The Problem With Parables

“How many people of this senior living facility would you say are visited less than once a year by a close relative?”

The problem with parables is that crafting one requires a kind of condescension, which, in turn, requires arrogance, i.e., I will deign to be teacher to coevals and equals, nay, even intellectual superiors. One must train the reader to interpret the parable, that is to say, you have to reveal a key for interpretation that is accessible to the reader so that interpretation runs along certain lines. Thus, one must write obliquely enough to be engaging at a parabolic level, but also straightforward enough that the parable functions. If one tips the hand too quickly, e.g., “once upon a time,” or “there once was a boy from Nantucket,” the parable fails because the reader will inevitably throw up a wall, objectifying the parable rather than participating in it. Too obliquely, and the parable fails because there’s no way to unlock the thing, and it becomes a difficult and obscure tale with no meaningfulness, even if the reader participates. There I failed.

My second mistake was egregious: do not obfuscate the point with a contentious tangential point. I should have known better than, in a blog that is read by many who are well-versed in econometrics, to make an empirical claim that government policy of the Depression Era affected the behavior and work ethic of an entire generation. First of all, I didn’t actually make that claim, but the way I wrote it implied as much. Second of all, I was repeating what I hear over and over again, from their lips. Third of all, that’s not the point. This was such an egregious error of writing on my part that, when I realized I had grievously committed it, I found a quiet place and flagellated myself without mercy for several minutes.

The point is that you can fill in the blank with any larger-than-life institution which collects for itself and can make promises about the future: the government, the church, the union, the manufacturing plant, the lodge, alcohol, savings, and even family, if you understand family as a similar construct, not as flesh-and-bone. As loath as I am to tip my hand and actually explain the parable, which is like Da Vinci explaining the Mona Lisa (cf. arrogance, above), the parable is about achieving self-actualization, or the lack thereof. Many people live a life of accumulation, thinking they can annuitize in relative ease and comfort. The problems of annuitization, unfortunately, are created in the accumulation phase, namely that they give themselves over to a construct, that the government will love, that the church will love, that the lodge, and so forth, will love and care for them, so that flesh-and-bone family and friends become tools whereby to accumulate. In so doing, they–no, wait–I do believe here I will leave space so that I might stretch a yarn or two at some date in the future to illustrate what I mean.

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However, when I say I hear it from “their” lips, much consternation arises concerning the referent. Surely not representative!

Senior living centers are those places where people transition from being retirement age to elderly, still able to care for themselves, but not in the environment of a home with, say, maintenance needs or many stairs.  I had twelve residents in a group, chatting it up as we usually do, and I asked them point-blank, as bluntly as I could muster courage to do (these are my friends): “How many people of this senior living facility would you say are visited less than once a year by a close relative?”

Without hesitation, I heard a voice say, “Oh, lots.” It was a woman’s voice. I do not know if that’s significant. There are 48 residents in this particular apartment complex, so I had one quarter of them before me. I looked: one never married, no family nearby; a second married, divorced young, never remarried, no children, sister is too elderly to visit; two live across the continent from their children; two alienated their family with personality disorders; one has outlived anyone near her. What is that? Seven of twelve? But we were talking about the people who had not joined us, of course. “Oh, lots.” What’s the number?

“Well, you have to understand that kids these days are so busy.” We’re talking about grown people who are in their 50s and 60s. We’re calling them kids; that may be significant, but who knows? That’s why we put it in parables: what do you think? Is this representative? As if on cue, while I was thinking this very thought, another lady began to speak:

“We never thought we would have to move here. We worked our whole lives so that we could live in a comfortable house and not move here, but one thing led to another, and here we are. We had no choice. And, as for us, we’re lucky–” That’s right: she invoked Luck, “–we’re lucky that our children live nearby and visit us.”

See, a parable is, at the very least, about the teller: this parable is about me. Not them: me. The parable craftsman tries to envelop you with his own existential question: is it not also about you? Are you not a coeval? What, exactly, did they do to alienate themselves from their families? Did they actually do anything wrong or un-virtuous? Am I living in the same un-virtue as they are? I may die alone, as I think all are destined to do, but I do not want to live alone, live lonely, live loneliness. Is loneliness in the winter of life avoidable only by luck?

Once upon a time, luck sent an old man/lady to a nursing home, bound to a wheelchair with a belt, suffering from mild dementia, in Nantucket…

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Memento Mori

You will die.

The Duke graced us with a pair of heart-wrenching tales. In them, forlorn old women find themselves in the winter of life bereft of the comforts of family. They will die anon. They will die to the indecorous rhythm of a saline drip and a heart monitor if modern medicine has its way, or they will die to the fainter, harmonious beat of the celestial spheres spinning in the firmament if nature claims its inevitable tax by its own inexorable will. But both of David’s gentle ladies shall, like you when ’tis your turn, perish from this chill earth.

Unlike David’s dowagers, you may still have a choice: a choice to build a clan, to form family bonds, to while away the postscriptum years with the chatter and stomp of your descendants, be they spawned or adopted. Upon which margins ought you carve your legacy?

With all due respect to my beloved co-blogger, let me forward the proposition that the sample from which he drew his pair of case studies is not representative of the general population. As such, the conclusion that it was the state provision of old-age transfer payments that led to the clipping of a magazine photograph to stand in for a family absent since Nixon was muttering invective into White House tape recorders does not follow from the evidence. I will agree that David’s story is possibly informative, but it is also an empirical claim, and as such, subject to testing.

Unfortunately, there are to the best of my knowledge, no clean natural experiments in large-scale public provision of old age benefits that occur over a long enough time line to produce clear econometric results. Even in the cases where there are pension vs OASDI differences (rail workers, eg), random selection and assignment are next to impossible to achieve. There are, however, a few not-too-shabby substitutes. I knew several expat Russian widows living in Klaipeda who might help shed some light on the role of expected public pensions on folks’ propensity to invest in relationship capital. Of course, the control group has yet to mature, so the jury’s going to be out for a while, but we might look at age 30 fertility between cohorts or some such jiggery-pokery, but let me suggest to you that there does exist at least one reasonable alternative hypothesis that could explain why Americans may be at greater risk of dying alone than people from otherwise comparable cultures.

And that is, for lack of a better term, respect for the grave. Apart from pitying the plight of the several Russian widows peppered throughout the apartment complex I dwelt while in the lovely Klaipeda-by-the-sea, I could not help but taste the local culture, including many of the ancient (and by ‘ancient’, I mean ancient in the European sense, not in the “1776 was a, like, suuuuuper long time ago, you guys” sense) rituals, rites, and habits of the local people. Specifically, the habits of death. Twice a year, rain or shine, like it or not, you hike your rear end out to visit those family members you planted in the ol’ potters’ field. Likewise, you must, as in iron-clad MUST, pay honors to the dead before marrying. It seemed a bit odd to me, taking a trip to the boneyard before tying the knot, but only for a moment. If the lineage is indeed important, it’s perfectly consistent with Western traditions of faith, hope, and love, to respect all three at such an important time. Communing with the dead is an act of faith.

It’s an act of faith largely lost in our sanitized, blisteringly hopeful colony. We drape our dead tastefully, yet we cover them obscenely (I am still grateful that I was at sea when the press vultures began circling the corpse of the fallen Princess Diana). The departed are interred far from the wandering eye and buried under well-maintained lawns, out of sight but for long-unused roadside yards in rickety old New England. Even the grand National Cemetery in Arlington is on the south side of town, tucked away, discreet, with lousy parking and well-worn paths between the Tomb of the Unknown and the one and only Audie Murphy.

We don’t have to have drop-bed gurneys to transport the deceased. We don’t have to have a one-and-done funeral, after which the dead are remembered ad hoc and casually only when it comes up. But that, compared to Lithuania anyway, is generally what we do. And the out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude that naturally accompanies this treatment could at least plausible contribute to individuals’ tendencies to neglect the elderly as Malach HaMavet hobbles his slow way up the garden path.

My maternal grandmother passed away this weekend. She was either lucky enough to have loving family close enough to hold her hand through life’s final ordeal or she had the good sense to refrain from excessively alienating her three daughters and their progeny. But she knew what we all know, deep down: you will die. How the dead are respected, how they are remembered, how they viewed, spoken of, handled, and honored is of no matter for them. Death is always for the living. Atrophied respect for the dead leads to faithlessness, to unmoored myopic individualism, to impotent fury over being able to move rattletrap real estate above cost.

If my competing hypothesis that intemperate, faithless attitudes towards death is responsible for both the weird way the media treat coverage of dead people, and higher rates of senior neglect, perhaps it’s worth considering what we might do in our own lives to hedge against the specter of aged loneliness. Here, David and I come to many of the same conclusions: have kids, love them, instill in them virtue to the best of your ability, including the faith of family and the hope of the hearth. Love them that they shall love in turn. Breed in them courage, temperance, prudence, and champion justice wherever you can. As for the rest of your society, don’t feed the trolls. Block, ignore, unsubscribe, unfollow—these, my dear friends are your tools to harry and needle the disrespectful rabble among us who would utter ill of the dead or who would promote vice above virtue. They can squawk till their temples burst and their throats bleed, but you always retain the right to abstain from listening. Give it a try sometime, you just might find yourself ever so slightly happier.

R.I.P. C. Shrack. You’ve earned it.

The Picture of An Old Lady

“Do you see my babies?” she asked.

It happened again: I visited with another nonagenarian, and found almost the exact same circumstances as last time, this time without the added agony of trying to sell a house in a depressed housing market. Otherwise, to the question: “And where are your children, that they may take care of you?” the answer came, “I have not heard from them in 46 years.” Loneliness again.

The last time I told the story, I told it in the form of a parable, trying to lighten the burden; this time, not. It’s a plea: for the love of everything virtuous, either have children yourself, or failing that, buy them.

We do not criticize, but we are instructed: the Depression era produced a class of people (not the whole generation, but a subset of people within it) who knew only work and saving. The work took them away from child-rearing, which is shorthand for civilization-making, which includes care for the elderly. The government, in their childhood, promised to take care of them, just so long as they promised to work hard and save money. It was a covenant, a treaty between two unequal parties, the one everlasting and potent, the other quite mortal and limited in power. And they did: they worked hard and saved money. And the government did: it took care of them with financial payouts.

I think they are surprised that they are lonely. The stories are endless narrations of work, work, and savings, followed by a nod of assent, as though some hidden authority had just shouted in excited affirmation, “Good work, Maude!” Present company excluded, this present evil generation is hence summarily judged. The doctors know nothing, the politicians know nothing, cleaning ladies know nothing, pastors know nothing, social workers know nothing, drivers know nothing. I cannot know for sure, but I think this round of summary condemnation is fear talking, some sort of stored-away childhood doubt percolating forth, namely (if I may be so bold to put a name to it) the government didn’t deliver what it promised.

What did it promise? Externally it promised financial subsidy. What were the internals? What did the vassals hear? Did they hear that the government would love them? And what was the price for government love?

There is an economics lesson, here, and I think last time I was too clever by half, disguising it too well in the local economy of Lockport, New York. A family structure is an economic structure: there are numerous exchanges occurring constantly, mostly in the emotional world, but also in the material world. The fewer the traders (no children or friends), or the less the trading (make Jack a dull boy), the less economic activity there can be, emotional and material. When the government or any other sprawling, everlasting institutional entity (e.g., the manufacturing plant) and a vassal make a covenant with each other to fulfill the economic structure of a family, then an entire marketplace has been eradicated, not the most insignificant quarter of which is love for neighbor.

Who is your first neighbor? The person you wake up nearest. Who are your alpha neighbors, those who are immediately next to nearest and dearest? Beta? Gamma? Do you have a neighbor network within which to exchange love and all its accoutrements?

“Do you see my babies?” she asked, pointing to two framed 8 x 10 portraits. They were lovely babies, smiling, adorable; nieces, I assumed. “I cut those out of magazines,” she continued. “They were so adorable, I couldn’t resist. Who knows? I could be a grandmother five times over, and a great-grandmother, but I’ll probably never know.” And she became silent, listening for that hidden authority to shout affirmation.

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Ethics is Tied to the Question of Living Well

David’s parable of the lonely nonagenarian is a sad reminder of the importance of the unity of the virtues, as well as the inextricable link between becoming virtuous and living well. Coming of age during the Great Depression, the elderly grandmother was inculcated with an extreme reverence for the virtue of frugality. Yet unbalanced by other virtues, frugality can become self-defeating and miserly. If one is going to have a house custom built—itself a remarkable departure from frugality—the place to cut corners is not in the quality of the craftsmanship, especially if one is living alone!

Moreover, having a home custom made, at the age of 79, in an area where one does not have any friends or family, does not seem to me to be wise.

My biggest takeaway from the story is that the clearest sign that she had deviated from the path of virtue and practical wisdom is that she had pursued frugality beyond the point where it hindered her ability to flourish.

The idea that ethics has anything to do with flourishing, or living well, remains puzzling to most people in modern societies with modern moral instincts. The fact that the ancients emphasized this connection has led many to conclude that theirs was an egoistic philosophy.

But this is plainly not true. Flourishing can involve living your life primarily for others—your children or grandchildren, your community, your country. As Nussbaum emphasizes, Aristotelian ethics has a view of living well which may include a great deal of unpleasantry and even giving your own life. But one thing is clear—flourishing does not involve being miserably isolated and alone in a run-down house that no one wants to buy from you.

Econ 101: Have As Many Babies As You Can

on buying friends

This sad tale is a single anecdote, not composite, with a handful of details changed to create a smokescreen to serve as a  shroud of charity. It struck me that I have been hearing this story repeatedly, directly and in conversation all over central Niagara County for several years. It has become a kind of mythos for the Lockport region.

I had occasion very recently to visit a nonagenarian, and the phone call which was a prolepsis to my visit revealed an anxiety in her voice that bore no relation to my arranging our convocation. She said, entirely unprovoked, “My house still has not sold, and I’ve already reduced the price two times!”

Quick math: A nonagenarian in 2014 was born between 1915 and 1924, meaning she came of age during the Great Depression, and probably participated in some capacity in World War II.

We were strangers to each other, and my visit had nothing to do with the sale of her home. At the behest of a mutual acquaintance, I was there to visit with her; that is all. When I walked into her home, she bade me sit down in the kitchen, which was large. Immediately, I perceived that this home was postwar, constructed in the 50s or 60s. The floor was tiled, but it had a violent, easily perceptible bow in it. Before I had removed my jacket and taken my seat, she launched into a tirade about the unfairness of it all, saying, “I put $160,000 into this house, and they want me to reduce the price to half that!” She was looking at me with a kind of resigned despair in her eyes, and I had no response; besides, she had already indicated that she was practically deaf, and anything empathetic would lose its comforting effect shouted at such volume as she might hear. And she couldn’t hear most of what I was saying, nuanced by inflection or not. It was pathetic, poor lady.

It didn’t matter: she wanted to unburden herself, so she wasn’t listening; she was talking. “The county bus comes by, but I can’t use it because they won’t help me come down the stairs. They won’t help me put on my coat. They won’t help me get the mail. The cleaners won’t help me clean the stove. They won’t help me into the bathtub. They won’t help me with the laundry.” And so on. Pretty soon I myself went almost entirely deaf, and all I could hear her saying was Help me. Help me. Help me.

I shouted, “Children?”

“My son lives in Denver, and my daughter lives in Seattle.”

“How old are they?” I asked.

“Sixty three and sixty one,” she said. “I haven’t seen my son in seven years or my daughter in five years.”

Quick math: A nonagenarian with children in their early sixties indicates that she did not or was unable to have children in her bearing prime.

She continued, “When my husband died in 2001, I bought this plot and built a house on it. I sunk $160,000 in it! They want me to sell it for $80,000, but I know that a house the same size sells for over $320,000 in Lewiston.

Quick math: Who builds a custom house in her late 70s or early 80s? And as an immediate response to the death of a spouse?

Quick math: 2001 happens to coincide with the drastic reduction of the workforce of Harrison Radiator Manufacturing, a subsidiary of GM located in Lockport, a factory located not five miles from her house. Several thousand found themselves unemployed. There has been, since, a flight of the populace from Lockport. Lewiston, on the other hand, twenty miles west, is nestled beneath the Niagara Escarpment, resting one shoulder upon the Lower Niagara River, with the Queenston-Lewiston bridge connecting it to the heavy-fruited vineyards of the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Canada, less than two hours from Toronto.

“Did I tell you about my doctor?” she continued. I thought she was going to entertain me with stories of her aching, aging body. “He bought a six bedroom house for ten thousand dollars! Can you believe that? He got someone like me to sell him that huge house for $10,000, and he turned it into apartments. They’re taking advantage of people like me!”

I shrugged and shook my head empathetically, doing all this social math in my head. Then she showed me a copy of a flier from a grocery store, a sale advertised circa 1940. Porterhouse was on sale for two bits a pound. I slavered but quickly recovered.

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I do not know what Mohican Fresh Fried CAKES would be, but I’d spend a quarter to discover.

While she was still showing me this flier, she said, “My husband and I both worked, and we saved every penny. As soon as he died, I bought this lot and put the house on it. A few years ago, I became ill and had to spend some time in the nursing home. I am amazed at how quickly all my money was spent! I have to sell this house to have some money to live out my days!”

Quick math: $300,000 in savings, to those who came of age when porterhouse sells for two bits a pound, must seem like a tremendous amount of money. I wonder how much money those pennies saved earned, especially presuming, usually correctly, that they did not invest, especially in their early retirement years, which would have coincided with the unbridled growth of the economy during the 1980s.

Quick math: Who builds a house immediately in the wake of her husband’s death? Perhaps a lady whose children demur visiting their own dear mother. It borders on judgmental, but I hazard to guess that such a frugal couple may not have enjoyed the fruits of their marriage, namely their two children and their burgeoning savings accounts. They may not have enjoyed each other.

Quick math: $160,000 may buy a sizable kitchen and family room, but it does not also buy quality craftsmanship or materials. This may explain why a relatively new house appeared to be so old, with the attendant structural problems.

“I wish I could go to church,” she said. “But it wouldn’t matter if I could. I have outlived everyone I knew there. Everybody there is so young that I don’t know who they are.”

Quick math: A demographics chart of the region says that the average age of those who attend her church is about 70. They are the children of the people she has outlived.

She’s lonely and frightened. Which of the two is worse? Nevertheless, we’ll do what we can to help her, at least to alleviate some of the excess anxiety. However, such anxious people are becoming a significant part of the populace.

Finally, while we do what we can to help, we are instructed. There is a moral to the story, among several smaller, supporting morals: have lots of babies when you can, and if you can’t produce a brood, buy friends across all the generations. Better in poverty to have friends than to have a house sunk with costs.

That’s probably true whether aged or still sowing wild oats.