"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chickens On The Loose

Uncle Guido is amazed that the New York Times, the American Paper of Record, could print such claptrap.  Not that it should muzzle writers about chickens, just that it should choose articles that are less idolatrous, romantic, and totally wrong headed.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/31/opinion/chickens-on-the-loose.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

Take this, for example:

On fair days, I’ve been letting the chickens have the run of the farm. I come out of the house, and the birds are waiting at the chicken-yard fence like petitioners in some Russian novel but with boundless optimism instead of resignation and despair.

We are talking about Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy here.  Dark, brooding drama, complex, inner characters; byzantine plots and bloodlines, high passion, theatre, deep revelations and confessions.  How can this ignorant, feather-loving, dumb cluck, possibly compare the world’s dumbest creatures with characters in Russian literature?  They are soulless feather-brains, empty of anything but a reflex to peck and shit. 

Out they come, except for the hens, who are busy laying. It is a 30-bird flock of many breeds — Appenzeller, Penedesenca, Orpington, Campine.

Get it? By naming fancy German, Italian, French, and other arcane breeds (what on earth is a Penedesenca?  Feathers descending? Pendejo probably, Spanish for asshole or prick) the author tries to ennoble these corn-peckers, give them royalty or aristocratic lineage.  Imagine the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.  There is a receiving line of coiffed and tailored counts, countesses, priests, and archbishops.  “Your Royal Highnesses, the Count and Countess of Appenzeller”, and in strut a rooster and hen, pecking, bobbing and weaving down the receiving line.

Now and then a Welsummer or a Barnevelder strolls onto the deck of the house and walks up to the sliding-glass door.

More name-dropping, oh, so casually, as though the Duke of Welsummer or the Viscount of Barnevelder just stopped by.  Actually, Barnevelder is the only reasonably accurate for a chicken.

The chickens and I and Ceilidh, the border terrier, look at each other with heads askew. The birds gaze into the house with one eye, then the other — they live in a monocular world, after all — and decide there’s nothing of interest.

What a ridiculous joke – an impertinent and totally stupid assumption.  That chickens can actually determine whether there is or is not something of interest.  Far from metaphysical inquiry, these idiot birds are only capable of seeing bits and pieces of what looks like food right in front of them.  Rather than ratiocinate, they hunt and peck.  “Wow, this tastes good”; or “That tastes like shit”, which it probably is, for if you have lived in India you will always see chickens following up the squirts of some naked kid to peck out the stray grain of rice.

Why do I like these birds so much? It’s not just the eggs and beautiful feathering, the crowing and the clucking. It’s the purposefulness of their behavior.

Purposefulness of their behavior?! OMG.  Are you kidding?  There is absolutely no purpose whatsoever to their behavior.  They were born pecking and shitting and that’s it.  There’s no ‘there’ there.  Empty pea brains not even looking for food, just coming upon it. 

A hen raking backward through winter’s duff is a professional at work.

OK, this is the biggest vanity in the article.  Chickens are professionals at work.  Where did the author ever get that notion? First she starts with ‘Chickens As Royalty’ then gets more down to earth as ‘Chickens as Lawyers’, but the only possible employment comparison is token-takers in the subway.  They hunt and peck the change put down on the worn, wooden groove, and drop down a few tokens. 

Scratch, scratch, look around for predators, and what have we here? A foraging chicken feeds itself by finding surprises everywhere.

Everything is a surprise to a chicken which, having no brain to speak of, cannot anticipate.  Oh, a grain of rice in a stool of runny shit.  Wow, what a surprise!

The world seems perfectly adjusted to their expectations, which is to say that they take the world just as it is.

No comment.  Of course chickens take the world as it is.  How else are they going to take it?  Copernican theory? Astrophysical laws? Supply and demand?

Light falls, and Ceilidh and I go out to do chores. I feed the horses and the chickens run around looking for spilled grain and hay-seeds. Everywhere, there are signs of their raking, patches of leaves and plant-litter overturned. Before long, the birds are back in their yard, vanishing up the ramp to their house, all but the roosters, who keep a wary eye out until the flock is in.

This is simply too much.  What a romantic fairytale.  A dumb chicken climbing up the tresses of Goldilocks.  A chicken turned into a prince.  This woman is totally nuts. I am cancelling my subscription to the New York Times.

The Church Of The Little Flower - The Great, Wonderful, Happy Three-Ring Circus Of Religion

Bandy Wallace stood in front of the Church of the Little Flower and wondered where the name came from.  Who was the Little Flower? Perhaps another name for the Virgin Mary who was always bedecked in flowers, at least when displayed in grottoes in Italian churches.  Or a saint who transformed something into a flower, or who is the patron of flowers like Saint Francis of Assisi who is the patron saint of birds and is always shown in religious pictures with birds on his arms and head and eating out of his hand.  That’s why people in the park feed the pigeons and mumble on about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he concluded.

He always wondered about the religious numbering system.  He knew that Christian Science churches got at least up to The Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist; and the Baptists up to nine.  Where was the first one?  In Jerusalem, maybe; although the Christian Scientists were not that old and the founder didn’t have a Biblical name like Isaiah or Ezekiel or Ecclesiastes.  It was something simple and American like Mary Baker Eddy or the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith.

Bandy had always thought that real churches had to be founded thousands of years ago, not in Upstate New York or Wyoming; and the high-numbered Baptist churches were modern-day inventions, put up quickly like a barn-raising and given a numeral.

The South had more churches per square mile than Bandy had ever seen.  Not only were there hundreds of Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches – enough to provide pew space for every soul in the Delta, on the Black Prairies, in the Piney Woods, up in the hollers, on the bayous or in some canebrake or other – but there were hundreds of storefront churches.  Churches of the Light, The River Life, The Gospel Way, The Beacon Light Fellowship. 
Every Sunday in the summer when the doors of these former gas stations and petticoat stores were wide open you could hear the hollering and yelping, Praise the Lords, and the bellowing out of hymns. 

The parking lots of the mega-churches were full up.  Inside the preachers spoke of repentance and salvation in front of a TV screen as big as at Verizon Center.

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Atheists were always a fascination. They were not simply indifferent to religion but fought hard to defend atheism, and to criticize church, belief, and piety. Being an atheist in America must awful, Bandy thought.  At every turn there was some attempt to corrupt the pure secularism of your vision. 

Christmas was a circus sideshow and nothing more, atheists sniped, and Easter was just as bad.  It was not just the impossible myth of resurrection, that most elastic stretch of the imagination, but the baby chickens, eggs, palm trees, and once-a-year piety that exercised them.

Bandy had to admit that there were aspects of churches that he liked.  He had been told by a priest that there was a saint’s relic entombed in the altar of a Catholic church.  When he asked what constituted a relic, the priest told him that it could be any part of the saint – bits of bone, usually, because that is what survived the centuries; but it could also be bits of hair or toenails.  Bandy wondered how the Church managed this since there were so many parishes in America alone; but assumed that if the bits of nose or ear cartilage were small enough, there should be plenty to go around.  Here is what Bandy found on a Bible website:
Every Catholic Church’s altar has a relic (a piece of bone) of some saint in it. If possible, the relic is from the saint that the Church was named after when it was built. If not possible, then the Vatican sends the relic of another saint.
The next time you’re in a Catholic Church, ask the priest to show the place where the relic is placed in the altar. You may not be able to see it, but you will be able to see where it is embedded in the altar.
What a relic is: A relic is either part of the physical remains of a holy person after his or her death, or an object which has been in contact with his or her body. The most important relic is that of the Cross of Jesus Christ, which is traditionally held to have been discovered by St. Helena during her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 A.D.

Non-believers find it strange that the bones or pieces of someone’s dead body should be embedded in an altar - very primitive and pagan and far from the supposed illumination of the Early Church Fathers and the Holy See.  The reference to ‘an object which has come in contact with his or her body’ was included later when the Church expanded and thousands of new altars built.  Saints touched thousands of objects in their lives and there should be no shortage of relics.  So, who knew what actually was in the altar?  It could be a spoon, a trowel, a shred of cloth.

Bandy, however, was delighted at the sheer showmanship of the Church.  The mystery of the Mass, the invocation of Jesus Christ himself on the altar, the wonderful chasubles, miters, gold censers, finely-carved crucifixes, the resonant voices of 100-men choirs were wonderful. Not only was Mass a spectacle of sound, light, costumes, processions, and  music, congregants were in the presence of God himself.  Only the great Mesoamerican pagan religions could possibly match that.

For the Orthodox, saints are an even more important than for Catholics.  Every church has icons which are kissed; and sarcophagi with saints’ relics to be touched and embraced.  Priests who look like Magi emerge from behind a gold iconostasis, swinging incense-filled censers and chant solemn, resonant chants. 

What a wonderful place for children.  So many things to do and see!  They get to watch a great parade led by the priest, all dressed in magisterial robes and gold miters, followed by his acolytes holding candles; crawl under saints’ tombs, run around the nave and see who can cross himself the fastest and the most often.  Bandy wished that he had been brought up Orthodox.

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Bandy had no religion, but he was neither agnostic nor atheist; nor was he a seeker, rummaging through Eastern religions for a match.  He was simply nothing.  He had no spiritual aspirations whatsoever.  If he passed a church and had a desire to go in, it was to see the goings-on.  In fact, he rarely passed up the opportunity.  Church was the big top, burlesque, vaudeville, rock concert, and county fair all rolled up into one.  Where could one see such costumes? Such melodrama and low theatre? And the music! Whether it was a giant pipe organ playing the processional at High Mass, amateur off-key choirs, the remixed Christian soft rock announcing the arrival of the preacher, the solemn litany chanted by the priest, or the thundering hymns of the congregation, it was wonderful.

India was his favorite country for the sheer inventiveness of Hindu ceremonies.  The  kumbh mela is a celebration that takes place every six or twelve years at one of the seven sites in India.  Over 70 million people participated in the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2007. It was staggering.  Just the crowd management alone was impressive. 

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He wished he had been raised as a Hindu, for it was a child’s fantasy.  There were monkey gods, elephant gods, great battles between armies of good and evil, bells, incense, flowers, offerings of coconut milk and rice, naked sadhus, rings of fire, and three-day weddings with horses, garlands, music, and pageantry.  What child wouldn’t like it?

Surprisingly, churches could be funny: 

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Or:

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And:

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There were never any of these signs in front of Episcopal churches since they have always been at the top of the social pyramid, home to the 400 Families or the WASP elite, understated and reserved. No theatre there like in the black Baptist churches of the South.  An Easter Sunday at any one of them is pure finery, women dressed to the nines especially the hats:

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Or:

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And:

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Unitarians seemed to have no humor and no pageantry at all. No floppy hats.  Very serious.  The fate of the world was at stake.  It wasn’t really a religion but a meeting place for thoughtful and socially conscious individuals.  He found this precept of a Unitarian Church in Riverside, California.  OK, California gives it more of a hippy-dippy appeal, but still:
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals and plants. I vow to live simply and practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I will not steal or posses anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, and I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth. I will not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the world.
Bandy Wallace was very happy that America was one of the most religious places on earth.  There was a lot of politics that got mixed in with belief, and it was hard to tell the difference between a politician and a preacher; but the country would be a lot duller place without church. 

The mainstream churches were hurting for congregants, he had read, losing market share to the storefronts, megachurches, and televangelists; but this was a good thing.  The old-line churches were becoming dull and ossified– too much liturgy, common prayer, and patriarchy.  What people wanted was video-game entertainment, American Idol enthusiasm, game show hopping, skipping, and laughter.  And blood-and-guts hell-fire and damnation.  They wanted to smell the sulfurous fumes of hell, see the ghoulish face of Satan, and have room to jump up and down in rapture.  What was the point of religion if there was no rapture, ecstasy, and transformation?

Bandy Wallace in his long life never felt the tug of belief.  He had no desire to believe, was never tempted by belief, was perfectly happy knowing that he had been one of the random events occurring in an infinite universe; or that he was imagined, or imagining.  He didn’t want to die, but never was afraid because who could be afraid of nothing?  His indifference to religion was liberating.  He saw Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, all kinds of sexual repression, anger, hostility, and twisted psychotic passion because of religion, and was glad he didn’t suffer from those ailments.  He could talk easily with pastors, priests, rabbis, and monks without the slightest bit of anxiety.  Most people avoided them outside of church because they thought they were being judged; but Bandy knew they were just plain folks, especially when he saw them taking out the garbage or heard them fighting with their wives.

He thanked his parents for never subjecting him to any of the religious fol-de-rol surrounding them.  They were as at home in their indifference as he was.  They never encouraged or discouraged religious inquiry.  Although they could never be true members of the community because of their lack of any expressed faith, they never were hostile to those who refused them entry.  “Very Christian”, observed one of Bandy’s friends about his parents’ tolerance and forbearance.  “Not at all”, said Bandy. “They just don’t care”, an attitude which of course exiled them even farther to the social periphery.

“How can you understand Western art?”, asked a college friend, “when you grew up with no religion.  So much of it is based on the Judeo-Christian tradition”.  Nonsense, thought Bandy.  One could study and understand the influences of Christianity on art without believing in it.  People also misjudged his intentions because of his eagerness to attend religious ceremonies.  They were surprised and a bit offended that he was going to church but did not believe.  At first they thought that he might be converted – that their particular church out of all the rest might be the one that brought him to the light, and that his interest came from the soul - but when they understood that he simply loved the costumes, the music, the emotional engagement, they asked him not to come.

Bandy was a happier man than most because he took things as they came, never judged or criticized unduly, and was more tolerant of politicians, preachers, and schoolteachers than anyone else.  So in the end, religion – or in this case his indifference to it – had an impact on him like everyone else.

Which is why America is the most religious country in the world.  You simply can’t get away from religion, no matter what.













Monday, March 26, 2012

Brandon Blyleven’s Visions

Brandon Blyleven was fourteen when he had his first vision.  He saw the Virgin Mary as clear as day.  She was beautiful and dressed in a long blue robe.  She had flowers in her hair, there was a halo around her head, and she was bathed in a soft, summery light.

When he told his mother what he had seen, she said, “You haven’t seen the Virgin Mary or any other Mary. Go back out there and tend to the chickens”.

Whatever it was, he saw it again, and this time the Virgin Mary beckoned to him.  Again he told his mother who had spared his father the first time, but this time called him into the kitchen.  He sat on the old hardwood chair, staring at his son and pumping his leg nervously.  “Like your Momma told you, this ain’t no Virgin Mary.  If it is anything at all, it is Beelzebub himself all draped in Papist finery calling you to the fires of Hell to be one of his minions shoveling the coal”   A few days later he decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go see Pastor Richards.  After all, possessions were not unknown.  In fact they were common up in the hills, and there wasn’t a year that went by without someone’s cousin up in there having a brush with The Demon.  Besides, Brandon had turned out to be a twitchy, unpredictable kid.  You never knew whether he was going to wake up crying or singing.

Pastor Richards got the calling when he was just ten, and by twelve he was hooting and hollering and thumping the Bible just like a minister twice his age.  He started by preaching on the back porch of his house, a ramshackle old cabin in a clearing, no bigger than a corn crib, and not even fit for hogs.  His father was a drunken tenant farmer, three times evicted by the landlord, but three times returned to his shed-house and told to work by Simon Burgess who could not find any other tenant, white or black, who would put up with his brutal conditions.  “That ol’ cracker, he just like a white muthafucka slave drivin’ Simon Legree”, said the black folk.

When the young Pastor Richards started preaching and got a following, his father saw money it, and when the boy was eighteen, he staked him to the first month’s rent on a vacant, rat-infested storefront in town.  It used to be Dot’s Finery, a store that sold cheap dresses and plastic shoes and had a long notions aisle in the back.  It closed when the sawmill closed and moved to Aberdeen; but if you swept out the rat shit and shore up the timbers, it would do fine as a church.  Richard’s father took a cut of the Sunday tithing, a fine amount after only a year.  “That boy can preach”, said the farmers who rattled into town every week, and indeed he could.  After his voice had matured, he could shake the rafters with his bombast and make every soul tremble with his visions of hellfire and damnation. 

So, when Brandon’s father brought him to see Pastor Richards and told him the problem, the young preacher was delighted, but kept his enthusiasm under wraps.  Drama had to unfold gradually, he had learned.  Don’t rake ‘em and shake ‘em too early.  “Well”, Richards began, “Now don’t you be worried, Pappy.  Sure as God’s rain in April it wasn’t anything more than Miz Crocker’s catfish.  I seen your boy shoving down enough for four people, and that old lady had to hobble back home to fry up some more”.

“I don’t know, Reverend”, Pappy said.  “He done seen that vision twice now.”

“What did it look like, boy?”, asked Pastor Richards.  Brandon told how the Virgin Mary was all dressed in blue and there were tiny lights on her robe that flickered and there was a halo that turned slowly around her head. Each time he told the story Brandon added a detail or two. 

“Sounds like an I-talian grotto, like the ones in Memphis” Richards said.  “That wasn’t the Virgin Mary, son, that was some catfish nightmare you belched up from indigestion. And even if it was a real apparition, what’s a Catholic vision doing in the head of a good Southern Baptist boy?  Tell me that, now, son.  We haven’t had any Catholics here since the Tombigbee overflowed her banks; and I certainly don’t preach any Papist nonsense in this church.”

“But I saw her, I really did”, insisted Brandon.  “Twice.  And the second time she beckoned to me, asked me to follow her.  It was real, I swear.”

“Look here, Reverend”, said Pappy.  “Maybe it was the catfish, but let’s just say that it wasn’t, and it was the devil all wrapped up in Papist finery.”

“And she was beautiful”, interjected Brandon.

“Now don’t you go putting sex in it, boy”, said his father.  “Bad enough you was infected by devil-made Papist imagery without you corrupting your soul any further”

“Now, calm down, both of you”, said Pastor Richards.  Why don’t you both go back on home, and let’s just see what happens. If you see it again, we’ll do something”.

Richards knew that Brandon Blyleven was a nutcase and would see his vision again.  It happened all the time in his church.  You could always tell who would have them, the ones who never made sense even when you talked to them about the crops or the weather and who had this kind of unhinged look.  They were the ones who always stood up and shouted the loudest during his preaching, the ones who crawled up the aisle to get saved for the third or fourth time.  They saw plenty of visions, most of them predictably Biblical – God in his celestial raiment, bearded and august; Jesus resplendent and beatific, ascending to heaven surrounded by cherubic angels; all manners of brilliant lights, strange, perfumed winds, and ‘presences’, unexplained ‘feelings’ of spirits or demons. 

He always listened patiently, like a good psychiatrist, never offering opinions or value judgments, letting the personal spiritual revelations have their day.  Most people loved their visions and didn’t want to be rid of them, embraced them, and incorporated them into their lives.  Life without them would be bereft of meaning, a cold, solitary place.

Others did want peace and healing.  The visions were embarrassments at best and torture at worst, and Richards did his share of hardwood kneeling and hallelujahs.  This usually worked for a time and for the simply neurotic, the women who had reached their limit with drunken, wayward husbands and speed-freak children.  For the cases of the deeply psychotic he called Madison County Services.

Pappy Blyleven was in a different category.  He was as wild-eyed crazy as any cracker zealot in the South.  He would have made a good preacher except for his fixation on hell and damnation, the devil, and the darkest vision of life Richards had ever seen.  Blyleven’s world was all twisted black shadows, threatening thunderclouds and tornadoes, looming mountains, and scary vast, desolate plains.  Where he got the solace to keep him afloat and functional Richards never knew; but when he walked in with his loony son, he saw money. 

After Brandon’s third vision, Richards knew it was time.  Pappy had demanded action. “I pay good money to this church, and I expect something for it”, he hollered. “My son’s possessed.”

“Earvin”, the pastor began calmly, using Blyleven’s Christian name, “you know that we Baptists don’t believe in exorcism or any of the perverted rites and rituals of the Roman church.  We believe in our personal relationship with God and our Living Savior, Jesus Christ; and on that foundation – that powerful and mystical bond between the Risen and the Hopeful – we will ask forgiveness, for yes, we are all sinners….,.”

Pappy saw that Richards was preparing to deliver one of his famous orations, and while the preacher’s engine was till warming up, he turned it off.  “We get it, Reverend.  Now what are you going to do?”

Pastor Richards regained his composure, a bit irritated that his own vision of the redemption of this young boy had been interrupted, took a breath and said, “I will do something, Earvin, most definitely, yes.”

“Good”, said Pappy, and the shaking silhouettes and looming thunderheads receded. “Let’s hear it.”

“I don’t believe the boy’s possessed”, said Richards, just visited.  Nothing demonic yet.  She just gave him a scented calling card and seduced him with promises.  We don’t have to call in the cavalry.  Here’s what I have in mind”. 

Richards outlined the event.  It would be a latter-day baptism, held in the church instead of by the Tombigbee.  It would be a baptism which cleansed, purified, and washed away sin and would be a protective shield against the devil.

“Look at it this way”, explained Richards.  “It’s like a coolant flush of your car’s engine.  It removes all the built-up debris from miles of wear.  At the same time, it is renewing, rejuvenating, redeeming your engine block, giving it internal cleanliness; and most importantly it is protecting your engine….”  Here the pastor faltered.  The automotive metaphor was failing him.  A coolant flush doesn’t renew, he thought, nor really protect.  What does it do, actually?  Have I spent all that money on nothing?

“In any case, we will baptize Brandon again, invoking the spirit of the Lord, and asking for His protective graces.  That will do the trick”.

Word quickly spread through the small town that Pastor Richards was going to do an exorcism.  Most people had seen The Exorcist, watched movies about Vatican mysteries and diabolism, secret codes and mumbo-jumbo, and couldn’t wait for a down-home, Mississippi version of that exciting, far-off rite.

“Well, it isn’t an exorcism, exactly”, explained Pastor Richards.  “It’s more a ritual protection – a kind of preventive maintenance….” (He was happy that he had regained a grip on the automotive metaphor)” … so that worse things won’t happen to his soul”.

He never expected the crowd at his simple Third Church of the Redeemer.  There was no rhyme or reason behind the numerical ‘Third’.  He had seen the First Union Methodist Church, the Second Church of Christ, Universal, the Fourth Baptist Church of Christ; and he thought why not jump to the head of the line.  Not that there were many First and Second Churches of the Redeemer, but just in case, be prepared and be ahead, very American.

By the time he was ready to begin, not only was there Standing Room Only, but people were jammed around the front door, and children were held up on their parents shoulders to get a good view.  Pastor Richards was in his element.  He started slowly, and with no one to brake his engine, revved it up high and soared with thunderous oratory.  His voice rose with passion and excitement, then dipped and calmed, soaring low over verdant valleys, then rising again; and with his Bible held high in one hand, and the fist of his other shaking at the devil, he walked over to the center of the altar where he had placed Brendon Blyleven, the huge zinc tub, covered in faux silk and filled with water, and the four male acolytes dressed in white verger robes, complete with cowls and sash which Richards had borrowed from the Episcopal Church in Aberdeen.

“O, Beelzebub”, he shouted, grabbing Brandon by the shoulders, “keep your distance from this young man.  Keep your salivating maw far from his gentle heart.  Keep your foul vulture claws away from his soul.  Back, demon, back!”

The congregation yelled ‘Amen’ in unison, and were swaying to the rhythm of Richard’s deep voice rising in passionate crescendos, falling in softer, calming cadences.  “Be gone from this boy”, he said softly.  “Be gone from this town”, he threated more loudly.  “Be gone from this county.  Be gone from this country……”; and in a final, brilliant bellowing exhortation, “Be gone from the United States of America”. 

The crowd was beside itself.  They forgot the amens and hallelujahs, the unison, and themselves.  They whooped and hollered every time Pastor Richards dunked Brandon, head and shoulders into the tub, and every time he came up drenched and spluttering. After four times Brandon was coughing and spitting water left and right, and Richards knew it was time to stop.  He concluded with words of assurance.  “The devil has gone from this place”.

The tithing was more than generous, it was overflowing.  Never before had the pastor had a Sunday like this one.  He had the women of the church prepare a lunch – lots of sausage and biscuits, corn bread, buttermilk, and tea.  Brandon was the center of attention.  The old ladies came up to him and touched him to see if there was anything demonic still in him.  The children just stood around and gawked.  They weren’t sure what they had seen and would have to wait until their parents deconstructed the event for them.  The farmers stood around and spat tobacco juice in the corner of the parking lot, talking of crops, rain, and the exorcism in that order.

The local papers ran articles on the event.  For a small town, there were surprisingly three papers.  The daily, the paper of record, said simply, HUNDREDS TURN OUT FOR RELIGIOUS RITE IN CETONIA.  The rag, the crime-and- fire weekly led with THE DEVIL IN OUR MIDST!  The newest and most temperate and thoughtful entry, covered it on the third page with CAN FAITH AND REASON CO-EXIST?  Attendance at the Third Church of the Redeemer tripled, and eventually Richards had to relocate to bigger quarters.  Rumor had it that he was headed for big-box church territory and that he had put money down on a big lot in Alton. 

Brandon kept seeing visions, but the devil never showed up, so most people figured that the exorcism had worked; or maybe the visions were really the Virgin Mary; or most likely that they were the result of bad wiring in his brain no different than the shakes some people get. 

Brandon, despite the visions – which he kept entirely to himself by the time he got to high school – became a successful businessman.  He went to East Mississippi Community College for a year, transferred to Mississippi State, and then got a job with Georgia Pine and Lumber as their Assistant Regional Representative in Meridian. 

There was an article on the Internet recently in Advanced Psychology which talked about the phenomenon of what they called ‘benign visions’ – a kind of mental FUO or Fever of Unknown Origin, an occurrence which is not pathologically harmful, goes and comes with infrequency, and can have remarkably salubrious effects.  Some fevers gave a momentary clarity, a reduction of stress or anxiety, a brief change in perspective which helped restore emotional stability.  The same with visions, apparently, which is why Brandon never complained or sought help.  The Virgin Mary, or whoever she was, was a friend, a solace, and a restorative.  He looked forward to her visits, was a bit sad when she left, but knew she would always return.

Most people in the County thought that Brandon Blyleven was simply as wacko as his father and Pastor Richards, and whenever he returned to visit his parents they viewed him as damaged goods selling lumber; but so were the twists and turns of life; and in a small town, anything that you can imagine happening usually does if you live long enough.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cowboys and Indians

My sister and I used to play cowboys-and-Indians.  I was always the cowboy and she was the Indian.  She whooped around the back yard with feathers in her hair and war paint streaked on her face, and I chased her in full Western regalia – cowboy hat and boots, chaps, embroidered shirt with faux mother-of-pearl buttons – firing a six-shooter cap gun.  My game, my rules, so she had to be killed most of the time; but I let her brain me with her tomahawk, an old rubber reflex-tester that my father used to bang patients’ knees, and scalp me with her Bowie knife.  She grabbed my scalp – a bunch of scraggly plastic hair that she had hacked off three discarded dolls and woven to human size and streaked bloody with red paint – and howled through the trees with her trophy held high.

We loved watching cowboys and Indians on television.  My sister loved the Indians, especially the way they rode bareback and thundered across the plains skewering the cowboys with arrows and bashing their brains in at close range.  I wanted to be a cowboy, firing my rifle at full speed, no hands on the reins, picking off redskins left and right as I led my troops into battle and then stood victorious over a plain of dead warriors.

That was my image of Indians until recently when I began to learn about the Choctaws and Chickasaws of North Mississippi, the Creek Wars, the War of 1812, and the early slave trade in South Carolina.  The Choctaws and the Chickasaws were far from the naked savages of my childhood.  After decades of trading with the English and the French by the early 1800s these Indians ate off of fine China, dressed in European finery, traded profitably with the Europeans and the new Americans, and were powerful allies of the United States in the Battle of New Orleans.  There Andrew Jackson, with an army cobbled together with Tennessee militias, Indian warriors, freed slaves, and rural recruits defeated a powerful British Army.

The Creeks were ferocious fighters who had never submitted willingly – through treaties or alliances – with the Americans; who, unlike the more complaisant and settled Choctaws and Chickasaws, had listened with enthusiasm to the  Shawnee Tecumseh’s plans to create a trans-Indian alliance strong enough the throw the invaders out of Indian lands.  The Creeks’ violent northern faction, the Red Sticks, had massacred hundreds of white settlers at the battle of Fort Mims, and in part because of this desire to see the Americans chased out of Indian territory, they joined forces with the British.

The Creeks had dominated all of the South-East United States up until the 1600's when the Cherokee, and later the Europeans, forced them westward to Alabama and ultimately to what is now known as Oklahoma. The Creeks and other tribes displaced the earlier indigenous tribes of the Mississippian Culture (800-1500AD) – a culture which had many similarities with the highly-evolved civilizations of Mesoamerica but was being decimated by European diseases and internecine warfare.  The metropolis at Cahokia, for example, was characterized with Mayan-type tiered structures called ‘mounds’ a term which does not describe the architectural complexity and beauty of what were really pyramids.  There have been suggestions, largely based on the pyramidal structure of their architecture and on the clay votive sculptures, that the Mayans may have been in the Mississippi Valley.

In any case, the Mississippian Culture was highly evolved and characterized by the following attributes:

  1. The construction of large, truncated earthwork pyramid mounds, or platform mounds.
  2. Maize-based agriculture. In most places adoption of comparatively large-scale, intensive maize agriculture, which supported larger populations and craft specialization.
  3. Widespread trade networks extending as far west as the Rockies, north to the Great Lakes, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east to the Atlantic Ocean.
  4. The development of the chiefdom or complex chiefdom level of social complexity.
  5. The development of institutionalized social inequality.
  6. A centralization of control of combined political and religious power in the hands of few or one.  (Copied and edited from Wikipedia)

The Creeks and other Indian tribes were both slavers and enslaved in the colonial era in the Southeast before they moved west.  They and other Indian tribes had always practiced a form of slavery which was more like the feudal chattel system practiced in the earliest colonial era where enemy warriors, captured in reprisal raids, were considered  replacement labor and incorporated into village life.  The Creeks assisted European plantation owners in recapturing fugitive slaves; and in fact often kept African slaves themselves.

The Europeans and Americans originally captured and kept Indian slaves, but with the emergence of the lucrative and burgeoning African slave market, abandoned the practice.  Indians were not reliable slaves in any case.  They died in great numbers from European diseases, could easily escape into the bush and rejoin their tribes or join forces with slaves in rebellions and mutinies.  They were also not considered as physically strong and able as the Angolan slaves who quickly populated South Carolina in the early part of the 18th century.

In short, the earliest Indian culture of the Alabama-Mississippi region was highly evolved; and although the tribal cultures to follow were less developed (more traditional hunter-gatherers and subsistence settlers), they were by no means the wild savages of cowboy-and-Indian lore.  Shortly after the arrival of the British and French in the Americas, they established trading links with various Indian tribes, including the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks.  These commercial relationships were valuable to both sides and enabled the Indians to become familiar enough with European culture to be able to conclude alliances, contracts, and treaties.  They of course were singularly unsuccessful in these negotiations.  All the Choctaws got from their strong alliance with Jackson and the Americans was to get pushed west of the Mississippi like every other Indian tribe. 

It often takes circumstance and location to take history out of the dusty archives of scholars; and it has been during my stay in Mississippi – the former lands of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks – that I have had the interest in studying the complex political, social, and economic dynamics of Indian-European-American relationships.

Better late than never.  While the distorted images of Native Americans, whether the savage scalpers of the Plains or the drunken Indians living on dirt-poor, windswept reservations in South Dakota, will remain, at least now I understand that the contact between Europeans and Indians was as complex as any such cultural encounter.  It was neither better-armed white colonists and settlers firing away at defenseless Indians, slaughtering with vengeance and impunity; nor stealthy Indians attacking out of the woods and raping, eviscerating, and beheading women and children – although both were true; but a complex relationship based on mutual dependency, aggression and self-protection, diplomacy and war no different from the politics of Europe.

History is history, and I take no sides.  I listen to the spewing of revisionist vitriol – the European devils infecting, enslaving, and slaughtering Native Americans in the name of greed and filthy lucre – but pay attention to the dispassionate historians who identify, decipher, and illuminate the inevitable give and take of political enterprise.  Who did what to whom is less important than why did they do it?  What was to be gained and lost?  What of the struggle is common to all struggles?

I listen to the same impassioned rhetoric about slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, but pay attention to the historians who analyze this historic clash of cultures – how radically different social, philosophical, and economic systems were at stake then and how the legacy of that period is still alive today.  It took visiting and staying in Mississippi to elicit my current deep interest in that period.  It was the battlefields, the cemeteries, the statues of Confederate soldiers in the town squares, the vast, beautiful, white cotton fields; the cannonballs embedded in the townhouses of Vicksburg, the persistent and continuing argument over states rights (the very issue that troubled Lincoln and moderated his policies towards the post-War South), and separate congregations of black and white (no different than Washington, DC) that made it imperative and inevitable that I study Southern history.  Someone once said that you cannot understand American history without understanding Southern history – a gross understatement at best.

As a historian speaking at the Annual Conference of the Mississippi Historical Society in Columbus recently noted, most people know at least something about the Civil War; and most know nothing about the War of 1812.  Had the British defeated Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, they might have won the war, and America would be a very different place today – it was that important.  The Creek Wars were critically important precursors to the larger war to follow, for they set forth the Indian-American-British alliances which were to characterize the conflict.  Southern history for me became a far more complex study than I had imagined.  To understand it you had to go back to the Mississippian Culture, to Desoto and the first Spanish explorers, to the Indian wars and alliances, to the mind-boggling switches in colonial power – the French, the British, the Spanish, the Americans all claimed parts of the Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida Coast and up the rivers northward – to the consolidation of the Union, to its dissolution, to its reunion, to its near re-dissolution during Reconstruction, the fraying and rending of the Union during Civil Rights, and the resurgent divisions occurring today. 

My sister and I still talk about cowboys-and-Indians in the backyard.  She has confided that she hated being the Indian all the time.  Even though she ran around the flowerbeds whooping and hollering, savagely hacked off my bloody scalp, and hung it on the clothesline, what she really wanted to do was to shoot the cap gun.  We both remember the television wild rides on the Plains, the ferocious Comanche or Apache warriors and the pounding hooves of the cavalry, and the heroic victory of the bluecoats.  My wife’s nephew has been working on the Pine Ridge Reservation for two years, trying to promote Permaculture to the Indians.  There is the never-ending movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins to something less offensive, but it has been complicated by the fact that many Indian tribes have expressed their pride in the Indian emblems of hundreds of sports teams, chosen because of bravery and ferocity. 

After my many years visiting the South and in particular Mississippi, my view of Indians has changed completely.  I should have known better, but then again there is only so much time and room on the mental hard drive to gather and store information; but I am just beginning.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where Did You Say You Were From Again?

New Brighton is as good a place to come from as any.  Everybody has to be from somewhere, although you don’t realize it until you’ve left.  I never knew that I was from a small Rust Belt city with four factories, a park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and more Silesian Poles than anywhere outside of Poland until I went to New York for the first time when I was eight. When my father and I got off the train at Grand Central Station, I felt that half the people in world were getting off with us; and when I joined the thundering herd in the great, high-ceilinged, echoing marble vault of the Main Concourse, I knew it must have been the other half.

We took the ‘A’ train to Yankee Stadium, a steel rocket that careened uptown with the noise of a hundred New Brighton factories and jammed fuller than a Texas cattle car.  There were crazy people everywhere I looked.  A man whose face was painted like an Indian and who wore a fluorescent-colored beanie with a propeller on top lurched from side to side down the aisle of the car yelling about Jesus.  He stood in front of me and my father and asked, “Are you saved?”.  I was scared, wondered why my father had brought me to this awful place, and wanted to go home.  When we arrived back at the New Brighton station – an ancient, one-room wooden outpost smelling of kerosene and creosote, but whose uneven, creaky and worn floorboards were familiar, I knew I was home.  The next day when I woke up, I knew I was from New Brighton, Connecticut.

I have met many people who sighed when I asked them, “So, where are you from?”.

“Depends”, they said, and went on to identify where they were born, although that really was incidental and inconsequential in a life led in a hundred places, in army bases scattered from Frankfurt to Seoul. They were from an army base of a thousand doors, all opening onto the same parades, filled with the same drilling soldiers, salutes, bugles, and the never-changing, boring repetition of grey barracks, hospitals, and runways.  Where they were from now was where they were from – at least to satisfy the question; but they really were placeless, itinerant travellers.  They envied those of us who had clear childhood memories – the hammering of the factory machines in the basement workshops on Arch Street; the white frame colonial houses of Madison Street – historical plaques with the years1811, 1758, 1732 inscribed in old brass; baseball on the Green; agates on the playground behind the Vernon School.  Our memories had taste, color, fragrance while theirs were indistinct.  The base at Seoul was no different from that in Luzon except for the heat, the humidity, and the palm trees outside the perimeter.

I have met many people who were from somewhere but who couldn’t go back like the stateless Gujarati who ran an Indian restaurant in Moroni, the main island of the Comoros.  He had spent the last ten years petitioning the United Nations for some form of identification that would allow him to leave this desolate volcanic outcrop in the middle of the Arabian Sea - Casablanca-like Letters of Transit at least which would get him to Ahmedabad and to his family. He was a sad, big man, who missed his home. There was also an unofficially stateless Italian who certainly had at least one passport, and who was in the Comoros because he was fleeing something or someone.  I suspected that the Italian and the Gujarati were not the only two foreigners who had washed up on the basaltic rocks of Moroni and paid for their welcome.

There were people like me who said they were from somewhere they weren’t.  I was from New York for my first year in India.  Just the sound of the name had so much more excitement and allure than that of my own decaying home.  Everyone of course saw through the scrim of my fantasy.  Everything gave me away – the Polish-influenced broad -vowelled, high nasal accent.  Yale, Lefferts, and Marland Country Day School were stamped on my clothes like the scarlet letter. My  demeanor, my speech, and my wife reeked of Old New England.  Who was kidding whom?

I had one friend whose charade was far more transparent than mine.  I at least knew New York and had been there many times and had lived there for a year or so before leaving for India; but Herman Schwartz was not only a Brooklyn Jew; he was the Brooklyn Jew – deli inflections, rat-a-tat-tat delivery, offhanded sarcasm, chutzpah, and he was a ringer for Woody Allen.  “I’m from Hawaii”, Herman would always say, and no one believed him either.

I have lived in Washington, DC for nearly 35 years and now claim it as my home…except when I am in the South.  “I know you live in Washington now”, new acquaintances in Mississippi would drawl, “but I asked you where you were from”.  A lot rides on the answer to this question, and saying Washington was obvious temporizing.  Everyone knew that Washington was a transit stop from somewhere else to somewhere else.  “I was born and raised in Connecticut”, I soon learned to say.  

Now that my parents are no longer living, and the home in which I lived for 60 years has been sold to a developer, I doubt I will ever go back to New Brighton.  Perhaps in another ten years if I am still around, I will feel the need to go back home, to take one last walk through the park, drive through downtown to see how it is doing, or down Broad Street to see if the Polish neighborhood has once again reverted to Puerto Rican, been transformed entirely, or remained the same.

Washington may have been my home for years, and I may be from there now; but the day will soon come when I am asked where I am from, I will say quickly and without hesitation, “New Brighton, Connecticut”.

Employers–Keep Your Hands Off My Facebook

The assault on privacy not only never ends, but escalates, gets more intrusive, and more dismissive of individual rights every day.  The latest episode concerns demands for prospective employees’ Facebook passwords.  It apparently is not enough for employers to browse through what is put up publically, but want to see what is posted only for our friends. They claim that all social networking posts are by nature public, and therefore they have equal rights to them. In an informative article, Chase Kell of The Right Click, has outlined the problem and its dimensions  http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/right-click/employer-requesting-facebook-login-raises-privacy-concerns-171352409.html 

Justin Bassett, a statistician from New York City, was minutes into what he thought was just another job interview when the standard discourse had quickly developed into an invasion of privacy.

He had just finished answering a few typical character questions when the interviewer began to search for his Facebook profile. But when it was discovered that Bassett had made his profile private, the interviewer quickly requested his login information.

Bassett immediately refused, stating he didn't want to work for a company that would request such personal information before withdrawing his application. Since the report began making the rounds online, many have voiced their concern over the intrusive request.

"It's akin to requiring someone's house keys," said Orin Kerr, Federal prosecutor and law professor at George Washington University in the Globe. Kerr adds that he finds such a request to be "an egregious privacy violation."

Although all this seems cut and dry to me – if you have password-protected your information and deliberately restricted its access, then how can anyone outside that security circle possibly get in?  America being what it is, however, there is always legal wiggle room. 

The author goes on to cite some measures that are being taken to protect individual privacy, but they are not encouraging:

Questions have since been raised about the legalities of such a practice. Both Maryland and Illinois have proposed legislation that would forbid public agencies from requesting social media access….

Facebook's brief statement on [a recent legal case] declared that they forbid "anyone from soliciting the login information or accessing an account belonging to someone else," according to Techspot. Section four of Facebook's terms of service clearly indicates that "you will not share your password, (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account."

Perhaps most discouraging of all is the following:

Echoing that sentiment is the Department of Justice, who considers it a federal crime to violate the terms of service of a social networking site, although admitting that such violations "would go unprosecuted." [my italics and bolding].

The Department of Justice is no different from the police patrol in a crime-ridden city responding to a report of a stolen bicycle.  They nod politely and do nothing. Bigger crimes to solve. However, if enough bikes are stolen to indicate a crime wave or some organized theft ring, they will act.  Government (and Congress) will never act because they will never be pushed to do so.  Why?

First because the country is just coming out of recession and jobs are even more important than ever.

Baltimore resident Robert Collins was interviewing for a security guard position last year when he received a similar request.

"During his interview he was asked for his login information for Facebook so the interviewer could check for possible gang affiliations," according to a Techspot report. "Despite being shocked at such a request, he complied, stating that he needed the job to provide for his family and felt he had no choice."

[Economists have observed] that "as the job market steadily improves, other job candidates are confronting the same question from prospective employers, and some of them cannot afford to say no."

Second, those of us not in the job market and concerned about invasion of privacy issues are beginning to wear out.  There are simply too many such issues to keep track of and pursue.  Surveillance cameras, Patriot Act, TSA, Google, Facebook, cookies….where will it all end?

Third, most Americans are simply not that interested in privacy issues, and willingly trade prying eyes for consumer convenience.  We like the fact that Amazon knows what our preferences are and can suggest a new book or movie without us asking or searching.  We feel that surveillance is a necessary element in our war against terrorism and crime.  Perhaps this is different.  When we begin to realize that what we innocently put up on Facebook may not be innocent at all to a prospective employer, then we may act. 

Imagine what an employer could look for – and I don’t mean giggling over the pictures of you noodling under the Eiffel Tower, but using sophisticated software that can read millions of bits per second, flagging all words, phrases, and images that he/she has coded in. 

The argument is often used that firms with ‘security’ interests need to carefully screen their employees just as the FBI, State Department, and Peace Corps are allowed to do.  Of course ‘security’ can be interpreted many ways.  I worked in the very competitive world of international management consulting.  There, as in most aggressive industries, information was extremely valuable.  A disgruntled employee or just one who has decided to leave for another company and wants to feather their nest there, might easily pass on company secrets.  Employees who hold fringe political views and who express them, not uncommonly, with anger and hostility, might easily disrupt the harmony  of the company community, thus eroding its ‘security’. 

Even companies that are not overtly concerned with security, would not refuse an offer to screen all job applicants if the screening process were simple, quick, and affordable.  Sophisticated software meets all these criteria.  I once stayed in a hotel where I wanted to use the Business Center computer to print an airline ticket.  Whenever I tried to login to my Yahoo account, I kept getting an ‘Unauthorized Access’ warning.  The brief explanation was that ‘inappropriate material’ was found in my emails.  This meant that the hotel software in milliseconds had ‘read’ all my emails and found something objectionable.  Later I went through them and could find nothing; but surely there must have been an off-color word, slightly provocative photo, or suspicious hyperlink.

So, for a One-Time Offer of $1000 a prospective employer can buy the Standard Software Package which will screen Facebook references to terrorism, pornography, and extremist political views.  For another $500 it can screen for racist, sexist, ageist, comments.  For an additional amount, it will screen for anti-social statements, rebelliousness, or just plain persnicketiness.

I have written previously about how Facebook itself was guilty of invasion of privacy, agreeing to let the EPA look at the Facebook pages of people in a particular geographic area to determine who was opposing their initiatives; how Google routinely scans emails for key words that suggest possible interest in a consumer product; how we live with cookies because they enable retailers to remember us, etc.  I wrote that the problem lies not only with the retailers but with us consumers – we are willing, complaisant lovers.

This relinquishing of Facebook passwords might be the one issue that can ignite some real civil protest.  We are what we post is now a truism.  We deliberately share ourselves with others, and as we become more and more comfortable with the medium, we pay less and less attention to what we put up.  We know – sort of - that what we write is public; but this is America so we don’t have to worry about our freedoms, we say; but when our prospective employer can see everything I wrote about my trip to Cancun, OMG!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rosswood B&B

I heard once that you could tell when a pig was going to shit by the direction he twisted his tail – corkscrew to the left, shit; corkscrew to the right, nothing… or pig fart. Now why anyone would care to know that totally useless fact is beyond me, but every time I was out in the pen shoveling, I kept looking at these pigs tails to see if the theory was right. There were so many pigs in the pen that there was always one shitting behind me instead of in front of me, and when I turned around to look, the one in front of me shat, so I ended up missing both of them. When I finally did get a look, most often I was too far away or my glasses were too flecked up and gritty to see, so all I could make out was the tail quivering and no chance to see the direction.

I made the mistake of asking my wife what she thought, and she told me it was bad enough that I shoveled Mr. Richmond’s pig shit for a living and now that I was going senile I soon wouldn’t be able to do even that. She always twists what I say and finds some way to turn it back towards me and I’m always getting skewered with my own words; but sometimes when you’ve got something stupid in your head that just won’t leave, you’ve just got to talk about it with somebody.

My wife makes it sound like shoveling pig shit is all I do, which is not true. I am Mr. Richmond’s assistant which means I do tend to the pigs; but I also repair the machinery, bang up the sides of the barn when they come loose, fix the fence line, unclog the chicken feeder, basically keep things running. I don’t mean to take anything away from the farm manager or the accountant; but hell, without me the place would fall apart.

My name is Lyle Bondage and I’ve been here for fifty years, ever since Mr. Richmond’s daddy owned the place. It was a big cotton plantation in those days but nothing like the acreage before the War or after for that matter. Other than the cotton gin, life had not changed much from sharecropping. It still took 100 workers to get the cotton into wagons and over to the gin, tenant farmers worked the land, and the Richmonds and the company store still owned all of them. Mr. Richmond sold off most of the land when his father died, kept about half in cotton and turned the rest into grazing land for beef. His friends told him he was crazy, but he said that he was only going to graze the land up towards the hills which never produced much cotton anyway; and besides, if they could breed cattle in those scrappy lands around Natchitoches he most certainly could here. Now that he’s getting older, he sold off most everything, kept the pig and chicken business going, and turned his house into a B&B – the Rosswood Plantation.

I could understand the cattle business – Mr. Richmond was right about the range land up towards the hills. I could even understand the pig business, particularly because other farmers were getting into it and a slaughterhouse opened up in Leland; but I could never understand why he agreed to let his wife run a B&B. I know she pushed him hard. All their kids were grown, and he was always dipping his wick up in Jackson or losing his money down in Vicksburg on the riverboats. She tried to take her pound of flesh every time she had the chance, bitching and moaning at him, but he just flicked it all away like summer flies. I always had the sense that one day she would move out, but he kept a tight hand on the money and probably had it all sealed up in trusts or Swiss bank accounts where she couldn’t get her hand on it. So running the B&B was her way of planning her escape, although she never did figure out until too late that that no one makes money on those damn things

So we had Yankees where we never had them before – white Yankees who wanted to discover the Blues, black Yankees who wanted to trace their roots; and just plain tuckered out old Yankees who misjudged the driving time from Tunica and the casinos down to Baton Rouge. Miss Emily did her homework, though – dug out the family diaries that dated back to slave times, brought out old furniture that had been stored in the attic and made the house look like it did 100 years ago.

A black family from Chicago tracked their great-grandfather to Rosswood and found his name on the plantation ledger sheet. In 1854 Mr. Richmond bought “Joseph” from a slave trader in New Orleans for $250; and eleven years later, seeing the War coming, sold him at a loss to a buyer in Louisiana for $100. The old Mr. Richmond had been a very careful accountant and every expense and profit had been noted. Joseph had cost $54 a year, including the interest on the loan of his purchase; and he had contributed $544 a year in profits. Everything was in there – amortization costs of the loan to buy him, yearly amounts spent for corn meal, biscuits, overalls, medicine, and boots; and days lost to sickness and holidays.

Joseph had not led a bad life, given what it could have been what with malaria, dystentery, yellow fever killing most slaves before they were forty. He could have been bought by a big plantation owner and whipped silly by overseers, or his children taken as concubines. The fact was he was treated well by the Richmonds, and his new owner put him to work in the big house.

It would have been better if the family had discovered some awful evidence of brutality or mistreatment. They could have more easily accepted the fate of their relative if their notions of slavery had been confirmed – that Joseph’s children had been sold down the river; or that he had been flogged and beaten. That way there would have been someone or something to hate; but all they found out was that he was a piece of property – valuable property that had been treated well to protect the owner’s investment; bought to supply needed labor, sold to avoid loss. People always seem to want to confirm what they already believe, and are unhappy with the truth even if it is better than what they had thought. Maybe that fact – that he was property no different than the cotton gin or a mule team – was even worse.  I don’t know.  Not my history.

Miss Emily was a lady all through the family’s visit, never showed a trace of what she must have been thinking. Her great-granddaddy was one of the biggest slave owners around and the Richmonds and the Stantons – her family – married each other so many times over the years that one of her relatives must have been around when Joseph was picking cotton. She was a Daughter of the Confederacy and went down to Natchez every year to help all those old ladies out with Pilgrimage. She’s related to half of them too, and when they get together they don’t just talk about their children and grandchildren, but family from 100 years ago. Pilgrimage is the only time of year any air gets into some of these old houses, and when the widows try to make the place presentable, they always find a diary or letter they never even knew they had. When they all get together they reminisce. “Oh yes. I do remember Colonel Stanton. He married the daughter of Mary Brillings but the poor boy lost his life at Chancellorsville before the year was out”. They all had diaries and letters, and since Natchez was such a small place the story of one family was the story of another; and they talk as if it all happened yesterday.

As far as black people were concerned, they still tended the garden, worked in the kitchen, and made the beds. They still yessum’ed and Lawdie me’ed just like the slave days, and since these ladies never left their houses how would they know that the rest of the world had changed? They saw black doctors and lawyers on daytime television, but none of it made any sense since the last time they checked, black people were still doing the cleaning up.

As far as poor whites were concerned – hillbillies, crackers, and trailer trash – they should have stayed in Tupelo, period.

The South I grew up in hadn’t changed much since early plantation days either, but my recollections were nothing like Miss Emily’s. Crackers and colored both worked until they dropped and had nothing to show for it when they hit the ground. My daddy walked barefoot out of the hills in 1925 and did colored work – planting, picking, and baling – until he took over a tenant farm near Lorman. The Depression nearly finished him off, but he managed and worked forty more years until he died a thousand dollars in debt which took me and my brothers ten years to pay off.

Now, Mr. Richmond – I mean this Mr. Richmond – hasn’t had a bad day in his life. He’s worth over a million after the sale of all his land, he’s got me to take care of the pigs and chickens, he got his wife out of his hair with the B&B, and has a little pussy on the side. My wife says I couldn’t give a goddam about the money and don’t have the ambition to even think about running Rosswood; and all I want is ‘on the side’ which is “in your case only Jeanette Harper’s sour pussy; and Lord knows she ain’t saving it, but she sure isn’t giving it out to the likes of you”. When she goes on like that I know she loves me because I haven’t cheated on her for years, and twenty years in bed with the same woman when a man is passing through his itchy years is an accomplishment.

Oh, my wife got her pound of flesh all right. After all the “How could you’s?” and “To think I trusted you’s” she went after the hair in the sink, the piled up garbage, the dirty dishes, the socks under the bed – the hundred things that bother women all the time but generally they keep quiet about to keep the peace; but that they remember and save up for times like this.

“How many times have I told you to put down the toilet seat after you go”, she said, slamming the seat and the cover but knowing full well that our deal was that I raise the seat after her and she puts it down after me; but that’s what a pound of flesh means – no logic, just hammering away at the most insignificant things just to piss you off and to watch you keep your mouth shut. I didn’t fight back because I knew enough about women to know that they eventually get over it, particularly if you reform or at least look like you’re reforming. I was pretty bare-faced about my lies, which is another thing women hate – that men always try to get away with things and never grow up. I was sorry for what I did – not the hot sex I had with Myrna Rocque for three years, but for screwing up, if only temporarily, a good marriage. So for the last ten years sexual references have been off the table for discussion; and that’s why when she made that comment about Jeanette’s pussy I knew she still loved me.

Jeanette, by the way, lives in the trailer park outside of Leland with her common law husband. It’s folks like Jeanette and Eugene that give the South a bad name – living in a banged up, rusted out trailer, two broken down cars on cinder blocks by the front door; Eugene hauling shrimp up from the Gulf to Memphis and pissing on his wife on the way up and the way down. When Eugene is on the road Jeanette hangs out at Rodney’s, our local bar – still the only bar in Leland despite folks talking of the “renaissance” that’s supposed to happen thanks to the slaughterhouse. “Look what happened to Greenwood after Viking Stove came in”, people say; but if anything the slaughterhouse has run Leland into the ground even more than it was before. The only people who are willing to work there are illegals, and no matter how many environmental regulations the government enforces, the town still smells of guts and pig parts.

Jeanette means well, and the guys are sorry for her what with her deadbeat husband and all; but she gets sloppy drunk and puts her hands all over whoever is sitting next to her at the bar, working her way up his jeans. Now, every cowboy in the bar just dreams of some pussy doing that to him, sucking his ear, breathing heavy, fingering her way up his pants; but not Jeanette Harper. No matter how horny you are, it’s hard to ignore her floured-over acne pits and the flubber pushing out of her shorts. “Now listen, Jeanette”, Sam Perkins said one day. “I like you and all that, but maybe some other time.”

“Some other time? What other time, you limp-peckered cracker?”

So we have Rodney’s, and the Richmonds have the Cypress Hills Country Club. They have stopped going there together – polite as their friends were, they made it clear that the bitching and yelling had to stop; and since the Richmonds were still in battle mode, it was simpler just to stay away. For a while the Richmonds behaved, but soon the dinners began to deteriorate. “Pass the butter”, he would say, and without looking, she slid her hand along the tablecloth to the butter dish, primed two fingers behind it, and flicked it an inch in his direction. In response he would shovel his food and play with the salt shaker until she finished.

The silent treatment dinners soon ended, and she began to hiss and spit at him: “….refrigerator….Texas….pigs….” None of it made any sense, but all she cared about was sinking her fangs in to him and draining poison into his poor, hillbilly ass. “You bastard”, she shouted finally, and stomped out and left him there looking at the scraps on his plate.

Of course she thought she had won, throwing down her napkin and huffing out like an opera diva; but he just went downstairs to the men’s grill, joined his buddies, and drank until closing. At one o’clock in the morning he and Parker Ames came roaring up the drive, spinning gravel on the flower beds, howling drunk and totally unrepentant. “I got a woman”, sang Mr. Richmond, “way cross town. She’s good to me, oh yeah”.

Even on our worst days Gussie and I never were as bad as that. All our bitching and pissing went on at home or maybe at Rodney’s; but everyone there did it so it was no big deal. It was kind of entertainment when two people got drunk and got out the cutlery to carve each other up. First the little paring knives, slicing off little bits; then the kitchen knives, carving out bigger chunks, and finally, if they’d had enough Rodney’s Own, the cleavers. When people got going, Rodney turned down the TV and served a round of drinks on the house. One of the drunks always started yelling at one of us customers to take their side, so eventually we all got into it. Nothing ever came of it. Nobody ever had enough money to split up and move to another county, let alone get divorced; so we’d drive them home, let them sort things out in the morning, which they usually did because the next night they’d be back all lovey-dovey.

No matter what she did, Miss Emily couldn’t get many people to stay at Rosswood. It was just too far away from anything to be attractive – no historic homes, no casinos, no Mississippi River. There were no jacuzzis or a swimming pool. It wasn’t even on the way to someplace else. Having so few clients was discouraging. Not only was Miss Emily not building up any equity for her eventual move away from Mississippi, she was bored. Mr. Richmond used the B&B as an excuse never to be around, and she spent her days watching TV or meddling in my business.

One day she got a reservation from a French couple and thought that maybe her fortunes were turning. One Frenchman might be the beginning of a flood of French tourists – finally visitors who would appreciate her efforts at restoration and respect for historical tradition. She took off the dust covers on the furniture, laid out her best china, and gave the house a thorough cleaning from top to bottom. This being the South most cobwebs were working spider webs, and it wouldn’t do to have the French couple see a big brown recluse splayed out in one of her Federalist cornices.

She needn’t have worried – there was nothing that she could have done to elevate Rosswood in the eyes of the French couple. Auguste and Danielle smiled at her “minor” cabinets, sideboards, and dressers; smirked at her “irritating” faux bois, shook their heads at the primitive portraits, immature ceramics, and peasant rugs. They oohed and ahhed over the Mallard bed in the Richmond Room, but Miss Emily knew that Mallard was a Frenchman, and so took no satisfaction in their comments; but went through the rest of the house with dismissive replies on everything else.

Miss Emily made the mistake of making them French toast for breakfast, which would have been all right if she hadn’t made such a big deal about the French part. They do eat more or less the same thing in France, stale bread soaked in eggs and fried; but there is one major difference – the corn syrup. From what I hear, putting corn syrup on pain perdu for a Frenchman is like putting dog spit on it. The French have this big thing about putting sweet things where they don’t belong.

For dinner, of course, there was only Rodney’s, and since they went fashionably late Miss Emily’s guests hit the regulars deep into their fifth or sixth Bud and rancorous. They don’t get many outsiders, one or two Northerners a year, and no foreigners, and it was if the French flag was raised to a cannon salute when they asked Rodney to explain each and every bourbon and blended whisky. They wanted to know about depth, “persistence”, whether it was high-toned or zesty, how it treated the palate, and all about its degree of balance. Rodney was a good host, said he couldn’t rightly say, but gave them some Old Maker’s to taste. They winced, frowned, and pursed their lips. “Too sweet”, the man said. “Yes, much too sweet”, said his companion.

This exchange ignited the far end of the bar where Jeannette was working on Harry Peters, and Bob Matthews, a Vietnam vet, was at the bobble head stage of his drunk. “What about Iraq?”, he yells across the bar. “What about Normandy?” Auguste and Danielle pretended that they didn’t hear or understand, but Bob had had enough Old Maker’s of his own to fire another volley. “And what about Dien Bien Phu?”

The South has a proud military tradition, and we have always given our finest to the Armed Forces; but who knows what Auguste and Danielle thought when they saw wild Bob Matthews - Army jacket with American and Confederate flags sewn on the front; stained baseball cap with paratrooper insignia; ratty beard and straggly, greasy hair - leaning in their direction.

“Yeah. Dien Bien Phu”, shouted Jeannette.

Rodney had no burgers working, so he filled up a dish of peanuts and slid them in front of Bob. “Don’t try to shut me up, you suds pusher. There’s honor at stake here”; and with that he rolled off his barstool over towards the French couple who by now couldn’t pretend they didn’t see him coming. Bob stood over them and butted his beer belly up against Auguste’s shoulder. Here was their worst nightmare come true – a fat, drunk, ignorant Southerner pissed off at them. Bob swayed and tipped, his belly thrusting forward and sucking back. Rodney came over, gave the Frenchies a smile and a “he don’t mean nothin’” look, and set down three shot glasses of Wild Turkey. Giving another bourbon to old Bob might seem to some like throwing oil on a hot fire, but Rodney had been bartending for a long time. Bob sucked the shot down, shook his head as it hit home, whipped his scraggly hair around like a dog shaking off water, and started to sag towards the floor. Rodney nodded to Bill Barker, another regular seated next to Danielle, who grabbed Bob’s cowboy belt, pulled him up and hoisted him into a booth like a sack of corn meal.

On the way out the French couple hissed and bitched at each other just like everybody else at Rodney’s. Rodney said that of course he couldn’t understand a word of it, but he knew when a man was getting hammered; and my ironclad case about the squabbling nature of women everywhere got another rivet.

“Where’d y’all eat last night?”, asked Miss Emily the next morning as she served her honey grits and country ham. “Eeet was terrible”, said Auguste. “Eeet was so….sordide”. It was many things from what I could piece together from the boys at Rodneys the next day and maybe sordid was one of them, but only if you didn’t come from around here or drink at Rodney’s and have nothing to do other than pig farm or cut cotton; so off went another round of tourists who come South with the expectation of understanding rural traditions, small town hospitality and community, and leaving for the same reason that most of us have gone North.

I told Miss Emily not to get discouraged and that with a little persistence she would attract a better class of European. Not all of them would be as huffy as Auguste and Danielle. She tried every gambit there was in the B&B business. First there was Agro-tourism – quiet vacations on farms and plantations for people to enjoy peace and tranquility – but tourists don’t want a real farm; they want the illusion of one. The first tourists sucked in by Miss Emily’s website were sorely disappointed that pigs shat, mosquitos bit, and that it was hotter than hell in Mississippi. What she didn’t know was that successful Agro-tourism B&Bs have empty animal sheds, one horse fenced in a back field, a few halters and pitchforks laying around, icy air conditioning, and a “farm” breakfast in the morning.

Then she billed Rosswood as having a “child-friendly environment” and built a small playground in the back, a water slide in the pool, and stocked video games and movies. Miss Emily was agog when at breakfast she saw the children of one of her first families build forts out of their pancakes and eggs, make swales out of their grits, and pour milk down bacon gullies and over sausage dams. The parents thought all this was cute and creative and just smiled when they dropped an apple on the food diorama and splattered soggy bits of breakfast on the juice pitcher. The kids used the parlor as a playground, and the playground as a place to throw rocks at each other. They watched TV in their parents’ room, nicked and dinged all the furniture, and knocked the birdcage so hard off its stand that the parrot flapped off most of his pin feathers.

Finally she billed Rosswood as a “meditative” place of comfort and had me build fish ponds, rock gardens, and plant reeds around the swimming pool. She bought crystals and incense and piped Indian music through the house which when she was through spanned three decades of counterculture artifacts and decorations. The problem was that the d├ęcor pleased no one and turned off everyone. “Incense….How Sixties”, said one. “What actually does one do with crystals?”, asked a survivor of those years.

Mr. Richmond kept up his high living. The poontang and gambling went on for years until one Spring he began to spend more time at home. I knew that there had to be some coersion involved because in normal times he would avoid Rosswood like the plague, but there he was more often than not huddled with his accountant and what must have been Jackson lawyers from the look of them. The crowd down at Rodney’s had seen it coming of course. They knew that gambling and pussy are dangerous enough in their own right; and when hooked up, downright lethal. There was a lot of discussion as to what was the most lethal combination – pussy and gambling, pussy and drinking, or gambling and drinking – but nobody could agree. “Depends on whether you’re paying for the pussy”, said Lem Hammond.

“Hell, don’t get fixated on the economics of the situation”, said Gus Treacher. “Free pussy is just as dangerous. Young pussy can get you locked up; sneakin’ pussy can get you a divorce; nasty pussy can give you AIDS”

“Yeah, but drinking is behind most young and nasty pussy. Lookit what you went and done with Tweedy Marples’ daughter.”

This was all neither here nor there; and whichever theory was right, Mr. Richmond’s combination was deadly enough, and he went broke. First he sold off the back forty, then the rest was parceled off and dispensed with. He and the lawyers cut a deal with the county authorities, and he was able to sell the land to developers. We’re about equidistant between Natchez and Vicksburg and not that far from Jackson, and the developers saw potential in the site for retirement homes. The environmentalists put up a stink, but most of the rest of the county was happy that finally the population hemorrhage would stop, and we would have more people spending money here.

To make a long story short, Rosswood ended up as a pig farm surrounded by retirement condos which didn’t do much for the B&B business. In any case Miss Emily, seeing that she had to get her hands on whatever assets remained before they disappeared, initiated divorce proceedings and eventually moved to Memphis. I ended up as the manager of the farm, which meant I had to handle the accounts as well as the day-to-day operations of the business. I have to say that it has been a success, and we probably should have invested more in pigs long ago. My wife, Gussie, is happy the way things turned out. She thinks there is still some potential in restoring Rosswood to a B&B, but I have not been encouraging.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Good People Do Bad Things

David Brooks has written an interesting article in today’s New York Times (3.20.12) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/brooks-when-the-good-do-bad.html?ref=opinion about human nature.  “Why”, we ask, “Do good people do bad?”.  Brooks wonders why this doesn’t happen more often since we are programmed from birth and down the millennia of human existence to be self-protective and aggressive and to expand our perimeters and secure our interests. 

John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside.

This worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.

Frank Bales, the topical subject of Brooks’ article is the young soldier who massacred 16 people in Afghanistan recently.

Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

This is a normal reaction, affirms Brooks:

According to [the worldview that prevails in our culture], most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.  This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves.

As in the Chesterton quip, we who have been schooled in Christianity believe that Man is evil, expelled from the Garden of Eden is shame and sin; and that redemption can come only through Jesus Christ.  Christianity notwithstanding, Nietzsche espoused the theory of ‘beyond good and evil’ – that is, acting on those very basic and primitive impulses of self-protection, acquisition, expansion, and security without the guilt and recrimination imposed by society is the highest form of human expression

As Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:

…life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation….

Although we may not admit it, we admire Nietzsche’s Superman.  In this very politically correct world, in which religion, morality, and the strictures enforced by both  dominate and reduce the individual to a flaccid, herd-following being, we would like to be Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, or Macbeth.  We would want to, as Nietzsche puts it:

sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage [to a world where hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule are the conditions of life and must be present “and must therefore be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced”. 

Shakespearean characters (and those of Christopher Marlowe, especially Tamurlane), are the embodiments of pure, unalloyed, untrammeled ambition – the perfect expression of Nietzsche’s theory of the pure will of the Superman, an amoral striver beyond good and evil.  A simple, but familiar example from Machiavelli which Shakespeare espoused in Antony and Cleopatra:

Love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break at any time they think doing so serves there advantage

Machiavelli also commented on law and force, suggesting that princes need law, but there are times when only “beastly force” will suffice.  In short he, like Nietzsche, understood that accession to power requires setting aside the more bourgeois assumptions of morality; and is famously remembered for his conviction that while love of the people can be useful, it is fear that is the most instrumental tool in gaining and retaining power.

Machiavelli also commented on law and force, suggesting that princes need law, but there are times when only “beastly force” will suffice.  In short Machiavelli, like Nietzsche understood that accession to power requires setting aside the more bourgeois assumptions of morality.

Human nature, however represented by the Bible, Shakespeare, or Nietzsche, is neither good nor evil but simply exists.  Shakespeare was especially good at chronicling the endless cycle of history and describing the human nature which underlies it.  Jan Kott has observed that if one were to lay out all of Shakespeare’s Histories in a row, we would see what he calls The Grand Mechanism at work – the same palace coups, plots, duplicity, greed, desire, and ambition played out over centuries. Why does history repeat itself asks Shakespeare and Kott?  Because an immutable and ineluctable human force underlies it.

As Brooks observes:

David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.

One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummeled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder — crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him.

These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.[Italics mine].

There are, then, three types of people – 1) those who have successfully incorporated the principles and moral precepts of society and who, despite their evil thoughts (as above 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women), repress them and lead ‘normal’ lives; 2) those who do not live by the rules and express in the most primitive and savage ways the bestiality of their natures; and 3) those who live by Nietzsche’s rules. 

These last are Supermen, whether the Tamburlaines or Genghis Khans who ride out of the Steppes to maraud, conquer, and acquire from Europe to Japan; the Richard III’s,Macbeths, and Edmunds who plot to accede to power; or those who live within the law but on its edges, fulfilling desires to conquer and acquire without the ethics and morals of what Nietzsche called ‘the herd’.

Brooks adds another category – that which includes Robert Bales; people who have always lived well within the margins of society, who have subscribed willingly and even happily to its rules (what could be more structured and disciplined than the military?), but whose containment vessel springs a serious leak.  Robert Bales has to be a freak, we argue. People just aren’t that way:

When somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.

Most of us live within the rules and devise others to keep the antisocial, pathological killers at bay; but we also secretly admire the Supermen, the amoral heroes who express their true, basic, and fundamental natures.  

The closest we have come to both realizing and admiring this primitive potential is by acknowledging it within a psychological theory:

Self-actualization is the organism's master motive, the only real motive: "the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive...the drive of self-actualization"  or  man's tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities...to express and activate all the capacities of the organism." (Wikipedia)

In one brutal act Robert Bales raised issues that we have long chosen to ignore – the nature of war and the stresses that can release primitive urges; human nature; and the nature of good and evil – and David Brooks has discussed them all intelligently and well.