Surviving the Small Stuff with the Help of Joan Miró

Since major losses are unavoidable, what can we control? Perhaps our reaction to the small stuff, the daily indignities and frustrations: the inevitable bruising in a crowded, high-speed, super-tech world preoccupied with itself.

Enlarge the meaning of those events and you will sink to the point of drowning.

You needn’t.

Maybe Joan Miró can help.

I was on the wet way to the Museum of Modern Art. Spirit-sucking morning weather was not predicted. No mention of violently chilly rain, driven in horizontal body blows by the air. The leering wind lifted skirts, groping for female skin. People halted at the lip of the 57th St. subway exit to avoid the deluge, lest umbrellas turn inside out.

An annoyance only, I thought or tried to think. I’ll soon be at the Miró exhibition.

Poor planning. Spain waited for me.

An entire country, to my surprise, was on Spring Break. Every Spaniard (so it seemed) left home to see the work of their Catalan/Spanish countryman, Joan (pronounced Juan) Miró. The 54th street lobby, the size of a high vaulted, grand church nave, impersonated a forest of bodies: little bodies held by big bodies, vigorous and infirm torsos, people in your way and you in theirs. The ticket-issuers were past the horizon.

I considered whether the art would be worth the travail, hidden behind the mob of which I was a part. Instead I pushed on, avoided the block-long coat-check line, and chanced no one would steal my umbrella from the unguarded stand on the wall.

The slow-mo mass inched when it could, grew when it couldn’t. My elevator made its tardy human deposit on the third floor, revealing a new throng already there. One stepped around traffic in front and beyond the drawings and paintings. Chatter above and a drone below. Periscopes were not for sale. 

But then Miró appeared!

Not the artist himself, dead since 1983. I’d not known much about him. Unfamiliar art must be encountered with an open mind. To achieve an aesthetic connection one must engage the maker. A passive viewer, waiting for a painter to do something to him, is unprepared.

Miró’s work is hallucinatory, not of this world, outside the real. Hitch a ride with him and he focuses you elsewhere, on escape, one of his personal preoccupations.

The lump of bodies no longer mattered much. The Catalan and I engaged in unheard dialogue. “Look here,” he whispered. “I’ll part the sea of souls between us.”

Even Alexander — he of the “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” — might have enjoyed it.

Here is advice, offered in the hope you will manage with grace most of the frustrating, sub-catastrophic times ahead.

  1. Fill your lungs to unwind the coiled spring inside you.
  2. Do not require perfection of life in any circumstance, except perhaps surgery. People cough when the music is still, highways suffer congestion when you are late, and any queue you choose will be the wrong one. Reframe your situation. The Buddah would suggest these obstacles offer you an opportunity to learn patience, for which gratitude (not resentment) is an appropriate response. Your choice.
  3. Remember, you are not alone. All in the legion of Miró’s admirers were at the mercy of themselves and each other. Though well-behaved, they doubtless wanted a solo turn in front of the art as much as I. Many had crossed the ocean for it.
  4. Save your indignation, disappointment, and sadness for bigger things. The life-wrenching, knee-buckling, terrifying battalions led by an indifferent Fate will visit soon enough. Small disturbances would escape your biographer’s attention. Make your life larger than such incidents.
  5. Be open to possibility: the delightful surprises, the beauty in the everyday, the small kindnesses others bestow upon you or you on them. In the course of my time at the museum I chatted with a couple of uniformed attendants who protect the collection, deal with emergencies, and give directions. They are people, too — challenged to keep a silent presence while performing their invisible work. A blind John Milton saw enough to know, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Do not think I am never maddened or impatient, unhappy with the conditions in which I find myself. But I try to effect change where I can, welcome the possible, and accept what is not.

Life offers many opportunities to make ourselves better and take in the loveliness still present in the world. Do not miss your Miró-moments, whenever they come.

—–

The Miró paintings begin with Persons Haunted by a Bird (1938), The Green Moon (1972), The Birth of the World (1925), and Painting (1950). The second image was one I took on the day in question, on Broadway near 57th St., New York.

Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.

—–

The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.

On Human Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and a Touch of Genius

We think of ourselves and others in simple words and categories: good/bad, outgoing/bashful, assertive/passive, and so forth. Friends are offered halos until we are sad or angry enough to be done with them, and then the devil’s pitchfork becomes a part of the vision we recreate.

Not always, but often.

We are not all one thing or another. Consistency is more self-delusion than a reality. A close inspection suggests carve-outs, areas of our life where we are perhaps better or worse than our “imagined self:the way we like to think of ourselves or the way we can’t help but think of ourselves.

These are boxes and compartments of our unconscious making, to a degree. The parts we like are visible to our internal eye. More dubious sections live behind partitions.

Were the various zones fenced off by fixed lines with clear borders, we’d manage them with less trouble. The blurry, fuzzy, porous demarcations are scarier for us. We sense the leakage of our darker truths, harder to rationalize, harder to live with.

Life would be more fraught if we kept asking the question, “Who am I?Then we would be near relatives of the Wicked Queen in Snow White , who asked instead, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?I’m told her therapist suggested she stick with the first pleasing answer and put the looking glass away.

All of us are hypocrites at times, but call others by the name. When was the last time someone told you, “Yes, I am a hypocrite. I said one thing and did another” — or “I believed one idea yesterday, but acted today as if I didn’t because, well, uh ... ”

Too often the changes are opportunistic, impulsive, or driven by fear. An admirable new direction requires the never-easy task of soul-searching, not a backflip.

Want a dramatic example of human inconsistency? If you are acquainted with Holocaust literature, you know some of the children of war criminals claim the apparent contradiction of having kind parents. Take Edda Göring, who died in December, 2018. She was Hermann Göring’s daughter, the man who headed the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe (air force), and a potential successor to Adolf Hitler.

Here is what Edda said about her dad:

I loved him very much, and it was obvious how much he loved me. My only memories of him are such loving ones. I cannot see him any other way.

Were this lady alone as an example of faith in a corrupt father, we might doubt the possibility. Again, people are self-contradictory. Perhaps Göring’s brutality stopped at the door of their home. He could have separated his villainous inhumanity from his private life.

Who among us, if well-treated by mom and dad, would believe he is the offspring of monsters?

Can anyone bear full self-awareness? Defenses, rationalizations, and mind-tricks must be acquired. Those drowning in self-criticism live in floundering guilt. They struggle to advance, to adapt, to be anything but transfixed by an accusatory finger before their face. The digit is theirs, at least by the time they are adults.

One of the hardest lessons in the social world is this: we must accept people whole — other than the abusers and unrepentant users — or become forever disappointed or resentful. Yes, humans can change, but it is easy to expect or demand too much.

Within our confusing and confused bipedal race, a handful of creatures display a genius of which inconsistency is an essential component. Their elements don’t appear to fit together, but the ensuing unpredictability itself produces fascination. When combined with an untroubled, occasional defiance of convention, their acquaintance causes diamantine delight.

They exist at the intersection of innocence and adventure, vulnerability and bravery. Four-way stops signs are not always observed in this spot. No wonder you wonder how they can survive at all.

Like Vincent van Gogh, you might call them intensifiers of experience and emotion, mimicking his search for a more yellow yellow, a more blue blue, a greener green. Life becomes like a canvass, filled without aid of paint or brush, textured as compared to the flatness many of us exhibit.

Such unparalleled spirits live to their fullest in moments both spontaneous and unselfconscious. Immersion in the present, however, comes at a cost. The world is encountered more through intuition and feeling than among those who lead with thought. Mindfulness of possible danger is given up in the embrace of the now.

Such precious artists of living should take care not to die for their art. Each one is the sole representative of an endangered species, missing even in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings.

Few understand them. Perhaps no one can, including the specimen himself. Indeed, if one greets you, you’ll blink before letting their light in again, the better to make sure no hallucination stands at a handshake’s distance.

Don’t mention the meeting to anyone, by the way. Like a unicorn or UFO sighting, no one will believe your report. Keep quiet and consider yourself lucky for the encounter.

If you are looking for consistency in passersby, here’s some advice. Stop looking. It isn’t there. Watch the sky instead for flying things or search the ocean for the life that swims. No complexity will be found in our winged, finned, and four-legged neighbors. You can live with them unperturbed.

Back here in the peopled world, little chance exists of finding individuals who are wholly integrated, top to bottom.

But the inconsistencies make life interesting, don’t they? Here’s to our contradictions. Let’s join van Gogh’s Drinkers, just above; the baby, too.

Salute!

——-

The second and third paintings are by van Gogh: Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle and The Bedroom. The next image is Picasso’s Man with a Pipe. Finally, three more from van Gogh: The Poet’s Garden, The Drinkers, and Red Vineyards at Arles. All of these come from the Art Institute of Chicago with the exception of the last, which derives from Wikiart.org.

Are Freudian Slips Real or Just Another Female Undergarment?

If my friend “Buffalo Bob” were still alive he could tell you a tale about Freudian slips. He learned the challenging way we all learn essential lessons, an awkward episode I will recount.

My better-half and I were having dinner at Bob’s place — the home my grad school alum occupied with his second wife. This was our first chance to meet her. Before he divorced the mother of his children, of course, the future Steins spent many a double-date with Robert and his first spouse Karen.

On this occasion we shared old stories about our school days at NU’s Psychology Department. A swell time was had by all until Bob turned to Mate #2 and called her by Mate #1’s name.

Oh no!

The temperature in the room descended in the direction of numbers common at the South Pole. The hostess soon vanished and the remaining three of us finished the feast by ourselves.

An embarrassment, for sure. But a carrier of hidden meaning? Was there some unconscious animus toward the current spouse? Did the psychologist equate her to the dark lady of yesteryear? Or did Bob miss his early love?

Perhaps none of these.

Here is an alternative interpretation: Remember, Bob and I were talking about our four-year quest for a Ph.D. and the people we palled around with way back. What notable female name most claimed my chum’s attention at the time? Karen. The conversation triggered the old habit of saying her name.

To my mind nothing sinister underpinned the mistake, though I was sympathetic to the lady’s upset. Her husband never made unflattering comparisons to her predecessor, harbored no buried wish to hurt his present love; a woman who, everyone agreed, was a far better match for him than he’d made at school.

Let’s take a different approach, a statistical one, in defense of my amigo’s utterance. The research evidence says written Freudian slips are random missteps. When we write penis for peanuts, slap for slip, or breast for best, the misstatements lack significance unless we make much of them.

Whence comes this information? Seth Stephens-Davidowitz gives the answer in his book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Stephens-Davidowitz studied

more than 40,000 typing errors collected by Microsoft researchers. The agglomeration included mistakes people make but then immediately correct. In these tens of thousands of errors, there were plenty of individuals committing errors of a sexual sort. (Things like,) ‘sexurity’ for ‘security’ and ‘cocks’ instead of ‘rocks.’ But there were also plenty of innocent slips. People wrote of ‘pindows’ and ‘fegetables,’ ‘aftermoons’ and ‘refriderators.’

The researcher created a computer program to mistakenly switch particular letters in the way his sample did. For instance, replacing ‘”a t with an s , a g with an h as often as people do.

This social scientist wanted to see how the machine would handle words vulnerable to Freudian slips: terms like rocks and peanuts, etc. Put another way, if the supposed verbal missteps made by humans are driven by the unconscious, the device should have produced fewer such slip-ups than people would have.

Rather, the software generated sexually-tinged blunders at the same rate as the rest of us, all without the subconscious reasons Homo sapiens alone possess.

The study suggests Freud was wrong. I’ll admit, however, oral communication around a sexually attractive person might be a different matter. More research will tell us, I’m sure.

No matter the applause I’ve received for psychological wisdom, with passing time the more I realize the limits of our comprehension of ourselves and others. We approximate. We simplify. We project our motives on to parents, children, and neighbors.

Human nature causes us to whitewash the sins of those we like, and inflate those of ones we suspect. Each day would be too fraught if it required everyone to treat all casual interactions as fact-finding espionage missions of desperate importance. Freudian slips, in a small way, make us think we are wise when we aren’t.

Imperfect understanding of acquaintances is serviceable enough to help us through most days, but sometimes we miss not the bull’s eye, but the whole target.

Humanity is prone to believe it understands the totality of another’s character based on limited experience. Our slice of his way of being — say, in a daytime working group — might not tell us what he is like by himself or when the night is late or he is intoxicated and in love. Who knows what manner of creature he will be when giving a speech, playing a game, or in an emergency?

Everyday errors in predicting how he reacts under pressure should be no shock; nor his reaction when torn between duty and desire. The secrets of another, from us and from himself, cannot be x-rayed or scooped out for study like ice cream in the freezer.

Remember this: sometimes a Freudian slip is a meaningless bungle or blunder spoken without aim, like a banana peel waiting to tip us over.

Even better, a slip of the tongue to make us laugh at ourselves.

Bob laughed at himself a lot.

—–

The image on the CD cover featured at the top is by Yuly Perevezentsev. It comes from his Architectural Fantasies. To me, it looks like a reimagining of “The Tower of Babel.”

When Bloggers Stop Blogging

A substantial number of bloggers, like the “old soldiers” in the antique song, “never die, they simply fade away.” Some are captured by other priorities or overtaken by demanding events. A few write books or publish elsewhere. And some, I believe, are “written out.” At least for a while.

I’ve posted in this space since 2009. Almost 600 essays. From the beginning, I wondered how long I’d have something new to say; well-crafted ideas bright people might want to read. But especially to spill out my brain for my kids and future grandchildren. To leave, in the composer Bela Bartok’s words, “an empty trunk.”

I didn’t liken myself to Shakespeare and, while I note some improvement in my writing , my belief hasn’t changed. Though several dedicated readers suggest I should compile the best of these in a book, we are overwhelmed with print already. Nor does ambition drive me to take on such a task.

I wrote while recuperating from surgery. I scrawled when embroiled in difficult moments in my life. Words appeared on the page in times happy and sad, when energetic and tired, when I was kind to the people I loved and when less than my best.

That’s the way writers are. Not all of them are “called” to write, but they must expel whatever is inside. Compulsion describes the act. A real writer, adept or not, doesn’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. His industry summons the muse, rather than being summoned by it.

I have less interest now, I’m afraid. The lure of other parts of my life draws me more. I don’t intend to abandon the blog, but I imagine I will space out my attention to the space.

Thank you for reading. Please continue to read. Your kind words are appreciated. Thanks for disagreeing with me or asking questions. I’m not disappearing and I’m not dying. Whether my posting life “fades away,” I cannot predict.

Remember, you can still peruse 10 years worth of my efforts.

Or read Shakespeare.

I won’t be jealous.

—–

The top Cartoon of Skywriting Aircraft by NASA was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Frankenstein and Danger of Self-awareness

Does self-awareness bring happiness? Most people seem to believe their portion of self-awareness is sufficient for contentment. Others don’t think about the question. The latter live without much excavation of what is deep in the cavernous underground of their psyche.

I intend to write more about this subject, but will introduce the topic with the story of two people who don’t know themselves well. After reading, you might ask yourself how much self-awareness you possess and whether it improves your life.

My take on the subject may surprise you.

If you watched Ralph for 30 minutes straight and walked away, you would be unable to describe him. He was a man with no distinguishing qualities: not too heavy, not too thin; not too much hair (if there is such a thing), but not bald either; a man of indifferent facial features rendering him unremarkable. Although mega smart, his eyes displayed no light or life. Indeed, his brain’s powerful wattage came as a surprise and then only after you’d gotten to know him.

Nor did withdrawn Ralph have many friends; wait — any friends. Vocation became all. If I gave you the name of what he did, you probably wouldn’t comprehend it. Suffice to say, this brainiac possessed a specialized knowledge of something to do with physics. Still, if one is preoccupied by such arcane, abstract, and technical work — a marginalizing kind of territory — conversation is hard.

What Ralph did have, to the shock of anyone who met his family, was a knock-out wife named Fox. And, funny enough, she resembled Megan Fox: equally sultry, but more curvaceous, with hair so black you wondered if it came from a bottle of dye. Indeed, Fox existed as a woman to die for. Ralph was close to fulfilling the expression’s prediction: dying inside because of her.

The honeymood period had been different. This woman only now devoted her life to turning heads. She observed men to see if they ogled, and so they did. The throng turned toward her, where she once blended unknown and unnoticed into every crowd.

When they married, Fox was as plain as white bread. Much like Ralph, in fact. Maybe I’m being too kind to her. Her nose reminded one of a driver frozen in place at a four-way traffic stop, unable to decide which way to go. Her jaw was too small, so her bottom teeth bunched up, like a classroom of eager students all raising their hands. Her “bum” was absent — one of the many straight, boyish lines on a body screaming for curves.

This young woman’s ear lobes had been marred by a failing intern at a bargain “piercing shop.” The cretin used something like a train conductor’s punch to do the job. Meanwhile, her oversized, protruding ears (as if ready for takeoff) created a human likeness to Disney’s Dumbo. Fox’s feet made grace of motion a challenge, too. Topping everything, the delicate dear-one’s sensitive eyes responded with pain to sunlight, requiring an almost vampire-like avoidance of the summer outdoors. In total, this woman appeared a mess on the outside, while her insides couldn’t help noticing and sent out distress signals.

Given the lady’s neediness, perhaps Ralph’s arrival falls into the “meant to be” category. She struggled to reach for a top shelf grocery item and asked for his aid. When he provided the assistance she started chatting him up, telling him the details of her miserable life. “Oh my God, thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here to get the Cheerios. I always have such trouble with these things. No one ever seems to give me the time, so sometimes I go without.”

Fox went on and on. The relationship might have been different, if only lonely Ralph had been a more confident and not so good-hearted. A woman eager for his company should not be ignored, he thought. Soon they were sitting together in the supermarket’s cafe. He still listened and she still filled the conversational carbon dioxide with her ill-fated history. The pattern had been set.

Ralph couldn’t help but notice two things. First, she enjoyed talking to him. Second, he garnered appreciation despite doing almost nothing. Our fellow’s muteness around women mattered not. Since Fox engaged in endless monologue, he found an uncommon ease in being with her.

A third idea occurred to this Everyman, too: he pitied the injured creature. The recitation of her life disappointments touched him. The masculine heart broke as he auditioned the ugly duckling disses she described, her parents’ neglect, and the absence of outstanding qualities in a world demanding them.

Ralph looked beyond Fox’s outsides to the “poor girl” insides he saw on the newsreel of sorrow she re-ran. They became a couple. At first, Fox was overjoyed for a boyfriend — one who would listen to her! Ralph wanted a girlfriend just as much, so it seemed inconsiderate to begrudge the woman he loved for her uncontrollable regurgitation of life’s raw indignities. Besides, she seemed grateful he’d drop anything for her, and he felt wanted and purposeful in being able to better this woman’s life.

Marriage inevitably followed courting. Children inevitably followed marriage. Challenges inevitably followed children. “Oh, Ralphie, look at what Molly (their two-year-old) did. I’m too totalled-out to clean up the mess. Can you take care of it, Ralphie?” What could the dear man do? He’d come home from work “totalled-out” himself, but Fox needed rest. Their daughter couldn’t be alone to create further disorder, Ralph said to himself.

As time passed Fox came to treat our boy’s devotion as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s patient listening as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s bread-winning and housekeeping and childcare as an entitlement.

The miserable male consoled himself. She’s had such a hard life, he thought. She’ll soon snap out of it. Maybe if I can do more, things between us will be good again. “Good,” meaning back to the time Fox offered gratitude and the kids were distracting her husband from focusing on her. Then, one day, she asked for something new.

“Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a foot specialist who can fix my feet so it’s not so hard to walk. Wouldn’t that be great? We can afford that, right Ralphie? How about it?”

Well, you know Ralph. Refusal of a reasonable request was unthinkable. He achieved an abundant living and knew it. It was the least he could do for the woman he loved and the mother of his children.

Although Fox had to go through a difficult period of recuperation, the surgery made walking the natural, unconscious thing it is for most young people. Once the healing advanced, her surgeon recommended training in ballet. Ralph’s wife became the embodiment of grace, a creature whose movement across space was streaming and seamless — something to behold.

For a brief period the spouse was even grateful to Ralph, but within a few months wretched routine resumed. Customary indifference and lack of approbation were Ralph’s daily bread, duly accepted. Until, of course, the next thing Fox wanted.

“Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a plastic surgeon who can fix my schnoz. Wouldn’t that be great? We can afford that, right Ralphie? How about it?”

Ralph didn’t jump at this suggestion quite as fast as the idea of taking Fox’s feet to the repair shop. Moreover, he’d grown to like the way Fox’s nose couldn’t seem to make up its mind about the best route to take from its bridge to her nostrils.

Still, she was the woman he loved and the mother of his children. Before too long, Fox had a nose to die for. Straight, not too big, not too small; “just right,” as Goldilocks would have said. Fox spent hours staring at her proboscis in the mirror, admiring the surgeon’s craft and her enhanced appearance: what you might call attractive if your standards for beauty weren’t too high.

Sex, however, didn’t improve. Romance had never sizzled, but Ralph accepted what his companion offered. Since he’d never had intercourse with anyone else, for a long time it satisfied. Now, however, frequency diminished. Fox also made it more “conditional.”

Let me explain.

The wife complained of headaches and exhaustion — both words sometimes uttered when the other is preoccupied with something else, their brain is somewhere else, and they only wish their partner were elsewhere, too. Fox had an ever-changing, ever smaller list of body parts available for touching, and a growing catalogue of forbidden sex acts. These, she claimed, might cause a brain hemmorhage.

“The Mayo Clinic will prove it. Take me there, you’ll see!”

He didn’t. She’d won the point.

For his part, Ralph began to think of Fox’s torso as a terrain undergoing lots of highway and road repair. He imagined her naked physique covered with little CAUTION and DANGER signs: arrows indicating detours, and tiny flagmen waiving him right or left, but always into a dead end. The helpless bloke wished for the radio traffic reports one hears every 10 minutes, desperate for guidance to the least hazardous routes. Alas, no station carried the needed updates on Fox’s body map. All Ralph got was static.

Other than when Ralph kissed Fox on her rear end (which she loved but left him cold), ardor was ever more frustrating for our Mr. R. Indeed, as Fox transformed into a fox, the limitations multiplied and the frustration grew.

Attempts at sex caused a mindset akin to days without food, knowing the closest restaurant took a three-hour drive and remained open for just 15 minutes beginning at 3 AM every other week; and the food was cold and tasteless and they never had what you wanted on the menu; and the wait staff were impatient and complained and banged around with pots and pans while you were trying to eat; and the servers were pestering you to hurry up because they were closing soon.

Well, you won’t be surprised when I tell you the surgical requests kept coming. They took the usual form: “Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a surgeon who can do ‘X.’” Next came a complete reworking of her jaw, mouth, and teeth; later breast implants, buttock rounding, and cheek inserts. Botox injections targeted a variety of places. An “ear job” followed to close up the holes left by the conductor’s punch and pin them back so that they didn’t stick out. Soon Fox requested an alteration of her hairline, in addition to lots of consultations with makeup artists, skin specialists, and hair stylists.

The family’s dull doll became unrecognizable — movie-star beautiful. She also transformed into a one-woman cheerleading squad for the wonderful doctor who picked out the best people to work their magic; with not a word about Ralphie, the guy who paid the surgeons and kept doing everything else he’d always done — ever faithful, ever devoted, ever taken-advantage-of, all-day-sucker Ralphie.

Nor was the new “arm candy” an unalloyed benefit to him. Ralph was told he was a lucky hombre, but overheard strangers wondering about the ill-matched “FR” pair. Someone would take her away from him, they guessed.

By the time Fox reached her early 40s, her physical transformation was complete. She passed for 30, at most, and pursued a life unimaginable during her frumpy, freaky, friendless teens. The kids both attended college out-of-state and Ralph never stood in the way of what she wanted. Ralphie earned a fine salary, she rationalized. In fact, however, he worked overtime to pay for the kids’ tuition, the old doctors’ bills, and Fox’s impulse purchases.

With fewer responsibilities due to the the children’s departure and no more surgeons to consult, the manufactured femme fatale realized she missed her divorced doctor, the man she so idolized: the person who guided her to achieving her new, traffic-stopping, stunning state of being. Their meetings started when she dropped in at his office, unannounced, and said hello. Soon they scheduled lunches. Long ones. Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if something was happening.

One day at sunrise, while Fox slept in and the provider was taking a rare vacation day, he drove to a nearby beach. As a young man, when he was the friendless class nerd, he’d walk along the lake front, let the sun soothe him, and nursed his malaise. Sometimes it worked. The sound of the waves and the warmth of the rays eased his craptastic condition. Perhaps he got lost in a fantasy of winning an adoring girlfriend who would become his wife.

How did things go so wrong, he wondered? The stillness of the deserted beach provided no comfort. “What can I do? I still love her.” Ralph was talking aloud. “If only I can regain what we had on our first day in the grocery.”

Ralph’s right foot caught on something and he fell on his face, eating a mouthful of sand and pebbles. Disrespect everywhere. Not even the beach likes me, he thought.

As Ralph got up he noticed the object he tripped over. A hard item protruded from the otherwise flat surface. He pulled at it: a golden Middle Eastern style lamp. Scuffed and dented, it nonetheless looked as though it had once been a fine product of the metal artisan’s craft. Ever prepared to do cleaning, the Sad Sack took out his handkerchief and tried to shine it up a bit.

That’s when the genie appeared.

For the conclusion of this story, go to Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-awareness: Part II.

—–

The top photo is of Megan Fox, by Luke Ford. Next comes Girlfriend and I by Christian Reusch. That is followed by Beauty and the Beast by Giovana Milanezi, uploaded by Johnny MrNinj and a Singapore Road Sign by Woodennature. Deep Sadness by Erik Charlton is the fifth image. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking Back: How Do We Judge Our Past Selves?

A recent exchange of comments with a talented blogger provoked the question of how each of us judges our past. I’m not talking about instant guilt, but indictments of older action or inaction. Multinomial offered the following account of her historical failure to say “no.” Here is a partial and edited quote:

(I sometimes failed to say) “no” to certain men who propositioned me for sex when I was homeless, desperate for a place to crash, and alone … in his home. I didn’t want to be raped again, and I didn’t want to be homeless. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but I was.

I figured if I said “yes,” it would be quick, easy, my choice, consensual — and not rape. I regretted saying “yes.” I feared saying “no.” I wanted to say “no.” And the men weren’t entirely wrong to ask me. They were just being themselves. I didn’t want to find out if my “no” would have meant yet another rape.

I feared saying “no” then, but today I no longer fear it, and I wouldn’t say “yes” if I ever became homeless again in a vulnerable situation like that. I wished I had said “no” back then. I really did. I can only blame myself … .

Here is what I wrote back, also edited:

I’m so sorry you had to experience this.

No one, except perhaps another homeless rape victim in a similar dilemma, has the standing to judge you. Of more concern, however is your lasting judgement of yourself.

Holocaust survivors sometimes frame the post-war perspective of their tragedy in a unique way. They describe the world of “before and after,” as if surgically separated from the endless horror show in which they played the part of Untermenschen, the German word meaning “those who are less than human.”

The concentration camps were like another planet for which no one could prepare, a Kafkaesque place of choiceless choices

In the period between “fore and aft,” those trapped lost all possessions, their homes, their loved ones. Crushed together for days in railway box cars like cargo for transport, these Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals soon lost their names in return for tattooed numbers. Starvation, freezing, hard labor, and physical brutality rendered Hell a comparative vacation spot.

In such an inverted moral universe, the rules of civilized society are harder to apply, perhaps quaint. Yet many of the victims (and many of us) tend to use a “before and after” standard to evaluate what they did to survive.

I would say this to you, Multinomial. Be careful not to disparage the bygone self — the one who didn’t say “no” — by guidelines appropriate to the world you inhabit now.

Those who live in “normal” circumstances encounter a more moderate case of the same problem. A person of mature character is not identical with his younger persona. These two hold different valuations of money, risk, friendship, time, and more. Illness and injury, experienced or witnessed, remind them lifelong health is not promised. If lucky, perhaps the middle-aged are optimistic now; if unlucky, more pessimistic than the neophyte who went by a duplicate name.

A growing stockpile of deeds requires justification as time vanishes. Opportunities, like blocks of ice, melt away. The past resists do-overs or at least makes them more effortful. One can and must work to enhance and partake of what remains.

A single “best” choice or set of choices — fitting for all times and conditions — is an illusive thing. Growing up, for example, requires risk; age, not so much. The financial advisor suggests a more conservative approach in retirement. You can no longer easily make money if your gambles don’t pay off, he reminds you.

An old saying tells us, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Perchance the senior man who coined the phrase was correct for his place and time, but off-the-mark for his junior version: the one who challenged himself or raised hell or acted on impulse. And had great fun in the process.

So called “wise men” persist in preaching at graduation ceremonies. The tiresome message leaves the class reaching for their phones. The oration amounts to this: never trade “short pleasures for long woes,” a paraphrase of John Milton, a man whose authorship of Paradise Lost implies heavenly wisdom not even he possessed.

Julian Barnes’s mid-life protagonist in The Sense of an Ending could well counter those who disparage adventure:

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

Tread cautiously before you criticize another’s decisions. Without your feet in his Adidas, your derogation is unearned self-congratulations. The statement, “I wouldn’t have done that,” reveals your impoverished understanding of life. You glory in an imaginary identity from your self-appointed place on a pedestal you didn’t build.

Some desirable opportunities only come once, if at all. When two such roads appear equally inviting or necessary, the solo wayfarer is now forced to meet a traveling companion: the ghost of the road not taken. The specter will afflict him unless the wanderer befriends the wraith, permitting a measure of peace.

Satchel Paige, the fabled pitcher of baseball’s segregated past, advised: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Such suggestions, of course, are easier to quote than follow.

Your remembering self is a curator of treasure and heartache, joy and pain. Happiness grows if he is selective, or an expert in rationalization, denial, or self-distraction. Like a masterful mechanic, his ability to readjust the rear-view mirror of your elapsed days makes him a handy tradesman.

I’m told he is in high demand, though this wizard doesn’t advertise. If you find his phone number let me know. I’ll pass it along.


The first photo is called, Meerkat Looking Behind in the Singapore Zoo, by BasileMorin. The next two are reproductions of the same statue, Lot’s Wife, by Hamo Thornycroft. The first picture of it was taken by Stephencdickson, the next by Don Macauley. Finally, Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.