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

Monday, July 30, 2018

How Uncle Harry Always Spoiled Easter Dinner–But Then Again, He Was Family

Angie Lucia – she was always called by both names, a carry over from her childhood when everyone in her family was either an Angie or a Paulie; and since she grew up in a big family – five aunts on her mother’s side and four on her father’s each with five children each – double names were the only way to tell them apart.  There was Angie Esther, a first cousin who lived in Newark, married three times, each to a man with a record, and each who had left her crying and alone on a stoop Down Neck to ‘take care of business’ but never to return.  Angie Christina lived in Philadelphia, married well – or at least well by family standards – to a mechanic who had only made it through South Jersey Tech thanks to her uncle who had helped out the mayor of Bayonne once when he had gotten into ‘a little scrape’.  Money had changed hands when it shouldn’t have, the girl had set him up, but it all blew over thanks to family. 

Angie Leona was retarded and had become a ward of Angie Christina when her own parents threatened to commit her to St. Margaret’s.  She never developed past a mental age of 10, but was a sweet girl who bagged groceries at the East Haven A&P, thanks to Angie Lucia’s insistence and old friendship with the manager.  Angie Grace was a whiz with hair and a mind for business and had opened a string of hair and nail salons up and down the Jersey shore.  Her success went to her head and she was impossible at Easter Dinner, never letting up about her new De Ville, kitchen makeover, and trips to Las Vegas.

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All the Angies were invited to Angie Lucia’s house for Easter Dinner at her West Haven home barely big enough for herself, her husband Joe, and her two children; but Joe and the kids helped to rearrange the furniture, move the birdbaths and potted plants from the porch to make more room, and direct traffic on Mullin Road which, except for one track across Harry Grillo’s lawn - to satisfy the police department – became a parking lot from 11 in the morning until well after dusk.

Every Angie brought something to eat – antipasto, lasagna, corn fritters, eggplant, ham pie, ricotta cheese cake, pistachios, amaretto, nougats, and cream soda.  Angie Lucia prepared the turkey and cooked the ham in Angie (Fatima) Grillo’s oven, and  set the table with linen, silver, and crystal.  Joe sat at the head of the table, said grace, and proposed the same toast he had given for twenty years, nodding to each Angie and her family with great generosity and charm.  All in all, Easter Sundays at Angie Lucia’s were wonderful affairs.

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Except for Uncle Harry who was not a regular but could never be refused.  He was a member of the Buffalo branch of Angie Lucia’s family and every two or three years or so he would be in Connecticut on business timed to coincide with Angie Lucia’s fabulous meal.  It was not that he was unwelcome – Angie Lucia was insistent that family was family no matter what, and although there had been some bad blood when Harry had married a second cousin and moved out of the family home in Branford to Buffalo.  The cousin had been underage, none too smart, seduced by Harry, or so the story went, and married because, surprisingly, Harry ‘did the right thing’.  None of this was any more than innuendo and family gossip, but there was always something unsavory about Uncle Harry – the pencil mustache didn’t help nor ‘that thing’, the thing that people in Buffalo knew about but no one in New Haven, said to impress.  

“I was in Bridgeport doing that thing”, he said.  “No big deal.  Everyone was happy”; but no one at Easter Dinner was happy.  An extra place had to be set, throwing off the seating arrangement, the number of knives and forks, crowding Joe catty-corner and no longer at the head of the table.  His Buffalo family was too distant to even remember – a Christmas card, birthday presents, and a bottle of upstate New York State wine at Thanksgiving, but nothing more regular or consistent.  The West Haven family stopped calling him Uncle Harry - “Is That Thing coming this year?”; or “Another bottle of wine just came from That Thing” – but he was always welcome nevertheless.

The only thing that made Uncle Harry different was his distance.  He might have been a Patrucci, but a far-off Patrucci, one whom no one knew exactly, one who was suspect only because he wasn’t from New Haven.  It was the small things.  After living so long in Buffalo he called pizza pizza and not apizza.  His wife, the second cousin, was not from Sorrento and Amalfi but from Cosenza, and because of his wife’s family and the large Calabrese community in Buffalo, Harry became more like the testa duras from the South than his own kind.  It was a matter of distance, culture, familiarity, and custom; not necessarily personality or character.  Harry was odd man out because he simply didn’t fit. 

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Had the West Haveners been willing to give up a little family clannishness and lighten up on ‘that thing’, they would have found Uncle Harry no different from any of them.  There were plenty of Angies who would have liked to move to Buffalo, Rochester, or Miami if it hadn’t been for this Italian thing of permanence.  It took the Jews only a few decades to move out of the Lower East Side, the Irish out of South Philly, the Poles out of Broad Street in New Britain, but the Italians clung to their roots in Little Italy for years. They resisted the expansion of Chinatown and the influx of Puerto Ricans till the bitter end. The West Haveners were no different.  So most of the Patruccis stayed put.

“What exactly is ‘that thing’ in Buffalo?”, asked Angie Christina’s husband finally, late one Easter Sunday afternoon. 

“It’s just a thing”, said Harry. “You know, a thing to take care of.”

“Yes, but what kind of thing”, insisted Angie Christina’s husband.

“Just a thing”, said Harry. “No big deal”.

Angie Christina’s husband wouldn’t let up.   He was sick and tired of Harry, Buffalo, and ‘that thing’, and with all due respect to Angie Lucia, he wanted Uncle Harry disinvited, sent on his way back to Buffalo and never to return.

No one, however, came to Angie Christina’s husband’s defense.   Everyone had ‘that thing’, their own thing, whispered about, suggested, and rumored; and Uncle Harry was the perfect foil, the magnetic pole which drew attention to him and away from them.  Before Harry started coming, the Angies had started in on each other.  Innuendos were outed; the conventions of family omertà forgotten.  No code of silence out of respect.  With a little Lambrusco all tongues were loosened, and no matter how much Angie Lucia tried to keep things civil, by the time the chestnuts were served, the silverware was scattered, wine spilled, and the ricotta pie was on the floor.   Or course Petey Cucci was a bugger, Jimmy Cianci an embezzler, Farneta Pozzi a whore, and Lucca Palumbo a cheat. 

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The Hetheringtons, who also lived in New Haven, were a fifth generation American family descended from both Thomas Hooker of Connecticut and the Carters of Virginia.  Their pedigree was impeccable, and they were inscribed as Daughters of the American Revolution and descendants of the First Families of Virginia. They, unlike the newcomer Patruccis, not only had cousins but distant cousins in England and Scotland, ancestors who had fought the Spanish armada under Elizabeth I, had been knighted, invited to court, and rewarded for their role in colonizing the New World. 

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The Hetheringtons had branches of the family in Chicago, Dubuque, Reno, and New Orleans – most if not all had done justice to the family heritage, and since Independence had been land developers, entrepreneurs, industrialists, jurists, and governors.  Theirs was a storied history, one told in textbooks as well as around Christmas dinner; for Louisa Hetherington, like Angie Lucia, felt a responsibility to bring all members of the family together once a year. 

The Hetherington home, a large colonial house on Hillhouse Avenue that had been in the family for generations, was the perfect venue.  The dinner was elaborately simple – soup, fish, roast, and pie – but the accouterments stylish and traditional.  Silver that had been in the family for generations, Victorian china, Townsend tables and chairs, Kashmiri carpets from the Raj, and belts, buckles, and swords from British ancestors stationed in Lucknow.

There was no question of civility – decorum and propriety was as much a part of the family as place, station, and authority – and no Christmas dinner was interrupted by any Uncle Harry.  The Hetherington clan, although widely dispersed, was held together by heritage, noblesse oblige, and distinction.  They all shared their adventures, exploits, and accomplishments without jealousy, suspicion, or challenge.

At the same time both the Patruccis and the Hetheringtons had one thing in common.  No one was really interested either in ‘that thing’ or Percy’s investments in Singapore bonds.  The Patrucci gatherings were pleasant enough – at least during Uncle Harry’s periodic arrivals – and the Hetherington dinners were accomplished and graceful; but each family member went home empty.  Nothing really happened, no engagements made, no new partnerships concluded, the occasional fishing trip planned but forgotten, few essential insights gained.  What was the point? Extended families had lost their economic and social importance long ago.  One relied less and less on family support and more on individual enterprise, securities, and private investments. It was no surprise that many of the Hetheringtons wished they were in Gstaad skiing or in St. Bart’s over Christmas, but kept going anyway.  Family gatherings had become an institution, of value in and of itself.

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Perhaps this is only true on the margins – the very wealthy and privileged like the Hetheringtons for whom ‘family’ had nothing to do with intimacy and all about legacy; or the Patruccis for whom family had been the be-all and end-all of survival in Italy and America but whose cultural stubbornness insisted on family integrity long past its usefulness – but not true for the middle, those families who simply enjoy each other’s company; for whom there is no point to gathering except to gather. 

This eclectic family focus is gaining momentum.  More and more large families regret or resent their distance; and feel something good and beneficial about the intimacy and spontaneity that can only come from cousins, aunts, and uncles.  Especially in rapidly fragmenting societies, family is the only place of reasonable trust, an anchor no matter how loosely held.

The best families, however, are the Patruccis.  There is more drama, more melodrama, and more raw humanity than any other.  They are like O’Neill’s Mannon family or Albee’s George and Martha, or the Lears, Macbeths, and  Cawdors.  Families for Albee – who hated them – were the crucible of maturity; and after Easter dinner at Angie Lucia’s – a dinner without Uncle Harry – everyone felt relieved and spent.  Something actually did happen, and it was worth the effort.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Beauty Is Skin Deep, The Notion That Denies The Obvious–The Essential, Universal Quality Of Physical Beauty

Tuba Büyüküstün is a Turkish actress of remarkable beauty well-known for her work on the television series, Kara Para Aşk.

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Despite the claim to the contrary, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, and even those who may prefer a woman of less classic, dark looks and more sensuously alluring (Marilyn Monroe), will agree that Büyüküstün is beautiful.  Her type of beauty, with predictable cultural variations over time, is reflective of those characteristics which have always made women attractive. Symmetrical features, luminescent eyes, full lips, and luxuriant hair all express health, wealth, and well-being as well as being pleasing to a natural sense of geometrical order (the golden mean is universally appealing), and sexual appeal.  There is little difference between the women painted by Leonardo and Tuba Büyüküstün.

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Asian women are no different and film and television actresses have the same classic beauty as their European counterparts.

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While internationalization must be factored in – an appeal to the mean rather than respect for more insular, traditional cultural beauty - the same rules apply.

Since most women are not beautiful, sayings like ‘Beauty Is As Beauty Does’ or ‘Beauty Is Only Skin Deep’ reflect a cultural compromise.  It is within that one should look for beauty; for the intelligence, compassion, consideration, talent, warmth, humor, and energy that are far more important than superficial looks. 

Feminism was particularly significant because it attempted to redefine beauty and change perspective from a purely male one to a female one.  What men thought of women was irrelevant, said feminists.  Every woman’s ‘beauty’ was relative to her and her alone; and that female value and worth had nothing whatsoever to do with looks or appearance.

This new perspective was indeed radical because it challenged the notion of essential beauty and challenged men’s authority at the same time.  It was appealing to women not only because it gave them new authority, esteem, and privilege but because it marginalized the idea of physical beauty.

Or so feminists thought.  Women today might be more self-aware, confident, ambitious, and powerful than ever before; but classic beauty has not lost either its appeal or place in popular culture.  Women’s magazines all promote the same classical beauty of days and eras past, and the message is clear – this is what you are supposed to look like.  The influence of multiculturalism is evident, but the principle features of feminine beauty remain the same.

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More importantly this universal standard of beauty suggests the obvious but often denied fact that women dress for men.  Despite the revolutionary changes in the roles, responsibilities, and status of women, they still understand that physical beauty classically defined, is helpful if not necessary for attracting mates.  The more beautiful the woman, the greater likelihood that she will attract an equally attractive man who, like them, is likely to be healthy, wealthy, and successful.

Study after study have shown that beauty has benefits far beyond the bedroom.  Attractive women and men are given preference in hiring.  While supervisors may not admit it, a candidate with all the professional qualifications plus beauty, is more likely to get the job.  Professor Shahani-Denning of Hofstra University has compiled the most important research on the subject.

The bias in favor of physically attractive people is robust, with attractive people being perceived as more sociable, happier and more successful than unattractive people (Dion, Berscheid & Walster, 1972; Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani & Longo, 1991; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986; Watkins & Johnston, 2000).  Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students (Clifford & Walster, 1973), voter preferences for political candidates (Efran & Patterson, 1974) and jury judgments in simulated trials (Efran, 1974).  Recently, Smith, McIntosh and Bazzini (1999) investigated the “beauty is goodness” stereotype in U.S. films and found that attractive characters were portrayed more favorably than unattractive characters on multiple dimensions across a random sample drawn from five decades of top grossing films.  The authors also found that participants watching a biased film (level of beauty and gender stereotyping) subsequently showed greater favoritism toward an attractive graduate school candidate than participants watching a less biased film.  In the area of employment decision making, attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants (Watkins & Johnston, 2000). 

It is not surprising, therefore, that billions of dollars are spent on women’s cosmetics alone (an estimated $62 billion in 2016) and many billions more on clothes and apparel.  If one is not born with natural beauty, there are many ways to compensate.  Cosmetics which accentuate naturally attractive features and disguise the unattractive; or clothes which complement skin color, natural line, and physical attributes will always be in demand.  Beauty is big business, and with the weight of social history and biological imperative behind it, high revenues should be no surprise.

Diana Vreeland is perhaps the best example of how clothes, cosmetics, and hair style can compensate for unattractive physical characteristics.  In her autobiography, D.V., she recounts her particularly difficult childhood years,  a very unattractive child with a beautiful sister.  Although she attributes her success to talent, perceptiveness, and artistic ingenuity, she does not deny the influence of her early life.  Vreeland, never an attractive woman, went on to become the doyenne of fashion as editor-in-chief of Vogue and a long tenure and Harpers Bazaar.  She believed that not only were clothes important and could compensate for a lack of classical beauty; but that they added value.  She promoted the idea of style – an attitude more than a look not dissimilar from the Italian bella figura but far more dramatic.  Vreeland was never a beautiful woman, but no one noticed.

Vreeland never dismissed the essential principles of beauty – the woman in the photograph above is as classically beautiful as Tuba Büyüküstün or the woman in Leonardo’s painting – but suggested that style was not only appropriate but essential for all women.

Only during the decade of The Sixties did beauty go underground.  In defiance of everything traditional and conservative, hippies rejected the notion of physical attractiveness as a bourgeois sentiment.  Hippies were defiantly unattractive.  Of course style never completely disappeared. Beautiful women with disheveled hair and dirty jeans were still beautiful, still preferred, and still attractive; only the elements of style had changed.

Many actresses like Helen Mirren have kept their beauty, style, and allure well into their 70s.  It is all well and good to say that beauty fades and that belief in inner qualities is justified; but Mirren defies that notion.  She is not only a gifted, supremely talented, intelligent actor, but a beautiful woman.  Her performances would be enough to assure her following; but she insists on looking good, a thing of beauty far beyond the fading blush on the bloom of a rose.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Patience Potter Had No Virtue–A Very Overrated Value Indeed

If she heard ‘patience is a virtue’ once, she heard it a thousand times, over and over again, repeated by the nuns with a nod in her direction, but her mother, father, and especially her Uncle Harry, always drunk at Easter, who sat her on his lap while he recited the Seven Deadly Sins and the twelve holy virtues ‘of which virtue engendered is the flower’, stumbling between Chaucer,  sins and virtues, and the Church, all the while stroking Patience’s leg and breathing his doggy breath on her neck.

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Patience Potter resented being named for a virtue and resented the nuns for calling her out in front of her Sunday school class.  She hated being in the basement of St. Maurice’s church on warm Spring mornings, hated the nuns for their clackers and rosary beads, hated being asked to read the Catechism aloud, and hated the whole idea of virtue, whatever that was.  It certainly had nothing to do with her, or her Uncle Harry, or her Cousin Mervin, a pimply boy who never washed and was as disgustingly fawning as his father, and certainly not Father Brophy who banged on about sin, redemption, and virtue in the eyes of the Lord, looked certain parishioners straight in the face when he gave his sermons, aiming his message at them about the sins of the flesh and the arrogance of the weak.  There was a lot of twitching and fidgeting in the pews when he started in on sin, so there must have been a lot of it in New Brighton, at least among Catholics, and very little virtue.

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“What exactly is virtue?”, she asked her father who usually had right answers and explained things to her mother and brother about currency, Washington, and debt; and although she could not make heads nor tails of what he said, he always sounded like he knew what he was talking about. 

“Virtue?”, replied Henry Potter, “why that’s a matter of doing the right thing, standing up for what you believe, respect, honor, discipline…courage…”; but he saw that he had lost his audience.  Patience, her brother and sister, looked dully at their father.  He was making no sense, no more than Patience’s dumb question.  Their mother, who was used to Henry’s banging on about whatever came into his head over dinner, took the moment to clear the dishes.  “Well”, Mr. Potter went on, “virtue has to do with goodness.” Again he drew blanks.  “Like giving clothes to the homeless or helping a blind person across the street.”

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Patience was having none of it.  She had asked a simple question and gotten nothing but a tangle of adult words and confusion no different than Father Brophy when he finally got off the subject of sin and returned to doctrinal issues.  “The Holy Trinity”, he said, “is three divine persons in one divinity; or more simply put, a spiritual family with a father, a son, and an invited guest, all seated at the same table, partaking of the same bounteous meal and sharing grace in turn”.  Except when he fulminated on the subject of sin, he was lost in a miasma of confusion and illiterate thinking.  Try as he might, the meaning of the parables escaped him.  The woman at the well, the blind beggar, the wedding at Cana, and toiling in the vineyard all got twisted into an unintelligible narrative with Jesus at the center doing good, trying to convince the unfaithful to come to him, casting out this one or that one, working miracles here and there.  In Father Brophy’s hands, the New Testament was a mess of familiar anecdotes not much different than Uncle Harry’s drunken stories.

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So she realized that she had hit on one of those features of adult life that everyone talked about but no one understood.  Virtue was as fuzzy an idea as goodness or evil, themes that Father Brophy liked almost as much as sin.  They were fuzzy, general ideas that he could talk about without getting caught up in theology or Biblical exegesis.  “Goodness”, he said, “is a virtue, passed on from God the Father to God the Son, spread throughout the land by the Holy Ghost, a shining light of divine glory, a gift, a responsibility, a spiritual given of the blessed and the Holy Mother Church.  ‘Be good, not bad’, said Jesus to the Ephesians, ‘watch what you do, be good and above all faithful to Him and the Word….’”  Mumbo-jumbo.  The Church should be ashamed of itself appointing a man like Father Brophy to St. Maurice Parish.

Her father tried again, “Now, virtue is like a special, higher order goodness, being especially good, never falling off the wagon…”

“Patience may be a virtue”, Patience said when she was twelve, “but I have none of it”, and thanks to doubletalk, mumbo-jumbo, Father Brophy’s garbled homilies; his nuns, and the airless Sunday school basement classroom, she not only turned her back on the Church but wanted nothing to do with homilies, parables, Jesus Christ, and especially goodness.

As happens with many aware, intelligent children, they match silly things and make sense out of them.  One silly thing alone might be given a pass – Father Brophy’s deformed parables or Uncle Harry’s disgusting stories and hairy hands – but the two together meant that if there was such a thing as virtue or goodness, it must be rare indeed.  Uncle Harry was so far from being nice, let alone good, and his son such an ignoramus, and his neighbors Mike Grillo and Petey Burns even worse and uglier, then New Brighton could be no different.  And life being what it is, these precociously wise children can only go on to confirm their first impressions.

There was a danger, of course, that once this nihilistic thought took hold, these children could grow up to be antisocial or immoral; but they had no trouble holding two contradictory notions at the same time.  They knew that they were to live in a world of Father Brophys, Uncle Harrys, and Cousin Mervins – a silly, indifferent, but hilariously predictable world – and a practical, equally predictable world through which they had to navigate.  Had it not been for Father Brophy, the cossetted nuns of St. Maurice, and Uncle Harry, they might have taken the inconsistencies of the world more seriously.  Global warming, war, the glass ceiling, racial injustice and all the other causes over which many fret might have been upsetting and problematic.  But they were as silly as sin, goodness and virtue, unexplainable, always given to muddle and bother; and as such dismissible.  They might not be ha-ha funny, but certainly absurdly funny in their perpetual appearance, dressed in different costumes, staged in a different dialect, but always worth a chuckle.

Patience had a happy life uncomplicated by purpose and posturing – those were other people’s problems.  She sat on the sidelines cheering at marches, demonstrations, and events, not for the cause but for the pageantry.  Everyone loves a parade, and Patience was no different; only given the inadvertent lessons of Father Brophy and Uncle Harry, she enjoyed them even more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Eve’s Progeny, The Devil’s Handmaiden, And Men’s Folly–The Story Of Matty Lord

New Brighton was never big enough for Matty Lord.  No small town would have been able to contain the likes of her – a true original, ambitious, libertine, far too exotic for New England, never just dismissive but anxious to reorder the chessboard and finally and inevitably change the rules of the game.

The Lords were of the oldest American stock – The Mayflower, colonial era whaling and trading, industrialists during and after the Civil War, suppliers to the Union with hardware, munitions, and rolling stock; captains of the industries they created in the early Twentieth Century, colleagues of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Crane; financiers of Wall Street and custodians of America’s vast pre-Crash wealth; managers and overseers of the post-WWII economy; and finally as the boom slowed, retired on vast inherited wealth in New Brighton, Nantucket, Gstaad, and St. Tropez.

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Matty Lord was a child of privilege – the best country day schools and private preparatory schools in New England, cotillions, Mistletoe Balls, sports cars, and polo.  She was being groomed to marry into any one of New England’s best families, to continue the lineage of the Lords, Lodges, Hookers, and Mathers which dated from 1145 – castles and manors on both sides of the family, courtiers to English kings, counsellors, emissaries, and pursers to royalty. 

As a child Matty took all this for granted, and how could she not?  New Brighton’s West End was an aristocratic conservatory – old, Victorian, isolated and unaffected by anything beyond its perimeter. Its money, influence, status, and power assured its longevity. The community would last 1000 years because it had already lasted 1000.  The English aristocracy whether in England or transplanted to the United States had permanence – not simply because of its longevity but because of its rightness.  The descendants of kings had always been custodians of the same moral rectitude, noblesse oblige, and commitment to honor, justice, courage, and discipline.  Regardless of their place in the family tree, the changing times and culture, and the uncertainty of world events, they would always be as strong, as determined, and as conservative as their ancestors.  Theirs was a philosophical, moral, and ethical custodianship – they were the foundation on which more secular, practical, and necessary institutions would be built.  They were America.

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Something changed in her early teenage years.  Despite her training, upbringing, and education, she had become a difficult, willful child – common in many if not most families in middle class America but unheard of in the West End.  While other communities may have had the same concern for integrity, social unity, and tradition, such concern was of a lesser order.  It came not from history and patrimony, but from the Jeffersonian equation of individualism within a cooperative community.  The new Republic could only survive and prosper within a utopian communitarianism. Family, church, and clan would always be essential structural elements of the New World just as they had been for millennia.  Hamilton understood that the sophistication of the Enlightenment and the philosophical principles on which it was founded were for the few to curate and manage.

It was one thing for a child in a modest suburb to challenge the status quo and to reject traditional values but another for the likes of Matty Lord.  Her disobedience would be no less than dereliction of duty, fidelity, and honor. But disobey she did.  What irked everyone was less her petulance – some irritability was expected in girls her age regardless of breeding -  but her absolute indifference, an attitude that was far more mature than it should be; so adult in its cynicism, so evolved in its complete disrespect of all things.  It was her ability to hurt that was most remarkable.  She seemed to understand instinctively where the social fontanelle was and how to reach the unprotected, defenseless brain beneath.

Nothing in her infancy or early childhood offered any clues for her attitude. There was nothing out of order in her parents’ rearing.  They provided the same balance of discipline and reward as their parents, grandparents, and ancestors had.  Child upbringing was more than an individual responsibility; it was a social one.  They were responsible for the same outcomes as their forbears; and nothing in Matty’s life was left to chance; yet her deviation must have come from a random re-assortment of genes beyond their control.  No one in the family had shown anything but deference and respect for the past and a willing assumption of the privileged path they were to follow.

Matty was expelled from Brookshire Country Day School, and only thanks to the long history of Lord women at Abbot Academy did this gateway to the Seven Sisters demur and admit her.  She was expelled from Abbot after her first year.  Insubordination, the principal called it, referring to the same perverse adult maturity that had intimidated every teacher in New Brighton.  She was not a bad girl, the principal said, only a high-spirited one, very intelligent but whose intelligence needed a more positive outlet; but the principal was at a loss to explain to her parents how Matty was not simply anti-social but slanderous.  Her gossip was mean and hurtful.  Her lies disassembling.  Her ability to wound, damage, and permanently undo fragile self-confidence was almost devilish.

Now of course Matty had nothing of the Devil about her, but was a clone of Dostoevsky’s Devil.  If life were all good, he says to Ivan, it would be boring.  He was ordained not to provide challenge and give the faithful a chance to prove their worthiness to God, but just the opposite – to challenge the oppressive, nonsensical piety of Jesus Christ himself.  He, the Devil, was the most important angel in the firmament, fallen or not.  He was a vaudevillian, a huckster, a snake oil salesman, and a great entertainer.

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The only remarkable thing about Matty Lord was that she had not learned this lesson but had been born knowing it.  Her eyes did not see the beauty of order, predictability, and right behavior; but the ridiculousness of it; and there was no community more expressive of this folly that the West End of New Brighton, Connecticut.  There were thousands of insular communities in America who considered themselves privileged and unique; and thousands more who abused whatever legitimate authority they had.  The West End alone, because of its profound feeling of historical determinism and belief in absolute moral and social values, was the Devil’s victim, there for the taking, oblivious to his – and more to the point, Matty Lord’s –temptations.

In another ironic and literary twist Matty Lord was the reincarnation of Milton’s Eve – the Devil’s handmaiden, his first prey and mother to generations of women who would always be the more powerful sex, the undoing of men at will, the power behind the throne and the final arbiter of all things moral and immoral because of their sexual allure and their motherhood. No man alive has ever been completely sure of the paternity of his children; and no man has been able to resist the sweet charm of feminine beauty.  Shakespeare understood this better than anyone.  The women in his Comedies ran rings around their helpless and hopeless suitors.  Those in his tragedies were amoral, determined, and disciplined who used their innate authority to achieve their ends.  Women were Shakespeare’s real villains – Lady Macbeth, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, and Tamora – but evil they were not; only aware of an inalterable, intractable, and inherited femaleness.

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Shakespeare and Ibsen did not believe in the existence of evil; and in an inversion of Augustine’s assertion that there could be no evil in a world created by a just and compassionate God, felt that there was no such thing as good, only the perpetual exchanges between men and women.

So Matty Lord was not the spawn of the Devil, only the descendant of Eve.  The Bible suggests that because of Eve’s treason, women would eternally suffer the pain of childbirth and be consigned to a life of subservience; but the prophesy never held.  Women may have been allotted undue physical pain and suffering, but they got control of men in return.  Of course given biological and physiological determinants men have the appearance of control and power and for millennia ruled the roost; but it was only a matter of time before circumstances rebalanced the sexual equation.  Women were to redress men’s folly.

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Matty Lord saw her chance in New Brighton.  She like Iago and Edmund saw no personal benefit from disassembling the received order; no sense of retribution or revenge.  No feminist final victory.  Only mischief played with feminine wiles with no harm done to a community built on such improbable notions of propriety, rightness, and ancestry – only a few men left on the curb without knowing what hit them; a comic replay of the Garden of Eden staged, directed, and produced by none other than one of their own.

One by one the men fell – Charles Porter, descendant of the 3rd Earl of Leicester, captain of industry, respected leader of his community, golfer, skier, generous philanthropist, noblesse oblige in spades, but morally weak, easily tempted and swayed, easily deceived, and even more easily dethroned.

Next came Robert Farnsworth Mitchell, great-great grandson of a lesser but notable earl, captain of a lesser but still well-known industry, and leader – or rather subaltern – of the West End community.  Then Pritchett Bailey, descendant of aristocratic warriors, heroes of Waterloo, St. Petersburg, and the Battle of Britain, military advisors to Presidents, and  moral icons.  All were easy pickin’s for Matty Lord as weak as Othello was to Desdemona’s charm and canny femininity; as weak as Marc Antony seduced and kept by Cleopatra; as entranced, beguiled, and tethered as millions of less famous men, fictional or real.  They all believed in what they had built, what they had done, and by extension who they were; and looked no further.  They all fell, easy prey to the canny, devilish prankster, Matty Lord.

No serious damage was done.  The men were simply spat out by the organism, forgotten, airbrushed and erased from New Brighton’s social history; but Matty had had her fun, the community was less self-assured if only slightly, and the Devil most certainly had his due.