The longest I ever stayed in one place while growing up was five and a half years spent in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a quiet little collection of modest brick-faced houses off Airline Drive. Every house had the obligatory white painted faux antebellum pillars and genuine wooden hurricane shutters graced every window. The Mississippi River flowed past on its way to the sea a few miles to the West. Many impressions of this time are like coffee stains on a sheet of letter paper in my mind.
That interlude was the first time I became truly aware of other cultures. Of course I had been aware of black folks but due to the segregation policies in place in my neck of the woods, I had little interaction on this front except for the close relationship I developed with our maid, Delores, a seventeen year old domestic, fountain of love and encyclopedic folklorist. The only full-blooded Native Indians I had seen were on the silver screen. I met mixed-race Cherokee kinfolk at a giant family reunion when I was very young in East Texas.
I was around eleven years old before I encountered a real Chinese boy. He wasn’t too friendly when I went across the street to knock his door and introduce myself at the insistence of my Mother. I had unceremoniously interrupted the viewing of his favorite show, Iron Sides. He brushed me off pretty quickly, so his Mom took me to the kitchen and showed me how they kept a pet cricket in a little bamboo cage. It was fed a single grain of Louisiana rice per day and besides bringing luck, she told me it sang a lovely serenade to sleep by at night. That was one of the first times I recall verifying something I had read about in a book with my own two eyes.
I also remember two Iranian brothers whom I played with at the Unitarian Church while the big people talked. They, like the Chinese boy, wore long-sleeved white linen shirts buttoned up to the neck in the 90% humidity and relentless soul-sapping sun. None of them liked to climb trees or catch snakes, so I usually spent more of my time with other friends. They did, however love science and we had very interesting talks under the oaks whenever we got dragged to Church.
One boy, Shaheen, would draw equations and diagrams with a stick on the dry clay ground. Although many were beyond what my class was covering in school, under his narrative style the concepts were easy to grasp. His tuition was like being told to go get a bowl (an open mind) and then having it filled with scoops of home-made vanilla ice cream (in the form of mathematical symbols). Lastly, he would hand you a metaphorical spoon (fashioned from one possible useful application of the formula) with the implied question, “Now, Michael, what do you think this is for?”
Once I was settled into school, I began to notice that there were two kinds of school children. One one side, the gray slacked, white-shirted Catholic boys with their gray-skirted, white-bloused sisters and everyone else. The Catholics had a newer school bus, better hand-writing and as a rule, didn’t mingle too much with the children of other denominations. Many of them smoked. Over time, I became aware that they were by far the majority in our neighborhood and were nearly all of Italian descent.
I became friends with two brothers who lived a few houses down the block. Their Grandma lived with them, which I thought was great until I learned that the woman was a bitter, evil-tempered crone. The boys’ father was a nice man and it was he who invited our entire block over to his house so we could watch Walt Disney on the very first color TV any of us had seen. I can still remember the gasps that echoed through that crowded room when the Peacock logo of the broadcasting station spread its multicolored tail plumes.
The Mama, named Josie, was a very nice woman and I spent a lot of time watching her in her garden if the boys weren’t home when I happened to come calling. She grew tomatoes, basil, oregano, eggplants, lettuce, radicchio, garlic, rosemary, onions and such. She allowed me to watch her convert this into huge vats of pasta sauce in one of the best smelling kitchens I have ever attended. They spoke Italian in the house among each other and I started to get used to being in non-English environments. Several times she appeared at our door at supper time bearing a basket of steaming fresh home-made Italian bread. I can still smell and taste it fifty years later.
I started to wonder at this point, why, in light of the fact that my own family carried Welsh, Swedish, Cherokee, German and Irish blood as well as Canadian and American nationalities; that we seemed to be so culturally sterile compared to this first ethnic group I had begun to have contact with. I wasn’t aware that my ancestors longer number of years in the melting pot had blurred many distinct characteristics and customs into a palimpsest that could only reveal its secrets to a close observer. A Nordic-Celtic-Teutonic-Brythonic-Aboriginal could thus easily pass for a Tom Sawyer, even in his own mirror.
Further to this, for many folks in my situation, the task of re-acquiring culture is incumbent upon them if they care to know where they came from in order to know who they are. The job requires reading, travel, visiting kitchens and a lot of music. I chose that road way back then and I am still engaged in that work as far as my finances have allowed. I believe it to be the most rewarding, frustrating and illuminating task imaginable. Along the way I have discovered previously unknown sources, separations and confluences. Particularly in food and music.
Being among people who’s language I couldn’t decipher strengthened my comprehension of the underlying messages which our species dresses in words. To this day, I prefer listening to songs sung in languages I do not speak so as not to be fooled by the subtleties of the lyrics. Over time, I began to see and hear that men, women, boys and girls worldwide were all expressing the same human joys and woes. The choice of social arrangements, cooking methods, costumes, which accoutrements we call culture and see as distinct, have become to my eyes like team uniforms. Some parts were adopted by necessity of the moment, absorbed from others for gain or imposed by others to detriment. Always, these decorations serve the definite purpose of holding a group together while affording some sense of peace and ease in a very uncertain world.
I take the window dressing of culture with a grain of salt but I also like my food with a grain of salt. Variety is indeed the spice of life and I find myself a bit dismayed at the politically correct smoothie that the world is rapidly becoming with much help and coercion from many sources with extremely deep pockets. I believe that a well-educated, respectful and humble person can visit, travel with or live among any other person or persons who possess those three traits.
Indeed, it is my suspicion that this has always been the case with common folk of all periods in history. Having said this: I will add that where ever and when ever power is exercised by few over many via monetary, political or religious means; the natural affinity, respect and curiosity shared by our species is twisted into superstition, aggression and arrogance. Positing that any group of three humans is practically guaranteed by our very nature to become a functioning unit of two led by one, we may begin to pull the curtain back and see the stage Shakespeare spoke of.
Mad kings, idiot-savants, Mr. Bean cast as Napoleon and a million poor little Cossettes. Followers all, impatiently awaiting signs of weakness in those that they follow. Look, there is a man in a school tie reclining on a chaise-lounge by a window with a copy of The Golden Bough for a pillow, dreaming of the Golden Fleece and a Golden Age. A buxom young woman enters the room and sets down a tray of cheese and a cup of wine on the window sill. She hesitates a moment, giggles and then gently places his hand in a bowl of warm water.
She silently treads out to tell the other servants while his dog steals his cheese. Out in the lawn, gypsies have happened by and encamped. A few men produce fiddles and begin to play while some of their women dance. Their song relates perfectly the sleeping man’s life story in an alien language. The aroma of their cooking wafts through the iron grill waking something deep within him. Grimacing momentarily and then gazing at the strangers below, a smile begins to spread across his lips like the stain across his tweeds. A human laugh older than the last ice-age burbles up and heals everything it touches. Grabbing a bottle of Port off the side table he strides to the door with genuine tears in his eyes. We let the curtain fall closed and ponder this scene as we walk past.
We need our perceived differences in order to be able to grasp the fact that we are the same. When coerced into actually being the same inside and out, in thought and behavior, I would venture that a look into the Galadriel’s pool would teach us that this fruitless, inhuman endeavor will surely have an opposite effect. That is: If we are to remain genetically human. These are options that you have likely never seriously considered which carry consequences well beyond the control and ken of those individuals who have strongly considered them. If some part of you drank, dined and danced with the Gypsies in the paragraph above, while another part of you ran them off the property next morning, dear human, you have already made your choice.
There are people: Whose lack of understanding, engendered by the cognitive dissonance induced by modern public education methods, which actually date from the Nineteenth Century, leads them to become victims of drugging (prescriptive or otherwise) purportedly for the purpose of addressing the endemic flood of brand new disorders caused by this very schooling and by their treatments. People who may “choose” in rather larger numbers than you might suspect to become indistinguishable from their fellows. Caught in a Mobius Strip Idiot Feedback Loop that only a shit-house rat could have designed, they will see no other way if they are cognizant at all. That first big wave who pass through into homogenous anonymity will experience a difficult period during which an out-sized sense of uniqueness fights to maintain the balance in the exquisite equation that was originally expressed as the traits of our human species. They will be well supplied with every manner of chemical, sensory, psychological, emotional and existential escape. When science is bold enough to reveal that it has indeed already “caught up” to the practical challenges of converting humans to self-replicating, sexless, made-to-order specialized work units; a frontier will have been crossed. Only the most ignoble expressions of humanity will remain human by the old definition of that term. Their servants will have become artificially engineered hive creatures.
A not-too-distant future writer pulling back the curtain may reveal a scene wherein a man stands at a window watching in horror as drones belonging to his cousin destroy his incubators. His own vanquished drones litter the same ground where the Gypsies had danced so long ago. A pleasant looking smallish domestic appears to inform him of the intrusion, the destruction and the kid-napping of his sister-wife. It proffers a plate of cheese and glass of wine. Grimacing momentarily while gazing at the carnage below, a numbness descends upon him. It gives him a feeling akin to watching his shadow on a wall being eaten by the shadows of sharks. He shakes involuntarily, slopping the wine over his trousers. He remembers that he hasn’t laughed since his life extension and that one thought poisons everything it touches. Tossing his glass at the door, he realizes that he has lost the ability to cry.
One of my favorite quotes is by Aldous Huxley, a man who claimed to have actually read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, one volume at a time. He said, “My ignorance is encyclopedic.” You may know of him from his book, Brave New World. His brother, Julian was the first leader of UNESCO and in 1947 stated that the task of the organization was “to help the emergence of a single world culture, with its own broad purpose.” I wasn’t at the meetings, thus I wasn’t able to lend any input as to the culture which was to be created. Neither were you, likely as not.
I have been able to see first hand the differences in the education I received and that of my children and to review the published statistics on our plummeting literacy and academic performance rates, particularly in North America. Clearly, either the plans aren’t working if their intents are to be taken at face value. Or they are working all too well if their intent is actually other than stated. As shown above, if highly intelligent men are willing to admit their ignorance to their fellows, should we follow them blindly to what ever ally they lead us down.
I remember trying to help my son with his math homework around the turn of the Millennium. Within minutes we were at each others throats. He was upset for not understanding what he was supposed to do but being adamant that he was required to do the mystery thing in an exact way that was acceptable to his teacher. I was charged up because I easily saw what was the required answer and knew how to get it using methods I had been taught that were now forbidden to use for some unexplained reason. I remember winning the argument and solving one of the problems my way and being taken aside by my son’s math teacher at the next classroom visit. He produced the sheet of homework he had saved and had me go over with him just how I had solved it. His eyes were as big as pie plates and he seemed astonished that it was that simple.
Here below is an example of what I am talking about taken from Straight Dope Blog which can illuminate what confronts us.
“1960: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of this price. What is his profit?
1970: (Traditional Math): A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80. What is his profit?
1975: (New Math): A logger exchanges a set L of lumber for a set M of money. The cardinality of set M is 100 and each element is worth $1.
(a) Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set M
(b) The set C representing costs of production contains 20 fewer points than set M.
Represent the set C as a subset of the set M.
(c) What is the cardinality of the set P of profits?
1990: (Dumbed-down Math) A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Underline the number 20.
1997: (Whole Math): By cutting down a forest full of beautiful trees, a logger makes $20.
(a) What do you think of this way of making money?
(b) How did the forest birds and squirrels feel?
(c) Draw a picture of the forest as you’d like it to look.”
When I was a lad in primary school in Baton Rouge one of the most frequent reprimands I received from principals and playground monitors after being caught for doing some misdemeanor and mentioning in my defense that Johnny dared me to do it, was, “Would you jump off a bridge because Johnny told you to?” I found it highly ironic a few short years later that I was fully expected to go over to Vietnam and kill people who had never crossed my path or wronged me in any way because LBJ told me to. Fate stepped in and my father repatriated to Canada for his own reasons before I had to crack open my Berlitz Teach Yourself Swedish book.
And all this before I had even begun shaving, which brings me to Sammy the Barber. I can see him always in my minds eye just as I knew him when I was his mailman. Going through drawers, stacking business cards, cleaning combs and scissors or simply reclining on his own empty chair watching The Wheel Of Fortune. He was nearly the same age as me but looked ten years younger. One day I caught him blackening his hair and mustache. He grinned and said he would fix mine if I wanted him to and intimated that I would get a lot more attention from the ladies if I did.
I laughed and said in my best Deniro voice, “Hey. Why I wanna do dat? Ima already had tree wives. Why you don’t make me looka poor? Capisci?”
He looked at me carefully up and down, then his face softened into a smile and he bade me to sit awhile and have a coffee. Thus began a four year relationship. I arranged my deliveries so that I got all my business customers taken care of prior to bringing his mail, so we could chat for a while. The shop was small, just three chairs and was located in the ground level of an old-style office complex across the street from Oakridge Mall.
Sammy related how he had come to Vancouver as a young man of seventeen from Calabria and had opened his barber shop straight away. He had watched the big mall come into existence and slowly but surely erode his business. When I knew him, the Cambie Skytrain Tunnel was under construction. This massive four year project had the effect of reducing the revenue of the small businesses along that corridor by half again. Sammy was taking notes and planning to go to court.
It happened that one of the Soccer World Cups was underway during this time and Sammy always switched the channel from his favorite show to the sports channel, so we could watch together. He wasn’t a real fan, he told me in low tones as if somewhat embarrassed and I told him that I had only learned to love the game in 1990 during the Italia 90 Tournament, when a man named Scillacci, an older, unknown player had won the Golden Boot and galvanized his team and his nation. This got his interest up and within a week, one of the Chinese young ladies from the Insurance Agency that shared the ground floor, popped her pretty head through the door and politely informed us that our lusty shouts, cheers and swearing were being heard on the third floor and someone had complained.
When she left, she made it clear that she understood our enthusiasm and didn’t mind personally.
“Sonomabitch!”, laughed Sammy, “The Chinesa lady, she lika da soccer too. I guess we cheer a little bit TOO HIGH!”
If I ever had a worry or concern, Sammy was always ready to listen. I hadn’t enjoyed this sort of luxury with someone of my own gender for longer than I cared to recall and his analysis and advice were precious to me. There was the time my youngest son and his friends had skipped going to the movies as they had told me they would. I had returned home from work to find my son and three friends at my place. This pleased me no end because my son as a rule always went to other people’s houses and never brought his friends home.
I filled a big bowl with tortilla chips and went into his room to talk with the youngsters. They told me they were wanting to walk to the mall and catch a movie. I gave my assent and when I went into the kitchen to make coffee one of the boys followed me out and told me in glowing prose that I was a cool Dad. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I knew it wasn’t going to be good. All I could do was wait. Some hours later as I and my wife sat on our sofa, the boy came in from the shadows.
He is a double Sagittarius and as such he strode to the center of the living room and said, “Mom, Dad, I didn’t go to the movies. We went to the liquor store instead and got a hobo to buy us a bottle of rum. Then we went to the park and drank it. Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about over alcohol. It didn’t do anything for me.”
Sammy reclined back in one of his red leather barber chairs as he listened to me relate the subsequent backlash that had occurred among the other three sets of parents. He gazed at the shelf where stood two small framed photos of his own boys when they were in grade school while absentmindedly rolling a small fold of his black dress slacks between his thumb and forefinger. His other hand was busy twirling the end of his perfectly trimmed mustache. Presently, he spoke.
“OK. Mike, Lookit. OK. He went out wit hisa friends. He got a little bit TOO HIGH. It happens. Happened to me, happened to my boys. Don’t worry about it. As longa he no do it alla da time. Now, datsa different.”
One afternoon, on my way home from the downtown Post Office, I paused for a smoke by a fake waterfall. A guy came up to chat and within four minutes he had convinced me that I could purchase a good quantity of my favorite tobacco at a huge discount. All I can remember of my mood at the time was the certainty that the law of averages must dictate that once in a blue moon, its my turn. The timing of the con was impeccable and his technique was flawless. A half hour later I was conducting the postmortem on my stupidity as I watched my money flying down a one way street the wrong way on a stunt bike.
When I shared this one with Sammy, he wore a physically pained expression during the telling. He would look at me from time to time as if to see if I was having him on. By the time I told him how much I had lost, Sammy was bent at the waist in sympathy and grimacing like he had just taken a shot below the belt. I eventually convinced him that no matter how smart or experienced anyone of any age was, the potential to suffer a similar fate was always as close as the person standing next to you. It simply required a momentary lapse of principals on the part of the victim to allow the culprit to do their sleight of hand. I was embarrassed, angry and disgusted.
“Looka Mike. Ima sorry. Itsa stupid what you did. Thatsa for sure. I see you worka you ass off, ina da rain, ina da snow. Every day. Bigga packs of mail lika donkey. You money isa too hard for you to get it. You donna trow it away to somma asshole like dat. I know the tax is a little bit TOO HIGH onna da smokes. Mike, listen to me. You donna do this thing again, eh? Promise me.”
Some times the roles were reversed and Sammy sought my counsel. At one point, his wife had been to see her own doctor. The young doctor, whom Sammy didn’t like to begin with, had suggested a procedure to her that she was going to do on the strength of his advice and against the wishes and judgment of her husband. It was the most deeply upset I had ever seen him. I listened to his story and his views. In the end I could only share a similar tale from my own life and point out to him that at bottom, if each person didn’t have control over their own body, then what did they have? In this case, I was in agreement with his stance on the matter and that fact offset my defense of his wife’s right to make her own decision enough for him at least get his appetite back.
Another day, a young man poked his head in the door and inquired as to the price of a haircut. Sammy looked down from The Wheel Of Fortune and pointed at the sign on the wall next to the pictures of his sons.
“Twenny bucks for da man.”
The fellow made a face like when you open a new tub of plain yogurt and discover that it is blue and has the texture of velvet. He made a comment about how that was too much to charge nowadays and that so and so over town did it cheaper. He pointed to his cell-phone device as proof.
“You better go over there then,” said Sammy in an icy tone.
The young fellow turned on his heel and Sammy rose up and started sifting through his favorite drawer. Sweeping out bits of hair, stacking business cards and arranging envelopes. He held up a business card to me.
“See thisa guy. He comma here to get hisa hair cut here for forty year. He lives in Seattle now anda still he drive uppa here to cut hisa hair. Sonomabitch! Thosea punk lika dat guy just now. They donna know nothing. Lookit. Heresa how it work. I gotta sign. Twenny bucks for da man. OK. You walka in, you siddown and you shaddup. I cutta you hair. You giva me twenny bucks and you get the hella out. Go home.”
“Sammy,” I said, “They got a $30,000.00 bottle of goddam whiskey at that liquor store next door. When I brought the mail this morning, I joked to the lady that she would be dusting off that glass case for a long time before she ever unloaded that thing. You know what she told me? She told me they have a big showcase full of that kind of merchandise and that her real problem is trying to keep it stocked. Then she showed me a $13,000.00 bottle of wine. Honest to God.”
“Sonomabitch,” Sammy laughed and slapped his chair with a folded apron. “Mike, I think I gotta retire someday. This all is getting a little bit TOO HIGH!”
I was in Mykonos one time and had spent the day in the company of a local expat who had come to the island from the Midwest to paint Greek fishermen in the 60’s. Within a month she had been seduced, impregnated and abandoned by one of the subjects of her paintings. I met her on the street selling Greek Fisherman dolls she made by hand. I bought one for my wife and she invited us to her house to have tea and meet her son. During our visit, she told many tales of her adopted island. She said that her tourist business was brisk in season and that she had seen many famous movie stars over the years.
When I remarked that I found it refreshing that all the sweaters and wares were hung up in the pretty narrow streets she adjusted her black eyeglasses glasses and flipped her graying long black hair over her shoulder and snickered. She then explained in detail a procession of the tourists seasons. Different nationalities evidently came to visit at different times throughout the year. I was there when the cheap flights from North America became available due to the fact that the wind off the Mediterranean could cut through the thickest angora sweater in spite of the dazzling sun.
There was a different season for the Italians she explained. During these weeks, as opposed to all others, no merchandize of any value was kept outside for viewing by the public. I asked why and was told that it was as if those guys had a penchant for shoplifting that bordered on being a national sport. I was shocked but duly noted this information in my internal notes to self. It wasn’t a day later I got to trot this gem of worldly wisdom out into conversation.
It was during an impromptu dinner party with a family from Australia. We had met somewhere in town and had agreed to dine together so as to be able to relax from our remedial Greek struggles for a few hours. The food was excellent, the ambient was enchanting and the company was top-notch. I wasn’t on very good terms with my second wife at the time but we managed to put our problems aside long enough to enjoy visiting with these gregarious Aussies. After a few beers, I decided to show my intimate knowledge to those assembled.
With great detail, clever use of metaphor and just the right amounts of humor and gravity, I briefed the table on the Italian situation in Mykonos. The young couple and the parents of the young woman, who were sitting opposite me listened with great interest. So great, that I continued on for some while waxing as eloquent as a salesman on a late-night TV infomercial. At last, I was done and took a hearty swig of beer, satisfied that I had educated my new friends and perhaps given them something which might help them in some small way someday further down the road on another shoreline.
The young woman spoke first, “Moik, moi usband Tony hea, ees Oitalian, eh.”
When the blood left my core a second later, I noticed that Tony’s father-in-law had a firm grip on the lad’s shoulder with a meaty sun-spotted hand. Tony face resembled an electric element on a stove top in a dark kitchen. We had a collective all too human moment before the old man broke into peals of brawny laughter followed in seconds by his Missus, his daughter and eventually Tony caught the wave of mirth. I ordered another round of beers and apologized with twice the eloquence I had mustered during my diatribe. I have always suffered from Texas Foot-In-Mouth Disease and explained this by giving several examples. My Chinese wife nodded her silent verification of this fact.
That was thirty years ago and as we race into the future, microchips in hand following people we’ll never meet, I may as well tell you, I’m the guy in a cowboy hat chowing down on a big plate of pasta putana in the cheap seats, washing it down with a cup of New Orleans Chicory Coffee, listening to Lata Mangeshkar, reading Lao Tzu to a cat, laughing at myself, crying for us all, eager to hear your stories and happy to share my own. I am a big-eared proud member of our resilient complex species soberly aware of our delicate predicament.
Much ink has been spilled toward the end of convincing those who refuse to use their intellect that the Captains of this world are something other than human. Usually in a very negative sense that draws upon the palette of spiritual duality framed long ago by religious philosophers for presenting the case. It may well be that the problem is quite the opposite. Indeed, if we place this premise on the table of human history and then walk around that table viewing the evidence from all angles, we might discern that the Titans have been seduced, hypnotized and led into a situation wherein their fulfilling of impossible rôles seems the only safe course. Along the way, a type of amnesia of the fact that they are also made of the same stuff as those they have striven to manage, control and profit by with such disdain, has set like plaster of Paris over their best gifts.
I see evidence of a keen understanding by our ancestral stern-faced authorities that humor was long ago identified as a uniquely human gift and a tool as formidable and useful as any edged weapon. The evidence is in the fact that the comic, if properly attired so as to be identifiable as such, has always been tolerated, even when treating topics that are taboo for the population at large in all times, all cultures and in all phases of history. To continue much further on the present course may well lead us to a place bereft of laughter and unwashed by tears. There we will exist and expire to serve unhappy catatonic Commanders once again. This sterilized stagnation will remain until one day a voice is heard rising above the hum, “Hey whatsamatta you people! Eat some cacciatore. You, Boss, siddown, shaddup, I cutta you hair. Hey Buddy, nota my business but with respect, looka to me like you all got a little bit TOO HIGH!”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.