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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Sex In The Back Seat Of A Ford – It Has To Start Somewhere, But No Telling Where It Will End Up

Brent Rogers was one of a dozen boys graduated from Muirland Country Day School who, on the basis of his  only partially satisfactory sex with Mary Fielding  on the ninth hole of the Grand Oaks Country Club, awaited great sexual things once he grew up beyond the expectations and confines of New Brighton.

Image result for images beautiful golf courses in the fall
Between he margins, however, between the golf course and the church, marriages were expected between the proper and like-minded; and those of love and passion discouraged and barely tolerated. Better a sanctified union than none at all.

Sex in the back seat of the Ford had its consequences; and despite the folktales of moon and sun cycles, pulling out, and good faith, only the Good Lord determined by whom and when a child would be born.  Girls who insisted that they ‘had protection’ but never ever learned how to use it, and ‘just-this-once-boys were both surprised at what happened.

The times being what they were, the options were either a quick trip to Canada, a long process of consultations with psychiatrists to validate legitimate need, a back alley abortion, or giving up the child for adoption after laying in for nine months in a charitable home. 

Most teenagers and  young adults in New Brighton cared little for these options, and had passionate, unprotected sex whenever they could and as often as they could.  Their only inhibitions were the rounds of the greens-keepers who in the summer worked until eight-thirty or quarter-to-nine, smoothing traps, trimming greens and fairway roughs, and replacing  divots, the time when the first couples pulled in behind the water hazards, rolled down the windows to catch the breezes coming off the Southington mountain ridges mixed in with the early lilacs  and lilies of the valley and took off their clothes.

Brent would have gone on like this – immature, meaningless hormone-driven sex with any girl who was willing – if it hadn’t been for Mr. and Mrs. McAllen.   

The sex education class at Lefferts, held in the biology lab for propriety’s sake, but taught by the teacher with the hottest wife on campus, every sophomore’s dream – Lisa, 22, graduate of Wellesley , blonde, blue-eyed, sensuous, demure, and impossibly desirable, sitting by the terrarium, her blouse opened one button at the top, while her husband talked about reproduction and the wherewithal of sex.  

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Mr. McAllen was one of the youngest teachers on campus, not that much older than Brent.  He had graduated from Yale a few years before, married Mrs. McAllen n a big ceremony in Kingsport, Rhode Island, and had been appointed as the biology teacher at Lefferts. All students knew that once a year he gave his famous sex lecture; but since he liked to keep his classes guessing no one ever knew when it would come.

Mr. McAllen had divided the fifty-minute class into discrete segments: How to Get a Woman Hot; How to Know When She’s Hot; How to Know When She’s Coming; and How to Hold It In Until She Does.

If he had even hinted at any of these topics today, he would be tarred and feathered and run out of town; but somehow back then, the school administrators gave him a pass. No one was sure they would have if they had heard his talk about hard nipples, wet pussy, panting, moaning, and ‘ecstatic release’, but in any case this was how sex education should be taught.

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Mr.  McAllen had everyone's attention.  Fifteen open-mouthed adolescent boys being turned on by the biology teacher and the biology teacher's wife.  He must have known that every one would think of his wife in that way every time we saw her; and that she would be the woman every boy thought of when they masturbated under the covers.

Mrs. McAllen always sat demurely next to her husband while he ladled out the soup and carved the roast beef at the refectory table; but she had to have known that all eyes were on her and not the meat.  Brent said many years later that he was sure that the two of them must have been playing some elaborate, secretive sex game that involved the Third Form.

The problem with Mrs. McAllen, through no fault of her own, was that she became an indelible sexual icon for the boys of Lefferts.  While thanks to Mr. McAllen, they had no trouble negotiating sexual encounters with women, their emotional maturity was stuck on zero.  They could never get beyond Mrs. McAllen.  Women had to be as coldly beautiful, statuesque, and as blonde and blue-eyed, and as symmetrically elegant.

The partners of the Lefferts Class of ‘60 were like the Stepford wives.  Although Mrs McAllen had died long ago and been buried in Ohio, her many avatars lived on long after her.  Her husband, thanks to his charm and the complaisant forgetfulness of the 50s, went on to teach at a variety of West Coast schools, and was honored by the San Francisco school board for his ‘frank, honest, and welcome discussion of sex and sexuality’.  He had remarried and never returned to Connecticut, and so was unaware of the existential impact of his sex education class, but there was not a boy in that graduating batch who did not remember the icy beauty of his wife, the unbuttoned top button, her silky blonde hair, aristocratic carriage, and inexpressible allure.

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Mr. McAllen had righted the ship.  He had inadvertently corrected the sexual course of the young boys under his watch.  He had cured them of sex in the back seat of old Fords, prepared them for mature, adult physical relationships but consigned them forever to the likes of his wife who, ironically, had cuckolded him many times before her premature end. 

‘Fucked herself to death’, Mr. Lefferts said bitterly to his friends; but true to his love of sex and women and his natural, flinty resilience, he was never morose or remorseful, and went on to two far happier marriages.

Brent had many love affairs and almost as many marriages; but he could never find his Mrs. McAllen and stopped going to reunions because of it.  It was bad enough that he could never achieve his age-old dream, why make it worse by seeing Bobby Parsons, Keith Landon, and Petty Arthur with theirs? 

Someone who knew the Lefferts ‘60 boys once suggested that they would make a good psychological case study.  Freud would have had a field day with Brent and his classmates – sexual imprinting, adolescent male fantasies, female idolatry, alpha male worship, and a stunted emotional life. 

Of course the boys never thought there was anything unusual about their collective choice of mates and laid it to the unique male bonding that occurs in the best New England preparatory schools.  About half the class was divorced by age fifty, far above the average, and the same observer who had suggested Freud attributed it to ‘image failure’, the inevitable breakdown of sexual idolatry formed in puberty. 

Be that as it may, Brent’s Mrs. McAllen was actually far more like Mary Fielding than any of the other Stepford wives.  A bit of the loose woman (again Freud would have had a time with this Goddess-Whore paradigm) but a straightforward, uncompromisingly sensual one, more everyman’s woman that the ice goddess of Lefferts.

So, it all started in the back seat of Brent’s father’s Ford, took a right turn at Lefferts, and then circled around back again to the golf course behind his old house.  What ever happened to Mary Fielding, he wondered, once he had forgotten – or almost forgotten Mrs. McAlister?

Friday, November 8, 2019

Dreaming Of Marilyn Monroe–God's Greatest Irony

A colleague confided to me that he had dreamt of Marilyn Monroe.  She was in his bed as seductive, alluring, soft, and inviting as he had ever imagined her; and before making love to her, he told her how much he loved her.  The dream sex was the usual unsatisfying dry, frustrated, and disjointed affair as most dreams are; but this one he found impossible to shake.   Looked at dispassionately in the morning, it was a composite of frustrated desires.  At long past the age when sex was an option or even a possibility, and sex with any young woman let alone the likes of Marilyn Monroe was indeed a dream, Laurence woke up full of desire, optimism, and sadness.  Who said that he had passed his sexual pull-by date? Why should he, still virile, interested, and able be consigned to the dustbin of sexual has-beens and wannabees?

The dream left him excited but vacant.  After years of loving Marilyn Monroe, every man’s desire for over five decades, irresistibly and impossibly sensual and alluring, he had dreamed of her, as close as he would ever get to the poor goddess-who-died-young, but as dreams would have it, not even in fantasy could he have her.

The real Marilyn was not classically beautiful, but had an unmatchable sensuousness and sensuality.  She had allure, an immediate, undeniable sexual appeal.  She embodied sexual desire.  Men were drawn to her not to admire her beauty but to make love to her.  It is no surprise that despite the classic, unmatched beauty  Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and Vivien Leigh, impossibly beautiful women, as classically beautiful as those in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, and as exemplary of the universal standard of feminine beauty as any woman, it is Marilyn Monroe men think of in their most erotic moments and, like Laurence, dream of.

Image result for images ava gardnerImage result for images hedy lamarrImage result for vivien leigh images

The dream was upsetting because of its immediacy.  There was Marilyn in her thirties months before her premature death, looking vulnerable and tired; but all the more seductive and desirable because of it, a dream-generated portrait more lifelike than any painted or photographed.  It was this intimacy that was the most disturbing.  Marilyn was Laurence’s lover, as needy and as desperate as she ever was with Joe or Arthur, looking loving and still hopeful for something that neither of her husbands could provide.

“I love you, Marilyn”, Laurence said to the phantom Marilyn and then woke up.  Freud explained that no dream of impossible desire can ever be realized and would remain recurrent and painful until the dreamer came to grips with the sexual frustration of his own making.

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Laurence was indeed frustrated, not only because after a certain period, all relationships, no matter how passionate their beginnings, lose their sexual juices; but because a few years earlier he had had a relationship with a young woman who, if not as beautiful, sensual, and appealing as Marilyn, was still a sexual goddess simply because she was 30.  At his age, any young woman was a godsend, blemishes, fat, and hairline notwithstanding; not only because they agreed to have sex with him, but because age did not matter.  His patience, attention, experience, and sexual desire did.

Sex with a woman almost forty years his junior was a Christmas gift, as wonderful, unexpected, and happily delightful as any train set or baseball mitt; and when it ended, it marked him forever. He would never be the same  now that he had tasted young love – soft, smooth, wet, aroused love.

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Laurence had thought he had settled all accounts, and would go uncomplainingly about the kitchen  (“I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled)”, resigned to old age and elder celibacy until he had the dream of Marilyn. She had been so real, so immediate, so responsive, and so giving.  It must have been a sign, a green light, a go-ahead for the most unlikely sexual liaisons.  He was not sexually dead after all, the thought upon waking.  I am still me.

If only he could avoid fact-checking himself and give the hall mirror a bye, he could still be the forty or fifty he felt, within bounds at least for contact and engagement.  The chit-chat at the bar at Salty Dog might not be only tip-invested conversation but sexual interest.  Why wouldn’t she, a single mother with a three-year old, working two jobs, working the bar be interested in him?   Even if money never changed hands, nor any offer made for K Street employment, there would be no ignoring the transactional aspect of the affair; but at this point in his life, what did a few, indirectly paid dollars matter?  December-May affairs were always about the money, after all.

Marilyn never returned.  She was replaced by insufficient avatars – fragments of old girlfriends and lovers who were always impatient and never complaisant and desirous – all of whom made his nights tiring and unrestorative. Better not to dream of Louisa, Karen, Lucy, and Mukta and wake up rested; but they kept up their niggling and suggestiveness. What on earth was he waiting for?

“Why are you setting your sights so high?”, asked a friend. “There are plenty of women in your age group quite anxious for a relationship”.   Of course ‘a relationship’ was not what he was looking for.

In the movie The Human Stain, Nathan Zuckerman, friend of the main character, Coleman Silk, who is involved in a sexual affair with a much younger woman far outside his social class, says to him, “It’s all about the sex, isn’t it?”.

Image result for images The Human Stain film

“Of course it is”, answers Coleman.  “She is not my first love nor my best love; but she is certainly my last love.  That has to count for something, doesn’t it?”  And in such an affair no questions about meaning, involvement, purpose, or depth are at all relevant.

Laurence found himself caught between a rock and a hard place – waiting for a bone thrown to him by a pitying or even half-interested middle aged woman; or failing time after time to lure a young woman to bed in the most impossible of circumstances.  It certainly would be easier to get a good book and lie by the hotel pool in a comfortable lounge chair, never looking up to watch the young women dive and surface, dripping from the water, and climb the ladder out.  Yet he could not.

The greatest irony, to paraphrase Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin, is that God created man with a lifelong desire for women, but granted him only a few short decades to do anything about it.

I wish that the story of my colleague ended well – that a young woman taken with his patrician looks, intelligence, and youthful enthusiasm overlooked his age, and entered into a long December-May affair with him; an affair to end his days, and make those remaining happy and unremorseful.

The truth is unhappily far different.  Laurence, like most men his age, simply sighed and gave up, looked down at the menu, at the pasta Alfredo cooking in the skillet, or at his grandchildren.  Such was not God’s irony.  It was meant to be.  It was a lesson in resolution and redemption.  Once he got the message, while not completely happy, he was more or less so.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Senselessness Of Foreign Travel–The Vanity Of Frontloading Memories

The arguments over the nature of self, being, and nothingness have been debated for hundreds of years.  Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, placing cognition squarely at the center of being.  The fact that one can think – remember, observe and process, categorize, analyze, and describe – one can prove one’s existence.

Vladimir Nabokov, a self-described memorist, said that the past and only the past defined human existence.  The present, Nabokov went on to observe is  nothing more than a millisecond of existence before becoming the past. The Higgs boson once produced has a lifetime of less than one sextillionth of a second; and this is slow compared to the passage of the present to the past. The  future is only a speculative time of possibilities and impossible dreams. 

The more one remembers the past, said Nabokov, lives it through constant recollection, and curates it as a personal, existential treasure, the more one’s life has substance and meaning.  Nabokov developed techniques to fix events in his memory and devised ways to recall them from his mental archives and replay them like a movie.  The more he could remember, he said, the more complete he was as a human being.

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However one chooses to define the present, it quickly becomes the past, archived in our memory, and without attention can disappear.  If we cannot remember the beach at Deauville -  the umbrellas, the silhouette of the cliffs of Dover on the English side of the Channel, the seagulls, the chill, and the dresses of young girls – then it never happened.  Even if the events of that day had subliminal effects – our preference for colored dresses or our dislike of the chill – if we cannot remember them, they have lost their meaning, integrity, and substance.

Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is an autobiography which was written not as a historical record of the author’s life, but as a pastiche of those memories which define him.  There was no reason to order them chronologically, to link them to future events citing cause and effect, only to celebrate them for what they were – integral and indispensable parts of him.

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However, most people are far from accomplished memorists.  In fact recent scientific research has shown that most memory is imagined, influenced by the accounts of others, events subsequent to the initial memory, and simple erosion.
Erika Hayasaki summarizes the conclusions:

Writers of memoir, history, and journalism yearn for specific details when combing through memories to tell true stories. But such work has always come with the caveat that human memory is fallible. Now, scientists have an idea of just how unreliable it actually can be. New research has found that even people with phenomenal memory are susceptible to having “false memories” suggesting that “memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune (The Atlantic 2.4.13)
Jill Neimark echoes Nabokov in suggesting that ‘memory is the bedrock of the self’, but goes on to agree with Hayasaki that memory is very fallible:
Memory, it turns out, is both far more complex and more primitive than we knew. Ancient parts of the brain can record memory before it even reaches our senses--our sight and hearing, for instance. At the same time, there are between 200 and 400 billion neurons in the brain and each neuron has about 10,000 connections.  The parallel processing involved in memory is so complex we can't even begin to think how it works, The one thing that we can say for certain is that if memory is the bedrock of the self, then even though that self may seem coherent and unchanging, it is built on shifting sands.(Psychology Today 6.9.16)

So Nabokov’s prized past may be nothing more than a fictionalized composite of imperfectly-recalled experience, the recollection of others, and the additive ‘corrections’ of books, films, and drama.  We are not what we were, but what we think we were.

As philosophically convincing as Nabokov’s argument may be, for most people it is a chimera, an intellectual construct that has nothing to do with real life, led moment by moment – a string of events prescribed by genes, conditioning, and circumstance. While one may reminisce about the past, it is as insubstantial and tenuous as the future, if not more so.  What, when all is said and done, is so important about a fragmentary composite of bits and pieces of the past which have been airbrushed and photoshopped beyond recognition? And if that is the case, and the past is no more than a shaky repository of fictionalized memories, then what does this say for frontloading memories?  For storing up on adventures?  Particularly as one ages and faces the prospect of the shortening years, the past has less and less substance.  While older people may tend to ‘live in the past’, these fond memories are only diversions from their more essential concern – making sense of life itself, figuring out what’s what.  The component parts of one’s life –individual memories – are far less important than the whole.

In an affluent age, travel is a marker of well-being.  The days of being strapped to the plow and dying in one’s traces are over.  Opportunity has replaced the confines of penury.  Travel it is said, is eye-opening at least, transforming at best.  No one after visiting the townships of Johannesburg can ever again think about race, white privilege, and capitalism in the same way.   No one after eating at the great brasseries of Paris can ever return to meat and potatoes.  After seeing giraffes and lions on the veldt, no one can ever visit a zoo.  The majesty of wild animals can never be forgotten.

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How exactly? The present tends to absorb and fold in the past without notice.  Trajan’s column, Versailles, or the bazaars of Calcutta, the slums of Soweto, and the Olduvai Gorge soon lose whatever meaning they might have had.  Everyone knew about them before leaving home. The actual experience of buildings, boulevards, monuments, slums, wild animals, or markets may burnish images and add detail and scale, but what, other than replenishing the mind’s repository of memories, does such experience actually mean?

An economist who had travelled and worked in over sixty countries found that the vivid experiences of his foreign assignments – his adventures, pleasures, and close shaves – had become so stirred and blended together that they were indistinguishable; and if they were remembered intact, they provoked only brief, momentary feelings of regret, longing, loss, or fondness; and had nothing whatsoever to do with him. At best his travels were easy signifiers for others.  It was easier to remember John the Investment Banker, Bob The Doctor,  Bill The Lawyer, and Ed The Foreign Traveler than it was to disaggregate character and personality and reassemble the pieces in a coherent, although complex whole.

So the past is not all that it is cracked up to be, and the experiences planned as future memories are irrelevant.  Hosts may once or twice serve shrimp, oysters, and crabs on a bed of ice, garnished with seaweed and shore grasses like they do at Bofinger; but quickly go back to shrimp cocktails and crab cakes.  Progressives may fly the South African flag next to that of Black Lives Matter, but soon they both come down. The feeling of solidarity generated by trips to the African ghetto soon fade in the light of the crime, dysfunction, and irresponsibility of the Baltimore inner city.  And ordinary travelers, recently returned from the Danube or the Rhine, or Ephesus, may show their photos to dinner guests, but soon archive them in storage.

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The here and now – our love affairs, children, wives, parents, jobs, and investments – is all that matters.  Tolstoy, in his A Confession reflected on his lifelong search for God and meaning and found neither; but his persistent reading of literature, history, science, philosophy, religion, and art helped to define him.  He had no reason to actually see things.  He was not defined by places and experiences, but what he thought about and how he applied knowledge to belief.  The past was of no interest as an entity, nor even as a collection of events, but a series of trends to be deciphered, compared, and incorporated into his own, personal thinking.

This in the end is all we can expect from the past – events which may or may not make sense individually but which surely provide insights into the way we behave and to what we aspire.  Frontloading memories – travel to exotic locations, eating at the best restaurants, or viewing falls, prairies, birds, or wild animals – makes little sense at all.