All gay men were models of Jesus Christ.  No La Cage Aux Folles hilarity over gay swishing, cross-dressing, and hyper-sensitivity.  Gay men were the future of America.

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Bob was not alone, and his kind were legion. They filled their dance cards at every event, their numbers crowded conference halls, church basements, and stadiums.  There was no moment when their guard was let down.  The world was in their hands, up to them to save, and not even one moment of frivolity was allowed.

Meanwhile just about everyone outside the Beltway and between the two coasts was waiting for the return of Donald Trump, not only for his very conservative political policies but for his Americanism, a character not defined by democracy, liberty, opportunity, and freedom; but for an unashamed, raucous championing of their culture; not the low culture sniffed at by the Washington elite, but the real, nuts and bolts, tractor and plow, factory floor cultural honesty.  An honesty which did not have to parse the lines of Balmain or Givenchy, but simply get off on the sparkling glitz of the wildly lit runways of Las Vegas.

Those with privilege, money, education, and profession can afford to be distant and serious about matters which don’t concern them; but Walmart greeters, factory workers, scullery maids, and dirt farmers cannot.  No reflection after a two-job day, no parsing, no consideration.  Just watching Hollywood imagery, arm candy, yachts, and hot beaches on television and wanting to be there. 

So, many Americans can’t wait for the return of Donald Trump not for what he proposes, but for who he is – outrageous, outlandish, happy, secure, and very, very American

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Sweetheart And The Nasty– Biden, The Russian Czar, And The Battle Of Ukraine

Joe Biden had prepared for this moment his whole life – a do-or-die struggle with the most powerful man on the planet – so why did he feel so unprepared?  It was clear that Vladimir Putin meant business with Ukraine.  Why else would he amass troops on the border, threaten to gag the gas pipeline, and give the finger to NATO and the West?  

Putin had made it clear that he wanted to restore the grandeur and power of Imperial Russia and the Soviet empire.  He had retaken Crimea as a matter of course, secured his client states in the East, and consolidated his electoral gains in Russia.  This man was a Genghis Khan, an emperor, and a canny, willful, Nietzschean man of geopolitical purpose; and that was exactly why Joe Biden was shaky.  Delaware had not prepared him for such doings.  He was far more at home in Rehoboth than in either Kiev or Moscow.  He was a man of compromise, easy political liaisons, and happy warrior electability.  Now what?

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His wife comforted him just as Lady Bird had listened to LBJ, as Pat had kissed Nixon’s brow, as Nancy had loved Ronnie, and as Barbara and Laura had cared for their Bushes.   “Sweetheart”, she said, “this too will pass.  Reason and faith will rule the day”.

But Joe was not comforted by these words as he had usually been.  In his heart of hearts he knew that he was no more than a lifetime Senator from a small state, an acolyte to a charismatic, iconic president, and a dutiful and obedient member of his political party.  A playground bully was not in his playbook.

“Just be yourself, dear”, Jill said, rubbing her husband’s tense, tired muscles.  But what is that, exactly? the President asked himself.  For years, decades really, he had been at others’ beck and call, answering to the nation as well as the State of Delaware ; but that had only meant adding his name to legislation, caucusing with party faithful, but never having to stand up for or against anything; a life of complaisance, compromise, and good will.  This thing with Putin was something else altogether, a matter of tanks and artillery for God’s sake.

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Jill was becoming worried about her man, and seeing him at sixes and sevens was upsetting.  She knew that he had gotten in over his head with this presidential thing, and never had even thought his election possible; but there it is, and there he was in the Oval Office facing life and death decisions when all he ever had to answer for in Delaware was a few shillings for poor people in the Wilmington ghetto or off shore rights or maybe an aircraft carrier.  “What will I do?”, he plaintively asked his wife.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart”, she answered.  “It will all work out in the end”

Cold comfort, the President thought.  His wife had always been right in the past and her nostrums and homilies had always had relevance and resonance, but this thing with Putin was different.

“Mr. President”, said the National Security Advisor in unusually clipped, formal tones, “we have a problem”

Here we go again, thought the President, ‘that Russian”, that thorn in my side, that Rasputin, that neo-Stalinist, Marxist mouthpiece who insists on interrupting my thoughts, my routine, and my Administration.

In fact ‘that Russian’ was forcing the issue.  It was a question of national sovereignty, Putin had said, not territorialism, empire, or hegemony.  Tell your war dogs to go back into their kennels, he said, and peace will reign. But the hounds of democratic hell had already been released and the scent of fresh blood was in the air.  Putin cannot be allowed another inch, they howled, and America must pull the alpha dog out of his traces.

Once again the President turned to his wife for support and counsel.  “What am I to do?”, he asked as he tossed and turned to her side of the bed.

“You will make the right decision, dear”, she replied, rubbed his back, and turned off the light.

There  was no such romantic fol-de-rol in Russia. No back rubs, no hour of the wolf indecisive moments, no confessional Cabinet meetings.  Russian troops were positioned on the Ukraine border and would incur at a moment’s notice.  Putin was a Machiavellian genius, pure and simple.  If conditions and circumstance permit, then take due advantage.  Not ‘do the right thing’, but do your thing.  He slept well at night because he had no irritating doubts and second thoughts.  Expand Russian hegemony, exact tithings from the West, and rule forever.

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How to deal with such a philosophy, wondered the President. Never been faced with such an opponent, he thought.  The politicians most resistant to his charm, smile, and  broad shouldered camaraderie were nothing compared to this Slavic devil.  They could be turned, could see the light of reason and a feathered nest.  Not so Putin, a man whose methods, purposes, and ethos were far beyond Delaware.

“You’re making too much of it and of him”,  counselled Jill after a midnight snack of hot sausage and pickled peppers. “The principles of Christian democracy will always prevail”

“But he is a Christian”, Joe replied.  While most Catholics had no use for any academic parsing of 4th century theology and the unfortunate split of the faith, Joe did.  The Russians and their embrace of a rejected brand of Catholicism had it coming.  No Russian, Orthodox president could possibly have any moral standing. For most Americans, he was as good as a Muslim and probably was one.

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“Mr. President”, interrupted the Vice President some moments later, “isn’t it time we told the Russians, ‘hands off’”?  This was surprising and not the least ironic that one of the most progressive, socialist-leaning members of the President’s inner circle was in favor of anti-Russian positions. She hedged her bets.  “He might be the heir to Marx and Engels”, she said, but enough is enough.  Time for the velvet glove in the fist of iron.

‘Let’s get down on our knees and pray’, said Father Murphy, the White House chaplain and religious counsellor to Joe ever since his Senate days.  Catholics did not usually behave like this, kneeling and praying wherever, but Father Murphy had taken a lesson from Billy Graham whose spiritual counsel had been a support for many presidents.  The relationship between the President and Father Murphy had always been one of camaraderie, a bit of good Scotch after work, parish gossip, and an occasional round of golf.  The altar and the confessional were the places a good Catholic freed his soul from sin not on his knees in the office.  

“No thank you, Father”, Joe replied.  There was no time for prayer, no bended knee supplications for peaceful resolution, no quick side exit to St. Matthew’s around the corner.  It was secular time here, a clash of titans. Although the Crusaders heading off to Jerusalem prayed and asked for victory, they quickly attended to secular business as they marched across the continent. The cross and the banner of the Church were held high as the troops stormed the gates of the Holy City, but they were more concerned at that crucial moment with halberds, swords, and flaming arrows than they were with Jesus Christ.  And so it was now in the Oval Office as the President morally armed himself for battle.

The President went over the many possible Ukraine scenarios until his head spun.  “Let’s see now”, he said, looking over the large interactive board map before him in the War Room.  “Let’s say the Russians incur…” and before he could finish his sentence, the board lit up to show panzer divisions, air support, and troops on the ground.  “Ok”, he said, "then the Ukrainians, armed with the ‘lethal aid’ we have provided them, counter attack…” Again the board lit up with Ukrainian tanks, troops, and air power.  It reminded him of the Parcheesi board he had found under the tree on Christmas, but with lights and avatars, so much better.

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“By the way”, said the President, “what’s wrong with a little give and take?” Thinking of the good old days of Congressional compromise, a little friendly jawboning, a bridge here for a carrier there, he suggested all kinds of deals that would have certainly worked in the Delaware legislature and more often than not on the floor of the House.   “Quid pro quo”, the President said, “in for a penny, in for a pound.  The frosting on the cake, and so forth”.

At this point the Vice President stepped in.  She had heard the President’s wobbly non sequiturs before and knew, like a scratchy throat before a cold, they were warning signs of far worse discombobulation.

“No, Mr. President”, she said and whispered something in his ear.  “On second thought”, the President said, “No more rook takes knight, bishop to K3 and all the rest.  Surround the Slavic pig, build ramparts and catapult buckets of hot oil on him”.  

Here the President recalled the story books of his childhood, tales of knights, fair ladies, damsels in distress, heroic battles, galloping horses, armor, and valor.  “It should be no different”, he shouted, half back in his childhood bedroom, books scattered on the counterpane, figures of men and animals, swords and lances to be moved, half in the avant garde of Napoleon’s army fighting Kutuzov in the Battle of Borodino .  “A fight to the death!”.

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Now, those present were unsure of what to make of all this.  Here was the President, a man of good nature and solid principles, always out for the interest of the common man with generosity always on tap, turning Trump, lots of bombast, January 6  inflammatory rhetoric, impossibly provocative demagoguery.  

“He’s a quick learner”, whispered one general to another, heir to the Curtis Lemay school of ‘bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age’ military philosophy who had been muzzled on his way up the ranks but now felt encouraged.

Meanwhile back in Moscow, Putin was enjoying a cigar and cognac with his friends.  No parcheesi board, no chessmen, no ifs, ands, or buts.  His tanks were ready to roll, and he knew that Biden and the West would come to the table.  They had looked the other way when he had retaken Crimea, were indifferent to his hegemonic geopolitics and his currying favor with Central Asian dictators, his brutal and decisive victory over the Chechens, and much more.  Why should a President worried about transvestites and the gender spectrum make any difference to Russia?

So, at this writing (late January 2021), Russian troops are still on Russian soil, Joe Biden is still playing confusing war games and trying to sort things out, and Ukraine is awaiting direction, arms, and money from Washington.  Few people doubt Putin’s resolve, will, and determination, but because no one in the West, let alone Biden, knows exactly what the Russian dictator wants – expansion of the new Russian Imperium, homeland security, international recognition, or a bevy of other possibilities – their planning was going nowhere. 

“Rub me with that organic cream again, sweetheart”, the President said to his wife after a particularly trying day in the War Room.  “That’s my girl”