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

Sunday, October 25, 2015

In Praise Of The Lackluster

Frieda Lapper was a good girl.  She was obedient, patient, timely, and considerate. As she passed calmly through the Terrible Twos without incident – no tantrums, belligerence, or stubbornness – her parents thought that they had dodged a bullet.  Most parents they knew were at sixes and sevens, distraught, angry and concerned when their children began to act up. They thought that the age of innocence, warmth, and comforting dependency of infancy would continue forever. Their children, thanks to the confluence of good genes, love, and attentive parenting, would always be models of good behavior; and were blindsided as one after the other of those ideal sons and daughters turned into dervishes, throwing their food, ripping pages out of treasured first edition story books, spitting at the maid, and banging their heads against the windows.  Soon enough they realized that their hopes for a docile – or at least politely-mannered child went out the window.  Adolescence suddenly became not a far-off idea, but a frightening probability.

A Child's Garden of Verses

As Frieda grew older, she stayed the course. She was well-behaved and a model of reserve and respect through elementary school and junior high.  “Let’s see how she fares at Woodrow”, her parents said, referring to the public high school which years ago was the school of choice for all upper middle-class families in the city.  White flight had not started, and Woodrow turned out Merit Scholars and sent a good number of students to Yale and Harvard. There was no need to spend thousands for children in the neighborhood to get a good education.  Woodrow was plenty good enough.

Woodrow had changed considerably since its early days. It still had white students, but those were from families who either were stubbornly insistent on the value of a public education or who simply did not have the financial means for exclusive private schools. It began to resemble the rest of the high schools in the city – dysfunctional, low-performing, and dangerous.

The Lappers sent Frieda there to wake her up.  A good dose of reality might shake her out of her somnolence and lackluster childhood.  Although Bob and Laura Lapper were happy to have a child who had never been tempted by risk, they in fact were bored by their daughter. Of course they spoke proudly of her to others, but together they were disappointed.  The girl showed no spark, no interest other than completing her schoolwork, doing her chores, and attending obligatory school functions.  She dressed like a dowdy old maid at fifteen, wore her hair pulled back and tight, and although she had some friends, they were as equally monochrome as she.

Bob and Laura debated the alternatives.  They could send her away to school – her grades were certainly good enough for Loomis or Choate; but that would be consigning her to an elite institution where she would be unchallenged – taunted and teased perhaps by the in-crowd, but more than likely left alone.  The prestigious schools in the city were certainly a possibility, and living at home she could be under her parents supervision, and who knows but what they might still be able to light a fire under this uninteresting, unmotivated, and – as much as they hated to say it – boring, lackluster girl.

Image result for images Loomis school

     Loomis Chaffee School www.boardingschools.com

“Everybody stands out at something”, her father said one evening. “Frieda is just a late bloomer.”

“Don’t kid yourself”, replied her mother. “She was born to blend in with the furniture.”

There was simply no room for a young woman like Frieda in today’s hot, mediated, glitz-and-glam, showboat, all-or-nothing society.  Whether in the strut-and-bling ghetto, the hipster neighborhoods of San Francisco and Brooklyn; LA, or Las Vegas, bland doesn’t work. Disappearing into the woodwork is not an option. 

Bob worked for the World Bank and had survived three of its famous reorganizations.  Every decade or so a new President was elected, and as in most cases of new management, the place had to be redecorated. None of the reorganizations ever amounted to much.  The performance of loans to Africa never seemed to improve whether the Bank was organized by technical expertise or geographic region.  Advisors were in then out. The top of the organizational pyramid was either flattened or raised.  More responsibility was given to the base, to external consultants, or to regrouped senior professionals.  Yet, few if any results.

Image result for logo world bank

Reorganizations were painful, wasteful, and disruptive.  Gossip was the currency of the institution from the moment the reorganization was announced until the last person was fired or hired. Alliances were formed on speculation. Lower management staff bet on their favorites in the sweepstakes, and most got left behind because there was no telling how the executive officers of the 10th floor would would decide.

After the dust settled, only the lackluster survived – the Ethiopians, Malians, Somalis, and Congolese who had learned to keep their heads down and keep their own counsel during coups, political upheaval, and violent social reorganization.

“Our Frieda is a survivor”, said Bob.

So, off Frieda went to Woodrow High School to see if life in an institution of ragged edges and up-front threats would force her expression. To make her a man. There was no way she could blend in at Woodrow. For all the angry criticisms leveled at the school by parents, wary teachers, and many administrators, it did force the issue.  White students were particular targets; and to survive the assaults from Southeast transfer students, they either acted black or squirreled themselves away in the small honors program out of sight in the classes held at the university nearby. Oddly enough, tormentors never tired of badgering those few who chose to hold the line – studious, middle-class, and serious to the core.  One would have thought that they soon would have had enough and turned their attention to newcomers; but no, they kept at it, hoping to reduce their prey to tears or to dun them out of Woodrow entirely.

Frieda, as one might expect, was one of those who kept her course even in rough waters. She had so few expectations, so little ambition, and so few attractive traits, that she let the winds blow themselves out and in the end – just like the Ethiopians, Somalis, and Congolese at the World Bank – she was still standing.

Frieda, despite being exposed to the worst social pathology that the school system could muster, finished her four years with creditable grades, no stress disorders, and no insights either into human nature, the life of the street, or the punishment and isolation of years to come.

“You see”, Bob Lapper remarked to his wife. “We would have wasted our money sending her to St.Clement.”

Frieda Lapper, however, could never be called a loser.  Although she never distinguished herself in any way, she was never at the bottom of the pile. She was never to be pitied, for there was nothing to pity.  She was plain and unremarkable, but was never self-conscious about her ordinariness.  This is the way she was, purely and simply, and she understood that the buffeting she took was par for the course.  Nor was she spitefully thick-skinned.  She cared no more – one way or another - for the bling-and-strut boys of Woodrow than she did for pilgrims, artists, or lawyers. 

Only when she was in her mid-thirties did she come into her own. In a world that was exaggerated, vaudevillian, and full of a million egos, she was happily out of sight and out of mind. To be invisible, to make one’s own way, and to cause no more than a ripple on a millpond was indeed good fortune.

Image result for images new england millpond


The raccoon is one of nature’s survivors. Intelligent, adaptable, resourceful, and canny, this animal will be one of evolution’s survivors once we are long gone. It has remained unchanged for a millennium, changing habitats, food sources, climates, and shelter when it became necessary. It avoids dog fights, ram-rutting, the tooth-and-claw of the high plains, and goes about its business unbothered by anyone.

Image result for images raccoon


The cockroach has an even longer pedigree, one calculated in the millions not thousands of years. The insect, like Frieda, is lackluster.  No bright butterfly wings, no stinger, no flight, speed, or particularity.  It just goes on and on in kitchens, barns, basements, and the wild.

Frieda never considered herself special, for that would have meant an arrogance which she never had. Survivors are not special, she knew, but somehow through accidents of nature, evolutionary blips, and circumstances they plodded on through the generations.

Too bad, however, that Frieda was the end of her own genetic lineage.  She cared too little about anything to be bothered with a mate, and to be honest, few men paid her any mind.  Just as well, she thought, a big fuss over nothing.

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