Why We Compete and What We Compete For

Jose_Luis_Nunez_bouldering_in_Ton_Sai_Beach

Much as you might wish to, you cannot avoid competition. But why do we compete? For what do we compete? Here are some answers:

  • The Simplest Answer: We’ve been programmed — hard-wired — by evolution. Those who survived times of limited resources and danger out-foxed the ones who didn’t. The law of the jungle is still evident even among baseball fans grappling for a batted-ball hit into the stands  — a thing, after all, of little real value. Our ancestors were the fittest in the battle for survival, at least if their survival led them to seed the next generation.
  • Glory (Kleos): The ancient Greeks wanted to be recalled in story and song. This was a time before a desirable afterlife had been conceived. Then, as now, the idea of living forever was attractive. Put your name on a tall building, write a book, win the World Cup — they are all the same. Of course, eternity is a long time to last.
  • Desirable Mates: If you triumph in competition you have a wider choice of sexual companions. Again, this was hard-wired in our ancestors long ago, but still drives us. Appearance motivates men more than women. Surprise! The evolutionary explanation is that the proper array of physical features gave prehistoric man the signal of a female’s capacity to give birth and nurse children. Man was driven to produce hardy little ones who would carry his genetic material forward. Thus, he needed a healthy mate.
  • Money, Status, and Power: These are tied to the previous three. We also think (wrongly) that large amounts of such items will make us much happier than the next person. Materialism per se doesn’t, but having the capacity to win those material things registers on the female radar screen more than a man’s good looks. Women are inclined by evolution and instinct to be drawn to those men who can fend for them and future children; not the guy who is passive, weak, deferential, and unaccomplished. In part this is thought due to the prehistoric woman’s physical disadvantage in protecting herself and her children, as well as finding adequate food and shelter when the children were small. The bodily cost and vulnerability of pushing out the next generation is greater for the fair sex than for her mate. No wonder she has been programmed to attend to different things than he does.
  • Triumph Over Aging and Death: Men, in particular, try to keep proving they are strong and virile, the better to keep decrepitude and demise at bay.
  • To Give Yourself Purpose: Striving is compelling. Competition is one of the answers to the question of what to do with your life.
  • Distraction: Games are a way of entertaining oneself — pouring excitement into the vessel of passing time. The joy of the contest is well-known. The male’s achievement of public notice in winning a game, excelling at the guitar, or writing a best-seller is also like the peacock’s spread of his feathers during the mating season, giving him added allure.
  • The Perks of Victory: To the winner go the spoils: a gorgeous home, the latest technical innovation, attractive clothes, etc.
  • Enhanced Self-image: Who dislikes applause? Victory boosts your self-esteem. Only if you place high enough in the race, of course.

512px-BW_2012-08-26_Anna_Stoehr_AUS_0601

  • To Win Friends: Have you ever witnessed what happens when a third child joins two who are playing well together? One of them is frequently the loser in the game of attaining primacy. Feelings are hurt. The value of friends is also based on the survival instinct. Those ancestors who lived “solo” had a more limited chance of survival against aggressive animals, drought, injury, and famine. We observe such team participation in business, sports, defense of your country, and raising your family.
  • Tradition: Some of us carry on practices encouraged by our forebears. Responsibility to those caretakers and ancestors, as well as their encouragement, contributes to continuing a parent’s business, joining the military as did a father and grandfather, or simply playing touch football as was the family’s habit.
  • Personal Growth: One way to feel better about yourself is to meet a challenge. Overcoming insecurities is a kind of contest between you and your fears. Mother Nature is your fearsome opponent when climbing a mountain. There is no trophy for reaching the top, but your sense of achievement doesn’t require one.
  • Caring for Your Children: The offspring need food, clothes, education, and a safe neighborhood in which to live. Moreover, the kids represent your posterity if they seed the future with your genes by having little ones themselves.
  • To Defy the Appearance of Age: Well, we try, don’t we? In effect, we are competing with our younger selves. Our tools? Comb-overs, hair-pieces, hair styles, body-building, cosmetic surgery, and the like. Our duds attempt to disguise the increase of natural defects as the body declines. We even fool ourselves with names: the grandmother who requires that she be called “Nana,” not grandma, for example.* “All is vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.
  • The Race Against Time: Here is an opponent we cannot beat, yet we make the effort. Most of us do our best to cram as much “life” into the unforgiving minute as possible.

As I hope is evident, some of the motives instigating our yen for competition and achievement continue to work on us well beyond the point they are useful. Seventy-year-olds getting cosmetic surgery — really? Acceptance of the inevitable is not popular in the West. We listen to our genes and, as a result, buy the jeans 15-year-olds think are hot.

You might argue with the reasons I’ve given. There are certainly others and many of us try to fight our programming. Nonetheless, evolutionary psychology research points in the direction I’ve indicated. We have many motives and are often quite unaware of them. All that said, if you stay on the surface of things in your attempt to understand yourself, you will miss a lot. Most people do.

Inevitably, though not for everyone, competitive activities are scaled down; at least if we are paying a little attention to what the clock, our bodies, and the world are telling us. And yet, as Dylan Thomas declaimed, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Competition is almost inescapable even to the last.

Maureen O’Hara, the late Irish-American actress of the mid-twentieth century, said this about herself:

“There have been crushing disappointments. But when that happens, I say, ‘Find another hill to climb.’”

Good advice, even if the hill is a small one.

maureen-oharaMaureen O’Hara

*I am reminded by my wife that some “Nanas” do not want to be associated with their mother-in-laws. Thus, there will never be more than one “Grandma Stein” in my family, namely my late mother. 😉

The top image is Jose Luis Nunez bouldering in Ton Sai Beach, Krabi, Thailand. The picture was taken by Mr. Nunez. The second photo is of Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. Both images come from Wikimedia Commons.

Cosmetic Changes: How Far Will We Go?

https://i1.wp.com/a4.att.hudong.com/15/66/01300000560404126382666976558_s.jpg

A funny thing happened at this morning’s dental appointment. In the course of a routine cleaning, my lovely dental hygienist mentioned that I might want to consider Invisalign, a clear plastic alternative to metal braces. The reason: to create a greater cosmetic perfection to my lower front teeth.

I had a good laugh when she mentioned this. It’s not that I couldn’t use it, but what I said to her surprised even me: “You know Kristina, rather than do that, I think I probably ought to just replace my entire head!” Why, after all, have a perfect smile and still have the same bald head, the same wrinkles, and the same less than completely even and taut facial contours. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the old English saying goes. Don’t just paint the old car, buy a new one!

If you’ve had your car repaired, you will be able to relate. Fixing a damaged vehicle is expensive. The car doesn’t actually have to be beyond repair for it to be considered “totalled.” When the body shop tells you this, they mean that the expense of the parts and labor exceed the current value of the car. In other words, you’d be better off buying a new one. It displeases me to say that my head has reached that point.

Imagine the following conversation with a salesman: “I can offer you a good price on the new head you want, Dr. Stein. But, I’m afraid that there isn’t much I can give for trading in the old one.” God, the humiliation of it!

The picture of me (top, right) is actually pretty realistic. I have some serious mileage on this head and this body. To the good, however, my younger daughter recently commented on my upper body to the effect that (unlike all other middle-aged or older men she has seen) “you don’t have ‘man boobs,’ dad.”

You can only imagine how wonderful this made me feel. But, it is true, my body is pretty fit. Lots of aerobic exercise, a healthy diet, and weight lifting account for it. However, since I didn’t conduct therapy sessions with my shirt off, I didn’t hear much about my physique while I was in practice. Just as well, since I actually wanted to continue practicing. I wouldn’t have enjoyed a professional review board questioning me about the topic of “topless” therapy.

We’ve all seen those TV shows where someone gets a major “makeover.” Teams of surgeons and fashion consultants transform some unfortunate soul who really needs it. He or she never has to pay for this because the services are donated. Retail price would probably be a seven-figure sum. I’m not that vain or that rich.

I would, however, like to look like Jon Hamm or Brad Pitt for just one day. I’d also like to be Beethoven, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Willie Mays (a famous baseball player) — each in his prime, also for one day per person. It would be pretty neat to know what it would feel like to inhabit those bodies and brains from sunrise to sunrise, and to receive the world’s approbation for the same 24 hours. I’m not quite evolved enough to say I’d like to be a woman for a day, but I’ll bet it would be even more informative and interesting. None of this will happen, of course.

Yet.

Cosmetic alteration clearly has a future. And, I suspect, all of us who are less than perfect in appearance (in other words, just about everybody) have an appointment with that future. Let me explain.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/dc/Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_1920_poster.jpg/256px-Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_1920_poster.jpg

There will be a time when you won’t have to have a million dollars to make yourself look like a million dollars. I imagine a future in which each person will have the capacity to holographically alter his appearance, even if the actual body hiding behind the holographic image isn’t the world’s most beautiful. Every day would be like Halloween, but with really good — and good-looking — masks. Mail-order catalogues, websites, and brick-and-mortar stores will have a department that lets you pick out the face you’d like to face in the mirror. Computer programs will let you “photo-shop” the image to your precise specifications. Everyone will be stunning! Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

How would that change the world, I wonder? Well, yes, there would doubtless be some who still want to stand out at any cost. Lots of perforations and punctures, body art, wild clothing, that sort of thing. But for the most part, just beauty as far as the eye can see. Jaw dropping appearances. Men would look like Jon Hamm or Brad Pitt if they wanted to, women could be as physically attractive as Marilyn Monroe or Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez or Katy Perry. A movie-star level of beauty all around.

The effect would be paradoxical, I think. In a world without disease or death, for example, no one would think about how he feels or worry about getting sick. In a climate that is always mild, sunny, and clear, no one would care much about the weather. And in a future of endless and omnipresent pulchritude — where anyone could become exquisite just by visiting the department store — the value of physical allure would surely diminish. The beautiful girl or guy would become something of a commonplace.

Other things would correspondingly count for more. The trophy spouse would have to be a Nobel Prize winner or an author; or someone of unusual charm or wit, generosity or kindness. A different world, for sure.

Until then? I think I will hold on to my old head. Despite some relatively high mileage, it has served me well. It is not the head of a handsome 25-year-old, but there are some good ideas and interesting experiences contained therein. I wouldn’t want to be without them. I’ve earned the weathering and learned from the lines. With a little buffing and waxing, it still does its job.

See you at the car wash.

The top photo is of Jon Hamm. The bottom image is a poster of John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde in the 1920 Paramount Pictures classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-Awareness: Part II (Conclusion)

If you haven’t read the first part of this story, go to:  Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self Awareness. Then return here for the conclusion.

The phantasm was your standard-issue genie, up to a point: skyscraper tall, with a long, twirling mustache and broad shoulders, but his bug eyes were friendly. Once past the imposing size, you realized he offered a welcoming smile. In other words, the sort of genie you wouldn’t mind having a beer with, if you found a bar with a mile-high ceiling.

I am at your service, Master. You may request one wish and one only. I must warn you, however. The maker of this lamp wanted certainty that no one would use it to cause harm. He therefore required me to tell its possessor this: any wish that would damage another will produce the same injury to the person who makes it.

The genie took a deep breath before speaking again:

OK, now you’ve heard what my maker demanded I tell you. But, over my 3000-year career, I’ve had lots of time on my hands when the lamp lay undiscovered. So, you should know — I took a junior college course in psychology and dabbled with becoming a therapist. What I’m trying to communicate is this: I will give you 50-minutes to discuss possible choices before you decide; breakfast included, no extra charge!

With that, the food appeared. “Wow,” said Ralph. “Thank you so much. I never persuaded Fox to go to marital counseling and she almost never cooks, so this is great! I kind of thought I should enter therapy myself, but never had the time.” Ralph didn’t receive consideration often. His, interest in talking was as much for the semi-human contact with a congenial genie, as to help him decide how to use the gift of the lantern.

“So, what’s on your mind?” asked the ancient apparition. The human proceeded to describe his marital life and his wife’s bankrolled journey to glamour, emphasizing her regular side trips to his personal complaint department. The ageless magic creature listened patiently.

Wow, Ralph said to himself. No one interrupted me.

“Well Ralph, have you considered returning your wife’s body to its pre-surgical status? No problem at my end.”

“No, I don’t want to do that to her. She ‘d be depressed and never forgive me.”

“OK, how about if I make you as handsome as she is beautiful?” offered the genie.

“No,” said our hero again, “She’s never been bothered about how I look. My appearance is the only thing she accepts. Besides, she’d adjust to any change.

Ralph looked away. “I don’t think there is a solution.”

Ralph quieted, despairing. The genie, out of ideas, offered nothing more.
 
Then the unlikely Master came alive to his power: “You know, here’s what I want. It would be amazing for Fox to see herself in the mirror. Not the outside, external stuff, but the inside: to fathom how self-involved she is and how she is never satisfied. How much I love her, too.”
 
“One minute of self-awareness, please. I hope to change her forever. Can you do it, genie?”
 

“Sure, Ralph. Bring her here tomorrow before dawn. I’ll need a hand-mirror, as well. Your wish will be granted.”

Ralph spent an anxious day and a sleepless night waiting for the morning. It took some doing to persuade Fox to rise early for the promised beach visit, especially because her eye sensitivity caused avoidance of sunny places. But she was intrigued by her husband’s request. He assured her they would only be there for a short while past sunrise.
 
The next day came, while Sleeping Beauty dreamed of a luxury car or a trip to France, either one a fulfillment of her husband’s enticement.  The couple thus traveled in a state of quiet uncharacteristic of her, preoccupied as she was by her material fantasies.
 

As instructed by the man of the lamp, Ralph carried a small satchel and walked with Fox to the empty beach. The genie reduced his stature to nestle in Ralph’s ear, where he whispered precise instructions.

Our hero laid out a large towel and requested his wife to sit facing the water. The lamp stayed in the handbag, as Ralph removed the glass, asking the beauty to take off her shades, then hold the mirror to her face. “Oh, Ralphie, are you going to put a necklace on me?”
 

Now came the dawn. In an instant Fox saw not her a reflected image of expensively achieved features, but a self-interested personality in its self-unforgiven ugliness. By the fifth second, she realized how vain and narcissistic she was. In the eighth she became aware of the chronic unkindness she visited on her family.

One quarter of the way to the end of time, a shaft of insight displayed the likeness between the neglect Fox suffered as a child and the identical indifference she dispensed to her children. Half-way through she could no longer justify her affair.
 
At 40 ticks a psychic bombshell penetrated her defense against the emptiness of her existence.
 
In the last 10 seconds of her single minute of self-awareness, the once friendless girl no longer dismissed how much she had hurt her husband, who — it occurred to her — loved her more than anyone. At second 60 — crying the non-stop, can’t-catch-your-breath tears of catharsis — Fox’s heart broke and stopped beating. She collapsed in Ralphie’s arms, already dead.
 

For an instant — enough time for a horrified, heart-rending sigh and the formation of a single tear — Ralph stared at the devastation wrought by his attempted salvation of his marriage. His wish was innocent: to make Fox as beautiful inside as her oft admired face and form; a person whose acquired self-awareness would morph her into the compassionate, loving wife and mother Ralph and his children yet ached for.

But his gasp signaled only the dawn of Ralph’s own insight, just as the genie warned earlier, as unexpected by Ralph as his wife’s tortured demise.

In the first second he realized how weak he had been with Fox; by the 10th, how much he failed to provide their children with a strong role-model. Thirty-seconds on, penetration of the word ENABLER knocked him back into the sand.

Though the day was still new, Ralph’s consciousness sensed a curtain lowering on creation. He saw a sign emblazoned on an antique gate: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. In his slow-motion entry to hell, Ralph perceived himself as an indulgent Dr. Frankenstein. He was the creator of a monster, one surgery at a time: the man whose life would have been different if he had learned to say “no.”

At the end of Ralph’s single minute of enlightenment, his heart also stopped. He slumped over his deceased wife, closer than they had been during life.

The last moment of Dr. Frankenstein’s descent, before his heart broke, revealed that he and Fox were not ill-matched at all. In fact, they were perfectly matched, as if made for each other, like a custom measured and cut glove, sewn to fit one’s hand.
 
Fox could not have become “herself” without Ralph, and Ralph could not have fulfilled his potential to be a good-hearted, but beaten dog without her. An evil genius lay within himself, all the same.
 

Like two intimately bound elderly people in a long marriage, the scientist and his creation had to die close in time. One could not live without the other, if indeed they ever lived.

The genie crawled out of Ralph’s right ear. He assumed his full height and stood over the wreckage of the magic lamp’s too illuminating wish-fulfillment.

Gosh, this never happened before, he thought to himself. Criminy. Maybe I need to get out of this business. Three-thousand-years is enough. I don’t want another catastrophe.

Back in the day, I wanted to be a therapist.

Hmm.

The phantasm crawled back into his lamp, lost in his own lostness.

He’d been so focused on the wishes of others, he never created a decent Plan B.

The top image is a poster for the Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein. The Arabian Nights Entertainments by Milo Winter, published in 1914 by Rand McNally and Company is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is a Magic Lamp.

 

Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-Awareness

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/af/Megan_Fox_LF.jpg/256px-Megan_Fox_LF.jpg

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.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3d/Girlfriend_and_I.jpg/256px-Girlfriend_and_I.jpg

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.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/75/A_Bela_e_a_Fera_-_The_Beauty_and_the_Beast.jpg/256px-A_Bela_e_a_Fera_-_The_Beauty_and_the_Beast.jpg

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.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/be/Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svg/256px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svg.png

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.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/ec/Deep_Sadness.jpg/256px-Deep_Sadness.jpg

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 gone 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 (Conclusion).

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 at Old People or “Is Fifty the New Forty?”

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8b/Happy_Old_Man.jpg/500px-Happy_Old_Man.jpg

You might not want to read this.

It’s gonna get scary.

I recently went to a funeral attended by a number of people who were middle-aged and beyond. The crisscrossed lines in their faces resembled an electric grid.

Still, one noted a few exceptions. Some, always female, had facial features that appeared to be immobilized by a Botox overdose. No forehead lines, no wrinkles, no movement; for the price of frozen time they had also obtained, at no extra charge, a visage as smooth as stone and as hard to animate. When trying to smile, a few of these folks looked like their faces were about to crack, while necks and hands told a different story.

Then there were the face-lifts that didn’t recapture youth so much as they made one look like someone else. Not better, but different. A few others sported eye and jowl lifts that had lost their hydraulics. I guess the old saying applies: what goes up must come down.

The men didn’t have this problem, but made an equally pathetic effort to disguise ancient origins. One guy had a comb-over that started behind his left ear and ended just over his right ear. Didn’t his wife notice this? Whose idea was this anyway? What was the man thinking?

Bad toupees suggested a recent visit to an Oriental rug bazaar in order to buy a discarded carpet remnant.

I am bald myself, but make no effort to disguise it. I do remember, however, hearing about something called scalp reduction surgery designed to get more coverage out of the hair you have by reducing the territory on top of your head.

I can imagine the following conversation:

Surgeon: ‘Well, Dr. Stein, we’ve studied your head, your hair-line and scalp and we have some good news and some bad news.”

Me: “Tell me more, Doctor.”

Surgeon: “The good news is that we can give you a full head of hair!”

Me: “And the bad news?”

Surgeon: ‘Your head will be the size of a pea.”

Back to the distaff side, a few of the women seemed to be hoping that you wouldn’t look at them closely because you’d be distracted by the dazzle of their jewelry. One seventy-ish lady had so many bracelets that she wasn’t able to lift her arm to shake hands. Her metallic bands created an orchestra-like percussion effect that drowned out the clergyman’s eulogy whenever she moved a millimeter.

Then there were the older men and women who dressed in styles more suitable to young people. One muscular guy wore a shirt revealing just enough to suggest that a lot of iron had been successfully pumped, but that all recreative work had stopped above the shoulders, sort of like an unfinished home rehab that never got to the top floor. “I don’t think that is his real head,” my wife whispered to me. We both wondered who his surgeon might be.

Ginger Rogers in Her Youth

A few of the older ladies wore skirts or dresses that befitted teens and twenty-somethings. The attire was usually combined with a long-haired coiffure that reminded me of how Ginger Rogers looked in the dreadful old age of a once gorgeous creature, still thinking that her beautiful blond hair should be worn just as it had been 50 years before.

If desperation had a fragrance, the room would have been ripe with it. But then, as Billy Crystal’s old SNL character “Fernando” used to say, “I’d rather look good than to feel good.”

The problem was, no one really looked good, even with all the obvious effort.

Is 70 then the new 60, as some like to say? Is 50 the new forty?

Is dead the new alive?

My advice? Accept the unacceptable. Hold on to your dignity.

Try hard not to look like an idiot.

As wise men have said for centuries: “There’s no fool like an old fool.”

The top image is called Happiness by Marg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do You Know Who You Are? A Meditation on Identity, Mid-life Crisis, and Change

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/85/Pentdod_gruen_neu_anim.gif

Who are you?

In times of war, men define themselves by three pieces of information only: name, rank, and serial number. I suppose that the peace-time equivalent is name, profession, and age; not social security number, which you are wise to keep to yourself for fear of identity theft. Stolen identities aside, the question of who you are is still an important one.

But let me formulate it differently.

How would you describe yourself? What human characteristics or traits or values are essential to you? What makes you different from any other person on earth?

Let’s start at the beginning of life. You are given a name. How does the name define you and influence the rest of your life? If you are A Boy Named Sue, as in the old song, you can be sure that your identity and life have been changed by your parents’ decision about appellation. Indeed, there is now research evidence that some names, those thought to be used predominantly by blacks, cause potential employers to discriminate against a job applicant’s resume when compared to individuals with the same qualifications who have names that are less racially-linked.

Name-changing has long been a way for white Americans to avoid discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. Others had their names compromised when reaching this country from Europe and were processed for entry to the USA on Ellis Island. Thus, a Paderewski became a Patterson and a Rifkin became a Riff, due to the simplifications created by the randomly assigned immigration official. And, from the start, the new arrival had to deal simultaneously with a change of name, a new nationality, a loss of homeland, and the now restricted opportunity to use his native language, all playing on the question of his identity. Meanwhile, his young offspring encountered the attitude of teachers (and, much later) potential employers or lovers to someone named Patterson rather than Paderewski, just as he saw himself as the former and not the latter.

For the immigrant, the “dislocation of place” both parallels and creates the dislocation of his sense of who he now is. The person has gone from being (perhaps) an unremarkable resident of his home country to someone “different,” who speaks (at best) with an accent, and who has a history that is at odds with the shared past of his new neighbors. The man has become, truly, a stranger, but he is not just strange to others—he is strange to himself.

Just as some people voluntarily attempt to hide their ethnicity, so too do some few work to hide their race. You might want to watch the 1959 movie, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and John Gavin, for a cinematic take on this subject, the attempt to pass for white. More recently, Philip Roth’s year 2000 novel The Human Stain (and the movie of the same name) deals with a black University professor passing as a white man; and Bliss Broyard’s 2007 memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets describes her father Anatole Broyard’s self-transformation from black to white within the literary world.

And one must give at least brief mention of a condition called Gender Identity Disorder, in which children may be born anatomically of one sex, but of the opposite sex in terms of identity.

Religion also helps create one’s sense of self. As the European generation who survived World War II began to approach death, a number of adult Polish Catholics discovered, through these aging parents or other relatives, that they were born Jewish. The children had been rescued from the Holocaust by Polish gentiles. It was therefore often easier and safer to treat them as Catholic during the Nazi occupation than to try to persuade them to keep a secret of their religion. Once this identity alteration was performed, however, it proved to be hard or uncomfortable to undo, particularly in a nation with an antisemitic history. The revelation of the religion into which they were born surely transformed the identity of a number of these religiously recast people.

Revelations of another kind occurred in post-World War II Germany. The children of Nazi authorities and SS members did their best to keep their identities secret for fear of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, their children sometimes discovered (to their dismay)  the answer to the question “What did you do during the war, daddy?” This type of revelation can lead the child to wonder who he really is, and whether he has inherited some of the unfortunate qualities of his father.

The 1989 movie Music Box starring Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl deals with a similar circumstance, but one transported to the Chicago area. It involves the question of a father’s activities in Hungary during the war and his daughter’s legal defense of him against the US government’s attempt to deport him.

If you have seen or read the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, you know still a different take on the same theme, this time without war crimes entering picture, at least as they are usually defined. The play takes place in post World War II America. Joe Keller ran a wartime factory with his former neighbor, Steve Deever. The men knowingly shipped defective airplane cylinder heads causing the death of 21 U.S. Air Force pilots. Steve goes to jail for this, although somehow Joe is exonerated of the crime. But when Joe’s pilot son Larry finds out what his father has done, his shame translates into suicide, so devastated is he by the identity-altering knowledge of who his father is and what his father has done.

As I hope these examples make clear, the question of your identity also involves awareness of who your parents were or are. Adopted children often seek out their biological parents, as do those who have been abandoned and left with only one parent to raise them. They also lack the medical history that informs the lives of those of us who know our parents well. The difference can mean life or death. Am I at risk for heart disease or not? It depends, in part, on who your parents are or were, and that information can change your life.

Children who have lost a parent to disease or death-by-accident or in war-time have a similar problem, even if they don’t have to deal with the knowledge that a parent or parents gave them up, and the attendant implication that they were worthless to those parents. And, their identity is influenced by the fact that they are “different:” the ones who lack a parent, have no partner at the daddy-daughter dance, have no father to teach them to play ball and no male parent to root for them at the Little League game.

Shifting gears, our identities are surely influenced by physical and intellectual characteristics: short/tall, young/old, handsome/homely, smart/stupid and so forth. But not all such qualities are fixed. Witness the change in identity that happens as people age, especially if they were once beautiful or handsome, or once athletic and now infirm. For those who trade on superficial characteristics exclusively, the change that comes with the passage of time is more than troubling.

Gorgeous women, in particular, find that they no longer turn the heads of men so much, if at all. Instead, the male of the species looks to other, younger women. Germaine Greer talked about this in terms of becoming “invisible,” though she found freedom in it to be more herself, less concerned with how she looked. One way or the other, it is an identity changer. Similarly, those who are injured, scared, or lose a limb or a breast must redefine themselves, reconfigure who they are in their own minds just as they have been quite literally reconfigured physically.

On the other hand, if you receive an organ transplant, you face an unusual assault to your sense of self. You are no longer the physical entity of earlier days, but now have a part of another person inside of you.

Yet, sometimes external changes do not alter identity very much. I have counseled more than one naturally beautiful adult woman who was the fat kid or the ugly kid while growing up, or the child who was criticized and belittled by parents. Too often the early labels seem to adhere to the person’s self concept as if they were tattooed on their flesh. Thus, it is not a surprise that cosmetic surgery does not always achieve the sense of self-worth that the patient is looking for.

Other life events can also transform one’s self-image. Men are notoriously vulnerable to a loss of identity when they retire or lose a job and are no longer the CEO, breadwinner, “doctor/lawyer/Indian chief” of their working days. I recall hearing it said that for a time after his retirement from baseball, the great New York Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle had a recurring dream about trying to reenter Yankee Stadium by crawling under the fence that surrounded the ball field and getting stuck there! This is a stereotypical example of a man who was suffering from his loss of identity as an athlete.

So too, women who defined themselves exclusively in terms of their job as mothers frequently seem bereft and without a sense of self when the children leave the nest. In addition, women historically are more likely than men to define themselves by their partner, and achieve a sense of who they are by who their partner is. Being, for example, “the doctor’s wife” might have some value until the day that you are the doctor’s ex-wife. But, it must be said that men do this, too, and take some measure of self-definition and pride in having a talented or beautiful or charming wife.

Before closing, one must certainly comment on the notorious mid-life crisis of identity usually associated with men. Some men begin to get the sense of time passing them by and of not having accomplished all that they wished for in life. Jean Améry has said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, his self concept is informed by the expectations he has for his future. For most men in middle age, however, “who he will be” is not all that promising.

As the (usually unconscious) sense of mortality and “doors closing” begins to encroach, males have been known to act foolishly in order to hold on to or recapture their youth. A fast, new model car will suffice on occasion, but the stereotyped search for a new model “trophy” love is certainly something I’ve encountered in my clinical practice. It has been known to take the form of a rekindled high school or college romance, as well, for those men less concerned about external appearances and more about “the road not taken.”

However the crisis manifests itself, the crisis-driven actions inevitably fail to find the “Fountain of Youth” that is their real goal. Grudgingly or not, one must accept one’s mortality and the accompanying aging process or make some big and painful mistakes, costly to yourself and to others around you, as the price of trying to hold onto an identity whose time has passed. Dylan Thomas wrote, “do not go gentle into that good night,” but, gentle or not, go we will.

A few years beyond the mid-life crisis stage, most men and women find themselves thinking about different things than they were in their youth. Thoughts related to sex diminish and thoughts about aches and pains increase. In both cases, the mind is reminded by the body of one and not the other. The only difference is that the body steals upon you with sexual thoughts and feelings while young and, as these diminish, perversely tries to make up for it with sensations that hurt more! If you are like me, the first change you notice is that you actually have knees. Now, for the first time, you are aware of the work they do, and the knowledge is not consoling. These thoughts and sensations make their own contribution to who you are.

Finally, Richard Posner, the public intellectual, scholar, and judge has asked an interesting question about identity. What if, Posner wonders, we send a young man to prison for a serious crime, but he reforms himself and becomes an admirable human being during his lifetime confinement? Are we still punishing the same man 40 years after the wrong has been done? Certainly his name is the same and his history marks him as the same man. But his personality might have been altered by rehabilitation, reflection, experience, study, faith, or any or all of the aforementioned.

I hope that it is clear that identity is not so simple a thing. It is made up of one’s history and those histories of one’s forebears. At least partially, it is a function of a name and a place and a time, whether friendly to a person or not, particularly if society is prejudiced. Physical characteristics, too, play their part, as do what we think and what we do; and, of course, whether we have much self-awareness or, instead, see ourselves as different from who we really are.

And, it is a thing that can change — that must change — as we age and take on new roles in our families and in our community; and as changes occur not just in our mind’s eye, but in the mirror.

It is worth some thought, I think, that question with which I began.

Who are you?

The image is called Pentaeagondodekaeder by Lokilech, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.