Janet Groth’s The Receptionist: A Reflection

The receptionist receives. Receives what? An education, a memoir. One purpose of a memoir, a narrative of memory, might be to raise eyebrows, for it’s a tool to talk back, to reflect not only on what was taken in but to evaluate and tell on the givers, the repellers, those who dismiss, to give back some sass. One may also be received, received into, into the club; but not in Janet Groth’s case. Miss Groth, to use the New Yorker office convention of the time, was the receptionist on the writer’s floor for a little over two decades, and, never having been promoted or published or even encouraged, finally left, graduating on her own terms, storing the education for a later memoir, much later – 30 years later. Groth’s memoir has already been discussed by those in the know, but here’s a view from a different coast.

Why was Miss Groth never given “a better job” (224) at the magazine? She offers four possibilities: 1, nepotism; 2, lack of Ivy League connections; 3, lack of submissions (only three in twenty-one years, an output Joe Mitchell would however have understood); and 4, she was kept a receptionist because she was a kept receptionist – she was good and that’s where they wanted her. None of these explanations by themselves sound all that convincing, but maybe all taken together they amount to a decision deferred that becomes the dream deferred. And receptionist, in the world of business, is a feminine noun, while what’s needed to push the business forward is a masculine verb.

For a memoir to be successful, the main character must be a dynamic character; she must change from the beginning to the end. Throwing her change into relief are all the static characters she receives over time, characters that don’t change, but that remain their dismissive selves throughout, and the photos of static characters are rarely charming or lovely, and may even offer unflattering profiles.

When I think of memoir, of the self-important profile it proclaims, I also think of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Heavy Weather,” wherein “…the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, brother of the Earl of Emsworth and as sprightly an old gentleman as was ever thrown out of a Victorian music-hall, was engaged in writing the recollections of his colourful career as a man about town in the nineties, the shock to the many now highly respectable members of the governing classes who in their hot youth had shared it was severe. All over the country decorous Dukes and steady Viscounts, who had once sown wild oats in the society of the young Galahad, sat quivering in their slippers at the thought of what long-cuboarded skeletons those Reminiscences might disclose.”

Not to worry in the Wodehouse world, for Galahad has already sent a note to his publisher:  “Dear Sir, Enclosed find cheque for the advance you paid me on those Reminiscences of mine. I have been thinking it over, and have decided not to publish them after all.” But what then develops is indeed a bit of nepotism in the publishing world as the memoir in question becomes a pig to nobble, even as there are real pigs to nobble as the plot unfolds.

We don’t know what Groth has held back, of course, but she wants to persuade us she’s told most of the story. That story is not only about a receptionist, but about an existential (she confides she once wanted to be a female Camus) question: shall we be defined by the roles received from our parents, where we come from, or from our employers, our tribe or our set, or will we, like Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory” and define for ourself what it means to be ourself, refusing to receive any other’s limiting or corralled view of us? Yet what of the receptionist who can’t stop receiving? Who will tell her memoir?

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” by Janet Groth. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. 229 pages.

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On Shoes: A Barefoot Existentialism

Another summer unfolded like a dirty sock, stiff and hot. Baseball fell to football, and I kicked off the boat shoes. What to put on? If you’re a ballplayer, you may have uncommon shoe choice, as evidenced by reports of a Fall skirmish, in a bar down in Louisiana, which resulted in the police confiscating 49 pairs of shoes belonging to one of the college athletes allegedly involved in the melee. I’m still a surfer at heart, and a minimalist when it comes to shoes, so I look askance at that number, 49, but one must be a barefoot existentialist to throw the first block.

The idea of the shoe is really old. In 2008, archeologists found what is thought to be the oldest surviving leather shoe in Eurasia. The shoe, found stuffed with grass, presumably to maintain its shape during the off-season, was radiocarbon dated to the 4th millennium BC (1). Other types of shoes have been found that are even older, shoes made of fibers, sewn or woven, or made from animal skin, and sandals made with different kinds of technology and apparently for different purposes (2, 3). One study suggests that the idea for the shoe may have come from basketry, the shoe conceived as a basket for the foot, the shoe made with basket weaving technique (4).

An inventory of my own shoes harbors the story out of Louisiana from a sea of hyperbole. Maybe the athlete had never thrown out an old pair – a youthful hoarder of shoes. Still, we might argue that access to more shoes than we need suggests overindulgence, but is this a case of moral relativism? And no doubt athletes are not the only shoe collectors. Besides, in shoes begin responsibilities, to improvise on the Delmore Schwartz theme.

Perhaps my parents tried to prepare me for athletic success requiring extra closet space by ensuring an early shoeful habit, but it seems unlikely. I’ve two old photos in which I appear to be wearing the same formidable Buster Browns, and if my parents were trying to prepare me for anything, they must have been thinking of circus lion taming. In any case, assuming one new pair of shoes per year, I went from shoeless to ten pairs of shoes by the time I reached Little League.

The Buster Browns were worn at Churchill Downs; Little League was a mile from the Pacific. I don’t know how many shoes my parents packed, with everything else they owned, into their Plymouth sedan with their four children for the move out west, and no doubt what shoes we had comforted our Westward Ho! feet, but the adventure must have been riskier for our having no spares in the trunk.

In Little League I preferred sneakers to cleats. I spent three years playing ball for the El Segundo Major League Red Sox. Add another three pairs of shoes, but I’m sure I still owned only one pair at a time, and wore that pair everywhere, to school, church, baseball. I also wore rubber go-aheads, wore them down to the skin of my heels before tossing. Should these be counted as shoes? If so, add a pair every year, from the age of ten, when I started Little League, to 18, when I left home for the Army.

In boot camp, at Fort Bliss, Texas, we were issued two pairs of Army boots, comfortable and substantial, and we wore them for every purpose save the few, formal occasions when we wore our dress greens with low quarters. Add another three pairs of shoes. I wore those same Army boots for six years, in and out of uniform. In barracks, we displayed our surplus shoes on our footlockers at the end of our bunks. The South Central boys displayed their spit shined cowboy boots along with their G. I. shoes. I put out my Jack Purcells, wiping clean the blue stripe.

I left my low quarters in my usher’s locker at the Paradise Theatre one Saturday morning, soon after my military discharge. I had reflected too long on my chore of the day: chipping the gum off the bottoms of all the theatre seats. I couldn’t recall a detail as absurd from my Army experience. I snuck out of the dark theatre into a solid gold South Bay weekend, not my first existential decision, nor my last, wearing my Purcells, leaving my low quarters to an unknown successor, heedless of the shoe choices in my future.

In college and in my early teaching assignments, I wore sneakers or the old Army boots, still wearing well. Few judgments, in those days, seemed shoe-based. It wasn’t until I abandoned teaching for the corporate world that I purchased a pair of wingtips, ignoring Thoreau’s advice to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (5). I wore the wingtips stiffly into the office on my first day, spit shined; I was the only guy in the office wearing wingtips.

Twenty-five years in a carpeted corporate world doesn’t wear out many shoes. Add another six or seven pairs. The story of my corporate career might be told in cordovan loafers, some with tassels, or boat shoes. Add a few golf shoes, slippers under the tree most years, then suddenly some cranky Dr. Martens, shoes I wore in the yard, on walks, and to work; and perhaps it was the insidious Martens that put me on the track to an Indie early-retiree lifestyle. I began to wear, like Eliot’s Prufrock, “the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” but with little regret (6).

So I have owned more than 49 pairs of shoes, but never that many at once. I recently purchased some new Dr. Martens, made in China; my original pair, which I finally wore out, was made in England. One can’t fully appreciate new shoes until one has worn out old ones. For an athlete in sneakers, the shoe precedes the foot, and wearing the shoe out is not the essence of the game. Whatever legal tackles our contemporary athletes end up breaking, no shoes will be worn out, and any thoughts about going existential must wait for the off-season.

Shakespeare’s bumbling Polonius might have offered another aphorism for Laertes’s consideration, though probably not putting the Western world on a new footing: treat each new pair of shoes as your last; perhaps then they might be worn more wisely, and one may more fully realize one’s barefoot potential, for the more shoes we have, the more schemed and distracted our purposes, but the closer we go to barefoot, the more deliberate and sure-footed our steps.


1. Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al. (2010). First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE 5(6): e10984. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010984
2. Ravilious, Kate. (June 9, 2010). World’s Oldest Leather Shoe Found—Stunningly Preserved: “Astonishingly modern” shoe preserved by sheep dung and dryness. National Geographic News: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/100609-worlds-oldest-leather-shoe-armenia-science/
3. Connolly, T. & Cannon, W. (1999). Comments on “America’s Oldest Basketry.” Radiocarbon, Vol 41, Nr 3, 1999, pp. 309-313.
4. Berger, R., Bendat, M., & Parker, A. (AMERICA’S OLDEST BASKETRY: RAINER BERGER, MILLIE BENDAT and ANDREA PARKER) Isotope and Archaeometry Laboratory, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1567 USA. ABSTRACT: We have determined the earliest calibrated dates on three types of basketry from the Great Basin & Proceedings of the 16th International 14C Conference, edited by W. G. Mook and J. van der Plicht RADIOCARBON, Vol. 40, No. 2, 1998, P. 615-620. This is publication number 5084 of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, UCLA.
5. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (New York: New American Library, 1960), chap. 1.
6. T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” poem.

Excerpt from a Conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre and B. F. Skinner

BFS: “Man is perhaps unique in being a moral animal, but not in the sense that he possesses morality; he has constructed a social environment in which he behaves with respect to himself and others in moral ways.”

JPS: “I can bring moral judgment to bear.”

BFS: “The essential issue is autonomy. Is man in control of his own destiny or is he not?”

JPS: “Man makes himself. He isn’t ready made at the start. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose. In that way, you see, there is a possibility of creating a human community.”

BFS: “Behaviorism does not reduce morality to certain features of the social environment; it simply insists that those features have always been responsible for moral behavior. Man continues to build machines which dehumanize him. He can remedy these mistakes and build a world in which he will feel freer than ever before and achieve greater things.”

JPS: “We do not believe in progress. Man is always the same. I am responsible for myself and for everyone else.”

BFS: “Why do people behave as they do? It became a matter of understanding and explaining behavior. It could always be reduced to a question about causes.”

JPS: “It’s all quite simple. He can’t start making excuses for himself. There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. We have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses. Man is condemned to be free. There are no omens in the world. No general ethics can show you what is to be done. This theory is the only one which gives man dignity.”

BFS: “Control is another matter. Refusing to look at causes exacts its price. The behaviorist has a simpler answer. What has evolved is an organism, part of the behavior of which has been tentatively explained by the invention of the concept of mind. No special evolutionary process is needed when the facts are considered in their own right.”

JPS: “There is no human nature. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Man is responsible for what he is. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. It is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.”

BFS: “A scientific analysis of behavior must assume that a person’s behavior is controlled by his genetic and environmental histories rather than by the person himself as an initiating, creative agent.”

JPS: “In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person. There does exist a universal human condition.”

BFS: “We often overlook the fact that human behavior is also a form of control. No mystic or ascetic has ever ceased to control the world around him; he controls it in order to control himself. We cannot choose a way of life in which there is no control.”

JPS: “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. What complicates matters is that there are two kinds of existentialist; first, those who are Christian, and on the other hand the atheistic existentialists, and then the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.”

BFS: “The major difficulties are practical. In any case we seem to be no worse off for ignoring philosophical problems.”

(This invented converstation was created with quotes blended from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” with Skinner’s “About Behaviorism.”)

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.

The Myth of Adolescence: James Woods on Jean-Christophe Valtat

Reading James Woods’s review of Valtat’s “03” (New Yorker, September 6), when a comment pops up like the pea in the mattress he opens with, keeping us awake: “He [Camus] proposed four roles…: the conqueror, the seducer, the actor, and the writer. (One notes the convenient glamour of Camus’s chosen roles: not, say, the policeman, the bus conductor, the bureaucrat, and the shopkeeper).” But Wood’s comment might say more about Woods than about Camus, for Woods can’t seem to imagine a hero who is a plumber, a gardener, a clerk, a waitress. Besides, it’s not entirely accurate, as we find if we take a look at Camus’s actual heroes. But in context, Woods wants Camus to lead the way into Valtat’s four-types Camus imitation: “The exile, the rock musician, the eccentric, the suicide,” which, in turn, permits Woods to introduce his own, fifth role, that of the “…arrest[ed], of helpless delay, of simply coming to a stop while continuing to live,” the condition most adolescents find themselves consigned to once reaching adulthood.

It was some time ago, in an issue of Reed Magazine, we read with interest an article by a Reed English professor about what jobs an English major might aspire to. The breadth of the suggestions was anemic and seemed to reflect an academically enculturated world view: law school, teaching – that was about it, no mention of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet who (albeit trained as a lawyer) enjoyed a career as Claims V. P. with the Hartford; of Ted Kooser, US poet laureate who spent his adult working life at Lincoln Life, in Nebraska; of Kafka, who spent time employed by two European insurers.

Not that it matters, for the question in point is what bearing one’s occupation has on one’s role. When Sartre says that the existentialist’s existence precedes his essence, is he talking about finding a job? When Jesus said “follow me,” was he talking about joining a laborer’s union?

I’m not sure if Woods intends to dis Camus, adolescents, or both: “’03’ is indeed a moralist’s novel: I was often reminded of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ that great outburst so loved by adolescents,” as if adolescents can’t fully know what it means to live, to suffer, to read, to write, to have to decide who to follow, and what book to take along. Alas, the current generation of adolescents will certainly have plenty of time on their hands thinking about it, as they go about applying for jobs that don’t exist.

Love and the Age of Democracy

Imagine life as a serf in an empire. Your father wants to give you to a neighboring monastery in exchange for a pig. But this is actually better than his first proposal, in which he promised your hand in marriage to an old man in a neighboring village. Fortunately, the old man died before the deal could be sealed.

In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell argues that the emergence in the middle ages of romantic love as expressed by the troubadours created individual consciousness. “Campbell: But with Amor we have a purely personal ideal. The kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, is a person-to-person experience. That’s completely contrary to everything the Church stood for. It’s a personal, individual experience, and I think it’s the essential thing that’s great about the West and that makes it different from all other traditions I know. It was important in that it gave the West this accent on the individual, that one should have faith in his experience and not simply mouth terms handed down to him by others. It stresses the validity of the individual’s experience of what humanity is, what life is, what values are, against the monolithic system. The monolithic system is a machine system: every machine works like every other machine that comes out of the same shop” (p. 187).

Campbell is talking about consensual marriage, as opposed to arranged marriage. Even today, the price paid for consensual marriages, in that they often go against the grain of the parents’ wishes for their children, as in the Tristan romance, and again in Romeo and Juliet, is personal freedom and existentialism. You’re on your own. This is the same price Jesus paid, but the Church did not follow Jesus, instead creating a new monolithic system. “Come follow me,” Jesus said; we’ll make our own way, against tradition. This is the creation of the individual as an entity separate from the earthly lord who gets his authority from the state or church or both. In consensual marriage we find the roots of egalitarianism and democracy. What’s love got to do with it? All you need is love, and the courage to, as Campbell says, “follow your bliss.”

Modern corporations are not democracies, nor is the Church a democracy. Men who marry their jobs or the Church can not live an existential life. They are not free. They have no individual consciousness, and they pay no price, as long as they stick with the arrangement. But these marriages are not based on Amor, which is freedom and personal identity for which one pays own’s own freedom and assumes responsibility for oneself. To become one with a desk? Come, follow me. Sit here. Break is at 10:15.

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.