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

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Lament Of Age – It’s Not Wanting To Be Young Again, It’s Wanting To Be With Someone Young Again

Herman, Abe, and Art were lamenting their lost youth – not the days of their youth gone by but the fact that the young women who had loved them in their later years had long gone.

“She was wonderful”, said Abe, “a real gem.  An early Christmas present.  An unforgettable charm”. 

Image result for images sexy girl dressed up as santa claus

Laura had been thirty-two when they met, Abe sixty-four, stretching the May-December relationship to its outer limits.  Abe was reaching the end of his sexual shelf life, and she was in full bloom.  He had been surprised that such a woman had any interest in him at all.  Yes, he still had much of his hair, was in good health and good physical condition, but as his doctor had advised him, ‘Numbers don’t lie’.  In other words it was about time that he began to look more seriously at his end-of-life priorities.  Even the best actuarial estimates gave him only relatively few more years, so he had better turn his attention to more important matters.

“Why bother”, Dr. Kaplan had said when he first heard the news. “What will she give you that God won’t?”

It was obvious that Kaplan had never strayed from his marriage of forty years, let alone with a younger woman.  Those who had been more adventurous or fortunate knew that they had been extremely lucky.  No one wanted to relive their youth – who would want to repeat the adolescent bumbling, the adult mistakes, missed opportunities, and downright shameful episodes of the past? Better done, gone, and forgotten than sifting through the discards to see if there was anything worth retrieving, anything worth  a second look.

In Abe’s case, his life had been satisfactory enough – a successful career on K Street, a good marriage, well-placed and respectful children.  He never saw cause to wish the genetic cards his son and daughter had been dealt had come from a different deck, or to have chosen a more beautiful wife; or even to have had more affairs.  At 70 he was sitting pretty, atop a considerable retirement fund and investment properties, a home in Boca Raton, and good friends. 

Yet everything in his life seemed predictable, tired, and worn.  A life of no regrets did not mean a life with a happy ending.  Encroaching old age was ugly, dispiriting, and frightening.  He did not envy the young people around him.  He had had his day and it was their time.  Nor did he wish that there were some wormhole through which he could be sucked into the past.  Youth was overrated, especially when one saw the depressing consequences of disappointments, unachieved success, illness, bad choices, and bad luck.  The years took their toll, and since one could neither go back and fix them, what was the inherent, innate value of youth anyway?  Little more than a stop along the way. 

Konstantin Levin, a major character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina saw great irony in God’s having created man - an intelligent, creative, insightful, intuitive, and enterprising being – allowed him to live for a scant few decades, then consign him for all eternity in the cold hard ground of the steppes.  If there was no point to life, reasoned Abe, then there was certainly no point to youth.  Other than reproduction and carrying capacity of course.  On an existential plane, youth was wasted on everyone.

Image result for images book cover anna karenina

Laura Peterson came into Abe’s life unexpectedly, a work meeting, drinks, a conference in Cairo; dinners, and finally sex.  The scenario was not new to Abe.  He had always had affairs, but because of circumstances, they were all ‘commensurate’.  The women were like him all professionals, travelers, within a few years of age, happily loosed from the fetters of marriage or partnership.  There was nothing remarkable or particularly interesting in these short-term relationships.  They were almost de rigueur, part of the business traveler’s benefit package, a no-strings-attached rider to one’s contract.

Abe’s love affair with Laura, however, defied the actuarial odds and the lottery.  An old man was not supposed win big.  He was designed to lie down and take it easy or die in his traces, not get back in the saddle.  He knew that eventually she would give up on him for a more expected life; and more importantly would no longer be able to overlook his stoop, his ailing hip, his older children, and his futurelessness.  Since Abe had as little enthusiasm for the future as the past, and since consequently the present was the only tasty morsel in the buffet, he gorged himself.  His affair with Laura Petersen was right out of a ladies’ library romantic novel.

"Shh," he said, pulling her up so they were face-to-face again. He slid his hands between her legs, positioning fingers and thumb the way she'd taught him. Except that wasn't right. She hadn't taught him. They'd figured it out together, how to make her come. He nuzzled against her, his lips on her neck, nibbling and kissing his way up to her earlobe, where she'd always been ticklish. "Ooh," she whispered. "Ooh! Oh, oh, oh," she sighed, as he worked his fingers against the slick seam . . . and then she forgot to pose, forgot about trying to look good, and lost herself inside her own pleasure. Andy watched her squeeze her eyes shut as she clamped her thighs against his wrist and snapped her hips up, once, twice, three times before she froze, all the muscles in her thighs and belly and bottom tense and quivering, and he felt her contract against his fingers (Jennifer Weiner, Who Do You Love?)

He wished he could have felt instead like Cormac McCarthy:

Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea’s black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different (The Road)

Image result for images book cover the road cormac mccarthy

The problem is that with Abe, like all older men in an affair with a younger woman, it was the pulp fiction that said it all.   There were no existential thoughts, no God, no kindness and compassion, just adolescent wet dreams.  The rotten prose captured the pure physical responsiveness of the sex act; and that was all that mattered.  It was the only reliving of the past that made any sense.  It wasn’t reliving a particular event or recreating a circumstance – staying in a familiar hotel, eating in our restaurant – it was playing the part of a youth as an old man, and voila la difference.

Phillip Roth’s character, Coleman Silk, says in The Human Stain, describing his affair with a woman half his age,  “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?” Abe was Coleman Silk.  “It’s all about the sex, isn’t it?”, asks Silk’s friend; but although Silk denies it and criticizes his much younger friend of his own romantic notions and unfilled sexual demands, it is indeed about the sex.  The book has a happy ending only in that Coleman Silk dies without ever having to give up his woman.  His last memories are of her body.

Image result for images poster the human stain

“Too soon old, too late schmart”, said Herman after hearing Abe’s story.  “You’ll never learn.  The putz is not the way to figure things out.”

“Who says I’m trying?”, said Abe.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

America’s Love Of Pleasantries–Happy Talk Keeps Things Running Smoothly

Americans are friendly to a fault.  We prefer a hale fellow well met to an honest one; a congenial, approachable one to a prickly, critical one; and a pleasant, non-confrontational one to just about anyone else.  A successful dinner party is run on light sociability. A backslapping bonhomie breeds confidence; congeniality dispels doubts.  Offenbach is better than Wagner.  Sports better than political philosophy or history.

Martha King, a well-heeled American hostess, taking a lesson from the English, insisted on keeping her dinner parties civil.  No sex, politics, or religion were to be discussed at the table; and she was quite deft and agile and steering the conversation away from contentious issues and inviting only those people whom she had carefully vetted for good manners and an attuned sense of social propriety. While this neutralized any serious discussion, it avoided unnecessary scraps.


Image result for images english aristocratic dinner

Of course nothing went totally according to plan; and even the most deferential and cautious guests could say something inappropriate; but of course these people were never invited back.

With her strict rules of order, guests could come, enjoy the guinea hen and foie gras, leave at a reasonable hour and certainly wonder why they bothered. He was wrong, he told me.  Being at one of her dinner parties was like being in a musical comedy. Everyone knew and played their part – the ingénue, the generous uncle, the handsome leading man, the object of his affections, the upstart, and the single lady.  It was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, My Fair Lady, High Society, and Hello Dolly. The men wore tuxes and the ladies long dresses.  They spoke well, behaved mischievously, and all ended happily together.


Image result for images musical my fair lady

When battles are fought on principle, there can be no compromise.  So, taking a page from his mother, Riddick King said he looked for ways to draw out his guests’ comedic sides.  Personal biographies are good and stories from the old days draw everyone closer around the campfire. Everyone has quirks, oddities, and family clowns in common. Bits and pieces of character can be extracted over time, and although the pastiche may not be entirely accurate it is likely to be a decent representation of Bob Phillips or Jane Tolley.

Civility can be defined as knowing when to stop an argument before it gets personal.  Knowing when it is time to agree to disagree. Putting up the muskets and sabers and having a round of ale. People who are civil understand the nature of political difference. They pull up before the final attack, let victory slide, and take time to tease out smaller bits.  What ever happened to Mary Jane? Did you hear that Danny Bernstein’s father died? The weather is turning cold.


Image result for images muskets stacked

The French have no such concerns.  Intellectual debate, rational disagreement, and well-argued positions are not only considered appropriate at the dinner table, but de rigeur.  An evening of pleasantries impossible.

Apostrophes was a French roundtable talk show featuring intellectuals who discussed and debated books, art, and ideas.  It aired in prime time and for many years was the most-watched program on French television.  Perhaps most importantly its audience was universal – as many working class viewers as upper class ones.  Apostrophes was significant because it was an expression of French intellectual culture, one which had no institutional limitations, and was shared and respected by all.  Granted, Apostrophes aired before the radical media reforms which broke government monopoly - there were few options other than Apostrophes on Friday night – but such exclusionary policies did not deny a basic, fundamental, aspect of French cultural history.  High culture was not only French.  France was its home.

American’s love of pleasantries and of avoiding the crux is practical and sensible.  In a society without a long cultural history, without centuries of intellectual, philosophical, and artistic tradition; and one formed less on the basis of substance than process, it is not surprising that greasing the rails has always been characteristic.  American process – civil liberties, justice, and freedoms – is what best defines America.  They are what make America work.  They facilitate equal contracts, fair adjudication, and reasonable settlement.  Asking why or how – plurality, diversity, democracy itself to what ends – or debating philosophical principles of morality, ethics, and right behavior are irrelevant to the process of progress, of moving ahead.  For all one might talk of morality, it is more often than not a question of the law.  It’s not what you know; it’s what you can prove.

Substantive issues are always deferred or coopted by temporal political interests.  Right and wrong are relative terms when it comes to the oppressed, the marginalized, and the forgotten.  There is no point in discussing Kant when it comes to Black Lives Matter or One Wall Street.  At best parsing the truth, as Bill Clinton famously did before the Senate, is all one can hope for.

In a scene from the film Quiz Show, a prospective contestant, Charles Van Doren, younger member of an eminent New York intellectual family, questions the ethics of the show.  Giving him the answers to supposedly surprise questions would not be right, he says. “I wonder what Kant would have to say”, Van Doren remarks to the show’s producers.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t have a problem with it”, is the reply.

Image result for images movie poster quiz show

Of course many conservatives feel that Kant would indeed have a problem; and that America’s problems can be traced to willful forgetfulness of moral principle.  Our nation was founded on the sound philosophical principles of the Enlightenment.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not empty phrases of an optimistic American politician, but a statement of fundamental values.  In an increasingly procedural, or process-oriented, society, fundamental principles are easily lost sight of.  We are living Jefferson’s worst nightmare.

“My name is Bruce, and I’ll be your server tonight” is an unmistakable warning of the bad meal to come.  Bruce really doesn’t want to be a server in a middling Washington restaurant; and the diners at his table understand this, sympathize with him, and support his upwardly mobile outlook. His friendliness and the congeniality of those ordering dinner are signifiers for the process.  His knowledge of ingredients, preparation, and presentation are secondary to his underlying initiative.  We all were in his shoes at one point or another.

So his recitation of the specials, complete with a scripted, detailed description of them is more than enough to show his legitimacy.  Diners know enough not to divert his attention with questions about complementarity, methods of preparation and combination; to let him stay on message – sourcing, organic farming, GMO-free production, and humane treatment of animals – and not to ask questions he might not know.  His frequent inquiries about our meal and how we are enjoying it are not looked at as unwanted intrusions, but as part of the pleasantry package.  The meal is not about a pissy, know-it-all French waiter, but Bruce, the student at Montgomery College, working evenings.

Visitors to the United States are at first charmed by Americans’ friendliness, so different from the less open, more structured, and certainly more demanding cultures from which they come.  It is a breath of fresh air for many to relax away from concerns of standards, class, and behavior.  Americans’ easy familiarity is a welcome delight. 

“Until you get to know them”, said one European.  He would rather be challenged, debated, and questioned in the name of honesty than ‘swim with guppies’.

Of course he had not been here long enough to appreciate the American character; nor did he have the perspicacity and insight of Tocqueville who saw no signs of traditional European greatness in America; but something else – goodness.

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Image result for images alex de tocqueville

Goodness in American terms means kindness, friendliness, and good neighborliness.  Helping out, shoveling snow, volunteering at the elder care center or library.  Goodness is far easier than righteousness, honesty, or courage; but it fits well into the American character of pleasantry.

The Vicompte de ______ was a young French nobleman, last in a long line of aristocrats, courtiers, and princes.  He was proud of his family’s tradition, their participation in the First Crusade, and their subsequent contributions to French society and culture.  He was unapologetic about the role of the aristocracy in creating, preserving, and promoting French culture.   His personality, character, and worldview were all conditioned by his family history.  He wasn’t simply Emmanuel de _____ but La France.  He expected and received respect for his family’s role in French history.  He was a man of good humor but few pleasantries; arrogant at times, generous at most.  Most importantly he was a man of substance.  He had no patience for goodness, American or otherwise – an undefined, lackadaisical, vaguely Christian but homogenized out of recognition.

Perhaps in an increasingly hostilely competitive world, we should take goodness wherever we find it.  Perhaps one should be more tolerant of American niceness and friendliness.  After all, we have no cultural honor to defend, no thousand-year history like the Vicompte de _____.  On the other hand, “Have a nice day” and Bruce’s attentions can get very tiresome.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Dictates Of Fashion–The Way We Look Is So Much More Important Than Who We Are

Much is made of ‘identity’ today, specifically our race, gender, or ethnicity.  Such categories can determine where we go to school, where we work, what government support we receive, and which political party is the most congenial to our interests. Yet such categorical identity goes much deeper.  Being gay or black does not simply place one firmly in the Democratic camp, or assure quick recourse to the judicial system in case of grievance, but is the most defining aspect of character, outlook, and personality.  More than an artist, a geologist, a social worker, or a teacher, a black man is first black; a gay man first gay.

From a narrow political perspective, this makes sense.  Changes in laws, public perception, and civic attitude require solidarity.  There can be no so-so gays in the fight against homophobia; no diffident blacks in Black Lives Matter; and certainly no complaisant, Lawrentian women in the MeToo movement.   In other words, to the modern political activist, Sartre was wrong.  Existence does not precede essence but the other way around.  One must start with a predetermined model of being and then let individual purpose, activity, and intent shape it.   One is first and foremost black, gay, female, disabled, or Latino.  Anything else by way of individual preference, ability, purpose, or desire is secondary, irrelevant or at best is to be sorted out later.

This collectivism – the desire to fit everyone into a few, secular, predetermined categories for political reasons – runs counter to American history.  Eighteenth Century Enlightenment spread quickly from Europe to the America with its new premium placed on reason and individual intellectual enterprise, all in service to God.  The Enlightenment in turn had been influenced by Martin Luther and his insistence that a man’s relationship with God was his own personal matter, mediated by no one, and influenced by no institution.   The American Republic, then, began with a firm belief in individualism expressed both in secular terms – hard work, discipline, enterprise, and ingenuity – and spiritual ones, an intimate and fulfilling personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther

It is not surprising that with the growing complexity of American society that this hard, Puritan individualism has lost much of its rigor.  It is not enough in an unremittingly competitive world to simply ‘be me’.  One needs accoutrements, add-ons,  to make a distinction.  Fashion was the easiest way to help one to express personality and character.  Top hats, high heels, jewels, and brocades not only set the standard for high society, but created a multi-layered system according to which people were identified by sub-class. Top hats in style but made by a lesser craftsman were of lesser social value.  High heels which imitated the lift, grace, and fit of the very best, but never quite completely were ignored.  Anyone with the real thing would know immediately that these imitations belong to the ever-aspiring, never attaining  hopefuls beneath them.

Christine Mannon

As one descended the scale, differences became more and more obvious, until people gave up imitation entirely; wore what they could afford, what was practical and could last, and Park Avenue be damned.  The workers of the world were united less by their social solidarity than by their clothes.  While in America there were never any such obvious distinctions such as classic French blue laborers’ overalls, work boots, dungarees, work gloves, and flannel shirts were just as distinguishing.  Fashion in America just as in Europe,  Ancient Egypt, or Mauryan India has always been the signifier of class, caste, and status.  Indian peasants wore dhotis, lungis, and nothing else; and the Rajah of Bikaner was caparisoned with gold, jewels, and finery.  

Except for peasants, no one had to wear the trappings of class; but in addition to practicality (clothes that did not wear out easily), people wanted some distinguishing, easily-identifiable mark of status, regardless of how high or low it might be.  Whether workday overalls and smocks; or Sunday-go-to-meeting finery, clothes made life easier.  If everyone lived in a society where clothes were not worn, the effort it would take to distinguish one person from another would force a greater degree of forthrightness if not honesty than in any clothed one.

Not only would there be no personal showpieces in a naked society, but no tools of expression – no pussy hats, balaclavas, S&M leather and chains; nothing at all to show collective identity.

Worst of all would be the realization that despite claims to the contrary – erudition, talent, ingenuity, humor – people are all basically and fundamentally alike.  The same human nature  exists – make, model, and serial number - in everyone.  A persuasive speaker without his Armani suit, Jean-Luc haircut, Italian moccasins, and Dior tie would have trouble rising above his words.  Only clothes and the impression of authority the confer give meaning.  Circus outfits, theatre costumes, riding finery, baseball uniforms all give legitimacy and identity.  Even Ingres’s naked odalisque wore something.

Ingres odalisque

Mao Zedong understood this well.  A truly and purely Communist state could have no class distinctions.  Every Chinese must not only think, speak, and act in socialist terms, but dress with no personalized, individual, characteristics.  Mao knew that adherence to his radical policies and acceptance of their consequences without question meant complete solidarity.

Of course once Mao had been laid to rest and the new China born again, clothes returned to their more normal, more human, and more socially identifiable role.  While never as exaggerated as Korea, Japan, or the United States, Chinese fashion underwent a resurgence.

The Sixties, a radical progressive era, eschewed fashion not only as disguise – the essential ‘me’ could never be discovered if greasepaint and makeup were laid on too thick – but as an expression of conservative capitalist culture.  Hippies denounced traditional fashion.  Anything second hand, borrowed, used, natural or put together was acceptable; anything mass produced or inspired by the runways of Milan or Paris was disparaged.  Of course hippies ironically were endorsing the legitimacy of fashion.  It was just that their fashion was ‘anti-fashion’ and acceptable.

Feminists of the same era disavowed women’s fashion for the same reason – it detracted from a woman’s essential nature and being.  Fashion was a perverse disguise designed and promoted by male oligarchies and to be avoided at all costs.

Of course neither movement’s fashion radicalism lasted for very long.  Women are back to sexy, alluring, come-hither fashion, and men are even more interested in looking good and making a unique personal statement of attractiveness and desirability.

A historical look at women’s fashion shows remarkable consistency.  Women from the age of the Pharaohs to the present day have dressed elegantly, with sophistication, and with all the same techniques – jewelry, eye-liner, make up, lipstick, and and array of finely- tailored clothes.

There is little difference from his elegantly dressed New York woman and Nefertiti.

Beautiful Black & White Photos of Women in Old-Fashioned, ca. 1940's (7)

This Venetian mask of classic female beauty and fashion reflects a surprisingly familiar standard of female beauty and an appreciation for a particularly fanciful but tasteful style and fashion. 

Venice Mask II

Fashion, like any other style, fad, or movement quickly evolves; and despite some fundamental, historical principles of beauty, is always changing.  What women wear today is very different from what they wore two hundred years ago, but the principle is still there – to look good, to enhance and individualize one’s common human nature, and to be distinguished.  Belonging to groups, movements, or causes is social fashion.  When one puts on the finery of environmentalism, women’s rights, racial equality, or peace, the effect is the same.  Wearing the same basic mantel, personalized with simple touches, feels good.  Stepping out with friends looking good, dancing to the same orchestra, dressed in the same social style.

Few of us want to face who we are; and it is far easier to look good or to dress in the collective finery of a movement than to look inward, to assess moral conviction, spiritual evolution, or  personal failings.  In a way it is a good thing that we take pride in our personal appearance, want to look good, to see and be seen.  Fashion is art; and who would deny a little more beauty in the world?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Life Expectancy of Thirty-Five–A Young, Beautiful Society Without Old People

The Water Inn is a resort on Carter’s Creek, one of the many inlets emptying into the Rappahannock River, and from there only two miles to the Chesapeake Bay.  In its earlier days guests were almost exclusively from Alexandria and Richmond, descendants of Southern aristocrats, Virginia cavaliers, and the First Families that settled the Tidewater and the Northern Neck in the 17th century.  The Inn was itself a place of Southern gentility and manners – gentlemen dressed for dinner, the maître d’ greeted every family personally, with a smile for the children and an arm for their grandmothers.  The waitresses were all descendants of freed slaves who had never left the region after Emancipation, and all had been at the Inn for at least twenty-five years.  The management treated them well, they served with care and respect, and were paid well.

Chesapeake sunset

The food was Southern – roe cakes and spoon bread in the morning, peach cobbler in the evening – the view over Carter’s Creek panoramic thanks to the high promontory where the inn had been built in 1920, the drawing room sedate and well-appointed, a fire in the fireplace during the cold, and rooms with balconies that looked over the water to the small marina where the River’s watermen returned after collecting the day’s catch of oysters.  The days of artisan oyster farms were far in the future, and throughout much of the Inn’s history, the watermen dragged the river for ‘natives’, large, succulent oysters that often grew to twice the size of the farmed variety.

The River Inn in the 50s and 60s had been a family resort; but other than croquet on the lawn and board games in the drawing rooms after dinner, no special attention was paid to children.  They simply accompanied their parents, ate meals with them, sat on planters’ chairs overlooking the water, and rode with them on the Miss Laura, a teak and brass antiquity built in 1904 as a ferry from Richmond down to the Northern Neck.

In the years since those very Southern days, the Water Inn changed little.  The rooms were brightened, the curtains changed, new upholstery on the armchairs in the foyer, and younger staff; but it was fundamentally the same place it had always been.  For that reason older families kept coming down and spending long summer weekends, Thanksgiving, and Easter.  New management was understandably concerned about the age profile of the Water Inn – the old patrons would no longer be alive; and unless some effort was made to attract a younger crowed, the resort would have to sold to a developer who would radically change it – but the holding company thought the Inn still had enough cachet and quiet appeal to attract a less aristocratic but still conservative and tasteful crowd. 

Chesapeake sailing

Yet the only young people who came to the Water Inn were the adult children of guests who had been coming to the Northern Neck for 50 years.  For the most part, the Inn was a place for very old people, people who needed help getting up the steps, getting plates of oysters and roast beef from the buffets, and who went to bed very early.  The Inn was still pleasant, attractive, and welcoming, but it had become geriatric and depressing.

William Robbins was one of those old people who had been coming to the Water Inn for thirty years; but rather than feeling at home with those of his generation, he felt disoriented and irritable.  Why did we live so long? Not only were old people changing the character of the country by their very numbers, their votes were increasingly influential; and Congress, dutifully aware of demographics of their constituencies, awarded them with the tax breaks, the benefits, and the overall use of public monies which favored them.

Why indeed? What purpose did old people serve?  Adding wisdom and good counsel?  On the contrary, most older people became more hard-bitten and resentful of change the older they got.  Their sage advice was to return to the days of their youth when society was saner, more respectful, and more dutiful and to warn of forgetting its lessons.

Was the value of old people a living link to family history, an oral tradition where stories were told at Christmas time about ancient relatives? What inherent good was that?  What other than passing genealogical interest were those stories worth?  Wasn’t there far more for children in Uncle Joe’s stories of space colonization, time warps, black holes, and the post-human generation than in Uncle Bob’s tales of the poverty of the Mezzogiorno and life on the Lower East Side?

Didn’t old people simply get in the way?

What was it like to have lived in a society where few people lived beyond thirty-five? No wonder why the human body was so admired in Ancient Greece and Rome, why Marathon, the games, and displays of physical ability were so popular.  Beauty, youth, vigor, and style were perennial and permanent.

Yes, but what about early death?  Thirty-five was but a fraction of what human longevity could be.
On the contrary, early death simply meant a different death.  Death from an infected toe at 35 was no different from a glorious death on the battlefield, but certainly less valorous.  In today’s risk- and casualty-averse age, it is impossible to imagine the Battle of Borodino when 70,000 Russians and French soldiers died in a single day.  Tolstoy captured the ordered chaos of war better than any other.  In the midst of cannon fire, horrific injuries, and almost certain death, men were happy – a final camaraderie, death as it should be, not as it most often miserably was. It is only those who have a long life expectancy who worry about dying early.  It is our right to live a span extended by modern science and medicine; but it is the fate of the long-lived to have time and means to consider death and consider it unhappily.  Longevity makes old-age even that more unappealing.  Not only have old people outlived their usefulness, they are walking reminders of the inevitable.

Borodino

Of course those who lived a millennia ago were just as conscious of death and dying as we are today, but attuned to a very different philosophical barometer.   At age sixty today, one must consider the traumas and extended miseries of thirty more years; and thirty more years of what?  No glory, no recognition, no parades – just a long, slow, and progressive descent into disease and senility.   At at age 25 in Ancient Greece, a short, happy life was the ideal, to be led with equally happy, beautiful companions.  The end of life was closer, more abrupt, less protracted, and less noticed then.  Death was more a part of life than it ever is today.

Of course for most citizens, Platonic Greece was just as Hobbes described it – solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short – but that did not deny the  prevailing culture of youth and beauty - the ideal, the highest expression of culture passed on down to us.

Hobbes

So what to do with us old people today?  We are society's legacy, for better or worse.  Few of us ever thought that the technological advances of the post-WWII boom would lead to this.

Of course we are not that much of a bother and for the most part stay out of the way.  We teach each other in adult education classes, volunteer together, and socialize together and turn up for holidays. 

Only in the distant future will technology finally figure out how to do away with aging, old age, and old people.  Perhaps a society of forever 35-year olds is in the cards, a return at long last to the days of Greece and Rome; but for the time being we are in it for the long haul, a slow march to the end of the tunnel, hoping for epiphany, knowing better, clinging to what we know and hopelessly unprepared for the final reckoning.

I’ll Have What She’s Having–The Sexual Ecstasy Of Lady Chatterley

Sexual ecstasy did not come easily to Connie Chatterley, the main character of D.H. Lawrence’s novel.  According to Lawrentian philosophy true sexual ecstasy could only come from a mutual partnership, one in which dominance and submission have been equalized, male and female character finally and independently expressed but never lost in sexual intercourse.  In Women in Love, Ursula and Gudrun both struggle with issues of will, dependence, and emotional freedom.  They constantly test their lovers, Birkin and Gerald, and never rest until they feel they have found, sexual equilibrium and the right sexual partner. 

Aphrodite

Gerald and Birkin must prove themselves; but since neither Ursula nor her sister know what they are looking for – what the ideal man would look like – it is the struggle alone with which they become obsessed.  Birkin is intellectual, but windy; sure of himself but in a presumptuous way.  He claims he wants to know more about life and its meaning, but flounders and is caught in Lawrence’s eternal dilemma.  Intellectual pursuits, while characteristic and essential parts of human existence, are chimeras, for they divert men and woman from realizing their equally important non-rational, emotional potential.  Sensuality and the pursuit of physical expression is equally misleading.  African paganism, as tempting as it is as a pure expression of sexuality and sensual being, can only lead to delusion.

African mask

Gerald is diffident and distant; alone, confused, and unhappy; but later in life he rejects indifference and inaction, and takes over his father’s failing collieries and makes them profitable.  He rejects his father’s compassion and consideration for the miners and thinks only of reforming the company into a model of absolute willful, laissez-faire capitalism.  Through this expression of practical will, Gerald believes he can become a man and the man that Gudrun wants.

Birkin flounders in ideas, emotionally attached to them, but never completed by them.  He is the early model for Connie Chatterley’s crippled husband, Clifford, who because of his infirmity, believes that ideas and the words that express them are of a higher value, a more perfect ethic and the only means to redemption and salvation.

The women are no more convinced or certain than the men, and fluctuate between extremes – religion and promiscuity, love and hate, desire and rejection, dominance and submission.  In such a world of conflicted emotions, spirit, and physical desire, there can be no Lawrentian sexual epiphany.

And so it is for Connie Chatterley at the beginning of her story.  Shortly after her marriage to Clifford, a wealthy English aristocrat, he is brutally and severely maimed in the war and made impotent.  She is patient, tolerant, and caring, and willing to accept the responsibilities of marriage and the duties of her rank; but as Clifford descends into indifference, meanness, and cruelty, she realizes that she cannot waste her life on him.  Rejecting him is not abandoning responsibility, it is saving herself from his abandonment.

Connie meets Mellors, the gamekeeper, and eventually has an affair with him.  After a battle of wills, complicated by issues of class and origin, but tempered by honesty, sensuality, and intelligence, they finally come together in Lawrentian terms.  Their orgasms are simultaneous – for Lawrence an expression of sexual and psychic completion. 

The affair continues, and the more they make love, the more Connie comes to realize who she is – an independent, sexually demanding, but respectful woman, fundamentally different from a man, incomplete without him, but never yielding anything that would upset the perfect balance between them.  Lawrence is finally very sexually explicit when he describes Connie’s ecstasy.  She is in awe of Mellors the man, his physique, his strength, his maleness.  She admires him, worships him, and loves him unequivocally.

At the same time there is no abject submission.  The male is not the sexual potentate who initiates and controls.  He, according to Lawrence, can only be an equal partner, a co-facilitator, and a willing vehicle for sexual expression.

A woman who after reading the most sexually vivid passage of the book, the romantic language of which only Lawrence can write – the ebbing and flowing sexual tides, the thrusting, penetrating, fulfilling power, the waves of being and nothingness – said, “I’ll have what she’s having’.  The purple prose meant nothing.  If Lawrence had strayed from his new-found literary discipline; if he had shown his true colors as a mediocre writer unable to match interesting ideas with real characters, it meant nothing.  He was writing about a woman’s ecstasy, her absolute and unabashed delight in a man, her pure physical response to him, her abandonment of any stock sexual preconceptions, and her complete and final realization of femaleness and individual female identity (“I am a woman” is the final line of the passage) and the woman reader saw through the prolixity and overwriting to Lawrence’s central issue. Of course she wanted what Connie was having, and what woman wouldn’t?

Romantic Love

Especially in this gender-sensitive, feminized age, the Lawrentian vision is looked at with some criticism.  There is no such thing as sexual mutuality, say feminist critics.  Male misogyny is deeply-rooted, hardwired, and inescapable.  The Idea of mutuality and equilibrium can only be a fiction in a patriarchal age.  Lawrence, they go on to say, is only feeding his own immature male sexual fantasies.

Lawrence’s conviction that such sexual epiphany can only come from a heterosexual union is also against the progressive polemic.  There is no such thing as sexual bi-polarity, only sexuality on a gradually defined gender spectrum. Matching any two of the hundred possibilities of sexual identity has nothing whatsoever to do with Lawrence’s insistence on heterosexual orgasm.   Lawrence is irrelevant to today’s woman, so the polemic goes. 

The woman reader thought differently.  While she may have dismissed some of Lawrence’s more far fetched notions of Tantric union and spiritual epiphany, there was no doubting that he had struck a very resonant chord when he wrote about female ecstasy and Connie’s profound appreciation of manhood.  The reason why Lawrence is relevant is because he never doubted the Tantric and spiritual nature of sexual intercourse.  The sculptures and bas-reliefs on the temples of Khajuraho, explicit in their sexuality, and placed on the holiest sites of worship, not only refer to sexual union as generally important, but spiritually so.  The gender spectrum denies the essentiality of heterosexual union; and while in principle there may be many possible combinations and permutations of sexual gender, identity, and partnership, in fact the numbers of people so classified are very few and far between indeed.

The theme of sexual harmony is not new.  Every man and woman hopes for a mutually satisfying sexual relationship and at least some intellectual, physical, and emotional satisfaction if not all three; and if one can believe popular romantic fiction, not an insignificant number of women hope for the best of all possible worlds, a spiritual union, Lawrence’s epiphany.  Serious fiction and drama are no different.  The brutal bloodletting of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is all about finding sexual equilibrium, stripping pretense down to the marrow and starting over.  The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps Shakespeare’s only real love story.  Kate and Petruchio need each other, complement each other, and form a perfect equilibrium.  Kate’s long soliloquy about adoring and respecting her husband has often been misread as Shakespeare’s angry misogyny; but it is just the opposite.  Petruchio has liberated Kate from her patriarchal father and abusive sisters, and she has given him the  strong, determined, willful, sensual woman he has sought for years.  Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a subtle, complex, and very romantic love story, told within the context of history, war, class, fidelity, and simple passion.

Petruchio

We all want to have ‘what she’s having’, and why not? In a world of ever more, bewildering subdivisions and subcategories of sexuality, behavior, and personality, it is legitimizing to want a powerful, equal, mutually satisfying physical and emotional love. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Necessary Role Of The Fixer In An Over-Governed Society–Doing Whatever It Takes

John Garaffa ran ‘Johnnie’s Smoke Shop’, a not-so-pretty store on Main Street – cigars, candy, girlie magazines, newspapers, whoopie cushions, and lottery tickets.  Johnnie’s also was the depot for New England Flyer, a bus service run out of Brattleboro for workers still employed in those few factories still operating in Waterbury, Meriden, Wallingford and the old Massachusetts mill towns of Chicopee, Taunton, Worcester, and Lawrence.  Jackie’s had been in the Garaffa family for three generations, founded in 1928 by John’s grandfather who had finally put enough away to move out of the  Calabrese and Sorrentino neighborhoods of Wooster Square and become more American.  Johnnie’s had started off as news stand – papers from Boston and New York delivered daily by the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad – but had gradually diversified into magazines, tobacco, and chocolates.  John’s father added joke items, pornography, cheap candy, rolling papers and bus tickets.  The store went from high-end service to the town’s lawyers, bankers, and doctors, to a more transient and lower class trade.

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By the time John Garaffa  took over the store, it had become a fixture of downtown.  Shabbier, more rundown, and tackier than the still-respectable pharmacies, dress shops, and haberdasheries on Main and West Main Streets, it still did a good business. While professionals now had their papers home delivered, and bought flowers and chocolates from high-end stores in Farmington and West Hartford, the ‘less desirable element’ of New Brighton took up the slack.  Puerto Ricans from the North End, Poles from the East End, and regulars on their way from Springfield to Wallingford bought more than enough to keep Johnnie in business.

After three generations in New Brighton the Garaffas were well-known and well-placed.  They contributed generously to the Democratic party and especially to ward aldermen who oversaw downtown and could add or subtract the little favors that made a difference to doing business.  They were friends with the big Italian construction companies – cement, sand-and-gravel, sidewalks, and foundations – the Jewish furriers and jewelers, and the Silesian delicatessens on Broad Street, and they were on close terms with the Scuzzi family, the local branch of the Gambinos of New York.

Johnnie Garaffa saw opportunity in New Brighton, and like any good American entrepreneur saw his niche.  While the Italians controlled the unions, and the construction and shipping industries; while the West Enders owned and managed the town’s mills and factories and the Irish ran City Hall, there was no one looking after the little man – the one without connections but who needed something fixed, problems with the rent, the gas bill, the neighbors, or the police.   Johnnie, with his connections to the factories, the unions, and the Mob, was perfect as a fixer; someone who could facilitate, intercede, call for and give favors to help the ordinary, working class.  He secured generous donations to the Police Benevolent Association thanks to his friends on Broad Street who provided cheap, newly immigrant labor to work on additions and renovations for the homes in the West End in return for cash for the police.  He interceded with the Principal of New Brighton High for parents whose children were failing.  The principal had political ambitions – the mayoralty was not an impossible goal – and Johnnie knew the right people on the electoral commission and the Democratic party to give the principal a head start.  Soon after connections were made, the boy who had been dismissed for failing grades was reinstated, given special attention and honors.

John Garaffa never involved himself in dirty business – that was for the town’s heavy hitters. In his life he had certainly suggested or implied the use of muscle and other ‘extrajudicial’ means of coercion, but always kept many degrees of remove.  The worst he could ever be accused of was complicity, and even then there was always the possibility of benign compliance – the problem fixed without extraordinary measures.

John Garaffa lived in a far more permissive and less controlling age.  The age of sanctimony was still decades away, and life was managed more simply, more directly, and with fewer consequences than in years to come. Favors, gifts, back-scratching, and backdoor quid pro quos were still the lubrication of the in-between generations – those born after the laissez-faire, no-holds-barred era of the Robber Barons but before the progressive movements to purify and expunge any traces of inequality and unfairness.  The reason why John Garaffa was so successful is because he filled in the gaps, closed the cracks, provided the putty and grouting necessary in a necessarily imperfectly constructed world.

Image result for images john d rockefeller

Garaffa’s grandfather had come over on the boat from Naples in 1889, landing in New York and then making his way up to New Haven.  He had left Italy, his large family, and his small holdings behind for America.  He knew that he would never see them again, never return to Alife and the few but gentle comforts of the Mezzogiorno.

When he arrived in New Haven he was taken in by his fellow Sorrentinos and taken in hand by the Italian ‘infrastructure’ of the day.  Immigrant Italians could never assume or expect fair treatment, justice, economic advantage or opportunity at the hands of the Irish and native Americans; and turned to their own for favor, protection, and help.  The Mafia was the only municipal administration and police force that the Italians knew.  Rather than rely on a system of laws, they turned to a system of favors, an egalitarian one which did not measure favors by economic value but by degree of tribute, promise, or respect.

Image result for images immigrant boats landing in nyc in the early 20th century

While in spirit Grandfather Garaffa was an ideal American – enterprising, risk-taking, adventurous, and canny – he was an Italian in practice.  He knew that only by working this system of favors, quid pro quo, backscratching, and mutual respect could he get the permits, licenses, and security he needed to get ahead.   It was an efficient system, one far more direct and honest than the official one.  While City Hall bureaucrats delayed applications and certifications because of apathy, indifference, or ill-disguised lack of respect for Italian newcomers,  the process could be sped up by a combination of offers and threats which an individual alone could never manage.  The time between an initial, well-placed complaint to the local Italian bosses and public action was only a matter of days.  More serious matters such as criminal offense or assault and subsequent indifference or inactivity on the part of police and prosecutors had to be referred up through the hierarchy; but justice was always served.

The new Italian immigrants wanted nothing more than to be completely American.  One of the things they had fled, especially in Sicily was La Cosa Nostra, and it was ironic that here in free, liberal America, they were forced once again to turn to them.  Yet, that was the way of immigration – to keep the optimism and can-do American spirit alive and well while turning to old, tried and true practical means of enabling it.

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It was not surprising, then, that Johnnie Garaffa became a fixer.  He understood that nothing had changed between his grandfather’s day and his – one always did what it took to get ahead; and while the rules of the game had changed, gaming the system to find loopholes and thread through them, understanding balances of private and public power and above-ground and underground influences had not changed.  He was a master of working both sides of the street, currying favor and staying out of trouble, always maintaining a positive balance on his ledger, and counting more friends than enemies.

Edson Senna was an Angolan fixer.  A veteran of the long, bloody civil war between the government and southern rebels, Senna, because of his intelligence, fearlessness, and understanding that wars were for winning at any cost, quickly rose through the service to the rank of captain.  By the time he was decommissioned, Edson knew everyone who mattered on both sides of the conflict.  The years immediately after the truce in Angola were chaotic, anarchic ones.  There was no rule of law, no police, a crumbling physical infrastructure, and divided, hostile social one.  It was the ideal environment in which Edson could and did thrive. He was able to arrange anything.  The importation of cars from Namibia, quick Angolan registration and titling, no taxes, and no problems was simple.  He crossed the border, bought illegally imported cars for a song, drove them back to Angola, sold them to Angolans and foreigners for three times the price he paid, and paid only a small fraction of his revenues in bribes and payoffs.

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He was hired by foreigners, desperate to avoid the crowds, shakedowns, and intimidation at the airport, to simply get him on the plane.  He arranged for shipments of everything from German blenders to French small arms.  Visas, work permits, exit documents…all were easy to arrange.  Edson made thousands, lived well, and served his country.

Of course he had his critics.  Engaging Edson and circumventing the official system was to perpetuate government anarchy, the liability of lawlessness, and to postpone the establishment of civil order.  Yet even the most ardent believers in social reform and the reconstructing of the country, hired Edson for one thing or another.  In a chaotic social environment, why should an enterprising, savvy, and canny man be criticized?

Most American appreciate the rule of law in principle, but see how easily and how often it is abused.  Money, the enabler and corruptor of capitalism and liberal democracy, still defines politics, religions, and social mobility.  Government, which the Founding Fathers envisaged as being the people’s advocate, has become the people’s nemesis.  We feel trapped within a government system of restrictive laws, intrusive public behavior, and narrow political interests rather than liberated by it.  Jefferson envisaged individual enterprise having value only within a supportive and respected society.  Community and individual were two essential, indispensable parts of the same system.  He would be appalled today by what has been a supreme arrogation of government authority expressed in repressive rules, regulations, and stipulations; and by the inchoate and irrational public movements for identity and personal satisfaction.

Which is why many Americans want to bring back Johnnie Garaffa and Edson Senna and the rule of unofficial law – not to dark web operatives clandestine 007 assassins who have always existed and always will; but to ordinary fixers who take care of business when business is hard to come by.  A world without so many harnesses, reins, and traces; one in which the individual feels less manipulated and used than independent. 

It is no accident or surprise that the Wild West still holds an allure; or that it is still an icon of American individualism.  We may be happy that duels, renegades, and shootouts are things of the past; and that the rule of law prevails; but the more we are taken into what seems to be perpetual protective custody, the more we mistrust government as an institution.

Where are the Johnnie Garaffas and Edson Sennas when we really need them?