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

Monday, May 6, 2019

Taking Risks–Adieu To A Settled, Predictable, Uninspiring Life

We live in a risk-averse society.  From playgrounds and swimming pools to safe spaces and kitchen counters, Americans seem determined to eliminate risk.
Yet risk is what saves life from being entirely predictable, pedestrian, and boring.  Risk individualizes, gives character, definition, and meaning.  For those who understand this, life is not a series of anything.

One person races cars, another does extreme skiing, another is a smoker, a third has unprotected sex, and a fourth has affairs.

None of these friends are careless or ignorant about risk.  They have simply calculated it correctly.  To quit smoking, the smoker – European, old-school Paris intellectual who sat at the Café des Deux Magots with his father and Jean-Paul Sartre; poet, atheist, Communist – would not only have to give up tobacco and nicotine, but an identity.    Continuing to smoke in a society fixated with health above all, risk aversion, and petty bourgeois concerns is a statement of particular worth.

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The unfaithful husband knows quite well that he risks his marriage every time he has a dalliance; but he is older now, and the opportunity for sex with a younger woman decreases with every year.

Although he was aware that the value of his thirty-year contract with his wife was beyond calculation;  and although she, although understanding in most circumstances, would consider his infidelity a breach of sacred trust, he valued his September-May affair so much that he was willing to take the risk.

He knew he was skating on very thin ice because he had been found out before; but the sexual epiphany of love with a woman thirty-five years his junior was worth the risk.  “She is not my first love, nor my best love, but certainly my last love”, he said, paraphrasing the Antony Hopkins character in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain; and spent every other Saturday with his lover in her small studio apartment in Soho.

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The sexual adventurer was very aware that the Ukrainian and Macedonian women with whom he slept in the early 90s were at risk from HIV/AIDS; and so were the Filipinas, Burmese, and Malaysians he took as lovers.  He understood quite well that there was a chance – especially with unprotected sex – that he could contract the virus.

Yet sex with barely-known women in the seedier parts of Mandalay, Penang, and Chiang Mai was existential.  How could a lambent, secure, and faithful arrangement in Falls Church possibly satisfy?

A number of years ago a close friend and I went hiking in the Catskills.  He had hiked the mountains many times, and wanted to spend the night at the top of one of the range’s highest peaks; but the climb would entail a section of rock face challenging for even the most experienced climbers.

Although he was familiar with the region, he was unsure of the best starting point.  Why, asked the grocer from whom we had asked directions, should we be fussing with rock climbing when we could be in bed with our girlfriends?

Why indeed? And after many decades, and having been chastened with a good lesson learned,  my friend’s most challenging and exciting moments were never in the mountains; and to equalize the trade-off between the exhilaration of high-altitude climbing and good sex, just any girlfriend would not do. A former debutante from Miss Porter’s, an art major from Smith, or an investment banker intern at Barkley Burnham, were not enough.

He risked discovery by his wife, disease, betrayal to the police, and extortion for the sake of risk.  Love in the Carpathians, Port-au-Prince, Bucharest, and Rawalpindi would never have been as sweet if it hadn’t been backdropped with Asian sexual intrigue, the ton-ton Macoutes  and Ceausescu's security service.  What was a cinq-a-sept in Adams Morgan compared to rum punches, Petit Pierre, and hot afternoon siesta in the Graham Greene Suite at the Oloffson?

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Apsley Cherry-Garrard writing in The Worst Journey in the World, describes surviving an Antarctic winter as part of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole – an ordeal he volunteered for:
As we approached Terror Point in the fog we sensed that we had risen and fallen over several rises. Every now and then we felt hard slippery snow under our feet. Every now and then our feet went through crusts in the surface. And then quite suddenly, vague, indefinable, monstrous, there loomed a something ahead. I remember having a feeling as of ghosts about as we untoggled our harnesses from the sledge, tied them together, and thus roped walked upwards on that ice. The moon was showing a ghastly ragged mountainous edge above us in the fog, and as we rose we found that we were on a pressure ridge. We stopped, looked at one another, and then hang — right under our feet. More bangs, and creaks and groans ; for that ice was moving and splitting like glass.
What was Cherry-Garrard thinking? Of course the Age of Exploration was a unique one.  First to the poles, first to discover the flow of the Niger, first to determine the source of the Nile, first everywhere to extend and establish imperialist hegemony; and so risk taking and validation of personal worth and identity was done within a limited and prescribed context.  We are glad, as it turns out, that Scott, Amundsen, and their parties endured privation and isolation to extend the limits of civilization.  Their priorities were different.  European society was still emerging from feudalism, the divine right of kings and noblesse oblige; and individual achievement was still a matter of record and national note.  It would be 100 years before attention turned to individually-conceived  achievement and ‘self-worth’.

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At the same time in a more socialized age the need for risk to validate life is even more important.  In the days of Scott, Amundsen, and Hillary, exceeding the possible or standing thieves was enough.  In today’s ordinary, predictable, and very imaginable lives, individual validation is more difficult.  Not only have all peaks been bagged, but we have lost any interest in anything generally uncharted.  If there are still challenges, they are personal, private, and individual.

Just as Amundsen calculated risk in terms of ultimate benefit – first to the South Pole – our estimations of risk, while calculated within a less extreme physical context, must be as narrowly-defined as his to assure maximum reward and gratification. It is not enough to have an affair here and there, to be as French as the French for whom sexual deceit is venial and sexual adventure is de rigeur, but to risk all for epiphany.  D.H. Lawrence’s Connie and Mellors defied tradition and common sense and risked a chance at sexual epiphany. They succeeded, but both, like Strindberg’s Miss Julie, were once again reverted to form.

The Age of Exploration is over, at least until the colonization of Mars and beyond; and for the time being there will be no Everest, South Pole, or Bornean and Amazonian forests to discover.   It will be up to us to make adventure out of nothing – to take unconscionable risks in search of sexual epiphany.  We can do more than Connie and Mellors.  We do not have to return to pedestrian, predictable, and conditioned lives.  We can escape confinement.

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Yet in an age of sexual liberation the tendency will be to settle – a different woman, different sexual demands, different expectations – in the hope that one of these peculiarities will match up with ours.  Sexual proliferation and the myriad choices it offers does not assure epiphany.  Far from it.  Most of us are simply tired tired out, and willing to accommodate. 

If one could – that is if sexual potency and interest lasted forever – the search for a sexual Holy Grail would be as everlasting. God’s greatest irony notwithstanding– creating men with limitless sexual desire but with limited sexual potency – we will be inexhaustible in our quest for epiphany.  ‘Even at 75 it can still happen’ is the most common, saddest consignment to fate.

Yet even at this elder age, men still are willing to take sexual risks – for those of limited resources to take sex wherever it is offered; and for those more fortunate to find and display arm candy and the booty of sexual conquest as often as possible.  There always is a consequence to sexual libertinage, but after a certain age, no one cares.

Few men of a certain age still want to climb Everest, trek to the South Pole, or solo sail around the world.  To be in bed with a young, beautiful woman in defiance of decades of marriage, children, grandchildren and a successful career is enough.  Validation.  Meaning.  Purpose.  Later-life men understand the meaning of life with no help from metaphysicians.  It is to go out with a bang, sexual, selfish, and independent until the end.

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