Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

This is something of a difficult book to wrap the mind around, as Jane Eyre, the title character, is such an enigma. She seems to be hopelessly romantic, in both the philosophical sense of relying on her emotional impulses to guide her behavior no matter the readily ascertainable consequences, and in the relationship sense of believing that true love will conquer all, all while being almost maniacally logical and objective in her observations and her engagement with the world. But she is immensely likeable, even if an enigma, both to the readers and to the many protagonists and antagonists she encounters along her way.

The book is written as a memoir of the early years of Jane’s life culminating in her marriage to Mr. Rochester, the owner of a grand English manor, who by the end of the tale when he finally marries Jane, has suffered devastating disability and loss from a fire set by his crazy first wife, who died in the fire. Told from the perspective of about ten years after the marriage, like all memoir, it vastly overstates the ability of the mind to accurately remember. But it is beautifully and vividly written—the prose is as compelling to read as the imagination conjures the pictures that Jane painted with brush and canvass in her spare time were to ponder. Bronte is an artist with a pen. She drew her character, Jane Eyre, as an artist in paint, a relatively minor piece of the Eyre puzzle. Bronte described her remaining attributes with brilliant clarity and detail, bringing her character to life in a manner that few artists, wielding either pen or brush, are able.

I found Bronte’s name for her title character a bit interesting. From what I could tell, Eyre is pronounced with one syllable, very similar to the manner that Southerners pronounce ‘air’, with an extra little lilt behind the ‘r’, which perhaps explains the spelling with an extra e at the end of the name. An eyre is also a circuit court held by itinerant royal justices in Medieval England, which is to say, before the setting of the book in the late eighteenth century, but perhaps within recent enough history that her 19th century readers could have made the connection. The word has a Latin root, iter, meaning journey. As Bronte’s novel is about the journeys, literal and emotional and spiritual, that young Jane takes along the path of growing from a child into a woman and then a wife, and the moral choices she makes along the way, the name seems fitting. But I haven’t the faintest idea if that’s why Bronte chose it, and frankly, if there is some conclusive scholarship on Jane’s last name, I’ve not been able to find it. Maybe an Eyre is just an Eyre, which was a common enough surname in England at the time the book was written.

The narrative opens with Jane an orphan, living with her deceased uncle’s wife and kids (Jane’s cousins). Jane’s parents died of typhus, as well her uncle, who made his wife, Jane’s aunt, promise to take good care of Jane on his deathbed. The aunt promised, but failed to deliver. She encouraged her children to ostracize and mistreat the ten year-old Jane. Jane’s first major recollection involved what seemed almost like torture, even of a psychosexual nature, with Jane being punished for hitting her male oldest cousin after he had provoked her. It was an all-around ugly affair, Jane’s turn with her aunt and cousins, but revealed for the reader the depth of Jane’s resolve to survive, and even so far as possible, thrive, no matter the circumstances, and her indefatigable will to abide hardship in order to do what her heart knew to be right.

Jane is revealed from this beginning episode to be nearly omniscient in understanding, at their time of occurrence, the motivations of her own heart and those of others. In actuality, it would only be in hindsight, and after much reflection, that she might have grasped how she felt and why during the episodes of brutality she suffered as a child. But it is fine to imagine that Jane is quite inwardly reflective, because the plot is only a scaffold upon which Bronte drapes the inner workings of Jane’s psyche. Jane Eyre is a novel about the human heart more than anything else.

I read the novel because of a Bronte quote about a different novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that was used in one of the two introductions (this one placed at the end) of the Penguin Classics publication of Austen’s most famous novel. Bronte was unsparing in her criticism:

What did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

As Bronte’s assessment of Pride and Prejudice was poignantly close to my own, I figured I rather might enjoy reading Bronte in the stead of Austen. My instincts were sound. Bronte is a brilliant and engaging writer. Austen, while undeniably gifted, either hasn’t Bronte’s insights into the human condition or doesn’t much care to explore them. Pride and Prejudice is about the life and society and petty issues of England’s landed gentry in the late 18th/early 19th centuries told from the perspective of a coming of age female, which is to say, it is about how to create the specialized business partnership known as marriage in a manner that will profitably ensure an estate’s continuation while also be a pleasing matter for the wife.

Alas, a great deal of Bronte’s book also concerns marriage—Jane’s dismal prospects at the start of her adult life, and then her dizzying proposal and whirlwind near-marriage in the middle, and then finally the marriage to the man from whom she initially ran away at the end. Is there anything more to a young woman’s world than the striving to marry? Perhaps not, but Bronte put the striving to good use in exploring moral and spiritual complexities and ambiguities that beset everyone in all times, not just in young women striving to find a husband in manorial England.

Much ink has been spilled over whether either of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Austen’s character, Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice were proto-feminists paving the way for a different sort of female role in society. I would say in both cases, no—that anyone trying to make out Jane or Elizabeth as proto-feminists is guilty of doing retro-history, applying today’s cultural mores to those of yesteryear. The revolution in female economic roles often improperly attributed to feminism did not come about until after the Industrial Revolution had reached maturity, and all its advancements were put to use through two world wars for doing what mankind has always been possessed of quite astute capabilities, i.e., the killing of his fellows, even before industrial automation so improved his efficiency at the task. Both of these novels were set in post-feudal, but still agrarian England, where all the wealth was tied up in land and all the land was owned by males because the land was also tied up in provisioning the King’s army and navy with male soldiers and sailors. Women of today look back at their historical sisters and imagine what an awful lot they had, but they fail to consider that females were not treated ‘equally’ back then in no small measure because an equal measure was not expected of them. They were not expected to do the hard, dirty work of living and killing and dying as the men were. Outside of the actual and unavoidable pain of childbirth, which admittedly was often a deadly affair prior to modern medicine, women were put on a pedestal. The men were in charge, to some extent, but they suffered for bearing the burden.

Bronte’s Eyre was fiercely independent and strong-willed, even to the point of foolishness. When she found out at the altar on their wedding day that Mr. Rochester was already married to the crazy woman living upstairs in his manor, she impetuously left him, even after he proposed instead that she be his mistress. She would be either his wife or nothing, and she very nearly died of starvation/exposure/hypothermia in her escape, before St. John and his sisters (who we later find out are her cousins) took her in. I don’t see where anything Jane did in that episode or others that was proto-feminist, unless it is imagined that there were no fiercely independent and strong-willed women in the world until Betty Freidan and her ilk came along, which is utter nonsense. History is replete with strong-willed, independent women, from Queen Victoria, shortly after Bronte’s age to Cleopatra and Joan of Arc well before it. And it can’t be imagined that all the women who don’t grace the pages of history were shy retiring wallflowers.

Bronte was perhaps a bit interested in dispelling myths common even today about women—that they are nicer, calmer, more agreeable etc., than men, always saying what people want to hear rather than the truth. Jane was frank and straightforward, unemotional nearly to a fault, and with nothing at all that could be considered flowery or flighty in her personality, just a rashness that led to her running away from Mr. Rochester that early morning. Jane told things like she saw things, in much the same manner as Austen’s Elizabeth, whose ‘liveliness’ (i.e., frankness and openness) captured Mr. Darcy’s heart. Elizabeth also impetuously left on a slight adventure when she heard her sister had taken ill. Hers was a 2-3 mile hike on roads and trails that left her petticoat a bit muddied, hardly comparable to Jane’s leaving with nowhere to go and no money and only a mind to run forever away from Mr. Rochester. Both instances could be conjured, if squinting real hard, as the acts of proto-feminists, I suppose. But I rather believe them to simply be examples of people acting impetuously in the circumstances, people who also happen to be female.

If anything, Jane Eyre doesn’t qualify as a proto-feminist because she seems to be actually more liberated than the liberated Modern Woman of today, though perhaps not in the way a Modern Women would imagine that they are liberated. Unlike the sisterhood of Modern Women, Jane put great stock in the sacrament of marriage, refusing to be her betrothed’s concubine after learning of his previous, and extant, marriage. Even though Rochester’s marriage was a sham because of the insanity of his wife, Jane turned out to be a stalwart defender of the legalities of the institution, steadfastly refusing to allow Mr. Rochester the pleasure of her company without the sanctity of marriage. And later, she adamantly refused St. John’s (her rescuer from exposure after escaping Rochester, and later found to also be her cousin) offer of marriage, as it was done solely for the practical purpose that she might follow him to India and help him in winning souls to Christ. (Thus also is revealed the Eyre enigma—she believed in the sanctity of marriage as represented by its legalities, but also that marriage could not be sanctified if not done out of love.)

She would be married, if at all, to someone she loved (Mr. Rochester), but she would not submit, even in a state of the direst need and dimmest prospects, to the life of a concubine, not even with a man whom she loved. She was not a whore, marital or otherwise. She wanted in marriage a loving, mature relationship that perhaps happened to include sex (the thrill she felt at Mr. Rochester’s touch was certainly of a sexual nature, but it did not seem that the love she felt for him depended upon her sexual attraction), not a sexual relationship that was more or less transactional in nature, which is the nature of the relationship that a great many Modern Women settle for, among both those who believe themselves to be liberated and those who do not.

Jane showed respect for herself by respecting the institution of marriage, in its character as a social institution whose contours are sketched in the law, and in its character as a very personal and private affair, a perspective which Modern Women might do well to emulate. Marriage is not meant to constrict and confine women nearly as much as it is meant to restrict and focus men. It is an institution created to serve the needs of child-bearing women, not the needs of the men who impregnate them. Often throughout history, powerful men have shunned marriage (at least of the monogamous variety) for the very reason: They know they needn’t confine themselves to one woman in order to get the main benefit (i.e., sex) that marriage offers to the man.

Jane agreed, prior to discovering Mr. Rochester was already married, to proceed from being his governess (for a child, not his, who he had more or less adopted) to being his wife, even before she had received the windfall from her uncle’s estate that provided her an independent means for life. She knew she was desperately in love with Mr. Rochester and could not have so betrayed herself to turn down his offer, but was still hesitant, as she knew she was negotiating from a position of weakness, and one that would only grow weaker upon entering the marriage. She did not want to become his possession, seeking instead to become his equal partner in life, but was not willing to betray her heart simply to eliminate the mere possibility that the power dynamic would fail her in a detrimental manner. If there is a more pro-female perspective (or, more aptly, pro-human perspective) than Jane’s, I challenge the modern feminist to provide one. Yet, does anyone think Jane’s perspective unique to her times? The male-female dialectic when it comes to marriage has always involved a battle of wills, and no, the battle was not always, or even not often, won by the man. The balance of power in marriage is always in flux (or in any other relationship, for that matter). There is always jockeying for dominance, in matters both great and small. Bronte shows that power always arises from within—there is nothing more powerful than a person with control over their own emotions and faculties, as was Jane,–and that once that sort of internal control is achieved, the woman (or man) can readily manipulate the soft levers of interrelationship power to ensure she is never run over roughshod by her mate. The key to power is self-control, and Jane had it in spades. And there is nothing unique in that notion to Jane Eyre’s era, or to the era that followed her, or to the fact that she happens to be female. Bronte’s observations are timeless and gender indeterminate.

Modern feminists like to imagine that they have cut Modern Woman from whole cloth as a result of their liberating agitations for equal treatment, particularly regarding reproductive rights; that before Roe v. Wade and the Pill, women were doomed to desultory lives as baby factories, their wombs being all they had worth selling. The mythology is balderdash. Women have never been any less vivaciously spirited, strong-willed, stiff-necked, meek, obsequious, and all shades in between, as they are now. Their wombs have always been important, but only so far as the individual women possessing them believed in their importance. There have always been sexually promiscuous women who thought little of the special obligations the ability to create life conferred; it is that only now they have easier ways to prevent their sexuality from having consequences, or to eliminate the consequences relatively easily. Different women have different personalities, just like different people have different personalities, but their essential character has not changed, not even in the face of changes wrought by industrialization and the relative decline in economic advantage it wrought to male physical prowess. There is still an aspect of the dialectic in male-female sexual relationships where the female’s trump card is access to her womb, and the male’s trump card is the willingness to support the products thereof.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre stands in testament to the timeless nature of the female experience. As much as today’s feminist movement likes to think it has impelled progress, it can only claim so by imagining a much worse past for women than actually existed, or by ignoring that much of its ‘progress’ has accomplished nothing more than to allow women to be treated equally as poorly as men. Feminists celebrated, actually celebrated, when the US Army and Marine Corps agreed to allow women to serve on the front lines as infantry combat soldiers. If gaining the ability to be slaughtered, as has happened to so many male infantry soldiers throughout history, is progress, one balks at imagining what regression or stasis might look like.

It was something of a convoluted chain of events that led to my reading Jane Eyre. I had known for some time that my daughter was a big fan of Jane Austen, and particularly of Pride and Prejudice. She and my wife suggested I read it so I might better understand her. The daughter will soon be graduating high school and attending college, and she’ll be expecting my help in deciding on which one to attend. How could I help her choose without really knowing her? So I read Pride and Prejudice, which felt like nothing more than a well-written Harlequin Romance to me. I failed to see the profundity of its insights, except perhaps those of the lead character’s dad, who did the bare minimum required to keep up the appearance that he was somewhat engaged in the silly affairs of his wife and their five daughters. But in the second Introduction to the book, this one printed at the end, there was the Charlotte Bronte quote, previously provided, of what she thought of the book. As it fit my opinion nearly perfectly, I decided I should read Bronte, who wrote during the same era as Austen, and in generally the same setting (manorial England). The contrast was stark and profound. Austen wrote of English manorial society. Bronte wrote of the human heart, using manorial England as the canvass for her pictures depicting it.

I was reminded of both the women in my life through Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Young Jane’s defiant stand against her older male cousin’s physical abuse made me think of what things must have been like for my wife when she was a young girl and suffered the same sort of abuse from her dad. I imagine she defied him as valiantly as Jane did her cousin. And when Jane impetuously left Rochester with no real plan and no money and no prospects for getting any, putting her own life in immediate peril, it made me think of my daughter, who is nothing but one tough cookie when it comes to demanding boys treat her with the respect she thinks (and rightfully so) she deserves. Though I would hope my daughter be more reasonable in her reactions, I could still see her responding with the same force of character in a situation similar to the one Jane faced. In short, I saw in Jane Eyre a woman who every woman would do well to emulate. After I told my daughter that Jane Eyre is a very good book, worthy of the time it would take to read, she spontaneously picked it up and started reading it one night. I hope she takes it to heart. I think everyone would feel inordinately blessed, like I am, to have as a daughter or a wife or a sister, a woman like Jane Eyre.

In defense of Ray and Janay Rice; in contempt of the spineless NFL

What would you do if someone hit you and spit in your face and lunged at you in an elevator? If you’re like most people, male or female, you’d do something to protect yourself—either pushing them away in a defensive posture, or defending through the time-honored method of counterattack. Ray Rice chose the latter, but failed to calibrate his counterattack to account for the weakness of his foe, perhaps because of drunkenness, maybe just for rage.

Like the military behemoth Israel destroyed whole city blocks in Gaza each time a dozen or so rockets fired from there landed harmlessly in the desert, Ray Rice, who is a bristling two hundred pounds of muscled-up NFL running back, coldcocked his fiancé (now wife) to the floor when she spat in his face and lunged at him. She couldn’t have ever done, without a weapon to equalize things, any sort of actual physical harm to Ray, just like Gaza without a nuclear weapon is not much more than a thorn in Israel’s side. Ray and Israel were rightly castigated for having used force well in excess of that required to send the message that such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. But nobody would ever suggest that Israel should sit idly by while rockets are flung across the sky, admittedly on a weak prayer that they might hit something more than cactus, but still. And Ray Rice should not have been fired from his job and rendered a public pariah for having done, if a bit excessively, what anyone would have done in the premises. He was defending himself. Watch the video. It’s clear he was provoked.

Here’s the link to TMZ, the website that originally published the video.

The NFL and Rice’s employer, the Baltimore Ravens, effectively delivered a gut punch to Janay Rice to go along with Ray’s punch, and the subsequent smack on the elevator’s railing that rendered her unconscious, when they fired and suspended him. How is this going to help things for the Rice’s? If you think there might have been some fighting before, just wait until Ray’s checks quit coming.

It is high time the NFL quit kowtowing to women’s organizations, allowing them to do just like an angry wife might, extorting the behaviors they seek through terror campaigns. Here’s a little secret the National Football League needs to internalize: There will never be any appeasing the National Organization for Women, or the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or any other of the myriad organizations that uber-social females quite naturally contrive as vehicles for complaining about men. Football is a man’s sport, played by men, which is why men and non-feminists love it and feminist agitators loathe it. No matter what the NFL does, so long as it remains essentially the same sport that involves blocking and tackling and hitting, i.e., so long as it remains a sport that mimics the violence of hand to hand combat, the feminists will hate it because it involves things that, in their inability to compete, they necessarily hate, and demand that the world follows suit.

Guys generally understand individually, or at least married guys do, what seems so baffling to the NFL—that in the relentless dialectic that constitutes a male-female relationship, there is nothing a woman won’t do to assert her power and control over her man. But while the male-female relationship is a constant power struggle, it is one where if the woman wins, both sides lose. Men must fight back. They must hold their women at bay. Because, if a woman ever feels she has finally gained dominion and control over her man, she will quickly grow bored and seek another man to similarly subdue. Women are incapable of happiness. Likewise, female advocate organizations won’t stop until all power has been ceded to them or the women they ostensibly represent. Of course, they still wouldn’t be satisfied then, and would undoubtedly turn the dialectic inward, pitting women against each other, because contentedness is not a female attribute. But the point is that there is no way the NFL can appease these organizations, except by destroying itself, at which point both sides lose.

The league let women into the door of appeasement with observing breast cancer awareness month in October, complete with pink towels, shoes, gloves, hats, etc. Did they really believe that would suffice to stop the females from braying incessantly about the league’s violence? Did they really believe that feigning interest in the health issues concerning women’s breasts was really going to get them off the hook for providing so many men a mostly harmless outlet for expressing all those visceral attributes that arise from having a surfeit of testosterone? Women are only happy when their men are miserable, so the NFL, which helps make men a little less miserable than they might otherwise be in a society intent on filing their sharp edges down to dullness, is at cross purposes with female desires. The happier the NFL makes a man on Sunday or Monday or Thursday, the more work is left to the woman to bring him back to the level of misery she thinks is acceptable for his being allowed to be a part of her world.

Men understand this perfectly, which is why they howl derisively every time the NFL caves to female demands to feminize the game (if usually out of earshot of the females in their lives). And if the NFL becomes too glamourized, or too pussified, then men will leave it to the women, and go find some other entertainment that expresses and embodies the violence and aggression and athletic ability that sets men apart from women, attributes they love to express or see displayed, but aren’t often afforded the opportunity in the strait jackets of feminized culture in which they must exist.

The male-female dialectic is a one-way thing in many respects. Women are desperately at war with men, while men are decidedly less combative, usually laconic and lackadaisical about the whole thing. It’s not because men believe they have all the power and aren’t threatened by the women. It’s that they know the women who believe they need to openly wage war are fools who don’t understand the power they have. Men innately know that women hold the reins of power in any male-female sexual relationship. It comes with having a womb. But men understand that women can’t be allowed to run roughshod over the family or their relationship, or them, just because they happen to have a womb, and they understand that it is their job to see it doesn’t happen. In other words, men get that God doesn’t pay them to lose the dialectic with women, because everyone loses when that happens.

Maybe that’s what Ray was thinking when he gobsmacked Janay that night in the elevator. Or, maybe he was just really pissed that she thought she could get away with doing to him what he’d never allow any man to get away with. We’ll never really know, because only the people in a relationship really know what is going on in it. But I think anyone who is honest will admit that what Janay did that night demanded a response. Even Janay admitted as much. Just perhaps not quite as forcefully as Ray administered it.  And the NFL did nothing but make matters worse, as I am sure, both the Rice’s would attest.

My year of living charitably–a short memoir

Maybe it was the sunshine flooding the sanctuary that mid-spring morning as the window shades, which had been drawn to keep the parishioners engaged and interested in the events of the service taking place within, were mechanically lifted by tiny, remotely-operated motors to reveal God’s creation outside in full May flower, bursting with promise and hope and possibility.

It happened every Sunday. As soon as the pastor’s sermon concluded, the organist deftly tinkled a few emotional notes along the melody of a hymn already deeply-embedded in the hearts of all except the most unfamiliar of the flock. And while the organist tugged at the heart through the special place in the viscera that familiar music touches, the pastor traveled a more circuitous route, seeking through the logic that arises from belief to finally also arrive there, imploring the parishioner’s heart to openly accept and acknowledge Christ’s deity and grace as was revealed through the sermon. Thus was the post-sermon time of the service the Baptists know as the “invitation”.

On brilliantly crisp and sunny days like that one—the kind a late spring cold front, perhaps the last of the season can sometimes leave in its wake, devoid of humidity or even the wisp of a cloud–the eyelids were hardly sufficient to prevent a preview of the effect intended by the raising of the window shades in the sanctuary. Their thin membranes simply weren’t up to the task of shutting out the sun that flooded in as the window shades motored up. By the time the preacher finally made his last altar call for any whom the spirit of the Lord possessed, the sanctuary was ablaze in the white light of springtime sunshine. It was as if the Apostle John’s observation that “God is light”, was being fulfilled, with His Holy presence washing over every pew and aisle and balcony and transept that fine spring day by the time the call to worship was sung.

The sermon that day was about missions, as it was mission Sunday, when all the various mission projects of the sprawling quasi mega-church (less than 10,000, but more than 5,000 members, which is as good a demarcation line as I can figure between a true mega church and one that’s only ‘quasi’) were on display in a forum in the fellowship hall after the service. Up until that day, I had mainly ignored all the calls to service and to witness. If I could be described as Christian, it would have been of the lukewarm variety at best, which as any good God-fearing Bible-thumping, hellfire and brimstone preaching Christian will tell you, is really worse than being a devout atheist. At least everyone knew where atheists were heading and could condemn and avoid them. With lukewarmists like me, the good Christians had to be always on their guard that I didn’t get heated up for God enough to occasionally finagle my way into the privileged sanctum they felt they deserved for their piety.

I went to church, but I did so mainly for my kids. Living in the buckle of the Bible Belt in central Alabama, people who didn’t at least occasionally go to church, or who didn’t at least give lip service to God as the bounteous fount of all blessings, were considered scoundrels and heathens. And that wouldn’t do for my kids, in their exalted status as the grandchildren of baby boomers.

I was, of course, raising my children for the benefit of their grandparents—my parents and in-laws—as that’s what the selfish, narcissistic baby boomers expect of the world now that their turn as its deserving heirs is coming to a close. Upon arrival in a world immensely enriched and made comfortable and safe by their parents, the baby boomers expected they had deserved the sacrifices of their parents. By the time their own children began coming of age in the late seventies and early eighties, they had so dissipated their inheritance that it seemed a miracle that their once proud country could beat a third-world worker’s paradise at hockey. Now that the boomers are old and contemplating their departure from this mortal coil, they imagine that their grandchildren were put on this earth for the purpose of extending their lives beyond the grave, (though a great many of them also hold out hope that there will be a cure discovered for death before they succumb to it—that they can, like their favorite movie director desires—achieve immortality by not dying).

It was my charge to raise these baby-boomer parent’s grandchildren in a manner that honored their grandparent’s legacy—something in the way that an Egyptian slave worked on a Pyramid for the Pharaoh, or a Chinese peasant helped build the terra cotta Army for Qin. And the grandparents, also being of upstanding, salt-of-the-earth Alabama native stock, proud Baptist and Methodist pillars of the community if you will, would not have stood for their grandchildren not receiving a good Christian rearing. And I had somehow learned from an early age not to fight the impulse to eternity in my fellows. Foolish and vain as it always presented itself, the human impulse to eternity, in all the various forms through which it finds expression, is still rather more powerful than any other impulse, aside from sex (which is usually actually an expression of the same striving), that human beings experience. But my heart was never much into organized religion. I thought most of it was hokey superstition and mysticism when it wasn’t sublimating the human impulse to tribalism. I just showed up at church, with my parents’ and in-laws’ grandkids in tow, snoozing through the sermon when I could get away with it. May the circle be unbroken and all that.

Something about this Sunday was different. I felt the Spirit move in me, or at least seemed to have had something of the feeling that spiritual people must experience daily on their walk with the Lord, always closely attuned as they are to the stirrings in their soul wrought of their Lord and Savior. I can’t say that I’ve ever been quite so spiritually connected, believing most of the stirrings of my soul to have something or another to do with stirrings of my belly or my loins.

But I was feeling particularly magnanimous towards God that day. My life up to that point had been one blessed event followed by another. There was the marriage interrupted by the war in which I had to fight. Thank god for the rush the war put on things or I’d likely never have gone through with the marriage, which was approaching by then a quarter-century of blissful servitude. There was the war itself, which provided valuable training in how to waste time without sinking into madness, a most valuable skill to master as I later learned that wasting time in some capacity or another comprised the balance of the ordinary adult’s day, no matter their allotted occupation. And I really felt the presence of God there in the deserts of Arabia, even as the Arabs were slicing off the heads of people who professed belief in Christ at the exclusion of Allah, who was anyways also Christ’s God. There was the first child’s first bout with leukemia, which drove home the point that no matter how poorly things might seem to be going, they can always get worse. God was most gracious in rendering that lesson for me, because only eight years later, the boy’s leukemia came back. But I was well prepared for it the second time, almost as if I had spent my whole life being prepared by God for that moment in time. And as the kid had finally gotten better a few years after taking another bone marrow transplant, but was still so frail and sick that we were never far away from reminders of God’s grace, I well understood I had so much to be thankful for. Tears welled up in my eyes, a lump lodged in my throat and my breast swelled nearly to bursting at the sense of gratitude at God’s grace in my life up to then, and at the boundless possibilities carried into the sanctuary on those sunbeams that day.

I wanted desperately to believe that man could be better than it appears is his lot. I wanted to prove as much of myself, and become gooder than I was, and figured there was no better vehicle for the purpose than involvement in a do-gooder organization engaged in missionary work. I followed the crowd downstairs to the fellowship hall at the conclusion of the service. I knew even then it was an exercise in futility, but I’m a stubborn, recalcitrant study. The heart, which is mostly utterly stupid except when it warns away an emotional entanglement, which when its impulses should be always followed, wants what it wants. On that spring day, it wanted for a moment to believe that the dialectic, the war of all against all, could enjoy an occasional truce.

There were booths lined up through the middle and sides of the hall, touting service opportunities for everything from building and repairing houses, to helping with a child’s clothing donation center, to helping out at the local homeless shelter. The one that caught my eye was a ministry for, as the paperwork described it, “internationals”. It was located in an abandoned church only a few miles away, and ran a food bank, but had as its primary focus teaching English to adults who spoke a different first language. I thought to myself, “Well now, I speak and write English fairly to middlingly well—surely I could help someone at least gain a passable fluency in it. Yes, I thought. I could do this. It might even be fun.” So I signed up with the elderly gentleman manning the booth who turned out to be the principal in the organization. Looking down at me over his glasses and across from a distended belly characteristic of so many older males in Alabama and elsewhere, even among the teetotaler, i.e., non-beer-drinking crowd (or, especially among the teetotaler crowd, as they also only rarely smoke, and smoking, for all its faults, helps keep off the weight), he gave me one of his business cards and a date and time to show up for classes.

I have never believed in altruism. I have never believed that anything is ever done for purely altruistic purposes. I’ll readily admit that there’re lots of things that are done in order for the person doing them to appear altruistic, because appearing to be altruistic is, ironically, one of the best ways to achieve one’s selfish ends. But nothing is ever done for someone else without which some benefit accrues to the account of the doer. It might simply that the do-gooder has a good feeling about themselves, or it might be that the do-gooder more cynically calculates how doing good will enhance his status in the community. Whatever is the individual cost-benefit calculus, the fact remains—all do-gooders do good because doing good enhances the do-gooder’s welfare somehow.

At the same time that altruism exists only in myth, it seems everyone, me included, wants to believe in it. All would desperately like to buy into the lie that people are something other than selfish, but down in their lizard brains where the essence of their being lives, they know better. So they’re skeptical of apparently unselfish acts, except those that they border on the extreme in apparent unselfishness (falling on a grenade to protect a squad of soldiers in battle, e.g.). In other words, even people who would love to believe that human beings are capable of altruism have to climb a wall of doubt over what the unrevealed motives might be, before they’ll accept an act as altruistic. So Robert, the head of the Great Savings Ministry (“GS” or “Ministry” hereafter) nonprofit where I signed up to help teach English that Sunday morning, was naturally skeptical of my motives. It appeared that I had nothing to gain from the transaction, and that drove his suspicions even stronger. And he was at least superficially correct in his assessment of what I might gain from the transaction. I hadn’t much to gain, in the ordinary sense of gain that do-gooders have.

I had no status at my home church worth protecting or enhancing. It was something of a mega-church and I knew almost no one except by face, and only those from having seen them at the services through sitting close by in our regular pew. The church had no assigned seating, but the pews were definitively burdened with various ownership interests for each service. We made the mistake one time of sitting at our regular pew for a later service than we normally attended and suffered a violent confrontation, if one done in complete silence through threatening bodily gestures and angry daggers shooting from the eyes. I actually wondered whether I might receive a Christ-like shove to the floor from a seventy-year- old woman if we didn’t move. Christ never talked much about the need to turn that cheek, I suppose. But we learned our lesson—always go a bit late to services not ordinarily attended so that all the pew claims will have been re-staked by arrival. Fortunately the impact of the confrontation was lessened because I personally knew none of the antagonists.

I had no friends at the church and didn’t want any. I had utterly loathed the last time I’d been involved in an adult Sunday school class at a previous church, suffering all the spiritual whininess and cockeyed theologies that a bunch of bored soccer moms and their quietly desperate husbands could dredge from the backwaters of their psyches. So I didn’t have anyone who might become aware of my “altruism” in a proper, status-enhancing way, though Robert wasn’t so much aware of that at the time—he was just suspicious because do-gooders are always suspicious of the motivations of others, as they always must cynically pretend that their own motivations are unselfish in order to enhance their status through doing good. Do-gooders understand and are suspicious of pretentions to selflessness because they are living, breathing pretentions to selflessness.

While talking to Robert at GS I bumped into an acquaintance, Suzanne—the parent of one of my son’s friends and one of those church and community busy-bodies—who after the initial cordialities, spent a considerable time making up excuses as to why she couldn’t get involved in the GS program, without my having even asked. She blubbered on in her rationalizations, but we both knew, perhaps her only subconsciously, but still, that the reason she couldn’t and wouldn’t help with GS is because volunteering with GS had no social currency. It would do nothing to enhance her status among the social groups that had settled into legitimacy in her heart, so she could no more have helped out GS than she could have run away to become a nun. True to suburban socialite norm, she never voluntarily did anything that held no promise of status enhancement among her chosen tribes. I mention Suzanne not to denigrate her, but to explain why nobody from my church except me took the GS volunteering bait that day.

But, dear reader, you may by now be thinking in the same manner as Robert—a bit skeptical at my intentions—wondering as to really why I decided to volunteer, doubting that momentary moment of inspiration as insufficient to compel such a thing. The chain of logic is twisted to the point of superficial irrationality, but the main points go something like this: I had no job, having quit mine to take care of my son during his last bone marrow transplant. I didn’t want or need a job, as I had made a lot of money in my previous job, and my wife, who had voluntarily gone back to work full-time before the transplant, had worked all the way through it and still was. We didn’t need any money. What I needed, the same as every bored housewife needs, was something to do besides Oprah or valium. I figured some volunteer work might be the ticket, and given my love for my own native language (else I wouldn’t be writing this), thought that teaching others who are new to it might actually be a fun and interesting way to spend some portion of my time. I had no delusions of saving the world, or of improving my status through altruism—nothing of the sort. I just sought a more enjoyable way to waste time. I essentially sought what Apple and Samsung and Google and Twitter, and etc., sell—wasting time in a manner that at least feels more poignant and important than watching the flickering embers of a fire in the evening, or reading a book, or gazing at the stars like our ancestors might have done before electricity lit up the night and relieved us of much of the burden of living during the day. But I personally find all that social media nonsense to be a trifling and banal means of wasting time. I really don’t care about how great your kids are, or how wonderful your exotic vacation was, or about how you think your unrequited love for me in high school should now be requited simply because of a social media platform, even while we both have spouses who might think poorly of such a thing, and we had every opportunity to requite the passion back then and didn’t and there must have been a good reason as to why. But I figured helping people learn the language would be at least as enjoyable as all the other time-wasting strategies of which I was aware, both ancient and near. So I put on my happy, do-gooder, save-the-world face (so I’d have a chance at fitting in with my fellows in the business), and showed up a week later for my first class.

Sharon, Robert’s wife, was in charge of the English as a Second Language (in the vernacular, “ESL”) program at GS. I quickly realized that she and Robert either did not talk much, or did not listen well when they did, or both. Sharon was quite surprised when I showed up on Robert’s recruitment, as if she had no idea what he was out and about doing. I told her what I had come for and she formed a most perplexed look on her aging features, as if she were flipping quickly through her files to see under which one she might find me, repeatedly coming up empty. After a time of confusion, she finally found the standby file in her brain, and stammered and stumbled through explaining how she needed me to fill out an application. “Now there was a new one,” I thought, “an application to work but for a job that paid nothing.”

I sat down at one of the cafeteria tables and started filling things in on the obviously word-processed two pages of the application. The tables were in what appeared to be the old fellowship hall of the Baptist church building and grounds that had been donated, I later found out, to the non-profit after the church had fled, like so many do, the squalor that came with urbanization, but before the onslaught of hipsters made urban squalor cool. It was on the edge of town where white privileged wealth gave way to the more desperate classes. Along the main drag leading to the church were title lenders and pawn shops and auto parts stores and a smattering of mom and pop strip-mall restaurants that ran the gamut of Oriental and Latino fare, serving everything from Korean kimchi to Salvadoran pupusas. Did I have any previous experience teaching ESL? No. Did I have any previous experience working with people of lower socioeconomic status? No, though I’m not sure what exactly was meant by lower socioeconomic status—lower than who? Me? Because no matter how much money I had ever made, which was sometimes a lot and sometimes a little, I had always felt the same inside. I have never understood how people reduced the value of a life to the income that it generated. And how does money confer status? I was born without the gene that revealed such mysteries to everyone else. Wasn’t money how machines and farm animals were quantified? Should it also be how humans valued each other? Curiously, the application never questioned my background outside of immediately relevant experience. It never even asked whether I could speak, read, write and generally understand English. It didn’t want to know what I might have been doing with my life up to the point I decided to volunteer. It looked as if it were put together in haste, more to satisfy some tax-exemption or donor requirement than to meet some actual need of the organization. It was probably only later that Sharon determined it might be gainfully deployed as a stalling tactic, when someone like me showed up with an unsolicited offer to help.

Being a novice at this English-teaching thing, I wasn’t sure what to expect through helping teach. But having learnt English to relative fluency as a child, without any formal instruction until I was almost seven years old, I figured that teaching English to an adult, whose mental capacity should be substantially greater than a child’s, ought n’ be that difficult. My parents, the same as parents everywhere, didn’t go out of their way to teach our language to me—they just let me pick it up as I went along. Presumably all the people here to take classes were fluent in their first languages, so definitely had the capacity for learning language. It seemed to me they just needed some English exposure. But then I wondered–why do they needed to come to these classes to gain it? Couldn’t English be learnt just by living in the American culture? That was certainly how I had done it as a child. Why couldn’t they? It is still possible to immerse one’s self in English in the United States of America, no?

Not knowing what to do with me, Sharon invited me to visit with a class she was substitute teaching that night—she didn’t routinely teach any of the classes, but filled in as required when the regular teachers were out.

The class was taught in the same manner as classes from elementary school on up through college are taught—with the teacher standing at the front of the class, lecturing. I was apparently too stupid to understand the brilliance of the pedagogy, because it seemed about as effective at imparting the skill of English fluency as all those classes I had taken long ago had been at imparting knowledge or skill of any form, which is to say, not very much. We have a model for language acquisition—the same model used by every human being in acquiring their first language, save a small few who suffer some mental or physical defect—by using it, just like a baby learns it. Lectures, unless printed so they could be followed along in a text, seemed pointless, and particularly so when the students haven’t achieved a basic level of fluency that would allow comprehension. But what did I know? I was there to do-good, and apparently this was good, even if perhaps not so much from the perspective of the ones to whom the good was being administered. I kept my mouth shut and soldiered on, not impeding Sharon, who was do-gooding in the old-fashioned, Waspish way—by inflicting pain to gain achievement. No pain, no gain, as body-builders and stern Presbyterian schoolmarms might say.

As I sat with my mind idled at the boredom that watching such pain infliction entails, I couldn’t recall any pain for the language when I acquired it. Maybe after acquisition, and a few salty phrases spat in a school girl’s face just to make her cry, did I remember pain. But that involved having learnt the language too well at such a tender age, to the point of knowing its, ahem, nonstandard words and phrases and using them tragically and comically (because I only sketchingly knew what they meant), but in a manner sufficient to get the little girl’s mom on the phone to my mom, and eventually, a few strikes of a paddle on to my backside. Other than that, there was no pain at all for having learned the language. It was a riotous joy as a child to learn how to communicate with more than grunts and squeals and screams and finger-pointing. And nothing before or since has rivaled learning how to read and write. It wasn’t pain. It was the greatest joy imaginable. Leave it to that deep strain of Calvinism lingering still in the majority British/Scots cum American psyche to make every task a chore to be endured, and to rank every accomplishment in direct proportion to the pain and suffering required for its achievement. The more pain, the more gain it seems is where the logic leads, but fortunately, it’s not actually true. Just because Sharon didn’t know as much didn’t make it any less a fallacy. I knew that learning English, or anything else, could be fun, or at least something less painful than a root canal, which is about what I felt I had endured after an hour of Sharon’s lecturing.

There were a few more weeks of the same, except that after the first session with Sharon, I visited all the remaining classes at GS, one by one—the students were parceled into five levels of fluency. The highest level learners were the most fun, as they could actually ask intelligent questions about the subtleties that nuances in grammar and vocabulary sometimes presented. The best question was from a Chinese woman, who had overheard two coworkers discussing a third, describing her as “humble”. She went home and asked her English-fluent daughter (as so many of the children of the adults in these classes were) what it meant. Her daughter told her that it meant the woman was wise.

As we explained to her in class, ‘humble’ is an unusual way in today’s society to describe someone in a complimentary way—people here, much more so than in China it seems—celebrate brashness, hubris, self-aggrandizing displays and the like. Humble connotes meekness, and though this may be a nation founded on Christian principles, nobody here anymore believes that the meek shall inherit the earth as believes that New Testament strictures (turn the other cheek) were meant to trump the Old (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). After all, Jesus said he came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. Had Christ not been Jewish, incorporating within Christianity the Torah and its stern precepts governing social and individual behavior and turned to the purpose—nation building—for which they were originally written for the Hebrews, it’s likely that nobody today, with the possible exception of the Muslims, who don’t consider Christ a deity but respect him as a prophet, would even know he had ever lived.

But what of the connection between humility and wisdom? The Chinese lady was having difficulty understanding it, but probably only for her limited vocabulary, rather than for a reasoning capacity limited by her culture. With a proper vocabulary, she would have had no problem understanding that anyone who is wise must also be humble, because the starting point for wisdom is humility. It’s doubtful, even with a proper vocabulary, that there are many Americans, especially many hubris-besotted Americans of indeterminate European ancestry (i.e., whites), who could understand that wisdom and humility are two sides of the same coin of understanding regarding mankind’s place in the cosmos, and of his relationship to a being (God) who he considers as having omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. The wise and humble man realizes he is none of those things that God is; that he is a finite creature with finite capabilities and existence, and that he could only ever perceive an entity with those attributes as if through a looking glass, darkly. Ironically, the Chinese Confucian has a better cultural foundation for grasping the idea of Yahweh than does the American Christian. So it wasn’t terribly difficult, after getting over the vocabulary hump, to explain wisdom and humility to a woman raised in what is still a Confucian culture that celebrates wisdom and humility. America loathes the very idea of wisdom. It is infantile in the extreme. It worships anything new and different, even if the new and different are decidedly less desirable than the old and familiar. Elsewise, explain leisure suits.

Of course, that more Chinese are learning English than English speakers are learning Chinese is at least partly for the advancements than can obtain when the past is discarded. The Chinese language is so insufferably difficult for non-native speakers to learn that there is very little chance of it ever enjoying the international status afforded English. And it is so difficult to learn precisely because the hidebound Chinese have until now refused to abandon their manner of writing where ideographic symbols are used to denote syllables, and further, have refused to allow the written language to adapt to the manner in which it is actually spoken. Ideographic writing is a system of writing that preceded alphabetic writing such as in English, where letters represent sounds, and the Chinese were one of the first civilizations to develop writing. English, however, has become a bit ideographic, as the pronunciations of words have often so far strayed from their spellings that it is sometimes of very little help in pronunciation to know the spelling. Writing changes more slowly than speaking, and might not change much at all if there is a powerful administrative bureaucracy devoted, either explicitly or implicitly, to its stability, such as there has been in China these last 2,000 or so years, and in Britain and the US for about 500 between them. Since the Chinese writing system was ossified at a much earlier age than was English, it by now is almost a language unto itself. The Chinese are determined that their archaic writing system will not be cast upon the ash heaps of history, which is why when they step foot out of China, they seek to learn English, the language that has become the world’s lingua franca. I offer this little tidbit to show that it helps to know a bit of the big picture, such as a thumbnail sketch of the relationship between English and Chinese, of whatever project one becomes involved with, but I didn’t get the sense that such things were commonly understood or acknowledged among any of the teachers whose classes I visited, even if a couple of trips to the library were rather helpful in that regard for me.

In all the classes I visited, I was treated moderately well, but, in something of an extension of Robert’s skepticism at why I wanted to help, I was not welcomed. At best, I was tolerated without overt hostility. Teachers are a naturally territorial bunch when it comes to their classroom authority and the influence they have over their charges. I found the impulse to territoriality magnitudes greater when the territory is less clearly defined, and when authority and influence are more tenuously grasped, as is the case with teaching ESL to adults. All that ESL teachers really know anything about that they could teach to these adults was the English language, something which pretty much any reasonably-literate English-speaking native could do, or for that matter, something that their fluent children might do. In a manner not likely so powerful in a formal classroom setting where the authority of the teacher is bestowed by state certification and her age relative to the students, my presence must have seemed a clear and present danger to the teacher’s authority and influence. Even though I tried to assure the teachers that I was just visiting and trying to learn a bit about the program and how I might do some good through my involvement in it, they were quite wary of me and my intentions.

In fact, thinking about it in hindsight, I’ve bought drinks for women who were less suspicious of my motives (sometimes actually seeming to believe me when I said I just wanted to talk) than were these do-gooders of my interest in wanting to help teach English. What sort of ulterior motive did they imagine I might have in volunteering to teach English as a second language, for free? Perhaps they thought I was secretly recruiting suicide bombers for a terrorist ISIS cell I was implanting right there in the middle of Alabama. Or maybe they figured that since they were otherwise doing good vis a vis the internationals, they could go on treating their native brethren like dirt—what a refreshing thing I imagined it might be to have been on the other side of the international divide, where the pettiness of cliquishness and class and social stratification among these people didn’t exist. GS was a Christian ministry, founded by a couple who was heavily involved in one of the large, local Baptist churches, from which almost all the ministry’s workers (save me) were drawn. But my first few weeks trying to help out left me feeling like a tax collector or a prostitute without their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ standing by to intervene on my behalf.

And I hadn’t really even done anything, yet. I had gotten in on the tail end of the ESL program’s annual term, which roughly mirrored the school calendar, so had only made a few of the classes, which met once a week in the evenings, and only as a visitor.

In the summer between the session, the ministry held a one-week bible school for the kids of their adult ESL students that I was invited by its head, Meredith, to help with. Meredith was the only one at GS who ever seemed pleased that I was willing to help the ministry, so I figured I ought to show my commitment to do-gooderism by agreeing to help out. This would be difficult. As soon as my kids had gotten past grammar school, my tolerance for grammar school age children had shriveled to nearly nothing. Once the chore of raising one’s own children is complete, for more parents than would admit, the squeals and howls of the children of others sound something like fingernails on a blackboard. I committed to helping with one of the classes, and did, but felt something like a bull in a china shop, tiptoeing around all the delicate sensibilities of the children, and particularly, those of the other teachers. It was either beyond awkward, doing silly songs that had accompanying choreography, like swinging one’s arms like an elephant’s trunk, or it was painful, listening to the high-pitched whine of the lead teacher, who ended every sentence with an upward lilt of her tone like a Valley girl ends every sentence as a question.
Similar to so many others that I had run across in this do-gooder community for the internationals, the lead teacher treated the recent immigrants’ children as if they were stupid for not having had the good fortune of being born in the US of A and learning English as natives (though some were surely born in the US and all spoke near-native English). She was a retired school teacher who seemed to believe that her ministry teaching the international kids at bible school was just part of the burden she carried with her racial and cultural superiority. To her mind, it no doubt was Manifest Destiny, i.e., a destiny manifested by God’s design that propelled the European races past all the others, that landed her in that classroom. This was just as God had designed things, with her, in all her vainglorious pallor, standing before her brown-skinned charges teaching them how to be more like Americans, because Western values and mores, as embodied in the American ideal, were demonstrably the best.

I suffered through a week of doing good through the children’s bible school, hurrying home, each evening to wash away the slimy coat of do-gooderism left by the day’s pretentions. Then finally, when the fall session of ESL classes rolled around, I figured I might get the chance to do what I had volunteered for. After all, I had taken the one day certification for teaching ESL at the local literacy council and done everything else asked of me in order that I might be allowed to do that for which I had originally volunteered. I was also a graduate of a top law school, and before that, a graduate with highest honors of one of the state’s leading institutions of higher education (which the Ministry did not know about, because it never asked), and a native speaker of the language who had successfully helped two people learn it already (i.e., my children).

But first, there would be more Herculean tests of my commitment to doing good. Another part of the GS ministry was a food bank, which, translated from the politically correct world of do-gooding, means that it had a program for giving out free food to people who ostensibly needed food. The manner with which this worked was that GS got a donation of food from a community food bank who had received the donated food from various food retailers or distributors, or even directly from the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture still (ever since it started doing so during the Great Depression) buys up excess food to support the prices farmers and others receive for their output, and then doles out the excess food to people too poor to afford the prices its policies have artificially inflated. It has apparently never considered that it might simply let prices settle where they may, with no price supports or food donations. The prices might even settle at a level where food becomes affordable for a great many who can’t now afford it because of their policies. On a much grander scale, the Department uses the same market-queering strategy in its food bank operations as it does in doling out food stamps for people to use in buying food whose price has been supported through agricultural subsidies.

But the food bank doesn’t just dole out food to anyone. It only gives out food to people who have been properly vetted by a social service agency, usually of the state government, but in any event, one that passes muster with the Department of Agriculture (else it won’t allow the community food bank to donate to the ministry). The Ministry’s food bank “clients”, thus vetted, are assigned a particular Wednesday (1st, 2nd , etc.–Wednesday is the only day the GS food bank is open) of the month to come and receive their allotment, the amount of which is determined by how many are in their household and how much food is available for distribution. The process for determining who is eligible is very effective at ensuring the truly hungry (the homeless, etc.) have little hope of getting free food. You have to have an address to be vetted by the social service agencies, and the truly needy don’t have them.

After helping with the food bank a couple of times, I quickly surmised that the client list of GS mainly included morbidly obese black women, who would pick through the donuts and bagels and pastries in the bread line like concentration camp prisoners, ignoring their own bodies’ desperate, diabetic pleas for relief from the onslaught of un-process-able, nutritionally-empty carbohydrates. Many of them had canes for walking, no doubt because the diabetes left their circulation so poor that their feet no longer worked. One woman shunned the bagels (in this case directly donated by a local, hipsterish-cool bagel shop that made bagels the size of bread loaves) because of “the diabetes”, she said, while balancing her goodie bag in one hand and her cane in the other. Instead, she reached for the tray of pastries.

The notion of doing good through charity work grew ever more problematic for me. What good is there in giving a morbidly obese person food? The food bank seemed more like a methadone clinic for food addicts, where they came to get their caloric fixes to keep the DT’s from setting in. How is this helping anyone? At the very least, couldn’t we refuse to dispense two-pound, carbohydrate-loaded bagels to people who are so obese that simply moving about presents serious life challenges?
While it’s true that nobody can be helped that doesn’t want help, is it then okay to harm them by enabling their addictions? Food is the most heavily abused drug in the world and has been ever since its abundance meant there was always more of it than sustaining life required, which is to say, in most places, for the last century or so. There have been famines, but practically all of them since the end of the 19th century can be traced to either governmental stupidity or its nefarious intent. Not much of anyone has lately starved except that their government was too stupid or too evil to allow them to be fed.

I did a few weeks of the food bank, but really, my heart was never in it. Aside from the dubiousness of the need it purportedly served, there were always more than enough workers to get the food distributed without my help. I was mainly in the way, which forced Mary, the spry little firecracker of a seventy-year-old woman who ran the place, to find me something to do so that I wouldn’t be bored, taking her time away from doing something that might actually be useful, beyond fulfilling some psychic need of mine to feel useful.

The first rule of charity work, or of life generally, should be a synecdoche of the physician’s creed—do no harm. By volunteering where I wasn’t needed for a service that filled a need that didn’t really exist (except perhaps the need for people to feel good about themselves handing out what seemed like life-saving sustenance that was instead poison), it felt like I was doing a doubly harmful thing. I wasn’t doing good—my actions, though arising from what I considered a pure and untarnished impulse to waste time in a more or less productive manner, were actually accomplishing evil. But it’s something like my old football coach used to say when I’d miss a block and plead an excuse—the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case it wasn’t for lack of execution that my good intentions were leading me and the ministry and its clients to hell. I hadn’t missed my block. I was doing exactly as the ministry intended. It’s that the ministry failed to see how their strategy of doing good, while immensely popular among both the clients and the workers, and even generally considered to be good among the general public, was in fact harmful. The clients needed love, but not the sort of love that equates to indulgence. They needed some tough love. For most of them, the best thing that could happen would be the food occasionally running out. If there were anything I might have offered them, it’s that food is only really enjoyable when you are good and truly hungry. If food is your drug, the less often you take it, the better is the high it affords. Lay off the hipster bagels. They’re not for you. Not even the hipsters would be fitting into their skinny jeans if they ate those things all the time.

After a few weeks of helping out at the food bank, the new year of the ESL program finally rolled around. I was hopeful that I might finally get to do what I had aimed to do when embarking on this little adventure. Not so fast, said Sharon, through her actions, if not her words. Except for listening to what she did, I could never have understood a thing she said. She put me in a class of basic level learners, paired with another someone she knew from church, who was to be the lead teacher. I hadn’t quite figured out by then, but clearly see it now, that there was no way I would ever be allowed to be the lead teacher for any of the GS Ministry’s English classes. It had nothing to do with my teaching skills and everything to do with my lack of in-group status.

The GS Ministry, though it otherwise claimed independence, was, like most small ministries of its sort, a subsidiary of a local church, in this case, the Baptist church where Sharon and Robert were members. It culled practically all of its volunteers from the Church. As such, it would have been hard-pressed to justify allowing a non-church member teach, unless their usurpation could be attributed to superior credentials (always a pertinent thing in the teaching profession, even as most teaching credentials are next to worthless in revealing competencies and are only relevant for the authority they are believed to convey), as the credentials could diffuse somewhat the bigotry (in the broadest sense of the word, which holds that bigotry is simply favoring one’s own group over others) that church members felt towards non-members, but even then, there would have been resistance. The people from the church who were volunteering did so because it enhanced their status within the church, which in turn aided their chances of getting to heaven.

To return tangentially to the original exegesis on why I took my kids to church, ever since mankind discovered his own mortality, he has been striving for ways around it. The idea of an eternal heaven, accessible only by the true believers (if Baptist) or by the chosen (if Presbyterian) or through the Pope (if Catholic), has been one of many he has conjured for relieving him of the unbearable lightness of being. The idea of heaven, or specifically, of striving to attain it, is one means of quelling the anxious feeling of gnawing emptiness that has afflicted man since he first gained conscious knowledge of his own death. And if doing good at the GS Ministry enhanced the chance to get to heaven through the intercession of the Baptist church from where it culled its volunteers, then what was I doing there, taking up a do-gooder slot that could have been used for a church member to better their odds? For if the church could be seen as a collective, cooperative enterprise devoted to seeing its members to heaven, and the GS Ministry as a vehicle employed to enhance the chances its members might do just that, then my presence at the Ministry could only be considered an unwelcome intrusion, a diversion of the church’s and Ministry’s resources from their ultimate ends.

It was through a bared-tooth smile that Sharon told me of my appointment to teach with Janie, and assured me after I expressed some doubts, that of course my services were needed and desired—that Janie would be taking off in November to go to Peru for vacation so it was desperately important to have me assist in the meantime.

I found Janie, a rather, large (in the sense of tall and big—not obese) ginger complexioned woman, in her mid-fifties, never married and with no children, to be rather disagreeable. It was clear from the very beginning that she did not want me there. And so it took no time at all until I decided that neither did I wish to be there. But I had made a commitment, so I stuck it out, which mainly meant sitting idly by in one of the chairs at the front of the class, biding time while I and the students listened impassively to a lecture on some very basic aspect (“this” means close by, “that” is further away) or another of the English language.

The first rule for Janie’s class was that only English would be spoken while in class. All the students spoke Spanish as their first language. Janie probably didn’t even know what como estas meant, which meant her rule conveniently alleviated any need for her to try to meet the students in the middle somewhere, or for her to even take a stab at learning something new.

I found it a common thing for ESL teachers to bar any other language but English in their classrooms. But if a class has speakers of several different languages present, then the rule is mostly unnecessary, as the students would likely have little in common except a bit of English. If, however, the class is fortunate enough to have just one native tongue, then refusing to use the student’s first language to teach them their second is tantamount to teaching malpractice. Put another way, if I were seeking to learn Spanish, all the teaching and instruction materials provided me would use English to further along my learning of Spanish. Why then doesn’t it work the other way for English language learners who speak Spanish, as everyone in Janie’s class did? Simply because so few native English speakers—the people teaching these classes–have learnt another language. Why would they? They already know the international lingua franca.

Janie’s attitude about her student’s first language was hostile and condescending. She seemed to feel that since she wasn’t the one who had bothered moving to the United States she shouldn’t have to bother with learning their language. It was an attitude typical of mid-level bureaucrats (which she had been, having served as an insurance adjuster in her main career) in any of the various empires scattered throughout history over the globe. The Romans didn’t bother learning the tongue of the Barbarians, instead expecting them to learn Latin. With the exception of Greek, they couldn’t be bothered to learn any other language, and knowing Greek was considered the rough equivalent to knowing French during the early days of the British cum American empire—it was expected of the elite, operating as both an indicia and a protector of status. The Chinese still generally refuse to learn anything but one or more of the various dialects of Chinese, but why should they? So long as they know the predominant dialect (a Beijing derivative) the whole of China, with its 1.3 billion people, is open to them. And the Middle Kingdom, until late, has always been more concerned with its own affairs than those of the world.

People have always used their mastery of a language, even if the mastery is an accident of birth, to confer status. To Janie, the fact that she knew English and was teaching it to others was nothing less than an expression of the superiority of the culture into which she was (accidentally) born, and particularly of her exalted status as a medium-level bureaucrat within that culture. All successful empires have conferred undue status on their subjects (and on their official languages). A very average knuckleheaded British schoolboy could grow up and go to India during the Raj and live the life of a royal potentate, just for the good fortune of having been born British. Knuckleheaded Americans luxuriate today in their mid-to-upper level technocrat/bureaucrat jobs without much of any clue as to how life for them had so easily turned out so well, not understanding that without the accident of their birth as American, they would be scraping to survive in the same manner as the vast multitudes outside of the empire now do.

So far as Janie was concerned, the universe was right and proper and secure so long as her large self (which through size and volume, projected something of a larger than life image in front of the classroom and seemed a perfect expression all that being American meant) was justly positioned among its ruling American elite, including standing in front of the whiteboard, lecturing to her brown-skinned pupils on this or that vagary of the English language. Janie’s classroom was British colonial imperialism, with its stratified hierarchies and noblesse oblige all over again.

Janie had not, like most of the Hispanics in the class, gathered her family and sallied off to an unknown land in order to stake out a better claim for herself and her family. (She hadn’t any family, in fact, which made her lecturing to the students on how to raise children seem a bit preposterous as most of the students were parents). She essentially had inherited everything remarkable that she might claim, and lorded that fact over those less fortunate than her just like a spoiled trust fund baby might.

As an extension of her imperial attitude, she made a mistake common among language groups about people who don’t yet fully know their language—that people who have only a child’s mastery of the language are children in all other realms, no matter their age. This is obviously not so, but language skills constitute so powerful a categorization criteria in the mind that it often must be consciously overcome, which teachers of the language should readily understand and accomplish. People who are adults in their first language are adults through and through, even as they pass through the child’s stage of mastery in their second language. But for Janie, ugly American imperialist queen as she was, there was never any attempt, consciously or otherwise, to quell the instinct to treat her adult charges as children, as it appeared that was what she more or less considered them to be.

It was a dreadful year. Janie clearly did not want me there. We managed a compromise on the English-only rule—I kept a Spanish-English dictionary handy to look up words we were trying to explain, but that was about as cordial as things got. Even she eventually came around to the idea that it is so much quicker when trying to define or describe an English word if, instead of using the English language, you simply find the equivalent word in the person’s native language. But our relationship deteriorated quickly to outright antagonism after one class where Jane had attempted to explain that failing to understand English might lead to being killed by an estranged spouse. There had been an incident in the news in New York about a woman killed by her spouse, after she had tried to file a police report in Spanish, but it had never been translated. The story and its sensationalized headline made out that the woman’s murder was the result of the failure in translation. After Janie spent the class trying to use the story and the fear it elicited to sell the virtues of learning English, I told her (once the students were gone) that I thought the story and its premise was nonsense. Women are killed all the time by ex-husbands and ex-lovers/boyfriends, no matter how clear is the English they use to communicate their fears to the police. Once a man sets his mind to killing his former sexual partner, there is precious little can be done to prevent it. I objected to her attempt to scare the students into wanting to learn English, pointing out that there were many positive reasons for learning English that didn’t include the fear of being killing by an ex-husband/boyfriend because a police report failed in the translation. Filing a complaint with the police can only do so much.

She was apparently not accustomed to people disagreeing with her. She had a forceful, overbearing personality, again, quite representative of the empire she implicitly represented. Most people probably just avoided anything hinting at controversy around her, so far as they were able, so she never became accustomed to suffering disagreement or justifying herself. I figured with as much as I was being paid to put up with her (which was nothing, mind you, except the joy of helping people learn English, which she was impossibly impeding), that I had the right to have my own opinions not be trampled and obscured in cloud of dust kicked up by hers. We barely talked after that week she lectured on the spousal abuse issue. And from then on, when she’d lecture, she’d turn her backside of quite ample width to me, and strut forward of the first line of desks, so that she might more effectively ignore my presence.

I think she felt threatened from the very beginning by my presence in the classroom, in much the same manner as all the other teachers when I had visited their classrooms the year before. I believe she thought I had a mind to usurp her power and authority—that I was competing with her for the attention and affection of the students. But I had never given her any reason to suppose such a thing. I practically kowtowed to her every whim in the first weeks of my service with her. It was only after she had taken a month-long vacation, leaving me in charge of the class, that I started to assert my own prerogatives, and not to her detriment in power or authority, or to supplant her teaching, but to supplement it.

By the time the ESL classes ended for that term, it had been a little more than a year since that fateful moment of inspiration at church that fine spring day. I have no regrets for having acted, perhaps foolishly, on the inspiration. I say “foolishly” because all hopes that are even remotely precipitated on ideas that require a different nature for mankind than actually exists are doomed to failure. And as is common at the inception stage of a great many endeavors of mine (and others, to be sure), there may have been in me the slightest twinge of giddiness that teaching English to foreigners might be the one area of endeavor capable of alleviating some of the droll banalities of man’s self-interested nature. Of course, it was not to be. Humans are everywhere and always the same. They are not capable of altruism, but only of feigning an altruistic heart, a highly valued skill that everyone wants to possess, but only secretly. None of the do-gooders were doing good for anyone but themselves. Within the do-gooder organization, all the petty hierarchies and cliques and clannishness and gossip-mongers were as prevalent as in any sort of organization. The only difference between a non-profit organization like the GS Ministries and a for-profit organization like a too-big-to-fail bank was the manner with which profits were measured. Both organizations existed, like all others, to continue to exist. The people within them were valued by the organization according to the contributions they made to the organization’s prospects for continued existence.

The whole affair was a bit depressing, while at the same time, enlightening. Even I, skeptical as I am, like to occasionally suspend disbelief and imagine that people can be something more than selfish little survival and propagation machines. I have now yet another example that no effort or purpose is so compelling that it can support a suspension of such disbelief for long. Just as we must spend all our moments subject to the laws of a gravitational force we barely understand, we must spend our lives relentlessly driven by evolutionary laws we similarly only vaguely comprehend. We must dance the dance of survival and propagation, to an eternally playing tune. There is no escaping it. Not in our schools or churches or governments, or even charities.

It would be trite to say that we are flawed, fallen individuals because of our inability to rise above our selfish prerogatives and practice true altruism, a position that roughly equates to the Judeo Christian doctrine of original sin. But I don’t buy original sin. It can’t be that an all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing creator somehow flubbed when we were created. No, we were meant to be selfish. But the same reasoning brain that allows us to peer in the future and imagine our own deaths also allows us to understand that we better our own selfish prospects for survival and propagation when we help others with theirs.

But my year of living charitably wasn’t a complete fail. Even as serving charity or God or some notion of good could be just as disheartening as any other cooperative endeavor involving human beings, who inevitably and always will behave in decidedly ungodly, uncharitable ways, it was better than watching Oprah or popping valiums or doing the Facebook all day to get by. I didn’t do much good, but neither do I think (with the exception of the food bank) I did much bad. It was probably a wash. It was meh, like pretty much everything else–the best can be hoped for.

The Fed’s supply side economics

Is it possible that an economic system based soley upon a monetary rejiggering of its asset prices can flourish? Essentially, that’s what the US (and Western Europe and Japan) has about now. Asset prices have marched relentlessly upward as the supply of assets shrivels relative to the supply of money available for their purchase. Just today, the S & P 500 reached another all-time high, this its first time above 2,000, which marks the umpteenth time it has breached an all-time high in this latest, longest-ever, bull run.

Any asset whose purchase price can be financed, which is to say, pretty much all of them, has hardly paused for a breath over the last five years while climbing two and three times their prices before the Great Recession, which was itself caused by two decades of Federal Reserve monetary mischief, which ironically yielded the most expansive, accommodative monetary policy ever seen in the US.

The Fed should be ecstatic. All of its policies are bearing fruit. Happy days, like it always knew, were just around the corner of easy money street.

Or, at least happy days are here again for the Fed’s most precious constituents—the bankers and the people they lend money to. Bloomberg recently reported that junior bankers on Wall Street stand to get salary increases of 20% or so this year, reputedly to stave off the chance they might defect to other banks. A junior banker on Wall Street is essentially an analyst—a number cruncher who evaluates whether or not a deal or investment is worth doing. When the Fed is doling out free money, and backing either implicitly or explicitly, every last dime of whatever nefarious thing might be done with the free dough by bankers, a monkey shitting in his hand and throwing it at the wall could do the work of a Wall Street junior (or senior) banker.

The rest of the hoi polloi aren’t being so graciously rewarded this year, and haven’t been for, oh, the last half century or so. Wages are stagnant, as they have been since the seventies, barely keeping up with headline inflation, which covers consumer items but not assets bought with borrowed money. The people are getting enough to pay for groceries and electricity while living in some crummy dump, but can’t dream of owning anything of long term value, like a house, because Greenspan, Bernanke and now, Yellen have seen to it that assets they might like to own would always be like that golden ring—just out of reach. Indeed, interest rates are low, but prices for financial assets are the inverse of interest rates—the lower is the rate for money borrowed to buy them, the higher goes the price.

Essentially what is happening in this country is a huge experiment, far greater than Reagan supposedly conducted, in supply side economics. There is a greater disparity in wealth and income distribution today than at any time since the 1920’s. The rich own the assets upon whose continuous appreciation this house of cards depends.

Like the gilded age of yore, the rich are getting fantastically rich; the middle class are becoming poor and the poor are hopeless. There’s not much wealth trickling down, but gushers of it denying gravity to flow uphill.

And in a sense, it is exactly that—a force as strong as gravity—which must be denied for income and wealth inequalities such as are seen in the US, which at a .477 Gini coefficient, is about 25th from the worst, i.e., from being the most unequal. Income in the US is distributed a bit less equally than it is in China, but a sliver better than in sub-Saharan Africa and most of Latin America. Concentrations of wealth or of income are meaningless without which some gravity-defying device can be employed to keep them teetering atop the precipice. The arsenals and armories of the state must be kept well-stocked and manned in order for concentrations of wealth and income to remain so. All those jack-booted thugs seen lately on the television in Ferguson were only scratching the surface at the massive power that can be brought to bear to protect the status quo and its obscene concentrations. But the system still depends, even with all the military forces and power, that the people mainly acquiesce to its continuation. Ask the French what happens when people don’t accept the accumulations as divinely, or at least legitimately, inspired. The invention of the guillotine for use during the Reign of Terror was one of many results. The people who would be asked to put their lives on the line to defend the concentrations of wealth are not the same as the people who own the wealth.  They can easily turn their weapons on their employers.

Given that vast accumulations of wealth depend upon people accepting the legitimacy of their acquisition, since 2009, what about wealth accumulations have been legitimate? Sure, there’s Facebook and a few other social media innovators who at least seemed to have made their killings the old fashioned way, having won at a game with agreed upon rules enforced by the only impartial arbiter extant—the marketplace. What of all the rest? They are lackeys of the Federal Reserve’s program of money pandering, which has ensured not only that its favored few financial institutions that are too big to fail, won’t, but also that no one else will either. GM and Chrysler are still making cars. J.C. Penney and Sears are still selling crappy clothes and appliances. Nothing ever fails. Not even when things fail do they go away (Hostess Twinkies; Detroit). This is not a prescription for economic dynamism, particularly not when combined with the massive concentration in wealth that has accompanied it.

The tragic irony is that the rich need the poor as more than just vassals and serfs to protect and service their wealth. Every bit of what they accumulate has value because of its ability to satisfy a human need, want or desire. Every market in which they produce goods and services ultimately arises out of some human need, want or desire. When vast multitudes are left so poor they can barely survive, with the means to only barely meet their needs, let alone fancying their wants or desires, aggregate human demand, the foundation for all the accumulated riches of the wealthy, is suppressed and left wanting. Thus is the present state of the US economy.

The incessant infusions of cash in the economic system by the Fed create a grand illusion, at least among the rich, that things are going well. Prices rise, but producers mistake rising prices for expanding demand, and overproduce. Demand, already weak because of the income and wealth inequities, is oversupplied. Prices crash. The Fed prints more money to resolve the problem caused by too much money. Wash, rinse and repeat. Every post-Cold War recession has followed the same script. This one will too, because all of them are the result of the Fed trying to accommodate capitalists pursuing international wage rate arbitrage (it’s a bit complicated—a story for another day). The economy having just now returned to the pre-recession aggregate employment levels (i.e., the total number of people working, not the people who are “unemployed”), has a few months, perhaps a couple of years, before it peaks too (my guess—July of 2016, after which all hell breaks loose because in a few short months, there will be a new president). It took an excruciatingly long time to return to pre-recession employment levels this time around. Perhaps this “recovery” will also last longer.

But the grinding reality to all of it is that as the rich get richer and richer, manipulating the government to do their bidding at the expense of the people, the rest sink further down the socioeconomic scale. During and after World War Two, there was an aura, a feeling, in the US that we were all in it together. That lasted until about the first oil price shock of the seventies. Now it’s dog eat dog, and the big dogs are eating the little ones, not realizing, or perhaps just not caring, that they’re eating their own kind.

To answer the question posed at the onset, is an economic system that depends for its vibrancy on the monetary rejiggering of its asset price levels a sound and stable system?  Obviously no.  Prices are relative things whose meanings are diluted with every extra unit of currency printed.  Money never buys anything.  Only goods and services buys goods and services.  This price manipulation won’t end any better than the last half dozen or so.

Book Review: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

This is my seventeen-year-old, high-school-senior daughter’s favorite book. Followed closely by Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma, and anything else Jane Austen has written. Yes indeed, my daughter absolutely loves Jane Austen. She’s read, by her own admission, Pride and Prejudice at least a half dozen times.

My daughter is not an intellectual geek—not a library nerd with coke-bottle glasses and frumpy cardigans. She’s very stylish and a beautiful young woman (and a talented shopper, having bought enough clothes with her meager summer earnings to be able to sport a new outfit every day for the first three weeks of school). I’m only modestly biased. I’d know it, and admit it, if she were homely or bookish or nerdy. She’s not. So why this obsession over Jane Austen?

She told me to read Pride so that I might understand. I did. I am as mystified as ever. But then, I am also mystified as to the apparent obsession the literary community in general has over Pride. It seems to me that it is something like a Harlequin Romance, but set in late eighteenth century post-, or quasi-feudal manorial England, and written by someone with a good vocabulary and some decent insight into the human heart. Big Whoop.

Apparently among the landed gentry in England in those days, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or so goes the opening line to the book. I stumbled over that one, right out of the gate. Because it isn’t altogether clear to me that all single men possessed of a good fortune in any age, not just those possessed of a good fortune during Austen’s particular age, must be in want of a wife, or that even most of them are. And why must the single man have a good fortune to be in want of a wife? Does that mean that the first purchase a man wishes to make when achieves a fortune is a wife? And how does the apparent fact that he needs a good fortune to be in want of a wife reflect on the essence of the transaction? Is it then really true that all women are whores, their only distinguishing feature being their purchase price? And later on in the book appeared a man (Wickham) who had not made a fortune, but was seeking one through marriage. Austen’s truth might have been “universally acknowledged”, but that by no means made it true. It was once a universally acknowledged truth that the sun revolved around the earth.

It’s hard to tell who believes and conveys this universal truth, as it isn’t clear who the narrator of the story is, except that she has a third-person omniscience about the hearts, minds and affairs of the landed gentry in turn of the century (18th to 19th) England, but mainly sees the world from Elizabeth’s point of view.

I think the initial universal truth (that was anything but) might have been rendered by Elizabeth’s version of the story narrator’s perspective, but can’t be sure, a condition (of uncertain perspective) that prevailed for me throughout the book. Is the narrator also more or less the heroine, Elizabeth? Or is she simply a wise observer who knows that our perceptions should be Elizabeth’s perceptions? I really couldn’t tell, but I do know that if questions about the narrator’s perspective loom larger in my mind than the story itself, then I’m not getting what the author intended from the telling. Austen reputedly first titled the story “First Impressions”. My first impression of the story was much like Elizabeth’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, the difference being that I never came around to seeing the true value of its character, as Elizabeth eventually does with Mr. Darcy.

Having referenced without a proper introduction three of the story’s main characters, allow me to sketch out the plot so that I can better explain my observations (spoiler alert, don’t read further if you are one of the few people who have never read the book or seen the movie and don’t yet want to know the ending–though it is readily predictable a few pages in). Elizabeth is one of five Bennett daughters, among no sons (poor fortune that, in primogeniturical* England). Daughters are a liability in that day and age, as wealth (which is almost wholly comprised of land) is held by men. Thus arises the compulsion to find them all suitable husbands, which is the central tension undergirding the story.

Every time a new eligible male arrives in close geographic proximity (either with the Army regiment in Meryton, or in Elizabeth and Jane’s case, with Mr. Bingley, who is friends with Mr. Darcy, in Netherfield—a manor local to the Bennett’s) to Derbyshire, the Bennett girls, and all the other girls around town, get all aflutter with expectation. Mrs. Bennett sets the tone with her silliness. Mr. Bennett, on the other hand, is the only sensible creature to be found, aside from Elizabeth, whose insights as to the various intrigues make her lively. Mr. Bennett long ago distanced himself from Mrs. Bennett’s shenanigans through cynical witticisms and a private library, where he routinely retreats. For me, he is the only likable, interesting character in all the book, but is one that is only sparely sketched.

The two youngest girls, Lydia and Kate, are also the biggest flirts (for want of a better word), hanging around the Army regiment as often as possible when it is quartered nearby, chatting up the officers there (it is only officers or gentry who interest them—the vast bulk of male humanity, and the core of the regiment’s strength in this case, being invisible to their upper-crust eyes). Lydia eventually elopes with one of the officers, after the regiment has moved on to different quarters and she has been visiting as the guest of its commanding officer and his wife. This is a very big, very bad deal. It’s like the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, in the Bible. Or something. The object of her affections, Wickham, previously mentioned, had been run out of the regiment for failing to pay his debts, and sought the elopement as a covering excuse, even though the Bennett’s could nary afford to provide much of a dowry with the marriage even had Lydia and Wickham not so foolishly eloped.

The “pride” of the title refers to Mr. Darcy (or at least I think it does), who initially comes off as very pompous, when he first meets Elizabeth, at a ball or some other similar social affair these sorts of people continually attend—I really couldn’t deign to keep up. Wickham is initially thought to be the model of good manners and breeding by the girls, until Elizabeth finds out that Wickham, whose father was Mr. Darcy’s father’s manservant (or something like it) cheated Mr. Darcy, and tried to seduce his sister. Most of Mr. Darcy’s reputedly poor character and bad reputation among the girls could be ascribed to Wickham’s character assassinations, but imagine, it was Wickham who turned out to be the scoundrel. Darcy turned out to be not so prideful as Wickham turned out to be a fraud.

I’m not sure to what quarter the “prejudice” of the title should attach. I think it might be to Elizabeth, for she certainly was prejudiced against Mr. Darcy on the basis, mainly, of his reputation, but also of her first impressions of him. And she was also prejudiced to believe Wickham by his superficially suave and debonair style. But really, I can’t be sure. Truthfully, Elizabeth, who hasn’t much sense at all, still has more sense than the whole rest of the female characters in the book, combined (I’m trying to use commas as liberally as Ms. Austen, who, apparently, got a whole batch of them on sale down at the punctuation store, before she wrote the novel, which is drenched, with commas. The Brits, of that era, must have paused, quite frequently, for effect, or perhaps, to gather their thoughts.).

In the end, Elizabeth, after having first turned down Mr. Darcy’s proposal, which caught her by surprise, as did her subsequent feelings for him, ends up accepting his proposal. Elizabeth’s estimation of Mr. Darcy suspiciously changed just about the time she traveled out to his estate with her aunt and uncle and saw what great wealth he commanded and what great taste he possessed. Surely she felt that a man of such wealth and taste would be well served to purchase a bride like her, who though of lower station according to the very complicated class structure in post-feudal England that really only the English would understand, was quite his equal in every other regard. Surely! By the denouement, Jane, the sister closest to Elizabeth in age, is also married, to Mr. Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley. So Mrs. Bennett has got three of the five married off in the span of about a year, if my reading of the time line is reasonably close. Not bad work for one as silly as she. Mr. Bennett, for his part, must be particularly relieved. Ms. Austen did yeoman’s work in finding three-fifths of the Bennett clan suitable (except perhaps in Lydia’s case) mates in the span of three short “books” as she calls the sections of the novel, in what might appear to be acts in a play.

The Penguin Classics edition of the book came with not one, but two, forwards, or introductions. The first introduction, and by first I mean positioned at the front of the book before the text of the book begins— was the one written latest, by Vivien Jones. At 39 pages (if I am doing my Roman numeral interpretation correctly), with complementary notes and further references, including websites like The Jane Austen Society of North America, http.//www.jana.org/, it took two sittings to plow through. My daughter wisely never bothered to read it. I wonder though, if there is a Jane Austen Society of North America, does that mean there is one for South America and Europe, perhaps even Africa and Asia? And if there is, what in the world do these societies do?

The only memorable insight of Ms. Jones introduction was that Elizabeth exhibited the first inklings of feminism by her dash through the fields to visit her sister Jane when she fell ill at the Bingley’s. That’s not at all what I got from the episode, even after having had the idea implanted in my brain before reading it. What I got was that Elizabeth was a young, somewhat impetuous and carefree woman, as many young woman of any era certainly are, behaving just as one might expect of a young woman whose life had not yet resolved to full acquiescence to social mores and customs, ever mindful of the risk of impropriety. If that is the sort of spark that started women on the liberation movement that it appears is intended to give them the freedom to behave just as caddishly as men, then so much the better I suppose. But really, it seems more likely that Ms. Jones simply read feminism into the episode because that’s what she hoped to see. It seems Jane Austen’s writing serves as something of an ink-blot test for the literati, who reveal themselves by what they see in her writing.

The latter introduction (in the chronology of pagination, not in time—it was written in 1972, well before Ms. Jones’ introduction), penned by the now deceased Tony Tanner (you know a book has been around awhile when the intellectuals writing expositions on it are as dead as the author), also carried on for 39 pages. I wonder if that’s just coincidental. Mr. Tanner brought in all manner of meanings to the book, delving into its juxtaposition with the philosophy of Locke and Hume, for instance.

For my part, I drew very few philosophical insights from Ms. Austen. I was never aware that Locke or Hume much concerned themselves with romantic love or the social intricacies of manorial marriages, and of Hume, I’ve read most everything he published. I mainly know Locke for his political philosophy, the one that put property above all else on the rung of rights that accrue naturally to man. “Life, health, liberty and possessions” is how Locke formulated man’s natural rights, a listing that perhaps implies a hierarchy with property at the bottom, but one that was later clarified with Locke’s assertion that man has the right to extinguish the life of another to protect his property. It was Jefferson who changed Locke’s “possessions” to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence. But apparently, for Elizabeth and all the rest of the girls, the pursuit of happiness effectively equates to the pursuit of a suitable marriage partner, and suitability in marriage is in large measure determined by the amount of property he commands, so either Locke or Jefferson would do. All of the female characters in Pride are resolutely materialistic. Only the reprobate males singularly are (Wickham is only concerned with money; Darcy, hardly at all). What, I wonder does that say about Ms. Austen’s view of late 18th/early 19th century females in England? Or, am I succumbing to the Austen ink-blot test with the query?

Tanner points to Elizabeth’s opinions and impressions of Mr. Darcy, initial and otherwise, as an expression of Locke’s epistemology (the manner through which knowledge and information are obtained). Locke was an empiricist. He believed the mind of a human is a blank slate at inception, with no a priori knowledge; that all knowledge is gained through experience. But Elizabeth’s mind was hardly in a virginal, blank-slate-state by the time she met Mr. Darcy. She had the experience of some sixteen or so years in the highly ritualized and structured English society of the time. She had surely, by then, met a great number of men eligible to take her as a wife. But every of her initial conclusions about Mr. Darcy were wrong. Her sensible experiences led her to believe him a haughty and prideful. That he turned out to be quite the opposite, and that her heart was so desperately changed through her visit to his English manor, points to something Locke’s empiricism never quite properly accounts for– though the mind may be a blank slate upon which the sensory perceptions of experience write all knowledge, the impulses of the heart guide the hand of the senses that scribbles the thoughts of consciousness onto the mind. The mind sees what the heart wishes it to see.

Elizabeth wanted to dislike Mr. Darcy at first, probably because he seemed unattainable and anyways representative of all that she deplored about the society in which she lived. She was utterly surprised by his initial proposal. Not capable of imagining that he might have been fond of her, and totally unaware of the source and nature of her own feelings, she immediately dismissed his proposal as absurd. But once the veil of what she saw as arrogance had been lifted to reveal a similar disregard in him for the strictures of the society (a commonality they shared that would surely be factored into the compatibility algorithms on eHarmony.com, were this a 21st romance), his haughty pride no longer stood in the way of her feelings. It was only a short journey from there to outright enchantment, particularly on seeing the immensity of his wealth and the refinement of his taste.

Through it all, Elizabeth saw only what her heart wished her to see. At first, her heart protected her from potential emotional injury and pain by warning her away from him, deploying the mind to conjure excuses to deny him the consideration it might otherwise have granted such an attractive person. After the first proposal, her heart let down its guard, opening the door for her mind to accumulate facts contrary to those formed of her first impression. By the time she witnessed the grandeur of Mr. Darcy’s English manor first-hand, her heart was searching for ways to love him and certainly, as Elizabeth openly admitted, the reality that Pemberley (his estate) sketched on her mind cleared the path for just that. The foremost concern of the heart is the survival and propagation of the body. If nothing else, Elizabeth is a perfect example of what both introducers called a “mercenary” ethic, i.e., of conflating her own welfare with the highest of moral values (though neither applied the attribute to her). In other words, Elizabeth is a perfect example of every living creature on the earth. There was nothing at all remarkable about her thoughts, or much of anything philosophically insightful in their portrayal.

Tanner brings in Hume to amplify the point he first proposed through Locke that experience is the source of knowledge. But Hume was no empiricist. He stood alone in philosophy as its greatest skeptic, pointing out quite forcefully that we can’t really know anything; that experience is, if we are to be consistent, no guide to truth. Just because our experience is that A always follows B does not mean that B causes A, or even that A will continue to follow B in the future. In Elizabeth’s experience, she initially misunderstood Mr. Darcy’s nature, i.e., she wasn’t clear on whether it was A following B or C following B so far as Mr. Darcy was concerned. But even when she discovered (compelled by the urgings of her heart) that A did indeed follow B for Mr. Darcy as she hoped, Hume would say that she had no right to expect it would always be thus. Ironically, the application of Hume’s metaphysical skepticism gets us closer to the true nature of human character than Tanner (or Elizabeth) would likely find comfortable. A does not always follow B in the behavior of human beings. People change. No effect A or cause B is ever quite the same as any other. If nothing else, they are separated by space and time. Hume is applicable, not to bolster the argument for experience as the basis for Elizabeth’s change of heart, but rather to demolish it.

Taking the book as a whole, I have to agree with Charlotte Bronte’s assessment, which was offered at the beginning of Tanner’s introduction:

What did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

My thoughts were that the book was mostly silly, as it was about unserious stuff, and the characters weren’t all that interesting, except perhaps Mr. Bennett.
Austen did provide some witty repartee in the high-minded style of English gentry of the time. But the dialogue was so witty and the characters possessed of such a refined vocabulary that it strained the imagination to think that people really talked like that. The words were so delicately chosen and for such proper effect that it didn’t feel as if real people conversing in real time could possibly have spoken them. No one is so linguistically witty as Ms. Austen portrayed her favorite characters. It’s true that such linguistic cleverness was one of many strategies employed to enhance or maintain status among the landed gentry during the era covered in the novel, but to my way of thinking, it was an utterly banal use of one’s wits, and anyway it felt as if Ms. Austen’s characters must have had quite a spell longer for thinking prior to speaking than real life would have afforded them. Maybe it had something to do with all those commas.

The society of landed gentry in Pride were portrayed as unconcerned with the vicissitudes of economic and social developments sweeping the world (the French Revolution upending social, political and economic structure on the continent, the Industrial Revolution cranking to life, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions soon to be squashed by a consortium of forces, including England’s), or at least Austen didn’t factor them into her narrative. In actuality, the concerns of the world had to have weighed quite heavily on the minds of the gentry, particularly those of marginal rank, as were most of Austen’s characters. There was a great world beyond the balls and petite affairs of the idle landowning classes, and one that was rapidly encroaching on the transient serenity of the English manor. Austen completely ignored it, preferring instead to concentrate the intellect on the great problem that proper marriage presented to the idle classes of the day. From Austen’s portrayal of the utterly banal lives of the landed gentry, I rather think I would have preferred servitude and tenancy to lordship and ladies. I doubt that Austen intended people come away from the book feeling as I did. But then, I doubt I am the sort of person who would have been considered a member of her target audience.

Pride and Prejudice was perhaps aimed at just the sort of person back then who enjoys it now—young and female, probably enamored with British royalty as something of a fairy tale brought to life, and possessed of the belief that liveliness of character might make up for a deficit in station. In short, I think the book is of the same genre as the movies Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, where life for a young woman is a progression from destitution and drudgery to a fairy tale romance that makes it all worthwhile. Every girl wants to be a princess, even those with lively minds like Austen’s Elizabeth, and apparently even my own Elizabeth, the daughter who prompted my reading of the book. Few of them understand how oppressively dull and suffocating being someone’s property in such a manner is apt to be. But then fairy tales and fantasies are not really meant to come true.

*primogeniturical is not, properly speaking, a word.  It is simply applying the rules of English through which adjectives are made into nouns to a word which has so far escaped their clutches.  Primogeniture is the system of inheritance where the first-born male inherits all of the family property.  It was a strategy intended to keep large estates intact, and lasted in England from the Middle Ages until the 20th century.

A Father’s Day Dilemma

I’m not much on silly Hallmark contrivances like Father’s Day. I suspect most guys feel that way about most Hallmark holidays, and especially so when the holiday might personally involve them in some way. I figure my son and I have about the same ideas about Father’s Day, which is nice, as we rarely agree on much else. He texted me on the day to say, “Hey, butt-crack face, Happy Father’s Day.” He’s in summer school in college, so wasn’t home, and texting comprises the bulk of our communication these days, so I didn’t mind that it was just a text. And I really appreciated the ‘butt-crack face’ appellation. To think it was just a few years ago (five, to be more precise) that I was helping him to the bathroom and wiping his butt for him—things he couldn’t do by himself in his near-invalid state after his second bone marrow transplant. That little jab felt good. It was evidence of a return to a more normal state of father-son relations, post-transplant. It’s not good for a son to be too sentimental about his dad. We just aren’t built that way. And there was absolutely nothing normal about me being his 24/7 nurse for the couple of years that it took for him to recuperate from the transplant. Dads aren’t meant to spend that much time with teenaged sons, and particularly not for the reason that their butts might need wiping.

But my daughter spent all week telling me of how much I would love my Father’s Day present. I didn’t know quite what to think of that. She’s seventeen, and really blossoming, coming into her own as a young woman—smart and good-looking and funny —the whole package (through no fault of my own—though the apple always fall close to the tree, it sometimes quickly rolls away), who’d been having a great summer after blowing away the college entrance exam (the ACT) with a 34 (36 is all that’s possible). I had told her all I wanted, and only jokingly, was a six pack of beer and a lottery ticket. It was something I’d heard on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Alabama doesn’t have a lottery and she’s not old enough to buy beer and she was watching Kimmel with me when he made the lottery ticket and beer joke, so she had to have known I was kidding. Right?

A few days after the Kimmel show, she had complained that she wasn’t old enough to buy either of the items, and that Alabama didn’t have a lottery. Was she taking this seriously? (I didn’t know lottery ticket sales were age-restricted, but it would seem harmless to let the kids blow their parent’s money on a ticket or two. Maybe the age restriction should cut the other way, and prevent parents from blowing the milk money on what amounts to a tax for people who are no good at math). I (again, jokingly) told her that if she really loved me, she’d find a way to Georgia or Florida, states close by that have a lottery, and get someone of age to buy a ticket for me, but that I didn’t really need the beer. I mean, I almost always have an ample supply stashed in the basement fridge.

Father’s Day came and I got that text from my son, but nothing at all from her. I figured she’d let it go. But I got a great present anyway when the San Antonio Spurs wrapped up their fifth NBA title in fifteen years, annihilating the Heat in Game Five of the NBA finals on Father’s Day night. This San Antonio team will be inolvidable (Spanish for unforgettable) for the way it played team basketball. It was a team of mostly non-Americans (with the notable exception of the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard) that cooperated to beat the best the USA had to offer. I really needed that Spurs victory. It restored my faith, not in humanity (who, upon examining humanity, could possibly have any faith in it?), but in my belief that over the long run, desire and effort matter more than innate ability. And that celebrating someone’s innate ability is about as puerile as celebrating their innate eye color. I rather like to think that nature matters, but that nurture always steals the show. The Heat were the most talented team in basketball, mostly because LeBron James is far and away the most talented player in basketball right now. But they weren’t the best. The Spurs, who kept pounding that rock until it cracked, were the best. Bully for them.

Obama better hope that the international community doesn’t take any lessons from these Spurs. If he thinks Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan look like a mess now, just imagine how things would look if France, Germany, Russia and China, et al, decided to cooperate to bring an end to this era of American hegemony. But as I’ve said many times before, sports aren’t a metaphor for anything, except maybe sports. International relations aren’t conducted through a best-of-seven championship format. And even if the Spurs’ victory gave our foreign antagonists some ideas, pulling a disparate group of nations together behind a common goal is much harder than harmonizing a disparate group of athletes chosen as much for their cooperative, yet competitive, demeanor as for their raw basketball skills. Besides, Vladimir Putin is no Gregg Popovich. So the Spurs victory shouldn’t auger ill for Obama’s foreign relation initiatives. Which is good, because Obama has a right proper mess on his hands. And it all started when he said what he didn’t mean, drawing a red line and ignoring subsequent transgressions of it. Alas, a story for another day. The lesson though is one that every successful parent eventually realizes—don’t say it if you don’t mean it. If you say it, you must be willing to back it up with overwhelming, disproportionate force if necessary.

Aside from the world slowly ripping apart at its seams, which is not much more interesting than watching grass grow, it seems there is not much happening about now. FIFA picked a good time to put on a World Cup. And by the looks of the things, if the US wins again (which would comprise two whole victories—enough to get to the round of sixteen), expect the American world to go gaga over soccer. For a brief interlude. Just like it goes gaga over stuff like the butterfly stroke in swimming every four years when the Olympics roll around, and then summarily ignores swimming the rest of the year. If through some miracle of divine intervention, the US wins the World Cup, figure that Obama will lead a parade of politicians to Brazil to bask in the international glory. Not that a win or a loss will have anything to do with him. That’s just what politicians do—figure out which direction the parade is heading and clamor to the front to present the illusion that they are the ones leading it.

I must confess. I was pulling for Ghana to pull a three-peat (unlike the Heat) in their recent match against the US. Not because I hate the US, but because it would have made Ghanaians so happy and proud. For crying out loud, the tiny sub-Saharan land has only about 25 million people, with a per capita income of roughly $1,500. And its soccer team beat the US team in the last two Cups. The US incidentally has a population of well over 300 million and per capita income of roughly $50,000. So it was a really big deal that the US beat Ghana in its first World Cup outing this year. Next up is Portugal. It has only about 11 million people, but is much richer than Ghana, at about $22,000 in per capita income. As the soccer gods (i.e., FIFA, in all its corruptions) have decided that soccer is not interesting without which it is tied to the nationalistic impulse, and as I have foresworn any real nationalistic identity that would yield such an impulse—I consider myself to be a human being on planet earth first, and only secondarily a citizen of a government ruling over a portion of it—I reserve the right to root for any World Cup team I choose. And mine is not the US. I’m hoping the Argentinians beat the Germans in the finals. Considering how many Argentinians have German antecedents, it would be an internecine struggle, something like a family feud, but only if one family spoke a guttural, chopped, consonant-heavy language that does justice to the head but utterly butchers the heart, and the other spoke a lilting, Romantic, vowel-laden language so heavily laden with emotion that its with words go on for sentences.

While I still basked in the glow of the Spurs victory, my daughter left late the next evening after dinner to “get ice cream” with a romantic interest of hers. I was a bit surprised that she’d finally gotten the boy to take her on a date, sort of. She’d had a crush on him for the better part of a year, which finally found a venue for expression this past spring break, when she tried beer and the boy, for the first time each, at the same time. I only know because she told me about the encounter. She said she drank about three and a half beers—enough to get you good and tipsy if it’s your first time. What I don’t know is how much she drank of him. But I told her that they don’t write country lyrics like “tequila makes her clothes fall off” for nothing. Aside from that, I didn’t do much parenting. What’s the point, really, in getting all pompous and pontifical about stuff you’d done many times by the time you were her age, but from a different (i.e., male) perspective that she perhaps didn’t quite understand?

The kid is something of a bad boy. But “He’s so cute!” As my daughter exclaims. He’s a crack baseball player but doesn’t smoke the stuff, preferring instead the ganga weed. As a sophomore starting pitcher on the baseball team the year before (he’s now a rising senior, like my daughter), he was under constant surveillance by the seniors to ensure he showed up to the games sober enough to play. But he’s apparently quite the catch, at least for the crowd my daughter runs in. He has a girlfriend at another school (adding to his mysterious allure, no doubt) but has not let that stop him from chasing after my daughter, who, though she is desperately in crush with him, plays him for all he’s worth. When they finally got together over spring break, she was the “it” girl at school for a couple weeks. Nobody else at the high school had ever kissed the boy. And she did! I sweated it out for a month wondering whether beer was as effective as tequila at making a girl’s clothes fall off. It had been awhile since I’d used either one as an aphrodisiac. There’s no point in wasting good beer or tequila on a fifty year old woman who’d just fall asleep for the trouble. But whatever my daughter and the kid did that night on the beach, it didn’t produce a baby. Whew!

My daughter was back from her ice cream date by the time me and the wife got through with an after-dinner stroll. She was lounging around like teenagers do. The television was on, but only to provide white noise while she tapped at her cell phone like a trapped prisoner tapping out Morse code, apparently trying to glean some important piece of information or make a communicative connection that might change her grim life. She finally looked up to acknowledge our arrival and remarked that it sounded like something was wrong with the refrigerator downstairs. This was odd. Generally speaking, the house could be falling down around her and she’d be the last to notice. She lived at the home we provided her on Roxbury Road, but never was really there. But I’m the maintenance man. Anything that goes wrong is both my fault and my problem with which to deal.

So I asked her what it sounded like. She was vague in her response. I asked if she was sure it was the refrigerator, because the air conditioner fan upon which the family depended for its very survival, given the subtropical climate in which we were embroiled, had been making some strange noises at startup, like it was reluctant to lurch into its decreed purpose of pushing dehumidified and cooled air into the house. I suppose even industrial strength air movement machines can suffer from the ravages of inertia and procrastination. She said no, that it was definitely the refrigerator, but still, she couldn’t describe the noise. I let it rest at that, recovering from the stroll in the stultifying heat and humidity for a bit before going to check on the refrigerator.

When I finally went down to check on things, I found that the refrigerator was humming along just fine, trying to keep cool a new twelve pack of Yuengling (not a Chinese beer, the name not withstanding—it has been brewed by an outfit in Pennsylvania for over a hundred years and is a very good, but inexpensive, American lager) that had a note scribbled on top, “Happy Father’s Day! Sorry it’s a day late.”

So, she had taken my words to heart and bought me some beer—even more than I’d originally requested, I guess to make up for the absence of a lottery ticket. My breast filled with pride. But only for a moment. Then I started thinking, and figured out that her ‘date’ had likely been to go and buy the beer. She had enlisted the aid of baseball boy—who liked beer almost as much as he liked the ganga weed, so knew the places where it could be bought by minors. Am I the worst parent ever, or what?

So I trudged back up the stairs with a bit of trepidation. How do you tell someone how grateful you are for the thought while at the same time berating them for its stupidity? Along the way I recalled how I had been caught buying beer at a quick mart by the County (as we called the deputies who patrolled the unincorporated streets of the little suburb where I grew up) when I was a teenager. Nothing much had come of it. The deputy took my beer (!). Then called my mother to come get me. A few weeks later, we had to go to see a juvenile officer who told me sternly not to do it again or it would go on my permanent record. I had told my daughter about all this. Was she trying to relive my misspent youth? I’ve tried to tell my kids over and over again that my life, which I have always been very open about with them, is no sort of template from which they should model theirs. I mean, I’ve done okay, but mainly in spite of myself. I am honest with my kids about my misspent youth in order to provide them an example of how not to do things, not so that they might emulate my stupidities.

I told the daughter that I had ‘discovered’ the problem with the refrigerator—that it was burdened with trying to cool an unexpected twelve pack. She coyly grinned and asked did I like her Father’s Day present? I replied that I did, but asked how she had acquired it—was that what she and baseball boy had done on their ‘date’? I guessed correctly, because she admitted that they had gone to one of the local quick marts that are notorious among her crowd for being willing to sell beer to underage customers. In fact, baseball boy had been willing to purchase the beer for her, but she had insisted she do it herself. Or, maybe he dared her—I couldn’t quite get the story straight. “Whew” I thought again at this relationship she’s carrying on with this kid. But at least it wasn’t a baby. I didn’t want to go overboard in berating her. She knows my history, and I’d have had a hard time convincing her at how detrimental the affair was to my life. But why bother with risking something like this when it’s just for a stunt? I bought my beer to drink. I don’t think she’s decided beer drinking is anything to do on a regular basis. She could have been arrested. But I wasn’t going to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

No, that job was left to the wife. Who, as soon as the daughter left the room, started in about how I should have done more to discourage her from this sort of thing, blah, blah, blah. The wife has for some reason decided to completely foreswear that she ever had anything like her own misspent youth, including all of her drinking/drug/sexual indiscretions (and I know of many, as I’ve known her since high school) and preach that something along the lines of Puritanism is the only route to success. She doesn’t get that all she’s doing is being selfish. She lived exuberantly and free for many years before settling into her workaday life. Now she doesn’t want her daughter to have the same fun because of how it might make her look, and because of how much of a hassle it might be to deal with. On the railroad of the wife’s life, fun is just a car you occasionally visit as the train clatters along the tracks to an unknown destination that just must be good because it is the one to which the rails are headed. But you can’t get off the train and the train never stops. It just keeps on rolling. I’ve hoped for some time now that the train would, like Jack Johnson’s song, please, please just break down, but it’s not happening. Not even when the son had leukemia did she bother to step down from the train and have a look around.

If you are male, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that both women were mad at me by the time the whole thing was through. The wife is mad for my not having been sterner with my daughter, which is not just a little bit ironic because she knew about the daughter’s plan when it was hatched and said not a word. And my daughter claims that I don’t trust her judgment. Neither of them are talking much to me as I write this, almost a week later. So it’s a win/win.

But in some respects what’s really going on here is ages old female competitiveness rearing its ugly head. And I’m stuck in the middle, which experience has taught me is a very, very bad place to be. It’s almost best to just run as quickly away as possible if you find yourself a pawn between two headstrong women vying for power. Or to get rid of one of the women. I finally dumped my sister for my wife after a few years of a low intensity conflict between them for the primacy of my heart. But that’s sort of hard to do when one antagonist is your wife and one is your daughter. I’ll have to figure something else to do. Or, just ignore the whole thing as much as is possible.

Two women mad at me and not talking to me is plenty enough to say grace over, but the whole affair left another dilemma in its wake. There was now a twelve pack of very good beer in my fridge. But it was the bounty of ill-gotten gains. Should I drink it, or pour it out, like that deputy sheriff did lo those many years ago?

I didn’t know. I considered that the way I gained possession of the beer might be akin to the manner in which the early Christians gained possession of animal meat from pagan sacrifices. Their dilemma was whether to eat the meat though it had been sacrificed to gods they didn’t believe in or, to shun it in order to make a point. In Acts (Chapter 15, verse 29), Luke flat out said no, they shouldn’t eat the meat, but his prohibition was couched between two others, in a paragraph that also prohibited sexual immorality. It seemed something like dicta. Paul was pretty mealy-mouthed about the whole thing, hemming and hawing his way through 1st Corinthians, Chapter 8, without ever really reaching a conclusion, observing that eating meat sacrificed to idols is generally okay because idols are meaningless to Christians, but not if the act of doing has the effect of bringing someone who observes it closer to paganism, thereby losing them to Christ. I guess Paul would be fine with Christians eating the meat of pagan sacrifices so long as they did it alone. As I usually drink at home, what could be the harm?

Then it occurred to me that the Exclusionary Rule in Constitutional jurisprudence might apply. It prohibits the use in court of evidence gained through a search or seizure that violates the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Should I abstain from drinking the beer because of its character as the fruit of a poisoned vine? But the vine wasn’t poisoned, except, it occurred to me, by me; in so far as I planted the seed with my derelict youth, my daughter reaped the whirlwind (which is mixing biblical metaphors, I know, but I’m having fun—besides, if you know I mixed my biblical metaphors then you know exactly what I meant). It may have been my nefarious deed all those years ago that yielded this twelve pack of beer. Maybe I should just pour it out.

After spending fifteen or so seconds mulling all this over (mostly subconsciously—you’re getting the slow motion description of how the gears were churning), I remembered my other dilemma—I was trapped between two women vying for power. Though it was win/win right now as neither of them were talking to me, I knew there’d be hell to pay once the dam of silence finally broke. I was gonna need lots and lots of beer just to muddle my way through. So I popped a tab and enjoyed again the feeling of fizzy silk sliding down the back of my throat.

The women are both still mad at me. But the beer tasted great, as always.

 

 

The San Antonio Spurs–perhaps the most selfish team in basketball

It was disgusting to watch, the selfishness on display in the first half of last night’s Game Three of the NBA finals. The San Antonio Spurs proved, with their crisp, relentless passing and their refusal to take an open shot when somebody else might have a better one, that you can’t spell team without “me”. These guys don’t care about anything except winning a championship, and they’ll selfishly do anything it takes to get one, even when it means passing the ball to another man if he has a better shot, or (even further along the enlightened self-interest trail), even when it means passing the ball to someone who might be able to set someone else up for a better shot. It’s insanity. How are the Heat supposed to compete with that level of venality and greed? The Spurs aren’t right.

The half was a blizzard of San Antonio scoring. The Spurs hit 75.8 of their shots from the field, the highest ever in half of an NBA final. At one point, their field goal shooting percentage exceeded their free throw shooting percentage, practically unheard of in the annals of the National Basketball Association.

The Heat, playing basketball the good old fashioned way, with fancy, chest-thumping, crowd pleasing dunks and other outrageous feats of athletic derring-do, that were always followed by the Angry Black Man Scowl when executed by one of the Big Three (James, Bosh or Wade), made a run in the third quarter that brought them within seven, after being down over twenty at the half. At one point in the quarter, LeBron showed off his ball-handling skills, dribbling between his legs three or four times before posting up for a swishing jump shot, much to the crowd’s pleasure. He knew they wanted him to shine, to play basketball like he was auditioning for the Harlem Globetrotters, as much or more as they wanted him to win, so he unselfishly gave the crowd what it came for, but only occasionally. I mean, they can’t expect him to look like Meadowlark Lemon the whole night long, can they? His unselfish grandstanding was not enough for the relentless self-centeredness of San Antonio. The Heat still lost, but at least they looked good individually while doing it.

At one point, Chris Bosh of the Heat tried to mimic San Antonio’s selfish play, feeding Chris Anderson underneath the basket for an easy dunk. But afterwards he didn’t just selfishly sprint down the court, refusing to grandstand over one good play like the Spurs do. He stoked the crowd like they wanted, gesturing for them to give him more love like they knew he deserved, all while sporting that Angry Black Man Scowl the Heat fans have come to know and love from all their Big Three stars.

The Angry Black Man Scowl humbly asserts that basketball is about a lot more than basketball. It is about social justice. It is about the chance for the black man to right the wrongs of the ages by his ability to throw, jump and shoot on a basketball court. With the Heat, you know they’re doing this for a higher cause, that this isn’t just about them, when you see the scowl. That neither Kawhi Leonard nor Tim Duncan, the only two black Americans in the Spurs starting lineup, sport the scowl when they slam a dunk in somebody’s face proves that they are selfishly and slavishly devoted only to winning a basketball championship. It’s enough to make you sick.

In fact, the selfishness of the Spurs might very well be traced to the international flavor of their roster. They’ve got guys from everywhere. Tony Parker is French; Manu Ginobili is Argentinian; Tiago Splitter is Brazilian; Marco Belinelli is Italian; Boris Diaw is French, and Patty Mills is Australian. For crying out loud, there’s hardly a good old American anywhere on the team. And there’s not one who does the Angry Black (American) Man’s Scowl for the injustices he and his people have suffered. These Spurs all just want one thing—another ring. And they’ve already got four. Or at least Tim Duncan already has four. The only other guys that were there for the previous championships were Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the Spurs’ version of the Big Three. How many rings do they think the Spurs deserve? The Heat have the best player in basketball, one who was late to starting his championship ring collection. Doesn’t LeBron deserve a few more rings than Duncan? His scowl has a very personal tenor to it. His scowl says that this international coalition that is the San Antonio Spurs are denying him what is his birthright as an American heir of enslaved Africans. LeBron James needs another ring, for reparative purposes if nothing else. Who are these bunch of foreigners to get in his way?

The Spurs are so selfish they refuse to perfect their acting skills so that they might better flop around like fishes on the beach whenever an opposing player breathes on them. It’s probably because they don’t want to pay the fines the NBA has threatened for players who pretend to have been fouled. Disgusting. What’s a few thousand dollars for the theatrics a good flop provides? The fans love it. Why must the Spurs be so greedy?

I don’t know if I can stomach watching the rest of this series. San Antonio is so slavishly focused on doing anything it takes to beat a bunch of guys who have more talent than them—of trying to beat a team of good Americans with a bunch of smelly foreigners (two of them French!), that it’s really taking all the fun out of it for me. I don’t want to see good team basketball. I want to see disjointed and disgruntled team basketball overcome by superior individual talent. Isn’t that what NBA basketball is all about? This is still the National Basketball Association, right? The San Antonio Spurs should have their franchise taken away.

Book Review: The First Word—the search for the origins of language, by Christine Kenneally (2007)

It’s not hard to imagine that when elephants finally become fully sentient beings, indelibly aware of their existence and of its inherent fragility, that they will turn their focus inward, like a human sophomore majoring in philosophy, and, wonder why, exactly, they are unique and special…and will conclude it is because of their trunks. Trunks are to elephants what language is to human beings. Language makes us different from all the other animals, as linguist Christine Kenneally repeatedly points out in her survey of the search for the origins of human language. But so too would an elephant trunkist repeatedly point out that the elephant’s trunk makes it different from all the other animals—which is perhaps exactly what the bull elephant in musk is saying through his rampages. There is no other animal possessing anything remotely approaching an elephant’s trunk in power and versatility. And the same can be said of human language. Elephants and humans each have appendages, one real and the other more abstract, that only they possess. Elephants would surely argue that their magnificent trunk makes them superior to all the other animals, just as humans, including everyone from linguists who should know better to evangelical preachers who are paid not to, say about their language. Species bigotry is necessarily a hard-wired perceptual bias for every living creature. But both the elephants and the humans, and particularly Ms. Kenneally, would be wrong. There is no such thing as a superior species, except in the biased mind of the species doing the ranking, which makes any sort of ranking that might be contrived meaningless.

Elephants have trunks and humans have language. “Big deal”, says the ant, or maybe would, if he wasn’t so handicapped as to have to get by without a trunk or Greek or even English. He might also point out that ants are the most successful of earth’s multi-celled creatures, in terms of the number of individuals and in the sheer mass they constitute. If numbers or mass and range constitute success, ants are many times over more successful than any lumbering mammal. And they do it all without trunks or Spanish, though they do have intricate means of communication and can powerfully lift objects many times their size and weight. “Top that” the ant instead might say, if he knew how to taunt in the manner that language makes so easy for humans, on his way to irremediably colonizing your backyard.

It would be nice if an objective perception were common among scientists. But it’s not generally. Scientists by and large suffer the same species bigotry as the rest of humanity, which is not remarkable, considering as they are humans first and scientists second, but the species bigotry they must lug with them wherever they go is a real handicap to understanding, and especially so among scientists who study human language. Noam Chomsky, the Einstein of linguistics, as Kenneally aptly points out, believes (and it could be nothing other than belief from which his views are derived as there is a paucity of evidence, and the evidence fails to accumulate more every day) that humans have been blessed with a Universal Grammar, like a heavenly manna, from which language arises. Chomsky thinks that all languages are more alike than they are different. And on some level, he is certainly correct. No animal but humans have language, but all normally-reared and fully functional humans have language. There is no instance, no remote tribe of hunter gatherers, who have yet to develop a full and functioning language, with words and the rules of grammar required to give the words coherence and meaning. But there are a multitude of ways human languages accomplish the task of communicating, and there are no grammar rules yet found that are common to every extant language.

Perhaps most important to debunking the Chomsky idea of some internal part he labels Universal Grammar for generating language, humans who are not exposed to language by a certain age (the rare but documented cases of feral children) never acquire it. The hardware of the human mind is surely somehow uniquely suited to acquiring human language (could things be any other way?), but can’t properly function without which it is programmed by the experience of exposure at a critical time in its development. Chomsky saw how marvelously inventive and unique is the facility of human language and concluded it must be tied to some quirk of human neural engineering from which it arose, perhaps the result of a fortuitously fortunate but radical genetic mutation. Elephants probably would think the same about their trunks, or perhaps already do, but we humans don’t speak elephant-ese sufficiently well to understand them. Kenneally quotes others in pointing out that Chomsky’s adamant defense of Universal Grammar effectively dismisses the notion that an eye, the iconic product of evolution by natural selection which biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have presented as exemplary of the process, and which is also a marvelous and unique facility, might develop simply by dint of gradual changes arising from random genetic variations interacting with environmental pressures. Chomsky’s is a curious view for a scientist to hold—almost a “God in the gaps” hypothesis (though as an avowed atheist, he would surely object to such characterization), that by some supernatural happenstance, the gift of language was bestowed on humans, after which people immediately started conjugating irregular verbs and employing prepositional phrases to sophistic advantage. We know languages evolved and continue to do so. What’s so hard about imagining that the capacity to develop and use them did so as well?

In the sense that Chomsky proffers mysticism in explaining the origin of language, comparing him to Einstein is especially appropriate. Einstein’s General Relativity has by now become so contorted by observations that don’t fit the theory until fully 96% of Einstein’s universe is invisible. Or, to put matters another way, Einstein’s theory explains the 4% of the universe that is detectable (i.e., you, me, the sun, moon tides and galaxies, etc.) by proposing that 96% of it is invisible (imagine that 96% of you is undetectable—and be happy that it is when you get on the bathroom scales in the morning). The invisible stuff could as well be called magic, or perhaps an aether, to which Einstein and his acolytes would undoubtedly cringe. Likewise, Chomsky posits an undetectable thing—a universal grammar–as the explanation for human language. Chomsky and Einstein are likewise similar in that their celebrity created something of a cult of followers who idolize and worship them, and consider their scientific musings as sacrosanct, no matter how self-contradictory or confused they might be proved (yes, Professor Einstein, God does play dice with the universe). Kenneally ably points out as much regarding Chomsky by poignantly quoting perhaps the most capable of today’s linguists, Steven Pinker, who observed that such dogmatic loyalty to a person dangerously abandons the skepticism needed for proper scientific inquiry. In his career, Pinker has by and large simply ignored Chomsky and the sometimes unhinged defenses he would offer of his ideas, though the two are professors in the same department at MIT. Good for Pinker. It is never a good thing when a scientist gains the status of demigod, but the best work around for when a demigod scientist is wrong is to simply research, discover and explain correctly whatever he has been wrong about.

Kenneally spends a significant portion of The First Word describing how much resistance she and other linguists have encountered in academia over their desire to research how language arose. There is some justification for the resistance. For presumably the vast majority of its existence, human language has constituted nothing more than wisps of air exhaled in a particular way to make particular sounds, and neither exhaled air nor sound makes fossils. Language only started to be written down around the time when a new economy of life arose that required some measure of record keeping (sedentary agriculture, around 10,000 or so years ago). And written language is only vaguely reflective of the spoken word, as legions of adult second language learners quickly realize. As a result, the origins of language will be always a matter of generous speculation. But there should be no objection to its investigation. While it’s quite clear that no such universal grammar organ has evolved as a part of the neural architecture, there have been discovered specific genetic expressions and neural pathways which are critical to a fully functioning linguistic ability. Kenneally (correctly, in my view) points out that research along these lines has the greatest chance of yielding fruit.

Human language, whatever its ultimate origins, simply has to be the product of evolution by natural selection. To imagine, as some do, that language arose as a spandrel* (one of the several explanations proffered by Chomsky), seems absurd. Some of the neural architecture employed for its development may have initially have been a by-product of selection favoring the hardware for other reasons, but once the first grunts turned to words and sentences, language had to have quickly become so advantageous to survival that whatever neural architecture enhanced the capacity for language would have immediately been subject to favorable selection.

Kenneally catalogues the efforts of scientists to understand how capable other species might be at human language (short answer…not very). Our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees, can sometimes, when all the stars are perfectly aligned, and after repeated drilling, learn the meanings of a couple hundred human words [in English, no doubt, which given how utterly nonsensical is the English language, perhaps the chimp handlers ought try another language (e.g., Spanish) which makes a bit better logical sense]. It’s my sense that the effort to find the capacity for human-type language among our close mammalian cousins is misdirected. Humans are alone among mammals in the complexity of their societies, and language is the principle tool humans employed to develop them. The only creatures with societies of similar complexity are the social insects. Figure out how ants, to make further use of their example, communicate their intricate messages, necessary in a colony of highly specialized workers not unlike a modern human economic system, and how the ability arose, and we might find a wealth of insights about the origins of human language. The social insects do with chemicals and physical gesturing what humans do with language and physical gesturing. The chemical messages have got to have an analogue in our words and sentences. How in the world did ants develop the complex suite of chemical signals critical to the functioning of their colonies? The answer, like the origins of human language, undoubtedly lies in the mother of all invention, necessity.

Kenneally does a capable job narrating the status of the search for the origins of human language, and the general state of academia in fields like linguistics and neuroscience and zoology that are implicated in the search. But the narrative suffers from her apparent need to tiptoe around the delicate egos, particularly among linguists, of the leading academicians. The book is a bit stilted in the reading, as if it was written with Chomsky glaring over one shoulder and Pinker over the next. This is a common problem with popular books of science written by practitioners in the field. Practitioners, as Kenneally is here, have a vested interest in advancing their career, and when they write about others in their field, their ability to honestly and objectively evaluate their ideas is necessarily suspect. Tribalism is as rampant among scientific communities as it is among troops of chimpanzees. To remain a member in good standing in the tribe requires acquiescence to its existing hierarchies, implying only the most deferential criticisms might be offered. Probably only a tribal outcast would have the requisite expertise and objectivity to offer unbiased expert opinion on the ideas and personalities that have gained unquestioned acceptance within the tribe. But if Kenneally were an outcast, she surely would not have been afforded the personal interviews and insights of the likes of Chomsky, Pinker, et al. It’s a catch-22. Only an insider could capably criticize the academy, but an insider, by definition, never would.

This much can be taken from the book without fear—that the origins of human language are murky and apt to stay so. But that human language, like elephant trunks and eyeballs and ant signaling, arose by evolution through natural selection. We just don’t know quite how.

*A spandrel is the triangular space created when a column meets a rafter, a space which was often used as a palette for elaborate decoration in medieval architecture. It use as a metaphor for biological features that arise as a beneficial evolutionary incident to the product of other selective pressures is attributable to the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

With a Commander-in-Chief like Barack Obama…the US doesn’t need any enemies

Have you ever played chess? You know…the game that computers and various Russian masters have been battling over for decades to see which reigns supreme? In a chess match, making a move that trades one’s queen for a pawn is utterly disastrous. Neither Russian nor computer would make such a mistake. But Barack Obama, the US Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and principal architect of US foreign policy, effectively did just that when he traded Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban leaders who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo since their capture in the early part of the last decade.

But in truth, Bowe Bergdahl is less than a pawn. He deserted his unit in Afghanistan. That much we know. Whether he was being held by the Taliban or simply given a home by the Taliban for expressing his anti-American sentiments is not yet clear. He wasn’t worth the trade. He wasn’t worth any trade. We shouldn’t have traded a Taliban grunt to get him back. And we certainly shouldn’t have shed a drop of American blood trying to rescue him after he decided he’d had enough as a cog in the US war machine and simply walked away.  Here’s what Bergdahl said, in an e-mail to his parents, before he deserted his comrades, from an expose written by Michael Hastings (now deceased) for Rolling Stone magazine in 2012:

“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP [mine-resistant ambush protection vehicle]. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks. . . . We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”

I understand Bergdahl’s sentiments. I felt in a similar way about the first Gulf War in which I served. But when I entered active duty, the Cold War was flaring hot all over the globe, particularly in Central America where I spent a good deal of my time. The Soviet Union was an existential threat to the US. It could have destroyed us. And so I gladly served on the vanguards of the American sphere of influence to prevent such a thing. I wanted for the US to continue to exist. But it was beyond my contemplation that the US would win the war in four short years after I entered service, and then turn all the big boy toys it had purchased for the hot war that never came to an internecine dispute among Arabs over who would own Kuwait’s oil riches. I do not believe in killing people who aren’t trying to kill me, or who are no threat to the country I am sworn to defend. So I was none too happy with the change in geopolitical circumstances that forced me to again take up arms. But I did my duty and when the war concluded, got out. I did not desert my post and become a member of the Iraqi Republican Guards. And if I had, I would certainly not have expected the US military to rescue me. But Bergdahl had to have known that fighting and killing Afghanis would be exactly what was expected of him when he enlisted. The war was already engaged by the time he signed up. He couldn’t have just arrived there thinking he was defending an existential threat to apple pie and baseball and ice cream. The US was there to flex its imperial might, ostensibly to prevent another 9-11 attack, but really just to show the Taliban and everyone else what happens to people who brazenly give aid and comfort to people who hate us.

If it is possible to be both cynical and naïve, Obama’s swap of Bergdahl is perhaps a perfect example. The highly publicized circumstances of Bergdahl’s “rescue” points to a cynical attempt to garner good publicity regarding the treatment of American soldiers, undoubtedly to counteract all the bad publicity the Administration has recently received over mismanagement of its healthcare obligations to its veterans (the Veteran’s Administration scandal). There was Obama, holding a press conference where he trotted out the deserter’s rather strange parents, particularly the dad, who was sporting a Duck Dynasty beard because he hadn’t cut it since his son became a member, er, was captured, by the Taliban. (Don’t Islamists prohibit the shaving of facial hair? Was this perhaps a show of political solidarity with his son?) The prisoner swap seemed to have been conducted solely for the purpose of domestic politics; a lame attempt to enhance Obama’s power and prestige at home that backfired miserably. Obama is cynical and manipulative when it comes to maintaining his power with the American public. There is no other way to explain Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and now this.

But he is either profoundly naïve, or stupid, or malevolently aloof about foreign affairs. What might our foreign adversaries be thinking about a leader who agrees to swap a queen for a pawn on the chess board of international relations? That he is a very bad player, no doubt. Vladimir Putin, for one, has surely taken notice. But chess is only a game. In the arena of foreign relations, real lives and real societies are at stake. The international arena is a Darwinian jungle. Nations, red in tooth and claw, battle constantly for survival and supremacy. Making a deal like the Bergdahl swap leaves our enemies licking their chops and our allies shuddering in fear.

The world is today a much more dangerous place because Barack Obama made an extraordinarily bad deal in swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders. That’s really all there is to it.

Why Savannah?

“We just love Savannah” oozed my mother-in-law when my wife (her daughter, in case legal relations cause the same confusion for you as they do for me) told her we might visit the city while on vacation in Hilton Head. The mother-in-law said it in that insincere way women in the South say they love something when they know it is status-enhancing, or at least protecting, to profess their love, adding about three counts to the ‘u’ sound in the middle of the word. She said it like she was a Southern hipster (is there such a thing?) talking about kale (or is it quinoa these days?) being served at a dinner party.

By “we” she mainly, I think, meant she and her husband. But she might have been including her host of septuagenarian friends, all female, all white, with whom she is in frenetic competition. (Yes, even at her age, friendship is an illusion…the best can be hoped is that your frenemies aren’t too openly venal). Because among a certain set (old white women who fancy they are something higher on the social hierarchy than poor white trash), “loving” Savannah is de rigueur. But proclaiming that “we” love Savannah with only her husband and not her frenemies in mind would have been a mistake, or perhaps a fraud.   There is no way in hell that her husband really loved Savannah, though she might have been duped by him into believing he did. (Incidentally, he’s not my wife’s father, but technically still my father-in-law, only it takes an extra degree of law—his marriage to my wife’s mother and my marriage to her daughter–to get there than is usually the case. A father-in-law once removed, perhaps? Fortuitously, we share the same last name, but are not related). He is a man who I’ve come to know well and somewhat admire, and so know that it would be doing grave injury to the truth to include him as part of a group denoted by the plural pronoun ‘we’ in any statement proclaiming love for Savannah. He’s a better man than that. There is no way he could ‘love’ Savannah. I know. I’ve now been to Savannah. Every bit of four hours or so, which was about three hours and forty-five minutes too long. No self-respecting heterosexual male could possibly love Savannah, or at least no man could love it for its value as a tourist mecca.  

From Hilton Head Island where we were staying, Savannah is about an hour away by land; it’s an hour and a half by boat. So we naturally took the boat. That was at least partially my fault. I didn’t really want to go to Savannah, but I figured the boat ride would be fun. It wasn’t. On board the boat were scads of hearty, hale and gregarious Midwesterners. One family of blue-jean-short clad Ohioans had a young child of maybe a year old, who decided that sitting next to us friendly Southerners would be just the thing to do, maybe because they figured we Southerners are so hospitable that we love to listen to a crying infant not of our issue for an hour and a half nonstop. The boat ride was only slightly less miserable than the time, on a flight to Chicago, when a baby sitting behind us upchucked into the wife’s hair.   The baby’s mother didn’t even bother to apologize, just figuring, I suppose, that my wife appreciated how it made her hair shimmer and glow and stink. Midwesterners, ugh. It almost makes me wish the South would secede again, and set up border guards who would shoot on sight any Midwesterner who tried to escape their miserably cold climes by coming South.

It’s not that Savannah is that far, even by boat. It was only thirty minutes or so into the boat ride that the Southern LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant’s terminal towers just south of Savannah came into hazy view. But oceanic navigation from Harbor Town in Hilton Head to Savannah’s waterfront requires navigating the intra-coastal waterway as it twists and winds from the island to the river. Most of the waterway in that stretch traverses salt marsh that would surely not be more than a couple of feet deep were it not for dredging. No boat could go very fast. And as this was a tourist boat, it intentionally took its time, particularly slowing down along the Daufuskie Island shoreline whenever passing by a potential point of interest on the island for tourists (the same charter boat we were on also ferries tourist to Daufuskie, which is a mostly uninhabited five by eight mile island west/northwest of Hilton Head). And the baby kept squalling, the whole intra-coastal waterway long.

The boat ride should have dispelled for the tourists any mythologized and romanticized notions of Savannah as a genteel town steeped in Southern culture and history.   The rusting hulk of an abandoned sand dredge lying in a lagoon off the starboard side of the boat (for you landlubbers, starboard is the right side of the boat, if on the boat and facing the bow, which is the front) greeted our entry into the port area, followed closely on the port (left) side by two Panamanian-flagged freighters taking on a cargo of what appeared to be wood chips. Savannah may have a past worth romanticizing, but its present appears as gritty and real and practical as its true past surely once was. The waterfront actually works as more than just a tourist trap, if not so much along the Old Savannah portion of it where our tourist boat docked to spill its hundred and fifty or so passengers into the steaming, blazing sauna, weather that is characteristic of pretty much any Southern river town around mid-morning on an early summer day sure to be crackling with thunderstorms by the afternoon, but that is no sort of weather to brag about back home.

People see what they want to see, so it’s no surprise that the workaday Port of Savannah, bristling with activity all around us, was mostly overlooked by the tourists as they debarked for the tacky shops and restaurants arisen in Old Savannah specifically for serving the tourist trade. More than a few of the tourists shunned walking—perhaps the only thing Old Savannah is good for as it is flat and shaded and boasts pocket parks every few blocks—and purchased a ticket to ride the trolley around town so they might be sure to see all that culture and all those historical artifacts that they had been convinced they were supposed to see.

Paula Deen,, the famous, or infamous, television chef who foolishly replied honestly in a deposition when asked if she had ever used the word “nigger”, has a restaurant in Savannah, called The Lady and Sons. The buffet was visible through the window while walking by. It was loaded with staples of Southern cooking. Given the cafeteria-style buffet, it appears Paula Deen has essentially opened a Luby’s (if you hail from Texas) or Picadilly’s (if from the heart of the Old Confederacy). But it is in historic Old Savannah. And it is Paula Deen’s restaurant. So you just have to go. In Paula Deen’s defense, Southern cooking is quite amenable to cafeteria -style dispensation. The recipes are always easy to double, triple or more, while the taste stays the same. And dear heavens, the poor woman should not have been excoriated for having admitted to occasionally saying “nigger”.   Every person in the South, white or black (and probably, truth be known, in the North, too) has said it at one time or another. And in a racially disparaging way, if usually only under one’s breath. Paula Deen was just the only prominent Southerner to lately have admitted as much. Trust me. I can practically guarantee that even Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has said it.  It’s just part of the vernacular. The myth that thoughts and feelings and words can be stamped out by dint of public disfavor is as risible as the myth that Savannah is a town worth visiting for its history or culture or food.   Paula Deen was honest. It is everyone else criticizing her that are the frauds.

The allure of Savannah can’t be understood without which Southern Gothic is understood, and honestly, I don’t get it.   There is a dark forebodingly Southern essence supposedly expressed in the genre, a sense that the world teeters on the magical edge between darkness and light, and all that its deeply flawed, eccentric or disturbing characters can see are the shadows of grey at its edges–something of how Savannah was described in the blockbuster NYT bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which may have singlehandedly added Savannah to the list of must-see Southern cities with an antebellum past for the curious class of women who read Southern Living magazine and dream of sipping mint juleps on the porch in a petticoat during a thunderstorm, fawning for their brave and chivalrous squires away doing battle against those damned Yankees.

Women in the South seem nigh well obsessed with antebellum Southern culture. Even women who aren’t from the South but who move here later in life sop up the Southern cultural myths like so many biscuits dipped in red-eye gravy. My neighbor from Missouri, a state which I recall was part of some great antebellum compromise regarding slavery but never really experienced much in the way of plantation agriculture, was positively bubbly when her daughter was invited to become a member of the Southern Belles, a rather strange local (Birmingham) group that pretends to emulate Southern culture and tradition by having its girls (high school juniors and seniors) represent Old South ways by attending functions dressed in outlandish hoop skirt petticoats. My daughter was also invited. Their presentation ceremony, something like a debutante ball, was held at a local country club, and could not have been more ridiculous, not least because Birmingham hasn’t any antebellum past to speak of. It was only founded in 1872, well after the South’s plantation culture had been vanquished and Reconstruction was under way. The city was founded mainly by Northerners (carpetbaggers) intent on turning a profit on the wealth of iron and coal contained in its mountainous, rocky terrain, which was otherwise mostly useless for large scale agricultural operations. There was not a single black woman among the belles. My daughter wondered, jokingly, whether each girl might be issued a slave after the ball for having been accepted as a Belle. It was only funny because of how close it cut to the truth.

It must be a fairly common thing among women to dream of being petted and pampered and put on a pedestal, living the fairy-tale ideal of a princess, or in the American iteration, of an antebellum plantation owner’s wife. Else, explain the female fascination with the antebellum South, and places like Savannah and Charleston that are perceived to have traces of its culture that survive. Of course the myth is far from reality. The antebellum wife was a possession. She might have been pampered and put on a pedestal, but it was a life more comparable to that of a parakeet in a cage than that of a fully-formed, psychically-human adult. And nothing of the way of life survives, except in the wistful hearts of overly romantic women.

But it is easy to see why women love Savannah. It is hot, and women are more like reptiles than mammals in their inability to regulate their internal body temperature. Women crave heat and Savannah has plenty of it. Its old town is full of gigantic live oaks draped in Spanish moss, giving it an aura of well-preserved tradition that women so adore and in the manner that only century-old trees can afford. It has countless knick knack stores, enough to succor any woman’s need to while away the hours shopping. And the city is suffused with the supernatural; angels and demons and other ghostly spirits waft about in the evanescent mists floating in off the river. Ghosts are apparently so plentiful that companies offer tours to see their haunts, in repurposed hearses no less.

Even just the title of the celebrated book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, conjures visceral images of things the female heart holds dear (even as the actual book is so-called ‘faction’ about a homosexual murder in the late ‘80s). Midnight is the witching hour. Important things happen at midnight. Things can go either way until midnight rolls around and then the course is set. Every woman loves a garden, a perfect metaphor for the sensuality of her own body. And women far more than men see life as a morality play, an incessant battle between the good from which their sensuality arises and the evil that would suppress it. Savannah is a lustful, sensual paradise for women.

But my mother-in-law could only have been referring to her and her friends when she said that ‘we’ love Savannah. Or she may have been referring to no one, and was just saying it because she thought that’s what she should say. But if she was including her husband in the ‘we’, she was surely mistaken. He might have pretended to love Savannah for her sake (they had been a couple of times), because that’s what guys do, but he didn’t really love Savannah. No self-respecting man could possibly love the Savannah of mythology and lore—the Savannah as it is presented to tourists. The guys working the docks probably love Savannah, but for the more practical reason that it affords them a decent living. The rest of us guys who get dragged there by their wives, not so much.

 

 

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