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

Monday, February 18, 2019

It’s Not What I Signed Up For–Dealing With Bad Choices As A Bad Metaphor

gPeter Hargrove had married twice, once for love, the second for convenience.  The first was not unusual, for most men deceived by naivete, are left with an empty suitcase on the curb or on the way to anywhere but where the marriage ended.  In Hargrove’s case it was Bayonne, New Jersey, as good a place as any for the end of a love affair.  A bad place in most people’s minds – oil refineries, train terminals, bus stations and urban blight – but no worse than Weirton, Livingston, Wethersfield, or a thousand other places where one tends to end up.

It was a marriage of true Romeo and Juliet adolescent love – the kind that never exists or can exist except in pulp romances and Shakespeare, but one which had to be given its due.  Regardless of age, immaturity, and inexperience, a love affair with profound expectations is worth something.  And Peter and Laura did indeed expect to be happy, to live a long life together, and to die happily.  There was nothing wrong with the dream – such idealism is necessary to float the waters of the bog.  It was, as usual, the realization of it which was troubled and flawed.

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For one thing, Peter and Laura were from different sides of the philosophical tracks.  He, even at a young age, was a pessimist thanks to his mother who had never got over the slights and insults, real or imagined, of her childhood and who was vengeful and suspicious of anyone and everything.  Laura of equally modest background inherited the best of her gene pool.  She was open and aggressively happy.  She was a diva, a queen, a prima ballerina to his rather dowdy, insecure, corporate accountable self.

That alone was enough to doom the pair, but Laura’s sexual unconventionality and Peter’s stubborn refusal to commit to any social grouping whether party, nation, neighborhood, or marriage were oil and water.  No amount of conciliation ,counseling, or better judgement could have saved a marriage with such antipodal partners.

They were young enough, childless, and with ample professional opportunities head of them for the divorce not to be disruptive.  They parted amicably, spoke regularly, and despite multiple marriages for both, confessed love for each other.  It was a shame, both admitted, that they had been too young to accommodate to each other, to have been more tolerant and accepting; but neither believed that fantasy.  They loved each other like all first lovers; and because of the inexplicable nature of that particular delirium, would carry with them the regret and remorse of a marriage dissolved for no good reason until they died.

Peter’s second marriage, while not quite on the rebound, was certainly an anodyne for the first.  Not only did he want to put Laura’s theatricality behind him, but wanted a mate of just the opposite composition.  Martha was the anti-Laura – calm, reserved, centered, practical, and accepting.  Finally a woman who would be a partner rather than an adversary – a calm, fiduciary asset rather than an emotional gymnast.

Soon, thanks to Martha, Peter’s world became fixable, predictable, and logical; and as remote from his illogical, intemperate, chaotic former life as possible.   He could never have  imagined that Martha’s unflappability was a function of something far more than simple equanimity – which is all he wanted - far more than the influence of her simple upbringing; but an outlook.  A philosophy encoded in her genes and only coincidentally encouraged by her Iowa farm past and her Calvinist parents. He had made, despite his best intentions, his second bad choice.

Despite a positive beginning – it was the 60s after all, and even the most tailored and fitted person would be interested in tie-dye and communal living and their life together was the perfect blend of carefreeness and emotional security he had hoped for – Peter soon realized his misjudgment.  Martha had little of the hippy and all of the solid, familiar, American values of husbandry, planning, and resolution.  In fact he soon realized that what mattered to Martha was not the end result but the process itself; but he also realized that when ends and means are the same, the journey is endless and pointless.

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As much as he hated to admit it, Peter found himself asking where his first wife was now that he needed her.  All her deceptions, outrageous sexual margins, vaudevillian theatricality would be forgiven and forgotten if only she would show up.  A vain, fantastical thought since she was long gone and buried, but it was the principle of the thing, the essence of what marriage should be that counted.  He had traded unpredictability for predictability; and, like everyone who has made bad choices, regretted his own.

Peter was betwixt and between with no one to blame but himself.  Foolish to fall in romantic, comic book love with a woman who was the antipode to his ordinariness; foolish to divorce her even when they were more suited to each other, despite superficial differences of character, personality, and background than he and Martha ever could be; foolish to marry Martha in the first place; and foolish to stay married despite increasing age and many, many danger signs.

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Peter’s marriages were not unique or even that noteworthy.  Many men have fallen head over heels for the wrong woman, and then on the rebound opted for someone different but no better; but such bad choices are by no means restricted to marriage. Everyone jumps the gun on flimsy assumptions, convinced that she is right, it is right, they are right only to find out that nothing is the way it seemed.  Irrational, emotional, bad choices are to be expected.

How can anyone expect someone of scrambled, assorted genes, influenced by parents who had made their own bad choices, and cast – regardless of makeup or upbringing – into an equally random environment not of his own choosing make good ones?   We think we are making the right decisions but are more often than not disappointed, seduced by irrational ideas, hooked by lines randomly thrown into the water, and never able to quite free ourselves. Peter was too hard on himself. Bad choices are the rule rather than the exception in a Hobbesian life.

The tragic dilemma is man’s presumption of free will in a doggedly predestined world – not Calvin’s idea of a divinely preordained life, but one determined by genetic, social, cultural, and environmental factors is as old as Jesus Christ who left his followers to decipher his words about faith, the divine absolute, and free will he spoke to the Devil in the Wilderness.

How do we deal with the dilemma and out bad choices? We make do.  Inertia is the operative term.  We get by, sort things out, and if we’re lucky meander in the right direction to a not completely unhappy end.  The older we get the fewer regrets we have about bad choices because we are impatient we are to sort out the future – where, in God’s name, are we headed?  Another dilemma but one without choice.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

In Praise Of The Impractical–What Happens When A Head In The Clouds Meets A Calvinist

Polly Alcott  had come by her practical, organizational skills naturally.  The daughter of a Wyoming rancher whose pride was a back-forty scattered with old tractors, truck chassis, and harvester engines; and a mother skilled in pickling, putting up, and making do with the odds and ends of farm life, Polly could never simply let things be.  Not only had the careful husbandry of her childhood taken deep root, but so had her parents’ Puritan fundamentalism.  Not only was idleness a dereliction of ranch family duty but sin against the Lord. ‘Idle hands make light the devil’s work’ was taken seriously in the Alcott family.  There was something inherently, innately wrong and immoral in wasting time.  According to her father, any pursuit other than tending to the ranch, the back-forty, the cattle feed, the silos, and the barn was irrelevant, dismissive of Christ’s teaching, and disrespectful of the mind and body given at Creation.

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For better or worse, Polly had inherited or retained only the secular pragmatism of her parents, not their Puritanism, although given her upbringing and the inextricable relationship between good and practicality that characterized it, one could never be sure.  In any case Polly was her father’s daughter in one essential, telling way.  Nothing other than nuts and bolts, repair and restoration, and the planning and organization that made it all possible mattered.  As an adult Polly was unmatched for her deliberate, unhurried, and well-thought out management of her home, family, and garden. 

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Life is a zero-sum game, and although Polly’s 19th century ranch ethos had definite and legitimate value, few men were interested in a woman with a mind, spirit, and body so close to the ground.  She was not unattractive; and her quiet, unassuming demeanor suggested a reasonable if not complaisant marriage; but there was something about her practical determination – obvious to the more interested suitors – that was off-putting.  She simply had little interest in anything but the here and now.

Many suitors thought that she would make a particularly good mate – a loyal, faithful, and above all dutiful and practical housewife; a good mother, and attentive to the essentials of hearth and home.  Many others thought that if they were to get married; if marriage was really required and expected, then better to marry elegantly to someone of charm, wit, and allure. 

Because those men who were looking for a maitresse de ferme were few  in a liberated generation, Polly found mating surprisingly difficult.  She had been raised to believe that a child of the Lord, practiced in the ways of the world, would be always considered valuable if not cherished.  She failed to understand that the Victorian values of her parents were of little or no relevance.   She waited, alone on the dancing school floor, while all the other girls were picked.

Polly did eventually marry to a man who had just come off a very painful divorce and a troubled, dysfunctional first marriage.  Anyone would be better, he thought, than his first wife, a burlesque queen, outsized, out-sexed, and outrageously radical – a woman who had inherited her beauty from her Russian mother and explosive personality from her Italian father but whose DNA had gotten so twisted by generations of ne’er-do-wells, prostitutes, and hangers-on that she could barely hew the faintest of social lines.  Which was why her future husband could not resist her.  She was the diva, the femme fatale, the irresistible female he had always wanted but thought out of his reach.

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Of course his marriage could never have lasted.  Oil and water – conservative Catholic and out-of-bounds sex princess – but a union of diametric opposites appealed to both.  He wanted excitement, sexual promise, and  a release from the ordinary. She wanted an imposed brake on her sexual and emotional profligacy.  Although they failed, their marriage was a tribute to the institution.  As flawed as it is, peopled by failure and disappointment far more than satisfaction, it was worth a try.

In any case, beaten,  discouraged, disappointed, and scarred by the experience, he found Polly Alcott the unexpected antidote.  Their early years together were perfect and uncomplicated.  They asked nothing of each other and were happy for what they shared in an unencumbered life of travel, adventure, and friends.

Whether it was a matter of age or circumstances – a house, baby, and a responsible job – Polly lost, put aside, deferred, forgot (her husband never knew which) whatever carefreeness she had had; and returned unequivocally to her practical Wyoming roots.  The change was so gradual that her husband hardly noticed but soon he recognized a pattern.  Like her father before her, busyness itself became her profession.

Of course he would be happy not to grope and grasp for pots and pans, be less drafty upstairs, and be warmer overall, but at what cost? Was the constant disruption and irritation really worth it? And wasn’t a life of gradual accommodation less stressful and obtrusive in an otherwise reflective, peaceful life?  The older he got and the more focused he became on the end of his life, the more his wife’s purposefulness bothered him.  If life was in God’s hands, then attempts to moderate, modify, or alter its course was senseless.

As life went on with no break in his wife’s ambitious routine, her husband wondered where she had gone.  This wasn’t the girl he married, certainly.  Yes, her calm centeredness had indeed been a welcome change from the emotional gymnastics of his first wife; and yes he looked forward to a life without serial crises, but he had never anticipated such limitations.  Although his first marriage had been disastrous, the dissolution was only because two talented, sexually ambitious, and highly intelligent people could not live together - two positive charges without a negative will explode.  A second marriage of emotional convenience was no better. 

Polly was oblivious to the growing discontent of her husband. How could she be otherwise? Her way , the way of the farm and the ranch, the way of Luther and Calvin, was the only way.  Her husband’s Catholic, Mediterranean, and libertarian background was a mystery that she had little interest in unraveling.

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To be fair, her husband had little give in him and was as convinced of the evolutionary quality of his academic, intellectual, artistic ways as Polly was of Calvinism; and this stubborn difference was the reason for their later quarrels and dissolution of their marriage.  Polly had done no wrong.  She had been ‘determined’ to act out her God-given character, genetic makeup, and upbringing.  Her oblivion to her husband’s own preoccupations were neither selfish nor ignorant.  She could not have acted otherwise.  Nor had her husband been at fault, for he no sooner could escape his education or the poetry and art of his mother.  Literature was not simply made up of stories of other people.  It had relevance. 

It was a shame that their life had to end this way – still married, too much inertia for change, too little promise outside; but it was a marriage in name only.  Separate quarters, separate interests, and separate preoccupations.  He learned to live with her dogged purposefulness.  She accepted his indifference and purposelessness.  Not exactly a marriage made in heaven, but an illustrative one.  Philosophy, outlook, and valuation always rule; and since these fundamentals are installed at birth, there is little chance of accommodation.  When the difference in outlook is as great as that between Polly and her husband, marriage has very little chance of success.

Friday, February 15, 2019

When The Blush Is Off The Bloom Of The Rose– Thanks To Eve Marriage Would Never Again Be A Garden Of Eden

Life in the Garden of Eden was what marriage was supposed to be – a life of bliss and perfect harmony.  No responsibilities, no adultery, no bickering over finances or shared household tasks, no shopping, cleaning, or taking care of the children.  Only when God expelled Adam and Eve did all that begin.  Not only would their life together be short, nasty, and brutish but worse, marriage would become death by a thousand cuts – the inevitable bleeding of romance.  Jealousy, resentment, confinement, frustration, and anger would be the order of the day.

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It is wrong, say feminist scholars, to blame Eve for the Fall; but where else to look?  The devil as portrayed by Milton in Paradise Lost is a powerful, resourceful, canny angel, resentful that he was cast out of heaven and determined to avenge his unjust fate.  What better way than to precipitate another fall and to destroy the na├»ve, idealistic vision of God the Creator? Didn’t God know that when he gave Man free will it would eventually and necessarily be used against him? God’s supreme achievement – conferring free will and the human intelligence to use it – was his biggest mistake.  Eve was very human in her defiance, in her arrogance, and her presumptuousness.  Eating from the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden by God because of his jealousy.  He and he alone should have all the world’s knowledge, and his children should remain in ignorance.

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So, despite the claim that she was seduced by the devil, she was a free agent and a human being and would have acted with or without the devil.  Feminist biblical scholars are caught betwixt and between when it comes to the story of Eve’s role in the Fall.  If she was seduced, albeit by a supernatural creature, Genesis was setting a dangerous precedent – the weakness and vulnerability of women.  If Eve acted out of her own free will, deceived and manipulated Adam so that he would commit the act of disobedience, then this act – being the first expression of God’s gift – then she must take responsibility for the doom of mankind.

Even more moderate scholars today wince at the many negative depictions of women in the Bible and look for examples of those who are determined, fair-minded, and compassionate.  The women of the Old Testament fare reasonably well – the courageous Hebrew midwives and the daughter of Pharaoh and Deborah the righteous judge are good examples – but the old Eve resurfaces in the story of Delilah.  Despite Sarah, Rachel, Ruth, Leah, and Rebecca who were good but dependent women, loving wives and good mothers, the stories of the cunning and devious Eve and Delilah are remembered best because they are far closer to the post-Lapsarian immoral, survivalist world that we know.  It is difficult, even or especially in the modern world of female authority and independence, to put them out of our minds – especially because Shakespeare made his reputation at least in part on his powerful, cunning, amoral heroines – Cleopatra, Goneril, Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, and Volumnia, all of whom, operating within a distinctly male world, used craft, wiles, and will to pursue their ambitions.

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Influential women in the New Testament are few and far between.  Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Elizabeth, and Lydia were known for the service, faithfulness and love of Jesus; but women as a group found little support in the Gospels or in the Epistles of Paul.  Traditional Christianity has believed that the statements attributed to St. Paul in I Timothy 2 - that women were created second, sinned first, and should keep silence—and have been the universal consensus since the days of the early Church.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are more accommodating of women but barely so.   Feminist critics have suggested that Paul was a misogynist whose comments are those of a sexually immature and resentful male and not a divinely-endowed apostle. 

Perhaps, but the conviction persists.  Shakespeare’s Othello, before being tried and condemned for his murder of Desdemona, tells his accusers that he has done them and all men a favor, ridding the world of one more deceitful, faithless, and untrustworthy woman.   The jealous men of Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale are no different.  The women of Ibsen (Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, Hedda Gabler) are all Eve’s descendants – manipulative, canny, cunning, and amoral.

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It is wrong to judge women too harshly or take too much from Biblical tales and fictional drama.  They have been, after all, men’s chattel for millennia and forced to use their intelligence, cunning, and sexual power to realize the most modest of ambitions.  The best examples of this ability to successfully negotiate a male world are found in Shakespeare’s Comedies.  Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice, and Portia run rings around the men in their lives; and although they have to settle for less when it comes to marriages of convenience, they are the true heroines of Shakespeare’s works.  They are not amoral, vindictive, and cruelly cunning, but simply adept, intuitive, and completely understanding of male weakness.

Yet, the age of the modern woman is still recent.  It takes time to get the kinks out, to let the dust of the gender wars settle, and for a new paradigm to be established.  In the meantime women still have issues with unfaithful husbands, are as demanding of them to fulfill domestic responsibilities as ever; and despite the radical insistence that there is no such thing as femininity,  femaleness, or female behavior, women and men are different.  Different levels and type of sexual interest.  Different social perceptions and abilities.  Different persuasions, self-image, and demeanor.  Many women, convinced that the pursuit of male power, authority, and dominance is alluring; and able to use their femininity and an acquired male aggression and competitiveness have been very successful in business and politics. They are the notable in today’s gender-fluid world just like Ibsen’s heroines were radical outliers in theirs.

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For the rest, life is a bit of a muddle.  On the one hand feminists insist that women are fully independent, capable, and strong; but concede that they still need protection and social support.  Safe spaces, politically correct speech, institutional intolerance of male behavior, and suspension of due process in favor of women’s interests belie the notion of female invincibility.  Yet more moderate men and women concede that both are true.

Men of course have not only never changed, but never will.  It is not so much that men are simply hanging on to old patriarchal notions of male superiority; they are far more comfortable with their traditional, natural maleness than women think. Competition, sexual pursuit and endless desire, aggressiveness, confidence, physicality, and male will are part of a quite acceptable package.

It is inevitable, therefore, that marriages are consistently problematic.  How can they be otherwise in a society in which radical sexual politics are changing perceptions and attempting to influence behavior? Less confident, more susceptible men have accepted feminist rhetoric and have convinced themselves that they are the obstacle to female satisfaction, and such satisfaction is of a higher good; and that sublimating or subjugating their natural desires and behavior is the price one has to pay for equality.   More savvy men negotiate around women’s new demands, giving when it is strategically necessary, but holding out when serious battles are at stake.  Such men have been wonderful at doing the little things – child care, housework, affection – to assure their wives’ complicity in their adultery and male wandering.

None of this ever works completely or even that well.  Men are always found out and must pay with a pound of flesh.  Women always seem to organize, arrange, plan, and settle family life to such a degree that even the most complaisant and tolerant husband refuses, resents, and dismisses his wife’s intrusions.

Marriage is at best a difficult often sorry affair; but as Edward Albee, no fan of marriage, admitted, it is the crucible of maturity.  Without the confines of marriage, men and women would be free to flee at the first sign of difficulty, avoid responsibility, and never grow up.  True as that may be, and as permanent as the institution of marriage might seem, it as Winston Churchill said about democracy, it is the worst of all possible systems except for all others.

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