Saturday, September 22, 2012

A twee grows in Brooklyn her fascinating new book, “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin posits a different theory. It has to do with adaptability. Women, Rosin argues, are like immigrants who have moved to a new country. They see a new social context, and they flexibly adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants who have physically moved to a new country but who have kept their minds in the old one. They speak the old language. They follow the old mores. Men are more likely to be rigid; women are more fluid.
--David Brooks, 9/11/2012
My father was an accountant, but he couldn't accommodate himself to computers. "Bah, women's arithmetic," he'd say, curling his lip, and nowadays, when I think of his cloth-bound double-entry ledgers and multicolored pencils, and strong fingers flying across the abacus, and the pungent smell of the salami and Swiss to his right, I can see the romance of it, the physicality. But back then, to us kids, it seemed as if he was simply afraid, and that was how Mom saw it as well.

It's why we moved to Williamsburg in the first place, with the idea the Satmars might like getting their taxes done by somebody who could make a number stay erased instead of floating around eternally in the electronic ether, waiting for the Feds. But in any event Mom's phone sex business was starting to really take off around then, so it didn't matter, as long as he had pocket money enough for the shvitz and maybe some vodka in his tea.
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Bon Festival Moon, 1887.

As the youngest of four and the only boy, I was the object of Mom's special anxiety. "Just like your pa," she said whenever she caught me channel surfing, or peeing standing up. "It's not that I don't love him, God knows, but he's too good for this economy. You have to be a little softer, a little more careful about your clothes. And you have to network."

"I'll try harder," I said. But I was fidgety, and disrespectful to my teachers, and whenever it came to the Test too distracted by the poetry of the wrong answers:
In the passage, "fatigued" means that Ruby was
     (a) tired
     (b) strange
     (c) in the army
     (d) in the desert
By the time I was in fifth grade—Mom was now making a comfortable living in the Chinese orphan trade—I'd been tested for everything from ADD to Tourette's syndrome. Finally, an exasperated guidance counselor told her, "He's a boy, for heaven's sake. There's no known cure."

But she didn't give up on me. In the business, she was hanging with a different class of people; a Chinese orphan was a pretty substantial purchase, and the clients were mostly decidedly well-to-do. And she noticed that the men in those circles were not by any means more like women—some of them were and some of them weren't—but more equal to women in some respects; better educated, smoother, and with more access to the kind of jobs you'd expect a woman to have. And they were good jobs: attorneys and editors, professors, management consultants, dentists.

"It's probably private school," suggested one of them. "How much gym does your kid get in P.S. whatever? Two short periods a week, three?"

"And fifteen minutes of recess, at lunchtime," said Mom, "if they can finish eating in five."

"Well, there you are," he said. "When I was at Blandings we had an hour of gym every day, and two twenty-minute recesses. Plus lacrosse practice after school. We were too exhausted to fidget, or even fight over the homework."

"Hmm," said Mom.

So after Christmas I found myself at St. Everard's, a little K-12 of Anglican origin in an ivied building on the East Side, learning to be a gentleman. A future classmate named Dawn, a heavyset girl with an officious air,  carrying a clipboard, showed me around.

At one point, trotting up the stairs, she bumped into me from behind. "Dumbass," I remarked, under my breath.

She had me down in a flash, I have no idea how, and was sitting on my stomach on the landing. "Listen, fuckhead," she said. "Disrespect me again and I'll tear your ears off and stuff them up your ass, is that clear?"

"Yes," I said.

"Good," she said. "And if you behave, I can take care of you. There are some mean kids in this school, you know."

It was at that point that things suddenly became clear to me. Dad's problem wasn't being a man, my problem wasn't the lack of lacrosse. It was all about patronage. You've got to know who'll be responsible for you, who'll hear your confession, who'll do the telephone tree for the bowling team, who'll beat the shit out of you when you fail to meet your obligations. Dad and the other men of his generation, having lost their union halls and their factories, their lodges and coffee shops, churches and newspapers, were like those masterless samurai, those rônin, who wandered Japan in desolate little bands after the shogunate tore their social fabric apart; creating their own little pockets of meaningfulness against the howling winds of chaos, but only just barely. Whereas women hadn't really lost anything at all.

Nor had the upper classes I was now getting to know. Their networks of privilege and obligation remained in force, stronger perhaps than before. And I wanted in.

Dad's doing fine now; he does taxes for the local hipsters, who love his meticulous retro work. Every April 15th, they bring their returns to the old 9th Avenue post office together and party on the marble steps. Mom sold the call center to a Ghanaian consortium and is looking into buying a sushi bar. I write my weekly 1600 words of conservative opinion for a famous newspaper, and spend time at the country place. I married Dawn; she still sits on my stomach once in a while, but my ears are intact.
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Preparing to Kill the Earth Spider, 1892. Ukiyoe Gallery.

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