Friday, May 27, 2016

Perception Precisely Reflected II

When we returned to the office, Bell had gone, but something of him lingered.  It wasn’t the foul odor of his food that, to our relief, receded.  Before I could comment on what seemed to hover about the room, Nabokov Said, “Smell that?  That cloying scent?  That’s his cologne.  I don’t mind cologne, but why does he have to soak in it, for Christ sake?”

We all reseated ourselves around the table.  Everyone was quiet for a couple of minutes and I became eager for Nabokov to begin her tale.  I was not concerned about the time remaining in our lunch break.  We could take, as long a lunch as we wanted. Our supervisor, Dan Orchid, was working at regional headquarters, as he did every Wednesday.  We were dedicated to our jobs and even periodically loyal to Dan, though not at all on Wednesdays.  Dan wasn’t a terrible boss, but his mannerisms did irritate most of the members of our department.  His slightly curved posture sent his face far forward ahead the rest of his body, which strained to catch up to it.  And his habit of scurrying among the different departments on our floor, his eyes sliding rapidly right and left, made many people uneasy.   His ambition fueled his frenetic movements, though he rarely accomplished any genuine work.  When in our office, however, he possessed preternatural vigilance monitoring each one of us while we worked.

“Well, are you going to tell them about Bell?”  I asked her.
“Yes.”  She replied. “Just give me a minute to clear my head.  After sneezing a few times, she began her tale.  “Ten years ago…”

Finn O’Brien had been standing at the back of the corporate auditorium waiting for annual autumn meeting to commence.  Finn had worked at the company for eighteen years and had witnessed the staff expand and contract as the whims of management fluctuated from one business philosophy to another.  Of course, some of the staff had to be asked to leave for various ethical or criminal violations.  Naturally, when offenders balked or threaten to sue, management provided positive recommendations even for the most salacious behavior.  Fear of litigation or any stain of ignominy always terrified the bosses and blunted the edge of their occasional resolution.

Finn himself once tiptoed along the precipice of dismissal guilty of chronic lateness to the office.  It seemed his nocturnal poker games plundered his hours between midnight and morning, and made arriving on time to work a feat beyond even his prodigious endurance.  We used to amuse ourselves watching him speed his old Ford through the parking lot, jump from his car and run toward the main entrance, his long hair in tow flowing straight behind him.  Bill Headly, our supervisor back then, saw something worthwhile in Finn, and saved his job by reassigning him to the company warehouse down by the river.  At the warehouse, no one cared who came late, or early or in between.  Finn had found his perfect perch, happy among the gulls who fed upon the debris that collected behind the building and along the river.

As he stood there, Finn surveyed the seats on the off chance that somewhere in that crowded auditorium he would find a single seat between two individuals he did not know.  Finn was quite sociable, even gregarious, but on that morning his hangover was particularly acute as it splayed tentacles of pain up the back of his head, over his scalp and down his forehead into his eyes.  Finn would have enjoyed “chatting up” some young attractive female, had not his typical morning disposition extinguished even the whiff of sensual desire.  Just then he noticed the perfect spot to plant himself and drift off to sleep. He took a step forward, but was arrested by a hand gripping his left arm.  “Been a long time, Finn.  How have you been?”  It was Dr. Jonathan Bell, his eyes fixed firmly on Finn’s face.               

Finn said, “Fine,” but before the sound of the word attenuated into silence, Bell embarked on a monologue of his assorted summer travels to exotic countries in tropical climates.  Finn knew it was too late, that he was trapped; he cursed himself for not moving faster to the seat.  What intensified his anguish was he knew Bell would share stories of the intimate encounters these travels freed him to indulge in.  To Finn, it seemed that Bell didn’t realize how much better it would be to keep secret behavior that would, if discovered, have gotten him jailed even in those exotic lands.  But Finn supposed that the compulsion that drove Bell to engage in this behavior also compelled him to tell someone about it.  Finn had a weakness for gambling and drinking, but unfortunately he also suffered from that execrable flaw of having too much kindness.  Regardless of what people told him and despite the extent of their immoral behavior, Finn would never criticize anyone, no matter how far that person strayed from morality or even common decency.  And naturally, people sought him when they needed to reveal what should have remained secret.

But suddenly something happened to save him from hearing Bell’s more troubling and sordid details.  Through a side door of the auditorium strolled a young man dressed in a khaki suit.  Though Finn did not notice him, his presence immediately captured Bell’s attention.  


Nabokov broke off her narrative at this point, and along with my young colleagues, I wanted her to continue the tale.  “Why are you stopping now?” I stammered.

“Because I have work to do and can’t spend all afternoon sitting here with you three.”  We must have appeared inconsolable, since she looked at all of us and then said, “Listen, we can continue tomorrow during lunch.  Besides, there is so much to tell that we will need several hours if I am to describe fully the best parts of Bell’s story.  With that she rose from her chair and walked away with incontestable pride and dignity.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Perception Precisely Reflected I

I thought I had extirpated the sadist in me long ago through prayer and meditation.  But that changed the day he joined the department.  Almost from the start, the sight of him made me desperate to grind my fists into his face.  He didn’t do or say anything to offend; he was polite and pleasant.  I guess it really began when I noticed the way he walked.  As he stepped, he seemed to saunter, and though each foot scuffed the floor with an imperious click, his shoes left no discernible mark anywhere they went.

I wondered why an otherwise innocuous man with a slightly particular gait would summon from me such detestation.  After all, I rarely felt one way or another about the people I worked with and made it a point to ignore all their traits and idiosyncrasies.  Finally, one day I mentioned to him that he scuffed his feet and perhaps he could place each foot squarely and silently on the floor as he walked.

 He looked confused, smiled and said, “He’d do his best to be quiet.” 

I knew he didn’t mean it, and I thought that there was no chance of finding the peace that I had enjoyed before he joined the department.  No matter what I said, no matter what I did, his manner of walking would remain as he planned it.  It was a movement that might draw contempt from anyone who heard it, but who knew enough to speak to him in a language that I knew should convince him?

One day, shortly after my appeal to his common decency, I unburdened myself to a reliable colleague.  I told her of my distress.  Sympathy consoles and composes better than any tranquilizer.  Her response exceeded my hopes. She told me that everything the man did deserved contempt, from the hair style he wore to the clothes he bagged his body in.  My relief was total, even though her disdain for people might be described as universally limitless.  I knew I found someone whose perception reflected reality precisely. 

When sunlight at last surrenders to darkness, I usually feel free from the irritations that each day ineluctably plots for me.  But that evening was different.  The contentment I had after my colleague quieted my resentment faded before the final squibs of daylight disappeared.  It seemed that my Poe-like confession and her Nabokovian affirmation concealed under our mutual amusement what was inescapably true as much as it was inescapable.  So again, the anger slowly began tightening the muscles in my jaw.

And then the phone rang.  It was a retired friend who had worked with me years ago.  Happy to hear his voice and delighted to be distracted from unpleasant ideas, I knew not to mention the "scuffer."  My friend didn’t know him or of him and I didn’t want to distress him with something so terrible.  I let him, as I always did, lead the conversation where he wanted to take it.  That was the direction it always followed anyway.  When our talk turned to politics, he proceeded to assail both political parties, the state government, the mayor of New York, the local town and village boards, and the school boards of education.  I disagreed with nothing he said, and enjoyed the rapid back and forth we exchanged.  At one point, I alluded to a college friend, who has endured the plight of being a middle-aged, white male, a status that has conferred upon him membership in a group that has suffered so many injustices.  

“How did he come to feel victimized?” My friend asked.

“Too many days spent idling in his police cruiser, listening to Limbaugh,” I responded.

He snorted, “That gelatinous drug addict?  Your friend must be an idiot!”

“No doubt.”

Our conversation then dipped into books, with him observing the emptiness, the uselessness of most contemporary writing.  

Too tired by that time to assent or dissent, I listened to him expound on the state of culture, the never-ending bigotry in the US, the plotting of the country’s military industrial complex and the rapacious greed of Wall Street.  Eventually, he tired too, or at least I think he did, and we finally ended our phone call.  Later, when my head rested on the pillow, I thought of what we had said, but even more about the way the conversation dashed from point to point, indifferent to eloquence or structure. How different it was from conscious style of my conversation with my Nabokovian friend when we dissected the character of our promenading work colleague that morning.  But sleep was loosening my consciousness, till I imagined another walker wearing each day a different hat atop his rather unusual and disturbing head. 

Driving to work the next morning I envisioned a day of mental torpor, since the firm’s management had scheduled professional training sessions in which experts would teach us novel techniques to perfect our profession.  Though we always grumbled that these sessions provided nothing novel beyond new terms decorating old ideas, our supervisors delighted in discovering colorfully designed innovations they knew would transform the methods we had been using successfully in our fields forever. I knew the day would drag, disfigured by every speech, lecture, and power point presentation they would make us suffer through.  But what I resented most was the money wasted on these visiting mountebanks.  I once suggested dropping these sessions and using that money to buy edible food to replace the processed gruel dished out in the staff dining room.  I believe the regional administrators read my memo with care, though I never received a response of any kind.

To my surprise, the first session slipped quickly by. I remember the presenter was a skittish, young woman who shrieked whenever she tried to talk above the incessant chatter that mixed with the humidity in the airless auditorium the building’s brilliant architects forgot to supply with air-conditioning.  While I sat there, perspiration beaded then dripped down the back of my neck, and my eyes closed every few minutes.  The heat together with her cant made me drowsy and the drone of chatter would have sealed my sleep, had not her periodic screeching shaken me out of my slumber.

The session ended shortly before noon, and I headed back to my department’s office.  Once there, I poured a cup of coffee, collected a sandwich I had prepared the night before and made my way to the small, open area that occupied the center of the office.  As was my custom, I ate lunch at a table joined by three or four colleagues.  These lunches gave us a chance to talk over important issues and ideas.  Among the four colleagues sitting at the table was the “reliable Nabokovian.”  The conversation had begun before I sat down, and the subject was the “skittish” presenter from that morning’s training secession.  Through the rest of the week I would hear an assortment of comments that followed the tenor of those whispered during that lunch: 

“Insipid”; “Moronic”; “Cretinous”; “Dried dung heap.” 

The litany might have continued all through lunch had not Dr. Jonathan Bell bustled into the office carrying a brown paper bag in one hand and his coffee mug in the other.  The moment he entered, the conversation broke off and everyone at the table stared in his direction. 

“Good morning,” He sang out in his terribly adenoidal voice. 

One or two of us grumbled, “Good morning.”

“May I heat my lunch in your microwave?  Ours is broken.”  He held the lunch bag aloft like a ritualistic censer, and the clothes he wore clearly projected the impression he desired to convey that here was a man of transcendent importance and power.  Someone utter approval and he went into a small, back galley kitchenette that contained a refrigerator, a coffee pot and a microwave oven.  Though we could not see him, we could hear him tapping the temperature level and time sequence for his food.  

No one had uttered another syllable; but what we were all thinking was plainly discernible on our faces.  Ten years ago, Bell had been ascendant in the company hierarchy.  It seemed only a matter of time before he rose to president, an idea that troubled many of the experienced employees.  But then he met his nemesis, and his descent had been far swifter than his rise.

Only the Nabokovian and I knew the details of his tumultuous collapse and the how much its reverberations shook the firm.  The three young colleagues eating with us knew little of Bell, besides the obvious psychological debacle his daily attire suggested.  While we were silenced by his looming presence, an image of a man striding aggressively down a corridor, on his head a tight fitting knit cap, broke across my mind.  I had thought I had managed to banish to the deepest caverns of memory that image, but here again it surfaced.  Just then an odor of fermented putrescence pervaded our space, and one of the younger colleagues yelped, “Jesus Christ!  What the hell is that?”

Simultaneously smote by an infernal stench, we all sprang to our feet, and hurried to the door.  None of us stopped moving till we reached the main building exit and zipped through those doors desperate to breathe again.  Once outside, we gasped, cough, and choked away the stench that had infected our nostrils.  After a minute, Nabokov screamed, “What the hell is the matter with that man?”  We all knew what she meant.  Two or three times in the past Dr. Jonathan Bell had managed to evacuate his own department by exposing them to his carrion cuisine.  Our three young colleagues had heard about these incidents, but this was their first exposure. Seeing their disbelief and fear, Nabokov said she would tell them all about this man, once the air in our office became safe for us to return.

Monday, May 16, 2016

When the Wrong are Still Wrong

Ross Douthat’s “When the Wrong Are Right,” (Sunday Review, New York Times, 2016/05/16 considers how liberals, by focussing solely on the racist or xenophobic motives a Trump’s supporters, have ignored the possibility that his supporters nevertheless have legitimate grievances against many of the policies Washington has implemented over the past three decades.  Douthat does not deny that Donald Trump’s victory in the G. O. P. is in part a driven by the anger of “white-identity politics,” and by racially motivated people. 

In fact, he readily concedes that a considerable number of Trump supporters are bigots, “nativists” and “xenophobes.” But he warns liberals that if they fail to understand the anger and anxiety of Trump’s supporters they will not recognize that despite indecent, vulgar and hateful motives these supporters have suffered as a result of politicians who in the past ignored the layers of truth buried beneath their bigotry.  He cites examples of when bigots were accurate in their criticisms of bad or weak policies regarding crime or trade agreements.  His examples include the “appeal to racists” of the “Willie Horton” campaign ads, “Pat Buchanan’s nativist brigades,” and the European far right’s clamor over the “Mass immigration now destabilizing Europe’s liberal order.”  He also claims that the debate over transgender rights is a “forward-looking example” of bigots who may not be wrong in their reaction against the regulatory actions of the Obama administration insisting that transgendered individuals be permitted to use the bathroom of their choice.   

Of course, it is true in that the bigots get some facts correct regarding the issues that unsettle them.  And it  certainly can be argued that the left and the right’s approach to issues such as crime, trade policies, and immigration has inspired little confidence.  However, like so many (on both the right and the left), his argument slips into the faulty perception that one’s opponent is trapped within a furrow of single-mindedness.  Of course, Trump’s thinly veiled appeal to racists and xenophobes stirs decent minded people to rally against him.  But those who object to Trump do not do so solely because his racist demagoguery.  His relentless vulgarity, his ridiculous policy ideas, his endless revisions of what he has said or proposed to do are enough to unify Paul Krugman, David Brooks, William Kristol, Katrina vanden Heuvel and George Will.  Whoever imagined that such an assortment of pundits could agree so strongly on one issue?  Could it be that they see and remember all too clearly the dangers posed by the racists and xenophobes who blighted much of the previous century?  

 See Douthat’s essay: