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

Friday, August 31, 2018

Why It Is Better To Be Rich, Beautiful, And Famous–The Boredom Of Routine And The Interminably Ordinary

There is a commonly advised but strange relationship between longevity and wisdom; longevity in acceptance; and longevity in understanding.  Old marriages, while they may have lost their juice and  interest are still institutions of value because they teach compromise, patience, and respect.  Old friendships teach the value of persistence and origins.  Anyone who still has a childhood friend must have put up with a lot, for what person is ever static enough to retain enough of his original allure over fifty or more years?

There is something to be said, it is argued, about putting down roots and living a long life in one place.  There is an intrinsic value in cultural stability, social familiarity, and permanence.  The longer one remains in place, the more one appreciates the little things – the fine growth of the boxwoods and holly trees which have overgrown backyards and front walks; the sycamore trees too tall and too shady for ornamental gardens or a front lawn; the new curbs, the new lingo of the playground, and the increased traffic on the cross streets – all of which modify but do not change the neighborhood, distinctly homogeneous, familiar, and permanent.

Thornton Wilder in his play Our Town described Grover’s Corners as the perfect place to live for its ordinariness.  Little happened in Grover’s Corners, life went on between births and deaths with little drama or exception, associations were friendly, congenial, and never demanding.  Because of its ordinariness Grover’s Corners lulled and deceived.  Only after its residents were dead did they realize the infinity in an unremarkable life.  Looking down from heaven the departed regretted having to leave such a life – one without excitement or surprise, but one as rich and nuanced as any.

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Wilder’s play was about ordinariness and the infinity with in it.  ‘We are all eternal’, he wrote, but few of the residents of Grover’s Corners even had an inkling of their potential and the richness of their town.

The opposite is just as true, however.  Hobbes was not the first nor the last to see life as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.  Most people, even supported by the philosophical insights of Wilder, the wisdom of the Bible, or the more subtle suggestions of Buddha and the Tao, have little patience with sameness, routine, putting one foot in front of the other, living metro, boulot, dodo as a sacramental routine, eating the same meals, travelling the same highways, and making love to the same wife for decades on end. 

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Konstantin Levin, a major character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, wondered at God’s supreme and arrogant irony, having created man with wit, intelligence, insight, talent, and humor only to allow him a few short decades of life and then consign him for eternity in the cold, hard grounds of the steppes.   Dostoevsky’s Devil tells Ivan Karamazov that without him life would be a bloody bore.  if everyone were good, people would die of despair, loneliness, and fatigue.

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There is no intrinsic value to a long marriage which is bookended by sexual interest on one end, mutual desperation and support on the other.  The interim years are those of dissatisfaction and unhappiness – the abrupt end of a promising youthful adventure, long years of routine and deceit, the obligations of resentful children and aged parents, physical decline and dementia, and a fearful death.  Yes, those without encumbrances may die alone and disconsolate, but at least they have lived an enviable life.

The December-May love affair, as rejuvenating and affirming as it may be, is a false reward.  A man in his sixties who has enjoyed a few years with a thirty-something lover is worse off at the end than at the beginning.  At least his decades of predictable ordinariness offered nothing special, nothing hopeful, and nothing exciting.  Life on cruise control might not be anything special, but it knows no existential letdowns.

When the December-May affair ends, the older man feels suddenly and unexpectedly cheated, deceived, and at sea.  By reliving his youth – or better, recapturing it – he is deluded into thinking that life can be an affair of wonder, not one of pacing and trudging towards the exits.  After the early Christmas gift, he feels special, lucky – even anointed – but when the gift is taken away and given to someone else, he is disconsolate and depressed, far worse off than before. 

There are those, however, who do not wait for the young thing, whose life has never been tethered and worn; who risk all, demand all, and chance all from the very moment out of the gate.

Nietzsche wrote of the √úbermensch, the Superman who rides above the herd, who understands that the only validation of life in a meaningless, dull, and predictable world is the expression of pure will.  The Superman is beyond good and evil, an amoral, active, deliberate, and guilt-free rider who never looks ahead nor back; one who has conceded all to innate will and is totally willing to take whatever consequences may come.

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The more routine one’s life is, the faster it passes.  With routine not only does every day look like the previous but becomes the previous – the same collection of the morning paper from under the privet hedge; the same measured coffee, the same errands, the same appointments, work, and daily prayer.  Interrupting the daily routine is akin to the December-May affair – it disrupts enough for one to pay attention and take stock, but never as exhilarating (and of course later depressing).  No serious highs and lows, but enough bumps and irregularities to give a boost.

Yet even such attempts to alter time – to slow it and give each segment more meaning – are silly.  Nothing but Einstein and quantum physics have suggested anything other than the permanence of time and the necessary plodding through it.

Which is why it is most definitely better to live life as a movie star, a billionaire, or a Don Juan than remain stuck in the mainstream.  If life is indeed a bookended affair, then those who make hay in the middle are those better off, happier, and existentially satisfied.  For the rest of us  life is a matter of compromise and cold dinners.  The best we can do is to extract some larger meaning out of a mundane life.

All of the above is discounted by most as superficial, selfish, purposeless, and without meaning.  But the few who get it know that life between the bookends is all there is to life.   Better enjoy it while you can.  Forget investment , grandchildren and legacy, or the future of the planet.  Life is the here and now unless the end is far closer than its beginning and the last boat has already left the pier.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Love The One You’re With Unless You Can’t Forget The One You’ve Loved - Can Love Ever Be Incidental?

The Sixties were significant for many reasons – a renewed, public, and militant commitment to civil rights, opposition to an unjust if not immoral war, and a rejection of an old, faded, antiquarian morality.   More than anything else, however, the Sixties revolutionized sexual attitudes and behavior.  No longer was one obliged to conform to Victorian mores, Fifties sanctimony, and outdated and irrelevant attitudes towards the nature and purpose of intimacy. Love the one you’re with was the anthem of the Sixties.  Love was relegated to treacly Hallmark cards, daytime television and the Midwest.

At its most post-modern love did not exist at all.  It was no more than a social construct reflecting time, era, and culture.  The sonnets of Petrarch for the first time expressing romantic love were a product of the emerging middle class, one which had risen above the peasantry and while not quite upper class or aristocratic had the economic and social mobility to worry less about survival and able to think less of hammers, nails, and anvils.  Love was a new thing, an invented idea, a plaything of the rich and privileged.

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Romantic love has stayed alive for centuries, a commodity of the wealthy and the newly rich and an aspirational ideal of those beneath.  In America the concept of romantic love has been institutionalized in Hollywood, soap operas, comic  books, and popular lore. Everyone wants to fall in love and to be happy forever after.

At the same time romantic love has been progressively marginalized.  Love is found through the social media, contracted civilly, and continued thanks to feminism, sexual mutuality and new-found respect.

But is it love? Can any socially-mediated commodity possibly be the stuff of romance, marital fidelity,  or painful, passionate infidelity?

What was it that enabled sex between Medieval peasants? Nothing romantic, no coincidence of  souls, nor even a conscious desire for more labor or a son to light the funeral pyre.  Only a prescribed, unavoidable biological sexual union – genetic destiny, the foregone conclusion of man and woman, and economic necessity.   How has this changed?

The biological imperative to have children has long since been dismissed.  The economic, social, and even genetic necessity of offspring is a thing of the past.  Social security, government pensions, the welfare state have done away with maternity and parenthood. The only reason to have children is the recapture of innocence.
“Innocence”, said Henry Davis. “That can be the only reason”; and from that moment on he understood why Nancy Bell had meant so much to him.  He had known and understood innocence when he was a child…Instinctively he knew then that his childhood friendship with her was special, irreplaceable, and unforgettable.  How could he not then compare her with every other woman he met? He had known Nancy in an impossibly unique time and place…
Tired, worn out, and dispirited by his inability to reason the answer, he backed into faith. Born-again Christians report spiritual epiphanies where they have indeed been welcomed by Jesus Christ.  Henry Halter was spared all that painful exegesis, struggle, and religious fol-de-rol.  He was a lucky man. He found innocence as an innocent child.
Those who have found love in its childlike or even adolescent form are indeed lucky.  After thirty love becomes a contract – a fulfillment of adult expectations not childlike fantasy.  A man to take care, a woman to support, a union of equals in a competitive age. Those who fell in love young and early have some idea of what Petrarch meant and what indeed might be true and attainable.

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It is not easy to put relativism aside, to reason that nothing happens for a reason but is but the product of universal billiard balls or a hand of cards.  It is very tempting to believe that love, individualism, and the very definable outline of the human spirit are real, tangible, and effective; but hard to truly believe in what have been treated and considered as flim-flammery, fiction, and idealism at best.

Yet what to say about Bart Margate and Lucy Docker who had loved each other from the first, who couldn’t resist each other, who married early, divorced, died young, but who never forgot each other and their love.   Bart, second married for twenty years, the father of two children never loved anyone else.  Sally, dying at fifty with two young children of her own professed her one and only love to Bart on her deathbed.  Even Cleopatra, for all her tamasha and melodrama, could only have been speaking true love to Antony on the catafalque.  Despite her politics, her political deviousness, and her sexual diffidence, she did love Antony despite herself.  No one in their last moment lies; and Lucy admitted that she had loved no one else, an irrefutable deathbed admission.

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Of what then, consisted the love between Bart  and Lucy? A Petrarchan fantasy? A Romeo and Juliet impossible fated romance?  The influence of Hallmark cards, a culture of mediated  romance, unions of tradition and convenience without real purpose or meaning?

If so, then why, after 40 years divorce and twenty-five years after Lucy’s early death, did Bart continue to wish she were still with him? Was it simply adolescent memories and unachieved desires – a conflation of Hollywood, the Fifties, and Medieval romance? Or was there something more to it?  After years of romantic atheism, determinism, and philosophical indifference, could he have been wrong?

Many factors conditioned their meeting and their marriage. Two well-bred, Ivy League-educated, sophisticated, attractive, New York-oriented young people were destined to meet.  The system was in their favor.  Both calculated chances of success. They ‘loved’ each other in a romantic way, married in a traditional ceremony, and began their life together.  Yet they had miscalculated ambition, will, sexuality, and the untold ‘givens’ – the influences of heredity and environment which necessarily interrupt romance.  They were simply too young to understand, too influenced by Petrarch and Hallmark, and too intent on forming a perfect couple.

Yet after their separation and divorce they never lost touch.  She had children and so did she.  She advanced professionally and so did he.  Both he and she had remarried well and prosperously; so why was it that both of them thought only of each other? Both independently concluded that it must have been a function of adolescence and the discovery of sexuality and intimacy, a conditioned romance of a neo-romantic age; but neither was ever convinced.  Their love was special, unique, and irreplaceable.

But why? Was there something that unique in each of them and the coincidence of the two especially remarkable? Hardly.  Petrarch and Shakespeare were only two of many poets who wrote of indescribable, fated love.  Marriages of convenience arranged according to wealth, position, or horoscope were more the rule.  Even in liberated feminist America, few women disregard romantic calculus – the balance sheet of education, family, intelligence, attractiveness and well-being – and agree to rather than fall for the right man.  There must have been something in the love between Bert and Lucy after all.

The only unequivocal love is that between mother and son – an absolute, indissoluble relationship of love and by nurture.  Fathers and sons must work out the competition, rivalry, guilt, and association; but motherhood and son-by-motherhood is innate and implicit.

Adult sexual relationships pale by comparison.  They have neither the physical intimacy, the genetic markers, or the social history to make a go of it.  They are determined by both nature and nurture, but only second hand.  They sense their mothers and fathers but indistinctly at best. They act with unknown guidance but guidance nonetheless.

Was Bart’s love for Lucy conditioned by his love – or lack thereof – for his mother? An unhealthy subscription to Fifties romantic comics? To Hollywood? Or was it that one-in-a-million special connection that has little or nothing to do with environment, conditioning or literature.  A real life Abelard and Heloise?

Society has gotten along well enough without romantic love which was  unknown before 1400, so why should anything be any different today? We are in our cybernetic, socially-mediated age contracting marriage not unlike our forbears according to background, history, potential, and promise. Why search elsewhere?

Bart and Lucy prove the exception or at least challenge received wisdom.  There might indeed be something unique and even indispensable about intimate relationships, and practical, deterministic assumptions may be totally wrong.  Innocence?
Nancy pulled her dress up over her head and stood naked as the water droplets from the ferns dripped onto her face and arms.  “They are my jewels”, she said to Bart, “and one day you can buy me real ones.”
It was cool and dark in the woods behind his house.  Bart’s father had said that he would cull the deep grove before it got too overgrown but he never got around to it, so the ferns had grown taller than him, and only rabbits could find their way through the bramble bushes. Once when he was little he got lost in the woods and thought he would never find his way out. There were bears and wolves in the woods, and he might wander for days without finding his way home.  For years he never set foot in the woods until Lucretia had asked him. 
He knew that the wild animals were not real, but he still hesitated at the mountain laurel bushes at the back of their yard, and never took the narrow path into the woods. That was how childhood worked, he later thought, full of crazy imaginary things that scared you, and one day you woke up and they weren’t there any more, and the woods was just a dark, wet place where you would prefer not to go.
Mountain laurel
Nancy sat next to him in school the next day, so close together in the auditorium that their legs touched.  She smelled fresh and clean, like talcum powder and lilac soap, and she was wearing the same dress that she had worn in the woods.  He noticed a bit of dried oak leaf on her dress that she had not seen and remembered how she had put her clothes neatly in a pile on a mossy patch under his father’s favorite tree.
Bart was spared all that painful exegesis, struggle, and religious fol-de-rol.  He was a lucky man. He found innocence as an innocent child.
Innocence? i
Ignorance? Happenstance? Love may not be incidental. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Life On A Need To Know Basis - Get Rid Of The Irrelevant And Clear The Decks For Running

“But is it relevant?”, asked Harry Wentworth.  His wife paid no attention and went on cutting up the vegetables for dinner.  Asking about relevance was one of her husband’s quirks, a kind of intellectual tic that may have had meant something at one time, but had long passed into repetitive irrelevance.

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                               Is it safe?

“What does Daddy mean when says, ‘Is it relevant?’, asked his son.  ‘Is what relevant?”.

“Your father has this thing about meaning”, replied Billy’s mother.

For her nothing was particularly relevant, nothing invested with particular meaning, no conundrums to be solved, no existential questions to be answered. Cards were dealt, you played them, one some hands and lost others; and ended up no better nor no worse for having played. 

So Billy grew up between two poles – one of a questing father for whom inquiry had become a nervous twitch, a reflex response to anything that came his way without answers; the other of an indifferent mother for whom little mattered other than getting through the day as quickly and easily as possible.  Since Billy found everything relevant – what his mother was cooking for dinner, how a jet engine worked, what was the purpose of school, what was under the ground, why arugula was bitter, what was going on in Nancy Blythe’s head – he could neither understand his father’s incessant, nervous parsing to figure out what was what nor his mother’s breezy attitude about everything from the cat to Granny’s funeral.

None of this was particularly troubling to Billy.  It’s just the way his parents were, a given taken for granted as a child but more peculiar as an adult.  He found himself wondering about meaning, relevance, and purpose more than he thought he ever would; and wondered whether or not his parents’ particularities were finally taking their bite.  He found himself analyzing, filtering, and categorizing just like his father.  People were all marked and filed – smart, dumb, clueless, alert, hazy – for no other reason other than to order a world which, thanks to hormones, the old Wentworth genes, and growing up a small town which seemed to have more than its share of deserters had become worrisome and indecipherable. 

New Brighton was an ordinary town – factories, shops, churches, libraries, offices and a city hall like every other one in the middle of nowhere which should have been as predictable in the behavior of its residents as in the configuration of the municipality; but was not.  Every family had a peculiar twist – Mrs. Johnson went away and never came back one Sunday after church; a roomer overstayed his welcome at the Porters and killed them in a psychotic fit of pique. Herbie Swanson’s mother and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Bruce Benton’s blind father, or Betty Morton’s short, reclusive, and spooky uncle.  It never rained at all one summer, and every hair curler, hammer toe, and jelly roll was out for all to see on the front lawn.  What did this all mean, Billy wondered? Was there a common thread to it all and shouldn’t one be looking for it? If so, how?

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Literary exegesis studied long ago might have a point.  Within the ambit of the New Criticism texts were to be parsed and disaggregated to understand the artist’s meaning.  What was The Tyger really about? Or Shakespeare’s Sonnets to his young man? Or Yeats’ epics, Eliot’s spare, depressing verse? Billy had been happy to leave that dry, academic, and to him unnecessarily laborious reading of literature behind, but thought it might be time to pick it up again.  

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He had no such luck.  Life was as opaque as Blake’s poetry.  Not only were there no easy answers, there were no answers.  His life was simply cluttered with irrelevant information; and he was no better off than when he started.  No epiphanies, no ‘Aha!’ experiences, no particular insights, and no satisfaction.

Until one day when Billy was well into his forties he finally figured out how to shake off his father’s inherited obsessiveness – an unexpected insight, perhaps the result of so much intellectual baggage, too heavy to lug around any more.  There was no point in figuring out what was what, or searching for meaning in a randomly assorted array of weird behavior.  Life should be led on a need-to-know basis.  The search for relevance, meaning, and purpose was itself meaningless with one exception – what was absolutely, positively essential?  Nothing in the news was essential – what politician was sleeping with whom, what lies and deception were being foisted, what responses were being made in response to international affairs, economics, finance, or social mobility.  There was little Billy found that he needed to know, given the altogether familiar and predictable turns of events.  The comic strips ‘Blondie’ and ‘Beetle Bailey’ ran for decades in syndication throughout the US and were popular because they never varied.  Each character acted according to character, but the ways in which each was silly, inept, unaware, or late were endlessly funny.  The reader needed to know nothing about Dagwood, Blondie, Beetle, Sarge, or Zero; nor why they did what they did.  It was only what they did that mattered.  Need-to-know was reduced to a simple, familiar formula. 

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The infelicities of preachers, priests, politicians, and generals were to be expected.  What was not predictable was exactly how they would play out their infidelities, lies, and misdemeanors – and this, because it always happened the same way with only peculiar and odd twists in the telling, was funny.  One never needed to know anything more than the fact that the predictable would happen sooner or later.

So, like Tolstoy who explained in his memoir A Confession that after decades of search for meaning, he finally gave up.  There was no such thing.  Neither Billy’s father’s quirky but insistent search, nor his own more paced and disciplined one turned up anything; so he trimmed this sails and cleared the decks for running.  He narrowed his interests and his friends; stayed clear of family gatherings; unsubscribed from everything until his mailbox and inbox were empty; and focused only what he needed to know – odds and ends that might or might not clear up a few questions but at least give him a laugh.

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His wife needled him like his mother had done to his father – Billy was becoming misanthropic, obsessively narrow, and withdrawn.  What exactly was the point?

Yes, what was it? But Billy was under no illusions.  He had not narrowed his field of vision to help him look for answers.  He simply preferred one with characters of someone else’s invention, one described more eloquently than he ever could. 

To his friends Billy had become a recluse, a strange hermit who resembled nothing of his past.  The outgoing, gregarious, intensely social being that they had known in their thirties and forties was gone.  No paramours, no cinq-a-septs, no adventure.  Yet he was a happy man – not really smiley, happy happy but satisfied.  He had figured out a way to eliminate annoying static and noise, to pay no attention to anything that didn’t matter to him; and that, given the amount of noise and static in the world, was saying something.