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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins–A Modern Take On How To Feel Good About Sinning, Part III (Sloth)

Michael Ponticelli looked out at the blue Caribbean from his lounge chair at Macaya Beach, closed his eyes, dozed, and dreamed of other beaches – his first dip into the cold waters of Long Island Sound at Hammonasset, the even colder waters off Kennebunkport, and the delightfully warm Arabian Sea.  He had travelled as a profession - to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe –on  missions of mercy as they were called; visits to refugee camps, nutrition rehabilitation centers, and remote health outposts.  Those were his obligations by day; but his evenings and nights were spent far less responsibly.  One thing about an expatriate travelling to difficult lands – everyone sticks together in a social solidarity against the nastiness of the world outside the Sheraton, the Oberoi, the Grand, and the Raffles; and romance is the stuff of such enforced isolation and dislocation.

Image result for images macaya beach haiti

Michael was never happier, no more relaxed, and no more at home than by the sea in benighted countries.  It was not only a necessary respite from crime, assault, and the threat of kidnappings; but a feeling of well-being.  A natural state, a state at rest, a place of perfect equilibrium.

The Peninsula of Luanda was a small spit of land bordered by the Atlantic on one side and a wide, navigable bay on the other.  Every day after work, Michael took car and driver to the Peninsula, to the Bahia do Mar restaurant, and to the special, quiet, uninterrupted sanctuary without which he would have been lost.  The Bahia do Mar was a simple place – nothing in Luanda or anywhere in Angola for that matter had completely recovered from the civil war.  Better to be modest in appointments, offerings, and cadre than to be assaulted and robbed by ex-combatants of the recently concluded civil war who knew only killing and intimidation.  Its simplicity was its charm – a few palm trees, a view of the hulks of mercenary ships anchored off shore, grilled giant prawns and dark white wine from northern Portugal, respectful service, and calm.

Image result for images restaurants luanda peninsula

If it were up to him, Michael would have turned the days around, consigned the nastiness of Luanda, the choking traffic, the looting, and beggary to a few hours of the late night and enjoyed the Peninsula, good wine, seafood, and Atlantic breezes for all but a few hours.  In fact these leisurely hours are what he remembered best and most from his career of International Development – the civilized lunches by Lake Tanganyika, by the Teranga pool in Dakar, on Copacabana Beach, at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.  Leisure, relaxation, and ease were at their best in foreign interludes.

The long lunches, the paramours, bathing in the sea, sleeping under canopies and wooden fans were counterpoints to the penalties of the day.  No place to which he was assigned was free from conflict, unrest, and difficulty; and grand hotels were not only refuges but highlights.  Life was meant to be led in pleasure, at leisure, and without complications.

His affair with a young Swiss German woman in the Comoros would never have happened in Chicago or New York.  The Moroni microclimate poured rain for ten days straight, the scent of ylang-ylang and cloves from the plantation in the hills above the port was strong and persistent; the lamplit darkness, and the isolation of 1000 miles from Africa or the Indonesian archipelago gave sex a particular unique foreignness.   Their room was always dark and scented with burning Chinese mosquito coils, powerful, illegal chemical hard paste that burned for hours, kept the insects away, and allowed them to make love naked, without nets or covers, in a large room overlooking the harbor in a hotel run by a stateless Palestinian.

Image result for images moroni comoros port

No matter where he traveled, Michael found these refuges and lived in them.  Bucharest was, in the years after Ceausescu, an unstable questionable place.  There were few places to eat, no local currency, and a police force which was just beginning to adjust to municipal independence and the rule of law.  Michael’s trips to the monasteries of Suceava, the hot springs an resorts of Transylvania, and the Black Sea coastal villages, made his days of uncertainty, professional challenge, and personal insecurity worth it.  He would never have exchanged for anything the long weekend trips with his Romanian lover, the special serenity of abandoned Communist resorts – large cement block multistory buildings meant to house thousands of workers on government pension – and days of hiking up Alpine-like mountains and Tuscany-like vineyards.

Image result for images monastery frescoes suceava romania

Work was a means to a pleasurable end.  He would not have traveled had it not been for the pleasurable endings to difficult days or the extended weekends on the beaches of Haiti, Sri Lanka, or El Salvador.  He was never irresponsible in his work; and in fact was always invited back for more work.  It was just that neither the work itself nor its supposed purpose – the betterment of the poor and underserved – held any particular interest or higher-order responsibility.  The international development industry was an inefficient, politically-driven one; and the chance of any impact from programs that were designed 5000 miles away by workers who were given terms of reference, objectives, and goals by those even farther removed than they was nil.  Therefore, reversing the priorities from work to leisure made ultimate sense.  It not only satisfied Michael’s natural instincts, but it was logical.

In the period after the fall of the Soviet Union, European countries that had been within the Soviet sphere of influence had to fend for themselves.  Suddenly received wisdom concerning law, justice, education, social welfare, and health was tossed out, left on the curb; and citizens had to sort out for themselves what it would take to survive within a capitalist system.

The Director of the newly re-constituted Warsaw Chamber of Commerce confided to a colleague of Michael’s how difficult the transition would be.  Before the Fall, it was honorable to cheat, lie, and deceive; for such deception against an enemy state was moral and righteous.  How, then, to adjust this prevailing view of morality and make cheating, lying, and deception unacceptable?

In other words, Michael’s pleasurable interludes were logical responses to a system riven with inefficiency, political influence, and arrogantly imposing values.  He never had a problem with leisure, but had even less when it came to the Third World.

So sloth is a very relative concept.  As originally postulated 1500 years ago by a Christian moralist, it made sense.  Work was not only necessary for survival but essential for maintaining the intellectual and moral discipline required to keep soul and spirit on track.  Sloth implied intellectual, moral, and spiritual lassitude – an out-and-out rejection of Christian values and aspirations. 

Now, however, earned leisure is a right; and extended leisure made possible by enterprise, insight, and canniness is an acceptable benefit of the modern economy.  Work has lost its moral injunction despite Protestant puritanism.  There is no intrinsic value to work, we say in our modern, relativist society; and leisure has as much value and importance.

Much has been written these days about work-life balance, but Michael Ponticelli wrote the book. There was never a moment in his life when work was more important than play; and therefore his work routine was geared to one and only one result – producing the most amount of acceptable work in the least amount of time.  His strategy was one of ‘collateral benefits’.  Everyone benefited from his efficiency.  Not only was he, within his carefully-constructed and artfully-presented work schedule, able to free himself quickly from the boring but necessary routines of the office, but his work was valued and, he was told, contributed significantly to achieving corporate goals. There was never an epitaph which said, ‘He spent a lot of time at the office’.

There are men and women without drive, get-up-and-go, ambition, and the wherewithal to make a real go of American entrepreneurial life.  They spend lots of time before the TV, puttering around the garden, or listlessly waiting for things to happen.  Yet they are not slothful.  They have been hobbled by bad genes, poor upbringing, and an environment of poverty and hopelessness.  What else to do other than dawdle.  In our relativistic, generous, and tolerant society, there is no such thing as laziness – or if there is, it was caused by factors beyond individuals’ control.

Michael lived and died a happy man.  He and his Mediterranean que sera sera joie de vivre won the day.  He never criticized his fellow workers who died in their traces, but he secretly wondered how they had ever been so deceived.

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