A Likely Story

“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.” – Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.

When all else fails, you can always blame it on time travel.

Her conviction is supported by a widely-circulated image of an alleged birth certificate labeled “The Republic of Kenya” and dated August, 1961. The simple historical fact that the Republic of Kenya only came into existence in December of 1964, three and half years after the date on the certificate, is not a deterrent to this woman’s belief in the absolute integrity of the document. She has harnessed her wagon to that particular mule; that the animal is dead and decaying bothers her not in the least. It’s her mule, and she plans to keep lashing away at it until the race has been run.

Meanwhile …

In a throwaway segment on “Good Morning America” a few days ago, television presenter Lara Spencer listed the activities in which Prince George, future King of England, would be participating as he began the new school year: one of those activities was ballet, a fact that Ms Spencer seemed to find amusing – amusing not in a “let’s be happy with this child” kind of way, but in a “let’s all make fun of this little sissy” kind of way.

Ms Spencer, whose credentials as a journalist include such highlights as a stint on “Antiques Roadshow”, and the host slot on “Flea Market Flip”, implied that the young Prince would lose his interest in dance very quickly, because people like her would be making fun of him for it.

We all have our own sacred cows, ideas that are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are willing to go to any lengths, make any sacrifice, to defend them. Unlike concepts that are patently stupid, like Holocaust denial or trickle-down economics or Adam Sandler movies, these are so intrinsic to our worldview that they are usually invisible to us. Examining them objectively is like trying to see the back of one’s own head. When they cause us to do harm, it’s not because we mean to hurt anyone: Ms Spencer, in laughing at the young prince’s interests, did not intend malice toward the boy but rather was basing her comments on a stereotype, then using that same stereotype to justify her comments.

“We’re making fun of him for his interest in ballet because we are convinced that he won’t enjoy it because people will make fun of him for it.”  Makes perfect sense, right?

It should be mentioned that, had Barack Obama in fact been born in the East Africa colony, he would not have been the only US President born under the British flag. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison were all born in the British Colony of Virginia; John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and Andrew Jackson was born in the Carolina Colony. The first President actually born in the United States of America was Number Nine, Martin Van Buren, born in New York in 1782.

For the birther, it’s obvious that Barack Obama did not belong in the White House. She believes this because her background, her socialization, her identity all tell her that a non-white person cannot be President of the United States; but phrasing the issue in that explicit way conflicts with her conscious self-image, which says that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” – so she has to find a likely story that will mesh the very real revulsion she feels at the spectacle of a black man in a position of power with her view of herself as an educated and unbiased judge of persons and events. Toss in the (to her) unusual name, and the acknowledged fact that Mr Obama’s father came from the place that would eventually become the Republic of Kenya, and the solution is obvious: she can tell herself that her objection isn’t that Barack Obama isn’t white enough, it’s that he isn’t American enough.

“I don’t care whether the man is black or white; I’m just saying that the only way a black man could have been elected President is if there was a complex multinational conspiracy at all levels of government and society to put him there illegitimately. It has nothing to do with race.” 

I like to consider myself pretty reasonable: my worldview is not based on animist superstition or the even more bizarre pronouncements of Jenny McCarthy or Franklin Graham, but on science and observation. This is what I want to believe about myself. This is my “likely story”.

When a paper wasp from the colony living above my front door lands on my arm, I don’t dance and scream and flail: I just stand there and wait for her to get bored and move on. Paper wasps (genus Polistes) have incredibly painful stings, so the visitor represents a very real threat, but I am sufficiently rational that I can remain calm and avoid confrontation. On the other hand, if one of the absolutely harmless camel crickets that infest my basement jumps onto my shoe, I go flying out the door and across the yard, hopping and squealing like a three-year-old at a pool party. I explain this behavior in a variety of ways: the creatures are close relatives of the cockroach; they are slimy to the touch; they feed on the kind of nasty detritus that one finds in a hundred-year-old dirt-floor basement; and so on. None of my “logical” explanations are at all convincing, but I have to try, because otherwise I’d have to accept that I’m behaving in a completely ridiculous, irrational way, out of unthinking fear, and that’s uncomfortable for me.

The genetic differences between a “black” American and a “white” American are often no greater than the distinctions between two people in a single family. Race is an artificial social construct that has no biological basis. The very definition of “black” or “white” is ambiguous: for many Americans a blue-eyed blond with one Nigerian grandparent can’t be considered white, while for others having a white mother meant that Barack Obama was about as black as Tilda Swinton. The terms of the argument are so deeply flawed that the argument itself can’t be anything but meaningless – yet, here we are.

Likewise, the idea that Prince George deserves a certain amount of ridicule for enjoying ballet derives from two completely valueless premises: one, that people will assume that he is gay, and two, that being considered gay will justify his being ridiculed. Both of these assertions have weight only because the people using them to support their beliefs give them that weight.

“My argument is valid because it is based on premises that are valid because the argument I’m making that is based on those premises is valid …”

I’ll be damned. There it is.

In the end, the birther lady on Facebook slunk away, outraged that nobody bothered to challenge her, to give her a forum to vent some spleen, but instead just treated her like a doddering relative appearing unwanted at the dinner table: “Bless her heart, she doesn’t know what she’s saying, poor old thing …” Lara Spencer, meanwhile, published a non-apology on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of a lovely, but quite empty, landscape: in a more prescient individual, one could interpret that as a bit of self-deprecating humor, but … well, it’s probably just the first picture she found that wasn’t a selfie.

Barack Obama continues to bask in very high popularity numbers, and presumably Prince George will have a good time learning his pliés and I wish him well in the struggle he will face to find an identity for himself in the goldfish bowl in which he and his family live their lives.

Me? I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Camel crickets still give me the heebie-jeebies, and I’m still no better at examining the back of my own head than anybody else, but at least I try to remember that it’s there.

Tire Tracks on the Putting Green

Formal dinner

Can I just get a burger and a large Pepsi?

I’m not what you would call a fan of Donald Trump.

To be honest, I doubt if I would waste a good cup of coffee to extinguish a brushfire in his comb-over. At the same time, watching the video clips of our President lurching along in front of the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II at the inspection of the Queen’s Guard during his recent visit to the UK, my principal response was not disgust, or embarrassment, or outrage, or any of the other sentiments that seemed appropriate, but — strangely enough — sympathy.

Wait! Don’t hit me again: I can explain.

When a giraffe or a bluebird or an armadillo is born, he hits the ground with most of the guidelines for future interactions with other giraffes, bluebirds, or armadillos already programmed into his little brain. Over a period of days or weeks the adult animals in his life will provide updates and security patches, but the basic outline is pre-installed, and the little beast will know from the beginning how to behave in almost any situation that might arise involving others of his own kind.

We humans, on the other hand, resemble large pink sea-cucumbers at birth, squirmy tubes that take in food at one end and produce copious volumes of excrement at the other, sometimes simultaneously. We have a few basic reflexive actions programmed in, mostly having to do with moment-to-moment survival, such as sucking and grasping and a tendency to scream blue murder if confronted with the risk of falling or abandonment, but our social skills at that stage are, at best, incomplete.

This unfinished quality, called neoteny, leaves us incredibly vulnerable for the first few years of our lives, but in return it makes us something of a blank slate, capable of being trained to suit our specific environment. A human infant born to a naked cave-dwelling stone-age family requires a suite of skills and responses that are very different from those that might appertain to a silver-spoon baby in Westchester County coming home to a Swedish nanny and a trust fund. If humans started life with a one-size-fits-all set of internal guidelines like those of the giraffe, they would be equally limited in their ability to adapt, to spread, and to diversify. There are no giraffes living wild and proliferating in Greenland, or the Gobi desert, or Patagonia, or Chicago, or low Earth orbit; for better or for worse, there are humans in all those places.

There is a downside to this system, however, apart from the incredible challenges of keeping a human child alive and healthy long enough for her to survive on her own. What happens if, for some reason, the necessary programming is not all there when needed? Or if the programming is flawed, or outdated, or specific to a set of conditions that are not those that the child is actually experiencing?

Bear with me for a moment while I digress still further …

My social life involves occasionally showing up at other people’s houses for drinks, or food, or conversation, or some combination of the three. A specific time is usually indicated:

“Come over about five.”

“We’ll be having dinner at seven-thirty.”

“Let’s get together at six.”

I am, unfortunately, that terror of every host, the person who interprets the invitation absolutely literally. If you say 5:00, I’ll be coming up your front steps at 4:58 and then dithering on the doorstep for a minute and forty-five seconds before ringing the bell.

unwelcome mat

“I’m sorry I caught you still putting your face on, but if you meant 5:47, you should have said 5:47, dammit!”

I’m not stupid: I know that my punctuality is not quite acceptable, but I simply don’t know how to make the adjustment. Does 5:00 mean 5:12? Does it mean 5:32? Is 5:05 too early? Is 6:00 too late? Other people seem to simply know what is intended, they show up at strange and patternless intervals over the entire course of the evening and it’s right. I’m doing precisely as instructed and it’s wrong.

This is an example of training that was correct under one set of circumstances, but which has not translated to a new milieu. My family was military, deeply conservative in its values: punctuality was drilled into me from the first delivery-room butt-slap, and reinforced – with additional butt-slaps when required – over subsequent years. We were not social, we didn’t go to other people’s houses for drinks or tiny sandwiches, or ask those people to visit ours. Everything worked according to a set of strict rules, and if we didn’t know the rules for a thing, then we didn’t do that thing.

I am very much aware of my ineptitude in areas like this, and I am grateful to the friends who tolerate it with such good grace. I show up at the wrong times, I say the wrong things, I read the wrong books, I listen to the wrong music … But as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” I’d upgrade my programming if I could, but it’s too deeply ingrained, and the new patterns are too vague, too uncertain, to overwrite it.

Now back to London.

Looking at the President’s face, his body language, his ill-fitting suit, his spray-on tan, flopping necktie and awkward, shambling gait, I saw the same arrogance and self-absorption that everyone else saw, but beneath that I also saw a man who had simply never been taught how to be nice, how to behave in social settings, how to be courteous to an old woman whose whole life has been spent bound up in rigid protocol and an elaborate and unbending system of rules governing her every waking moment. I saw a man whose parents had trained him relentlessly to eat or be eaten, to do unto others before they could do unto you – to never ask, to never admit, to never back down. To never, ever, let someone else get ahead of you.

In 1969, Canadian educator Lawrence J. Peter published a book describing what he called “The Peter Principle”. His thesis stated, essentially, that in a hierarchy, individuals rise to the level of their own incompetence – meaning that you do well, you master your craft, you get promoted, you climb the ladder … until you climb beyond your ability to perform, at which point your movement stops, and you settle in at that level, unwilling to backtrack, but unable to function where you are or to move forward, trapped and miserable.

Maybe I’m projecting, but he looked pathetic to me: he looked like someone who was tragically out of his element, ignorant of even those simple “Yes, ma’am/No ma’am/After you, ma’am” kind of rules that most people take for granted, and that can ease so many awkward situations. He was a big mangy mongrel hound at the Westminster Kennel Club, shedding all over the shih-tzus, expressing his anxiety in aggression and excessive barking.

He didn’t belong.

Life is easy when you can just yell at everybody, demand respect – or at least a reasonable imitation of it – because you’re the Boss, and (as Mr Trump is so fond of pointing out) the Boss always gets to do whatever he wants. But what happens when you come up against an Angela Merkel, or a Queen Elizabeth, or a Barack Obama – people who always seem to know exactly which fork to use, and where to stand, and when to bow? People who have read all the right books and can quote all the right philosophers? If you’re me, you apologize, you ask for help – but I was trained to do that when necessary. What if you’re a man like our President?

Then, perhaps, you just stumble along – miserable, breeding misery, waiting for the first opportunity that comes along to make someone else feel even worse.

Paddling Point Nemo

There it is. The middle ground. Enjoy.

I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.

I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot. Continue reading

Really and truly.

Uh, oh. This can’t be good.

Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.

On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.) Continue reading

Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

card_catalog_2I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.” Continue reading

Calculating the value of pie.

piOf all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy. Continue reading

Bonfire of the Vanities

Just can't have anything nice around here ...

Just can’t have anything nice with you around here …

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire. Continue reading

Seeing it all in black and white.

zebraFor much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays. Continue reading

A mess of gooey, gluey, goodness.

pogo11I was standing behind a woman at the grocery store checkout a couple of days ago, patiently awaiting my turn, browsing the tabloid headlines and marveling at the variety of lip balms that are available to today’s consumers, when I happened to glance down at the products that were at that moment being zipped across the scanner and into the bags.

Mountain Dew. Cheetos. Ground beef (a ten-pound package). Wonder bread. Hot Pockets (six boxes). Hot dogs (four eight-packs). Microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. Little Debbie snack assortments. Potato chips. Frosted Flakes. Frozen pizza. An explosion of colors, textures and flavors that have never occurred in nature.

All told, a hundred and seventy dollars worth of groceries, with collectively less nutrition than a pound of pine bark. Continue reading

Journal: Tuesday, October 25

musicHave you ever wondered why we use the term “conservatory” to refer to a music school? The word conjures up images of greenhouses and environmentalist GoFundMe pages, but what exactly is being “conserved” at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, or the Paris Conservatoire?

In fact, the Italian word conservatorio means “orphanage”, and in its day the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice was one of the most famous, largely due to the presence there of the Red Priest, Antonio Vivaldi, who joined the staff in 1703. The Ospedale took in orphaned girls and trained them to sing and play instruments; under Vivaldi the music program there became one of Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. The well-bred and the well-heeled flocked to concerts at which a nun, dressed all in white with a scarlet pomegranate blossom behind her ear, would conduct performances, often of music written by the flamboyant master himself, while the musicians and choir remained demurely hidden behind a screen that allowed the sound to reach the audience but kept the girls out of view. Continue reading

What rough beast?

revolutionNothing ruins a good revolution like winning.

Wiry, wily Irish bomb-throwers get their place at the dinner table, stuffing themselves on the political pie that has been denied them for so long, and find themselves growing fat and slow and toothless. Hezbollah finally hacks and burns its way into mainstream Lebanese politics, and next thing you know they’re no longer the wild-eyed incarnate Wrath of God, but a gaggle of middle-aged politicians in pricey Italian shoes struggling to defend their prerogatives against a new generation of anarchists and Islamic fundamentalists. George Washington’s cold winter at Valley Forge, battling the old aristocracy, led to a long, warm afterlife as the first of a new and even more deeply entrenched ruling class. Continue reading

Moody madness laughing wild

If you gotta ask the question, you'll never understand the answer ...

If you gotta ask the question, you’ll never understand the answer …

The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is a bizarre allegorical romance attributed to a German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.

The story takes the form of a vision – what you New Age folks would call “lucid dreaming” – in which our hero, Christian Rosenkreutz, experiences a series of episodes that supposedly illustrate great cosmic truths which are never explicitly articulated. The symbolism is lavish and highly detailed: for the uninitiated, it all seems like some sort of paranoid fantasy, but for those with the proper training and insight there is supposedly much useful information to be gleaned. The nature of that information is, again, not clear: Is it a cookbook of alchemy? Recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone? Procedures for turning lead into gold, or quicksilver into the Elixir of Immortality? Or is it perhaps a glimpse behind the veil of reality, offering clues as to the fundamental powers of our universe? As with so many esoteric systems, those who tell don’t know, and those who know aren’t telling – at least not for free. Continue reading