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

Monday, April 30, 2018

Good Service–Why There Is So Little Of It

Americans who travel to Paris for the first time are often uneasy in French restaurants.  There is an indifference, they say, a remove, and an an arrogance.  The diner feels a certain responsibility to eat properly, to use the right fork; to order correctly, and to behave.  The waiter is there to judge this, they feel, an arbiter of high French standards, uncompromising in upholding them, and critical of those who fall below the mark.

There is much truth to this.  Thanks to a long and storied history of their profession and its particular attention to food, presentation, and service; and who can be a bit impatient with dawdling, uniformed tourists with the money to pay for two stars but without the grace, confidence, and presence to belong in a fine restaurant, can be forgiven for their sniffiness.  For a waiter who for most of his life has served patrons who respect food, the culture of cuisine, and the unique joys of eating, the influx of Easterners flush with euros but with no sense of either taste or cadre, is an insult. 

Serving has always been a profession in France, one that requires training, apprenticeship, and hard work, and patience.  The food, its presentation, the waiter who serves, and the restaurant itself are all part of one experience.  No element can be be out of place or wrong.  The food must be classic, familiar, but carefully and perfectly prepared.  The presentation must be designed to bring out color and texture and to enhance the complementarity of individual foods but to assure their uniqueness. The décor must be evocative of a period of French culinary history.  Brasseries, for example, must be undiminished in their ornateness and as bright and reflective as they were 100 years ago.  Perhaps most of all the service must express the respect owed to tradition, the art of cuisine, and to the sophistication of patrons who appreciate it. 

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There can be no greater or more telling difference between the cultures of France and America that of food, cuisine, and service.  While American cooking can now rival the best of France and in the opinion of many surpass it.  Thanks to Alice Waters and her generation of California cooks who prize organic, locally-produced, seasonal foods; chefs who never hesitate to innovate and borrow from Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as Europe; and the newfound appreciation and promotion of regional cooking, it is American cuisine, no longer nouvelle or experimental but a world standard, which is imitated.

Restaurants themselves have been made over to reflect the organic and local nature of the cuisine.  In California especially, restaurant designers have understood the intricate complementarity between the food prepared, where it was grown, and where it is served.  Restaurants must be as simple, organic, and natural as the food served within them.

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The French paradigm, however is missing one critical ingredient in America – service.  Waiting is not a profession but an occupation, often a starter job for young people still studying, making a go in a new city, or on their way to a a more accountable career.  While they may have been trained in the basics of food service – efficiency, courtesy, and responsiveness – they have no tradition behind them; no ethos to uphold; and no sense of cuisine as a cultural value.  While the chef may create unusual, if not remarkably innovative dishes, much goes wrong once it leaves kitchen.  The waiters have been given an outline of the ingredients and preparation – a coulis of this, a spray of that; seared, roasted, grilled; combined with, set off by; sourced from local waters, farms, and gardens – but they do not know the food and its particular flavors; nor do they have the language to express the complementarity of taste or the concept of suffusion.  Sommeliers in Napa and Sonoma restaurants are more astute about matching sub-categories of varietals with the particular offerings of the chef, but those out of touch with the vineyards themselves and inexperienced in the wide range of wines available, cannot hope to be.  They too must rely on outlines – the basics of pairing.

The most distinct cultural difference between French and American waiters is familiarity.  Americans who understand that waiting tables, even in better restaurants, is a work of passage.  Waiters are on their way to somewhere else like most young Americans, and experiences are to be shared.  Not only is there no reason for reserve, it is considered impolite, even disrespectful.  We are all in this together.  We have all been here one way or another. 

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American waiters have been trained to be attentive to patrons – to be sure they are satisfied with their meal and want for nothing.  Whereas French waiters have been trained to respond quickly to polite signals from diners, American waiters have been schooled to ask or serve first.  “How is everything?” Water poured in half-filled glasses; wine topped off – intrusive, unnecessary, and irritating interruptions of the meal. Once again, American wait staff have been given the outline, not the substance.  An experienced and properly trained waiter can read body language, overhear critical remarks, and anticipated dissatisfaction; and can stay unobtrusively away until needed.  Again, it is not enough to apply the French paradigm of complete, integrated dining pro forma but to understand the dynamics of dining. 

Patrons are not excused from responsibility for the lack of quality service.  Americans are traditionally hesitant to complain either to the waiter or the maître d’ either because of the camaraderie established between them and their waiters or because of uncertainty about when a complaint is justified.  If one does not like the food, is it right to complain and send it back? Are only functional irregularities – too much salt, too tough, or too cold – justified? It takes a sophisticated diner and waiter to discuss anything more subtle or complex.  If the dish is not presented as advertised – that is if the hints of sage are imperceptible; the raspberry wine reduction too condensed to complement the pavé de boeuf; the charlotte aux pommes prepared with the wrong variety of apples to give the high flavor required – there is reason to complain; but if neither diner nor waiter have any appreciation of the complex preparation required to create a dish, then discussion is meaningless.

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Restaurants are perhaps the best example in a discussion of quality of service because they require a number of interactions between service staff and patrons; but the poor service standards throughout the retail industry are as disturbing.  Although many merchants are becoming more attentive to client satisfaction, they have been reluctant to make significant strides because of cost and lack of competition.  CVS pharmacies in Washington DC were notorious for their poor service.  Franchise managers who realized that competition from Walgreens or independent drug stores was weak or non-existent, hired low-quality, minimum-wage employees and gave them cursory training because they could.  However as customers, even in a market dominated by CVS, began to complain and defect, the chain improved its customer relations.  They realized that they could find motivated foreign workers willing to work for low-wages but whose background, culture, and experience encouraged attentiveness, courtesy, and attentiveness.  Whole Foods markets, always a leader in customer service satisfaction also hired many foreigners whose attitude – happy to be in America, employed, and productive – contributed to quality service.

In other words, in America service never has come first; but given an increasingly competitive market and more sophisticated consumers, they were forced to change.  The same was true of Starbucks, a chain which because of the consistently high quality of its product, early entry into the high-end coffee business, and aggressive, savvy marketing commanded the market.  As a result service suffered; but after persistent complaints and a diversifying marketplace, the company put new, simple, more efficient operational routines in place.  They recruited good managers who also understood and were attentive to the social environment in which they offered coffee.  The approached the French paradigm with integrated product-service-environment.

Product service requests are often handled off-shore; and once again major companies such as United Airlines, HP, and others have found that young Filipinos and Indians, happy for the opportunity to work in an international market, make good customer services employees.   Cost and service curves have intersected.

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The public sector has been slow to respond largely because of a captive audience in a non-competitive environment.  There are good reasons why residents of the District of Columbia have feared going to the DMV or dealing with the tax bureau, or housing authority.  There has been no incentive for improvement, a continuing high percentage of political patronage jobs, and above all no competition.  Yet, DC residents have looked for and found political support in local officials, and have learned that even the miserable bureaucracy of Washington can be effected.

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Good service, then, is a product of both culture and economics.   Whereas in Europe service was a profession,  and pride and dignity went with it; in America service has always been a waystation on the road of upward mobility.  There was nothing special about the service-customer relationship, nothing inherently important deriving out of a larger culture of respect.   Better service has come about not because of any enlightened thinking about social relationships, but because of money.  As Engine Charlie Wilson, former CEO of General Motors once famously said, “The business of America is business”, thus perfectly characterizing American culture.  Most everything about America is contractual, from marriage to mortgages, all within a legal framework, with disputes settled in court.  The marketplace is the amoral, unsympathetic arbiter of values.

Is service improving across the board in America? Yes, certainly.  In fits and starts in some industries, apace in others, and continually lagging behind in the public sector where improvement is unlikely to happen until most services are privatized in a competitive environment. 

Yet, while service providers have become superficially more respectful and accommodating, the nature of transactions has become skewed.  The electronic, diversified, competitive marketplace is extremely difficult to negotiate for most consumers.  Anyone trying to decipher health care plans or insurance knows this well.  Customer service in such an environment is a completely different experience; one which will not improve until the embryonic pressures for a more transparent, accessible, and open marketplace are felt.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Get To The Point–The Dismal Disappearance Of Logic

“Get to the point”, said Herman, irritably.  Ordinarily he had patience,  always willing to assist others to build an argument, justify it, and defend it.  That was his job, but increasingly his efforts failed.  There seemed to be a loosening of intellectual rigor among young people in his profession, a persistent difficulty in making sense, and even a denial of logic and organized thinking; but perhaps he was the one out of synch with a world that preferred to wander through the reeds, knowing they would come out somewhere but not caring exactly where.  ‘Life’s a journey’, they said, ‘not a destination’, but it was always he who felt he had to defend Aristotle, Aquinas, Tertullian, and Bolzano.

One of his colleagues  in the company for which he worked was particularly ‘impressionistic’, a young woman who floated more than most, drifting in and out with whatever current eddied around her.  She preferred to start in media res and work her way out of an issue rather than start at either top or bottom and reach the core – the central point, the essential nature of the point to be proven.

Herman listened attentively at first, hoping that things would be different; that she would see the light, follow it, and shape it into something recognizable, meaningful, and concrete; but each and every time, she began with her reflections on meaning – not the meaning of the point but meaning in general – then described the flora and fauna in the forest, the small animals along the path, and the light filtering through the trees without even suggesting a sense of direction and purpose.

Writing competitive proposals was not exactly Biblical exegesis or literary criticism, but still required organization, clarity, and procedure.  Herman was surprised that it could be so challenging. For each new iteration, however, the young woman was as meandering and purposeless as before.  Although she tried to follow Herman’s suggestions nothing seemed to take.  Each draft was as muddled and indefinite as the one before.  The only difference between the first and the second was that the muddle had been disaggregated.  Instead of being one big jumble, it was now five sections even harder to decipher, even more subjective, vague beyond comprehension, and impossibly prolix.  She had simply multiplied her confusion, added 500 words, and ended up far worse than she had begun.

Her proposal was a grab-bag of references, inferences, and suppositions. It referred to Africa but only indirectly, subjectively, and imprecisely.   In principle, Herman averred,  there is nothing wrong with mounting an a priori subjective argument devised to compel attention with conviction; but another thing altogether to wander through the reeds feeling the pull of the current in one direction, blocked by overgrown vegetation in another, choosing by instinct and hoping for the best.  Especially in his matter-of-fact, practical, simple profession.

At one point the young woman  started from her conclusion and started to work backward towards first principles.  Of course In this manner she could never prove a point but only justify a priori her conclusions; but frustrated and increasingly impatient, Herman let his guard down and considered that she was making progress.  Reverse logic is logic after all. Starting an argument from a well-defined conclusion and following it backward, identifying constraints, ignoring irrelevant intervening variables and justifying those that could not be disregarded, and coming up with a logically concluded position, might be a way of beginning.  It shouldn’t be hard to reverse direction.  Yet the young woman could not keep on course, even one of her own choosing.  Her draft demonstrated neither forward nor reverse logic, and seemed to have no intellectual discipline.  There was no point.   

She was not unintelligent by any means.  She could hold a reasonable conversation about literature, but had always had trouble with allegory, metaphor, and simile and therefore failed her course on the Romantic poets   She had scored well, however, in a seminar on The Black Literary Experience – Maya Angelou, Slave Journals, And Hyperion.  In fact in all her university courses on post-modernism, she had done exceptionally well.  She was at home with the inventiveness of the language, the ironic metaphors, and challenging premises.

 “Isn’t it great”, she said to a fellow student, “You don’t have to make sense, only your own sense”; and that, reflected Herman, was the beginning of the end.  After such an indoctrination into a highly subjective academic discipline which denied meaning and refused to acknowledge insight (‘All texts are equal’), there was little hope for logical exegesis. College had failed her completely.  She graduated with as little intellectual rigor, discipline, and ability as when she matriculated.

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Most students who graduate from Brown or Duke, the epicenters of post-modern deconstructionism, manage to get over it.  It was fun while it lasted, making up words, giving outrageous interpretations to works and judged only by references to race, gender, and ethnicity, but the presumptuousness of dismissing logic in one fell swoop was more than a mature adult could stomach.  Many others, however, like the young woman in question here, product of that limited and politically circumscribed education, simply could not make the elision from academic playgrounds to the nuts-and-bolts of the workplace. 

Herman, for whom the experience of the young woman was neither the first or the last, wondered what other factors could be at play.  Why should so many young people and adults have such difficulty in getting to the point? He considered the influence of social media, the culture of image, the Internet and fake news. It was hard in a media-saturated environment to maintain intellectual rigor, cross-check and verify, and come to logical conclusions.  The environment was not conducive to rational inquiry and in fact corrosive of it.

Primary education was more essential and more of a culprit.  What with teacher performance linked to success in encouraging a more ethical, respectful, and inclusive environment – an emphasis bound to cut into the Three R’s – there was precious little time for the discussion of logical method.  Worse was the presumption of ‘multiple intelligences’, a theory which suggested that coloring well was the intellectual equivalent of mastering number theory.  This too did not satisfy, for there was room even in the worst schools for the particularly gifted to make it to a creditable secondary level and beyond.  This intellectual laziness had to begin at home.  Yet his advisee was not from a dysfunctional inner city family for whom neither education let alone disciplined logic was on their minds.

Hard as it was for him to consider destiny, the poor girl might have been dealt a bad genetic hand or lost the intellectual lottery.  Might it be that her brain synapses were firing, but sparking and arcing without making the right connections?  If this were even partially true, it was a frightening conclusion since so many suffered from the ailment.

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There are those who say that in an age of artificial intelligence, real intelligence has become supernumerary.  Let machines do the heavy intellectual lifting, leaving the rest of us to happily pursue our personal, subjective lives.  There are others who say that the only real purpose of life is spiritual enlightenment, and that establishing a personal relationship with God is the best if not the only way to fulfill that promise.  The rigorous intellectualism and discipline of the Early Church is irrelevant. No one needs to read Aquinas’ proofs of the existence of God since any fool knows He exists.  The disaggregation of ‘divinity’ by the Church Fathers – the Trinity, the human and/or divine nature of Christ, the theological principles of salvation and redemption – are unnecessary in a world of emotive, individual belief.  

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All recent Popes, especially John Paul II have decried this emotionalism and facile belief.  Understanding the nature of God and the nature of belief require both logic and faith.  Fundamentalist cultism is a wayward, false, blind alley to God.  Logic is at the very core of belief.

Of course logic still rules society but in increasingly fewer enclaves.  The development of smart algorithms takes incredible logic and intellectual discipline.  Advances in medicine, genetics, biology, and physics takes the same if not more brainpower and fierce intellectual application than ever before.  Yet, logic remains cottage-bound.  Outside the confines of Silicon Valley and the tech corridors of Boston and Washington, the rest of the country continues to drift among the reeds.

Once persuaded that logic was indeed an internal matter – some people simply were more equipped to reason than others thanks to their genetic configuration – Herman was bound by a moral challenge.  What to do with those, like the young woman, who had no particular intellectual abilities? If there was no way to enable her to think logically or at least to enable her to begin the process of exegesis, was he consigning her to a lesser fate?

He of course, had inadvertently hit upon the essential moral, social, and ethical conundrum of the times.  There was and always will be a human intellectual order – an obvious and fundamental given.  Societies have always been divided not between the haves and the have-nots but the intelligent and the less so. Henry VIII, Shah Jahan, Qin Shi Huang, or Cyrus the Great did not rule vast empires by chance, heredity, or luck; but by intelligence and insight.  Social hierarchies are common in the animal kingdom and no more pronounced than in the human.

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Herman retained his compassion and concern, always felt sorry for those whose hands always seemed to be twos and threes, who would never even imagine a flush.  God never intended equality, but He certainly intended at least a rational belief in his divinity.  Non-believers rely on logic even more than believers for meaning and purpose.  Unassisted by divine guidance, they alone are masters of their fate.  In either case if we bumble about, neither here nor there, we can never hope to make sense out of a complicated existence.

The woman finally got the point and Herman had to admit that nurture, while never trumping nature, could not be dismissed.  His tutelage had indeed helped her sort through her jumble and get to the point; but others would not be so lucky.  They would be consigned to image, form, color, and light at best; and wobbly, wooly thinking at worst.  In their world there would be no point to get, let alone no equipment to discover it.  A drifting, indistinct world, cloudy one day, bright the next.  Without an intellectual compass, there could be no mapping of the terrain, no charting of territory, no longitude.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

He Reminds Me Of Uncle Harry–What Nasty Tricks DNA Will Play!

Uncle Harry was a celebrated member of the Petrucci family, an icon really – an eccentric, unique, outrageous man who wore checks and plaids, pinched bottoms, ran a successful car dealership in Ansonia, and was the paterfamilias of five children and 10 grandchildren.

Harry had five sisters and three brothers, each with their own large families who had produced as many grandchildren as his own.  As a result the Petrucci family – married to the Iezzi, Minetta, Gandolfi, and Scarlucci families and, surprisingly  for that particular ethnic parochial era, the Lehman family.  Lou Lehrman was always invited to Aunt Angela’s Easter dinners with his wife, a second cousin of the Gandolfis, tolerated only because of his wife but otherwise marginalized, never really included, but never a bore either. 

The Gandolfis were always looking for ‘the Lehrman nose’ in his offspring and theirs – a not-so-subtle reference to his Jewishness.  It was said that one of his long-ago ancestors was a Medici, although recent history abjures the idea that the family was Jewish, an incorrect ascription because they were bankers and moneylenders.  They were most decidedly Catholic; but Lou Lehrman played on the notion to claim a quasi-Jewish but fully Italian heritage.

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Most of the families seated around Aunt Angela’s dinner table could care less about Lou’s lineage or ancestry.  All they knew was that he was Jewish, and ‘the Lehrman nose’ was of concern because it could show up anywhere.

Stories breed stories, and legends breed legends; and so each of the families in the genealogical network of the Petruccis had their own stories that went far back in history, perhaps not so far as 15th century Florence, but well back before Garibaldi.  There were proud stories of nationalist heroes, outlaws, philanderers, and embezzlers.  As long as any distant relative was outsized and remarkable, his picture was put up on the mantle piece and he had a place at the table.   Descendants were just as proud of Don Garaffa and his mafia kingdom of lower Sicily as they were Prince Umberto II of Lombardy.  Although Garaffa was from the South, and Umberto was from the whiter, Northern regions of Italy, both were members of the same family clan.

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“He looks just like Uncle Harry”, said Marfa Bigotti, of her new niece Albert. “The nose, the eyes, and especially the chin”.

Leona Iezzi demurred out of respect, but there was no way that her beautiful baby boy looked at all like Harry Petrucci or any of the Petruccis for that matter.  He favored the other side of the family – her side of the family – with hazel eyes, soft brown hair, and far more fair than any of Harry’s family.  Even after many generations in America, swarthy Italians still hoped and prayed for a blond, blue-eyed child.  Somewhere in the distant past of their genetic history there must have been an Alexander the Great to whom modern day Indians in Maharashtra with hazel eyes claim heritage.  Who knew? Who could decipher the double helix?

Looks were the least of it, although fair skin, regular features, and good size are always good signs.  Of course there was Cousin Guido who despite his ‘African’ looks became one of the most successful financiers in Southern New Jersey, a man who ran an independent investment banking operation from Trenton, challenged the Wall Street big boys in retail, currency, and the emerging IT markets.  His looks never stopped him, and his financial successes were reason enough for a beautiful young thing from Philadelphia to marry him; and as luck would have it, his children looked more Irish than Italian; and he was the talk of Aunt Angela’s table.  “How could a cretin like that father such beautiful children?”, the Garaffas, Iezzis, and Gandolfis whined.

Italians were no different from Jews, Poles, or Irish for whom class, color, status, and stature had always been important – of primary importance, actually, because those at the head of the line usually finished first.  Looks were important, and anyone who told you differently had not looked very far; and despite the prevailing prejudices of the 50s, a tall, attractive, commanding, sexy Italian-looking man could move ahead more easily than those with less charm, physical appeal, and the right attitude.  Valentino was not the great star of American cinema in the 20s and early 30s for nothing.

Ivy League universities until the late 60s were very elite, white, WASP places.  There were quotas for Jews, a practice uncovered after the ascendancy of new progressive presidents and deans of studies and quickly rescinded.  The old alumni and boards of directors didn’t know quite what to do with this influx of Jewish boys from Brighton Beach who, if no accommodations were made, would have swamped the freshman class of 1970. 

New Harbor was a very Italian city at that time, and the aldermen were unhappy that  matriculated so few boys from the neighborhood.  The university always seemed to find an excuse; but they could not turn down Angelo D’Alessio, a young man from the local high school with a straight A average, good SAT scores, captain of the football team, and a promising young citizen.  When the university demurred and put him on the waiting list, the aldermen showed up en masse at the office of the dean.  Admit this young man, they said, or suffer the consequences.

Dean Carpenter was very sensitive to town-gown relations and in this dawning era of popular democracy any scent of white, Protestant elitism could hurt him and the university.  So he capitulated.  His unofficial remark in the margins of an April 1969 memo to a physics professor (‘Pass this ape’) was typical and luckily not discovered until many decades later.

The damage was already done – not the memo, but the admission of D’Alessio – and the university had no recourse but to follow up with what they called ‘Italo-search’, an early form of affirmative action.  The university made a significant outreach effort into the New Harbor and larger New England community to find qualified Italian Americans.  Needless to say the campaign was a success.  However, what kept the Old Guard still alive awake at night was that now everyone was admitted, and in fact there were  protests by Asian students asserting that their numbers have been limited by a quota system.

During this experimental period of the late 60s when new deans began to let in ‘everyone’, the diners at Angela’s Easter table were as happy as could be.  “About time”, said one.  “Columbus, Verazzano, Fermi, Michelangelo, Bernini”, said another.  The wall of prejudice was cracking.

They were right, for in subsequent years not only were Italians and Jews admitted to Yale and Harvard in record numbers, it was never given a second thought.  Attention was turned to blacks, Latinos, gays, and transgenders; and the heat was on the university to open its doors even wider.

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“Can you imagine?”, said Peter Petrucci, now in his mid-nineties, referring to the growing LGBT lobby pressuring Yale.  “I am withholding my alumni contribution as of today”.

Now, the issues that old Italians faced are no longer. It matters far less if the new baby has blue eyes and blonde hair, a gently upturned nose, and a rosy complexion.  Intermarriage is so common that anything goes as far as race, culture, and ethnic origin is concerned.  Intermarriage between blacks and whites is still extremely uncommon, but admixture of whites and Latinos and especially whites and Asians is too frequent to mention.  Grandparents of a mixed white-Asian marriage remember Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzy Wong and are as happy as can be with the little, cute, Asian-looking sweetheart of a baby.

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All of which means that the ‘who does he look like’ game has fewer consequences than ever before.  If anything the younger generation would prefer cloning.  Better that there be a complete deletion of the bits of Uncle Harry’s DNA that still float around in the gene pool rather than deal with them.  Yes, it would be nice to capture some of the Medicis and Garibaldis, and princes of Verona; but one cannot have everything, and it is far better to eliminate the bad and the ugly rather than take one’s chances on the good.

Aunt Angela is long dead and most of the diners at her Easter dinner table; and gone are the assumptions about heritage, genetics, and legacy.  If the baby is healthy, that is enough.  He will grow out of what looks like the Lehrman nose or the Garaffa ears; and even if he doesn’t, he is likely to have the Petrucci brains.

In other words, the fun has been taken out of baby recognition.  There is very little at stake now.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, fine hair mean less than they ever did in this multicultural world; and intelligence is fixed enough in DNA (50 percent or more, according to the latest scientific research) to reasonably assure an able child of two able parents. Of course some family anomalies may show up after generations – oddballs, hors de série surprises, changelings, even reprobates – but that is out of anyone’s control and in this age of inclusivity and social tolerance, irrelevant.

I for one miss Aunt Angela’s Easter dinners.  Everyone gossiped about everyone else.  Family lore was so mixed and intertwined that it made the truth impossible or irrelevant.  No one cared about veracity, only about presentation.  There was something collectively recognizable and noteworthy about the Petruccis for better or worse. 

Today, with a bit of sputum in a cup, the mystery of descent, heritage, and family influence can be solved.  No longer does anyone have to suffer Uncle Harry’s interminable stories about his great-father or Cousin Guido’s inflated accounts of his cousin in the employ of Al Capone.

I miss Aunt Angela’s ham pies, her antipasto, her gnocchi, and her Easter eggs; but Uncle Harry most of all.

Monday, April 23, 2018

What’s The Difference Between A Chicken–Silly Riddles, Japanese Koans, And The Philosophical Importance Of The Fifties

The answer to the question “What’s the difference between a chicken?” was “One leg is shorter”.  The answer to the question “Which is shorter, to New York or by car?” was “By car”; and so went the series of nonsense riddles in the 50s.  None of the boys playing one-a-cat on the New Brighton green had any inkling that they were reciting mid-century versions of  Buddhist koans like “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, nor would they have cared.  They were the sons of mill workers who made locks and ball bearings, lived in three-story walkups, went for kielbasa after Mass at St. Mary’s,  bowled duck pins out on the Berlin Turnpike, had no time for anything more serious than the local Polish language newspaper; and were very happy to work, sleep, and play in a secure world.

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They were the immigrants who made New Brighton The Hardware Capital of The World, whose factories were owned and managed by the Bartleys, Longworths, and Parkers, families whose ancestors had founded them before the Civil War, supplied the Union Army, the American Expeditionary Force, and the United States Army with tools and and mechanical parts; then turned to home sales to expand their market and influence.  New Brighton was typical mid-century American city – divided by class, education, and income and none the worse off for it.  The wealthy captains of industry invested in the city through philanthropy and legacy; immigrants worked the lathes and presses; downtown shopkeepers sold to both; plumbers, electricians, and carpenters kept the city running; and medical and legal professionals served them all.

Everyone had a place and everyone knew his place. New Brighton’s working class was never restive or unhappy.  The Country Club was off limits to all but the descendants of the patrician elite; and the classes intermingled only in elementary school.  After that the children of the wealthy left town and those of the factory workers stayed, had children who stayed, and only began to move out when the factories closed.   It was the story of America – mobility, migration, upward aspiration, and a better life – but there was no sense of entitlement, patronage, or public support.  The Italians and Poles of New Brighton took class division as a matter of course.  How different from Europe was life in America expected to be? Italy and Poland had for centuries been ruled by an aristocratic, moneyed class until wars, civil strife among competing economic and political interests – and sometimes a Napoleon, Stanislaw August, or a Garibaldi – leveled society.

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Of course class distinctions never die and are always necessary, expected products of social evolution.  There always have been rulers and subjects, wealth and working class, aristocrats and peasants and America was no different. Immigrants have always had patience, determination, remarkable will, and an absolute conviction that their life was in America and no more in Europe; which is why the post-war period was so productive, culturally unified, and happy. 

The Fifties, considered by some to be the low point of American history during which sanctimony, insularity, and social ineptitude replaced the formerly independent-minded, defiant, entrepreneurial America – laissez-faire capitalism, frontier justice, homesteading, westward expansion, and legitimate patriotism – were no such thing.  They were a welcome lull from years of war and economic hardship.  No one wanted the days of the Dust Bowl and the Pacific and European wars to return. There was nothing wrong with the authority of the Church, respectability, and modest tastes after so much ruin.  It was an era of simple rectitude, faith, and social stasis.

Of course there was trouble brewing under the surface of this idyll; and the unexpected consequences of a post-war demographic bubble began to surface – a restive younger generation who rejected the platitudes and conformity of their parents, demanded independence and individual rights, and saw progress as intellectual, spiritual, and social and not just economic.

Yet the Fifties for most was a happy, uncomplicated time.  In such an age, few questioned authority, the social order, or meaning.  Russell, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Kant only muddied the waters with their questions about existence, morality, and being.  A happy time is one left alone, un-muddled and certain.  History has shown that such periods of relative peace and social tranquility are few and far between.  Why hurry?

The Fifties were years of purposeful indifference.  There was no shame or guilt in watching Lawrence Welk.  The Fifties were years of simple celebration, not mediocrity; of willing choice of social harmony; a welcome settled, and undisturbed belonging.  It is no surprise that anyone who was brought up in the Fifties looks at them as an idyllic time, one without pressures to know, to justify, or to rectify.  Being was enough, a thought surprisingly similar to the most settled and peaceful aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism.  The goal of spiritual enlightenment is not to figure the world out, to make sense of it, or to order it rationally; but exactly the opposite.  To reject the illusion of the material, constructed world, to defy socially-imposed paradigms of understanding, and to evolve from an obsession with change, reform, and history.

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The Fifties like any other decade was no idyll, for during that period the Korean War was fought, the Cold War begun in earnest, and political pogroms led with impunity.  No one suggests that the Fifties were any better than any other decade; only they were no worse.  Most importantly they represented a unique hiatus in American social evolution – a philosophical period despite itself.  

The Hindu caste system has been frequently criticized as a retrograde, anti-democratic, system designed millennia ago to create a rigidly-organized and easily-controlled social order.  Unless this confining, restrictive system is abolished, people will never fulfill their potential, always chattels to an elitist philosophy which has only the interest in maintaining the power and authority of highest castes.

Traditional, devout Hindus say nothing of the sort.  A world in which every individual accepts his fate, his divine hand of cards; and comes to understand that the way to a spiritual evolution is only through rejection of it, and is governed by a system designed to facilitate that progression is a perfect world.

Ironically because the American Fifties has been caricatured for years as a fanciful, bourgeois dream; and because few people living in the decade had any interest in philosophy, meaning, or becoming;  the decade was nearer than any to this high spiritual purpose.

The riddles of the Fifties were as far from a Japanese koan as one can get; but they were as much an expression of the American zeitgeist as haiku.  They were silly and unaffected expressions of late childhood and its simplicity – as much a part of a boy’s life as baseball on the green, the Yankees on the radio, Father Brophy in the pulpit, and Sunday dinner. 

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The Fifties were indeed simple and far less complicated than today.  To many they were an idyllic time, a calm between upheavals and an expression, perhaps for the last time, of universal moral and religious values.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I Left My Heart In Ouagadougou –The Seduction Of Foreign Travel

Bill Bailey was an international management consultant based in Washington, DC.  An MBA from Harvard, internship with McKinsey, proper New England pedigree; but despite his efforts and the considerable financial support of his parents, he chose foreign enterprise as his profession.  It was not that he felt the Third World would ever, at least in his lifetime, manage to rise to the level of a proper economic bar let alone exceed it.  It was that there was something appealing about places in disarray that appealed to him. 

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Angola, for example, had just emerged from a decades-long civil war when he arrived.  There were no hotel rooms to be had, car-jacking and kidnapping were routine, and the price of an ordinary meal was over $100.  It was a frightful, chaotic, shambles, run by a dictator who, realizing his good fortune to rule a country with vast oil deposits and diamonds to boot, consolidated his power, restricted access to opportunity, and was indifferent to rising poverty, violence, and civil mayhem.  Yet Bailey was happy there.

After making his way out of the city to the Peninsula, a narrow strip of land bordered by the Atlantic on one side and a calm, protected harbor on the other, he was at ease, at home, and in his element. The shrimp were jumbo and fresh, the Portuguese rosé dry and fruity, the breezes off the ocean and through the palm trees cooling and delightful, and the service impeccable.

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It took some doing to get from downtown Luanda to the peninsula – everyone jammed the corniche out , tired of nastiness, hungry, and impatient for soft sand, good care, and impeccable service – and it was always worth the traffic and the heat.  The breezes were indeed delightful, the shrimp and grouper impeccable, and the wine as good as advertised.

Bailey had spent a rough two weeks during his first visit, but by his second he had gotten the lay of the land.  He hired a fixer, an ex-combatant de guerre who had fought with Savimbi in the civil war, who had come out with more friends than enemies, and was agile, deft, and canny in his exploitation of a post-conflict country.  For $100 João met him at the door of the aircraft, shepherded him through immigration, health, and customs, and drove him to his hotel.  For another $500 he was Bill’s personal driver, security guard, and major domo for the entirety of his visit; and for a final $100, João  got him on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

Given the traffic, he could only have two or three meetings per day, but his colleague with whom he shared the armored, guarded SUV was a young woman from Raleigh who was as indifferent to the challenge, risk, and threat of Luanda as he was.  Given the circumstances, the opportunity, and most importantly given the improbability of Angola, they became lovers and remained involved for the three week mission.

For anyone who has traveled to these unfamiliar and difficult places, such an affair would not be at all surprising.  Temporal love affairs have happened between secular and religious missionaries to far-flung places since time immemorial. It is almost de rigeur to share companionship. misery, and ultimately physical intimacy as an anodyne, an idyll, and above all an easy, uncomplicated, guilt-free remove from responsibilities back home.

There is something about the confines of threat which lubricate sexual interest.  Why not when the tontons macoute could break into the room or when the Salafist insurgents could take you hostage? Or when Ebola or fulminating River Fever could take one off?

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Otherwise respectful, and reasonable moral people throw convention to the winds in the worst parts of Africa. They easily disregard poverty and corruption, leaving it well behind the tropical sunsets and gracious service of the peninsula.  They just as easily enter into an uncomplicated, easy relationships which would be unlikely at home.  Both are different sides to the same coin.

Few travelers are immune from this particular tropical fever; but those who have not traveled where it is endemic cannot possibly understand it.  A friend and colleague of Bailey's, a woman of rectitude and fidelity traveling to Chad, was surprised and offended when she found out that the local director of a program to help eradicate river blindness, was having an affair with the daughter of the American Consul.  The daughter was sick and tired of life in the desert under the abominable control of her father; and the co-worker was desperate for any human kindness in this last outpost of the Foreign Legion.

Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham wrote best about love and intimacy in colonial outposts.  In Maugham's story, The Book Bag, a brother and sister living together on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, become secret lovers in a relationship that to all those who knew them was more complete, loving, and respectful than any other couple that had lived in the colony.  Hardy and his sister were inseparable.  When the brother brought a wife back from England, the sister could not believe his betrayal, deceit, and callousness.  She was so distraught and disconsolate, and alone that she kills herself.  Life in the insular colonial world, seemingly pleasant and convenient had been tolerable only because of her brother.  The idea of living in a world only of bridge, tennis, and tea was unthinkable.  It was this unreal life of social class and easy, uncomplicated relationships that had made their relationship possible and was the perfect environment for it to fail. 

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Scobie, the main character of Graham Greene's story, The Heart of the Matter, lives in a remote African colonial outpost in a loveless marriage.  Scobie, like Greene himself felt completely at home in West Africa, far more than he ever did at home in England.  Despite the climate, the intrigues, and complicated tribal politics, Scobie was untroubled, principled, and open to the sensuousness and openness of life in the bush.  For his wife Africa was a foreign, unforgiving place.  Her inflexible rectitude, her need for consistent intimacy, and her social ineptness made her desperately unhappy.  She was always dislocated, unarmed, and anxious and could never venture out.  Africa was a misery, a special purgatory made worse because of her husband's love of the place and his indifference to her suffering.

Both Greene and Maugham understood that African and Asian colonies were never neutral, never only places to serve and live comfortably and well.  The narrow, insular, rigidly class-conscious enclaves were as important in determining outcomes as the people who lived within them.

Joseph Conrad understood better than anyone how life in the jungle distorts human enterprise. When Kurtz utters his dying words, 'The horror...the horror', he was reflecting on how he had become as primitive as the natives but without their principles.  He had become a savage in a savage world. There was no love in Conrad's world, only confusion, struggle, and penance. 

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The world of the foreign interloper is no different.  There is something enticing and liberating about travel in foreign places.  Not only is one free from the responsibilities left at home, but free from constricting local conventions.  Foreigners are given a pass because they are too strange and uninitiated to be of any importance.  A traveler can pick and choose in a strangely tolerant environment.  Paul Theroux understood this unique sense of social and emotional liberation better than most.  Solitary travel was the most liberating.  The lone traveler could rely on no one to provide any reassuring social and cultural context.  Forced away from the familiar, one's personality and character were on their own.

Bill Bailey understood this; and life for him Africa and Asia was better than anything back home.  Returning to Washington after a long trip was always disorienting and disconcerting.  There was always a seduction about Africa and not only because of the easy sexual encounters between equally freed people, nor by the natural need for intimacy in a strange place; nor even by the excitement of foreignness itself but because of the moral hiatus of all travel.

Bill’s critics never let up.  His indifference to social justice, his lack of concern for the very people he was supposed to help, and his cavalier exploitation of his favored opportunity and good luck were nothing less than a capitulation and a dereliction of moral responsibility.

Bill of course disagreed.  He did not create the cultures in which he traveled. He did not invent the godchild of American idealism – the honored ‘noble savage’ of less-evolved cultures.  He was bequeathed them.  He was their beneficiary.  More importantly Africa had gotten to him just as it had Greene, Maugham, and Conrad - there is simply something seductive, often dangerously so - in the jungle.

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Every man wants what Bill Bailey had – a loving wife and children, secure heritage and inheritance, respect from his colleagues, friends and neighbors; but four months of the year when he was free from their yoke and the harness of respectability, honesty, and responsibility.  In most men’s eyes Bailey had it all.

There is much talk these days of sexual irrelevance.  That is, that sexual activity, when mediated through the filters of race, gender, and ethnicity loses its salience.  It is no longer the primal signifier of human relationships a la D.H.Lawrence , the essential, undeniable, fundamental characteristic of society.  We live, according to some post-modern observers, in a sexually neutral world, one characterized more about the implications of sex than sex itself.  Love in foreign countries is complicated by neither. There are never concerns about identity, sexual propriety, or ethics.  One is on one's own.  Nor does Lawrencian love exist - that peculiar, insistent search for sexual parallelism.

Bailey was not a deceitful man nor one sexually frustrated or angry. He simply caught that peculiar tropical disease which affects all single, solitary travelers and against which no one is immune.
He was not at fault if fault must be assigned.  Lay blame to the tropics, to Amin El-Saidi, to the Luanda peninsula, and to foreign lands in general.  It is simply too much to expect rectitude, fidelity, and honesty 5000 miles from home, on a tropical beach, in a refuge from the ordinary, the expected, and the predictable.