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

Friday, January 18, 2019

Fat Boy–Dealing With Ugliness In A Beautiful Culture

America is not a beautiful culture by any means.  Its casual, off-the-rack, comfortable line of clothes is the standard not the exception.  Of course the runways of New York rival those of Milan and Paris, but haute couture never makes it way very far down the ladder.  ‘Who cares?’ is more the byword than ‘everyone cares’, the essence of French culture, Italian bella figura , and even classic Edwardian style.  No one really cares about fashion in hyper-democratic America  where ‘anything goes’ is a proud statement of democratic inclusivity.

Image result for images italian bella figura

Clothes, style, and fashion may be items dismissed in modern America – a frivolity, a throwback to elitist days of wigs, lace, and bustles – but beauty is an industry.  Every man, woman, and child in America wants to be as beautiful or handsome as the Hollywood ideal – sexy and alluring or masculine, commanding, and strong as the best of Hollywood.

Unfortunately,  given such a culture of beauty, most Americans must deal with second, third, or fourth best.  We are not a culture of natural beauty like Ukraine where every other woman on the streets of Kiev could pass a screen test.  We are a race of mongrels where only genetic chance produces classic beauty; and where most often the mix of white and black, black and Asian, Indian and Pacific Islander somehow never turns out right.  White-on-white mixing also goes awry.  Darwin and Mendel warned against too much genetic proximity; and the ugly genes of Uncle Bosworth and Great Grandfather Hiram somehow seem to show up at the most unexpected and inopportune times.

Image result for Fat American Tourist

he culture of inclusivity is aimed at these misfits – the lantern-jawed, high-forehead, tulip-nosed, parsons’ lipped boys and girls who, through no fault of their own, were born in a country which prizes classic beauty.  Despite claims to the contrary, there has always been one standard of beauty – symmetrical features, height, musculature, physical grace and allure.  The standard has not changed since the ancient Greece and Rome, and has been expressed in Pompeii, Persia, India, America, and modern Europe.  Anyone born outside these classical limits will have a harder row to hoe than those within it.  Beauty has always meant status, wealth, and well-being.

Image result for images ava gardner

As much as modern progressive culture wishes to ignore the physical anomalies which leave most people on the cultural periphery; and which prefers to dismiss the very concept of beauty, no one is buying it.  One look in the mirror is enough to confirm the obvious truth. Few women have even the faintest resemblance to Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamar, Ava Gardner, or Marilyn Monroe, and few men can ever match up to the classic lines of Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, or Farley Granger.

So what to do next? Accommodation.  Women who fall far from the classic ideal of feminine beauty may prefer to challenge any such notions – work shirts, overalls, shit-kickers, and butch do’s are not only for the tough girls of Bernal Heights, but the heterosexual, feminist avant-garde women of Milwaukee and Sioux Falls.  Ugly is the new beautiful – rough, unclaimed, deliberate, in-your-face, take-it-or-leave it neo-femininity.  Or not, and choose to by the latest skin creams, eye-liners, blush, and lip gloss to accentuate whatever bits of beauty one might have, and to at least gesture towards the ideal.

Herschel Benoit was  a fat boy and had been ever since he was a child.  Roly-poly, happy-go-lucky, easygoing and easy to be with, but left on the sidelines at recess, picked last, impossible to fit except by New York Big Man tailors, Herschel was uncomfortable in his skin.  Every morning he looked at his dewlaps, love-handles, skin folds, and buttocks with dismay.  He was given a body that no one wanted – fat, uncoordinated, and undesirable.  There was nothing that could compensate for the bad genetic hand he was dealt, no possible makeover, no hoped-for reconfiguration of oversized belly, ham hock thighs, and Porky Pig jowls. 

The ‘inclusivity’ phenomenon had just taken root, too late to affect Herschel.  In his generation the slow, the unattractive, the inept, and the one-step-behind would have to deal with a world which wants nothing of them.  Herschel grew up in an era of bullying, aggressive honesty, and realism.  He would simply have to face facts, and maneuver however he might in a world whose values did not include him. 

At times he wished he could ‘display’ his corpulence – wear three-piece suits with tight vests and key chains; show off his neck rolls with shaved baldness; and duck-walk with confidence into the office.  A man to be reckoned with, a man of weight, posture, and presence.  Yet he had been born too early for any of this to have any salience.  He could no more strut down the corridors of his international bank, past the sexy young things in cubicles, head held high, proud, and handsome than he could run a Mayan gantlet.  He was fat, encumbered, and unattractive, and that was the beginning and end of the story.

Image result for images fat man in three piece suit

Plato was right – without higher-level, unattainable ideals, the human race would remain mired in mediocrity.  No man could ever be Apollo, nor any woman Aphrodite, but the un-achieved attainment was the whole point of human being – striving, aspiring, and desiring were the most essential aspects of human nature and responsible for progress, improvement, and enlightenment.

Suspension of disbelief is another way of putting it.  If Herschel could look in the mirror in the morning and suspend any rational, practical, objective assessment of his undesirable body and prefer to see its potential, its good points, and its hidden allure, so much the better.  There is no point whatsoever in accepting an unattractive reality.

The cosmetic industry is a multi-billion dollar business, and medical enhancement therapy is not far behind.  Why not cover up unsightly blemishes, highlight one’s few Hollywood features, and nip and tuck to accentuate or preserve them?  Looking good is not only for bella figura Italians and fashionista French but for everyone.  There is no doubt that when genetic selection becomes a reality, the DNA of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamar, and Vivien Leigh will get top dollar.  Who, if given the chance, would buy the feminist cant of ‘beauty is only skin deep’? Who would not opt for sexual appeal, allure, and attractiveness?

Meanwhile, what was Herschel Benoit to do other than accept second class citizenship?  He was too old, too fat, too misshapen for even the most radical cosmetic surgery to be any good.  He neither had the personality nor the desire to be a Jackie Gleason caricature, imposing as a big man, giving no ground to svelte; nor the desire to show off an ‘I am what I am’ dignity.  He was purely and simply unhappy that he had been born fat, grew up fat, and continued to be fat.  Marry a fat girl? Have fat children? Hang out with fat friends?

Few people can match up to Hollywood beauty.  Our noses are too long, our lips too fat, our cheekbones too low, our foreheads too simian, our ears too low-hanging and elephantine to give us even an even chance in the world of beauty.  And yet, there are few fallbacks.  Short of Bernal Heights flannels, Joan Rivers multiple surgical makeovers, or layers of Rodeo Drive makeup, we are stuck with what we were born with.  Some manage, others never give up, and some seem to gin up enough personality, theatricality, and drama to fool most people.  ‘Ugly is as ugly does’ is an aphorism never quoted but is as salient as its opposite.  Born ugly in a beautiful-desiring world defines a person even more than than one born beautiful.

Image result for joan rivers

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Need To Renovate, Expand, Refurbish, And Redo–An American Obsession

The neighbors are cutting down trees in their back yard – lebensraum they told the people next door - space for the children to play unencumbered and free; and the sunlight which had never reached past the tops of the maples and cherries, never filtered down to the ground, would now allow grass to grow.

All well and good for new residents of this upscale Washington neighborhood always seemed unwilling to let what they bought be– to let the branches of the trees grow and let their children climb or swing on their limbs,; to let the backyard stay unimproved for  one-a-cat, volleyball, and short-field soccer just like the homeowners before them did; but who, it must be said, did their own reconfiguring of fence, garden, wall, and hedges to suit their own tastes after living on Dupont Circle without any green, trees, or light and air.

Image result for images old oak trees

it isn’t so much that the recasting of the neighbors’ backyard was illogical, a waste of money and time; but that the backyard was fine as it was, and that three generations of children at least had played there without complaining.  They adjusted and accommodated just as all children do.  Time out if the ball goes into the bushes, extra points for climbing to the top limb, tree-as-defenseman immobile in pickup soccer.  What was the point of a new, trimmed, treeless, and rootless backyard?

After a death in the family, survivors, rather than give all the old man’s belongings to the Salvation Army and send the rest to the dump, use his old Victorian furnishings to finally fix up a family room which had become over the years an overflow basement, useful, forgotten, and damp.  There were no relatives in sight who would stay there.  It was only the point that mattered.

Middle aged couples, finally childless after many reproductive years which had produced no offspring, feel it is time to bump out the kitchen, double the cooking space, add track lighting and butcherblock tables, and finally replace the refrigerators and stoves which had served them well enough, but compared to the new, energy efficient, easy-access, ergonomic newer versions, were antiques.  And while they were at it, why not replace the tiles, the ceiling, the cabinets, woodwork, fans, and windows?  The fact that they had managed quite well for decades, managing small, low spaces, sticky drawers, and small cabinets with ingenuity and patience meant nothing now that they had time, liberty, and a good disposable income.

This need for change extends well beyond kitchens and family rooms, and in fact has nothing to do with wainscoting, grouting, and table tops.  It was ridiculous, Marge Hastings told her husband, to stay at home when they, thanks to two generous inheritances, could travel anywhere.  Enough of their quiet, predictable neighborhood,  the nearby college where her husband took and taught courses, the many trails along the river which were easy to walk in the Spring and Fall, and the local delis, coffee shops, and bakeries. It was time to refurbish their lives, Mrs. Hastings said, to renovate, renew, and reconfigure them; and to make even more out of the few years remaining to them than they ever done.

Of course there was nothing at all wrong, tedious, or bothersome about their lives.  Both were happy enough, engaged enough, and best of all uncluttered by new neighbors, a changing demographic, and out-of-state investment.   Where would they go? asked Mr. Hastings.  To Cancun, Turkey, Italy, California, what did it matter?  The point was scrubbing off the barnacles of an old boat that had sat in the water for far too long.  It mattered little where the boat would head, only that it would up anchor and move.

Image result for images istanbul by night

The first year of this new course set by Mrs. Hastings was challenging to say the least.  A trip to the Far West to stay with distant cousins and hike the Absarokas, to Northern California for the vineyards, San Francisco, and the hip start-up restaurants in Napa and Sonoma.  A few weeks on Cape Cod to visit her old summer haunts; a side trip to Greece to rediscover memories of an illicit romance of her twenties. 

It was tiring just to think about these trips, let alone consider the tickets, the visas, the airports, and marginal, sidebar children they would entail.  There was no payoff in any of them.  How, in these final years of his life, would a trip to the Rockies, the New England Atlantic, or Europe possibly add anything he did not already have at home?  Would Cousin Bernice, a first year graduate student in ecology at Idaho State, add anything but enthusiasm to the well-worn issue of climate change ?  Would Great Uncle Hiram, a genius with tools, re-orient his existential trajectory?  Would all the bars of downtown Livingston, Idaho Falls, Wellfleet, Calistoga, or the Mission help him sort out life’s conundrums?

It wasn’t that Marge Hastings had gotten a bee in her bonnet; and everybody seemed to have gotten antsy about staying in one place.  America was a country where nobody was happy with what is, but with only what could be.  Excluding the marginal poor who never has never have the luxury of moving;  let alone a personal makeovers.

The rest of America, however, is on a roll.  The Hastings’ neighborhood was changing weekly.  The entire block of 48th Street was being redone – the Porters were adding a sunporch; the Pinkertons a third floor; the Lovellis a rose garden; and the Levins a new, three-car garage.  Old 100 year-old sycamores were coming down, privet hedges cut and replaced by all-weather fences, front doorways protected by Venetian cupolas, and front lawns reseeded and replanted with faux-tropical reeds and evergreens.

The block had been around for 75 years with no one giving a second thought to change.  There was something important about permanence, even though it meant some measure of inconvenience.  The older residents of the block knew quite well that higher-up cabinets would eliminate awkward stoop; that bigger, more ergonomically designed refrigerators would make reaching for the milk in the back a lot easier; and that cutting down the oak tree would let in more light and give the bulbs a better chance of flourishing.  Yet they resisted change, not because they were ignorant, stubborn, or simply old; but because it simply wasn’t worth it.  What did one ever really gain from changing anything?

“If it weren’t for me”, Marge Hastings said to her husband, “you would die in your traces”, plowing the same furrow he had for decades, never looking up or around.  Only she, with her outward personality, positivism, and can-do practicality, could make their life together sustainable if not exactly happy. 

Image result for image 19th century plowing a furrow with mule

Her husband had heard this before, and the older he became, the more deaf he became to her entreaties.  There is one thing the settled have going for them – inertia – and it was simply too difficult for Marge Hastings to get her husband to the National Gallery let alone Greece or Turkey for her to persist.  He had to do nothing - lie on the couch with a book, prepare his lecture notes, take a nap, or watch a movie – and the battle was won.

His wife never got the picture, and there was always something going on in the house – retiling the patio, trimming the boxwoods, repointing the chimney, new lamps for the den – but he accepted these inconveniences as points in the marriage contract; never contested, just ignored.

Italians had the right idea, Mr. Hastings often thought.  Modern Italians live in old 16th century townhouses, negotiate streets blocked with Roman ruins, and never once think of bulldozing anything.   Change is suspect not embraced a priori.  Prove, demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that X has to go, then maybe.

Image result for images rome old renaissance apartment buildings

Both Hastings lived to a ripe old age, and despite his obstinacy and insistence on immobility as a way to enlightenment, he found that he wasn’t schmart and he was very, very old.   She, despite her insistent and lifelong dissatisfaction with what is and her perennial desire to make things over, realized that this too made no real difference to anything in the end.

A happy couple?  Not exactly; but compared to what and to whom?  Longevity counts for something; and if two people so remarkably and dramatically different in outlook could stay together, marriage might have something to say for it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Man's Responsibility For The Environment - As Much Sinned Against As Sinning

A young boy in a well-known private school in Washington, known for its liberal philosophy and premier education of Washington’s leaders, when asked about the role of man in the destruction of the environment replied that whatever damage man might have done to the environment, the environment took its toll on him.  We are all part of the ecosystem, he went on, and both influence it and are influenced by it. 

A very Buddhist thought, surprising for such a young student.  There is no change but change, he related; or in other words there is nothing but change.  Blame, guilt, attribution, moral consequences are meaningless in a world which is constantly changing and of which we are an integral part.  We may cut down forests, dam rivers, emit pollutants, and kill endangered species; but we may not only die from virulent diseases that emerge from African rain forests – ecology’s revenge – but unknowingly but irrevocably sow the seeds of own destruction.  Who can possibly predict the outcome of genetic engineering, man’s boldest attempt to remake the human organism in his own image?

The implications are far reaching.  As we edit out Great Great Grandfather Hiram’s bad genes, add those of Michael Jordan and Marilyn Monroe, and assure protection against the diseases and deformities we know, but we also expose the genome to other unknown, pernicious viruses.   Can’t the genome, once made public, be hacked?  If we are concerned about GMO foods and their lack of resistance to disease, then why not worry about our genetic structure, made more and more vulnerable by human intervention?

Image result for images buddha

The point is not whether genetic engineering is a good or bad thing.  The genie is already out of the bottle, tinkering with the human genome inevitable, and the search for a more perfect human organism underway and unstoppable.  It is the consequences of these radical and revolutionary events which are unknown.  It is just as likely that we contribute to our own doom and destruction as it is that we find the key to longevity, permanent good health, and a race of superior, highly-evolved individuals.

If man is as much a part of a changing physical, social, economic, and genetic ecology, as responsible for changes to it, instrumental in making others, and subject to exogenous forces which can never be predicted, then why is there a rending of garments over the spotted owl, the snail darter, or the warming of the climate?  If circumstances are such that man becomes extinct, it will not be because he has ruined the physical environment around him – rivers, oceans, streams, and forests – but because the human race has either become so large, and so environmentally influential that a whole host of swine flus, bat brain viruses, antibiotic- and immunology-resistant bacteria, and other unknown mortal pathogens emerge and destroy us; or because man himself, by manipulating a more existential genetic environment, causes his own extinction.

In other words, man is not the destroyer, the predator, and the cause of another Flood or a premature Armageddon, but nothing more than a player in the game of existential baccarat.  It is nothing more than vanity which condemns man for his ignorance, arrogance, and stupidity.  We are acting as we were created – intelligent, creative, entrepreneurial, visionary, and logical.  Creation is destiny, and we can only play out our ambitions, desires, and territorial claims as they are expressed.  We were not created to make right decisions, only decisions which seem to favor our longevity and dominance.  ‘Seem’ is the operative word, for no amount of intelligence can possibly decipher the imponderables of randomness.

Image result for images noah and the flood

The young man at the Washington private school in question soon left the institution.  He felt put upon, unfairly criticized, and ostracized for his conclusions; and enrolled in another school which if less intellectually challenging was certainly less dominated by political creed.

His only sin was to suggest that the decline in the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay might not be due to environmental pollution and overfishing , but to an insidious, dormant, and suddenly and unexpectedly virulent virus.  Even if this were not the cause, he went on, fewer Bay oysters was not the end of the world; and only part of the inevitable cycle of the life and death of organisms.

The boys and girls at _____ were by no means interested in carrying the argument further, reflecting, as the disaffected student had, on Asian philosophies which were  eloquent on the subject of change, influence, and the role of man.  The Hindu God Siva was The Destroyer and The Enabler; and he danced the cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation, none of which had particular meaning or relevance (i.e.,  no era was any more moral, principled, or better than any other) but was simply the way God had designed things to be.  Any individual at any point in this cycle was irrelevant as were his actions.  Whatever man does and regardless of the temporal influence his actions might have, in the larger scope of things, his actions are insignificant and meaningless.  The only hope for anyone born into this random drama is to understand it.

Image result for images dancing shiva

The _____School had been established on what it considered to be superior moral principles.  Its original patrons had supported abolition, refused entry into both world wars, and valued pacifism, social reform, and a moral-based system of governance since the 18th century.  While these progressive principles were historically valued and respected, they had come under serious scrutiny in the modern era.  The school and its foundational philosophical supporters refused to budge off a 19th century political platform and had been co-opted by 21st century progressivism., the canon of which – environmentalism, gender-race-ethnic inclusivity, and anti-capitalist hostility – was incorporated into all aspects of its education and social environment.

It was taken for granted that Americans were the world’s villains - environmental predators, military adventurers, territorialists, misogynists, and racists – and far from existing within a universal philosophical context, were outliers, destroyers with no thought of Siva –esque regeneration or renewal, cultural Nazis, and complete moral reprobates.

There could have been no farther straying from essential philosophical principles than that of the _____School and its supporters.

Western philosophers were never in the dark on such existential principles. Metaphysicians like Kant and Descartes, and moral philosophers like Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Sartre all reflected on being and existence.  Only latter-day princelings like Lacan and Derrida weighed in and took an unequivocal stand.  The academic philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and their followers as wrong and irrelevant.  Only social, cultural, and historical context mattered, and one was quite right to judge white, male privileged opinions suspect in a multicultural world.  Of course man is responsible for social and environmental dislocation.

Image result for images aristotle

The young student who resigned from the ____Schtool went on to academic excellence, and was later noted for his reasoned and philosophically-grounded arguments against the received wisdom of philosophical environmentalists.  While those he left behind preferred to focus on the here-and-now, he shifted he discussion, broadened it, and demanded more academic responsibility and integrity.  The common wisdom and popular belief is that temperature rises are fact; icebergs are melting; summers and winters are nothing like what they were; and if nothing is done, climate Armageddon is close upon us.  He never denied all this, but only insisted on a broader, more inclusive, and far more intellectually sound analysis.

A priori conclusions, based on and influenced by a contemporary zeitgeist, are never right and valid.  Philosophical reflections are not only pertinent but necessary