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

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Inane, The Garrulous, And The Prolix–What Is Their Purpose?

After listening to eight hours of inane, irrelevant, and interrupting chirping from the back seat, Albert Connor turned up the radio.  There were few stations reaching into the valleys of the Adirondacks and the Catskills so the reception was poor and crackly, but it was enough to take his attention away from from the annoying and persistent commentary from his Great Aunt who rattled on about highway exits, relatives of relatives, the comparative advantages of string vs. twine, and life in Altoona in the 40s. 

He had never before, however, spent so much unremittingly painful time with her.  He had too much respect for her age and her important place as a collateral matriarch of his wife’s family that he couldn’t directly try to shut off the spigot, so he had to resort to suppression - balky radio stations, windows cracked for white noise, and high-speed fan on the AC.  Yet, only after depositing her on Capitol Hill, helping her up the steps of her historic brownstone, and carefully seeing her into the hands of her ladies companion, could he relax.  His duty had been done, the minor ordeal was over, and he could exhale.

Capitol Hill


Auntie Bertha meant well, and had always been the most attentive, generous, and loving aunt to her sister’s grandchildren.  It was clear that she cared for them not out of  a sense of duty and responsibility, but out of genuine caring.  They had no idea how Bertha’s prolixity, garrulousness, and random recollections of past family events seemed to adults.  They took Bertie for granted.  How were they to know that all old maiden ladies did not prattle on? How could they possibly have picked up on insecurities which resulted from even decades of slights, dismissals and removes? She was just Auntie or Bertie, a fixture in their young lives and nothing more than a generous and dotty old woman.

To adults, however, Bertie was insufferable. There was not a remark that didn’t cue an ancient memory of obscure relatives in Western Pennsylvania, a breakfast cake that had been  burned because Uncle George had forgotten to turn the gas off before leaving for work, a neighbor who had fallen from grace at his machine shop, dunned out of Uniontown for alleged thievery and conniving, or the casserole recipe of one of her grandniece’s mother – the very recipe that had been in her family for years but never butchered to badly.

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Bertie was not completely batty or by no means unintelligent.  She was just propelled by a course of events which had hobbled her social instincts and damaged her self- confidence.

She always said that she had been born at least two decades too early; and had she been born in the 40s rather than the 20s, she could have enjoyed the benefits of women’s liberation and never been entrapped by first generation European patriarchy. She could have been her own woman, not one defined by her father, her grandfather, and her husband.

Albert got all of this. He empathized with Bertie because he understood how women of intelligence but without will or enterprise ended up disappointed, discouraged, and, in Bertie’s case – a prattling old woman. 

Bertie was a woman whose roots had been forced inward – a Bonsai tree which had been disciplined over so many years by a foreign gardener that although its genus and species were intact, its generic nature had been completely altered.  Because of a patriarchal, arch-Catholic, Croatian father whose struggle to make his daughter both an American and a dutiful, submissive, and faithful child ended up by producing a twisted hybrid that was neither, was not lost on Albert.  He sympathized with her fate; but could never get over her inability to surpass it.

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“Remember Joan Beatty?’, she managed over the static of North Country Radio and the whistling of the wind through the cracked windows. “Her mother was the belle of the ball of the Philadelphia Cotillion. Invited even though she was from Pittsburgh, as regal and elegant as Scarlett O’Hara, descending the staircase of the Captains’ Club and as beautiful as any other Southern beauty, she bewitched Billy O’Grady, married him and nine months later Joanie was born; and all that faux-Southern gentility went for naught as she married down and over, poor Iowa farmers who hadn’t two pennies to rub together…..”

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Despite himself and his resolve to ignore the old lady, he could not help himself.  He was obsessed with her other-worldly (that was the only term he could think of) ramblings about events that may or may not have happened.  “Everyone gossips”, he thought. The lubricant of society, the grease on the wheels of mating, business, and finance,. So why be so hard on Bertie for whom pure ‘reality’ had no meaning or relevance whatsoever. Why should her imperfect, fractured memories which had been blended with equally distorted memories of childhood and alloyed with a few paint chips of reality, and blended into a believable, inaccurate, but emotive re-creation of the past be any less valid that a logically-constructed algorithm?

They passed Elizabeth, Matawan, Parsippany and Newark and Bertie still kept it up. “There are still good bargains at Fabric Man”, she said. “It would be stupid to pay for anything more when with a good hank of cloth and a reconditioned Singer, you could make just as good as Armani or Dior.  Remember Velva Parsifal, Jodie’s aunt? She sewed an entire wardrobe for her girls, and they were the belles of the ball.”

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Albert knew the Parsifal girls who had been so embarrassed by their mother’s ill-fitting and obviously homemade clothes that they spent their allowances and pin money on thrift shop and Salvation Army clothes to affect cool indifference while fuming about their mother’s ignorant and self-serving ‘frugality’.  Both Bertie and her friend Velva Parsifal had been so hogtied by their parents’ outdated notions of parsimony and Puritanical ‘good taste’, that as soon as they were old enough, they revolted.

Once again, Albert, although he appreciated the proto-feminist struggles of Bertie’s era, could not help but dismiss her as one of the also-ran’s – one of the women who had enough intelligence to understand the limitations and potentials of their milieu but not enough to do something about it.

Where were the modern-day Hedda Gablers, Rosalinds, Margarets, Tamoras, Dionyzas and Lauras? Why had so many women like Bertie laid down and spread their legs when so many heroic queens had not? How was it that legions of Berties became the rule?

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“You remember Henrietta Phillips?”, Bertie scraped from the back seat. “Of course you do,. Her mother was Andrea Phillips who lived across the lake and had those loud parties. Well, Henrietta married into the Dugan family, lace curtain Irish but with Donegal pretensions – a mistake if there ever was one – but who managed to marry her daughters to the Main Line Egrets.  She…..”; and there Albert drifted back to static and crop reports from Allegheny Radio, hoping to tune out the rest of the story of status manqué and social opportunities lost.

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Received wisdom concerning frogs is that they croak to attract mates; but new research findings have suggested that since they croak in non-mating times of the years, their croaking may have a more existential meaning. “I am me”, croaks the bullfrog. “I am here”; and thus no mating is intended or expected,.  Many species sing, croak, or bellow without a direct correlation to the reproduction of the species,  Even lower phylogenetic forms have a need to validate their existence.

Human beings are no different. There was no evolutionary reason for Aunt Bertie to bang on for eight hours about Fabric Man,  Velva Parsifal, and Joan Beatty. She was neither advertising herself for sexual sale nor adjusting the pecking order.  She was simply a frog in a swamp who croaked, “Pay attention to me.”

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After the long trip down the Thruway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and I-95 to Washington, a few martinis, and a long evening to relax on the verandah, Albert rethought his dismissal of Aunt Bertie.  Not only did she have as much right to foul the airwaves as anyone else; and even more right to croak her existential presence, she filled empty spaces in discourse. What would an eight-hour trip from Canada have been without her provocative aggravation? 

A long trip salted only with casual reflections about Turkey and Brahms’ symphonies might have passed more easily, but what would Albert have learned? His Aunt Bertie was an unlikely provocateur.  Her incessant inanities, non sequiturs, and irrelevancies provided context and challenge to Albert’s settled opinions. Perhaps Bertie was not as irrelevant and supernumerary as he had thought. Perhaps there was room for irrelevancy.  Perhaps the likes of Aunt Bertie with their automatic, incessant, inharmonious, and banal observations actually play an important role.   Could it be that Aunt Bertie put Albert’s intellectual divinations into perspective?

As many people who thought Bertie totally batty, just as many thought Albert Connor an insufferable intellectual, one deliberately and arrogantly removed from current affairs and ‘real life’. Where was the middle ground? A pedantic academic or a know-nothing product of the American bas-bourgeoisie as outliers, but no credible middle?

I understand and appreciate both sides. I sympathize with Aunt Bertie for her bad luck of the draw; but empathize with Albert Connor who cannot abide Fabric Man, stories of lace-curtain rivalries, and dotty, insecure ladies of a long-forgotten era; and who wishes that all socially-wounded and intellectually-damaged people would stay out of his way.

Logic is abstract. Personal interaction is an art; and those who can understand and accept the inanely prolix should be recognized.

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