“An unexamined life is not worth living” from Plato’s recollection of the speech Socrates gave at his trial…There would be no need to exhort us to examine our lives if we did not think that there were human beings who do not…The bulk of humankind (is) far too busy struggling for survival to engage in lengthy philosophical analyses….
— c/f UK Guardian
Living an unexamined life
I lived most of my forties trapped in a rut, defined as a coffin with the ends kicked out. Secretly surprised to still be alive. I never thought I’d live past thirty. It is not overstating to say I felt any meaningful life was over. I intensely disliked my state job. I hated the long commute. I bridled against the institution my marriage had become. I would be in my fifties before an astute shrink, diagnosing clinical depression, helped me examine my emotional struggle to survive a dissatisfied life.
The outward appearance was a lie: a good income, rambling rural home on acreage, two bright kids and an attractive wife. A wife, however, with whom original connubial closeness was seldom resurrected. I developed high blood pressure, worrying my doctors about a heart attack. They said my first stress test approximated results expected of a seventy-year-old couch potato. I stubbornly kept pushing myself with strenuous duck hunts and summer softball, and chose weightlifting over their harping on aerobics. I refused to eat “healthy.” All while resenting Chloe’s constant financial supervision.
She monitored expenses more closely than any work audit I ever faced. Especially my credit-card accounts. I had almost all of them. The only one that ever turned me down was Diner’s when a credit report showed I spent twice my income in my continent-trotting days as a union PR rep. The union required us to use our own plastic and submit expense reports.
Despite Chloe’s shock when she opened those bills, they were prompt to reimburse and nothing bad happened. But that’s when she developed the audit habit, pressuring me weekends home to get expense reports in the mail. She would probably remember what she viewed as foolish procrastination. To me, her nagging marred our previous intimacy the one weekend a month I was allowed home. When union work was followed by a full year of unemployment, her audit obsession became ingrained. She wouldn’t even let me have a checkbook.
An essentially trivial incident because I didn’t have a checkbook was so humiliating it became a topic with my shrink years later. A quiet, perceptive woman, the shrink gently probed what she called my passive acceptance of such dominance. She uncovered my unconscious assumption Chloe was sublimating her pain when she learned I was in love with another woman, and refused her offer to call it a meaningless tryst.
Examining your life can be uncomfortable with a competent shrink involved. She walked me through the steps to my assumption: Chloe had asked me to stay. Once she seemed sure I would, she began bitter sniping. I took it as penance until it got bad, and then said stop it. If you mean for us to go on, stop. She did — and started in on my spending. The shrink concluded my passivity under fiscal control was fear of reopening the old wound. Maybe. But at the time of the checkbook incident, I had no such insights.
An agency employee was collecting fees for yet another retirement dinner, cost of the meal plus contribution for a gift. A small amount, ten or fifteen bucks. I was embarrassed I had no cash. Check is fine, she said. Incautiously I said my wife doesn’t let me have a checkbook. She thought I was joking. When she believed me, she was incredulous. One of the allegedly most powerful bureaucrats in a powerful agency — and henpecked? She laughed at me: Wait till I tell the girls! I was so furious when I got home I demanded my own checkbook. Chloe considered my embarrassment stupid. She said I’ll give you a check. One. To pay for the dinner. I knuckled under resentfully.
Beagle, my lawyer buddy, had heard my complaints about how closely she monitored me. How I even had to justify new tires every forty thousand miles or so to prove I wasn’t being frivolous. He also knew she was uncritical of her idiot-savant brother’s gambling addiction and tendency to misuse other people’s checkbooks. For instance ours. He cashed stolen checks in a mobbed-up card room. When they bounced, leg-breakers called to dun Chloe, scaring her so badly she came clean about his check theft.
I was so angry I wanted to apply what I called the Lenny Solution, after a Steinbeck character’s fatal intervention for his retarded friend in Of Mice and Men. To this day, I wish I had. It would have prevented emotional damage for so many.
But I didn’t know that then. I focused my anger on mobsters threatening my wife, and had our enforcement-division chief send a leg-breaker of our own to the card-room’s license-holder, front man for the mob’s hidden ownership. Our guy, a tough ex-military cop with kills to his credit, told the license-holder headquarters had removed his leash when his goons bothered a bureaucrat with the board’s ear. He threatened to pull the license off the wall. Seal the door with enforcement tape. Split the head of anybody objecting. “He knew if I did that he would have to explain to the mob boss that his goons screwed up his cash flow,” he told me. “They’ll behave now…”
The retirement-dinner checkbook incident led Beagle to remind me how my wife covered for her brother while controlling me. His perplexity at my obtuseness was worse than the women’s jibes. About that time, a longevity pay-raise came along. I arranged an equal deduction into a secret credit-union account, determined never to be humiliated like that again. My paycheck stayed the same. Mad money, women called it when their husband was the auditor.
It was sheer coincidence I stopped to eat at the old roadhouse not long after. On the state highway north of town, it was a family-run motel with a lounge and twenty-four-hour restaurant, run-down but clean. The food was inexpensive and good. I told people at work it must be the last surviving ghost from the fifties after the freeway killed other roadhouses.
The young office manager I hunted and fished with said it was more than a ghost. It was a favorite hangout of scores of female clerk-typists, supply clerks and secretaries who labored in warren-like state office buildings downtown. In the hermetic society of the capital, senior bureaucrats were the ruling class. Female clerks were treated as backstairs help, subject to censure if they misbehaved. The roadhouse was far enough from downtown to feel safe for girls’ nights out.
He said the lounge had a bandstand and large dance floor. Unknown bands, largely country-western, cycled through. Merchant mariners, dock hands from the port, forklift operators and other working men showed up to dance and get lucky.
Downtown was the venue for lobbyists and senior bureaucrats to wine, dine, and hook up important politicians with eye-candy and compliant hookers. The roadhouse was working-class. My young friend said married state workers left their cars in the roadhouse parking lot if they got lucky, and slipped up the hill to one of the rooms so screened behind shrubbery the motel was almost invisible. A wandering wife could slip back down and innocently exit the restaurant, simple but effective deterrent to spousal surveillance.
“You can’t go there and not get laid,” he asserted.
“You don’t know my track record,” I said sadly.
“You gotta try it. If for no other reason than to see the place in action.”
This was in those dear dead halcyon days post-Pill, pre- HIV. The sixties sexual revolution had trickled into accepted everyday life in the eighties. MTV lit home TV screens with Physical by Olivia Newton-John, a mega-hit that pulled no punches, almost an anthem for that lost sexual Camelot. Faithful most of my married life, I had missed the fun of recreational sex.
But my unexamined life was far off any path I dreamed, mired in depression. His suggestion woke an echo in my psyche. The only effective medicine for melancholy had been my first affair in ten years. Followed by what I called my blonde luck on the far side of the state, whose body was like a stanza of Olivia’s anthem. I no longer had business reasons to go over. And 300 miles was just too far without a cover story. Drabness had returned. It clung.
My young friend’s description of the proletarian sex machine roused my curiosity. Drinks were cheap enough not to strain my mad-money stash. I re-visited the lounge to observe mating rituals. One thing different from my youth was how assertively women took the initiative. If a partner proved satisfactory, they closed in for the kill. All a guy had to do was be there, ready to leave when she beckoned. Subtlety was out. No perceptive radar needed to receive her signal. It made me lament my lost youth when I missed signals all the time.
Back at work I congratulated my friend on his accuracy. He shrugged it off and asked how many times I got laid. I said none. Well, how many women asked me to dance? “None,” I repeated.
“That can’t be right. None?”
“Not one. I stopped by three different times.”
He frowned a minute. Then, “Wait, tell me you didn’t go in dressed like that, wearing a suit and tie.”
“But it’s what I wear.”
“You look like a bureaucrat. A boss. Lose the suit.”
My wardrobe was mostly business attire. I owned pairs of jeans for vacations and yard work. Two pairs of wool pants for hunting season. I did have a sweat suit for gym weightlifting, my one concession to medical worry about my heart. So I tried it once, just to see, and felt very self-conscious wearing sweats into a bar.
*From Venus Mons Iliad, Book Three, AbsolutelyAmazingeBooks.com