The Tight-rope Walkers

Recently, I posted a link regarding the now-infamous potty-mouth remark about countries not Norway. The source was a piece in National Review, nicely explaining how that sort of behavior was not acceptable. My point—that conservatives did not approve—received some comment, with one suggestion that conservatives usually don’t say a word. My response suggested that this happens out of fear, but the retort was “Out of fear or lack of courage?” Perhaps the distinction escapes me. Feel free to jump in.

Today I shall attempt an allegory to share what I see. An allegory is visual, an extended metaphor: “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence,” says Merriam-Webster. The two most famous ones are Plato’s Cave (explaining truth and his theory of forms) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (in which Christian travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City). Follow the links only if you want to, as there is no test and neither applies to what I’m going to say, but you could expand your experience if you do; notice lack of “should.”

Imagine that at one time we were all tight-rope walkers. Each of us, suspended about a swamp of alligators, tread slowly and carefully using our long poles for balance. We knew that if we were not careful, we would fall to our destruction (or at least disgrace) in the pools below. Other tight-rope walkers were around us. Sometimes the ropes crossed each other, and we navigated carefully around each other so as not to cause either too much discomfort or fear.

A Great Change occurred, however, when someone decided not to obey the propriety of the passing and balancing. Let’s call him the Clown. He was not good at walking on the ropes anyway, so he said he would not follow the rules and just scream out at others from below. Who cares about the alligators! Unfortunately, some of the walkers, perhaps half of them and principally those that despised him, also decided to get down, immerse themselves in the same slimy waters, and forget the boundaries that once kept them and the others safe. They thought nothing of throwing trash and rocks up at those who remained, not caring that they might come crashing down to their destruction. Yet the others tried bravely to continue their walk even though the balancing became more and more difficult.

Did the ones who remained have lack of courage or were they fearful? I know people who will not tell anyone that they voted for the Clown for fear of losing their jobs. They remain silent and let the others assume what they will. Not that they are always angels: some take their balancing poles and whack away at the hecklers below. Consider the story breaking today of the Pico Rivera teacher/councilman who let loose with vulgarities about the military being “the lowest of the low” when a student entered his classroom wearing a Marines t-shirt. He is in retreat after receiving—let us say—unkind responses. And death threats. I don’t worry about the military members hearing his diatribe: those people are standing well before The Star-Spangled Banner starts playing at their base movie theater. They don’t sing but instead watch the accompanying video of soldiers kicking in the enemy’s door.

So where are you? Tempted to dissolve a relationship because your fellow (insert noun) voted the wrong way? Consider everyone in the opposite camp (choose one: ignorant, racist, ___phobic, mean-cruel-cold-callous)? Waiting for justice? Those still trying to balance with restraint believe that they need to be left alone, that they can have the peace of their convictions. That seems doubtful. I’m not even sure they have a safety net.


The Should World

Everyone knows we don’t live in a perfect world—sentences begin like that all the time: “Well, in a perfect world…” And we all nod and agree that’s a big if. What is more common, however, is saying something should happen or be or not happen or not be. We don’t live in that world either.

In a should world, a woman might walk into Aziz Ansari’s apartment, having taken pictures of her lobster dinner and white wine she didn’t want, and walk out unscathed. For that matter, any woman ought to be able to go anywhere and not feel uncomfortable. I cannot support the realism of that point of view.

The history of the word “should” includes the sense of obligation, but as the past tense of a future-meaning word (“shall”), it loses any power, as in how is that even possible? That seems confusing: Shall will happen; should implies “obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions,” says the Oxford Dictionary. Someone I know once gave a talk titled “Don’t Should on Me.” That I can support.

Ansari wrote a book with a sociologist in 2016 called Modern Romance. The last paragraph is telling: “For me the takeaway of these stories is that, no matter how many options we seem to have on our screens, we should be careful not to lose track of the human beings behind them. We’re better off spending quality time getting to know actual people than spending hours with our devices, seeing who else is out there.”

So he is should-ing on everyone who is doing what he was doing with Grace, ignoring her personhood while trying to get at her person parts. His behavior, clueless at best, reprehensible at best, suggests that neither of the people involved should (yes, I see the irony) have walked into his apartment.

The purpose and role of consent, then, become moot. Now there are apps designed with the intent of securing consent ahead of time, of course, but these do not solve the problem since consent can be revoked at any time during an intimate encounter. See breach of contract.

For better or worse, I am two generations removed from these issues. I think it would be preferable for the pendulum to swing back to the transparency of a clearer idea of the purpose of sex. Horace Mann, founder of Antioch College, had this to say in a lecture printed as A Few Thoughts for a Young Man: “The conscious desire of happiness is active in all men. But alas! Towards what different points of the moral compass do men look for these objects, and expect to find them! Some look for happiness above, and some below; some in the grandeur of the soul, and some in the grossness of the sense; some in the heaven of purity, and some in the hell of licentiousness.” A reminder about that last word: lacking legal or moral restraints; especiallydisregarding sexual restraints, per Merriam-Webster. It is perhaps no accident that it was at Antioch College that the first set of sexual assault policies originated in 1991.

Bottom line, final thought, what is all this anyway? Everyone is in danger, men, women, everyone. Happiness really is the purpose of life. Put the two together. Don’t go in the door of that apartment (women), and don’t ask her in (men). In his book, Aziz Ansari talks about finding a soulmate. You can’t do that without sacrificing that which is worth much less, something which sometimes you just must.



The Last of Numbering

Third and probably for the last time, back to numbers. We ended with the five love languages. Perhaps you’ve taken the quiz and know you’d rather get a nice dinner than have someone hold your hand. Or have someone put away the laundry than compliment you on your nice eyes. There are no wrong answers.

The current list, however, is not as light-hearted as the last. Perhaps more instructive, even a bit painful. I have seen myself on some of the lists and decided to change. At least if I can. Perhaps you will not see yourself, but I can bet you will know someone here.

The Four M’s: manage, manipulate, mother, martyr. Consider them all verbs. These are used in Al-Anon and represent the basic issues of codependency. One way of expressing the sentiment is “Stay on your side of the street.” I’ve never been to Al-Anon meetings nor have I been diagnosed as codependent. I have been known to try and manage more than I ought and to mother people I shouldn’t. Usually I know when I’m doing the latter, and I’m learning to keep my mouth shut more, thus aiding the former. Hopefully, I don’t ever manipulate people or take the role of a martyr. If I do, please stop me. I think it’s a good list, and now you have it. This blogger gives as good a summary as any. If you want something more literary, read Voltaire’s Candide; or, Optimism. This is its famous last line: “All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” However, even better commentary comes not a bit earlier: “Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.” Probably impossible, but worth trying occasionally.

The Three C’s: control, cure, cause. For the full effect but “I can’t” or “I didn’t” in front of these words. This site summarizes as good as any how these words work. Although the original focus is again addiction, there is no reason why these C’s should remain there. Most of us are too hard on ourselves. Most of us are not addicted to anything, but if we can move past blame, we will be better off.

The two elements of sibling relationships: fairness and competition. If you have perfect relationships with your brothers and/or sisters, hurray! I don’t know of anyone who does, but perhaps some manage to navigate childhood and adulthood without any issues at all. Money, of course, is a great leveler. Remember poverty as one of the six fears? As my own brother wisely said, “It’s astonishing how even the introduction of the smallest amount of money will change behavior.” In a word, inheritance. As for competition, parental affection may seem unequal. Hopefully, no one ever tells one child she’s the favorite. I think children know, however, if one is more liked than another. Not me, not you, but maybe? Perhaps competition and fairness take place on entirely different levels than these, but for now, these seem adequate.

The one most important thing: Communication. I’m particularly bad at it. My conversation is often stream-of-consciousness. Irritating at best, annoying at worst. When someone said once, “I’m starting to sound like you!” I didn’t take it as a compliment. In the original Star Trek an episode called “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” Spock melds with an ambassador named Kollos and utters these lines:  This thing you call language though… most remarkable… and you depend on it for so very much, but are any one of you really its master… But most of all… the aloneness… you are so alone… you live out your lives in this shell of flesh, self-contained… separate… how lonely you are… how terribly lonely… I always took that loneliness to come from the fact that our language is imperfect. Knowing this truth is perhaps enough for now, though I’m always still surprised when I make an epic fail at communication. Ever upward.


Years ago, I entered and won a playwriting competition. I was thrilled. Money was involved as well as a production. When I told my young son, he brought me back to earth: “But who lost, Mom?” As it turned out, that was the operative insight. Yes, I got the money and the production, as well as the critics’ notes and the interviews. When I asked the contest director my son’s question, he hesitated. Bottom line, mine was the best. The others, well, let’s just say the competition was not terribly competitive.

If that question was eye-opening, another was life-changing. During an interview, I was asked how I was doing. It was a person I knew, so for some reason I decided to tell what was on my mind: problems at work, stress at home, and on and on. “Fine” would have been the shorter, less accurate answer, I thought. The person across the desk didn’t respond at first but then asked, “What makes you think you’re any different than anyone else?” I was stunned. It took me in an entirely different direction because my reply had to be “Nothing.” Before that, the stress and worry caused me to break out all the time. Since, only once or twice. What a lesson was in that simple question.

As a teacher, I was often reminded of a scene from that classic movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a model of teenage behavior in certain sectors. Ben Stein is trying to ask students if they know anything and keeps asking, “Anyone? Anyone?” It’s hilarious, unless you’ve been a teacher.

Since that time, I haven’t myself developed a keen sense of how to ask questions. I tend to accept a lot on face value. (See a previous post in which I discuss my gullibility.) One of the most important lessons I did learn comes from a source I can no longer find. The basic concept simplified questioning into three types: Knowledge, application, and reaction. Or, What do you know? What does it mean? How do you feel about it? I don’t know that the third category applies in all situations. Not everyone cares how you feel about any particular topic. To you, of course, that might be the most important element of all.

First, one of my questions. Why has there never been a female composer like Bach or Beethoven or Brahms? There have been fine composers who were women; this list contains many you will not know. Not for this discussion the usual laments about access to training or lack of recognition. Those potential explanations don’t apply to these women. And the question isn’t idle. Few men attain greatness in composition. If we can equate Jane Austen with William Shakespeare, which is often done, then I just wonder why no woman has written music on the level of Mozart, say.

Second, some of yours. I know this forum doesn’t allow for asking questions easily. You’ll have to make a comment, which is some trouble and effort. But I think it would be a valuable and useful experiment. The word that commits is “will.” Not “can,” as of course you could. Certainly not “should.” Heaven forbid. Someone once gave an entire talk on “Don’t should on me.” I’ve repeated that and then been held accountable when later I did try to should on someone. I’d love and appreciate it if you will share a question or two. One or two of you anyway. Anyone? Thanks.