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

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sex And The Single Bird Watcher–Nature Is Not All That It Is Cracked Up To Be

Brenda Cousins had been a nature lover ever since her father, a longtime member of the Audubon Society, had introduced her to the Great Blue Heron on the tidal marshes of the Chesapeake.  It was a magnificent bird, elegant, graceful, and patient.  It waited for its prey – minnows, tadpoles, or small frogs – without moving; slender and immobile – until its eye caught movement in the reeds, and then it stabbed and came up with its prey.  The heron was more than just a wading bird to be spotted, photographed, and chronicled; but an icon of The Movement – a perfect representative of the natural world, endangered and threatened, and emblematic of the entire ecosystem.  It was cause, purpose, and dignity.

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She was an environmentalist until she met Doug, a deadbeat from Gaithersburg, Maryland.  Why she was attracted to this stringy son of union tradesmen, far from the tony Northwest Washington neighborhood where she was born and brought up, was a mystery to her parents, both K Street lawyers who had assured her admittance to the best Washington private schools and set her course to the Ivy League.  Doug ‘turned her head’, as her grandmother used to say – distracted from her prescribed path by a rude young boy with no future.  “What is it about bad boys”, her grandmother wondered, “that is irresistible to young girls?”.  The old Mrs. Cousins had had her flings with across-the-tracks Johnnies, but always came home to sanity and manners.  Why was Brenda so determined to stray?

Neither an early affinity for herons, wildlife in general, and the environment; nor the lapse into adolescent sexual crises are anything new.  What is surprising are the bookends.  Most girls have fallen for bad boys; and tens of thousands of parents have brought up their children to respect and defend the environment; but there was no more precipitous fall from one to the other than that of Brenda Cousins.  She had been raised in the best of worlds – a sensitive, aware, woke world of respect for others and the environment – and left it entirely for the likes of Doug Fenwick.

It was on Cape Cod where Brenda and her parents were on holiday that she had her epiphany – South Wellfleet to be exact, one of the most untraveled bits of the peninsula, especially in the offseason.  Near the ocean, the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Bay, and numerous fresh water ‘ponds’, it was the go-to place for New Yorkers who wanted salt sea air without leaving New York completely behind.  Mac’s Shack was the perfect blend of Down East localism and city feel – oysters, clams, and New England fried dinners with NY service and a lively bar scene.

It was there that Brenda made her choice between the ecological life of the Wellfleet oyster, the survival of the Bay, the livelihood of the Great Blue Heron, and Environmentalism; and Deadbeat Doug and chose the-boy-with-no-future.

What was the point of walking the Skaket Beach flats? Taking the Fort Hill walking tour? Or following the Audubon Trail?  What were blue herons, plovers, petrels, and  nesting turtles compared to sex with Doug Fenwick who could ‘bone with the best of them’?  For that matter, what did marshes, swamps, tidal pools, and long beaches have anything to do with anything?  It was one thing for them to exist, but to be fawned over as the last, best place on earth before climate change ruined everything, was another.  Brenda felt choked by the sanctimony, bored to tears by endless walks on the marshes.  Doug Fenwick might not have been the best of the best, but better him than the cold salt flats of Skaket Beach; better sex with Deadbeat Doug than peering at the Cape Plover, the Short-legged Tern, the Lakeside Dove, or the Pileated Owl.

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From that pointless vacation on, she never returned to the Cape, Paradise Valley, or the Appalachian Trail.  She had had it with nature, nature trails, birding, tidal pools, nature preserves, national parks and seashores, the lot.  It was the sex that did it.

Of course such a radical departure from the norm couldn’t have been just about the sex.  Brenda had become increasingly bored with the intensity, cant, and sanctimony of her parents and their friends.  Dinner table conversations all ended up with commiseration about sea level rise, the desiccation of the Midwest, and the plight of the Chesapeake oystermen.  Although each dinner brought something new – the capitalist greed that drove industries to pillage, pollute, and disregard the landscape; right-wing Republican ignorance; and the military-industrial complex – it was essentially the same.  There was an unholy alliance among politicians, Wall Street, and corporate America to assure wealth and prosperity for the few at the expense of the many and their land.  These humorless, soulless dinners left Brenda fatigued.  As much as she loved her parents, her respect for them was in play.  Why couldn’t they change the subject?

“Why aren’t you in bed with your girlfriend?”, replied a gas station attendant when Brenda’s boyfriend had asked directions to Devil’s Septum, a rock face in the Southern Catskills.  An impertinent question, Brenda had thought at the time, a time when she was still under the influence of her father and his ‘lure of nature’, before Deadbeat Doug, and before Cape Cod; but on reflection, not many years later, it was the question.

“Because it’s there”, says Louis in James Dickey’s Deliverance to a Georgia mountain man who asks him why he wants to canoe down the  Cahulawassee.

“It’s there, alright; and once you get in it and can’t get out, you’re going to wish it wasn’t”.

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The Ecotherapy Movement promotes the improvement or restoration of the ‘human-nature’ relationship, and by so doing aims to rebalance our lives.  Americans spend between 85-99 percent of their time indoors, advocates say, thus distorting the psychological, spiritual, and physical balance we once had in an earlier, more pastoral age.

“Ecotherapy” refers to healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth…Ecopsychology, the study of our psychological relations with the rest of nature, provides a solid theoretical, cultural, and critical foundation for ecotherapeutic practice.This perspective reveals the critical fact that people are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from the rest of nature. Grasping this fact deeply shifts our understanding of how to heal the human psyche and the currently dysfunctional and even lethal human-nature relationship.

Advocates of Ecotherapy recommend the following:
  • Inreach: receiving and being nurtured by the healing presence of nature, place, Earth.
  • Upreach: the actual experience of this more-than-human vitality as we relocate our place within the natural world.
  • Outreach: activities with other people that care for the planet (loc.cit.)

The movement is popular because it unifies spiritual longing, psychological health, and commitment to the environment.  Environmentalists are too outward-directed, and religious ascetics too inward-looking; but Ecotherapy fully integrates the spiritual nature of man with the spiritual nature of the Earth.  In marketing terms, it has found a vacant consumer niche; created a strong brand image which signifies commitment, idealism, and purpose; and developed a sales strategy which includes products, services, and technical support. Perhaps most importantly, like all New Age movements before it, it taps into vast reservoirs of personal insecurity, providing an institutional home which is both alternative and strong.

The Environmental Movement has this profoundly religious sentiment as its foundation.  The natural world is not simply an environment, one to be lived in, managed, and developed; but a holy place, separate and distinct from human beings who have intruded.  For Thoreau and other 19th century American utopian romantics, nature was not only unique but sanctified – pure, ennobling, and spiritually promising.  Modern progressive environmentalists are the heirs of Thoreau.  Walden Pond is theirs.

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To Brenda’s chagrin her mother became involved in Ecotherapy; and if the dinner conversations had been tedious, and spiritless before her conversion, they were impossible afterwards.  Her family had turned the corner, were no longer mainstream but extremist, and she couldn’t wait for the day she went off to college, although it meant separation from Doug.

Not surprisingly, she found boys as sexually adept as Doug, but far brighter and with a far more promising future.  Bad boys were few and far between at Harvard.  The parameters for bad behavior had shrunk enormously in a driven, ambitious student body.  In fact, there were no bad boys at Harvard.  They were features of the white working class – undereducated, under-performing, street-corner boys with limited ability and no motivation.   Sex with bad boys was payback for all the propriety and moral niggling of overprotective, ambitious parents.

Nevertheless Doug Fenwick had indeed ‘turned her head’.  The sex, the Ecstasy, and the underground mega-raves in Baltimore were as un-sanctimonious and as free from cant, principle, and overlords as possible.  No moral posturing there; no grief over anything; no deliberateness; and no stations of the cross.  Life after Deadbeat Doug would never be the same.

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Thanks to Doug, because of her oppressive liberal upbringing, and thanks to her intelligence and sociability, Brenda became an investment banker  - the least sanctimonious and the most amoral profession in the economy.  Buying and selling without moral judgment, an unforgiving economic contract of supply and demand, a Wild West individualism, and as close to a pack of bad boys as she could imagine was perfect for her, and she prospered.

Her parents had a tough time explaining what had happened to Brendie; how a girl with such dedicated, principled, and moral parents could possibly have gone so far off the deep end and worse, joined enemy ranks.  They found morsels of hope within their daughter’s portfolio – buying and restructuring failing companies, after all, led to their financial health and in turn created more employment and generated more benefits – but such tales of her ‘success’ were only cold comfort.  They and their friends knew that they had failed.

Brenda made millions, married well, had two children who from the earliest age were taught the lessons she had never received – strength, ambition, individualism, and willful purpose.  Their favorite vacations were to the Gulf – the Emirates, with their showy wealth, urban glitz, and unabashed luxury were for them.   Her life had come together nicely, and as far from the marshes of Wellfleet and semipalmated plovers as one can imagine.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Finding A Mate - The Enduring Universal Standards Of Beauty And Our Tireless Efforts To Conform

Betsy Barclay dressed to the nines, every day, always.  She had moved to New York straight out of Vassar to work in publishing but more seriously to meet and marry a young Yale or Princeton graduate working on Wall Street or Madison Avenue and then move to Connecticut.  There was no duplicity involved – young men and women both knew the value of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters pedigree.  Four years of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton had no inherent value, only relative value in the marketplace. 

So like attracted like, a winnowing process made easier by recognizable markers.  Girls who had prepped from Bennington and Miss Porters, and who then had made their way to the foxhunt colleges of Virginia or the football universities of the Midwest were given wide berth to make way for the Abbot, Chaffee, Rosemary Hall girls who went to Radcliffe, Pembroke, and Wellesley.

The Vassar girls came in black tights and miniskirts, the Smith girls were clean-looking, and all the rest sorted themselves out by class, money, family, and position.  Yet there was nothing the Yale boys were attracted to more than sexual allure – the obvious, deliberate, overt signs of sexual approachability.

It is no surprise that of all the Hollywood beauties who have appeared on screen since the beginning of film, Marilyn Monroe has had the most interest.   She was not classically beautiful, but had an unmatchable sensuousness and sensuality.  She had allure, an immediate, unmistakable and undeniable sexual appeal.  She – and Brigitte Bardot before her – embodied sexual desire.  Men were drawn to her not to admire her beauty but to make love to her.

Popular screen actresses today like Scarlett Johansson  are Marilyn clones.


In Woody Allen’s Match Point, the Scarlett Johansson character says to a man complimenting her on her beauty, “What I am is sexy”.
“Do you know the effect you have on men?”, he asks.

She demurs, but the point is clear.

The point is that while men consider family, breeding, education, intelligence, and social ability when choosing a mate, they are far more susceptible to and attracted by physical allure and beauty.  The false eyelashes, blush, eye shadow, lipstick, and perfume are the facilitators of sexual liaison and prima facie evidence for marriage.

Feminism has sought to disparage these ‘hyper-cultural deceptors’; but to no avail.  Both women’s and men’s magazines have featured the physically alluring sexual female.  Women may have reevaluated themselves in terms of inner vs outer worth and concluded that external beauty is no more than a chimera, a false front, a meaningless image; but there is no sign of abatement.  Beauty and sexual allure still sell, and women still sell themselves on looks. A look at the covers of GQ and Cosmo and one can only conclude that the same traits of beauty, sexual allure, and attractiveness which have been obvious and prevalent for centuries still prevail.

Tuba Büyüküstün is a Turkish actress of remarkable beauty well-known for her work on the television series, Kara Para Aşk. Despite the claim to the contrary, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, and even those who may prefer a woman of less classic, dark looks and more sensuously alluring (Marilyn Monroe), will agree that Büyüküstün is beautiful.  Her type of beauty, with predictable cultural variations over time, is reflective of those characteristics which have always made women attractive. Symmetrical features, luminescent eyes, full lips, and luxuriant hair all express health, wealth, and well-being as well as being pleasing to a natural sense of geometrical order (the golden mean is universally appealing), and sexual appeal.  There is little difference between the women painted by Leonardo and Tuba Büyüküstün.

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Asian women are no different and film and television actresses have the same classic beauty as their European counterparts.

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While internationalization must be factored in – an appeal to the mean rather than respect for more insular, traditional cultural beauty - the same rules apply.
Since most women are not beautiful, sayings like ‘Beauty Is As Beauty Does’ or ‘Beauty Is Only Skin Deep’ reflect a cultural compromise.  It is within that one should look for beauty; for the intelligence, compassion, consideration, talent, warmth, humor, and energy that are far more important than superficial looks.

Feminism was particularly significant because it attempted to redefine beauty and change perspective from a purely male one to a female one.  What men thought of women was irrelevant, said feminists.  Every woman’s ‘beauty’ was relative to her and her alone; and that female value and worth had nothing whatsoever to do with looks or appearance.
This new perspective was indeed radical because it challenged the notion of essential beauty and challenged men’s authority at the same time.  It was appealing to women not only because it gave them new authority, esteem, and privilege but because it marginalized the idea of physical beauty.

Or so feminists thought.  Women today might be more self-aware, confident, ambitious, and powerful than ever before; but classic beauty has not lost either its appeal or place in popular culture.
Women’s magazines all promote the same classical beauty of days and eras past, and the message is clear – this is what you are supposed to look like.  The influence of multiculturalism is evident, but the principle features of feminine beauty remain the same.

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More importantly this universal standard of beauty suggests the obvious but often denied fact that women dress for men.  Despite the revolutionary changes in the roles, responsibilities, and status of women, they still understand that physical beauty classically defined, is helpful if not necessary for attracting mates.  The more beautiful the woman, the greater likelihood that she will attract an equally attractive man who, like them, is likely to be healthy, wealthy, and successful.
Study after study have shown that beauty has benefits far beyond the bedroom.  Attractive women and men are given preference in hiring.  While supervisors may not admit it, a candidate with all the professional qualifications plus beauty, is more likely to get the job.  Professor Shahani-Denning of Hofstra University has compiled the most important research on the subject.
The bias in favor of physically attractive people is robust, with attractive people being perceived as more sociable, happier and more successful than unattractive people (Dion, Berscheid & Walster, 1972; Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani & Longo, 1991; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986; Watkins & Johnston, 2000).  Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students (Clifford & Walster, 1973), voter preferences for political candidates (Efran & Patterson, 1974) and jury judgments in simulated trials (Efran, 1974).
Recently, Smith, McIntosh and Bazzini (1999) investigated the “beauty is goodness” stereotype in U.S. films and found that attractive characters were portrayed more favorably than unattractive characters on multiple dimensions across a random sample drawn from five decades of top grossing films.  The authors also found that participants watching a biased film (level of beauty and gender stereotyping) subsequently showed greater favoritism toward an attractive graduate school candidate than participants watching a less biased film.  In the area of employment decision making, attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants (Watkins & Johnston, 2000).
Men of course are no strangers to fashion, looking good, and bella figura. Italian men have long since set the standard for classy presentation.  While the Anglos watching The Godfather might have condemned the Mafia’s innate code of violence, their treatment of women and the authoritarian family structure, they were never critical of style – tailored suits, silk ties, Italian shoes, handmade shirts, and long overcoats.  The point was not that fashion made the man, but that fashion mirrored the man.  The macho, male, dominant men of La Cosa Nostra were attractive not because of their dress but because their dress and their personas were matched.

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The point is, feminism aside, women dress for men in the most alluring, seductive, attractive way possible.  The search for an ideal mate may have become more competitive, and intelligence, intellect, wit, and creativity added to the mix; but but such additions have not altered the calculus.  As long as male-female polarity exists, there will always be a physical, sexual jousting.  The good looking – symmetrical, athletic, reproductive, handsome and beautiful – will always best the unattractive.

Reserving Judgment–A Matter Of Fundamental Decency

Nick Carroway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a man of honesty and fairness – even when it came to Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

I couldn't forgive Tom or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

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He saw Tom and Daisy as the inevitable products of the society that bred and raised them, and thus although he never forgives them for their indifference and careless damage to others because they were bound and determined by it, he grants Tom some moral latitude because of his ignorance.  Tom’s arrogance, presumptuousness, and entitlement led him to lie in vindictive, irresponsible, and unrighteous anger.  He condemned a good man, Gatsby, to an unceremonious and unnecessary death at the hands of Wilson, his mistress’ husband.

For Gatsby, despite increasingly convincing evidence that he was indeed the disreputable and dishonest character that he was rumored to be, considered himself to be a good, honest, and fundamentally moral man.  His decency had more to do with chivalry than morality.  He was willing to take them blame for a lethal traffic accident caused by Daisy not because it was the right thing to do, but because his moral code denied logical and legal judgment.  He, like Tom, had his own set of moral rules; but unlike Tom, had a code of honor.

“I'm inclined to reserve all judgments”, Nick says, “ a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth”; and because of this reservation was able to include both Gatsby and Tom within his moral frame of reference.

Shortly before Gatsby’s death, when his carefully constructed but largely fictitious life begins to unravel, Nick never abandons him.

But all this part of it seemed remote and unessential. I found myself on Gatsby's side, and alone. From the moment I telephoned news of the catastrophe to West Egg village, every surmise about him, and every practical question, was referred to me. At first I was surprised and confused; then, as he lay in his house and didn't move or breathe or speak, hour upon hour, it grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested--interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right at the end.

For Nick conclusions about discrete parts of one’s life mean nothing.  It is only the whole that matters, the sum of a man; and even then judgment on worth, value, or rightness must be withheld and is always and forever a personal matter. 

During the time that Nick renewed his friendship with Daisy, his cousin, and her husband, Tom, he remained uncritical and removed.  He could never approve of Tom’s infidelity or his cavalier disregard for his wife; nor his abusive, arrogant treatment of his lover’s husband.  Worse, while he found Daisy’s abandonment of Gatsby, Wilson, and himself unconscionable, he laid it only to her ‘carelessness’.

In an age of censure and quick, summary judgment, it is hard to imagine a character of such principled distance as Nick Carroway.  Principle implies action, commitment, and duty to one’s moral cause. Understanding and the patient resolve it takes to fully appreciate the nature and meaning of others’ actions is dilatory.  Causes cannot wait for the unfolding of character, purpose, or reason.  Facts are important only as corroborating evidence of one’s conclusions, not as essential prerequisites to judgment.

Judgment is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of human nature.  Rushing to judgment has always been an essential element of survival.  Innocence has no value because it must always be suspect.  The assumption of guilt or threat in violent times precludes rational conclusions.  Even in less violent times, it is always better to assume bad intentions to better prepare for them.

Selective criticism – focusing on that which serves to confirm principle – rather than place individual events, traits, or statements within a larger moral context, is common.  Worse, if only one aspect of a man’s life is selected arbitrarily as the most telling aspect of it and that which must necessarily color all others, he is damned by myopia.

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites, but their work was notable.  Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.
Are we to burn their books? Consign them to the trash heaps of literary history?

What about the ‘disqualification clause’? Should one cut off communication with a friend because his political views are radically different? Perhaps such difference is not just a matter of political opinion, but one of morals and ethics.  One’s political philosophy, according to this view, is a defining personal characteristic.  A conservative is not simply one who believes in small government and individual enterprise but someone who has a cribbed and narrow view of life, lacks generosity and compassion, and is cynical about human potential.

Yet, despite political differences, if two friends have known each other since childhood and have always liked each other for reasons discovered at age 12 – energy, enthusiasm, brains, allure, adventure - why should one thing – political philosophy – get in the way of love, passion, and insight?

One issue morality like single-issue politics is never good, for it  ignores complexity, the ability to hold conflicting views, to be inconsistent, and to be ignorant and brilliant at the same time.

Nick’s temperate reserve of final judgment and his insistence on treating people fairly were indeed part of the God-given decency he mentions; and yet he was far from truly objective.  His sense of fairness regarding Gatsby was a result of Gatsby’s complexity – it took months of patient acquaintance to let him disaggregate his character, to distinguish fact from fiction, to find the kernel of truth at the bottom of his fantasy.  After many years absence from Daisy, he had to wait to find out what she, beneath the charm, the warmth, and the grace, was really like.  Nick, however, knew that Tom Buchanan was an uneducated, morally ignorant boor from the very first.  There was no way that Nick reserved judgment.  Although he could not have predicted how base were Tom’s instincts and so lacking in any sense of decency were his morals, Nick knew that Tom was a dangerously entitled, protected, and arrogant man capable of anything.

Nick was initially open to Tom.  He made no a priori judgments based on his prior life, education, or social milieu – all of which were of the same privileged sort as his – and waited only to see how Tom acted with others.  His boorishness, indifference, and disregard were quickly evident.

He did not rush to judgment regarding Tom.  It was just that patience and reserve were never required.

Gatsby’s death is sad.  It was the result of Tom’s unnecessary and erroneous implication of Gatsby as the driver of the car that killed Wilson’s life; the refusal of Daisy to come forward; and the jealous rage of a mentally imbalanced, suicidal, cuckolded husband. It needn’t have happened.

As sadly, only his parents, Nick, and one random friend came to his funeral.  The thousands who took from him, ate at his buffet, danced to his music, and took advantage of his generosity, showy and self-serving though it was, stayed away.  In the end they believed the rumors and innuendos.  Like Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business partner and  ‘the man who fixed the 1919 World Series’, they wanted no further part of him.

Only Nick Carroway stood by him, and after all was revealed – his dishonesty, fabrications, and financial complicity – he still admired him for his chivalry, his love for Daisy, his ambition, and his Americanness.  He loved the whole man.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Divorced Men–Old Girlfriends First, Then Floundering In Uncharted Sexual Waters

It is not surprising that men, especially those of a certain age, Google old girlfriends within months of their divorce.  What easier, more accommodating and cheap way to reenter the sexual marketplace than to look up familiar women, tried women, safe women before trolling in unfamiliar waters.  Ray Handley hadn’t been divorced for more than two weeks when he searched for Laura Bloom, a girl he always regretted not marrying.  His wife, Maggie, didn’t exactly play second fiddle to Laura Bloom, but by comparison to this vital, energetic, beautiful, and passionate girl, she belonged far back in the orchestra.

Of course marriages that last are not made on such flimsy grounds – nothing fades more quickly than energy, beauty, and passion – and Maggie was the model of marital sense, a tenured professor, published author, and – thanks to her post-modern, enlightened feminism, also a good mother.

A key to the longevity of the marriage was Ray’s happy participation in his wife’s struggles for women’s equality and social justice.  He was one of the few men on the front lines demanding ‘revised justice’ on university campuses, protocols that assumed the rightness of women’s claims of rape and sexual abuse and set aside due process because the entire justice system was nothing more than a male, misogynist hierarchy.

He attended every feminist conference from ‘Queerness as a Metaphor for Un-Civil Society’, to ‘Slavery, Dykes, and the Colonial Transgender Holocaust’.  While at first women were suspicious of him and his motives, his bona fides were more than enough for them.  He had been on the first buses to Selma, first across the Pettis Bridge, first to stand with Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton against white privilege, an early supporter of Rev. William Sloane Coffin and the Peace Movement.  The cross-over to feminism and women’s issues was an easy elision and not a leap.

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Of course most of the straight women in the assemblies wondered what he was doing there.  They were women after all, in search of confident male pursuers and not feminist, people-of-color, stand-with-the-oppressed groupies like Ray.   While they might praise Ray for his principled stance and solidarity, they really wished that he would leave the floor to women, and be men.  Contradiction and irony were not unknown within The Movement.

Ray for years rode his wife’s coattails – or rather in her politically charmed chariot – proud of his ultra-progressive persona and his feminist, woke, inclusivity.  There was no progressive cause that he didn’t embrace, and his commitment to feminism was only an entrée to bigger and even more important causes like global warming and The Environment.  His reputation and curriculum vitae was continuously burnished, updated, and fine-tuned.  He was a progressive’s progressive, and a champion to many.

Ray was surprised at his wife’s growing sexual diffidence.  She was not exactly cold, but indifferent.  They were well into middle age, but not past their sexual pull-date, and had had many – for them – exotic parties for two with vodka, wine, and anal sex.  Some loss of sexual interest was to be expected, but not to this degree.  Was she finally, after all these years, growing tired of him?  Had she taken a lover?

In fact all the feminist polemic and gender-persuasive insistence had indeed turned her head.  Why not? she thought, when an attractive black women made her sexual desires clear.  And what better way to lose her lesbian cherry than with an oppressed, put-upon, marginalized woman of color?  She was surprised to find the experience not only pleasing but exciting – more passionate, in fact, than any she had had with a man.   Ray quickly faded and was moved to the margins.   Here was the perfect epiphany – a revelation of sexuality that Maggie had repressed for so long merged with political intensity. Nothing with Ray could have been or could ever be so satisfying.

Maggie chose the proper moment to make her announcement to Ray and her children – after a dinner of roast chicken with rosemary, bliss potatoes, and farm-fresh corn, she said that she was leaving them, Bethesda, and the straight world for the first true love of her life.

A flash in the pan thought Ray, hopefully.  She will have her bi-sexual, bi-racial fling and return to the white, straight core from which progressive causes originate and function; and back to a husband who loves her.

It was not to be.  The affair between Maggie and LaShonda Harris was neither an experiment in bi-sexual fantasy nor a new, short-term, half-baked racial experience.  As the weeks and months went on, it was clear that the two women loved each other, and there was no returning to a white, middle class,  heterosexual life.

Separation does many things to a man, not the least of which is a re-assessment of life and sexual ways.  Ray had known from the beginning that  Maggie was no Laura Bloom, no free spirit, no hedonistic, let-it-all-hang-out, purely sexual being; and that his choice of partners would entail compromise.  Yet after the separation and the impending divorce, Ray wondered whether his life of rectitude, civil temperance, and doing the right thing was worth sacrificing his spirit.  The answer was ‘No’, and so began his search for his former girlfriend.

Time had not been kind to Laura Bloom.  From pictures pasted on social media, she had become fat, un-comely and unseemly, yenta-looking and far from the ideal woman she had seemed decades earlier.  What was he thinking?  Only one look in his bathroom mirror should have been enough.  His former paramour had three adult children, an early Teamster retiree as a husband, a home – of all places – in Mantaloking, home to ‘Jersey Girls’ and Mafioso goombas from Newark, and an interest in ‘gardening,, self-help, and autism’.  Needless to say, he never called, wrote, messengered, or texted.

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The problem wasn’t with Laura per se, but with the past and reconciling it with the present.  He was past-due on sexual attractiveness.  Although men his age routinely had lovers thirty years their junior, they had come to these affairs knowledgeably.  Women, whether young or old, are attracted to maturity, sexual confidence, financial security, and maleness – the savoir faire of an older man – but Ray had none of these.  His only hope was pairing with a woman of his own age,  someone like himself who had made wrong early choices, realized too late that it was time to change, and had to settle for what she had agreed to in the beginning.

This was not at all what he had expected or hoped for.  There were such things as bright beginnings; but where to look?  In his day there were singles bars, library reading rooms, and alumni seminars; but virtual dating – more controlled, more efficient, and more cost-effective – had taken over.  How could he possibly navigate this new electronic universe; and would the output be worth the input?

So, he continued to mine the alumni resources as far back as country day school.  He had heard that Nancy Boothby – his eighth grade love - had moved to California; and that had possibilities; not like resettling in Iowa or Nebraska, and might signal a sexual and emotional freedom that had lasted since the Sixties; but she had died of breast cancer many years earlier.

There was Belinda Dandy who, despite her name, was from solid Chicago stock – the Dandys had built a paper empire to rival Scott – and Belinda had hoped that Ray would marry her and join Daddy in running the company; but rumors were that she had married an Italian and was living on the Riviera – or a Mexican with a Cancun villa; or a Serbian with holdings throughout the Adriatic and the Black Sea.  Ray saw that he had no hope in this company of international gentlemen, chose not to renew contact with Belinda, and closed the book on her, Smith College, and weekends at the Taft.

After two years of this, Ray realized that his old captain’s license was no longer valid.  Navigating these new sexual waters – coursing the gender spectrum, afraid of ending up with a half-woman, but so dying for sexual encounter with another human being that he might look the other way in the morning – was not an easy task.  So much had happened over the decades since he and Maggie were married that he felt that he hadn’t even a toehold.

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Of course there were women as sexually dépaysée as he was – adrift in sexual waters, hoping for a familiar buoy, but grasping more than getting purchase – but where were they? Finding the right woman would be like finding a needle in a haystack unless the gods intervened; and pray he did for divine guidance  if not resolution, to no avail.  He was as alone and lonely as he had ever been; and if the personal columns in a recent edition of NOW newsletter were correct, Maggie and LaShonda had bought a condo in Pacific Grove and were as happy as clams.  Why had he been so unlucky?

He continued to mine the Internet for old loves, even marginal ones like Lacy Birnbaum whom he had taken to the Lefferts prom and who had been laughed at because of her gimp and misunderstood because her father had short-changed customers at his clothing store and in a very Republican town campaigned on behalf of ‘the little man’.

Resignation to old men’s bathrobes and Chinese take-out was on his horizon because it already had happened to many men of his age.  Watch out, he told himself, but with no words of self-encouragement.

The list of old girlfriends had dwindled to nothing.  They either had died, persisted in bad marriages, were divorced and living on generous personal incomes, or were resigned like him to incidental contact.

It would be nice to report that Ray eventually found his soulmate; but he did not.  He was simply too inflexible, too fixated on ideas and principle, and too stubborn to give an inch.  There were plenty of women who would gladly have had a fling with him, married or not, but he was too sexually dense.  He had never had to rely on clues and suggestion – if progressivism is anything, it is not subtle; things are either right or wrong - so he was lost with women who react first on instinct and intuition, and only second on fact.

The best he could manage was a condo in retirement home for the years before his death and a memorial bench on the C&O Canal after, made possible by the generous gift of his nieces and nephews.

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Sex, while instinctual, basic, and primitive, still needs to be learned.  Ray Handley was one of those men who thought that sex came naturally and always missed out.  He missed out on his first go-round with an impossibly serious cause-chaser, lesbian-in-waiting; and missed out on all other chances and opportunities because he had learned nothing at all about women.  Not exactly the war between the sexes, but poor intelligence.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Women–Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them–A Cautionary Tale

Handel Brachman had a lively sexual interest every since he was a young boy – the first in his fourth grade class to kiss girls in the woods; the first in his seventh grade class to notice Nancy Boothby’s breasts; the first in his eighth grade class to fondle them; and the first in his tenth grade class to have sex with her.  Whose budding sexuality led whose? Nancy’s or Handel’s? Who followed whom into the woods and who led? Handel could only remember being there, unsure of whether he should or shouldn’t do what Nancy asked, but forgot his question soon enough.

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Boys are always a few steps behind girls in both emotional and physical development; but they never learn the lesson of female desire properly - not only do girls want it as much as boys, they want it even more.  Nancy helped Handel gain a step, and ever after his time in the woods with her he never hesitated to make a move.  Rejection never occurred to him – of course there would be some women who would turn him down, but most did not, and if they did he never took it personally.  One size does not fit all, de gustibus non disputandum est and all the rest. Demurral was never rejection, no time was to be wasted on unrequited pursuits, and new opportunities always awaited in study hall, the library, and on the Mall.

The second lesson that Nancy Boothby taught him was that women adore confidence.   Why put up with beating around the bush while a boy gins up his courage to manage a kiss?  Better to deflect an unwanted kiss than have no kiss at all.

The cult of demureness, chastity, and hard-to-get is an insecure man’s creation.  It is all well and good for a man to sleep around; but a woman’s vagaries can very well end up in a pregnancy not of her husband’s making, and then where would he be? Obliged to care for both an unfaithful wife and a bastard child.  No thank you.  While the Saudis have taken male insecurity to the extreme – burkas, women only quarters, lock-and-key security – it is a very visible reminder of what awaits the unaware spouse.

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If it weren’t for men’s physical strength – the foundation of income-generation as well as spousal fidelity – women would be as profligate as men.  Handel Brachman and Nancy Boothby grew up before the age of feminism when women were finally able to throw off their traces and pull on their own, so it was felicitous and advantageous for both of them to meet as 10-yr olds.  Handel learned about female sexual desire early on, and Nancy learned quickly about men’s easy complicity.  Men’s wholly irresistible sexual urge was a thing to be used to advantage – to put the brakes on when it did not suit them, and to floor the accelerator when it did. 

Of course sexual harmony is not as easy as all that.  The two lessons learned in the woods had to be followed by many others before Handel could navigate adult sexual waters.  He had his first dose of female perversity when Marta Phillips went off for the weekend with Timmy Brixton, an unlikely candidate but a wealthy one, with a Porsche and a summer house.  It was her way of corralling him.  He would be so happy to have her back after her affair with Timmy that a weekend with a dud – especially at his place on the Vineyard – would be worth it if it could close the gate on his adventures.

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Pregnancy ‘scares’, intimations of sexual improprieties, and suggestions of sexual insufficiency – are all good lessons.  Going with women was not as easy as Handel had thought those many years ago in the woods.  Women are far more complicated – and interesting – than men; and life with them will not always be smooth sailing.  One has to keep one’s vigilance up if not one’s guard.

D.H. Lawrence better than any other writer understood the dynamics of sex.  At its best it would be a complementarity of wills, of dominance and submission by no means a one-way street and central to sexual expression.  Women in Love is a long, windy tale about four lovers looking for the sexual harmony that Lawrence first suggested in The Rainbow and completed in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; but it does fix sex within sexual dynamics.  While Lawrence was never indifferent to social class and its influence on sexual pursuit and behavior, it was far less important than the much more indefinable element of will – a desire to dominate or submit; and as importantly to find a sexual partner of complementary desires.

None of the men in Women in Love come out well, and Gerald dies alone, frozen on an Alpine mountaintop.  Mellors the gamekeeper finally has his sexual epiphany with Connie Chatterley, but it doesn’t last, and their life together, only hinted at in the closing paragraphs of the book, will not be a bed of roses.   Lawrence’s men all cast their lot with women far more complex than they, more determined, and more able; but could not resist so doing.  Only when they get caught in the warren of their lovers’ impossibly twisted sexual desires and find no way out, do they realize they had gotten trapped in it.  They had no way of knowing because their own sexual demands narrowed their perspective and limited their vision.

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Only one character in Women In Love, Loerke, understands women and how to get from them what he wants.  He suffers from no philosophical, moral, or physical uncertainty. He is beyond good and evil, amoral, and unapologetic about it. His appeal to both Ursula and Gudrun is unmistakable. In this passage, Gudrun thinks about him.

To Gudrun, there was in Loerke the rock bottom of all life. Everybody else had their illusion, must have their illusion, their before and after. But he, with a perfect stoicism, did without any before and after, dispensed with all illusion. He did not deceive himself in the last issue. In the last issue he cared about nothing, he was troubled about nothing; he made not the slightest attempt to be at one with anything. He existed as a pure, unconnected will, stoical and momentaneous…

Handel learned this lesson as well, perhaps the last in his notebook because of its finality.  Yet there was too much simplicity in him to be a Loerke.  He was as amoral, but less inclined to use his amorality as an instrument of sexual power.  Yet he wanted to be Loerke, for although Loerke was physically unattractive and intellectually diffident, his absolute confidence and unquestioned sexual potency made him irresistible to women.  Loerke connected with women on a far more essential, primitive level than Handel ever could.

There is a delicate balance between suspicion and trust.  Too much looking around corners and under beds leads to too many blind sexual alleys.  Too much trust, and too many noses are left wide open and men taken to the cleaners.   Handel was always fair – not to the women in his life necessarily, but to himself.  Circumspection, confidence, and acceptance were all part of the bargain.

Every man remembers his first love, and since Handel Brachman’s happened before he even knew what was what – when Nancy Boothby asked him to take his pants down – he could never forget it, nor did he want to.  Nancy sat next to him in school the day after the woods, so close together in the auditorium that their legs touched.  She smelled fresh and clean, like talcum powder and lilac soap, and she was wearing the same dress that she had worn in the woods.  He noticed a bit of dried oak leaf on her dress that she had not seen and remembered how she had put her clothes neatly in a pile on a mossy patch under his father’s favorite tree.  How could he ever forget that?