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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Life As A Cliché–Sorry, Unavoidable, Predictable, And Without Recourse

It isn’t so much that there is nothing new under the sun – after all, there are only so many original ideas  to go around– not even the obviousness of it all, nor even the bargain basement predictability  of everything; but the old-chestnut, clichéd quality of our daily rounds. 

There is no way that the Saltenstalls – lawyers, two children, Anglo-Saxon, patrician ancestry, Boston heritage -  would ever have an inflatable Santa on the lawn; but across the river it would be hard to find a home without Santa, his elves, and a thousand lights on eaves, chimneys, porticos, and lawns.  

The Petruccis, Rozickis, Gonzalezes, and O’Reillys  are supposed to leave no space un-decorated for Christmas; to spend thousands on presents, holly wreaths, shrubbery lights, recorded carols, and fruit cakes; while the Cabots, Lodges, Merriwethers, and Logans are equally supposed to have one lighted candle in the living room window,and a tree with old gingerbread ornaments, calico dolls, and one solitary string of red and green lights. 

The Cabots and the Lodges must go out in tweeds, eat hunted goose and quince jelly, drink whisky and gin, and  retreat before the fireplace.  The Petruccis are expected to overeat lasagne,  ham pies, sausage stuffing, and root beer.  The O’Connells cannot leave a drop and must drink to the dregs, and the Dominicans must dance until dawn.

Image result for images proper english hunting scene

There is much said about identity these days.  One’s race, gender, and national origin are the signifiers of who one is, the only valid stamps on one’s existential passport.  Yet such identity politics only exaggerate the clichéd.  Why should black people continue to name their children LaShonda or Ta-Marquand and wear bling?  Why can’t Latino men lose the boots,  sombreros, baseball caps, and jeans?  Why can’t Turks, Armenians, Azeris, and Kuwaitis forget their exaggerated sense of ‘family’ and devalue older brothers, fathers, and uncles?  Why can’t WASPs lose their parsimony, practicality, and simplicity?  And why can’t the rest of us forget our Volvos, Priuses, Volts, gentrification,  trips to Miami Beach and Oahu?

Because we can’t help ourselves; and by following the automatic, hardwired, inescapable desire to be like others, we become clichés, cartoon figures in badly-written soap operas.  We are not only like everyone else, stereotypically perfect, and spot-on clones of everyone in our social milieu, we are caricatures of them.

A young up-and-coming thirty-something Washingtonian was pleased that he had found an out-of-the-way, undiscovered, and quite unique Basque fusion restaurant in Bloomingdale, one of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of the city.  The restaurant, an emergent foodie-cum-Old World-cuisine, boutique restaurant must still be struggling, he thought, still on the culinary-cultural periphery. When he arrived, he was surprised the place bustling, but found it so traveled that it had become commonplace. It had not only been discovered, it had become de rigeur; and within a few short months had moved from a scratchy start up with mom-and-pop help in the kitchen to the place to be and to be seen.

His search for the unique, his assumption that there was any such thing, and his utter surprise and disappointment that not only did every patron look like him but that some were even his colleagues and neighbors, were deflating and depressing.

“Keep it to yourself….Keep it to yourself”, yells the movie exec in Robert Altman’s The Player as he strangles a writer he thinks will spill his secrets; but there is no way for the awful mundane truths of these restaurant patrons to be tamped and secreted. There are no such thing as ‘finds’.  Everything not only has been found, found out, and played out; but has been done so according to plan.  It was written that a new, yuppie, hip and with-it restaurant would be opened in Bloomingdale; that young Washington metrosexual pioneers would ‘discover’ it, and that it would prosper and decline in due time.

The same Washington newcomer was not the first but one among many to sweet-talk and seduce his young K Street colleagues at the Mayflower.  The bartender, Robert, he of the magic tricks and ineffable welcome and courtesy, witnessed thousands of assignations under his watch lubricated by his Pisco Sours.  “They are all wonderful”, he said generously; all  with the same Friday-night after hours predictability.  What he did not say was how similar the assignations were, expressly K Street, not what young people did in his Gaithersburg neighborhood or Southeast where money, influence, and pares inter paribus love partners were unknown bedfellows.  Getting real meant forgetting a workweek of files, emails, spreadsheets, and meetings, consequences and going where who’s buying ruled.

Image result for images old mayflower hotel bar scene

It takes no revelation or epiphany to realize one’s mediocrity nor any time past the morning after or at the latest after brunch; but it takes some insight to accept one’s cliché, the inevitable, socially-mediated and –determined behavior that signifies, puts one into expected categories, snickered at by others; and a bit of resolve to  dismiss it.  To do so is to accept sameness and mediocrity as the social norm, but more importantly to accept the clichéd reality of an inevitably unique-less pedestrian life.

A friend was especially proud of his linguistic insight, his unusual perception of linguistic nuances – the differences and similarities between English and Turkish, for example, or the similarities between Persian- and Romance-based language groups.  Yet while his appreciation of linguistic subtleties was indeed noteworthy for an amateur, his accomplishment was no different from those of his colleagues, amateur experts in music, Asian history, and religion.  His pride was not the issue, nor his particular undue pride, but the cliché – he was acting like ten thousand of his Upper Northwest, highly educated, colleagues.  His sense of superior accomplishment was itself a cliché.

We all consider ourselves more relevant than we really are.  Presentation, identity, personal validation and integrity are in the end fictions, and caricatures.   We are born, educated, and socialized for, but remarkably unprepared to bear up.

The boredom – the unremitting sameness, the inescapable trajectory to the end – would be tolerable it if weren’t for getting caught in the untenable posture of thinking more of life and ourselves than they are worth.  Any existential fate would be better than a laughable one in a vaudevillian farce?

It is one thing to dress the part of a comedian, wig, mustaches, false nose, and arched eyebrows; another to realize that such lowbrow theatrics are part of life; but to ignore God’s ironic creation of a procreative, instinctively obedient race without the intelligence to realize the joke?

Image result for images 30s vaudeville

Existential fitness is either a matter of realizing the joke and going with it; or accepting the depressing irony and humbly hoping for some eventual, eternal rewards.  Donald Trump and Madonna know they are caricatures, the best and brightest of a world without substantive values, clichés of glitz, glamour, and image.  The rest of us feel guilty about our presumptuousness, or feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.   Oh, how we would love to be a cliché.

Alas, the world’s religions have taught us to be humble, self-effacing, and modest.  Be true to oneself, honest before one’s Maker while the world goes on happily ignorant of such fundamentals.  Better to be a cliché than un-elected.

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