‘Or some contrivance awkwardly suitable for the unpleasantly awkward occasion’

Sometimes it goes: once lips to cheek. Sometimes it goes: twice, back and forth, slowly or swiftly. Occasionally, it goes three times. The pressure is also important. So is the touch. Firm or light. Moist or dry. Cheek or air or half-both. As intimacy grows, the lips may get closer or the kisses, on cheeks, a touch or more than a touch firmer yet softer.

I have left out the hugs which can come before, after, not at all, or as a substitute for the one, two, or three kisses. The hugs being light, firm, distant, close, restrained, or not so in nature.

Unless, of course, one nixes the kisses on lips or cheek or cheeks, the hugs together with or separate from or as a substitute for the kisses on lips or cheek or cheeks altogether and goes instead with the handshake (being firm, light, or goopy) or the handshake concomitant with a hug or the handshake followed by the hug and so forth.

Contingencies should also be factored in, those being where the greetings and farewells are taking place in locales such as: on front door steps, in the pouring rain, under a sagging awning, during rush hour, in the midst of a crowded subway car, on a go cart at the local fair, within a dimly lit bathroom, near the stable yard, beside a moving van or a traffic stop. Then one might feel inclined to opt, as is one’s wont, for the wave (choices here innumerable) or the sympathetic head turn (one of my favorites, actually) or some contrivance awkwardly suitable for the unpleasantly awkward occasion. I have not yet mentioned the time, the location, the angle of the sun or moon, the time of the day, the turn of the seasons, the nature of the celebration or its contrary, the number of sheets tussled about on the floor in close proximity to the vacant stairwell. Nor have I taken account of the nationality, gender, culture, customs, local colors (whatever these be), species and genera, linguistic barriers, and diplomatic interests of all the parties present.

In a word, it seems we are in an incredible muddle about greetings, farewells, and all that. It seems our unnative skin and our deracinated mores are to be blamed. One hopes, doubtless without warrant but one can dare to hope, that the saving grace will be whatever occurs after the hello and before the good-bye.

Educational Note 1

There seem to be two stories that one could read out of the history of manners. One is that manners, however conventional, are the actualization of (at least some) morals. When I open the door for you, I am showing deference toward you. The other is that manners run contrary to morals. On this view, they uphold the status quo and stuffy social distinctions and are meant to exclude and remove those from the wrong backgrounds. My general sense is that when morals and manners are in harmony, it reminds us that the world is in harmony. We are drawn together in this fashion, drawn together in grace and gratitude. However, when morals and manners are discordant, it shows us how far apart we have come, how severed we are, how great the distance is between us.

Educational Note 2

In a settled way of life, you would begin to see, over time, the “codification” of certain gestures in the form of abiding manners. An outstretched hand, say, would be both a sign that there is no enmity between us (no weapon in the open hand) and a sign that there is only amity resounding (an open hand is meant to be held and clasped). This “codification” would also put an end to the very thought of the “burden of choosing.” (On the paradox of choice, see Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk.) The thought that we are free to choose however we would like to greet each other and, hence, that we can be mired, endlessly, in a sea of doubt would simply never arise.

The mystery of the pigeons, the tranquility of the birdsong

How many pigeons are there? I lose count every time.

Each pigeon and every pigeon formation come, all come, as a surprise. I look and the formation has changed. Or I turn away, return, and–am I disappointed or reassured?–they have not changed. Or they have. My eye goes back to the places where they were, only my eye has to wander around before it finds, memory being imperfect and time ungenerous, and what it–that is, my eye–finds may be just off the left, to the right, or gone. I adjust my eye. Do I long to be near them, my pigeons?

Set within the tree and against the brick buildings–stucco and sepia and red–and especially when the sky is overcast as it is today, I have trouble picking them out, my pigeons. As I write, I have to turn my head to the right and up to see them, supposing they are where I left them. Will they leave me? Is this my question? Will nothing settled last? I feel sorry, or think I do, when they are gone. And, yes, when I look over and cannot immediately place them, I am saddened. Saddened or just a bit frightened. Or wistful.

I saw one, just now, flutter up, struggling, onto a low branch, the white undersides of its wings pulling it out before my eye. Do the white undersides flap solely in order to draw my eye and draw me out?

I do not know whether it is the allure of my study in tweets, for those who follow my tweets, or whether it is the mystery of life, or whether the asymmetry of the design. How jarring it all is. I do not know whether it is separation. For you look at familiar things, don’t you?, just long enough anyway, and soon you lose count. You look at a woman, a very beautiful one, then at her beautiful nape, and soon she becomes strange.

The truth is, I seem not to understand the once mine pigeons, and I do not know why. I want to understand them, at least I think I do, want to reach my hand out and find the right words in which we can both speak with each other, want to pull them closer to my window and look long and see them truly. Or do I want them to remain friends aloof, steadied solely by my gaze and fixed amid the tree? Or perhaps to sit there and cajole my eye when I turn from work? Or to be fooled a bit, played with without consequence, without harm, cause, or consequence? Could it be that their strangeness–which pains and delights me at once because their  nature is not as anthropomorphic as dogs but more so than fish–sustains, long after I would like, the allure? Ars longa, in short?

All this time, I have not forgotten the birdsong hanging softly into my left ear. You may have, but I have not. The birdsong occurs always, near always, sometimes, daily anyway, around the corner from my armchair, the melody from birds unseen, unidentified, but no matter because that is of no concern to me. I seem to have no desire to know from whence the birdsong comes, only to feel the notes against my ear during the lazy afternoons of winter. Why the mystery of the pigeons and why the tranquility of the birdsong I cannot say.

What I can say: beyond my window off to the right, pigeons unsettling my eye. Beyond my window off to the left, birdsong settling my ear.

At home with Joan

If it’s before 9 a.m. and the doorbell rings, I hurry down the stairs to get it. If it’s after 9, then I assume Joan is up and around, sitting in the kitchen, reading the New York Times as the light comes in through the front window. Upstairs in my treetop home, I loiter with my morning coffee, potter about some, write some letters and emails, look at the pigeons outside my bedroom window, generally nip at things. Then, after more loitering and my equivalent of another’s leisurely smoking, I may chance down to the 4th floor and fetch the Business and Sports sections lying there at the top of the stairs. I once told Joan that my family was “big into” sports. Something may have been lost in translation but now, I have to admit, reading the NYT Sports section–the box scores especially–has become a small indulgence. I cluck about how dismal the Celtics are doing this season–by last count, a pitiful 5-9–and then smile and become philosophical.

The mailman’s name is Bill, and he has a long ponytail and wears old black glasses that magnify his pupils. Once he was a hippie and now he wears those tall gray socks that mailmen wear. Joan told me that she slips him a $20 around Christmas; I said that that was a good idea, and I’ve made a note to myself to slip him a $20 when I see him next. Sometimes Bill and I chat, once about his winter trips to Florida, usually as I’m stepping out to run around the park. I may have Joan’s garbage in my right hand which I deposit at the corner bin. Bill is a good worker, and our chats tend to be short and chipper because he’s eager to be on his way. Something I’ve noticed mid-trot is that Bill is a seasoned waver.

When I get back from my run, Joan can’t believe that I’ve been gone for so long or so short a period of time. She’s impressed when I run 7 miles, less so (I imagine) when I’ve run a shorter stretch. Boy are you in good shape, young man. Oh, just so you know so-and-so will be staying in the guest bedroom this evening, but he won’t bother you. Off to my right on the corner of the counter, I see my mail stacked neatly upright beside the paperweight upon which my name is scrawled in gentle red letters. Joan was once a painter and a drawer, and her paintings of her second husband, a handsome physicist who could also play the piano, hang prominently on the living room wall.

Before Christmas, I accidentally opened a letter addressed to her son Andy, thinking that it was addressed to me. I left him a note with an apology followed by an exclamation point, knowing that he’d see it when he came by for dinner that evening. Andy, who’s in his mid-50s and who’s taking care of his ailing 90-year-old Uncle Henry who lives on the other side of the park, comes by most every evening for dinner. He eats with Joan, as they watch “just some old chestnut starring…,” and I’ve no idea what an old chestnut is and I’m not sure I’ll remember later who was starring in the chestnut either. On the nights I sit and watch with them, they tell me that this one was not a very good one. I’ve no other standard to go by, though.

This past Saturday it snowed heavily. According to the Washington Post, Central Park got 4.3 inches. Andy made a special trip this morning to shovel and salt the front porch. I could have done that, I said. There’s no reason why Andy has to head all the way across the park to shovel the front porch. When I was a boy, I used to shovel the family driveway which was the size of halfcourt, I said. I think the last reference was lost on her, but the point got through anyway.

This conversation was taking place after I’d just gotten back from the grocery store, and Joan had asked me if I could do her a “big favor.” Stomp stomp. Off with the snow. Sure.What’s that? I ask. Would you mind dropping this prescription off at the drugstore? Not at all,” I say. Really, it’s not a problem. Oh, you’re such a dear. It’s just that I’ve got this cold, and I don’t want it to get worse, she says. By now, I think I’ve heard the story about the cold “going around” a dozen times. She gargles in the morning, she says, and one of her dear old friends went to the hospital for it but was told she’d be better off at home. There’s no cure for it, Joan confirms, bewildered or assured.

I add, And it’s kind of icy and slick outside today, and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt. I’m thinking of old ladies and broken hips. Just before I leave, I pop my head back through the door to reassure her that it’s no big deal. And I’d be happy to pick up the prescription for you tomorrow. I doubt the sidewalks will be any better by then. I think Joan, an 87-year-old widow, is learning to trust me.

*

Here is how our little economy works. I pay Joan the rent, but the money, in the form of a gift, actually goes to her son Henry (not to be confused with Uncle Henry) who is still recovering from cancer, who’s currently unemployed, and who’s living with his wife and daughter in Paris. Henry is attractive but diffident. His family is struggling financially. I put my old New Yorkers beside the washing machine where there is a pile of things that goes to Chris, the eldest son who’s in his early 60s and who lives upstate with his longtime partner Jean. When I see my friend Kevin, he gives me his old copies of NYRB which I read and then pass on to Chris. Andy likes to clip out WSJ articles, likes to hand me his old copies of First Things and New Criterion, lets me borrow books on monasticism and the Desert Fathers and travel writing, old browned books by Joseph Epstein and Chesterfield and Auerbach, and likes to put them at the top of the stairs for me with or without a note on top. (One day his friend Sim dropped a book through the front mail slot, and it took me days to figure out whom the gift was from.) At night, Andy may call out my name with an upward turn at the end, making my name into a question, almost a climb up the stairs, and we might talk for a while about theology and philosophy, but not too long because he needs to get back to see to his ailing Uncle Henry. I imagine him walking along the stunning Jackie O. across the park silhouetted against the turn-of-the-century buildings which would then be holding up the night.

I’ve given Joan my only copy of the collected works of Jane Austen, the green one with falling red leaves and gold letters for which I wrote the Introduction. The book is too heavy for her to read (even when you put it in your lap, it crushes your diaphragm), but I thought she would like it anyway. Today, she gave me a piece of dark chocolate which was surprisingly hard because I think she’d stored it in the refrigerator. I’m not sure she knows that I don’t have dental insurance. Tomorrow, I mean to return to the drugstore after I watch the pigeons for a while and then write some more letters.

Postscript

The aim of personal essays like this one is to walk or guide the reader through a philosophical way of life. My thesis is that our old way of life is going under, carrying with it the institutions from which we have become estranged. It seems to me an open and very prescient question what family, work, home, caretaking, and the economy will look and feel like as we grope along in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In this piece, I provide one perspicuous account of how strangers become friends; of how an economy is broadened and widened and humanized; of how the young relate to the old; of how the sick are to be cared for; of what forms and shapes work may take; of how a life becomes more convivial as well as more settled.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Life as Gift Economy”

Andrew Taggart, “On Walking Home from School”

Against the fantasy of something for nothing

(Beyond my bedroom window: the snow comes down, the pigeons sit askant, at odd angles, one here, another there as if playing with me.)

(The birds, unseen, are singing amid the gently falling snow. Pure sprightly delight.)

We have inherited a misguided public philosophy concerning the desirability of “free things.” The fantasy that, all things being equal, it is better to get something for nothing has sunk deep into our collective way of life.

Look around you, virtually anywhere, and you’ll find this misconception running wild. There is the good deal, the sweat deal, the bargain, credit default swaps, the tragedy of the commons, the unpaid internship, the free sample, the free school, free education, free content on the web… A few days ago, I traced this fantasy back to a more primitive desire to escape mutual dependency by trying to maximize receivings and minimize givings. The background assumption of the “something for nothing” is that a world of scarcity has created a sense of Hobbesian hostility.

Concerning the scene of transaction, it would be no exaggeration to say that the con is the reductio ad absurdum of our insatiable desire for “free things.” Concerning the metaphysical picture of selfhood, the image is that of the “inner citadel,” a being invulnerable to harm, a creature as self-sufficient as god.

One place where you can see this picture of freedom being brought out into the open is in Jaron Lanier’s New York Times Op-ed, “SOPA Boycotts and the False Ideals of the Web” (January 18, 2012). The claim that content wants to be free is not only false; it is not only a fetish that hides the real human relations; it is also, and most certainly, an ideal we end up paying for on the back end.

Enjoy, make snow angels, and have a lovely weekend!

To be a modern woman: A social tragedy

Were the fate of the modern woman to be written today, doubtless it would be cast in the genre of a social tragedy. Where once she was held in bondage, now she is free to choose: free to choose her own poison. The endings of many nineteenth and twentieth century novels bespeak a sense that the heroine must die, must commit suicide, must go into exile, or will sink into quiet despair. Choose your own ending, the woman is told, knowing that none will do you any good. The tab is left, as it ought, at society’s doorstep, a fee which it has yet to acknowledge or pay.

That modern women are caught in a social tragedy, one that begins with a sense of fatedness to suffocation yet ends with their ability to choose from a menu of unsatisfactory ways of life, stands in stark contrast with the novels of Jane Austen. In Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma, Austen, despite her arch criticisms of the social order and in spite of her sharp satire and ironic asides, thinks nothing of ending her novels, without blushes or smirks, with marriage. Has there been a time since when marriage, the union of one with another, of lover and beloved, of friend with friend, could be so earnestly believed in? I doubt it. More often than not, marriage is construed either as straitjacketing and oppressive (think of Madame Bovary and Hedda Gabler) or as melodramatic and overly sentimental (call to mind any Hollywood romance). What goes for marriage also goes for child rearing, cooking, work, friendship, leisure, and political involvement. It is worthy of criticism, it is presumed, or it is good only for a wry, ironic laugh, the stuff that undergraduates are keen to mock, but neither is to be believed. If not to these, then to what form of life can women commit themselves wholeheartedly?

It would be nice to conclude, after the successes of feminism, that we–men and women both–know better what lives would be suitable for modern women, but the truth is we don’t. Regardless of its achievements, feminism left the job halfway done. For women have been ripped free of social roles that were embedded in and native to previous ways of life, have been freed, financially and socially, to lead other ways of life, but without due accommodation for imagining better, more sensible, more radiant ways of living with grace and beauty, with strength and courage, with harmony and femininity in the here and now. This is to say that there has been no social or metaphysical “compensation” for social disembedding, no sensible models for leading flourishing lives after the great unraveling.

Instead, women, so disembedded, have been doubly and triply burdened, burdened all the more with conceptions of success and ambition; with sentimental love and its feckless affections; with the value but not the substance of genuine friendships; with becoming the most caring parents conceivable quite apart from how this is to be done or in what ways it is to be rewarded. If women are reticent with speech, if they speak of “being privileged” in one breath and cannot speak of crying maddeningly to themselves in the next, how can we blame them? And why do they insist, also to themselves, also keep insisting on blaming themselves? But if they do not blame themselves, then must they court bitterness for the world to the end?

Insofar as living this ampersand existence, this life of the A&B&C…, is at once overly demanding and utterly impossible, at the same time desired and loathed, both unthinkable and unendurable, one would imagine death, suicide, flight, despair, self-sacrifice, and ennui as being the only exits available from tragic feminine life. When I do not find all this appalling, I find it chilling. I can see why women, whose longings and imaginations can flourish amid disquietude, make for excellent poets, for pens bleed well.

*

One insightful woman who follows this blog suggested I read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I finished the novel yesterday afternoon and thought I would speak about Wharton’s book as being one important chapter in the much longer story I wish to tell about the plight of modern women. (The novels of Gissing and Flaubert, the middle tragedies of Ibsen, the recent works of Margaret Atwood also come to mind.)

The House of Mirth is set in fin de siecle New York where money from finance has allowed the nouveau riche to take over Society. (Twas always thus in New York, no doubt. Apart from Joan, whose first father-in-law purchased the brownstone in 1920, my block is filled with the nouveau riche and the young Turks, all of whom are flush with Midtown cash.) Lilly Bart, the beautiful heroine of the novel, is raised to desire the luxury afforded by wealth but is not fortunate enough to be born into wealth. Her harried father makes the mistake of investing poorly, of losing his shirt, then rectifies the problem by dying swiftly. He leaves Lilly and her mother to become transients with outsize desires and mostly empty pockets.

As she is well aware, Lilly has been groomed to wed a wealthy man. This is her way out as well as her way in. The trouble is that she cannot put her whole heart into the conquest, and so when the prey is in the trap, as often happens, she flees the scene and the prey runs free. She is not without her scruples, for she understands that Society’s luxurious decadence is hollow, soul-sucking, and boorish at its core, yet she is also not courageous or free spirited or clear thinking enough to have cultivated an imagination that would allow her to see things differently.

Around her is decadence and toward this fate she is disposed half-heartedly. According to John Armstrong in his book In Search of Civilization, for barbarians, understood in the Matthew Arnoldian sense, “[G]reat material prosperity… do[es] not serve any higher purpose than their own maintenance.” Barbarians, he sums up, “have a very high degree of material prosperity but no corresponding spiritual prosperity” (136). So it is with the nouveau riche set. Theirs is the decadent life of card playing, snubbing, and chitchat; of operas, summer homes, and dinner parties; of snubbing some more, conniving, and insincerity. It affords lavish pleasures but, to Lilly, those pleasures always fall short of fulfillment.

Juxtaposed with the decadent life is that of the working class. For Lilly, who grew up betwixt and between but whose mother carefully kept up appearances, the dinginess of drudgery is so unattractive as to be unendurable. I cannot blame her. On the bus I took en route to La Guardia Airport just before Christmas, I was saddened by the sheer shabbiness–these were the words I wrote down later in my notebook–of it all, the sheer shabbiness of Queens. Squatted homes amid the squalor. Treeless, browned, and yellowed. How, I thought, could one live amid the shabbiness without feeling one’s soul crying out for relief? One can go on but why bother? When at the end of the novel Lilly is brought low by poverty and is forced to live in a boarding house, she nearly goes mad. I do not blame her.

The alternative Wharton presents to decadence and dinginess is a Platonism seen through a glass half-darkly. On a few occasions that Lilly spends with Selden, she experiences luminous beauty, the opening of sincerity, and an intimation of a higher form of love. Yet the Platonic vision of a radiant life is not only dim and transitory; not just hazy and dubious; for all intents and purposes, it is only a fancy, a play of the imagination, a thing ineffable that seems to have no native home in the present social world. For once the stroll in the field is over, once the touch of the hand has gone cold, in what avenues and in what homes will such a life take root? How will imagination sink down and stay put in the unwelcoming New York soil?

I think you know how this will end. The novel, another example of a lived indirect proof, shows that neither decadence nor dinginess nor a dimly lit Platonism can be truly lived out under the material and social conditions provided by fin de siecle New York society. The conclusion, to quote the novelist Nella Larsen out of context, is “death by misadventure.”

*

And today?

Because I’m free to do what I want any old time. Today, the tableaux (or should I say “triptych”?) of women that come to mind:

  • The decadent hedonist of Sex and the City: alone, ironic, cynical.
  • The frenzied single working mother ground down by “the great speedup.”
  • The mid-20s female whose unmade bed, in Tracey Emin’s provocative “My Bed” (1998), is cluttered with used condoms, cigarette butts, empty alcohol bottles, worn panties, stained sheets, and a stuffed animal off to one side.