Friday, January 21, 2011

Society of Orders

The social structure of early modern Europe is called a Society of Orders and has its roots in the feudal system of the Middle Ages. In theory there are three orders, or estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry—those who pray, those who fight, and those who work very hard to support the other two! In a caste system one is born into a particular socioeconomic stratum and will remain there for life. Wealth primarily forms the basis or our class system in the United States. So a person from the middle class can strive through ingenuity and resourcefulness to become the richest person in the world and thereby secure for himself or herself a high social standing. A Society of Orders, however, is different. The nobility has privilege over other groups because they are born into a particular long-standing family of title and honor.

This tripartite system of feudal Europe—monks, warriors, peasants—was the theoretical basis of the culture. Europe at this time was largely agrarian, and farmers and land laborers formed about 90% of the population. However, since the late medieval period towns and cities had been on the rise, increasing the presence and influence of a fourth tier: urban folk. The mercantile sector of society—merchants, bankers, artisans—threw a monkey wrench into the traditional social schema. Throughout the Renaissance and beyond a number of families in the urban community began to generate more wealth than traditional noble families. Gradually, these families bought or married their way into the nobility. In England, for example, historians have traced the "rise of the gentry," the increasing prosperity and political influence of the middle class whose views clashed with the monarchy and the old aristocracy.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Guy Without Luck

My heart goes out to my buddy Sherwood Thomas.  We've known each other for decades now, and he's fun to hang with.  Anyway, for the life him, try as he might, he just can't find a good job.  He got his PhD over a decade ago, racked up an impressive record of successful teaching over the years, and published some scholarly publications.  He's well-travelled, having visited or lived in various countries throughout the world.  Moreover, he's currently an officer in the U.S. Army, having enlisted six years ago to serve his country. He trained as both an intelligence analyst and human resources specialist, has a top security clearance, and deployed to Afghanistan under the 82nd Airborne in 2007.  His Army evaluation reports have nothing but great things to say.  Committed to health and strength, he gets top scores on the Army Physical Fitness Test.  Moreover, he has a great credit score, having dutifully paid off his  loans.  He's managed to provide for his children by taking on two to three jobs at any one time.  Heck, he's trained in first aid, CPR, and physical security. 

I knew that Sherwood was telling me this not because he wanted to boast; rather, he was expressing his frustration.  "What more can I do, Der?"  I didn't know what to say, but I knew he needed some kind of encouragement.  "Your ship's gonna come in one of these days, dude," I said lamely.  "In the meantime, you just gotta see the glass half full.  I mean, think of all the experiences you've had that you wouldn't have had had you got that 9 to5 dream job, huh?"  Sherwood smiled politely.  I tried one more tactic.  "At least you're not dying from AIDS in an impoverished, forsaken African village somewhere.  Comparatively, things aren't so bad, right?"  He nodded.  "Yeah, definitely.  Especially when you put it that way."  Sherwood smiled politely again.

"I tell you what, Sher," I said, trying to leave our discussion on a positive note.  "If you don't have an awesome job by this time next year....I'll eat my shoe."   "Yeah?  Deal!"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Snippets of Life

1) Kristin worked as a receptionist for an insurance firm downtown on the eighth floor of the Henderson Bank Building.  Unbeknownst to everyone in the lobby who perhaps saw a geeky, bespectacled woman of moderate height, every time she passed through the revolving doors on the ground level and walked the long maroon carpet rug that directs visitors to the elevator lobby, she imagined herself a glamorous fashion model on an international runway in Monaco or Paris.

2) I never met a Norwegian I didn’t like, with the exception of Derek Olson, who is really just a Norwegian-American originally from Lansing. He never has a good word to say and he’s so full of himself. Even if he were gay and I was his lover, which I’m not, I’d still think he was an ass, and that fact that I was both attracted to him and thought he was an ass—in this imagined scenario, mind you—would make for a complicated relationship indeed.

3) I once knew a young couple that named their twins Vomit and Urine. I think this is so cruel. Yet I’m not sure what bothers me more: the disgusting names or the fact they’ve given these names to girls. Then again, why do I feel these names are more suitable for boys? I mean, “vomit” and “urine” are not gender-specific, are they?

4) Italian women and Kenyan men don’t usually hang out together. I don’t really have an opinion about it either way. If pressed, though, I’d say that they should hang out together, because it would go a long way in healing the racial divide. Otherwise, those Italian women would just be sitting around in the piazza slurping spaghetti noodles and those Kenyans would be throwing their spears around. At least they could unite and do something useful for humanity, you know?

5) I’ve always had an issue with the word “buttocks.” I mean, why is it plural? Ouch! That bicycle seat hurts my buttocks! Doesn’t that sound weird? We should just say butt, no? After all, I understand why we say buns, for we have two of those. It would be weird to see an attractive woman walking down the street in shorts and say, “Hey, sweetie, nice bun!”

6) Janice inadvertently made eye contact with Jordan at the office party and worried that he would read too much into it. Her worries were well founded. On Monday Jordan came up to her and tried to strike up a conversation. Fortunately, she had received a phone call on Saturday from Joyce, who relayed to her what Jerry had told her only moments after the “incident.” Jordan had confided in Jerry that he thought Janice “had the hots for me.” Already aware of Jordan’s interest, Joyce set up a ruse to ward off Jordan’s advances without directly turning him down. She asked Jack from shipping, with whom Janice enjoys a friendship, to pretend that he is interested. So when Jordan walked up to her on Monday to strike up a conversation, Jack, waiting in the wings by the Xerox machine, ambled over and winked at Joyce in such a way that Jordan would be blind not to notice it. Joyce responded favorably to Jack’s wink and was rather dismissive with Jordan. Jordan got the message.

7) Randy’s best friend married my wife’s cousin, but I don’t think that makes us blood relatives. Anyway, they divorced not long after the best friend returned from his second tour in Iraq.

8) Peter was more of a coffeehouse kind of guy, but he agreed to meet Joe at a local pub for a few brewskies. Joe’s girlfriend Sandy recently broke up with him and he needed some liquid solace and the good company of a trusted friend. Actually, Peter never considered Joe as a close friend, but he felt an obligation to offer a sympathetic set of ears for Joe’s lamentations and try to cheer him up. Though he preferred a cherry coke, Peter politely sipped the pint-sized lager that Joe had ordered for him. He listened attentively as Joe tried to drown his sorrows with virtually half the drink menu. “Forget her, Joe! She doesn’t deserve you. I’m not just trying to butter you up, but you have a lot to offer. Seriously. Think of the breakup as Sandy’s loss and an opportunity to get a fresh start. Plenty of fish in the sea, my friend, and with your personality and savoir-faire, you’ll easily find a wonderful woman, someone who recognizes your good attributes.”  Joe brought up his muscular forearms, presumably to complete the list.   Peter nodded.  “Besides, dude, you’ve been grumbling here and there about having little time to get out on that boat of yours. Take advantage of the extra time you now have. See it as a gift.” The smile on Joe's face gave Peter no small amount of satisfaction. Had thoughts of his upcoming date with Sandy at Applebee’s not distracted him, Peter, personable and fun when he wants to be, probably would have had Joe laughing like a school girl.

9) Just as the company commander was giving the final orders and imparting to his men some inspirational words of encouragement, he farted.  The flatulence was moderately loud, not earth-shattering loud, but occurring as it did during a dramatic pause in his speech, just after he had waxed eloquently about honor, glory and the fatherland, the sound seemed to rip through the solemnity of the moment.  Despite the artillery fire meant to soften up the enemy before a frontal charge, every soldier in the shellproof bunker heard the said fart.  At first the commander thought he had lost them, but he soon discovered to his pleasant surprise that his gaseous transgression had done more to rally the troops than any of those lofty words could have done.  As the men fixed their bayonets and waited for the whistle to blow, they couldn’t shake the giggles.  Once they got the signal, they climbed out of the trench and over the parapet into No Man’s Land, laughing their way to death.

10) It was always the same issue rearing its ugly head.  Sheila liked Greg.  Johann liked Greg.  Who wouldn’t like Greg?  He was a great guy, so much so that if he had known he was the source of so much friction between his two co-workers, he would have tried to resolve the situation.  To make matters worse, Sheila and Johann, friends and roommates for years, had recently graduated from mutual annoyance with one another over the “Greg issue” to outright hostility.  Little things would be blown out of proportion.  When Sheila failed to turn off the living room light, Johann gave her a scolding.  When Johann left her box of oat bran cereal on the counter one morning, Sheila sprinkled salt and pepper into it.  Admittedly, things turned sour when Greg and Johann scheduled their lunch at the same time so that they could meet up at the cafeteria and enjoy long discussions.   Sheila committed the unpardonable sin by informing the area supervisor of their chitchat on the company’s time, but Johann never found out that Sheila was the culprit.  Otherwise, they would have parted ways already, notwithstanding Greg dying of leukemia a month ago.  It's funny how animosity about an issue festers and causes permanent damage to a relationship even if the original source of the animosity is no longer an issue.

11) For the most part Thomas would concur with those who know her that Vanessa is a sweetheart.  He’s not denying her cutesy demeanor at both work and play, but he wondered if these people would at least qualify their view of her if they ever saw her behind the wheel of an automobile, as he did last week.   She has the case of road rage like nobody else he’d ever seen.  He asked her for a ride home because his car was in the shop getting the MacPherson struts replaced.  When a car swerved into her lane, Thomas saw Vanessa become so animated that he feared she would lose control over herself and flip the vehicle.  He had never known the English language was capable of such foul words and phrases, even as he made mental notes of them so he could impress his buddies with such colorful and imaginative cursing.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Humility or the Lack Thereof

Do you ever think about the personal attributes that most attract you to a person?  Contrariwise, do you think about that which most repels you?  Inevitably, I find myself drawn to people who exhibit humility, not the “woe is me, for I’m a worm” type of humility that wallows in the muck and mire, but the kind of humility that invokes a mature, reasoned sense of one’s place in the world.  The former is really just pathological behavior, while the latter is the expression of a liberated soul.  I might not always be conscious of this attraction, but I have found humility to be the common denominator in the relationships I have formed.  Yes, I’ve considered who my friends and acquaintances are and have asked myself why I hang out with them instead of other people I meet.  These people walk in humility for the most part.  True, nobody is free of sin, and we all succumb to less-than-humble attitudes and utterances every once in a while, but these people have a measured assessment of their abilities, achievements, and physical characteristics.  They know their weaknesses and limitations, and while they recognize their strengths, they don’t feel compelled to trumpet them from the rooftops.  I suppose a humble spirit stems from a refreshing inner confidence and self-possession.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mr. Grey (2/2)

“Thank you, Judy. I certainly think so! And while it happened many years ago, I still have not fully gotten over it. She was my soul mate, you see.” Lemoux paused for a moment. I couldn’t tell whether it was for dramatic effect or if he genuinely needed to get an emotional grip before he went on.

“I had to learn the hard way, however, that sometimes love isn’t enough. Such is life, no? C’est la vie. At the beginning of our lives, everything seems clear as day, the choices we make, the challenges we must face, the decisions required of us.  Most of us are born in a white, sterile room on white sheets, doctors and nurses in white uniforms standing at the ready, as if the road to our destiny is well-lit and our life's journey is pure.  Out we go, into the pristine world!”

As Lemoux spoke, a huge white puffy cloud came to my mind. Somehow the sun was still shining and droplets of rain permeated the virescent landscape below. Usually my thoughts are dark and depressing, so I savored this image wholeheartedly.

“As the years roll by and we mature, though, we find that life is not—to stay with the metaphor—so snowy white. Things become complicated, moral ambiguities emerge, the lines get blurry, and the bright white of clarity turns….”

“Grey,” I said, anticipating Lemoux’s train of thought.

“Yes, grey.”  He smiled.

“Huh?” Rob’s grunt of a response served as a kind of preface for his need to state the obvious, as if he were a narrator explaining to the reader what had just transpired. “So you wear grey to…um…uh...symbolize the ambiguities, the moral dilemmas that life brings our way?”

“Something like that,” said Lemoux. “I’ve used the example of unrequited love, but this greyness of life of course comes into play in other situations. Listen, if I had a nickel for the plea bargaining sessions I’ve been involved in, I’d be a wealthy man. Do you know the Roderick Rogers case?”  He read our faces.  "Yes?  You'll remember that this guy killed a family of four on a fateful autumn evening in an upscale suburb of Minneapolis. Rogers was good, well, good in a forensic sense, for he left little trace of his evil handiwork.”

As Lemoux took a healthy gulp of his coffee, I couldn’t help but admire his candid and gracious demeanor. He didn’t have to share these personal, heartfelt thoughts with us, but he did.  I don't know about Judy and Rob, but I initially considered Lemoux's "insights” to be a bit platitudinous, if that’s a word.  Yet something in his tone and earnestness made me appreciate his two cents.

“Rogers got his sentence reduced to seventy-five years with the possibility of parole for confessing to the crime and revealing the locations of the bodies.  We wanted closure for relatives of the deceased.  True, he'll never get out of prison, but the complications of the case led us to make this decision.  I know what you’re thinking, and rightly so. This sort of thing happens all the time. Yes, indeed. But there was something about this particular case that got me thinking deeply about the complications of life.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if the “complications” that Lemoux was speaking of are simply the result of immoral or wrong behavior and that we’re to blame. Evidently, Lemoux noticed my quizzical look.

“Penny for your thought, Patrick.”

“What?  Oh. I was thinking that perhaps we create the grey in our lives or, to mix metaphors, muddy the waters. I don’t mean any disrespect, but your relationship with this woman was a willful decision. And don’t get me wrong, I realize that you were following your heart and did not intend to cause harm by your actions. As far as these repulsive criminals go, well, we should just let the chips fall where they may. If we don’t have enough evidence to convict, then so be it. I understand that making a deal with the devil is necessary, or at least it seems to be necessary, but I think we go too far.”

In truth, I wasn’t satisfied with my response to Lemoux’s query, but in my defense I was still working through some of the things he was saying.

Judy piped up at this point: “I wish we were given a handbook for living, you know?

“Yes, it’s called the Bible,” retorted Rob with a devilish grin.

“No, I’m serious. I feel like I’m just now figuring out how to function in life, two marriages later and at the age of 29!” She laughed obnoxiously at her own witty remark. I’ve known Judy for almost a decade and have attended her 29th birthday for years now. Rob and I looked at each other as if to say, There she goes again with the laugh that killed many a conversation!

“Yet it would be a mistake,” continued Lemoux, “to presume that if we lived our lives in accordance with prescribed rules—whatever the rules happened to be—we’d live happier lives and avoid the all-pervasive Grey that,” he gestured toward his chest with poetic hands like a polished showman, “my clothing is meant to symbolize. First off, we more often than not follow the dictates of irrational forces…”

“Freud’s subconscious?” suggested Rob.

“Something like that.” Lemoux’s mild response to Rob’s contribution, I knew, left Rob feeling dejected.

“I’m not knocking rules and regulations. If we didn’t have moral and ethical guidelines we’d be just a bunch of apes. But we should acknowledge that while we use our intellect to conduct and plan our life, we just as easily override reason when it gets in the way of our desires. Moreover, I don’t think we create our own destiny entirely, which your comment implies, Patrick.”

“What do you mean, Mr. Lemoux?”

“Please, you can call me Jim, all of you. What I mean is that we can set out to live our life a certain way, obviously a way that we find to be fulfilling, ethical, rewarding. But even if we were to adhere strictly to our own guidelines, we’re not in control of outside forces.”

“Well, yes, I understand.” Lemoux, or Jim rather, had a way of communicating his thoughts that put me at ease. Social convention and my ego would normally prevent a young man informing his elder about life’s lessons. I’m guessing that Jim is about ten years younger than I. He seems respectful of other viewpoints, unlike most people that work at the courthouse. Moreover, whereas I feel as though I’ve glided through life until recently without a clue, without much reflection or contemplation, even less method and calculation, Jim has given much thought to humanity and his place in the world.

“It looks like the half hour is up,” he said, with his eyes on his watch.  1:00.  Lunch was indeed over and we needed to get back to the courthouse.  I do not claim any extrasensory powers, but for some reason I had a premonition at that very moment that Jim's days, be they white or grey, were numbered.

Sure enough, less than a month after our conversation Jim died in a car accident on I-59.  A girl texting on her iPhone slammed into the car in front of her, forcing Jim to swerve into the center divider.  His vehicle, a grey Toyota Venza, flipped over and landed upside down on the middle lane.  He died in the hospital later that evening, I was told.

We never really talked again in depth after that afternoon at Geli’s Deli. He would stop by the booth on his way to court and chew the fat briefly. I think Judy took his death the hardest, for she liked Jim more than she would let on. Rob was glum for an entire week.

This won't be easy for me, but I would like to close with a few impressions of the wake and funeral that the three of us attended.

Jim looked so restful in the casket, though I’m aware that his facial expression and the placement of his hands—the same poetic hands that animated the discussion and sucked us into his thoughtful reflections—owe more to the skill of the mortician than to any posthumous indicator of Jim’s contentment in life or his current spiritual state.

The pangs of “unrequited love” and whatever other complications Jim experienced in his short life and led him to wear his heart on not only his sleeve but his shirt, pants, shoes and jacket, would no longer trouble his mind.  I envied his ability to take stock of his life forthrightly and analyze even the seemingly trivial details.  I learned something when I spoke with him, even in our brief exchanges at the courthouse, about breaking things down and drawing out the kernel of truth.  Nonetheless, at the wake I questioned the usefulness of his keen and profound take on things, for Death appears to be no respecter of persons.

What most struck me was his black tux. It was the first time I saw Jim in anything other than grey. In fact, the black hearse and the black garb and dark glasses of those in attendance, not to mention the overcast sky, turned my melancholy to depression. I did not see the white puffy cloud that Jim, Mr. Grey, had planted in my mind.  No, the day was black.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Undiscovered Country

Do you ever wonder if the relationships you’ve cultivated, the knowledge you’ve attained, the experiences you’ve racked up, and the memories you’ve acquired have an ultimate purpose that transcends physical death?  Those of you who possess an undaunted faith in a personal, benevolent God and concomitant belief in an afterlife will respond in the affirmative.  Atheists who try to see the glass half-full, given the unsavory truth that consciousness ceases with the expiration of our physical bodies, would argue that life, though short-term for you as an individual, offers opportunities to make a difference in the lives around you and live on in the memories of subsequent generations.  You contribute in a small way to the advancement and propagation of the human species.  The latter is an admirable attempt to make the best of a somber and depressing prospectour ultimate demisebut it offers little consolation.  I have not relinquished a belief in God, though I no longer make claims about his, her, or its attributes and ontology.  Darwinists have a Darwinian account of our belief in, and longing for, a life beyond this one.  Fine.  But I still cling to the hope that something after death will vindicate all of our struggles, dreams, and longings.  Such thought puzzles the will.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Der Viator 2011

Hello readers, and belated Happy New Year! It’s taken me a few days to recover from a New Year’s Eve bash in Chicago where I drank myself into oblivion. Fortunately, the sound of my own vomit curdling on my chest woke me up Saturday afternoon. I found myself in a strange hotel that dates back to 1875 wearing nothing but my birthday suit and, well, the aforementioned vomit. I could hear Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” playing through the wall, and whether it was someone on the piano in the lobby or a recording, I couldn’t tell.

Nevertheless, here I am a year later. I shan’t recap my multifarious experiences over the course of 2010, for I gave some of the highlights via this blog a couple of weeks ago. However, I should like very much to inform you of future developments and figure the best way to do this is to answer mail from my many readers. Carol from Amherst, Massachusetts wonders why I expend so much energy on scatological musings and not on more significant or meaningful writing projects such as a story of romance and love. Would that I could oblige you, Carol, but I take issue with your dismissal of my scatological anecdotes, the purpose of which is not merely to find juvenile amusement in bodily functions but to keep the more ethereal topics such as God, culture and literature in the full context of human experience. Moreover, I fear that I have no love left in this dark, forlorn heart of mine, and drudging up a “love story” would be as much a foolhardy undertaking as an exercise in deceit and fraud.

Kendall of Pittsburgh wants to know whether I’ll focus more on nonfiction writing this year. I’m well aware that most readers are less interested in my attempts, ill-fated though they be, in fiction. I have a twofold response. First, I basically live a lie and often fail to grasp a putative distinction between reality and creative embellishment; nonfiction and fiction blend in my consciousness so much that I can’t separate them into airtight literary genres. Besides, fiction contains elements of truth—yes, truth about me to a certain extent, but more so truth about, say, an aspect of culture, politics or history. Second, the reading and writing of fiction is a form of escapism for me. While I enjoy a relatively good life, it certainly has its less-than-exhilarating moments. For this reason, I enhance or deflect from my mundane and boring experience of life by creating alternative worlds.

It looks like we have time for one more letter, so let me dig deep into the bottom of this mailbag. Let’s see… Megan of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin wants me to apologize for exposing respectable readers—presumably such as herself—to unmitigated violence without consequences. You’re flat out wrong, Megan, or whatever your real name is. While it is true that I write about murder and massacre, I’m always careful to show that such acts have consequences. For instance, killing thy neighbor can alleviate stress, solve a seemingly insolvable problem, and provide a handy means to get rid of competitors for food, sex, or territory.

Let me close this 2011 kick-off post with my New Year’s resolutions. Given that the end of the world will occur on 17 April 2023, based on a vision I received a few weeks ago, I hope in the course of this year to start the arduous process of coming to terms with the skeletons in my closet. Perhaps I should say closets, plural, since once closet is probably insufficient for storing all those rotting corpses. I don’t want to leave this world with shame, guilt, or lack of resolution in my checkered past. Another resolution is to make a difference by giving back to society. This blog will serve as the vehicle to goad the do-gooders and peaceniks into action by reminding them of the foibles of humanity, the idiocy of the international community, and the evil that men do. As always, Der Viator is serving his fellow man, and woman.