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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Women–Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them–A Cautionary Tale

Handel Brachman had a lively sexual interest every since he was a young boy – the first in his fourth grade class to kiss girls in the woods; the first in his seventh grade class to notice Nancy Boothby’s breasts; the first in his eighth grade class to fondle them; and the first in his tenth grade class to have sex with her.  Whose budding sexuality led whose? Nancy’s or Handel’s? Who followed whom into the woods and who led? Handel could only remember being there, unsure of whether he should or shouldn’t do what Nancy asked, but forgot his question soon enough.

Image result for ferns in a wet woods

Boys are always a few steps behind girls in both emotional and physical development; but they never learn the lesson of female desire properly - not only do girls want it as much as boys, they want it even more.  Nancy helped Handel gain a step, and ever after his time in the woods with her he never hesitated to make a move.  Rejection never occurred to him – of course there would be some women who would turn him down, but most did not, and if they did he never took it personally.  One size does not fit all, de gustibus non disputandum est and all the rest. Demurral was never rejection, no time was to be wasted on unrequited pursuits, and new opportunities always awaited in study hall, the library, and on the Mall.

The second lesson that Nancy Boothby taught him was that women adore confidence.   Why put up with beating around the bush while a boy gins up his courage to manage a kiss?  Better to deflect an unwanted kiss than have no kiss at all.

The cult of demureness, chastity, and hard-to-get is an insecure man’s creation.  It is all well and good for a man to sleep around; but a woman’s vagaries can very well end up in a pregnancy not of her husband’s making, and then where would he be? Obliged to care for both an unfaithful wife and a bastard child.  No thank you.  While the Saudis have taken male insecurity to the extreme – burkas, women only quarters, lock-and-key security – it is a very visible reminder of what awaits the unaware spouse.

Image result for image saudi women full burka

If it weren’t for men’s physical strength – the foundation of income-generation as well as spousal fidelity – women would be as profligate as men.  Handel Brachman and Nancy Boothby grew up before the age of feminism when women were finally able to throw off their traces and pull on their own, so it was felicitous and advantageous for both of them to meet as 10-yr olds.  Handel learned about female sexual desire early on, and Nancy learned quickly about men’s easy complicity.  Men’s wholly irresistible sexual urge was a thing to be used to advantage – to put the brakes on when it did not suit them, and to floor the accelerator when it did. 

Of course sexual harmony is not as easy as all that.  The two lessons learned in the woods had to be followed by many others before Handel could navigate adult sexual waters.  He had his first dose of female perversity when Marta Phillips went off for the weekend with Timmy Brixton, an unlikely candidate but a wealthy one, with a Porsche and a summer house.  It was her way of corralling him.  He would be so happy to have her back after her affair with Timmy that a weekend with a dud – especially at his place on the Vineyard – would be worth it if it could close the gate on his adventures.

Image result for summer house nantucket

Pregnancy ‘scares’, intimations of sexual improprieties, and suggestions of sexual insufficiency – are all good lessons.  Going with women was not as easy as Handel had thought those many years ago in the woods.  Women are far more complicated – and interesting – than men; and life with them will not always be smooth sailing.  One has to keep one’s vigilance up if not one’s guard.

D.H. Lawrence better than any other writer understood the dynamics of sex.  At its best it would be a complementarity of wills, of dominance and submission by no means a one-way street and central to sexual expression.  Women in Love is a long, windy tale about four lovers looking for the sexual harmony that Lawrence first suggested in The Rainbow and completed in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; but it does fix sex within sexual dynamics.  While Lawrence was never indifferent to social class and its influence on sexual pursuit and behavior, it was far less important than the much more indefinable element of will – a desire to dominate or submit; and as importantly to find a sexual partner of complementary desires.

None of the men in Women in Love come out well, and Gerald dies alone, frozen on an Alpine mountaintop.  Mellors the gamekeeper finally has his sexual epiphany with Connie Chatterley, but it doesn’t last, and their life together, only hinted at in the closing paragraphs of the book, will not be a bed of roses.   Lawrence’s men all cast their lot with women far more complex than they, more determined, and more able; but could not resist so doing.  Only when they get caught in the warren of their lovers’ impossibly twisted sexual desires and find no way out, do they realize they had gotten trapped in it.  They had no way of knowing because their own sexual demands narrowed their perspective and limited their vision.

Image result for images book cover women in love

Only one character in Women In Love, Loerke, understands women and how to get from them what he wants.  He suffers from no philosophical, moral, or physical uncertainty. He is beyond good and evil, amoral, and unapologetic about it. His appeal to both Ursula and Gudrun is unmistakable. In this passage, Gudrun thinks about him.

To Gudrun, there was in Loerke the rock bottom of all life. Everybody else had their illusion, must have their illusion, their before and after. But he, with a perfect stoicism, did without any before and after, dispensed with all illusion. He did not deceive himself in the last issue. In the last issue he cared about nothing, he was troubled about nothing; he made not the slightest attempt to be at one with anything. He existed as a pure, unconnected will, stoical and momentaneous…

Handel learned this lesson as well, perhaps the last in his notebook because of its finality.  Yet there was too much simplicity in him to be a Loerke.  He was as amoral, but less inclined to use his amorality as an instrument of sexual power.  Yet he wanted to be Loerke, for although Loerke was physically unattractive and intellectually diffident, his absolute confidence and unquestioned sexual potency made him irresistible to women.  Loerke connected with women on a far more essential, primitive level than Handel ever could.

There is a delicate balance between suspicion and trust.  Too much looking around corners and under beds leads to too many blind sexual alleys.  Too much trust, and too many noses are left wide open and men taken to the cleaners.   Handel was always fair – not to the women in his life necessarily, but to himself.  Circumspection, confidence, and acceptance were all part of the bargain.

Every man remembers his first love, and since Handel Brachman’s happened before he even knew what was what – when Nancy Boothby asked him to take his pants down – he could never forget it, nor did he want to.  Nancy sat next to him in school the day after the woods, so close together in the auditorium that their legs touched.  She smelled fresh and clean, like talcum powder and lilac soap, and she was wearing the same dress that she had worn in the woods.  He noticed a bit of dried oak leaf on her dress that she had not seen and remembered how she had put her clothes neatly in a pile on a mossy patch under his father’s favorite tree.  How could he ever forget that?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Girls, Movies, And Pizza–The Bright Beginnings Of An American Capitalist

Roman Davies was twelve years old when his mother asked him what things were most important to him.  “Girls, movies, and pizza” he said.  His mother sighed, and wondered where he had come from.  Certainly not from her, head of the New Brighton Women’s Auxiliary and the Blue Ribbon Women Of New England, whose ambitions were elective office.  Not in New Brighton which had been poorly run, mismanaged, and left to vacancies, truancy, and high taxes by a succession of mayors with their hands in the till; but perhaps in the State House, a step up from New Brighton but only a short one.  Even the legislators from Fairfield and Greenwich who were supposed to know better thanks to the wealth, sophistication, and education of their constituents, were as clueless about governance as any ward politician from Rhode Island.  Washington was in her sights, and although she would run in an era long before women were everywhere, she knew that she stood a better than average chance against Hughie Bando, the Azorean immigrant who had run for Congress as an ‘ethnic’ candidate, a man of the diverse community – black, Puerto Rican, and Dominican – whose voters cared little about the native place of their representatives, only if they would treat them right.  And treat them right Hughie Bando did, playing on the liberal sentiments of the Assembly, challenging the powerful defense lobbies in Washington, and diverting at least some of the supposedly secure ‘military’ funds to the less fortunate of his district.

But Hughie did not come to politics on a morality ticket.  He was as corrupt as the rest of them, learning how to prosper from a father who had bilked thousands out of Portuguese administrators who, given their unclear administrative role and indifferent to local affairs because of it,  lent Bando Construção Ltd. millions from the Portuguese State Bank Overseas Development Fund treasury, more than the entire five-year budget of the capital,  Ponta Delgada, to build a modern shopping plaza.  A plaza which never got built.  Thanks to Bando’s dual citizenship, his canniness, and  the generous funds from Portugal,  Bando Pere built two luxury homes, one in Providence and the other in Miami.

Image result for luxury homes in Miami images

Hughie like his father had a nose for politics; but whereas his father simply used politics where it suited him, Hughie felt there was a lucrative career in being a politician.  A Congressman could stay in power forever and benefit for just as long thanks to the support of wealthy constituents; and the Congressional District which he came to represent was among the wealthiest in the state despite its pocket of minority disadvantage.  Mrs. Davies mounted an unsuccessful but noteworthy campaign against Bando, made a name for herself in Republican circles, and went on to influence State and Washington politics although, given the pre-feminist era in which she lived, did so behind the scenes.

Roman’s father had no interest in his wife’s doings, and was happy enough as a dentist serving the well-heeled residents of New Brighton’s West End, no end of fees from the privileged who never took good care of their teeth.   He played golf on Wednesdays with his medical colleagues, belonged to Rotary and the Lions, caused no one any concern, went to church regularly, and was recognized for his citizenship by the New Brighton Chamber of Commerce.

Image result for image logo Rotary

Roman was at an age when both his father and mother were well on their way to forming his character, purpose, and definition when he uttered the nonsense about pizza, girls, and movies. Odile Davies insisted that her son focus on ‘making something of himself’, make personal choices that lead somewhere, and use whatever abilities God had given him to ‘become someone’.  Success in America began in the cradle, and no one who was a success had ever gotten there without stern and purposeful parents, a strong will, and clear-minded determination.

Yet his mother badly misjudged the good sense, genes, and instincts of her son.  His infatuation with Nancy Boothby who sat by the window in French class, open to the Spring breezes blowing across the fields of his country day school, dressed in sleeveless blouses exposing just enough to distract him from declensions and to sexual adventures he could only imagine, was not in vain, nor some hopeless common interest, but the first of many encounters with women.  If it hadn’t been for the coquettish, sensuous Nancy Boothby, he would never been alerted to female desire, response, and his very male ability to use it to his benefit.  The movies showing every week at the Palace showed exactly what adult sexuality would be – strong, determined male heroes, alluring women after men’s attention, and happy endings.  The women were adult versions of Nancy Boothby and he was Errol Flynn.  

Which left only the pizza parlor, a nursery for male camaraderie – guys hanging out, later to form business partnerships and political alliances based on little more than a feeling of kinship and implicit trust.

Wall Street was the perfect place for Roman to end up.  It was indeed a male redoubt and women could not keep away. Few had any interest in gladiatorial bloodletting on the trading floor; even less in the high-risk, make-or-break, billions-at-a-throw decisions of the big investment banks; but what they loved was the maleness of it all, not to mention the fabulous wealth of these thirty-somethings who knew it could be gone in a minute so spent it on Porsches, coke, and Biarritz with gorgeous women like them.  The older he got, the more powerful and wealthy he became, the more women were attracted to him; and like Donald Trump, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Vladimir Putin, he understood the value of younger, alluring, women.  Many men were jealous of him, but thanks to ‘Lessons from Luigi’s’ he defused by engaging.  His enemies thought they were his friends.

Image result for image statue bull on wall street

By the age of forty, Roman had indeed made something of himself but not enough for his mother who hoped that soon all the glitz and glamour would be replaced by something more temperate, that his financial competitiveness would be quieted and turned to less personal and more communal investments, and that he could settle down with a nice girl and have a family - a more subtle, final, and even more lasting tribute to personal success.  It was not to be, his cards had been dealt from his mother’s deck; and although she might have preferred some other measure of success than this very obvious American one, she knew that she was at least partly responsible for the road he followed.

All mothers have an influence on the babies they suckle.  Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s play creates a Roman hero she sees as Emperor but who, unconfident, flawed, and politically innocent could never be one; and when he falters, she destroys him.  Dionyza, Tamora, Margaret, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are other powerful Shakespearean mothers who make their sons.  Margaret, the mother of Paul Morel, the main character in D.H.Lawrence’s Son’s and Lovers, is morally incestuous and jealous of her love for her son, destroying his confidence and character and making love with other women impossible.  Mary Tyrone, the drug-addicted, manipulative, but ruling mother of the family is equally demanding of her sons but destructive. 

Image result for images volumnia mother coriolanus

Odile Davis was not a harridan like these women, only interested in her son’s welfare and success for her own sake; but she propelled him just like they did.  The consequences of her influence were unexpected – she had hoped for more rectitude, more civil authority, and more compassioned leadership; and got something far more crass and undisciplined – but unintended consequences are part and parcel of influence.

To be fair, Roman Davies ended up the way he did more because of his mother’s genes than her influence.  His intelligence, arrogance, moral diffidence, and confidence came more from genetic bits and pieces passed on by men of her tribe.  A mother’s influence can only go so far when compared with the genes of famous Great Uncle Warford, railroad genius and stock manipulator in and out of federal court but never convicted; or Harold Binghamton, livery servant who rose to power in the Court of Queen Mary not unlike Elizabeth I and her Robert Dudley.

Jack London's Call of the Wild is closer to a more traditional view of maleness. There is something even more compelling about the story of Buck – his aggressiveness, and male dominance.  There is a completeness and perfection in the male character of Buck – he has no feminine side – and his will is male, one unmistakably virile, potent, and forceful.  This cannot be taught.  Roman Davis was a success in his own right.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Bart Blevins’ Frantic Search For Meaning–He Was Simply Looking In All The Wrong Places

“What is the meaning of life?”, Bart Blevins asked his old college roommate, surprised that after all these years his friend had neither found the answer nor realized that the question was meaningless.  Yes, they had shared philosophical intimacies over coffee in the Trumbull dining room, hashed over the arguments of every important philosopher from Socrates to Heidegger, theologians from Athanasius and Origen to Barth and Sartre, and Yale’s own Paul Weiss; but still, wandering down blind alleys was a waste of time. No one really cares about the meaning of life.  Only how to get through it – not even to get through it as innocently as possible (Do No Harm), but simply to keep on an even keel, away from reefs and shoals, and in and out of harbor without shipping too much water.

Image result for image socrates

Bart thought his roommate overly cynical; surprisingly so since he had led a charmed life – success at work and with women, money in the bank, a trim figure and all his hair, and a dutiful wife.  Life might indeed be meaningless, but there was no reason to be dismissive.  Henry Towne had become an intellectual poseur – cynicism was part of the fey persona he affected.  The otherworldly gentleman of means, summering at St. Martin’s, wintering at Gstaad, without either a mundane or existential care in the world. 

“Couldn’t be”, thought Bart.  There had to something more substantial under that philosophical greasepaint.  Something worthy, hopeful.

Bart Blevins not only sought meaning for himself but wished that everyone realized the importance of plumbing the depths of existence.  “Too soon old, too late schmart”, said Abe Marx, a friend fond of Yiddish-isms, “but in your case, it’s hopeless”.  Bart didn’t have what it takes to sort out this from that let alone being from nothingness.  He was better off not thinking so much, playing golf on Sundays, and paying more attention to what his roommate meant rather than what he said.  Yes, Henry Towne was a hopeless poseur, but who could say that anything, let alone life itself, had meaning?  The man wasn’t as stupid as he seemed.

Despite all this, Bart continued his search.  Tolstoy read history, religion philosophy, science, art, and literature to try to figure out what’s what before it was too late. By the time he was fifty, however, he gave up, capitulated, and gave in.  Not so much because he had found the answers he was looking for or realized they were not to be found.  He simply wore himself out.  Konstantin Levin, one of his heroes in Anna Karenina, was his alter ego, a man after the truth.  How ironic, thought Levin as a young man, that God created man as an intelligent, perceptive, humorous, insightful, and passionate being only to let him live for a few scant decades and then consign him for all eternity to the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  As an older man, he had softened, and like Tolstoy, had given in, not just rested from an unproductive search, but found the most treacly, warm-and-fuzzy retreat – goodness.

Image result for images tolstoy
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
Epiphany comes in all sizes, and another of Tolstoy’s heroes, Count Andrei in War and Peace, has two, the last before his death not unlike Levin’s; and is as comforting.
As he fell asleep he had still been thinking of the subject that now always occupied his mind - about life and death, and chiefly about death. He felt himself nearer to it.
“Love? What is love?” he thought.
“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed to him comforting.
Bart wanted none of this.  He would never back into or back out of the truth.  He was much more like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich than either Levin or Andrei.
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours.
Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Perhaps he had missed the boat and been an Epicurean.  Life has no meaning except for its enjoyment – no light at the end of the tunnel.  In fact no dark tunnel at all, no epiphany, no aha! experience; only light and pleasure.  Wine, women, and song.  Life was never nasty, brutish, and short as Hobbes had suggested.  Just the opposite.  Short though it might be, life was la dolce vita, lived without principle morality, or purpose. “I didn’t ask to be born”, said Bart.

Image result for image epictetus

Poor Bart.  As hard as he tried he could never be entirely rid of the niggling, bothersome thoughts about what it was all worth.  It kept him up at night, and it was the first thing he thought of when he got up in the morning.  “Too bad I was born a Presbyterian”, he said, brought up to believe that parsimony, temperance, righteousness, and godliness were all that mattered.  That Papists were kidding themselves with all their idolatry and holy water.  The whole cult of consecration was an abomination.  Imagine, all those obscene statues of a nude Christ on the cross, some gay priest’s idea of suffering, emblematic of the whole physicality of the Catholic Church.

Image result for images latin america christ on the cross

Perhaps, Bart thought, not without some reason; but it would be good to give oneself over to body and not entirely to soul.  That might be the compromise he sought – belief in the suffering, physical Jesus as an acceptance of life as it is, but also belief in his glorious resurrection.  No wonder the Catholic Church flourished for so long! What a great story and so fulfilling!

But he could no more set foot in a Catholic church than he could any longer in a Presbyterian one.  Catholicism might be sensuous and physically appealing, but it shut the door on pleasurable excess and taking life easy.

There of course was sex.  Many a man far more desperate than he had fallen for a younger woman, suddenly regaining his youth, his optimism, and his satisfaction that this indeed was the best of all possible worlds.  But when his affair with Lisa had gone bad, and she had left him for a younger man, he felt worse than when he had begun.  The comedown, the abject fall from the Christmas gift fantasy of sex with a thirty-something, made him realize how old he actually was, how no love is the answer, and that December-May relationships always end up on the curb unless big money is involved.

As he got older Bart kept waiting for the epiphany of Ivan Ilyich.  “It is finished”, he hoped that his mind would tell him at 5:30 in the morning as he pulled off his pajamas. No such luck.  Nothing had worked and was unlikely to work whether embracing meaningless, continuing a fruitless search for meaning; satiation, sexual adventure, or affecting a fey persona.  A ‘given’, his roommate had said a while ago.  Bart’s fruitless search was as much a part of him as were his eye teeth or his hammer toe.  There would be no respite, so get over it, Henry Towne had said.

“Just like him”, Bart thought, dismissive and unconcerned to the end.  But then again, Bart had a beautiful wife, a seductive mistress, and homes in Palm Beach, Rimini, and St. Moritz.  Why shouldn’t he?