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

Monday, April 29, 2019

‘Match Me, Sidney’– Donald Trump, ‘The Sweet Smell Of Success’ And The Wonderful Fiction Of Morality

The 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis is a Hollywood classic in which the rich, the famous  take a fall. According to the unwritten code of Hollywood good always triumphs over evil.  JJ Hunsacker is the toast of the New York tabloids, a premier entertainment and gossip columnist who can destroy reputations of people, restaurants, and talent with one column.  He relies on gossip, innuendo, and suggestion; and rarely if ever the facts.   A favorable notice in his column, often paid for in favors, money, or inside information, is what he has for sale.  Hunsacker is an urban oracle,  reviewer of first and last resort,  center of all things worth knowing .

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Sidney Falco is publicist, a lobbyist, and hanger-on, low-life and  groveling, ambitious without limit, soulless and desperate.  He and Hunsacker are the perfect couple – without scruples, moral anchor, or rectitude.  He does favors for Hunsacker in return for a few favorable lines in his column.  When Hunsacker asks Falco to destroy the reputation of the young jazz musician in love with Hunsacker’s sister, Falco at first agrees; but as Hunsacker’s requests become more and more deformed and brutal, he refuses. 

In the film Body Heat, Edmund Walker, the unscrupulous, soon-to-be-murdered investor and real estate developer shares his secret of success to his wife’s lover and killer.  ‘Do what it takes’, he says. ‘Whatever it takes’, advice taken to heart by his killer.  Ned Racine is careless lawyer with few scruples but whose lack of principle has never paid off.  He has never figured out how to land a big score. Seduced by Walker’s wife, he is promised that by killing her husband, they will both profit from his wealth.  Racine, too slow-witted to see he is being conned, agrees to kill Walker; but rather than an easy score, Racine finds that Walker’s wife shifts all the blame on him and goes off with all the money. He has tried to do what it takes but has been outwitted by a woman who does what it takes with far more resolve, intelligence, and moral indifference than he. 

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JJ Hunsacker and Sidney Falco ‘do what it takes’.  Hunsacker’s social canniness  and  feel for  the ‘pulse of the city’ give him what he thinks is license to write anything.  He and his readers are complicit.   Neither he nor they care about the truth but only about its semblance – what is implied not what it is.   It is Hunsacker’s readers who have given him license through their indifference to the truth and appetite for the vulgar.  It is Falco and other agents and clients who hope to get Hunsacker’s favor and attention and who feed him rumor, innuendo, and deniable lies who provide the material for his columns; and it is JJ who takes all and prints all.  Corruption continues because it is endemic, universal, and ignored.  Readers, agents, and columnists are equally guilty. A persistent if not inevitable truth. 

Unreality – that blend of what is, what was, and what might be – is far preferable to hard facts; and those who profit from this suggestible reality are no more than transit points for information.  Without a public hungry for sensationalism and indifference to what is, there would be no Hunsackers and Falcos.   Who in today’s electronic age of media either knows, cares about, or is interested in finding out about the truth?  In a relative age, license is based on interpretation. If the age considers bi-polar sex – a biological, historical, scientific fact - to be a fiction, how can anything else be considered fixed, permanent, and beyond debate?

As importantly such moral relativity is given even greater license because of the increasing impossibility of deciphering the complexity of society.  One feels justified in relying on subjective judgement rather than probing for more objective answers.  It is far easier to submit to God and accept all as his doing rather than  disaggregating facts, factors, variables, and causes to find real secular answers.  Social media make such subjectivity easy.  Every unconfirmed, speculative, and nonsense notion can find a home on the Internet.  Once one finds his group, his associates in speculation, he has found legitimacy, justification, and purpose.

The same moral question raised in The Sweet Smell of Success -  who is responsible for this erosion of objectivity and valuation of truth and fact – is even more relevant today.   The media are only vehicles for the dissemination of information.  Most of those who post impossibly unbelievable stories do it innocently, out of feeling and personal commitment.  They used to shout to small crowds on Union Square – itinerant preachers and psychotics – now they can reach everyone.  Those lobbyists, media organizers, media companies, and electronic publicists are only facilitators.  No one is directly responsible.  All are indirectly responsible.

The Donald Trump phenomenon should not be surprising in this relative, intellectually permissive, and morally lax age.  Donald Trump is the man of this post-logical era.  He has never made any pretentions about who, beneath the thunder, braggadocio, and greasepaint he is.  It is his nay-sayers who demand something more, something ‘presidential’, something traditional and familiar; but they will always be disappointed because there is no ‘there’ there.  What you see is what you get.  Image is all and everything.  Trump is everyman because he is no man – he is a Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York creation that has nothing to do with Ames, Iowa or Duluth, Minnesota. .  He is what Americans would like to be, not what they are.  We all would like Trump’s arm candy, his yachts, his Mar El Lago resort, his executive privilege, private jets, and bodyguards.  We all want to be protected, cared for, deferred to.  Because Trump is a man of our fantastical imagination, we can more easily imagine being him than the Bushes,  Jimmy Carter, or the Kennedys.

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So enter the question of morality and moral rectitude. If Donald Trump has been created out of a hyper-realistic fantasy – an invulnerable superhero– and if people see him as such, then what is holding him to a vain idea of ‘reality’  The circus side show, the fun house, the chamber of mirrors, and the big event itself are enough reality for anyone.

Take away Sidney Falco’s venality and JJ’s amoral pursuit of power – i,e, stripping them of any moral supposition – and you have us.  There are few ambitious, hungry and aggressive Americans who let morality get in the way of individual pursuits.  We are the snake oil salesmen who are only making a living – what is chicanery and a silver tongue except making a go in an unfair world? The marketplace is crowded near the edges – the check-is-in-the mail, fly-by-night operator; the Enron deep paper-cover investor; the cut-corners roofer; the Kazakhstan oil futures trader. Caveat emptor has always been right up there with E pluribus unum.

The Sweet Smell of Success is appealing because it has a righteous Hollywood ending; but more importantly because it is about us.  We are Sidney Falco, the Faust who sells his soul to the devil; the complaisant compromiser for whom the marketplace of values has soft, indistinct edges; the Job who has the audacity to challenge God and justify himself even before the Almighty; the corner shell game grifter; the manipulator.

We might aspire to be JJ Hunsaker but know that we can at best be Sidney Falco.  We hurt no one on our way up while Hunsaker finds, entreats, uses, and discards anyone who can help him.  Our morally questionable pursuits for a decent living are nothing compared to the depredations of the rich and the powerful.

At the end of the movie, it is Hunsacker who suffers for his emotional brutality, left alone by the only one he cares about.  Falco has, like JJ’s sister, walked out on him, willing to take the beating of Hunsacker’s thugs.  Falco, we assume, will go straight, realizing his moral destitution, believing in redemption, and saved by his rectitude.  Hunsaker’s abandonment by his sister and Falco are only the first departures; and this morally corrupt man cannot but fall.  The American dream of success at any cost has its conditions after all.

Or so says Hollywood.  However, for every corrupt Wall Street adviser caught in insider trading and investment fraud who is caught, hundreds are missed, flying just under the wire, manipulating the SEC rules, parsing, justifying, and defending their self-interest.  For every televangelist caught in delicto flagrante there are hundreds of others more carefully concealing their indiscretions, and creating a cult of absolute belief as cover.  For every politician who is caught with his hand in the till or allegedly unethical behavior, thousands fly free to use their power and influence within bounds.  Again, everyone is complicit – we the voters who accept politicians’ self-serving apologies; the media who accept acts of contrition as end-of-story lines; and the politicians who know that everyone in America has a short moral memory.

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Woody Allen has been the one Hollywood director whose characters get away with murder by doing what it takes.  In Crimes and Misdemeanors, a well-respected New York ophthalmologist has his lover murdered because she insists that he do the right thing – confess to his wife, get divorced, and marry her.  At first he has moments of uncontrollable guilt and anxiety; but after the murder investigation languishes and he is no longer a suspect, he returns to his own life.  The murder has never existed.  Fact and truth were conveniently erased, and lives are led happily ever after. In Match Point, a lower-class ambitious tennis professional seduces the daughter of one of London’s wealthiest families, soon finds her predictably uninteresting, and begins an affair.  His lover, like the woman in Crimes and Misdemeanors, demands that he do the right thing when she finds out she is pregnant – confess to his wife, get divorced, and marry her.  The tennis pro can see no way out.  He cannot leave the life of wealth and privilege into which he has married; and his lover refuses to go away.  He murders her and gets away with the crime.  It never happened.

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Despite our Hollywood-inspired temptation to believe that right always prevails (Woody Allen notwithstanding), we believe otherwise.  Not only do we do what it takes, but have less and less moral compunction about our actions.  Traditional standards of morality – right and wrong, codified in every religious text and secular constitution – cannot survive a pervasive, insistent culture of relativism; a free flow of electronic information; an ethos of identity and individual rights; and an environment where apology trumps moral right. 

Donald Trump is no more than a product of his age, the president who more reflects the true nature of American than any before, and most definitely one of us.  Not a pretty picture, perhaps, but accurate.





Saturday, April 27, 2019

Mueller, Schmueller–Flapdoodle, Joe Biden, And The Triumph Of Donald Trump

It is hard not to feel sorry for Joe Biden, the nearly octogenarian newly-announced Democratic candidate for President of the United States.  He has always been a decent man, a man of rectitude and principle, temperance and moderation, compromise and  value. His Vice-Presidency under Barack Obama was predictably dutiful and unremarkable; but all Vice-Presidents are expected to be quiet junior partners.  The Vice-Presidency is hard for most politicians who have built their career in staking out positions and arguing in their defense.  Joe Biden was always known as a garrulous man who loved to hear his own voice; but he was never accused of being venal or overly self-interested, just happy to express his views in which he passionately believed.  Older Americans remember Hubert Humphrey, the Happy Warrior, an equally garrulous man willing to set aside his personal beliefs for the sake of White House harmony and loyalty – a thankless task in the White House of one of the most arrogantly self-assured presidents ever – Lyndon Johnson.

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So little was heard of Joe Biden while he served Barack Obama – some ceremonial witness, ribbon-cutting, and dutiful participation in Cabinet meetings; and even some heart-to-heart talks with his boss who was also known for his own compassion and good sense – but little more.  Nothing in the way of policy statements, white papers, or new ideas.  Yet Biden always assumed, as do most Vice Presidents, that his day would come.  Incumbency, even as second-in-command, is usually rewarded with electoral victory, and that he was the obvious choice for the Presidency once Obama left office.  Unfortunately the tragic death of his son intervened, and Biden, true to his principles, sadly removed himself from the race.  He simply would not be able to be the happy camper that had always characterized him.  His withdrawal led the way to a Hillary Clinton candidacy, a mismanaged, arrogant, entitled run and her ultimate defeat.  Many Democrats, who knew that Biden was the better candidate, privately blamed him for Trump’s victory.

Either to atone for his questionable demurral – after all, true patriots always put country first – or to add some weight and experience to the crowded, young, ultra-liberal Democratic field, Biden has announced his candidacy.  For those who remember Biden for his decency and his political moderation, his entry into the race was applauded.  The more that the Democratic party turned radically left, the greater the chance for another Trump victory, and Biden was the party’s savior. 

Their hopes were quickly dashed as Biden rushed to the far left.  In his very first speeches he proclaimed that he was the only true progressive in the race, the champion of race, gender, and ethnicity; the distribution of wealth, the curtailing of corporate and Wall Street greed, retribution and restitution for black Americans, and an outspoken advocate for the gender spectrum.   The only chance that Uncle Joe possibly has in his unlikely run for the presidency is his centrism, his patriotism, and his solidly middle class American values.  Yet, there he was, courting the same ragged progressive fringes as his nineteen co-candidates.

In short, he joined the anti-Trump hysteria. As much as many Americans hated Richard Nixon for the brutal bombing of North Vietnam and his hypocritical public statements about bringing peace to Asia, there was never the assumption of evil  that is laid on Donald Trump.  Nixon was an overly-ambitious, psychologically damaged, vindictive president who made bad choices.  His overweening pride and political amorality led to the Watergate break-in, cover up, and dirty tricks.  His continued prosecution of the Vietnam war despite obvious defeat was politically unrealistic was a product of his Cold War, Fifties anti-Communist past. 

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Donald Trump on his very first entry into national politics was vilified, condemned, and ridiculed as a sexist, racist bigot with no moral core.  He was a circus performer, a Hollywood entertainer, and the very symbol of crass American vulgarity.  If nothing else, the progressive Left has always imagined itself as intellectual, righteous, and morally superior -  an elite with a God-given right to govern, the only political movement with uplift, progress, compassion, and fairness as their hallmarks.  They are serious, committed people with no trappings, no glitz and glamour, no shameless displays of wealth.  And here comes this interloper, this cultural pariah from Las Vegas, Hollywood, and the mean streets of New York – a huckster, braggart, and embracer of all that is low-bourgeois – gaudy mansions, arm candy, yachts, and penthouses.  He, if one is to believe the hysteria of the Left, is the devil incarnate. 

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In the past the political opposition in Congress and the media would have focused on a president’s political misdeeds – Johnson’s geopolitical ignorance, Nixon’s Cold War mentality, Obama’s na├»ve liberalism, Bush Junior’s military presumptuousness and yellow cake gullibility – and would have mounted rational objections, alternative policies, and remedial programs.  The man was less important than his actions.  There was nothing fundamentally wrong with any of these former presidents; and while they were as much as anyone influenced by their past, their upbringing, their character and personality, their political decisions were not judged on their moral rightness or wrongness but their geopolitical credibility.  It seems impossible for the Democratic Left to assume the same, objective posture.  Donald Trump, in their opinion, is not seriously flawed, but innately and irremediably immoral.  It is not just political expediency which has influenced his attitudes towards any of his firings, evasions of investigation, and reticence about affairs he considers personal and privileged, but an assumption of a fundamental human flaw.

Joe Biden knows better.  There is no such thing as an evil president, only a bad one; and as bad as a president may be, he reflects the Americans who have elected him.  Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere, some weird alien interloper.  He came directly and squarely out of Middle America – the America which believes strongly in religious fundamentalism, social conservatism, individual liberty, and freedom of expression; but also loves Hollywood, Las Vegas, glitz, glamour, and fake news.  Most of us lead lives far too dreary to have patience with the truth and nothing but the truth if there ever was any such thing.  Image is what we have grown up with, and image is what we want.  If fact and fiction, image and ‘reality’ are hopelessly mixed, who cares?  If life is a side show, then why not enjoy it?

When Trump announced that he was going to open the border to illegal immigrants on the condition that they be shipped to, housed, and cared for by sanctuary cities, the Left howled foul – how hypocritical, how insensitive, how ignorant, they said.  Yet Trump supporters loved him for it.  He was sticking the whole sanctuary city, politically correct nonsense in the eye of his adversaries.  That’ll show ‘em!  Of course he had no intention of carrying through on this policy; and like many such exaggerated statements said to make a point, he did it only for show.  And what a show it was on MSNBC and CNN and in the New York Times.  Trump triumphs because of his outrageousness – a posture that no one has ever had to face before. “He is not acting presidential”, say his critics longing for Pablo Casals and Robert Frost in the Kennedy White House, good, traditional Anglo-American culture.

Yet Joe Biden took the bait.  He wants so desperately to become president and has for so long that he has forgotten why he is running and runs anyway, that he swallows his pride, temperance, and good sense, and endorses the most wild and impossible schemes of Kamal Harris, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and all the rest.  It is a sad and sorry spectacle.  The poor guy has no chance and he doesn’t even know it.  No one wants an old geezer, a blabbermouth, a Hubert Humphrey happy guy, and a political moderate in their midst.  His Democratic rivals will humiliate him if he has not already humiliated himself.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Love In A Foreign Language–The Very Tedious Limits Of Romance

Robert Greeley looked for love wherever he could find it.  A product of a routine marriage concluded on the rebound of a bad one, a conservative man suspicious of romance but liberal when it came to sexual adventure, Robert had always hoped for a liaison dangereuse, a love affair of souls.  Of course as an intellectual he believed in no such things.  Love was a lovely fiction thanks to Petrarch, but evidently nothing more than a very prosaic and predictable union of hopefully compatible individuals.  Marriage was a negotiated contract, an agreement between two independent, rational beings who understood the tenuousness and fragility of connubial union, who, however much they might ‘love’ each other, wanted to take no chances.

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The marriage contract between Greeley and his wife had endured, less because they ‘loved’ each other, but because it would be too difficult for them to dissolve a relationship which had become complicated by children; and more importantly one which had three decades of sunken costs.  This unwritten clause in the contract was the most important.  Why undo a partnership which was far better than most, more congenial than many, and much less contentious than all? 

For Greeley’s wife this was a non-issue.  She loved her husband, tolerated his peccadilloes and was the more intelligent of the two.  While he went off seeking a neo-Petrarchan romantic love – a futile and hopeless enterprise to say the least – she remained faithful to the God of Practicality.  Why mess with a man who was a good father, who always returned home after his African adventures, and who, after two marriages was unlikely to venture a third?

His wife’s complaisance was part and parcel of a new covenant.  If she was content with his dutifulness and responsibility,  then the most important commandments had been respected.  He could go off on his own with no strings attached.

Ah, yes; but easier said than done.  How realistic was this new enterprise? How littered would the field be? How difficult would the search for a 500 year-old ideal of romantic love be?

Given the background of his sexual freedom, six months on the road in impossibly romantic places – ylang-ylang and spices in the Comoros, baths in Soviet-era spas in the Carpathians, sex in the thorny, goat-eaten, hills above Islamabad, intent in the jasmine-scented rooms of Ahmedabad – Greeley was open and ready for a romantic epiphany, the love of his life, a Lawrentian epiphany.

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Yet, there were always obstacles.  Miriam, a young woman from the Tyrol who had met and fallen in love with a Haitian mulatto, son of a wealthy Kenscoff family of merchants and entrepreneurs; but who had, like Greeley, never been totally committed and more importantly been as susceptible to Moroni’s scents of clove and cinnamon, the remoteness of the Comoros, and the constant, drumming rain on the roof of the ‘Italian Hotel’, an empty, derelict place run by a stateless Neapolitan.  She could give only love between missions on her way back to Petionville or Vienna or the Alto Adige.  There was real attraction there – that special coupling of unattached, unmoored,  hopelessly Victorian souls that only occurs in the jungle,  Haiti, Anjouan, Rwanda, and never survives beyond – but it had no legs, no longevity, no staying power.  It was the jungle that annealed the relationship, but the seal was nor ever could be watertight.  Robert went back to his wife and Hannah to Haiti.

Robert had become friends with an Argentine woman whom he had met on a trip to Morocco; but because both were intellectuals who relied on language for all correspondence,  they were emotionally stymied.   Despite an obvious attraction, they could not get past her fumbling English and his sporadic Spanish.  It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t make themselves understood; they were unable to communicate.  First Communion, the back seat of a ‘57 Ford, marbles, or Nishan’s drugstore; or whatever Argentine connections there were to adolescence and family.  Nothing was funny.  There are no jokes possible in a just manageable language.  Their relationship might have been had they been willing to get beyond definition and meaning; but they could not.

Robert’s relationship with a young Moldovan woman was quite different.  He spoke no Romanian, she no English,  but his desire for a much younger woman and hers for a wealthy American were compensations enough. Most importantly their sex was independent of, but reliant on these obsessions.  Although each was intent on something – she in corralling a Western husband and he in bedding a young Cleopatra – their sex was uninhibited by these claims. Language was nowhere nearly as important as he had thought.  Sex, sensuality, and expression counted for much more than ‘understanding’.

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Robert’s search for Lawrentian love almost came home in his love affair with Berthe, a youngish Danish woman whom he met in Rawalpindi.  Language was not an issue, nor with cultural oddities.  They met on an equal social, professional, cultural, and linguistic plane.  It was because of this surprising confluence that Robert became complacent.  He had ticked off so many prerequisites that her had missed the point entirely.  While the affair was for him a sadly romantic adventure, for her it was only an interlude.  Ah, the Europeans with their wonderful sexual ease and indifferent worldliness – he had missed the point entirely.  He had sorted out culture but had missed out on personal intimacy.

Left on the curb by Berthe, disappointed by the manipulative Christina, still hopeful for the lovely Maria, ,but concluding that his only future was either with his wife of 35 years or an Iowa farm girl – cornflower blue eyes, flaxen hair, love of fathers and family, Protestant and uncomplaining . 

The Iowa farm girl was intimately and quickly understandable and his wife decipherable.  He and his wife had both come from the right end of New Brighton, the upper crust end, the Ivy League and Nantucket end; and they had paralleled each other for twenty years on sloops, catamarans, beach cookouts, and string trios.  They were two of a kind, the match all parents of their milieu hoped for, the closest thing to arranged marriage, and the marital proposition of the decade.   He and Lisa, the Ames, Iowa maiden, shared nothing except indefinable Americanness – a shared core of religion, family, work, and community. Although they were at the extreme ends of the socio-cultural spectrum,  they understood each other fundamentally; but such understanding was boring. What was the point of a confluence of culture? What indeed did shared cultural roots ever matter to sexual epiphany?

On the one hand Robert longed for the easy repartee – those cultural, linguistic double-entendres that signaled wit, humor, and cultural intimacy.  On the other he wished for cultural unknowability that made new sexual alliances interesting if not worthwhile.  Turkish gender ceremonies, pagan Spring festivals, Islam, complex brotherhood, Asian insularity, and European glamour made Toprak, Emriye, and Ceyda even more alluring.  There seemed to be no middle ground, no resting place.

Despite many reverses Robert, a tireless, undaunted romantic, continued his search for a perfect romantic love; and yet the older he got, and the more settled in his very predictable, traditional marriage, the less he thought that he would ever find it.  There were simply too many variables, too many unintended consequences, and too many unforeseen happenings.   Pregnancy, penury, and visas always seemed to get in the way.  What was the point. As one drew closer to the end of one’s life and farther from its beginnings wasn’t time to either retire to Florida or to a retreat in an Alpine Carthusian monastery?

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The good news is that Robert remained married, had numerous grandchildren, and enjoyed his dotage.  The bad news – bad for all older men – is that he continued to think of sex with younger woman all the night and day.  If not a Petrarchan romance, than at least a cinq-a-sept with a thirty-something. This – the unfaded, unalloyed dream of the American male for better or worse – was Robert’s legacy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Love Affair In The Sahara –Incidental, Temporary, Unique

The trip from Nouakchott to the El Habib oasis is not far, perhaps no more than 50 miles; but it is travelled on desert pistes which disappear in the frequent sandstorms blowing from Algeria across Brakna and Al-Alahoui.  Then, it is navigation by familiarity, by the largest dunes whose profiles are changed by the wind but whose massiveness does not and serve to guide the way.  The off-piste ride is like riding the swells of a storm, sliding down and making headway up and through the dunes, back to the track, barely distinguishable from the rest of the desert sand except for the slight indentations made by the tires of the camions bringing provisions – water, Pernod, thread, couscous and material – to the oases of the north.

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This trip to El Habib went well.  The miles were covered without incident, the piste trackable for most of the trip, the weather calm and the heat bearable, and the accommodations in the house of the prefect comfortable until shortly after midnight when a sandstorm came up and sand sifted through the cracks under the doors, around the windows, and through the chinks in the roof.  The onward journey was delayed until noon when the skies finally cleared.   Each sandstorm narrowed the perimeter of the oasis and this one completely covered the briar fencing around the watered garden near the house.  The camels tethered in the palm grove hadn’t moved during the storm and their legs were shank-deep in sand, but as the team went up to the roof for breakfast, they began to move and bite, bellowing for feed or for movement, anticipating the trek which always came with good weather.  Even with Land Rovers and eight-wheeler camions the camels were still used to transport goods from Algeria, salt, and dates from the oases.

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Dinner, bed, and breakfast on the rooftop of the prefect’s residence was the best the team would have on the long trip to the far north of the region.  Accommodations were scarce, food marginal and sandy, and the water brackish. Washing – except for the ritual rinsing of hands before meals – was out of the question, a change of clothes impossible because all available space in the vehicles was reserved for the medicines, equipment, and nutritional supplements needed by the desert health posts to be visited.  On the second day, the wind shifted, and although light and variable brought high heat from the south, temperatures well over 100F that tried the engines of the diesels already taxed by constant low-range gear driving.  Despite being fitted for desert travel – exhausts mounted up and over the roofs, special sealant on the undercarriage, triple-filters for the air exchange, sand fouled all.  The air-conditioning on one of the Mercedes failed, and worked pitifully on the other two.   A tire was punctured on one of the long, sand-less, Mars-like stretches of rocky basalt and red dirt and the pressure so low on another three that small leaks were suspected, found, and sealed but only incompletely.

Roger and Miriam were colleagues on the UN team commissioned to service the farthest health outposts in the Mauritanian desert.  She was a medical doctor from Denmark, he an American public health specialist from America and they had become lovers on a previous trip to Kenya – a far less difficult mission than this one, most of it spent in the outskirts of the capital where tent cities had been erected to house the thousands of refugees from Southern Sudan and Ethiopia.  The work was difficult, often tedious, and emotionally disturbing, but there was always the Norfolk – the old British colonial hotel in downtown Nairobi where they were lodged – at the end of the day. 

Conversation is easy and comfortable among development workers in Africa with few of the social inhibitions of Europe and America  There is an automatic camaraderie among them, and any invitations are always assumed to be professional.  “Which cam did you visit today? Who do you work for? How long have you been here?  Where are you from?” are not come-ons and the answers to which are but markers of institutional place.  At the same time, if responses seem as congenial as they are professional, and if interest seems more than just passing, sex might well follow.  No one is looking here, nobody cares, and personal commitment to the health and welfare of others is a strong signifier, if not of rectitude than at least circumspection.   A love affair of travelers in Africa or Haiti, or Bucharest has had the annoying trappings of marriage, family, and home-office responsibility temporarily removed.  No one ever suggests carrying the affair farther than Port-au-Prince or Nairobi unless there is mutual agreement to do so.  Both partners in these initially one-off affairs want nothing more; and a romantic interlude between here and there is exciting, energizing, and uncomplicated.

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Much has been written about these cross-continental, international love affairs. In Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel, a collection of reflections on the seductiveness of travelling alone, he writes that travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive.

To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)

One can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible.  Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted, we think.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life.

Love in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is always incidental, always temporary, but always unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home.

The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

Roger and Miriam had been brought together by Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in his balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.  If it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.


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They never talked about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They only shared experiences from New Brighton,  Harvard, and Spring Valley; or Radisson, Fort George, or Nemiscau. Haiti gave their stories a common context. New Brighton and Fort George would now only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

There is something disassembling about foreign places to which no one is immune.  Once one leaves the tarmac at Dulles, homegrown cultural constraints are loosened; and once once one lands in Niamey, Bamako, or Luanda they are untethered.  There is no liberation to compare.

It was not intended that their Haitian love affair continue.  As is generally the case, temporary lovers in strange places never suggest that they meet in Boston, New York, or Miami; and when her summer internships were over and his last contract delivered, they thought that their affair was over.  Yet it began again in Nouakchott, both as excited by the Sahara – its unknowable dimensions, its immensity – as they were by the tom-toms and voodoo of Kenscoff.

They did not sleep together in Nouakchott before the trek into the desert.  Too much time had past since Haiti,  and the unspoken rules of such incidental affairs – that they were over when they ended – were assumed. Yet that particularly potent chemistry of dispensation from the responsibility of home and family and the particular allure of solitariness in very strange, foreign places was irresistible.  And the sexual adventure – making love on the rooftop of the prefect’s residence under a full moon, only hours before the sandstorm but after all had retired for the night – was as Lawrentian as that on the high terrace of the Splendide Hotel, above the harbor of Port-au-Prince and beneath the hills of Petionville and Kenscoff beyond.

If the trip in had not been so difficult, had the radiators not overheated in the sand, had the air transfer not gotten so fouled, had the heat not been so desperately frightening, and the sandstorm not so intense and seemingly unending, the remote nutrition rehabilitation centers of the interior so filled with starvation and death, and the trip back not interrupted by more sandstorms and breakdowns, they might have ended the affair like all those that preceded them.  Yet they could not, planned to meet in Europe after the mission and again in New York.

They should have known better.  A love affair begun in the desert or in the strange voodoo Tonton Macoutes world of Papa Doc has no chance of surviving elsewhere.  There is no carryover, no re-creation, and no going back.  After a long weekend in Paris and a shorter one in Washington, they never saw each other again.  ‘There are many kinds of love in the world’, wrote Fitzgerald, ‘but never the same love twice’; and without regret but with frequent nostalgia, they agreed.   They went back to home, family, and responsibility as if they had never left; only to find incidental love many times thereafter.