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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Throwing The Unnecessary, Irrelevant, And Distracting Overboard - Clearing The Decks For Running

Carson Blythe had always been a social man, a man of dinner parties, formal teas, and poker at the 19th hole.  He liked company and the more the merrier.  He celebrated every birthday with more elaborate events on the fives.   It was not that he liked being the center of attention, although that was a pleasant by-product.  He simply liked being surrounded by friendly people, a social coterie whose members like him simply loved association with others.  There was no point to these gatherings – no agendas or purpose.  Religion and politics were off the table, contentious issues which would fray the carefully woven fabric of the events.  Carson did not explicitly orchestrate these gatherings nor conduct them away from serious issues.  Such a baton was never needed because there was a common understanding that affinity was the only organizational principle and good fun was the only rule of order.

Carson’s hospitality was well-known in the West End of New Brighton.  An invitation to the Blythes was a guarantee of good food, superb cadre, and marvelously lively and witty conversation.  Carson and his wife went out of their way to make each event special. In warm weather they arranged tables on the lawn, shaded by the oaks and maples which had been on the property and in their family for generations.  The tables were set with damask tablecloths, silver, and crystal – settings which would have been elegant inside in their formal dining room but even more impressive outside, set off by the rich, green, manicured grass, the intricate tracery of the early Spring leaves, the rose garden, the picket fence, the trellis of bougainvillea, and the antique buckets of impatiens.

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Dinners were never less than three courses which he selected with a symphonic ear.  Each course was a movement which both stood on its own, anticipated the next, and formed part of a well-balanced whole.  His guests appreciated each course for its uniqueness, color, architecture, and presentation; and most importantly discussed them.  They were stimulators of common interest.  Each course added a new dimension of discussion which began with food but always continued well past it – lunches on the porch of the Whittens on Gay Head, the time the cat ruined the soufflé at the Middletons,  Scarlett Johansson and the Macron family at Bofinger, the strawberry endowment at Yale.  No points were made or conclusions drawn at these dinners which were indeed never meant to be anything more than congenial gatherings to appreciate food, table, and each other.

Image result for images brasserie bofinger paris

Carson’s outings were no different in intent, style, and bonhomie from dinners at home.  He selected restaurants, bars, and cafes with the same attentiveness  and attention to orchestration and symphony.  A badly-chosen restaurant would be remembered even longer than a great one, especially because it was hors série – memorable not for its excellence but its lack thereof.  Thanks to Carson’s experience and well-adjusted taste, he never went wrong.  The oysters were always briny and brimming with liqueur, the grouper properly charred and succulent, the steaks from the best Kansas City wholesalers, and the wines from celebrated but small vineyards in Sonoma and Willamette Valley.  The cadre was attractive, modern without too much glass, steel, and track lighting.  The atmosphere was always lively but never overdone – happiness but no din – and the service impeccable.  In short, the restaurants served to enhance Carson’s famous ‘affinity’, a value added to an already congenial group.

He and his friends – never the same group, but always the same core – carried their happy friendship sailing on the Chesapeake, hiking the Camino de Santiago, summering in Kaş or wintering in Gstaad. 

Image result for images sailing on the chesapeake

The experience was always enough for them.  They had no need for guided tours with Harvard docents.  Turkish Mediterranean beaches were enough for them without following in the footsteps of St. Paul to Ephesus.  Carson and his friends were by no means uneducated.  In fact most of them had an Ivy League pedigree.  It was simply that their idea of the good life was one free from intellectual entanglements, an epicurean life of pleasure without guilt.  None were on a mission, none had ever been. Society – the Victorian meaning of one’s social group with which one always associated – was their be-all and end-all.

All of which made Carson’s sudden divestiture surprising and worrisome.  As he got older, he began to lose interest in the gatherings which had been de rigeur for decades.  He grew impatient with what he now considered idle chatter.  What difference did it make, really, whether the coquilles St. Jacques were overdone? What possible difference could a walk through the Cotswolds make alone or in company?  What was the point of birthday parties, outings on the Bay, or afternoons by the pool?

“I’ve had enough”, Carson said to his wife when she asked him about his growing reclusiveness; but she could not leave it there.  Any aberration from predictable behavior, especially that which had been at the very center of one’s life and well-being must signal the onset of depression and dark days.

First to go were the Parkers whom Carson had always suspected of airiness. While his other friends might be airy and bright at dinner but who had sparkles of wit, the Parkers showed nothing and nothing showed through.  There was no there there, and whereas Carson had never noticed it before - so competently did the brass, strings, and percussion play together - he noticed it now.  Clearing this one lone pine from the stand might even make it more beautiful and serene.

The Parkers went without much notice, the absence of a moth in a complex ecosystem, but the gatherings like the ecosystem would never be quite the same.  When Carson disinvited the Wentworths the disruption in the formerly well-tuned harmony was noticed; and when the Abbots were absent, the group had finally lost its character.  Although no couple substantively added to the substantiality of the group – no one added anything except their enjoyment – absences were felt.  A symphony can be rescored, but if enough sections are missing, the music is flat and not worth playing.

Image result for images symphony orchestra

Carson chose to dismantle the group rather than simply leave it.  He felt, before his insistence on divestiture had become irreversible, that perhaps he could do with a smaller group, fewer parties, less ambition while pursuing his other, new, much more personal interests.  He soon realized that he was wrong.  He had created an orchestral wonder, but when looked at through his older, now severely critical lens, it was worth nothing no matter how big or small. 

“What’s the point”, was his irritating, repeated bar.  How could a man of Carson’s intelligence, talent, and ability fallen into such nihilistic inaction?  Would this downward spiral increase, or would he pull up, redirect his energy, and right his ship?

Carson was unconcerned.  It was about time that he ridded himself of the clutter he had accumulated; and although he wondered how he had put up with it for so long, he knew it was time to clear the decks for running; to get rid of excuses – which is what he now saw his compulsive socializing to be – and to get alone and serious.

It was not an easy transition.  Not only was his wife unhappy – she loved her husband’s social affairs and missed them – but he found that while one might get rid of the unnecessary, where was one to find the necessary? For a man used to company, camaraderie, and bustle, it was not easy to settle down and read.  Read what, actually? Nor was it easy to reconfigure his days, especially now that he was retired.  He was only sure that he wanted no more part of the Middletons, Parkers, and the Whittens.  In his new incarnation the thought of spending a dinner with just the four of them was horrible.  Whereas the symphony of friends played itself, he would have to work at some kind of harmony with only one couple at the table.

It wasn’t long however before the void was filled.  Carson had given up his socialness but never his sociability.  He began to keep up with friends he had ignored in the shuffle of the moveable feast – classmates, former business associates, childhood friends – and make new ones.  Soon Starbucks and the Irish Inn replaced Gatsby, Hemingway, and St. Tropez.   Carson was now on a need-to-know basis, his version of K Street focus and dismissal of the irrelevant.  While his mates for coffee and beer were not that different from his big party friends – Ivy League pedigree, wealth, and overall well-being – the conversations were.  They were more personal, even more intimate, and certainly – in Carson’s eyes anyway – more relevant and satisfying.  Bert, Ray, Joe, and Bill might not be the answer to what’s what, but at least they were edging closer to it than the crowd at Bofinger ever had.

Carson’s wife was unfortunate collateral damage in this transformation.  She had never expected their gay life to end, at least not so abruptly and so completely.  What was she to do while her husband schmoozed with his buddies?  She had none of her husband’s later-life angst and his need to fill the void; and would have been happy carrying on with the group; but Carson’s systematic dismantling of it rather than simply absenting himself, eliminated it.  None of the pieces were the same once they had been hived off from the whole.

“I am social”, Carson replied when his wife brought up their lack of friendships and events.  “Just not in the usual way.”  A collectivity of friends, each met individually and personally, was a social entity even though it never met.  Carson had shown that remaking oneself was indeed possible; and while his transformation was far from religious epiphany, it was still significant.  He had used his natural and native social need – deformed in the past by lack of intent – to good use.  He was neither fulfilled nor particularly happy, but good enough.  He sailed on an even keel, finally admitted his destination, and was content.

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