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

Friday, February 28, 2020

Baked Fennel With Sage

This is a very simple recipe, but delicious.  The combination of sage and fresh fennel is a classic.

See the source image

Baked Fennel With Sage

* 1 lg. bulb fresh fennel, sliced

* 2 Tbsp. European unsalted butter

* 2-3 tsp powdered sage

* salt to taste

* ground black pepper

- Place all the ingredients into a baking dish, with 1/2 cup water (approx.), mix well

- Cook covered in a 400F oven until tender

- Taste for spices and if added, cook for another 10 minutes

- Serve

Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Hysterical Woman In The Time Of Trump

Letty Thomas had always had a difficult side, something edgy even as a young child, a kind of permanent displeasure that worried her parents.  Her brother Bob was the sweetest, most easygoing little boy a parent could ever imagine, accommodating, helpful, and happy.

Letty’s hysterical side was a given, afforded a more ragged expression by her solicitous parents, baby brother, and the era in which she grew up; but since she had been this way from birth, nature ruled.  Letty had always been a disagreeable, nasty little girl. Her ragged red hair didn’t help, and gave her an inflamed wild look that was frightening especially on a child.

Hysteria – an ‘uncommon, untoward, and irrational response to ordinary events’ – has been almost exclusively applied to women; and it was certainly true that in earlier eras women with no professional, economic, or financial status and living as little more than chattels in their husbands’ homes, did become unsettled.  It did not happen to all women, of course.   Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Strindberg wrote of strong, determined, willful women who, although constrained by conservative, patriarchal societies, managed to dominate their husbands, accede to power, and lead quite happy, satisfied lives – all at the expense of the men around them, but that was the price of liberation.  No wars are won without blood.

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Why, then, in a liberated, feminist age, should Letty have become a hysterical woman? Everything in her surroundings, from her professional mother to the exclusive private schools she attended, to the well-tended neighborhoods in which she grew up, pointed the way to a calm, confident, and purposeful future.

Letty was never hysterical per se in her early years – just ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ – a girl who was more impatient than most, more demanding, more self-centered and, although her parents never liked to admit it, selfish.  While they tried to encourage sharing and peaceable company, Letty would have no part of it.  She bullied her brother, took the biggest portions, had fits when her shoes were too tight or when she spilled milk on her dress, and was irritable from the moment she opened her eyes until she turned off the light at night.  Her report cards, despite her teachers’ concerns for self-esteem, all cited her disruptive behavior.  In schools which prided themselves on respect for others, inclusivity, and collegiality, where grading was gentle, and where bad behavior was considered only a mild upset to the classroom – something to be recognized, discussed, and modified – such negative reports were uncommon if not unheard of. 

Reading between the carefully-worded lines, her parents knew that she was a troublesome, difficult, ornery child; and despite their best efforts, she was set in her ways.

As a teenager, this stormy child was shunned by the group.  She fit in nowhere, was excluded from the most open societies, sat in corners, and was ignored by her teachers. Needless to say this ungainly, wild, fiery-haired, angry young woman attracted no one.  The only good news was that she was never bullied.  There was something mean-spirited about the girl that kept everyone’s distance.   Girls were afraid to hear what she had to say about their hair, complexion, and eyebrows; and boys, still testing out their new sexual maturity, wanted no part of this bitter, misandrous, creepy girl.

Things did not improve in college.  The college which accepted her because of her superior test scores and high school transcript, knew they were getting a handful; but thought that the size of the student body and the definitely progressive campus zeitgeist would have a salubrious effect.  She would find her own here. And, after all, diversity meant taking all comers.

Those administrators who argued for her admittance were soon vindicated.  Letty did indeed find her own way and joined many of the campus activist groups committed to social reform.  The members of these groups were as hectoring, misanthropic, and hysterical as she was.  There was no time for rectitude or patience, their leaders said.  Only through loud, angry, defiant, and intemperate protest against the white, patriarchal, exploitative ruling classes would support be consolidated and the walls of racism and sexism come tumbling down.  Every day there was a protest.  New speech codes would remove the sexist, outdated, backward and morally repugnant, personal pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’.  A reconfigured faculty comprised only of women of color, transgenders, and gay men would give a resounding rejection to male heterosexual patriarchy and make the campus more politically genteel. Only books written by sympathetic deconstructionists would be allowed in history classes, and the works of no philosopher earlier than Derrida and Lacan would be considered.

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The list of grievances was lengthy and the energy and enthusiasm of student activists inexhaustible.
Letty finally, after years of parental servitude and academic ignorance, was a free woman.  Not only was she the perfect spokesperson for the causes inflaming the campus; she with her wild, fiery red hair, her feverish rants, her defiance of any controlling logic, and her seemingly bottomless well of bile, but she became famous, sought after, and promoted.  She had found self-expression and community in one fell swoop.  She was a happy woman – or as happy as such a hysterically twisted woman could possibly be.

She was in her element when the protests moved off campus and joined larger movements.  Yet even there in a far more public spotlight, on podiums on the National Mall, on the steps of the Supreme Court, and before the doors of the National Archives, she was a firebrand’s firebrand, literally spewing invective over the crowd of demonstrators, shaking in righteous fury over injustice, ignorance, and political corruption.

She was like Giraudoux’s Madwoman of Chaillot who surrounded  herself with outcasts, who, at a hysterical, mad tea party worthy of Lewis Carroll, put the "wreckers of the world's joy" on trial and condemned them to banishment and death. One by one greedy capitalist businessmen were lured by the smell of oil to a bottomless pit from which they would never return. Peace, love, and joy would return to the world. Even the earthbound pigeons were flying again.

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Then Donald Trump ran for election, and she, already at the apogee of her hysterical support of righteous causes, took off into another galaxy of vituperation and hate.  When preaching against Trump she literally quaked with violent emotion, tore at her clothes like a mad prophet, danced a  St. Vitus’ dance, and whirled and twirled like the Sufi dervishes of Konya.  She was unstoppable, a one-woman juggernaut of hostility, violence, and madness.

When, contrary to all predictions and assumptions Trump won the 2016 election, Letty became apoplectic and truly hysterical.  She was demented and schizophrenic in her hatred of this vile, evil creature dragged up from the bowels of hell.  She had no peace, twitched and turned in the middle of the night, crying out for vengeance and retribution.  She became more wild-looking than ever, a scary madwoman, skeletal and in rags.  And yet, the more deranged and hysterical she became, the more the crowds cheered.  Here was the hero they had sought – a woman of frightening power, determination, and purpose; a fury of righteousness.

Her fame and reputation grew not only because of her defamatory, crusading, blistering attacks on Donald Trump but because she was a pure example of the divisive zeitgeist of America in the time of Trump.  She was simply the wildest and most unchained animal in the zoo; but the zoo was national.  Even in the least antagonistic places on earth – rural Ohio and Iowa – people gathered to protest something, anything.  The bile and hatred of the President spilled over and befouled every state’s Grover’s Corners, Thornton Wilder’s small town of peace and reserve.

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She was asked to speak at rallies from New Hampshire to Orange County and thanks to her native, God-given energy, her frenzied hatred of the Establishment, and her boundless misanthropy she never flagged.  She was as hateful and impressive in her demands for the resignation of a greedy water board in Bolivar as she was denouncing its Republican Congressman.  The only question was when the hysteria would consume her, when she would be nothing but a raving, hysterical madwoman. 

Her time came in Loucks, Texas on a hot summer day, surrounded by angry cattlemen and proud environmentalists.  She began her speech in the usual way with a loud, hoarse, damnation of Donald Trump and his capitalist lackeys; wound into images of Armageddon and bleak apocalyptic landscapes, wandering, desolate orphans, and the smoking remains of civilization; then looked to the sky, raised her arms and said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and collapsed.  She was taken to the hospital, admitted with severe schizophrenia, and soon thereafter committed to St. Elizabeth’s Asylum.

Because of the progressive movement’s idolatry of Letty, her fate was remembered as a heroic finale; not as a symbol of the movement’s own hysterical mania.  While they should have said, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, they cheered the ambulance taking her to the asylum.  She would be out soon, they said, en forme, and ready to do battle once again.  A temporary setback, a bit of R&R for even the most passionate was to be expected. No cautionary tale here.

Letty did not recover quickly.  Because her personal, psychological hysteria matched the political hysteria of The Movement it went undiagnosed and untreated until she was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s; and by that time it was too late.  She had gone completely around the bend, talked in tongues, was harnessed in traces 24/7 and never released. 

No one knows how many more schizophrenics there are in The Movement, drawn to it by its hysterical excess and sense of belonging, but unlike Letty  most of them would be restrained by their own body chemistry and the fragments of logic which remained from a traditional upbringing.  Few would end up like Letty Thomas, trussed, wild, and forgotten in a state mental asylum, but many came close.  Without them, of course, The Movement would not be the politically force that it is.  Revolutionary change has never come about through sanity.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Yalie In Goomba Land–Boosting Gucci Shoes In A Brooks Brothers Suit

Yale in the late Fifties had begun to come under increasing pressures from New Haven to invest more in the city - not only in infrastructure, but in human resources as well. It wasn't enough, City officials said, for Yale to hire the men and women who served the elite; it was important for them to recruit talented New Haven students for Yale's undergraduate body itself. The time had come for New Haven's Italian-Americans to stop serving strawberries, and to eat them.

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Yale agreed, but with a prejudice characteristic of the times, assumed that any Italian-American New Haven student would be only suitable for menial work, agreed to admit Richard Puzzi,, Alderman Guido Marucci's highly recommended candidate who had been a football standout at New Haven High. At least this slab of hairy meat would make short work of the Princeton line, so never mind the grades. A memo went out to all Puzzi’s professors at the beginning of the year: "Pass this ape".

To Yale's surprise, Puzzi turned out to be a below average football player - he ended the year only as a fourth down lineman on the freshman team. To their greater surprise, he turned out to be quite a good student, with a particular aptitude for math - not a remarkable aptitude by any means, but far greater than they had ever imagined. By the end of the year, Puzzi not only had passed every course, but had garnered a B+ average. The New Haven aldermen were obviously pleased - and vindicated - and pressured Yale to expand their enrollment of New Haven Italians.

Yale refused, insisting that Puzzi was a fluke. Unfortunately for Yale, with the arrogance and disdain that characterized Yale Town-Gown relationships up until the mid-Sixties, its politically naive spokesmen were more than candid and public in their pronouncements. "Mr. Puzzi", an Assistant Dean told the Journal-Courier, "may be a champion of his people, but he is certainly not a champion of our people".

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The aldermen were pissed. Angry letters poured in to the Journal-Courier demanding a retraction, a public apology, and reparations - twenty Italian-Americans from New Haven must be admitted to Yale to the Class of 1964 or else (the threat of a university-wide strike of kitchen and maintenance workers was implicit). Worse yet, Italian-American delegates to the Connecticut Legislature got into the act. Picking up the political cudgel and wielding it at the state level, Assemblymen DeVito, Garofano, and Binelli excoriated Yale at every turn. If this was not bad enough, it was an election year, and Yale bashing was a sure-fire vote-getter. Soon any Connecticut WASP was fair game. Cartoons of St. Grottlesex airheads summering on the Vineyard, prattling about our people - all portrayed as vapid Gatsby-esque dilettantes - appeared in every paper from the Hartford Courant to the Naugatuck News.

Yale knew they had to settle, but were convinced they could do it on their terms. Negotiations began with a certain civility - as uppity as the Italian-Americans were getting, there was still a visceral respect for the well-born - but they quickly broke down. Observers reported a class war - invectives with language that veered perilously close to the ethnic slur came from both sides. The talks broke off, and only because both politicians and university administrators knew that the Yale-New Haven marriage could never survive a nasty divorce, a new date was set for talks to resume.

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Two months later, to avoid further roasting in the press and increasing political pressure from Connecticut and now national politicians, Yale made a generous proposal to New Haven: it would take a minimum of two New Haven residents per year, would make a public apology for the "our people" interview, and would recruit up to five Italian Americans from Connecticut per year if and only if they were the most exceptional candidates. The standards Yale set were so high that the Admissions Office was convinced that they would get no suitable candidates. The Connecticut politicians, a bit uneasy about the almost unattainable qualifications, felt at the same time that they could not back down on them - of course the descendants of Gallileo, Michaelangelo, and Bernini could meet the highest standards.

Frank Grillo was one of the first Italian Americans to be admitted after Richard Puzzi.  He was exactly the type of ethnic recruit that Parsons had hoped for – graduate of Lefferts Academy, a second-tier but respectable prep school in New Hampshire, son of a doctor, and against the odds but to the Dean’s happy surprise, a Protestant.  The Grillo family had ancient roots in the Western Piedmont before eventually settling in the countryside near Naples, and although over the centuries they had become Catholics they retained something of their Waldesian past.  The Lefferts college advisor, knowing Parsons,  suggested that he work this arcane bit of family history into his application.

 “I am an Italian-American”, Frank wrote, “but one of a diverse heritage which dates to the 12th Century, the Austrian wars of succession, and to Peter Waldo and the pre-Lutheran Evangelical Church he founded”.

 Clearly, if Yale had to bow to ethnic pressures, it would be eminently preferable to have an assimilated Italian like Grillo rather than a string of meaty Puzzis.

Despite all of this stretching of his heritage, Frank Grillo’s family had been living in a small town in Sorrento since the late Renaissance.  Not that his peasant ancestors had anything to do with Leonardo, Bernini, or Botticelli, but a historical dating would be useful as a frame of reference for Dean Parsons or anyone else, ignorant as his classmates would be about anything Italian except the high culture of Florence and Rome.  

His grandparents came to America in the early years of the 20th century, ironically settled in New Haven which had always had a significant proportion of Italian immigrants, and had made their living as factory workers and tradesmen.  Despite his parents’ attempts to expunge all traces of the old country, and despite Dean Parsons’ taking Frank’s education and social situation at face value,  Frank grew up a goomba – bella figura, Cadillacs, Easter dinners, Venetian sconces, parlors, confessions, stations of the cross, catechism, and Holy Communion.  He was not that different from Richard Puzzi.

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Shortly after graduation from Yale and a compressed year in a graduate program of public policy, Frank was recruited by the mayor of Newark, New Jersey himself – a first generation Italian who had no Ivy League pedigree let alone any education beyond a semester at Jersey Tech, and who like many immigrants had dreams of Yale, a blonde wife, and summers on Nantucket.   Grillo was exactly what Mayor La Cava was looking for – Southern Italian, Yale graduate, with all the poise and manners that good breeding and schooling would bring to a very unschooled administration.  Frank was recruited to work as an Assistant Manager, Urban Renewal, in the Newark Housing Authority under another Italian, the Mayor’s second cousin, a vote getter in the North Ward when he ran for electoral office, and a staunch defender of Italian American Newark at a time when the colored population was becoming a problem.

Frank quickly found that absolutely nothing got done at work. On Monday all Sunday’s NFL games were discussed. Tuesday, the NFL analysis continued, and talk of Thursday’s bowling night started. Wednesday and Thursday were all bowling; and Friday was bowling post-mortem. Every week was like this. Football bullshit on Monday after the NFL games. Fucking shine this, fucking monkey that. They not only Monday-morning-quarterbacked every play of the Giants’ game, they turned it into a soap opera. Andy Robustelli’s niece had cancer; Charlie Conerly left his wife because she was sleeping with a Baltimore Colt.

Bowling bullshit on Tuesdays, two days before bowling night when the Nick Norks went down to Jersey Lanes to have bowl-offs with Social Welfare, Finance, or the Teachers - scores, who made the 8-10 splits; and who Dolores from Tax was screwing. Where Irene from Curriculum got her hair done and how could she bowl with those long nails which she got done by the same beautician who gave Mikey M.  and Joe D. blow-jobs on her lunch break. More bowling bullshit on Wednesday and Thursdays, and how you could see Elaine Petrucci’s cunt crack, her jeans were so tight; and how come her husband let her bowl alone looking like that?

Everybody had a scam going. Mike Mullo owned the local that ran the east piers at Port Newark, and every third Friday was bazaar day. Mike could get anything - new Italian shoes, Irish whisky, French cognac, even a complete bedroom set of genuine Empire furniture. “I can get you shoes”, Mike would say. “I just can’t guarantee you no size”. There were always fuck ups. Instead of Florentine pumps or French shirtwaists, Ella Drucker and the girls often got sardines or anchovies; but nobody cared and the fuck ups became part of office lore, and the girls in the typing pool went back to ruffling the feathers of Joe D’Onofrio who got his hair blow-dried down at one of the new Hair Stylists on North Broad Street. “What else d’ya get blown, Joey”, Esta would always ask when he came in coiffed, manicured, shaved.

It didn’t take long for Frank to realize that neither his Yale and graduate school education were irrelevant to his tenure at the Housing Authority.  Of all Mayor Petrucci’s criteria for his recruitment, being Italian was at the top of the list.  He had no idea what the rest of it was like.  The aristocratic, old money redoubts of Yale, Martha’s Vineyard, and Gstaad were terra incognita, Kant, Heidegger, Sartre, and the architecture of Mies, Corbu, and Phillip Johnson unknown.  None of it mattered. Frank would be an Italian genie dressed in a Brooks Bros suit who would add culture and class to the entire city of Newark.

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Frank could have quit, gone back to school or to Wall Street, but the nostalgie de la boue was too hard to turn down.  He could join an investment bank anytime, or take up Harvard’s offer for law school admission; but hanging out Down Neck with Larry Lugno, doing red devils and yellow jackets with Harry and Andy, boosting ladies shoes with Mike Mullo, and dumping cars into Newark Bay for the insurance money would never come around again.

His father told his friends that his son was in ‘City Planning’, advisor to the Mayor of Newark, and an advocate for social reform.

Frank was lucky he was not picked up, although Larry’s Mafia connections would have been enough to get the charges dismissed.  Still, the more he flirted with mobsters, financed Harry’s dope deals, and drove the fork lift to dump the cars off the pier, the more likely he was to end up on Riker’s Island.

Lefferts and Yale did only a partial job of expunging Italy from Frank Grillo.  Had the screw turned otherwise, he might still be Down Neck.  After many decades of predictable, expected, traditional professional life, Frank remembered  his Nicky Nork days first.  The rest – the travel, the lovers, the reputation, and the establishment – paled by comparison.  It wasn’t that he was a Nicky Nork - no amount of filtering and expunging could do that - but to suggest posturing was unfair.  There was a connection between the Nicky Norks of Down Neck, Aunt Leona and her pasta fazool and corn fritters, and high mass.  Yale connections were a dime a dozen. 

Frank was not an identity-seeker, an orphan looking for his cultural birth parents or mixed-race offspring desperate to factor DNA and biological heritage into character and personality.  He knew he was only one step removed from the Wooster Street ghetto, but never realized how shallow that step was until he met Larry Lugno and the Nicky Norks of Newark.

A stroke of bad luck could have derailed his father's rise out of New Haven; a jealous cousin could have upset his marriage to the well-off Loretta Marco; a slip of the lip could have sent the entire Grillo family back to Naples. Serendipity it was, opportunity taken but offered only because of circumstance; and one false move and he would have been running Oldsmobiles off the pier at Port Newark instead of studying Shakespeare with Harold Bloom.

The only curious part was that his Nicky Nork stories were the main feature of his Saturday matinees; and Lefferts, Yale, and K Street only short subjects, add-ons, fillers, bits and pieces, chopped up and diced memories.  His mother would have been nonplussed had she known of her son's recidivism - how Italian he had become despite all her efforts.  Not just spaghetti and meatballs every once and a while, but an alley cat tipping over trash cans on Olive Street, the same Olive Street where she grew up and hoped never to see again.

So be it.  His Nick Nork days were now long gone.  He was a Yalie through and through, father of the Class of 2000, and at no time during his reunions or class gatherings ever set foot past the Old Campus, Mory's, and Davenport College.  What wins in the end wins.  His mother had done her job.

[NOTE – This is a work of fiction, but it could have happened exactly as written]

Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Straight Man Walks Into A Dyke Bar…..

America is a multicultural society, one which has welcomed immigrants since the founding of the nation; but it did so for a purpose – to build the railroads, man the lathes, raise the bridges, and provide the labor to convert an agrarian, rural society into a dynamic urban industrial one.   Americans did not ‘celebrate diversity’ when they welcomed Italians, Irish, Poles, and Slovaks.  They were simply welcoming cheap, able, willing labor.  Americans cared little for the cultural values and traditions these immigrants brought to America, and valued only their hard work, discipline, and enterprise.  The country became a pluralistic, multicultural society willy-nilly.  In fact, those  ‘natives’, Englishmen resident  in America before the great immigration of the late 1800s, wanted no part of the newcomers.  They, descendants of the Mayflower, Walter Raleigh,and  John Smith were quite happy to rule and prosper.  Resistance to immigrants was expected, natural, and predictable.

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Immigration – the importation of needed labor – proceeded despite this xenophobic opposition.  There was no stopping the influx of Catholic, whisky-and-wine drinking foreigners as long as the demands of the market prevailed.  As the new century progressed, European immigrants remained in their ghettoes, working by day, celebrating the ways of the old country after hours, and remaining largely unnoticed by the the majority.

The concept of ‘diversity’ is simply a new, useful way of furthering a particular political agenda.   The world would be a far better place, say progressive reformers,  if it resembled the Benneton ads of the 80s – multicolored, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural.  The world is of course already made up of a polyglot smorgasbord of races and ethnicities; but it is one thing for Africans to live in Africa and Latinos in Latin America; but another to actually live together. America was the new Garden of Eden, the birthplace of a new multicultural race.  We were, despite the irony, Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’.

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A chimera of course, for no majority group ever wants to include others.  Newcomers not only dilute cultural blood, but corrode and disassemble well-established institutional principles.  Yet there was no holding them back or keeping them out.  They came, patient at first to remain in their ghettoes, to do employers’ bidding, but later became restive and demanding of equal rights.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the first American political leaders to realize that freed slaves would be a disruptive, disharmonic force in American society.  These Africans, he observed, barely removed from a primitive jungle past – illiterate, unschooled, uninitiated in the ways of Western democracy and culture – should be sent back to Africa or to a Caribbean culture which resembled their primitive origins.  He was refused, and Lincoln’s Emancipation, as morally welcome as it was, did just what Jefferson anticipated.   In freeing the slaves, Lincoln created a black underclass which despite 150 years has yet to fully integrate into American society.  Jefferson was neither racist nor xenophobic when he proposed keeping America homogeneous – a nation of Europeans solidly rooted in their agrarian, rural lands. 

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It was the civil rights movement of the 60s which provided the moral justification and political impetus for a philosophy of ‘inclusivity’.  If former African slaves could be treated no differently than white, European Americans, then all other races and ethnicities were no different.  Soon, the idea of gender entered the social equation.  Not only women but gay men should be welcomed into the Big Tent.

Yet such forced inclusivity has done more to isolate individuals and groups than any social movement in the past.  In an environment in which race, gender, and ethnicity trump all other personal and social values – an era of identity politics – it is not surprising that ‘diversity’ had led to disparity.  No amount of cant, sermons, or a priori canonization, will facilitate social integration.  Americans now just like their ancestors 150 years ago are still suspicious of ‘the other’.  Yet progressive activists are not content to rely on the same economic forces which led to the full integration of Italians, Poles, Irish, and Swedes after the great wave of European immigration.  Once these immigrants dressed like, worked like, played like, and looked like every other American, they were accepted.  Forcing people to accept unquestionably those who have yet to adhere to mainstream values or persist in socially dysfunctional ways results in just the opposite – resentment, hostility, and prejudice.

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The gender spectrum is the most recent extension of the philosophy of inclusivity.  It is a principle which discards traditional sex, rejects biological XXYY genetics, and offers everyone the opportunity to select their own particular sexuality.  There are over 100 possibilities, advocates claim.  No one must ever again be forced into male or female boxes.  Sexuality is an open market. God may have created Adam and Eve, but He never intended for them to remain straight.

All this is well and good and a further expression of ‘diversity’, say advocates. The heady racial and ethnic mix which is modern day America should include sexual diversity.  There is no reason why a transgendered man, happy as a frilly, capricious, delightful, sexy woman should not be married to a transgendered woman who as a man has become strong, disciplined, authoritative, and sexually ambitious.  And no reason whatsoever that this couple should not even be the First Couple of the Land.

While this may sit well in principle, reality is another thing entirely.  Take the case of Renny Slater who rejected his proper New England Presbyterian past and became a cultural seeker who wanted to be part of the woke, inclusive generation.  He rented an apartment in Bernal Heights, the well-known lesbian quartier of San Francisco and  perhaps the most female-only neighborhood in the West, and felt that his obvious commitment to social progress and inclusivity would be immediately recognized and would give him the credentials he needed to become part of the movement.

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Far from being welcomed, Renny felt only suspicion.  What was this white, privileged, straight intruder doing here in Bernal Heights?  There was no way he could be up to anything good.  He was at first dutifully pleasant – handshakes, good-mornings, and the like; but after a month of good will and good intentions with nothing in return, he became angry and hostile. Who were they, these flannel-shirted, jack-booted, Marine haircut women, to give him the finger? He was the one offering solidarity, belonging, and peace, and they gave him nothing but the royal ‘fuck you’.  He came to them as a person, neither male nor female bringing sentiment, philosophy, and goodwill and for his efforts was sent packing.

Diversity wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. To Renny dyke ghettoes were worse than black inner cities and more isolated and angry than the male-gay Castro ever was.  Live and let live; and as offensive as Bay To Breakers, Halloween, or Folsom Street might have been to straight men, the Castro was a self-identified, homogeneous, self-sufficient community.  Despite its sexuality, it was a mirror image of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners –a tightly woven place of likeminded residents.  Bernal Heights was different because it was aggressively political, and militantly exclusive.  It was the perfect expression of identity politics – being lesbian was the be-all and end-all in Bernal Heights.  Until the usual and expected infighting began (all communities seem to begin with brotherhood and end up stratified, fragmented, and heretical), all women who professed lesbianism were admitted and accepted.  Race, ethnicity, philosophy or religion were of no interest whatsoever. 

What was Renny thinking? How had political philosophy so intruded on his personal life?  He may have sympathized with the cause of oppressed minorities, but a few months in Bernal Heights showed him the angry, self-centered, arrogant side of diversity; and he wanted no part of it.

Frustrated and disgusted, he left both Bernal Heights and the progressive cabal he had joined – men who had been enticed and then convinced by feminism; men who attended women’s conferences, championed the electoral challenges of women of color, and who espoused the gender spectrum; and men who assumed ipso facto the righteousness of right causes.  Renny had had it with the faux sexuality of his era, wokeness, and the political infection of progressivism.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Voodoo, Tontons Macoutes, And Rum Punches–Sex In The Days Of The Duvaliers

Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians perhaps best described the expatriate experience in Papa Doc’s Haiti – an idyll of Victorian gingerbread, meringue, French cuisine in the hills, rum punches on the balcony of the Oloffson, grilled lobster on the beaches of les Cayes, if one kept in line, minded one’s diplomatic P’s and Q’s, and stayed well within European reserves.  Papa Doc was very welcoming of of foreigners and  suspicious of them all; but few Americans debarking from the cruise ships stopping at Port-au-Prince had any idea of the primitive, African, pagan place they had stopped to visit.

Greene’s evangelical vegetarian couple were ignorantly unaware of what lay behind the steel drums and thanks to the blissful ignorance of their righteous convictions, survived.  Their adopted host, owner of the once-sought-after, elegant Victorian hotel half-way up to Petionville, despite his demurral and amoral philosophy of let-it-be, couldn’t help himself.  His Christian morality, compassion, and sense of duty and honor were his undoing.

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Baby Doc, Duvalier’s eldest son, under pressure from America and France, had loosened the tight authoritarian control of his father and welcomed all comers.  Of course the young Duvalier, under the tutelage of his father since infancy, was no fool and continued to play the same dictatorial game as Papa Doc.  The Tontons Macoutes may have lost their sunglasses, but the secret police had never given up their allegiance to the family; and Baby Doc may have seemed to the West to be the new, young, reformist leader of a democratizing Haiti that the Caribbean was waiting for, but he was nothing of the sort.  He ruled just like his father and salted away millions in offshore accounts to prepare for the day when he would have to leave.

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Harford Billings was one of those Americans who thought they knew Haiti.  They had read Greene, Amy Wilentz, the Haitian hagiographers, and French historians.  They had read up on Toussaint L’Ouverture, The Revolution, the expulsion of the French, the emigration to New Orleans, and all about octoroons and the nouveau expatriate French and mulatto making of the city.  They knew nothing of course.  No matter how much he might have read about voodoo and its Cameroonian origins, the chaotic mix of slaves, plantation owners, and freed Caribbean men, and the turbulent history of post-Revolutionary Haiti, there could have been no way that he could have understood the racial subtlety, the defensive international posture, and the black nationalist posturing of the Duvaliers.

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None of this mattered, however, since Harford and his team of United Nations experts in Port-au-Prince were there to study deforestation, migration, and economic flux – subjects of no interest to the Duvaliers who had for decades ignored any and all socio-economic or environmental events. They were welcomed guests of the country, of no threat whatsoever, to be tolerated, treated well, and dismissed.

All of this would have been par for the course, unnoticeable and insignificant if it hadn’t been for Harford’s coloring outside of the lines, falling for a Haitian mulatto, daughter of one of the most influential families of Kenscoff, a graduate of Harvard returned to Haiti to take over much of the management of her family business.  She, thanks to her American privilege and Haitian wealth, thought herself beyond reproach and well beyond the reach of the Duvaliers with whom her family had long since concluded blood contracts.

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Their rum punches on the balcony of the Oloffson, their trysts in the Graham Greene suite of the hotel, and their public displays of affection would not have been noticed had she been an ordinary Haitian; but since she was of the mulatto elite, inheritor of millions of dollars, worth much more as representative of a now prominent global conglomerate, and direct threat to the black, Africanist  ruling class of Haiti, they were watched.

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For two years their relationship prospered.  As an international civil servant with international credentials, his coming and goings to and from Haiti were permitted without question; but once he became the lover of Evelyne Toussaint Toureau, he was put on the Baby Doc watch list.

Still, despite the surveillance that both knew was everywhere, they persisted in their affair.  They stayed away from  the more popular and more visible Oloffson in favor of the Triomphe, a hotel not far from the Oloffson and built in the same Victorian gingerbread style.  The Triomphe had the same royal palms, the same ornate balcony, the same teak balustrade, and the same pool; but somehow had missed the currency of the Oloffson.  Whether thanks to Graham Greene’s romance or the many American writers, artists, and film stars who stayed there it was the place to see and be seen.

Harford and Evelyne stayed at the Triomphe whenever he came to Haiti, so often that his Bank handlers began to question whether a relatively modest loan required so much supervision, but he was able to convince them that to achieve high performance from a country so undisciplined, corrupt, and so unfamiliar with international finance, frequent supervisory visits were necessary.  Harford suspected that the loan would never be repaid – a feelgood write-off of international political largesse – but took advantage of the idealistic commitment of senior Bank officials and its established accounting procedures to cadge visits there every two months.

Neither Harford, married, father of twins, committed husband, and dutiful son to aged parents; nor Evelyne, equally devoted and responsible daughter, married to a wealthy Haitian entrepreneur, assumed that their affair would last.  If there was ever a star-crossed relationship, it was theirs.  The onerous weight of family, society, personal responsibility, and politics militated against anything more substantial than two or three nights in the Kafka Suite, dancing in Carrefour, or a long weekend at Les Cayes.

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Yet, it was exactly because of the risk that their affair persisted.  It was illogical and dangerous to assume that her elder brother would not forcibly deport Harford or worse if discovered; nor was it unthinkable to assume that Harford’s wife, daughter of good Catholics, Radcliffe-liberated but still communion-tied, would not divorce him.

Yet most affairs thrive on suspicion, resentment, and jealousy; and if it were not for these added circumstantial interruptions, fewer wives and husbands would stray; and if affairs were simply cinq-a-sept rendezvous at a Holiday Inn, they would disappear. What could be more heady, Harford thought, than an affair with a mulatto heiress, surveilled by the Tontons Macoutes, on tropical beaches and romantic hotel balconies?

In the end it was the Haitian family who decided to put a stop to the affair – cancelled visas, deferment of all future responsibilities and engagements, a word to the Caribbean Director of Hanford’s bank.

Harford was lucky.  For far less, Americans were found floating in Port-au-Prince harbor.
International incidents and family affairs rarely coincide, so Harford’s wife took the explanation of ‘transfer to another division’ at face value.  She  was happy that he would have to travel less for his new assignment, and never suspected what had gone on for two years in the Caribbean.

It is easier to look away.  Harford’s supervisors should have known that something other than Bank business was occupying so much of Harford’s time; and Harford’s wife should have suspected the reasons for her husband’s long absences from home.

Harford could never again set foot in Haiti as long as the Duvaliers were in power; but since he was now the Program Manager for health loans in Morocco, his unwelcome was soon forgotten.  His wife made the easy elision of suspension of disbelief from Haiti to Casablanca, and never questioned his long and frequent missions there. 

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As far as Harford was concerned, the exotic locale of Casablanca. the spicy love of a tattooed Berber woman whose grandfathers herded camels in the Maghreb, and weeks on end away from Washington and his prosaic marriage were as satisfying as his trysts in Port-au-Prince ever were.

Love in a foreign climate – the book-title catch-all for exotic affairs – is not far off the mark.  A liaison in an Adams Morgan walkup may be sexually energizing especially to an end-of-career civil servant like Harford Billings, but it was bland and tasteless compared to the liaisons dangereuses of Haiti or Morocco.  The environment of these places was complicit in sexual affairs.  It was why men travel.