Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.
T F N
I guess I was no more than five or six when my father sat me down on the first Saturday in May to watch the Kentucky Derby. He was in one of his frequent pedantic moods and determined to explain the whole business to me, from the antebellum lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home” to why the man with the long bugle wore a red coat to what odds like 7-2 meant. He was a schoolmaster by profession and it was rare that he went off duty at home. He was big on Learning Experiences and on the lookout for Teachable Moments. My mother wasn’t like that at all; still, she seemed to find my father’s earnest parenting endearing, perhaps because it was so seldom practical, like hers.
The big horses with their tiny, colorful riders were being slowly paraded to the starting gate, almost all escorted by more commonplace, but still pretty, horses ridden by bigger, less tense people in comfortable clothes on larger saddles. Western saddles, my father pointed out. He explained that it wasn’t the jockeys who needed the company but the three-year-old thoroughbreds who needed calming from their stablemates, which sounded to me like playmates. I knew better than to raise questions but I didn’t see why they both couldn’t use the company— the jockeys and the horses. After all, they must all have been jumpy with this big race ahead of them. Even then I thought like that. Typical.
The TV commentators focused on each of the contenders in turn. They spewed information about the horses, the horses’ parents and records, their riders, trainers, owners, home stables, how much moisture they liked on a track, and, of course, the odds on whether they’d win the race. These men knew so much that, for a while, my father gave up and I could just look. One of the three-year-olds had gleaming shanks and long, graceful legs. This animal was so beautiful even the jaded track commentators had to lower their voices and admire; he was that majestic. They referred to the horse as a chestnut gelding. My father didn’t say anything about what gelding meant but did explain that chestnut was the horse’s color, a rich, deep, glistening brown that was more-than-brown.
This was the memory that came back to me when I walked into Rheinach Hall the first week of my senior year and caught sight of Diane Victoria Mulhorn’s hair. It was that same, magnificent, riveting color, chestnut. I was sufficiently enlightened to be aware of the sin of objectifying a female—worse, only a part of one. Freud might have designated my susceptibility to long hair as an instance of trichophilia or hair fetishism, but I didn’t care to analyze my feelings or speculate on their origins. My attraction was simply a personal fact, like my being a white, American, and male. I gave no thought to how hard it must be to care for such hair, to wash, dry, and brush it, to carry it around all day knowing people noticed it and some of them must want to touch it, how such a magnificent mane could be a spur to both vanity and self-doubt. I hadn’t yet any idea what was under that hair but love is a close cousin to curiosity: attraction turns into the wish to delve. The nascent scientist admires the butterfly, its flight, its iridescent colors, and is driven to find out how the wings work. Love and science both want to penetrate. “Even in the desire for knowledge,” wrote Nietzsche with a wicked smile under the big mustache, “there is a drop of cruelty.”
It’s been more than six years since I ignored the opening lecture of the Law and Society course because all my attention was focused on Diane Victoria Mulhorn’s hair. Neither of us was taking the class out of interest, but to fulfill a new requirement in something called Social Consciousness. I was getting my degree in Philosophy. My Legal Studies minor was meant to deflect some of the ridicule attracted by my major. Diane was a double major, and her two concentrations were in my opinion ill-matched: History and Public Relations.
Her hair was long, straight, glossy as the thoroughbred’s, and I could almost feel it, as if my eyes were fingers. Does it mitigate my crime that I stared with reverence rather than lust? Or that, after falling for her hair, I did the same with the rest of her?
Diane broke it off with me three weeks before graduation. What if we’d made it to commencement? Would we then have commenced hand in hand down the same rose-strewn path? Maybe then we wouldn’t have commenced down our separate, stonier ones. I doubt another three weeks would have made any difference.
After the bust-up, I threw myself into finishing my senior thesis, less out of diligence than obsession and grief. During the day I managed fairly well but almost every night brought another welcome/unwelcome dream. The meaning of some was all too obvious but others were ambiguous, obscure: Diane as a nurse, teacher, go-go dancer; Diane furious, friendly, indifferent, cruelly teasing. I can still remember two dreams in which she spoke French, a language she didn’t know but I did.
It was thanks to knowing French that I found a summer job as a research assistant. Professor Kardin was writing a book that had a long section on Samuel Johnson’s parliamentary reporting. He explained why this was tricky. Dr. Johnson seldom attended the debates, preferring to make up the speeches in a coffee house. In those days there was no official record against which to compare Johnson’s version of things. When Professor Kardin and his wife visited Paris that spring, he’d hit on a brilliant idea of how to get an objective account of what was actually said. The French would, of course, have been keenly interested in what the Whigs and Tories were saying to each other. He went to the Quai d'Orsay and, thanks to the influence of a colleague at the Sorbonne, secured a microfilm of letters written by the French hireling who attended parliamentary debates and took notes. With a laugh, he said that the spy’s letters were still marked “Classified”—thus the need for the well-connected colleague and the concealable microfilm. My job was to translate the letters. The Frenchman’s elegant handwriting was as admirable as his inventiveness. Every one of his reports to Paris concluded with a novel way of asking for more money.
The summer felt interminable. I took long bike rides and went home for the July Fourth weekend. My friend Bill invited me to his family’s L. L. Bean summer house in Maine for an August weekend. It was a matter of killing time, earning a little money before I began post-graduate study, and not thinking too much about Diane Mulhorn.
I’d gotten into a good Ph.D. program and, charged with displaced energy, unwilling to pine, I resolved to get my degree in record time and then become an adult. When September came that’s just what I did. I finished my course work and then the thesis so rapidly that the faculty seemed more suspicious than impressed. And then I found a publisher. I never expected to hear from Diane Victoria Mulhorn again, certainly not because of a tome on a subject unpopular even with experts in the field.
My monograph is typical of its genre, the revised doctoral thesis aimed at the elusive security of tenure. The editor at the university press that took the manuscript at the urging of my thesis advisor (bless him) insisted I write a new introduction, cut down on the footnotes, replace the and in my original title with the standard academic colon. So the book’s called Trivalent Logic: The Uses of Subversion. When Bill said it sounded pretty dry, I told him that the title sounded even more repulsive in German: Dreiwertige Logik: Die Verwendung von die Untergrabung. It will be at least a year or probably two before the thing’s formally reviewed, if it’s reviewed at all. But it has been listed on Amazon. That’s how Diane learned of it and broke the radio silence of half-a-dozen years during which the scab formed, hardened, and was picked off, six years in which I secured a doctorate, a job, and a publisher. Also, I married Delia Decairie.
Delia grew up in Atlanta and came north because her father insisted she get a Yankee education. We met at a party thrown by a couple just the obverse of ourselves: Susie was the academic, Dick the business type. Delia had stayed in the north, taking her business degree and herself to a job with Bank of America. That I had a Ph.D. in philosophy made me exotic in her eyes rather than ridiculous; I suppose her MBA did the same for me. Curiosity again, delving, then blooming. After all her years in Yankeeland, Delia doesn’t have much of an accent left; however, her diphthongs do tend to lengthen when she gets emotional—seductive, angry or, especially, jealous. I’ll be keeping Diane’s email to myself.
“Hello, Ferguson,” Diane’s email begins. Ferguson. This was her final nickname for me. There had been others but they were endearments. Ferguson was a reference to an old joke I told her about a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who, commanded by a uniformed immigration officer to give his name, is terrified and mumbles “ikh fargesn” and so got himself renamed Ferguson on the spot. Diane didn’t call me Ferguson to remind me of things I’d forgotten but that I forgot important things.
“Congratulations on the book,” she writes. “The bio note on the back says that you’re an assistant professor and married, so congratulations on all that, too. I presume the book’s your dissertation. At a whopping $176.95 a pop, I don’t imagine the press anticipates it’s going to sell like hotcakes. And there’s no picture on the cover, just words. I bought it anyway, for sentimental reasons. It arrived today and I’m almost up to the introduction. I notice there’s no dedication. Is that because you forgot, Ferguson? You really ought to have dedicated it to somebody; I once read it’s bad luck not to. You should have dedicated it to your wife. Or maybe to me. After all, didn’t I teach you a little about subversive logic? In my fashion?”
There was a lot more than chestnut hair to admire about Diane Victoria Mulhorn, to wonder at. Here’s a handful of adjectives (in alphabetical order): ambitious, complicated, contrary, decisive, elusive, exasperating, exciting, gorgeous, insecure, intelligent, kind, sexy, sweet, tough. As I say, lots to be dazzled by but—no use denying the facts—it started with the fifty minutes I spent staring at the back of her head.
What to do after those fifty minutes? I needed to find out if she had a serious boyfriend. We were seniors; for all I knew, she might be married. But if she was approachable, how was I to go about it? I wasn’t any less shy than I’d been in high school and just as undistinguished in the dating department. Beauty simply scared me. That chestnut hair was as intimidating as it was attractive. Both at once. One because of the other.
I conducted some research of the junior-high variety, putting feelers out to my little network. Nobody knew anything about her first year; reports said she’d dated a lot her second year but there’d been nobody serious. In her junior year, though, there was a long-term boyfriend but the relationship apparently didn’t survive spring break.
You’d think there’d be nothing easier than to strike up a conversation with a classmate. What couldn’t you ask about Law and Society? Can you have one without the other? Did you think the lecture on privacy could have used more examples? Why don’t we hear more about how society writes its laws or who pays for them? Easy, but still, I couldn’t pull the trigger.
About once a week I had dinner with my freshman roommate Mike, a pre-law student masquerading as an English major. Over one of these meals, I began on my problem with D. V. Mulhorn. It was embarrassing. He laughed at me and said that I talked about this girl the way philosophers do about their arguments; that is, in a lot more detail than anybody wants. “Love turns people into bores,” he teased. “You, anyway.”
“Thanks very much,” I grumbled.
“Look,” he said, “that hair of hers?”
“You may think her perfect, superlunary, of virtue all compact and so on; but, in my experience, girls with hair like that care about it quite a lot.”
“You think a woman who doesn’t care about her hair is—what?”
“A trivial woman? Oh no. Nope. All I’m saying is that she’s aware of her hair and its effect on guys like you. I’m not saying she’s vain or that she grew it that long just to get attention. But what do I know? I certainly don’t know her. But then you don’t either. Who’s the trivial one, a woman who prides herself on her hair or a man who’s obsessed with it?”
“Obsessed? You think I’m obsessed?”
Mike shrugged. “Look, you want to get closer to her, take a risk. Compliment what drew you to her in the first place.”
“And how do I do that without looking like a superficial oaf?”
“That presupposes you aren’t a superficial oaf.”
The next night Mike came to my dorm room with a Xerox of W. B. Yeats’ poem “For Anne Gregory”. I didn’t know it was famous but I could see why it deserved to be. Where Yeats had written yellow, Mike had crossed it out and penciled in chestnut:
I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow chestnut hair.
“Give it to her. And do it with a sheepish grin; you’re a natural at sheepish. What’ve you got to lose apart from self-respect which you don’t have much of anyway? Besides, you’ll find out if she’s got a romantic streak and a sense of humor. And, I’m guessing, if she’s. . . you know. . . interested.”
I thought it was a cheesy idea and, if I’d known how famous the poem is, cheesier still—derivative and high-risk. Also, over the last century the poem’s message had grown ambiguous, maybe even offensive. So I put it away in a drawer. I did eventually give it to her though, once we’d become an item, enclosed with the silver and turquoise bracelet I bought her for Christmas. She glanced at the poem and smiled indulgently/ruefully, then said that if I’d given Yeats to her in September she’d have sent me packing, pronto.
I had no problem talking with Diane about her history courses but there was some abrasion over public relations. It’s sophistry, I’d say. Ever hear of the real-world? she’d reply. Reality? PR’s all about illusion, I’d scoff, and she’d taunt me with cynicism: Reality, illusion—what’s the difference? It’s making a bad cause look good, I’d classically accuse. You get to dress well and it pays, she’d point out. I’d try flattery: PR’s beneath you. And it’s so incredibly easy to get an A, she’d crow.
Inevitably, she wearied of defending what she was studying and took to mocking what I was, singling out my favorite class for special ridicule. I’d been mildly interested in the required symbolic logic course I took as a sophomore and so I talked my way into a graduate class on advanced logic and got hooked. At the end of the second week I persuaded the professor to let me write my senior thesis for him. For me, advanced logic was the intellectual equivalent of chestnut hair. And, like any addiction, it came with consequences.
In our last semester Diane was kicking back while I was buckling down. She wanted fun and attention; I wanted to work. So, we fell out of sync. That’s the simplest and least disturbing hypothesis about what doomed us—doomed me, anyway.
It was on February 15 that she first called me Ferguson. I’d forgotten Valentine’s Day.
I tried to defend myself but I had an ass for a lawyer. “That was very, very bad,” I admitted. “But I remembered your birthday and Christmas. At least.”
This argument was met with an icy stare from the bench.
“Hearts all over campus, candy in every shop, flower stalls on the corners. The whole world’s shouting that it’s Valentine’s Day and you still forgot. Christmas? You don’t get any credit for Christmas and, as for my birthday, I reminded you about it three times.”
I tried to atone by taking her to a new French restaurant, the most expensive place I could think of. But just a week later I forgot to ask how her European history midterm had gone. Ferguson.
It got worse—that is, I got worse. I missed our “six-month” anniversary, neglected to text her even once over the long weekend she spent with her friends on the Jersey shore, failed to notice that one of her favorite novelists was reading on campus. A disinterested observer might conclude I was just heaping up straws until I got to the last one.
It was mid-April and we hadn’t seen each other for nearly a week. I’d been working flat out on the thesis but, when I came up for air, I missed her the way a diver misses sky and sun. I got up early on Saturday and put off phoning for as long as I could, which wasn’t long at all.
“You woke me up,” she declared without either rancor or interest.
“I want to see you. Need to.”
“That so? Okay. You can buy me a gigantic latte at Renzo’s in like half an hour and then I’ll tell you a story.”
She’d put on jeans and an old, stained sweatshirt. Her hair needed washing; it was flat, stringy. I’d never seen it like that before and, with a jolt, realized this was because she didn’t care. A bad sign. She rubbed her eyes and took a big gulp of latte.
The story was about her parents. She hadn’t told me much about them and I hadn’t asked. Logic notwithstanding, I was one of those romantics who imagine that the objects of their affection floated in from the sea on a half-shell, born the moment they’re first seen. If I thought about Mulhorn mère et père at all it was simply as abstract parents: middle-class, standard-issue, essential yet insignificant.
The story began without any preamble.
“My mother was dentist. She practiced for years and years and made a good income, more than my father. He’d trained as a social worker and burnt out fast. As a teenager his hobby was collecting coins. He subscribed to numismatic magazines and enjoyed looking through them the way other boys did Playboy, I suppose. He did a little trading, nothing much. At some point Dad decided that he liked silver dollars more than his desperate clients—the poverty, messed-up kids, the drugs and crime and hopelessness. So he quit his job and set up as a coin dealer. Mom ran the house, did the disciplining, cooked, shopped, cleaned. Dad was much happier and busy in a good way, always on the phone or the computer, going off to coin dealer conventions. It was funny in a way. He was immersed in money but didn’t make much. I suppose the old coins were like works of art to him. He left more and more stuff for my mother to do—the bills, the insurance, their social calendar, dripping faucets, peeling paint. ‘You take care of it,’ he’d say blithely. And Mom did take care of it. All of it. At dinner he’d talk about his day with enthusiasm and never ask about hers. Looking at coins was interesting; looking into mouths was disgusting. At some point—maybe after he’d forgotten their anniversary—she stopped telling him much of anything.
“One afternoon while Mom was fixing dinner and I was doing my algebra homework, Dad opened the local newspaper and read that real estate taxes would be going up five percent. According to the article, this was because the town manager had proposed the increase at a council meeting and argued for it so forcefully—the starving schools, the potholed roads—that they gave in, almost unanimously. ‘Who’s this town manager?’ he demanded. And that’s how he found out.”
I saw where this was going. I could tell Diane wasn’t about to point out the moral for me.
“Your mother was the town manager?”
“She’d quit being a dentist and didn’t mention it to him?”
“Come on. You’re exaggerating.”
She leaned back—that is, away from me.
“Freud had this theory,” she said.
“I thought you despised Freud.”
“I do. I mean, penis envy. Right. But that doesn’t mean I think he’s necessarily wrong. About everything, I mean.”
“So you pick the parts you like?”
“Of course I do. I pick the parts that’re right.”
I thought this over and said, hesitatingly, “So you think you like me because I remind you of your father but now you’re raking me over the coals for being like him?”
She sipped her latte. “Maybe.”
I threw up my hands.
“I’m a person, a woman,” she said, “not a logician. Don’t go looking for consistency in all the wrong places.”
I thought the story about her parents was improbable, invented or at least dolled up, but knew better than to say so. I took another tack. “You’re proud of your mother, aren’t you?”
“More proud than of your father?”
“I’m proud of my father too. For other things.”
“Other than what kind of husband he is, I suppose?”
“I told you. Mom did discipline. What Dad did was unconditional love. He had the time for it. He’s a perfect father, up to a point. But everybody’s everything only up to a point.”
I foolishly tried a weak joke. “Did he remember your birthday?”
She replied sharply. “He always does. And without any reminders.”
I thought I got the point. Diane Victoria Mulhorn would not be marrying an inattentive man, one like her father, or me. Even unconditional love wasn’t enough.
“And so? I’m not forgiven, am I?”
She sighed, exasperated and/or resigned. “If there’s such a thing as a confirmed female bachelor then I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m going to be.”
Exasperated and resigned. Despising and adoring her father. Admiring her mother and rebelling against her. Vain about her hair and indifferent to her appearance. Fascinated by the historian’s inquiry the truth, drawn to the public relations expert’s dexterity in falsifying it. Attracting, repelling. A person, not a logician.
And which was I? Both? Neither? Something else?
Trivalent, or Three-Value, Logic undermines classical logic by adding to its two values (true or false) a third (neither). T, F, and N. Diane Victoria Mulhorn isn’t wrong; she really did teach me something about it. She taught me that N can mean any number of things.
N can mean “I haven’t got a clue.”
N can mean “Perhaps.”
N might mean “not defined.”
N could even mean “nonsense. . . arrant poopwhistle!”
N can mean “both true and false, a little of each.”
N can mean “one or the other” (“Amanda isn’t nice but she’s not nasty either”).
N can mean “not knowable” (“What was there before the Big Bang? If there’s an all-powerful, all-loving God, why are these children getting slaughtered?”)
Introducing N into classical logic disrupts its purity, saturates it with uncertainty, sows contradiction, paradox, confusion. Introducing N into classical logic renders it unserviceable by drawing it nearer to the way things actually are. Still, nobody likes it. Even the cybernetic geniuses haven’t found a use for it.
Diane’s email concludes this way:
“You’ll be horrified to learn that I’m not only working in public relations but have turned out to be rather good at it. In fact, I’ve just opened my own outfit. Good client list, four employees, all nice, smart kids. No philosophy majors. I do a lot of pro bono work to make up for the pro nobis kind. I’ll assume you haven’t Googled me, even though I’ve Googled you. So, click on the link below to see what my hair looks like these days and the stuff under it.
“PS - My mother retired to take care of my father full time. Dad’s forgotten almost everything.
“As for me, I remain a confirmed female bachelor. Am I happy? Happy in my unhappiness, never lonely in my solitude? TFN. How’s that for an answer, Professor?”