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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Be Authentic! New Age Narcissism

A friend of mine is a ‘Coach’ who helps people ‘be all they can be’.  In other words stop diddling, throw off insecurity and self-doubt, realize your full potential, define the world in your terms, and take charge of yourself and your own personal destiny. He makes a lot of money and coaches everybody from shiftless teenagers to corporate executives who mumble their speeches. 

I heard all this ‘potential’ nonsense from my parents who hectored me every time I took a nap or read a comic book.  They weren’t worried so much about my self-confidence, for in their opinion I had too much of that already.  I was arrogant, self-centered, and a testa dura. “He doesn’t listen to anybody” intoned my mother, “let alone his parents.  He does what he pleases and thinks only of himself”.

They were worried that I didn’t have what it took to survive in the hyper-competitive, individualistic, aggressive, dog-eat-dog world of America where “nobody is going to hand it to you on a silver platter”.  All their worries became realized when the Sixties hit our little conservative corner of Connecticut.  Not only had I become even more insufferably arrogant and intolerant, I “did my own thing”.  My parents were convinced that sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll would be the end of me. 

Now, apparently, old-fashioned parental hectoring has become big business in the form of ‘coaching’. If a parent can’t be bothered with their layabout, indulgent, and indifferent children, give them Ritalin and then send him to a Coach.

The Ken Blanchard Companies, one of many private coaching services, describes their goals this way:

Coaching is a deliberate process utilizing focused conversations to create an environment for individual growth, purposeful action, and sustained improvement. It is designed to help people focus on what they need to do more and less of to achieve their goals.

Coaching breaks down barriers to help achieve greater levels of accomplishment. It is a process of self-leadership that enables people to gain clarity about who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they want to go.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with you that a little coaching can’t fix. Your lassitude, mental slowness, tics, nighttime fears, and intemperate stubbornness are not deeply-rooted, genetically programmed, socially case-hardened negative traits that others say. Just the opposite.  They are part of the real, authentic you.  Once you realize that your lazy indifference is nothing but a Buddhist-like acceptance of adversity; your intellectual dullness only a careful pondering of the world around you; your tics signs of legitimate impatience with fools; your nighttime fears the product of a vitally active imagination; and your stubbornness a sign of commitment and perseverance, you are on your way to greatness.

Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster have written about “The Gospel According to Me” in the New York Times (6.30.13) and observed that this narcissistic search for personal authenticity has a very dark side:

Many citizens have [abandoned] their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions, which impose bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest.

In other words, by substituting a New Age spiritual individualism – the result of the Existentialist 50s, indulgent 60s, and acquisitive 80s – for a much more traditional and rigorous religion or moral philosophy, we reject order, discipline, social responsibility, and ethical action.  The new search for personal authenticity risks eroding the foundations of cooperative society. No one argues for traditional social values better than Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other;  but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place? (I.iii.540)

Self-actualization, however, if used as a means to a higher spiritual end, can be a good thing. Hinduism is based on such principles of self-realization; and more than any other religion stresses the importance of the individual.  Only through a personal spiritual odyssey through many lives and reincarnations can one finally attain Enlightenment.  Family and human society are merely constructs – the architecture which provides the framework for individual spiritual progress but of no intrinsic value. They mean nothing in and of themselves.  Looked at one way, Hinduism is the most narcissistic philosophy going.  Looked at in another, it stresses the evanescent and illusory nature of the world in which the only validation of the individual is through the rejection of Maya.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with focusing on individual, personal development if it has a purpose – and a goal other than simple pleasure. Avoidance of painful responsibility and moral choice in the search for personal gratification is wrong.

Critchley and Webster reflect this idea:

In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.

This focus on a “collective project” is, in my opinion, still too secular and narrow.  Hinduism’s valuation of selfish individualism is of a different and even higher philosophical order. Hinduism is often ironically criticized by Western ‘progressives’ and social reformers for its focus on individualism.    In Western eyes it is selfish indifference, consigning millions to poverty and destitution, and more than anything else depriving them of their liberty. In Hindus’ eyes, however,  the caste system removes the illusion of secular attainment and ‘progress’.  The more one’s life is ordered and predictable, the more one is able to concentrate on spiritual attainment.

Critchley and Webster argue that the search for ‘authenticity’ is a defense mechanism for avoiding the unpleasantness of the world:

In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.

I disagree.  The search for ‘authenticity’ is a perfect expression of the materialist, individualistic times of today. Coaching to help clients realize their potential sanctify the quest.  If one can throw off externalities, unrealistic and selfish claims by family and society, antiquarian religious injunctions, and the narrowness of a bourgeois social order, there is no end to the material success possible.

America and India couldn’t be more different, and it is vanity to hope that we will become more spiritual and progress towards higher goals rather than flounder in the marketplace.  It is also unrealistic to assume that we will become more ‘collective’ any time soon.  If there was a glimmer of social conscience in the 60s, it is long gone.  ‘Authenticity’ will remain the name of the game for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Is Boredom A Good Thing?

One day a number of years ago, I was shepherding my son’s playgroup, five pre-school boys. They were in the back yard hacking around, wrestling, finger-shooting at each other from behind trees, the petunia bed, and the downspout; and showing each other their finds – bird feathers, scary marks and splotches on the fence, tangled jungle-like vines.  All except one kid.  “Mr. Parlato”, he said, “I’m bored”. I suggested the many things that he could do.  Why didn’t he climb the cherry tree? Or ride the scooter in the alley?

“That’s too boring”, he replied.  I suggested watering the bushes or filling the big Peter Rabbit watering can and sprinkling the flowers. “That’s too boring”, he said, now with an irritating whine in his voice.  I tried again and suggested playing catch with the dog, exploring the window wells for toads, and checking the fence line for rabbits.  “Too boring”, he repeated. This kid was a real pain in the ass.  I gave him a length of rope and an old doll of my daughter and said, “Why don’t you play cowboy and hang the doll from the limb of that tree”. 

“Too boring” he said again in the same nasal whine as before. He was hopeless.

I have been bored many times in my life.  The worst ever was when I had to spend three weeks in Puno, Peru in the late 70s.  High on the altiplano on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno could be a spectacularly beautiful place.  In the crisp, thin air the sky was an almost impossibly deep blue, the snowcapped peaks of the Andes were brilliantly white, and the flat, dry plains brown and mauve. 

When the sun shone the layered skirts and multicolored shawls of the Aymara women were bright and exotic.

When it rained, however, everything changed.  The skies were grey, the air wet and cold.  The streets became rutted, muddy, and impassable. Peasants who had come in from the country trudged to ratty markets, smoked under dripping roof overhangs, and ate cheap potato soup in makeshift food stalls.  In the rain there was no place to go – no movies, no libraries, no restaurants.  On sunny days I would walk for miles across the plains, on the shores of the Lake, and up the foothills of the mountains.  On rainy days I could only stay in my hotel – a cement slab of a building with no heat, intermittent power, and only grisly meat and rotten potatoes to eat.  I was up there three weeks, and it rained every day.  Although I worked for a few hours every morning and afternoon during the week, the office closed at 2pm, and I had long afternoons and evenings to myself.  I knew no one.  I ran through my few books within days.  I had no radio, and there was no TV.  I lay on my bed for hours, trying to sleep, got up and slogged through the dismal grey, wet, and foul-smelling town, and went back to my room.  I was bored.

It had nothing to do with a spoiled brat, self-indulgence.  It had nothing to do either with a lack of inner resources, creativity, or ingenuity.  I didn’t miss New York, bars, and girlfriends; or lively restaurants, music, and television.  During long weekends in Puno which started at 2pm on Thursday, I would speak to no one. I lived in total, enforced silence. It was not only boring; but it tested my endurance and fortitude.

Giles Fraser, writing in The Guardian (6.29.13) notes that our fear of boredom is simply a fear of coming face to face with ourselves

Indeed, the interesting thing here is the panic that boredom seems to evoke in some people, as if their lives require the intervention of continual entertainment in order to be meaningful. This seems just a bit too much like an admission that life without the Xbox is indeed not meaningful. Ultimately, this subterranean anxiety is profoundly diminishing.

Nothing could have been further from the truth as I stared at the four cold cement walls of my hotel room in Puno.  I wasn’t looking for ‘continual’ entertainment, external stimulation, and excitement.  I didn’t feel a panic of withdrawal or some inner angst about aloneness, being and nothingness.  I was just absolutely bored silly.

I spent most of my working life as a private consultant and have been able to set my own hours and work at my own pace. After a few hours in my office at home, I got up to stir the soup, walk the dog, go to the store.  I often got up very early, finished my work by noon, and spent the afternoon walking, at the movies, or playing tennis.  However in the few jobs I have had, I endured such a crushing boredom that I wondered if I could stand it.  By mid-afternoon the desire for sleep was painful. I walked the floors, sat on the park benches outside my building, bobbling and toppling over from sleep-desire.  I was only saved from the ignominy of sleeping outside the World Bank on a park bench by some residual sense of pride and shame. In desperation I often resorted to the Breastfeeding Room on the fourth floor for a few moments of dark, stretched out sleep.

All this has nothing to do with a sense of anomie, loss of self-worth, or even frustration at my inability to deal with adversity.  It was just plain, unadorned, uncomplicated, crushing boredom.

I am never bored these days, because I am too old.  I am far closer to the end of my life than its beginning.  I have the compulsive feeling that any moment not used is a moment lost, and since I don’t have that many moments left, I better not waste them.  I find sleep itself boring, and get up at ridiculous hours to read and write.  If I wake up in the middle of night, I not only do not toss and turn, but relish the good fortune of having some extra time to think.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Too soon old, too late shmart” and I want to at least have a crack at figuring things out before I go gaga.

With few exceptions, kids and alter kockers are rarely bored.  Most children – the whiney brat of the playgroup excepted – have too much energy, curiosity, and spirit to be bored.  Everything is interesting and a discovery.  Older people like me have the same curiosity and intellectual energy and the compulsion of time at our backs.

I get Fraser’s point, although I am a little impatient at yet another swipe at popular culture. Today’s electronic, media-saturated, multi-tasking, society, it seems to him, are denying us access to our inner selves, our spiritual depths.  How can we contemplate God, reflect on our place in the world, do acts of contrition and penance, listen to the music of the spheres if we are plugged in, turned on, and otherwise absorbed?

This narrow and predictable conclusion is unfortunately not correct.  Most young people find this new environment intellectually and personally exciting.  The world today is more accessible than ever before. Social interactions are more possible and more diverse than at any time in our history.  Exposure to new and exciting ideas and discoveries limitless.  Every sense can be stimulated, challenged, and rewarded.  Of course we have withdrawal symptoms if our I-Phone is lost, the computer goes down, or the lights go out; and are at loose ends until power and devices are restored.  But is this a symptom of some psychological dysfunction? Some moral failing? Or a denial of an interior dignity and humanity?  Far from it.

Boredom is a fact of life.  Even the most committed and visionary naturalist will stop on the trail every so often, look at the dense rows of pines and firs on either side, and say to himself, “Whew, this is boring”.  Plan too many days on a secluded tropical beach, the idyll of your dreams, and you will be bored.  Fascinated by the discovery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets after 40 years of neglect as I was?  By the time I got to No. 103, I said to myself, “What? Fifty-one more to go?”.

I know many young people who lead exciting, active, multi-tasking lives and who revel in the challenge, feed off the sensory and intellectual diversity, and who evolve with more understanding and insight than the bookish, priory-bound supplicant sitting in a quiet church pew.

I know many more for whom moments of respite are valued, and who use this time to turn off all devices and settle into a good book.  Most people are quite able to navigate a complex world with intelligence and resourcefulness.  I know very few people who have been turned into zombies by all the TV, Internet, and IPod music.

Of course there are millions of people working repetitive, mind-numbing jobs because they have to.  They are bored all the time, bored silly on the assembly line, bored senseless making change; bored out of their gourds working on the same frozen shoulders, replaced hips, and balky knees every day; bored numb after checking out eight hours’ worth of frozen dinners, cheap donuts, pretzels, and toilet paper.  Not to be bored is a luxury of the privileged.  We are lucky to live in such a varied, promising environment.  We should never be bored, and should sympathize with those for whom boredom is a way of life.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Is Violence Necessary For Democracy?

The New York Review of Books has recently reprinted a piece written by Hannah Arendt in 1969 in which she justified short-term violence as a necessary act within a liberal democracy:

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention.

It is interesting to reflect on Arendt’s words now that ‘The Street’ has erupted everywhere from the Middle East and Turkey to Brazil. Arendt, as captivated by the events of The Sixties as anyone else, idealizes the popular movements of the time; but is naïve in calling them ‘violent’.  What is happening in Syria is violent, not the March on Washington.  While the supposed revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia are violent than Syria, the future is unclear.  Once the suppressive lid has been taken off long-frustrated ethnic and religious ambitions, popular eruptions become far more violent than anyone schooled in a  democratic and participatory environment can possibly imagine.

In other words, the protests of France in 1968 and those of the United States during the worst periods of the Vietnam War, were expectedly mild.  With the exception of Kent State, there were few casualties and certainly no massacres like there were in Mexico, Thailand, and Indonesia.  ‘Non-violent’ violence is restricted only to mature democratic countries where protest is tolerated.  Protesters make their point, government concedes some points, and the rest is referred to the legislative process.

Where repression has been the rule, as in the Middle East, true violence is likely to erupt, especially when compounded be sectarian or ethnic differences. The protests in France and the US in the Sixties may have been shockingly ‘violent’ compared to the sedate, conservative Fifties, but were nothing like the street protests in the Middle East where general social grievances are exacerbated by communal tensions.  When  thousands initially poured out spontaneously in the streets of Cairo  to defy the dictatorial regime of Mubarak, the protests were relatively peaceful; but when the longstanding and deep-seated ethnic and sectarian hatreds came to the fore, there was no possible outcome but violence.

The combination of a repressive regime used to absolute power, authority, and obedience; and years of suppressed ethnic pride and sectarian belief is a heady, explosive mix. France and the United States circa 1968 were evolved democracies in need of adjustment and realignment.  What is happening in the Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil is entirely different.  They are emerging democracies with little experience of non-violent protest within a liberal context.

Arendt understood the nature of violence, and although she believed that violence used for short-term gains was a tool of democracy, she knew that there were many implicit dangers:

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Arendt could not possibly have envisioned the violence of today.  Even the street protests of Cairo, certain to become more common and more murderous, are mild compared to the orchestrated, amoral, and resolute disruptions of society carried out by al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  They are street protests taken to their logical extreme.  Extremist organizations, dissatisfied with the status quo, feeling marginalized and disaffected, and seeing no other recourse for the expression of their demands, become brutally and inhumanely violent.

Arendt cites one of the causes of street protests of the Sixties – the dulling, dehumanizing nature of bureaucracies:

Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

This may still be true to a degree in Western Europe and America.  In the United States, there are pockets of disaffection and alienation where people often illogically resent Big Government.  The Federal Government no longer rules the South through the draconian measures of Reconstruction or the deployment of federal troops during the Civil Rights era, but what is seen as its Kafka-esque bureaucratic creep and co-option of individual rights and liberties is even more threatening. The enemy has no leader, no tyrant, no oppressor.  Its evil intents are diffuse, indistinct, and corrosive.

As Arendt presciently noted, “The rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless, we have tyranny without a tyrant”.  The recent disclosures of massive government surveillance and an intrusion of individual privacy on a monumental scale consolidate this point of view.  The fact that government was spying on all of us was less troubling for the particular information it was gathering, but for the scary fact that it all was secret. How could we trust government any longer when it was acquiring the terrifying characteristics of the Soviet Union?

So in America there may be acts of civil protest in the future, but it is doubtful that we shall see them any time soon. Against whom should one protest?  The President? The Congress? The CIA and FBI?  Hard to tell, for modern bureaucracies are organic entities with lives of their own, amoeba-like creatures which are always changing, adapting, and shifting, all within a secretive, underground world.

The Occupy Movement came and went because the frustrations of the protesters were not real but academic. Railing against the One Percent was theoretical because the middle class demonstrators were well-off. There was no personal, felt political or economic frustration driving passions; only idealism and youthful ideas of equality.  In America the power of the government is increasing and the influence of the corporate sector unlimited.  The concerted action of an involved and organized citizenry is nothing compared to these forces of order and conservatism. Protests are stifled before they even begin.

In other countries, however, the conditions are ripe not only for violence but for total anarchy. Why should the Middle East be any different from the former Yugoslavia? Yet the Balkans are child’s play compared to the frightening constellation of powers arrayed in the Arab World. There is no such thing as national conflict. Every conflict is regional.  Nothing happens in the Middle East without the involvement of Iran, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan…The list goes on. The most fearsome aspect of this regional unrest is that it is happening on two levels.  The first is at the level of regimes and governments who jockey for power and influence, who provide arms, money, and influence.  The second is ‘The Street’, now coalescing into ethnic and sectarian camps which know no national borders.  A Shiite is a Shiite whether in Iran or Syria, and allegiances, protests, and armed conflict are part of a new type of violent order.

So in reading the Hannah Arendt of the late 60s one is both struck by her naïveté and her insight.  She thought that semi-violent protest could and should be a tool for democratic reform; but was worried about where such anti-social actions could lead. Unfortunately both predictions have come true.  We in America have been coopted by an all-encompassing, invasive government and a powerful corporate sector.  Even if we wanted to revolt, we would have a hard time figuring out where to start; but we don’t, most of us, want to disrupt our pleasant bourgeois life.  It simply isn't worth it.  In other countries, however, people are putting their lives on the line.  While these violent protests are certainly venal in their origin – land, resources, wealth, power are always what political disputes are about – people are dying for their causes.  Not here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why Celebrities Get Us To Buy Things

I must confess that I love celebrities.  I look forward to my haircut because of the head massage and People Magazine.  There without guilt, shame, or the feeling that someone might be looking over my shoulder, I can revel in the doings of David and Victoria Beckham, Beyoncé, Scarlett Johansson,  Matthew McConaughey, and Jude Law.  I love to see who’s going with whom, who got divorced, who’s pregnant, and who’s fighting.  I especially like the paparazzi photos of Hollywood stars on beaches, in lounge chairs by the pool, dressed down and shopping, or primping for the camera. I can’t get enough.

I am not alone. Celebrities rule on the Internet and on television. Everywhere you look there is cleavage, abs, happy chatter, hairdos, and chirpy laughter.  There are whole channels devoted to celebrities (E!), and just about every magazine short of the New York Review of Books has a celebrity feature. Celebrities are on talk shows, news shows, sports shows and in ads everywhere.

It is this last phenomenon – celebrities selling products that have nothing to do with them – that Jamie Tehrani writes about In an article on the BBC News website (6.27.13). Tehrani argues that there is an evolutionary reason for our idolization of celebrities and it is called prestige. Whereas apes and other animals use forceful dominance to assert authority, bragging rights, and the choicest female, human beings confer authority on those whom we judge to be leaders, innovators, or spiritual guides. In the past prestige helped society develop and progress.

How did such systems arise? The most convincing theory suggests that prestige evolved as part of a package of psychological adaptations for cultural learning. It allowed our ancestors to recognize and reward individuals with superior skills and knowledge, and learn from them.

This allowed new discoveries and techniques - for instance, how to exploit the medicinal properties of plants or optimize the design of hunting weapons - to spread across the whole population, and enabled each successive generation to build on and improve the knowledge of their predecessors.

All well and good, except that this prestige-for-the-good-of-society has morphed into celebrity worship.  We may admire Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but these geeky guys couldn’t possibly sell us underwear, shoes, razors, or cars.  But the sleek, beautiful, graceful, and sexy Hollywood stars can.  Shouldn’t we pay more attention to the smart people of the world like Gates when he says “Buy this car”? Usain Bolt can run fast, but what does he know about high-performance automobiles?

Tehrani explains this phenomenon.  Looking up to an individual for a particular trait can be somewhat indiscriminate and “can lead to people adopting all kinds of behaviors exhibited by a role model, including ones that have nothing to do with their success.”

For example, men might observe a successful hunter perform some kind of incantation at the same time as he re-touches his arrowheads, and adopt both the ritual as well as his knapping techniques as a single package when they prepare their own tools.

This tendency, I believe, explains our interest in what sports stars and singers wear, what car they drive, and where they go shopping.

Enough academic license. We love celebrities because they are everything we are not – rich, beautiful and famous.  They are dream-makers, spinners of fantasy, living and breathing icons of beauty, elegance, and sophistication.  They are edgy, cool, risk-takers. They are all image, and the image is everything because it represents the popular zeitgeist.

Movie theatres in India are always packed for the big song-and-dance films that are cranked out by Bollywood at a rate which beggars Hollywood and all the American independents combined.  Hundreds of millions of Indians watch these fantasy epics every week and have to be pried out of their seats at the tearful end.  These three-hour interludes are a complete break from the heat and dust, crowds, and poverty of real life.  There are escapism at its purist because the reality from which Indian moviegoers escape is far more brutal than that in America.

What Tehrani fails to mention is the mechanism of persuasive advertising. The celebrity attracts attention to herself, then to the product.  After that many other more complex steps in buying decisions are made.  There is a high value in the smallest shifts of market share that if an advertiser can get you to look at his product, half the battle is won.  This picture of Usher may not convince you to get MasterCard now – you are already deep in debt and have a wallet-full of maxed-out credit cards – but his image has drawn you to a card that you might have overlooked in the era of Visa dominance.

So celebrities are show-stoppers, attention-getters, popular icons, and hopes for unfulfilled wishes; but surrogate prestige-hawkers?  I doubt it.

Recipes–Braised Brussels Sprouts With Apples And Walnuts

There are many people who don’t like Brussels sprouts. I do and have them often even as a main course for lunch with just olive oil and tuna.  They are great sautéed in bacon, butter, or olive oil.  They are good boiled, braised, or grilled; and each type of cooking gives them a different taste.  This recipe is for those who are a bit iffy about the vegetable, for the eclectic combination of sprouts, apples, nuts provides the sweetness and variety that lessen its intensity and provide complementary flavors.  Adding balsamic, honey, and soy sauce gives the dish a very interesting Asian twist.

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Apples and Walnuts

* 1 net bag Brussels Sprouts (about 1 lb.)

* 2 medium high-flavor apples like the new, fantastic variety, Gold Rush, quartered

* 1 cup walnut halves

* 1 Tbsp. unsalted European style butter

* 1/4 cup Balsamic vinegar

* 2 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 1 Tbsp. honey

- Parboil the Brussels sprouts.  They should be firm, but slightly giving to the fork when done

- Sauté the sprouts in butter over high heat, turning frequently until at least some of them are browned

- Add the walnuts, and apples and cook until the apples are slightly soft

- Add the soy sauce, Balsamic, and honey.  Stir well, and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes

- Add 10 grindings fresh pepper and serve

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Paradise Lost–What A Rip-Roaring Tale!

I ‘studied’ Paradise Lost as a Yale English major in the 60s.  When I saw that I would have to tackle 12 books and over 10,000 lines of dense blank verse with enough arcane Biblical, classical, Elizabethan, and contemporary (Oliver Cromwell) references to take up half of each page with footnotes, I knew I was in for it.  I muddled through and, like much of what I read in those bright, shining years, I totally forgot once I left New Haven.

After many years of foreign travel and a study of cultural and political history, I found the history of countries as different as Mali and India dispiritingly similar and predictable. Writers of fiction, I thought, focusing more on human nature, desires, and propelling needs, would provide more answers to who we are and where we are going than any historian.  I turned to Shakespeare’s Histories which, as the critic Jan Kott has noted, if they are laid out end to end, they illustrate the predictable recurring cycles of geopolitical events, but suggest the reason why the wheels history always turn in the same way – human nature.  It is the ineluctable and inevitable self-protective aggression, perennial securing of borders and perimeters, and unstoppable force of ambition which define all human actions.

Where was Man in all this? A pawn caught in the grinding gears of The Grand Mechanism as Kott calls it? A bit of detritus caught, ground up, and spit out as the engine of history steams along? Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Machiavelli anticipated Nietzsche and his celebration of Will. The greatest Shakespearean characters are those who express pure will and in so doing are ‘beyond good and evil’.  Edmund, Macbeth, Richard III, Iago, Titus, Dionyza, Volumnia, and Tamora and many others as powerful if more benign are central to Shakespeare’s (and Nietzsche’s) belief that the expression of an amoral Will is what validates human existence.

These characters are both willful and evil, and they pursue their ambitions with no regard for anything or anyone.  They rise above ‘the herd’ and are the Supermen who sit atop the human pyramid.

I realized that I could not continue to write and teach about Will and Evil in Shakespeare without turning to the mother lode – Paradise Lost.  Who other than the Satan of Milton’s epic is more evil and more willful?  He, after all defied God Almighty.  Refusing to accept his his defeat and consignment to the bowels of Hell, he rose up to fight God again.  Losing again, he once more refused to give up the struggle and turned to a more insidious and successful strategy.  If he corrupted and defiled God’s greatest creation – Man – and persuaded Eve to defy God and his injunction, he would be triumphant. Satan is classically characterized as evil because he is the corrupter of good, and responsible for the unleashing of Sin and Death onto the world; but in Milton’s hands, he is canny, nuanced, defiantly courageous, and heroic.

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.

Paradise Lost is a great yarn.  It has everything a potboiler should be.  Heroes and villains, epic battles;sex, jealousy, and desire; strategy, diplomacy, and office politics.

All most people know about The Fall is that Eve tempted Adam with an apple, the fruit forbidden by God; and when they had both eaten of it, they were cast out of Paradise.  Their Original Sin was responsible for the travails and miseries of life.

For Milton, however, the story is far more complex.  It wasn’t just any apple that Eve plucked, nor any tree; but the Tree of Knowledge. By eating it, said Satan to Eve, you will have access to what only the gods know – the existence of good and evil – and through such knowledge you and Adam will become gods, unequal to no one.

Why did God do this? Milton wonders. Why was this particular knowledge so important, and why should abstention from it be a sign of obedience?  What was God trying to hide? If testing Adam and Eve’s moral fiber was the reason behind the injunction, then any other temptation would have done as well, if not better. After all, knowledge itself was an unknown quantity in Paradise.

Milton repeatedly quotes God and his conviction that Adam and Eve have Free Will; that despite an all-powerful and all-knowing Creator, they can act independently of him.  In the work, Milton ironically accepts these anomalies and contradictions and uses them for dramatic ends. In perhaps the best seduction scene of all time, Satan, disguised as a serpent, uses human psychology and wiles to corrupt Eve. Why should God be so dictatorial? he says, depriving her and Adam from their rightful claims. He characterizes Heaven as an aristocratic gated community, with The Garden of Eden nothing more than his playhouse.  God created you, Eve, and Adam as his playthings, and as the result of the humiliating rebellion of the Dark Angels.  In his obsessively patriarchal and elitist way, God locked up the only thing of value in Paradise; and by eating the Forbidden Fruit, you will once and for all declare your humanity and equality.

The only seduction scene at all comparable to that of Satan and Eve is that of Count Dracula and Lucy.  Werner Herzog in Nosferatu has created a human-like vampire just as Milton has created a very recognizable devil, and when Dracula sweet-talks Lucy by her bedside before the cock crows, we have to think of Milton’s Satan.

Sexual dynamics only begin with Satan’s seduction.  After Eve has eaten the apple and realizes that she is doomed to death, she debates whether or not she should tell Adam.  If she doesn’t tell him, she spares him from expulsion and death; but he will be free to consort with another Eve whom God will provide, an eventuality she cannot stomach.  If she convinces him to take a bite, then he will fall with her and they will live happily until their mortal end. 

Milton is no different from Shakespeare or anyone else of the 17th Century, believing in the essential duplicity and corruptibility of women.  Eve is not only our universal mother, but the prototype for women throughout Shakespeare. Othello in his unforgettable last scene protests to the Duke that he is not guilty of killing Desdemona, for he saved other men from her sexual profligacy.  Posthumus (Cymbeline) is easily persuaded that his chaste and beloved Imogen is a whore. Leontes is absolutely convinced, with no evidence, that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and by extension all women are not to be trusted. In Book X Adam wonders why God created Eve in the first place. Why would he have even imagined Woman, the most weak, conniving, and wily beings ever imagined?

Milton concurs with God’s injunction that after The Fall, Eve should be subservient to Adam as should all their female descendants.  The ripe, passionate sexuality of women should not intrude into God’s grand plan.

In Milton’s version of The Fall, neither Satan nor God are clear winners.  God has lost because his grand experiment, Man, has been a failure.  Although he wreaks his vengeance by assuring that Adam and Eve’s descendants will have a tough life – bad winters and meager crops, he has not won a convincing victory. Satan has returned to Hell not to the acclaim he expected but to criticism for invoking God’s wrath and ensuring an eternal struggle.  Sin and Death, Satan’s offspring, are the only real victors in this epic struggle, for they have easy pickings from among the human race.

Paradise Lost is epic, but as dramatic, demanding, and insightful as anything by Shakespeare.  For me, Milton’s story of The Fall and its recounting of the struggles between God and Satan, its exploration of the moral and philosophical conundrums, and its forays into human weakness, passion, ambition, and narcissism are without equal.

My only question is “Where have I been all these years?”.  Why did it take me so long to discover Milton?  The same reason it took me over 40 years to find Shakespeare and Faulkner.  Better late than never.

Do You Feel Engaged In Your Job?

According to a recent Gallup Poll, seventy percent of us are not.  As Annette Fondas reports in the Atlantic (6.26.13:

Most workers hate their jobs or have "checked out," headlined the Los Angeles Times last week about a new Gallup poll, "2013 State of the American Workforce." A jaw-dropping 700 million people--about 70 percent of full-time workers--are emotionally disconnected at work, meaning they only "go through the motions" to perform their jobs or worse: they do things to weaken or sabotage the organization and its mission.

I have always known that working in an office is a dispiriting, airless existence.  Unless one is in management and well-rewarded for organization, discipline, human relations, financial control, and risk management (few of us), clocking in at work every morning is the first rote action of a tedious, life-sucking, repetitive, and crushingly boring day.

This is not to say that office minions don’t draw some measure of satisfaction from camaraderie of the workplace.  Even in jobs where every keystroke is recorded and every last ounce of productivity is vacuumed out, there is always a few minutes for gossip.  The fact that chatter is usually about the boring, exploitive job; or bad bosses, and the slave-driver mentality of management, at some level there is social bonding.

Jobs – good or bad – pay the rent and give you something to do all day long.  As much as we may complain about the incarceration of work, most people feel like they are drifting on a balsa raft on uncharted seas if they are unemployed.

All the same 70 percent is a very big number of grumbling, dissatisfied, disengaged workers.  It gets worse. Not only do disaffected workers sleepwalk through their jobs, devoid of any energy let alone passion, there are many who want to bring the whole place down.  If they can’t be happy, then no one else should be:

Another 18 percent are "actively disengaged" from their jobs, hampering productivity--not to mention killing the organization's culture. These people "aren't just unhappy at work; they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged workers accomplish."

I have always put this down to good, wholesome competitiveness.  Most offices run a zero-sum game – i.e. your loss is my gain – and everyone is out both to further their own interests and to deny, diminish, or destroy the accomplishment of others. Joseph Heller captures the ennui and frightening office experience in Something Happened:

We wise grown ups here at the company go gliding in and out all day long, scaring each other at our desks and cubicles and water coolers and trying to evade the people who frighten us. We come to work, have lunch, and go home. We goose-step in and goose-step out, change our partners and wander all about, sashay around for a pat on the head, and promenade home till we all drop dead.

I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why. Something must have happened to me sometime.”

The Atlantic article focuses on the gender differences concerning office engagement – women are far happier in their jobs than men, and this may have something to do with flex-time.  More women than men take advantage of this benefit to take care of young children, and working at home diminishes stress, is a break in the routine, and restores an all-important work-life balance.

The conclusion, then, is that if more companies adopted employee-friendly practices, workers would be happier, more productive, and more compliant.  This of course is just whistlin’ Dixie.  I worked for a company that preached engagement, work-life balance, positive rewards, and participatory decision-making; but in reality had no intention of doing anything about it.  Because the supply of bright young things willing and able to do office scutwork far exceeded the demand, management could run the company like a Roman galley.  It was management on deck, support staff below pulling away at the oars and lashed by overseers.  If an ‘Administrative Assistant’ finally had her fill, there were many more eager, enthusiastic, and idealistic candidates waiting to go below decks. 

As much as the company convened focus groups, seminars, and workshops about work-life balance, nothing ever changed.  There was no way a supervisor could waste time mentoring an inefficient employee when the bottom-line figures were bad or when contracts were lost.

Flextime and ‘working-at-home’ was tried for a time.  Employees could work at home only if they were working on a specific project, like a proposal, which required independence, quiet, and isolation from the distractions of the workplace.  Of course ‘working-at-home’ became a convenient excuse for sleeping late, having an early glass of wine, and walking the dog.  There was no difference in production or performance. Bad, undisciplined proposal writers turned out the same prolix, rambling, senseless prose that they did while chained to a desk; and the policy was rescinded.

At the same time, who ever said that work was supposed to be fun? This is a concoction of the narcissist generation X – pampered children of Baby Boomers who told them all along that life would be a great ride, that they were special, perfect, and desirable. Work would be fun.

Most generations before them took work as a necessity, maybe even a religious obligation.  In Hindu philosophy life is comprised of many phases, one of which is that of The Householder.  If you are a Householder you marry, work, have children, work some more, and if you are lucky you may pass on to the next level on the Path to Enlightenment.  No one is supposed to be happy in the Householder phase. It wasn’t designed that way.

So kvetching, whinging, griping, whining, and complaining are part of the deal.  You aren’t supposed to like work. It is part of the penance of The Fall.  Get over it.

Still, should we sit back, let capitalism do its thing, sucking the life out of labor and enforcing class distinction, and profit from low-cost do-dads? Yes, because we are all in this together.  We all have put in our time on the treadmill, watched the clock, checked for the ominous shadow of the supervisor, and burst out into the sunlight at 5 o’clock with relief and joy.  Deep down we know that we as consumers benefit from the Roman galley approach to business enterprise.

We may be a long way from Ebenezer Scrooge, but know that a sensitive, New Age, touchy-feely manager is an oxymoron.  There ain’t no such thing.  Most of us would like to think so and are always on the lookout for jobs that promise a congenial, participatory work environment; and reams of material have been produced by consultants who search for the Holy Grail of management – that perfect balance between a happy, content, and satisfied workforce and high corporate productivity. Like the Holy Grail, that ideal model might be out there but mighty hard to find.