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

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Why Do Men Stray– Keeping A Man Is Far More Complicated Than It Used To Be

Women have always had an interest in keeping their men.  After deliberate, calculated, and often mischievous attempts to secure an attractive spouse – good money earner, more or less tolerant, and a decent if not good father – a woman’s next task was securing him.  As women have always known, men go into marriage reluctantly, hesitantly, and against their better judgment.  Women are necessary for reproduction and legacy.  They have a sense of hearth and home and can be relied on to provide  nurturing, comfort, and help to their children even when their husbands are absent, vagrant, or indifferent.  They are useful, sexually convenient, and practical.  They tend to stray less than men – although the savvy man is always observant and takes precautions – and their needs are simple.  A certain fidelity, respect, and love.

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Most men after only a few years of marriage realize that the marriage contract, no matter how legalistically fair and equitable, is predicated on a stable but conventionally conceived relationship. . If the party of the first part complies with the reasonable requests and considerations of the party of the second part, the marriage is deemed reasonable and broken only after judicial consideration etc. etc. ; but that such a contract, like any, is subject to interpretation.  Who did what to whom is the fodder for daytime TV Divorce Court.  Far more money is spent on dissolving a marriage than legalizing it.  The world knows that marriage at best is an economic affair, an affair of dowry, bride price, trusts, wills, and powers of attorney than love, intimacy, and longing.

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So it is quite natural and normal for men to stray.  They willingly admit that they  were ignorant of the consequences of marriage and had no idea how soon the pound of flesh would be exacted, or how soon the contract manipulated.  Yet they are not vindictive or righteous.  They simply take what’s coming to them – sexual freedom.

Few women would admit such a Mephistophelean bargain – a philandering husband in return for taking out the garbage and equal rights under the trust – but that is how modern marriages work.  Men have never been feminized, and the politically insistent but practically desultory training to force men to hew the progressive  line of sexual equality has never gained traction.  While men talk the talk – gender equality, sexual respect and normality, and participatory, equal relationships – they have never walked the walk and never will.  Once demands have been issued, men walk.

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The marriage between Marfa Henderson and Brent Peters had gotten off on the right foot – romance, the excitement of social and economic promise (both were from prominent Boston families) Harvard pedigrees, and the usual,, for their particular milieu, intellectual integrity and artistic savvy – but soon sullied in the trenches of marital warfare.  Love, attention, concern, and solicitude vanished as the terms of the prenup became clear and in force. 

Both parties backed off – there had been enough emotional capital invested in the marriage that dissolution at this early stage was not a consideration – but both were left with a residual bad taste.  Not only the contract but the emotional relationship itself had been tried.  Marfa retreated from her demands and Brent called up reserves of patience and forbearance, and the marriage continued.

Nature abhors a vacuum and seeks equilibrium; and so it was that Brent and Marfa, despite their differences, sought compromise; but some issues are beyond compromise and the case of Marfa and Brent is indicative and illustrative.  Marfa was the daughter of Washington State ranchers, independent, individualist, rough-and-ready, Middle-American entrepreneurs. Her mother had come from good New England Calvinist stock, whose great-great uncle had been a  prosecutor in Salem, and whose great-cousin had been a founder of Yale; and her father whose particular provenance was unknown had been a herder, cowpoke, and shepherd since the earliest family records.  She came by her parsimony, thrift, and good economic judgment naturally.  While she had never been schooled in modern finance or economics, she had had enough of a family education to have learned the value of a dollar.

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Brent was the child of wealthy Southern Italian immigrants on one side and Brazilian slavers on the other.  He not only had never been exposed to Northern European Calvinism, but he had been immersed in Mediterranean hedonism, la dolce vita and que sera sera since his youngest days.  Money was to be spent to be enjoyed. Life was never to be ugly and brutal but beautiful, happy, and satisfying.  He had no use for wills, trusts, or codicils.  He felt no obligation to survivors, heirs, or beneficiaries.  Once the light at the end of his tunnel was extinguished, all lights were extinguished.
In other words, a marriage made at City Hall, to be dissolved in the State of Massachusetts, and consummated in Maryland, had no legs  It had no practical, emotional, or psychological staying power.  Her Cotton Mather and his Epictetus would never meet.  Yet, after 25  years of hanging in there, accommodation to tradition and society, it was time for a change.  Brent could put up with any more talk of  wills, trusts, roofs, exterminators, or garden swales. It was time for a break and about time to set sails for tropical shores.

Like most men Brent assumed that his sexual adventures and dereliction would go unnoticed; and even if they were caught in the enemy’s radar they could be explained.  Working late, a cancelled flight in Amsterdam, an extended contract in Port-au-Prince, all were reasonable justifications for his dalliances.  One not given to guilt, Brent still justified his vagaries because of his wife’s narrow, pedantic, and horribly insular mentality.  Yes, he had married Cotton Mather, but that did not mean he had to sleep with him every bloody night of his life.

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Brent strayed for logical, comprehensible, very understandable reasons. In fact circumnavigating a legal marriage contract was very American where contracts are made to be broken.  In that restrictive sense, Brent made a moral decision to right the imbalance of the marital contract.  His straying colleagues could not be afforded such respect. 

Henk, a  Lothario from Delaware who shared an office with Brent, had no moral qualms whatsoever. Infidelity was a male thing, purely and simply, no questions asked no justification required.  He risked discovery and could care less.  His maleness was based on and derived from male superiority; and while he gained certain, temporal sexual traction, his rather antiquated notions did him in.  His wife, empowered thanks to her women’s support group, said ‘No Thanks’, and took her money and her children and ran.

Other men stray incidentally, on occasion, or when the opportunity presents itself.  They neither have prolonged, nettling guilt or even a bad night.  it is what is, maleness playing itself out.

So what’s a woman to do? The easiest, simplest, most logical conclusion is to accept male tomcatting as genetically given, to dismiss it as a given, but to be alert to unintended consequences. Brent might have gone off with his Danish Ice Queen if it hadn’t been for an Italian interloper who had gotten there first; but her still, as most husbands do in the final accounting, return to home base.

Another is to deploy defensive perimeters – sophisticated spyware, sentient software, and state-of-the-art invasive technology – but this is degrading and humiliating.  Better to wait for a conclusive gotcha than to wait in the morally devious shadows of surveillance.

Another is to confront the miscreant.  “I know you have been fucking Myra Brandon” and muddle through the expected denials and disclaimers until you are worn out, discouraged and disheartened
None of the above will work. Men’s hardwired nature is to stray; and the  inventiveness of his denials knows no bounds.  Women, because of their own innate, natural tendency to preserve and protect family, hearth, and home are willing to resist only so much and so far  Men can leave unencumbered and fancy free but women have the children.

The best marriages are not marriages at all but fungible and easily deconstructed.  Yes, one must trade longevity and support for freedom and independence , but after all, one dies alone; and the requiem for a long life does not include longevity or fidelity.

The Value Of Money–Spend It Or Save It? A Philosophical Divide That Marriages Cannot Survive

Marfa Parsons knew the value of money and such value was absolute.  There was no such thing as relativity (opportunity cost), particularly and especially not that which considered affective response.  There was, for example, only one way of getting from Point A to Point B, the shortest and most energy-efficient.  The fact that this route was a complicated tangle of left turns, traffic lights, and inter-city traffic made no difference.  The subjective reactions of frustration and impatience had no relevance whatsoever.

According to her estimation a clothing item that cost $500 was simply too expensive, regardless of its quality, longevity, or style.  One could buy it for far less at any one of a number of discount outlets, and less well-known brands would do just as well.  Yet she ignored the opportunity cost – the time spent researching the item on the Internet and driving to the outlets down the most heavily-trafficked roads in the region.  Five-hundred dollars was simply too much.

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This valuation of money did not change once she was financially well-off and secure.  It still was a nettling irritation when money was spent rather than husbanded.  A hundred-dollar lunch twice a week, regardless of the ample resources in the family treasury, was wrong; and this was the crux of the matter.  Expenditure ipso facto was inherently less valuable than saving.  It made little difference that Marfa’s daughter was a spender – attractive but expensive furnishings, new cars, designer wardrobe, and the best New York restaurants – and would happily spend her inheritance rather than bundle, protect, and shepherd it for her children; and that her son was equally indifferent to financial legacy and, although without the high-toned taste of his sister, would indeed spend whatever was passed on by his parents on skiing, vacations in the Caribbean, a second home in Cannes, and Porsches. 

Marfa was disturbed by her children’s valuation of money, but added to their inheritance every year thanks to her parsimony and somewhat Puritanical approach to financial management.   Although they spent money faster and more freely than she ever had, they were not spendthrifts.  It simply grated on Marfa  to think that her Cotton Mather discipline and financial rigor would not be passed on along with her money.

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Hank Lefferts was a man of a different stripe.  Money was to be spent.  It had value only in the things it could buy, and spend he did.  As a successful businessman his income far exceeded even his most ambitious expenditures, and he was therefore unconcerned about his trust.   As long as there was enough to carry him through his old age, he would never worry nor think about the laborious mechanics of financial planning.   For him opportunity cost was everything.  As long as he had enough money to pay for home maintenance and repair, financial management, and the best clothes and cars, he would never sacrifice any free time for comparative shopping, online searches, hours of financial research, trips to factory outlets, or modest vacations. 

What was the point?  Life is short, and while fortunately for him never nasty and brutish, would still end in the same place as everyone else, dans un tas pêle-mêle, ignored and forgotten. It was indeed ironic, he thought, thinking of Konstantin Levin’s reflection in Anna Karenina, that God created Man with intelligence, wit, humor, insight, enterprise, and creativity; but allowed him only a few decades on earth before consigning him to eternity beneath the cold, hard ground of the steppes; but he never obsessed over such pessimism.  However long his life was to be, he would enjoy it.

The twain of Marfa and Henry will never meet, for valuation is perhaps the greatest divider of human beings.  Man is indeed an economic animal, but not in the strict socio-economic sense of Marx and Hegel.  Rather, every human transaction is of a contractual, and thus economic nature whether money is exchanged or not.  Marriages, while consummated in love inevitably end up in contractual disputes – who is responsible for what, who violated trust, honesty, and respect?  Men and women always angle for superior position regardless of intimacy.   Men calculate the risk of affairs relative to their benefits as carefully as if they were investing in sub-prime mortgages.  Women calculate the benefits of an in-house father against the costs of an indifferent husband.  Casual friendships are neutral, but they are not excluded from valuation.  Why continue a friendship when the intellectual tank is low, spirit and humor have been spent, and practical, supportive advice is tired?

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The concept of opportunity cost, however, is far more than one of economic principle. It is perhaps the one permanent, perennial feature of human enterprise.   The difference in approach of Marfa and Hank is illustrative.  In both cases, money was no object.  She, a successful attorney and he well-compensated executive had more money than they would ever need; but considered it in radically different ways. One felt that it had absolute value; the other only relative value – a dollar can never be just a dollar.  If one has the money to spend quickly and easily, then the additional cost of purchase is always well worth the unpleasantness avoided.  Not only did Hank and Marfa look at money differently, they looked at life differently.

Their great divide is a philosophical one.  Que Sera Sera and La Dolce Vita could not be farther from Northern Lutheranism, Calvinism, and American Puritanism where thrift, saving, parsimony, and husbandry are not simply practical hedges against bad times, but spiritually important.  There is something inherently wrong, these philosophical and religious ascetics say, about unnecessary expenditures, especially those that are made only for pleasure.  There is nothing wrong in such expenditures say Mediterraneans. In fact there is everything right in pleasure – bella figura, cuisine, elegance, and sensuality. 

For the Puritan, frugality is a means to a spiritual end.  For the epicurean, it is an illogical and senseless.  Not only does thrift deprive one of the pleasure of excess, but carries no weight either in the cold hard ground of the steppes or in the wasteful hands of spendthrift children.

Marriages between the likes of Marfa and Hank never last; for despite early romantic love, similar intellectual interests, or more profound Freudian attachments, opportunity cost, Cotton Mather, and la dolce vita always get in the way.  There is no way to resolve such fundamental philosophical differences.  Marxism has failed not only because of its suppression of individualism, enterprise, and personal liberty; but because it neutered both Puritan parsimony and la dolce vita.  It never gave individuals the chance to express their profound and widely differing economic natures.  Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of capitalism is its freedom of valuation, a strong but rarely acknowledged counterbalancing societal force.  A market economy would never prosper with only savers or only spenders; and if realized and acknowledged it can mitigate romance.

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While Marfa and Hank could never marry, valuation can have its soft edges – a concern for saving, but not obsessively so; free spending without excess; a love of life with some modicum of concern for one’s legacy – and marriages between such philosophically aware individuals can work.  Not without some masonry work, however, chipping away at rock-ribbed notions formed in childhood.  One is not borne with Cotton Mather’s genes but comes to be like him thanks to parentage and family; and so, hard as it is to round the masonry and sand the edges, few people have the patience; and such marriages, despite the best intentions, end in rancor and dispute.

Fortunately both Hank and Marfa married likes and their marriages persisted.  How happy was Marfa’s as restricted as it was by thoughts of legacy and parsimony is another question altogether; and I can only attest to Hank’s.  I went to his daughter’s wedding recently – a fabulous affair held at an elegant country club near Carmel – and he, his wife, and his daughter were as happy as can be.  In the end run, it is hard to argue with Hank’s way of thinking.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Hopeless Tedium Of Soccer–Bring Back Blood Sports

Mainstream professional sports are being tamed down and feminized.  Professional football, while still a grunt-and-bang affair, is far from the toothless days of leather helmets, eye-gouging, and low blows of Knute Rockne’s day. Rules limiting physical contact have neutered the game.  The play at the plate,  a violent, deliberate, no-holds-barred collision; and the take-out slide at second, a similar attempt to destroy the off-balance, vulnerable player during his pirouette to first have been outlawed.   The only  sports which have been spared – boxing and hockey – will soon fall to the concussion protocol.  Boxing will soon require protective headgear and softer gloves, and the all-out brawls which are hockey’s principal draw will be outlawed.

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There have been two reactions to this trend – the rise of super-violent sports like Mixed Martial Arts where fighters wear no protective gear, no holds are barred, and beating an opponent into submission, not just winning if only by technical knockout, is the goal; and the parallel rise of soccer, a game which appeals to a softer audience for whom on-field violence is simply an expression of generalized male aggression.  While physical contact is a part of soccer, and the feared concussion protocol is in the wings, it is not a game where – unlike football, boxing, and hockey -  intentional disability is encouraged.  It is a game girls can play.

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Of course with the advent of Title IX girls’ sports have flourished, often at the expense of boys’ programs, but that was the point.  No one should be deprived athletic opportunity and physical expression, and girls have been encouraged to play all the sports that boys play, plus their own (field hockey, synchronized swimming).  Yet it is soccer which has really caught on for girls and boys.  Concerned mothers are happy to have a cheap, simple, uncomplicated, safe, participatory game for their children – no fear of getting hurt, plenty of opportunity for parental involvement, and above all, gender-equality.

However, the trend is reversing. According to a recent article in the NY Times (July 2018):

The real threat, however, to [the] mission to make soccer one of America’s pre-eminent sports is here at home, where youth players are abandoning the game in alarming numbers.

Over the past three years, the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent, to 2.3 million players, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which has analyzed youth athletic trends for 40 years. The number of children who touched a soccer ball even once during the year, in organized play or otherwise, also has fallen significantly…

The decline has been felt everywhere: recreational leagues in longtime soccer hotbeds here; high-profile traveling teams from Maryland to California; programs targeted at Latino and immigrant populations in South Texas. High burnout rates from pushing children into travel soccer too young as well as the high costs of programs have also contributed to the lower numbers.

While liberal critics have blamed organized soccer for ignoring minority talent and for making it more a game for the masses (over 35 percent of parent families earn over $100,000 per year) than for the underserved, the real reason may be found elsewhere.  Talented young people are likely to be lured more by the professional sports famous for multi-hundred million dollar contracts than they are by the relatively low salaries and lack of prestige of MLS; but as importantly it is possible that the safe-haven of soccer – a parent-friendly, distinctly non-violent, no hands, low-visibility, fatiguing sport – is becoming passé.   Extreme sports are on the rise.

Last year in West Virginia, 28-year-old Avishek Sengupta was running the Tough Mudder, a grueling 10-plus-mile race littered with merciless obstacles that take participants over blazing pits of fire, through dark trenches and into pools of water laced with electrical wires that deliver 10,000 volts…Tough Mudder, calling itself “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet,” is run by a Brooklyn-based company that is one of a growing number catering to the booming industry of obstacle course racing. As sports enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies hunt for ever-more-hardcore events to test their physical limits, it’s a pastime that has gained popularity in the past five years…

Television has played its role in increasing the popularity of these sports with shows such as World of X Games and the Extreme Sports Channel. Energy drink company Red Bull has also been on the forefront of the extreme sports movement, with events like the Red Bull Cavemen triathlon, which involves running, mountain biking and kayaking, and the Red Bull Stratos, a space-diving event that in October 2012 featured a skydiver who jumped from nearly 130,000 feet. (ABA Journal).

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The Guardian reports

It is hard to find exact figures on the popularity of extreme sports, but it is even harder to find anyone who thinks that they aren’t booming. In 2006, the British Parachute Association recorded 39,100 first jumps. Last year there were 59,679. Numbers of “full members” – regular skydivers – have been rising at a similar rate. The British Mountaineering Council had about 25,000 individual members in 2000. Last September there were “almost 55,000”. The number of people climbing Everest has rocketed since the 1990s. The proportion of women climbers is increasing too, up from about 16% in 2002 (BMC figures) to 36% now (Sport England figures). Hang-gliding numbers have suffered since the 1990s, according to Michelle Lanman at the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (“The kit is so much heavier”). But paragliding and paramotoring (paragliding with a giant fan) are doing very nicely. SurfingGB also reports that “British surfing continues to grow rapidly”…

And these may still be early days. According to a report from the US entertainment company Delaware North, 100 hours of GoPro video are uploaded on to YouTube every minute, and sales of action cameras are growing at 50% a year. “By 2020, extreme sports will challenge professional and collegiate team sports for the title of most-watched category of sports content,” the report says. “Today they’re a blip on the screen compared to the big business of professional sports, but participation in action and adventure sports has surpassed conventional sports at the recreational level.”

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It is no surprise that in a highly-regulated society like the United States, young men seek release from overbearing correctness in extreme sports; or at least in those mainstream sports which offer complete physicality, macho superiority, and male camaraderie.  There are no women – yet - in men’s locker rooms; and there still can be nothing like the complete expression of individual physical ability that basketball offers.  It is perhaps the one sport where every natural human ability – running, leaping, coordination, strength, and psychological ability – are combined.  Not only that, the NBA has deliberately marketed itself as the sport of tough street creds – pimp walk, posturing, trash talk, intimidation, and back-downs.  Why would any supremely gifted black athlete from the inner city play soccer?

Extreme sports have been around for a long time; and it was no accident that the Roman Coliseum was filled to overflowing for bloody, fight-to-the-death gladiatorial contests.   Wars, while fought over territorial claims and petty disputes, have been battlefields of glory.  If it were not for an innate desire for glory and the expression of individual courage, there would be fewer wars.  The Aztecs and other pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica fought battles dressed in the skins of wild animals, so the bloody fights on the Mexican plains were especially savage, brutal, satisfying, spiritual affairs.  How could they not be as much a part of pagan life as human sacrifice?

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There is no denying the international popularity of soccer and its working class appeal.  Boys in the favelas of Rio and the streets of Liverpool need nothing more than a round something, a few players, and a two parallel sticks for a goal to play soccer.  No need for equipment, nets, grass, or referees. It is the world’s most democratic game, the most universal, and the most common.  Boys have been kicking things since the earliest human settlements.   Yet the United States in its soccer diffidence is not so much an anomaly as the avant-garde.

Many American television viewers have seen the comedian/talk show host Bill Maher’s rant about the feminization of men, the taming of the wolf. As paraphrased by Dana Antiochus, Maher believes that:

The inversion of nature that we have experienced as a culture, and the subversive aspect of flipping traditional roles, with its subsequent destruction of society, serves as a signal that we live in a dying system.  It has led to a pussified, sissy, pathetic, lovey-dovey/touchy-feely country of wimps, who put emotion over logic, feeling over reason, in our nurture-heavy/nature-deprived, culture” (Renegade Tribune)

But is Maher right? Have feminists turned the country into a nation of sissified wimps who value feeling over reason? On the one hand, feminism has changed men’s discourse, at least in public where they nod approvingly at news reports about glass ceilings, rape, abuse, and discrimination.  On the other, men in private share none of these sentiments. They know that biology,  human nature, and male chromosomes have not changed since the Paleolithic.  Men raid, kill, and pillage.  Women cry a lot, like to share their feelings, and want strong men as partners.

Soccer in America is an expression of this ‘wussification’ of America; and the continued popularity of physical, contact sports and the rise of extreme sports is a reaction against it.  Men will not go quietly, and boys in Southeast will still play a tough, male, aggressive, violent playground game and take it to the NBA.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Love Conquers All–New Yalies In The Halls Of Sanctimony

Elliott and Lisa were the perfect couple, matched in every possible way.  Not only were they from the same social strata – New England family, wealth, and reputation – but classmates in the same privileged, elite Ivy League university; and best of all, attuned to the finest that that legacy and upbringing could bring to bear.  They had been raised on Bach, Caravaggio, Blake, and Kant; and learned from the earliest age to respect if not revere the Old Masters of Western tradition, trained to disregard popular cultural malapropisms (e.g. gender fluidity and a priori social equality) and to look askance at dreamy, sophomoric idealism.  They were socially, culturally, and historically attuned.

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It was a surprise for both of them to find themselves matriculated in a university which for all intents and purposes had forgotten its historical legacy – Thomas Hooker, Elihu Yale, the Puritans, the Enlightenment, and the precepts of the new Republic.  The Yale that they entered was as far-fetched and as far afield from the interests of its Founding Fathers as could be imagined.  In a few short decades (Yale in the 60s was still an accurate replica of the first Yale) had become a university just like every other –’ inclusive’, culturally focused (race-gender-ethnicity), closed and clotured, and mainstream.  In a surprisingly short number of years the university had jettisoned all ties to its storied past, the nation’s founding principles, and any sound reasoning.  It had become little more than a ship in a politically correct flotilla drifting about between here and there – an elite mouthpiece for a popular agenda of progressive ideals.

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“What on earth will we do?”, the couple asked.  “Four years of obligation and purpose?” Their fathers had been good Old Blues – Deke, football, Mory’s, Whiffenpoofs, summering in the Vineyard, skiing on the slopes of Gstaad and the high Apennines – men who had never given a second thought to privilege, wealth, and position.  Certain things were given and family, heritage, legacy, and good taste were foremost among them.  Of course some of the graduating class of Elliott’s and Lisa’s fathers went on to greatness (a Vice President, environmentalist, and inventor among them); but most left Yale satisfied and happy that they had fulfilled a promise, were among the elite, and could for all intents and purposes, do whatever they pleased.

The Yale that Elliott and Lisa found was quite different.  While they stilled hewed to the originalism of their fathers – the Enlightenment and the logical, religious basis on which the university was founded – they found themselves attacked and isolated by a new cadre of progressive believers who, despite the tug and tether of Old Blue civility and decorum – to say nothing about historical sense and human nature - screamed for justice, equality, equanimity, world peace, and social harmony.  While one might not have longed for the return of tailgate parties and European social grace, the hysteria of the New Yale was fatiguing at best.  What had happened to circumspection, considered opinion, and logical exegesis?

So be it, the lovers concluded.  We have made our bed now must lie in it; but repose was not in the cards  The curriculum was stacked with post-modernist indecipherability – ‘Slave Journals Of Occupied Georgia – The Roots of Southern Feminism’; or ‘ Gay Boys on the Mississippi – The Untold Stories of Lewis and Clark’; or ‘Robber Barons and the 19th Century One Percent – The Foundations of Capitalist Depredation’ ; and while they had hoped for a a truly liberal curriculum of Blake, Wordsworth, Kant, Russell, and Adam Smith, they found themselves adrift in neo-socialist cant, chapter, and verse.

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Not only were they forced into an obligatory curriculum of victimhood (Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams were taught only within the context of sexual abuse, exploitation, and religious excess) but their social lives were determined by a popular extension of this reactionary history.  They could not simply dance, but had to dance to an approved drummer.  They could not sing, but only sing along to anthems of solidarity, union, and promise. 

They were able to get away from this enforced sanctimony – roadhouses in Wallingford and Berlin, getaways to South Jersey and Rhode Island, and weekends in West Virginia – but five days a week they had to submit to the irremediable, incessant clamor to reform, to be one of the guys to buy into the progressive intent.

Elliott’s second cousins were from South Jersey – gun shop owners, big game hunters, Reagan conservatives, and delightfully free of the cant and circumstance of the Philadelphia Main Line, New York, Washington, and Boston. – and he and Lisa spent many weekends at their hunting lodge in West Virginia where the talk was about hunting, tracking, killing, and self-defense.

Every generation has its refuge – a place away and far from the hammering about doing the right thing.  What characterized  Elliott and Lisa most was this political diffidence – absolute indifference to and boredom with the insistent righteousness of the times.  They were children of the Twenties and not the new century; heirs of the Italian Riviera and not the sanctimony and heraldic goodness of modern America.  They had been born too late, and this Old World sense of class, propriety, ease, and confidence was only a mantel they wore, a Pashmina wrap, a covering, a protection.  Yet they were independent enough to resist being yoked, tethered, and drawn by the powers that be.  They refused the taps of 'intellectual' underground societies, refused invitations to march on the green or on the Washington Mall.  They refused to be dragged behind the dray horse tumbril of group-think. 

What was left?  The Bright College Years were supposed to be happy and socially consequential.  Although liberal politics are supposed to be the purview of the young, they were never meant to interrupt late adolescence and early adulthood  There would be plenty of time for guilt, self-reflection, and angst.

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Fortunately both Elliott and Lisa had been brought up well, and while the blandishments of the campus Left didn’t quite roll off their backs like water off a duck’s, it didn’t wet or soak.  They remained independent, individual, and defiantly separate.

Their love affair amidst the ruins of a great institution was noticed by few.  They, since Freshman Year, were considered alien supernumerary, illegitimate, and marginal.  They were throwbacks to an earlier racist, misogynist past, better to be forgotten, expunged from the yearbook, and dismissed as if they never had existed.

Solidarity and love in adversity, and age-old story of oppression.  Yes, there was the we-against-them quality to the love between Elliott and Lisa, but there was far more to the relationship.  It is always difficult for two young people to survive let alone thrive in an alien, hostile environment; but  as is often the case, adversity anneals proximity.  They were philosophically annealed, bound by a profound sense of historical center and philosophical rectitude.  What was going on around them was temporal , exaggerated, and hysterical; and there can be nothing more found than special, unique intimacy  amidst it.

Turning A Delight Into A Drudgery–The Politics Of Food And Social Justice

A maximum security prison in the South has, thanks to the efforts of reformers in New Hampshire, tried to turn to food as a therapeutic answer to life sentences.  Cooking, they insisted, would give the convicts (murderers, rapists, and others convicted of violent capital crimes) some hope for living even if it had to be within the walls of a federal prison with no hope for parole.  A small but well-endowed foundation based in nearby Massachusetts provided funds for the enterprise. 

The problems showed up early on.  How to prepare meals without metal knives and forks; and even allowing hardened criminals, used more to solitary than infusions , could not be trusted around gas or even electric stoves.  Moreover, none of the convicts had ever cooked in their lives, had grown up on chitlins, fatback, and collards, and anything more exotic was incidental.  Complex breakfasts, fashioned after Turkish kahvalti  seemed to be in order for the new prisoner-prepared meals.  Kahvalti, perhaps the most important meal of the Turkish day consists of cheese, salami, olives, bread, jam, cucumbers, fruit, tomatoes, and potted meat – all possible within the strictures of prison life.  Yet the cheese, tomatoes, sausage, and cucumbers would have to be sliced; the fruit limited to finger food; and the potted meat dispensed with as an outside ingredient.

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Not only that, but the New Hampshire reformers had totally misjudged the atmosphere within a maximum security prison where life is cheap, freedom not even a faint hope, and a brutal, amoral, survivalist ethos which has no soft edges.

Angola prison, the maximum security state penitentiary of Louisiana is the biggest prison in America. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, 85 percent of whom will die there. Also known as the Farm, Angola took its name from the homeland of the slaves who used to work its fields, and in many ways still resembles a slave plantation today. Eighty per cent of the prisoners are African-Americans and under the surveillance of armed guards on horseback, they still work fields of sugar cane, cotton and corn, for up to 16 hours a day. While successive wardens have attempted to mitigate the Dante-esque conditions of the facility, few have had much success.  It and many other penitentiaries for the country’s most hardened and ineducable prisoners remain closed, impenetrable, nightmarish places.

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So it was a nice idea that the reformists from the Northeast had, one based on compassion, love, and progressive idealism; but they soon realized that if their Christian evangelical brothers had been laughed out and the redemptive hope of Jesus Christ rejected out of hand, then what hope was there for Alice Waters, Redzepi, and Jose Andres?

“We aimed too high”, said a representative of the New Hampshire foundation; when in fact they had aimed too low.  Life at their prison was not even a semblance of life on the outside but an inverted, frightening, torturous hell.  Accounts from Angola prison confirmed this.

In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola, twenty-five inmates testified…to facing overwhelming violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago.   These twenty-five inmates -- who were not involved in the escape attempt -- testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell, and threatened that they would be killed.  They were also threatened by guards that they would be sexually assaulted with batons.  They were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves.  They were bloodied, had teeth knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions, and beaten until they signed statements or confessions presented to them by prison officials.  One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was placed in solitary confinement for eight years. (MR Magazine)

Rape and sexual assault have always been features of prison life, and rape has been a tool of war recently documented in the ethnic conflicts of Africa; so it is not surprising that it takes on more than a sexual dimension in prison.

A veteran corrections officer, also from Louisiana, described a
similar situation in a recent letter to a newspaper: “There are
prison administrators who use inmate gangs to help manage the
prison. Sex and human bodies become the coin of the realm. Is
inmate ‘X’ writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper and
filing lawsuits? Or perhaps he threw urine or feces on an
employee?

‘Well, Joe, you and Willie and Hank work him over, but
be sure you don’t break any bones and send him to the hospital.
If you do a good job, I’ll see that you get the blondest boy in the
next shipment.’” (Christian Parenti)

Chastened but unbowed, the New Hampshire reformers directed their attentions at more congenial level – they would work in prisons where parole was a possibility and where gainful employ in the hospitality industry might be just the incentive for prisoners hoping for a second chance outside prison.  The New Hampshire people convinced prison authorities that cooking not only offered an opportunity in a growing industry, but would offer well-known therapeutic benefits.  The texture, smell, taste, color, and presentation of good food had been shown to have a positive effect on both cooks and diners alike.

The warden, however was reluctant to allow even model prisoners to work with metal knives and forks.  Even in this sub-maximum security prison there were murders and assaults.  Not only that prison gang members would put their ‘slaves’ in the kitchen (how ironic and resonant of the misogynist life outside), and force them to steal utensils for later crafting into weapons.  The authorities agreed to allow plastic knives and forks; but since no chef can possibly prepare a meal without a long, sharp Japanese steel knife and high-pronged, solid fork, the idea failed.  Cooking, it seemed, was not an idea worth pursuing.

Still insistent, the reformers found a minimum security prison, one  to which embezzlers and financial scam artists were sent.  These men were all familiar with fine cuisine and the finest wines, and if they had not themselves worked in the kitchen, were certainly conversant with the best American and European cuisine.  Prison authorities had no difficulty whatsoever in allowing proper cooking equipment in the already well-equipped kitchen.

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Some among the reformers, however, wondered whether they, in their insistent desire for reform, compassion, and rehabilitation, were not addressing an audience which needed no attention.  These prisoners’ terms were short, life in the prison was as comfortable as any, and most would return to the financial world once they were released.  Many of those convicted in high-profile financial crimes had served their time; and far from being pariahs in the industry, were welcomed back with open arms.  The skills they had practiced before conviction were as useful to Wall Street as ever; and the parolees would find the new, although more regulated environment, quite congenial.

All of which raises the question – why bother with prisoners at all?  If they were sent to prison for serious crimes, then why should their time behind bars be as unremittingly difficult as possible.   Doing easy time should never be an acceptable risk to criminals.  Angola prison before recent reforms had every right and reason to put inmates in solitary.  Solitary confinement was used as a means of inmate control, either to protect the general inmate population from the prisoner in solitary or the prisoner from his fellow inmates.  It has been used many times as retribution, vengeance, or simply animal punishment.

The infamous Red Hat Cellblock, now on the National Register, used to confine the most dangerous and violent prisoners. These men were required to wear hats swiped with red paint when they worked in the fields. They lived in small, unheated cells with concrete slabs for beds. The windows contained only bars: no glass for protection from the winter chill; no screen to protect against the summer’s insects. The abandoned facility, silhouetted against fields of winter wheat, still has a decrepit electric chair in a neighboring building with wires attached to a rusted generator (Christian Parenti)

Don’t these unrepentant murderers and rapists deserve this or worse?

Aside from the total unworkability and misguided philanthropy of these ‘Cooking For Prisoners’ enterprises and the inadvisability of making prison life easier, using food for social justice distorts the whole idea of good food, enjoyed at a well-set table, in a congenial atmosphere, with good friends and family.  Yet, more and more social justice themes are cropping up in all but purist publications.  The enjoyment of food per se is now considered somewhat sybaritic, and symptomatic of a self-centered, selfish, society indifferent to its ills.   It may be all right to talk about food, but only food with a purpose.  Food kitchens serving other than supermarket seconds, restaurants which hire only recent immigrants or minority staff, urban gardens, and parolee luncheonettes.

This neo-Puritanism is not restricted to food but widespread and becoming universal.   Life without a social justice is meaningless; and thus to restore meaning, all activity must be reformist – or so the argument goes.  Saner, more reflective observers say ‘Nonsense’, history is cyclical, repetitious, predictable.  Human nature guarantees aggression, territorialism, and self-interest in perpetuum, so what’s the fuss?

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Somehow when such social justice reformers get into food, it is hard to look dispassionately and philosophically.   Nothing is more fundamental to life than food and nothing more completely satisfying to all the senses than a good meal.  If that enjoyment is restricted to a select few who know food, cuisine, and its culture, so be it.  Elitism has a place in all cultures.

At last count, the New Hampshire prison reformers had set aside Cooking For Prisoners and moved on to other, easier, and more practicable enterprises.  They have not given up their food link entirely, and have taken up the cause of Chesapeake Bay watermen,  Maine lobstermen, small-scale fishermen out of Portsmouth, and migrant tobacco workers in Connecticut.  Good.  Everyone needs to feel good about what they do.