Paul Belz Writings
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America’s New Social Paradigm as the 21st Century Begins
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
“Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth or Lowell?” As I passed the mall bench, the entreaty twice was beamed at me like an audio laser from the general direction of a supine, ostensibly sleeping figure with a hat shrouding his face.
Startled and perplexed, I kept walking but managed a quizzical, “Excuse me?”
Bolting upright and unmasking an excited, angular face was my verbal assailant, a tall, distinguished, fortyish looking man who now added a nuance of irritation to his alphabetized query: “Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth or Lowell?”
Mercifully he assuaged my bewilderment by pointing to my cap embroidered with the letters U Mass.
My decision to purchase that cap was borne of the unlikely twin motives that the University of Massachusetts once recruited a female basketball player whom I coached and because I simply wanted a white hat with burgundy trim.
Assuming I was a fellow graduate, he was eager to identify a specific campus of matriculation, since he was a bone fide alumnus intending to network, reminisce and/or commiserate about shared experiences.
A mere baseball cap had caused this tranquil, recumbent individual to catapult from the bench in a spasmodic horizontal-to-vertical flip, as though the bench were a trampoline. I was awed by the power of that humble cap and remain impressed by the ease with which such a simple adornment gets a conversation started with no expenditure of initiative.
Such was the case with Sidney, a mall security guard, in 1995 when I frequently wore my Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, an attractive black wool model featuring an orange, ornithologically correct bird.
A classic mesomorph, an artist could begin with three circles—face, upper torso and lower torso—before blocking in details of a sketch of Sidney.
He was also one of a rare subspecies of Yankees fan, a native Baltimorean who had never left town.
To Sidney, the word “Orioles” on my cap was a euphemism for “flagellate at will.” The Orioles left me scant grist for rebuttal as they lost four straight baseball games in the American League playoffs after teasingly winning the first in New York. The second game, also in New York, was stolen from Baltimore when a young fan reached over the wall into the field of play and interfered with a Yankees’ fly ball.
What should have been ruled an out was adjudicated—after vociferous protest—a home run, costing the Orioles the game, making the boy a national celebrity, and enshrining him in the pantheon of Yankees’ heroes.
My masochistic acquiescence to Sidney’s relentless gloating evidently endeared me to him because we remained friends. In our brief encounters several times a week, we continued to routinely swap baseball opinions, but sports minutiae was merely the key that unlocked a treasure trove of understanding about the life of this security guard, and by extrapolation an entire generation of American men.
Sidney was thirty-seven years old when I first met him during my daily mall walks. He was a big-boned 6'1" with a ponderous gait, a three quarters bald pate, a large round face and about seventy-five excess pounds which rounded every angle in his body, melded parts together—such as chin and neck—and swelled his gut.
Even the more empathetic of the populace, prodded by proclivities instilled by “mother nature” and insidiously brainwashed with the American stereotype of attractiveness, will view these unappealing traits and synthesize them into an injudicious prejudgment of someone as a sedentary, undisciplined dullard.
The unfortunate victim of society’s physical chauvinism—with the complicity of “mother nature”—bears the burden of disproving this first impression with each new acquaintance. I was counted among that “empathetic populace.”
The human male is imbued by nature with two irrepressible yearnings: the first is to attract women and procreate and the second is to hunt, conquer, and acquire—the 20th century mode being pursuits like leveraged buyouts, cattle futures, real estate auctions, and political elections.
Nature imbues the female of most animal species with maternal/nurturing yearnings.
In the interest of preserving a species, nature tends to interpose roadblocks to success for individuals invading the emotional domain of the same sex. America’s passionate twentieth century march toward an androgynous society incurred the wrath of “mother nature,” whose response included the AIDs virus, the deadliest plague since polio, and the destruction of the family unit, the very marrow of our civilization.
Virtually the entire twentieth century in America was defined, molded, and controlled by a political philosophy which has Rousseau-like socialism as its ultimate destination.
The Democrat Party embarked on an obsessive odyssey to totally eradicate discrimination in America. In a Don Quixote type folly, American liberals charged across the sociological landscape “tilting at windmills,” interpreting “mother nature’s” sexual role parameters as discriminatory and legislating through their predominate control of the government to sublimate traditional male and female yearnings.
They expanded the legitimate goals of erasing racism and sexism into a realm of egalitarianism so extreme that it will require abandonment of much of the original Constitution to achieve this vision.
The woman hunter/conqueror and the maternal/nurturing male were celebrated while the maternally inclined woman and the macho man were widely ridiculed and stigmatized as politically incorrect.
By the end of the twentieth century, male and female roles were thoroughly confused, the institutions of family, church and school were in decline, teenage suicides were rising and government was attempting to ameliorate the fallout by shortsightedly paving the “yellow brick road” with taxpayer provided gold to facilitate their ambitions.
An anachronism in this social maelstrom, Sidney reached his thirty-eighth birthday unmarried. His upbringing should have made him a poster boy for the politically correct male espoused by the American women’s liberation movement. He was the quintessential sensitive, kind, considerate male.
But while social engineering managed to change American laws and social mores, advocates could not legislate “mother nature.” Women were still attracted to and married the most macho, aggressive hunters they could find (the Harvard MBAs or Harvard law grads) with the biggest war clubs and the fastest steeds.
When men and women discovered that spouses rarely possessed personalities engendering both of nature’s paradigms, marriage became a battleground. Men returned home from high stress work and refused to cook and clean. Women demanded men’s jobs and men’s roles, leaving no one to adequately fulfill domestic responsibilities and provide motherly role models for a generation of children.
We called those children “latch-key” kids, a polite phrasing for “they raised themselves with peer guidance.” The “women’s rights” movement, hard won and long overdue, was and remains necessary for a healthy democracy. The tragedy of that revolution was that as men and women fought to protect their own perceived entitlements, the nation’s children and the institution of the family became concomitant casualties. Society never attaches prudent braking mechanisms to its worthy social innovations.
Emotional androgyny osmotically dissolved gender delineations and single-parent households became ubiquitous. Men, women, and children became less happy. Divorce dominated the domestic landscape. Two-income families nudged consumer prices up until that paradigm became a necessity.
Immersed in this cultural upheaval, Sidney’s gentle, kind nature, overweight body, modest education, and unprestigious employment could not attract a mate nor did it advance him in the American corporate culture. He had yearnings that were taking him nowhere.
He was raised as a farm boy in Westminster, in Carroll County, Maryland, perhaps the most Republican, conservative jurisdiction in the state. To his role models, family and religious values were important, particularly respect for authority, hard work, accountability for your actions or inactions, and sensitivity to others’ feelings.
The biggest trauma in his sheltered life had been the discovery that his best boyhood friend had burglarized his home, stealing his baseball card collection and prized Yankees’ jacket.
Sidney was never lured by the siren song of drugs and recreational sex. As an adult in a socio-political climate hostile to his Christian values, he trusted those values to be the lighthouse which would guide him through stormy seas to a happy and successful life as they had done for his ancestors. He worked hard, respected women, avoided drugs, grew older, and unhappily stayed single.
In an American culture that now celebrated individualism, victimhood, non-accountability, situation ethics, moral relativism, throw-away commitments, and unfettered libidinous behavior, he was a square peg vying for entry into a round hole.
Women married the macho men, complained that they were insensitive and too controlling, divorced them, ignored the sensitive single men, and, like a reverberating echo, married macho men again. And again.
More ominous was the scenario of women suffering spousal abuse, divorcing the men, and remarrying into the same script with new co-stars. They divorced again, declared that all the good men were taken, and never thought to look inward for the source of difficulty.
Evolution was not in sync with the new American culture. Women were still physically attracted to a male prototype inimical to the modern woman’s hopes for fulfillment and happiness. The new, sensitive male prototype, publicly championed by feminists, was privately dismissed by women as a profile of “losers.”
They really fantasized for an amalgam of Viking warrior and Jesus Christ, or perhaps a Moses in every boudoir. Unfortunately, nature’s assembly line has never cranked out enough of those male models to go around. Compromise was anathema, divorce became rampant and its stigma, like the one that had long discouraged unwed teenage motherhood, vanished.
By 2000, both human failings had become matter-of-fact commonplace realities and both were facilitated by liberal government’s regulatory and fiscal policies. Such policies fed poverty which in turn fed votes to socialist politicians building a “nanny state” by funding endless mandatory cures for the problems they were creating.
It was a common scenario in the 1990s for women battered by their macho husbands to forgive and return until ultimately murdered. Macho men were not going to be molded by the “new woman.” When incredulous interviewers inquired why women kept returning to abusive spouses, all too frequently the answer was, “I still love him.”
President John F. Kennedy made an apropos comment: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third.” Human folly is truly beyond comprehension.
Meanwhile, Sidney and millions like him remained single. He had traits that the new American woman claimed to admire but he was the “dork” in gym class who’s never chosen on a team and can’t get a prom date. Women’s libbers had no ability to reprogram “mother nature” to activate their new sexual paradigm.
In the face of stark reality, Sidney’s yearnings for a family and for career advancement remained strong. But as I came to know him better, I sensed that those yearnings were morphing into yearnings for peace and tranquility.
I presume he sensed the ticking of a biological clock because he made a desperate grasp for marriage in 1997 by enrolling in radio station WLIF’s matchmaking program. It was a radio call-in show which allowed the station to arrange a blind date based on a description of yourself and your dream date.
If you ultimately married the date, the contest sponsor paid all travel, hotel, and ancillary expenses for a wedding in Las Vegas, with the not insignificant proviso that you would allow the entire ceremony to be videotaped and used by the sponsor as a TV infomercial.
The first date was a disaster. Upon arrival to meet his much anticipated love interest, the front door swung inward to reveal a grossly obese woman whose weight problems dwarfed his own.
She had portrayed herself to the radio station as physically well-proportioned. When Sidney calmly inquired about her motive for lying, she demonstrated that IQ as well as obesity was problematic when she responded, “If I had told you the truth, you would never have agreed to go out with me.”
In despair but driven to indulge the marriage yearning one more time, he agreed to a second date arranged by the radio station.
I suspected the subsequent relationship was blossoming when I observed Sidney in a ludicrous but ubiquitous male ritual. As he walked the mall, he had begun periodically combing his newly-lengthened fringe hair over the top of his head, so prevalent an idiosyncrasy of lovelorn fortyish men with male pattern baldness that it qualifies as a rite of passage into middle age. A romantic crush and its attendant raging hormones blinds one to the fact that you’re the only one in the universe who deems this exercise in wishful thinking to be enhancing.
The relationship flourished, Sidney lost thirty pounds, the wedding took place in 1998 in Las Vegas, and, one male yearning seemed satiated—for better or for worse. Sidney was now blissfully married to Tracy, a divorcee, and was the stepfather of two adults.
Traditional wedding vows profess love “for better or for worse, till death do us part.” For Sidney and Tracy, the “worse” part became operative quickly. Following a honeymoon weekend in Ocean City, Maryland, they returned to their respective jobs and began weaving the fabric of a dual existence.
The baptism of fire began for Sidney a few weeks later as Tracy unexpectedly revealed that due to the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis, she needed surgery to replace both knee joints—rare for a woman in her early forties.
Recuperation and physical therapy kept Tracy out of work for over a month, and that hardship was compounded because her immobility required Sidney’s presence at home to transport her to therapy, cook, clean house, bathe her, and be an emotional buttress during the convalescent period.
Their simultaneous absence from work created an immense strain on their financial budget.
Tracy had scarcely returned to work when Sidney learned that the ownership of the mall was changing and consequently the status of the in-house security force was uncertain.
A lengthy settlement process and a great deal of secrecy left stressed workers in limbo for four or five months. During this period of uncertainty, Sidney learned that his chronic back pain, which made it difficult to walk the terrazzo floors of the mall for long periods, would require major surgery, the ramifications of which included a month-long disability from work and the slight risk of permanent paralysis.
Upon his return, he was severely handicapped by excruciating knee pain from an injury incurred during recovery therapy and was terrified by episodes of bloody urine and middle-of-the-night heart palpitations. He confided disappointment that his new bride wasn’t reciprocating the solicitude toward his physical problems that he had lavished on hers.
After a sorely tested half year of marriage, both newlyweds must have been pondering malpractice lawsuits against their matchmaker, WLIF radio.
Mercifully, happy events began to sprout on the bleak wedded landscape like the first crocuses of spring. The new owners of the mall finally settled the purchase transaction in October of 1998 and they retained the in-house security staff. Sidney was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant. The marriage seemed to be settling into a comfortable rhythm. Tracy’s knees were progressing beautifully and all of Sidney’s alarming symptoms were diagnosed as benign. The Yankees still reigned as world champions.
The marriage had survived its baptism of fire and the rough seas turned placid. There would be no new children, but Sidney was happily married. One yearning satisfied.
The second major yearning driving men is the yearning to hunt, compete, and acquire. Men compete relentlessly in sports, for grades, for spots in the elite colleges, in the elite professions, in the elite firms, and finally for promotions and control within those firms and, failing that, entrepreneurship.
The ambition feeds itself. For many this yearning never goes dormant. For others who take the time to search for larger meanings in life; to enjoy their families, to nurture their marriages, to discover religion, this yearning to compete inexorably mutates into a yearning for peace, tranquility, and fulfillment.
At some point, they de-emphasize—but never totally extinguish—their climbing, scrambling, and battling personas and refocus on building more quality and balance into their lives. This most often occurs near age forty when many men realize that their competitive strivings have reached the point of diminishing returns. They see a life on the same unappealing treadmill if nothing changes, and ponder the cliché: “Is this all there is?”
For men like Sidney, a community college degree at age forty fuels a very short climb up the corporate American ladder and regrettably the epic of life does not accommodate dubbing, cutting, morphing, retakes, and air-brushing in order to achieve a blemish-free, seamless product. Only the poor and the independently wealthy can access the capital and time off (the poor by virtue of government funded programs not available to the middle class) to retrain full-time and even for them Ivy League schools’ formulas for freshmen class cohorts don’t accommodate forty year olds. For corporate malcontents in the middle class, entrepreneurship is the only option, assuming sufficient capital has been hoarded and carry-over skills developed. Failing that, one can only attempt to summon inner resources to find happiness within one’s current niche on the world stage.
A simple zookeeper might yearn for the opportunity and the education to become a biochemist, but without an appropriate preliminary education, he cannot begin to comprehend the complexity of that alluring but distant universe. The biochemist, in turn, might yearn to be an astrophysicist. The astrophysicist might wish—as did a physicist in earlier times, Albert Einstein—for the happy family life of that simple zookeeper. Such is the folly of man. A happy family life was something that the brilliant Einstein ached for but didn’t have a clue how to engender without compromising his science. The rub is that time is a limited resource.
Life is driven by intense, stressful yearnings. At some point, the psyche throws a switch, and we just covet contentment.
When I first met Sidney, that switch had not yet been thrown and climbing the career ladder was still his focus. Ambition was visible in his eyes and broadcast in his conversations.
In the sphere of law enforcement, an in-house security position at a regional mall in a wealthy suburb is a safe, relatively stress-free, low-paying, unprestigious, dead-end career niche. At Sidney’s mall, probably a third of the security force is so overweight that they would be hard pressed to chase down a middle-aged woman shoplifter. At the close of 2000, the force still had no authority to carry firearms. Since the retail center’s birth in 1959, no security officer has been stabbed or shot in the line of duty. Sidney’s wife needn’t harbor the dread of that ominous knock on the door in the middle of the night which bedevils the sleep of urban police officers’ families.
Sidney began working at the mall in 1990 as an employee of the owner-managed facility for a full time wage of $5.25 an hour. After eight years, his salary had risen to $14 per hour or about $32,000 per annum, including one day of overtime each week. He also worked on Thanksgiving day when the mall was closed, earning over $400 for that unpopular assignment. His new bride did likewise for her employer and the couple celebrated the holiday a day prematurely.
There are eight positions in the mall’s security hierarchy: officer, PFC (private first class), corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, major, captain and, finally, director. Sidney’s promotion to lieutenant in 1998 after eight years of service placed eleven officers under his authority.
Despite the fact that regional malls harbor the largest daily public gatherings in metropolitan areas, they are considered private property not public places in the eyes of the law. That status is being challenged by some groups in the courts, but as of 1998 malls can prohibit gatherings, soliciting of any kind, speech making, politicking, loitering, pets, and anything else detrimental to a comfortable, non-intimidating shopping environment, i.e. the best interests of the retail tenants.
What this means in terms of security is that county police don’t patrol the malls, the de facto town squares of America’s suburbia at the close of the twentieth century.
Since the mall security force is not authorized to carry weapons and has no arrest power, officers merely detain law breakers by request then telephone and await the arrival of county police, whereupon an arrest is made if a retailer decides to press charges for shoplifting or if there has been an assault.
Most of a security officer’s job consists simply of walking throughout the facility in order to present a security presence to visitors. It’s a comforting façade. The walking is interspersed with incessant pauses to complete written logs documenting bureaucratically mandated minutiae. They are also expected to pick up trash as they perambulate the mall’s promenades and issue citations to retailers for lease violations such as opening late. Their uniform, consisting of a gray straw hat, white dress shirt with badge, navy pants and black shoes presents a visible target for anyone in need of assistance.
All security and maintenance personnel carry walkie-talkies. In view of the innocuous nature of the work, it has always struck me as somewhat pretentious that both maintenance and security personnel use police code and follow the letter of the FCC law on all walkie-talkie transmissions. Is it really necessary to say “copy 13, 10-4,” instead of “I understand you Mary, bye.” Somehow I don’t believe nefarious criminals have any interest in intercepting a communiqué to a maintenance worker on the first level requesting delivery of a fresh bucket of water to someone on level three.
Perhaps he felt slightly embarrassed or perhaps that hunter’s yearning was still compelling, but in 1997 as his marriage was looming, Sidney spoke with ambition in his eyes of leaving security and doing what he truly felt driven toward, a career as a corporate trainer.
He was focused on a clothing manufacturer headquartered in Westminster, Maryland, named Joseph A. Bank Clothiers, Inc. He interviewed, making what he felt was a compelling presentation of his qualifications to initiate a training program for the company. His proposal was rejected and Sidney did not persist in his pursuit of this career change.
Subsequently he spoke of opening a retail baseball card store and I again detected that same spark of ambition, although wishful thinking was the sum and substance of this dream.
For most, there is insufficient time and money for the kind of education that would effect a career sea-change and if there were, corporations aren’t inclined to pursue new careerists at age forty because they are dubious about the ability of such people to work at the burnout pace of twenty year olds, about their willingness to take orders from men half their age, and about their willingness and/or ability to accept a beginner’s pay scale.
Since the baseball card dream died I haven’t seen that spark of ambition; I’ve seen a look of contentment. He seems to have made peace with society’s expectations and has jettisoned the emotional baggage residual from trying to live an existence in which success is defined by others and which is inimical to his true nature. Youthful yearnings have been extinguished and he’s ready to submerse himself in the life that’s beckoning: simpler, happier, reflective of his values, and under his control.
Gradually the primal yearnings of most men grow inexorably fainter until they grudgingly accept their niche in life and shift their daily focus from the intense “climbing mode” to that mellower “find tranquility where I’m at mode.”
People will always bluster to friends about grand accomplishments in the works but lateral rather than upward mid-life career shifts will become more prevalent as socialism displaces capitalism in America, driving manufacturing and high-wage jobs to other countries.
Sidney is at the mellow stage now—his fire is not to take the business world by storm but to find happiness as a good husband and security guard. Age forty—he reached that milestone in November 1998, triggering his urge to downshift from intense to mellow.
His pedigree has given him superior capabilities to fulfill the newly dominant yearnings than it did life’s earlier editions. The restless years are over for him while the Harvard MBA’s who share his birth year may spend additional decades in cutthroat competition trying to figure out how to get where he is. Einstein never solved that equation. Divorce, suicide, and depression don’t diminish for the rich and powerful. That’s nature’s justice.
Thoreau said: “People are happiest whose pleasures are simplest.” Sidney is mellow, he’s happy, he’s married and he’s a good security guard. And in 2000, his beloved Yankees are still world champions.