Memoirs of Not Getting Girls Pregnant

One issue that’s crying out for moderate voices is that of abortion. One of the evils of Wade vs Roe is to have made debate on abortion seem superfluous for fifty years, unlike what happened in Western Europe for example during that period.

I am trying to avoid adding mine to the many voices arguing the same, often metaphysical points that are unlikely to lend themselves to compromise. I want to give here a bit of fairly recent history, of personal history, that has everything to do – though in a roundabout way – with abortion and that possesses no metaphysical depth whatsoever.

Reel back a few dozen years. I am a twelve-year-old French boy. As was the case in preceding years, my family is going to spend most of this summer in a small resort town on the north coast of Brittany. (I have written about that lovely place several times before. See my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com) The location is familiar but something is different this year. I am old enough to join the large group of teenagers, up to eighteen, who gather on the second beach, the one away from parents and young children. And, incidentally, at that point, I like girls and I have a fairly clear idea of what I would like to do with them – if they are agreeable.

I am not completely clear-headed about the last point though. Girls have often smiled at me engagingly; several have expressed a lively interest in sitting next to me at the movies. Soon, some of my sister’s girlfriends will spring up at my house more often than is necessary. She is two years younger than me so, it has not obviously happened yet. I am still not good at reading signals but I am eager to improve.

I am retrospectively embarrassed, that is, my American self is embarrassed, to admit how little those French kids did on vacation. We did swim in the cold Channel and that’s about it. Mostly, we lied in the sun trying to get one another’s attention. When we succeeded, during the day, we could always try edging away toward the tall rocks that delimited the beach on one side. You could fool around there out of sight. But footsteps don’t make noise on the rocks so, you never knew when you might be caught red-handed (so to speak). Plus, it was difficult for a boy wearing a tiny bathing suit to rejoin the group without his emotions blatantly showing.

In late afternoon, when people started leaving the beach, it was fairly easy to slink away to the very near old Customs path that followed the cliff line. It had many recesses with tall grass and giant ferns for a couple to sort of hide. If a girl was a bit forward, she would agree directly to go somewhere I hesitate to name. It was an abandoned apple orchard close to the beach, behind a wall and also with tall grass, in the summer. Honestly, the kids knew it as “le champs de la Marie Cul-Cul.” As you may already know, “cul” as in “cul-de-sac,” means “bottom,” or “ass,” so, “ass Mary’s field.” I am afraid I was sixteen before I realized there wasn’t and had never been such a person as Marie.

In any case, on the Customs path and in Marie’s field both, some clothing was shed quickly. Yet, not all clothing came off and that’s much of the story. And, remember, this took place in France where, as per stereotype, neither boys nor girls were prudish (nor their parents). And it was too far North for a cult of virginity to exist. I even remember quite vividly very young girls as kind of openly avid in those days. There was not much timidity.

Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, there was dancing to live music at the municipal casino. Pretty much all of the beach young people and many of their parents attended. That was in the days before rock stupidly made close dancing pretty much illegal. The young sat on one side of the ballroom and the parents on the other. Yet, they all commingled on the dance floor and, of course, parents could not refrain from watching their offspring. Right there, for three hours, prodigious feats of eroticism were performed in full view of the same parents. There was no regulation pelvic distance as I discovered in an American high school a few years later. I still remember the name of a girl who was known to make muffled sounds while dancing close as a testimony to her happiness. Yet, the parents gave no sign of worrying. In truth, they had little reason to worry.

Right outside of the casino were several rows of beach tents stood up in the sand for the duration of the season. A town security guard was supposed to patrol that area of the beach late into the night. Fortunately, he was old, he limped, and his breathing was belabored and noisy. So, as you would expect, there was much action in the tents every Saturday night, a little less on weekdays.

I spent that summer and the next five in the resort town, largely with the same group of young people. We grew together. Young ones came in as older ones left to go on vacation on their own. We learned the ropes and the bathing suit strings together. So, we thus had multiple chances at one another. You might say that whatever was bound to happen between randy adolescents did happen over those six summers, except that one thing. And that’s my main point.

In the France of the fifties, no contraceptives were allowed and prescribing anything for contraceptive purposes was illegal. Those who procured abortions risked many years in jail. Condoms were available in principle because they might be used to prevent disease transmission. I believe that none of the young middle-class teenagers I knew on that beach would have known how to get one. So, was there a miracle, many miracles?

I asked a friend of mine from those days with whom I have remained in touch. She is an MD, a psychiatrist who always struck me, even then, as possessing a keen sense of observation. She is also a friendly soul; she was back then. (Personalities don’t change much.) She would have been in most of the girls’ confidence. She would have known any important secret. She confirmed my impression. In the six years of interest here, she says there was not a single pregnancy alert in our group. And, out-of wedlock pregnancy was not much of an exotic or unrecognizable event. Among the farm folks living nearby – with whom we shared a Catholic church – it even came close to being one of the normal kinds of betrothal.

With all this, it’s possible that an illegal clandestine abortion or even two escaped both my friend’s attention and mine over those six years of observation. It’s possible but quite unlikely because gossip is always rife in large groups of idle young people. My friend the doctor herself was attractive and popular, vigorously, enthusiastically heterosexual, and not shy at all. I think that if she had needed an abortion during hat period, she wold have told me, more than fifty years later. (We became close in our maturity.)

So, here we are: Pro-choice groups tell us that abortion is completely necessary in 21st century USA because adult American women and men are unable to replicate the self-control, the bounded behavior that was routine among French teenagers in the 1950s. There lies a mystery. Just to be clear, let me say it: Not introducing live sperms into the vagina is a sure way to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Abstaining in this manner makes abortion unnecessary. No other form of abstaining is needed.

I ask myself what’s different in terms of self-control and respect of boundaries between French teenagers of the fifties and contemporary American adults. The answer is pretty obvious though its validity is difficult to demonstrate. My teenage group used little alcohol and seldom to excess. Though a Paris sophisticate, I did not encounter any other drug, including cannabis, until the last year of the period under consideration. Today’s America, by contrast is awash in drugs of all kinds. Excessive drinking was still common in this country during the first half of the Roe vs Wade interlude.

I note with hope in my heart that Americans have greatly reduced their alcoholic consumption in the past forty years or so. It appears to me that this was achieved in two simple ways. One was the stiffening and more certain enforcement of drunk driving laws. The other was simply ordinary, rational but formerly self-indulgent and mindless citizens – like me – desisting voluntarily from the irrational conduct of drunk driving. Americans’ self-reform with respect to driving might be followed by similar behavioral change…. regarding copulation, with the same beneficial results. Then, American adults of the beginning of the 21st century might just become as mature as French teenagers of the 1950s!

I am not going to describe here the many roads to fulfillment we young people walked then because I don’t intend to do pornography here, even of the soft core kind. That’s although it seems that many pro-abortion people, women and men both, could use a few practical lessons, a couple of pointers. Let’s just say there are ways. I will add that remembering those days at my advanced age, from the height of a little experience, I am convinced that many teenage girls of my acquaintance then were joyously multi-orgasmic. But then, I am only a man so, what do I know? All I can say is that they sometimes displayed the uncontrolled convulsions the French call, “s’envoyer en l’air” (to throw oneself up in the air).

Many of the rioters against the recent Supreme Court decision would no doubt describe themselves as feminists. So would many deeply embittered free-choicers who did not riot. Yet, by their actions and, especially by their partial inaction, those feminists end up denying agency to women in general. It seems to me they are in effect infantilizing women even by failing to mention paths to bliss that imply zero chance of unwanted pregnancy. Women should be able to choose, not only from legal standpoint but also from that of unobserved everyday life, I think. Everything else is undignified.

One more thing: I know, in the end, there will be women who have children they can’t rear, or shouldn’t rear. And there will be women who are brutalized by the men with whom they are intimate. It almost makes me wonder why American pro-choice organizations have not challenged their pro-life adversaries: Will you promise to ensure that unwanted children are taken care of? Will you give shelter and sustenance to women hoping to escape from a brutalizing relationship?

Or, are they actually attached to abortion? Yes, I know, this is a nearly obscene question. It needs asking.

P.S. On the evening of the day I finish this little narrative, I listen as two women on NPR discuss some of the horrible, cruel lengths to which anti-abortion legislation goes in some states. These would include denying therapeutic abortions to women at the possible cost of their own lives. I have not caught the credentials of either of the discussants but they are persuasive, for a while. Then, I realize they keep referring to “people” who need abortions. At that point, I don’t care about credentials. They are just not credible, as far as I am concerned. By the time I come out of the shower, a few minutes later, they have moved on to arguing in favor of universal public financing of abortion. They seriously want the minority who are convinced that abortion is murder plain and simple to contribute some bullets. Seems to me, we are not close to closing in on a rational compromise, after all. More later if there is a reason.

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Swimming Against the Currents in the Late Afternoon

I am in a testamental mood these days. I know the word does not yet exist. I am just trying to blend together the virtues of “testament,” as in, “last will and testament,” of the Biblical and legal term “testimony,” and maybe even of the term – not so common on the street -, “testes.” So, now, the word “testamental” exists. I just made it up and you all understand it. By the way, I know, there is a word “testamentary.” It does not suit my purpose.

I am old, now, older than I ever anticipated being (80, N. S. !). When I was growing up, life was much shorter than now; so, we had modest expectations. People died at every age of everything and nothing. Antibiotics were few, scarce and expensive. Both the anti-polio and the TB vaccines were invented while I was a kid. My paternal grandmother died at around sixty; my maternal grandfather, at twenty-six (of course, the cause was not illness; it was a German bullet.) My maternal grandmother, his widow, lasted only until age 75. (She left with a Gitane clenched in her right hand.)

Today feels a lot for me like late afternoon. I am swimming in a mostly calm ocean. The sun has not gone down much yet but there is a sense that night is coming. Even the seagulls have gone quiet. So, I look back, infrequently and only superficially, but I do. Overall, I had a lucky and almost charmed life. I was in good health most of my years and so were those most dear to me, or mostly so. I served in the military but my existence was never really threatened by armed others with bad intentions. Mostly, I had pretty much the life I wanted without necessarily deserving it. More on this below.

Emigrating to the US, I morphed in reasonable time from a French high school dropout to an American scholar, not a great American scholar, mind you, a fairly well respected one (1350+ scholarly mentions and counting, according to the specialized outfit ACADEMIA that keeps track of those things. That’s pretty good; ask anyone.) In America, from day one, numerous strangers and acquaintances gave me a hand, or a push upward, even a shove, occasionally. During the hard years, the benevolence of many helped keep my head above water. Even a Chinese restaurant server in San Francisco, regularly gave me double helpings of fried rice for the price of one. He was an older man with whom I did not have a single word in common. I have every reason to feel grateful and I do, every day. America makes everyone better, even the bad guys.

Fast forward a few years. Soon I was teaching college. From then on, I was always involved in research. Yet, I made my living mostly by doing something I liked, telling stories, or teaching, same thing. In the end, I also found a way to get paid for reading, exactly what I loved doing as a child and as a teenager. I retired about fifteen years ago. Since then, I have written three-plus books. The first and the third are in English, the second, in French. Incidentally, the third book, the second recent book in English, is under a nom de plume, the pseudonym: “John René Adolph.” You can just guess why I had to use a pen name. (Or, you can look up the electronic version of the book on Amazon. Warning, not a family reading!) I also wrote a slew of short stories plus a goodly number of political essays. None of the latter is of a scholarly nature. They are more of a kind of fou-fou sociology. So, I had a second career as a writer, one lacking somewhat in seriousness, a career as a moderately and pleasantly frivolous writer. Most of my stories and nearly all my essays are on my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com. Most were also published, after a fashion.

The three books written since I retired are all published by Vanity Press, I am afraid. (A fourth book is in the hopper.) I figured I did not have the time at my age to go around begging commercial publishers to take a look at my productions. From the little I have seen, they treat you very badly. In fact, they generally won’t even talk to the poor souls who think they are writers. They only deal with literary agents. And you need an agent just to get an agent. Plus, I am convinced that unless you write porn or romances novels (same thing, more or less), you won’t find a publisher unless you are serial killer, or a disgraced politician, someone who already has a name! I am not surprised. I always knew, if only in a vague way, that the easiest thing about books, after reading them, is writing them. Do I wish I had tens of thousands of readers? Yes. With the royalties income to match? You bet! Am I bitter? Not at all. Remember, I am talking about my second life.

Of course, I can hear some unsympathetic murmurs from here: you were an unpublished writer. What did you expect? The world is overflowing with people who think they are writers and who have no right to think so. Again, what do you expect? Well, in fact, when I did the first of my last three books, I had already published two earlier ones, much earlier ones, unfortunately. Both books had been commercial successes. One was in French. It had even received a national award in France. It does not count, I was told, because it’s in French. The other was a thin volume in English, published forty years earlier. Too old to count, I was told. I never mentioned my many scholarly publications in that context because that’s the kiss of death for a regular writer, a trade writer. Who wants to read a book by a professor that has not been assigned and the reading of which will no produce a grade?

I have been married twice. The first time, when I was a pretend-hippie, it was for four and half months. The second marriage lasted forty-five years, so far. (Let no one claim that I don’t learn from experience.) My wife and I managed to adopt and raise two children. My academic job gave my talented wife space to be a painter who did not often have to work outside the home. More luck: I really like her paintings; they make me feel rich; I don’t have to pretend. I don’t even want her to sell them. Early on, when we were fairly poor she sold one good one, for a good price. I have not stopped mourning it. And, by the way, I dabbled in painting myself for several years. It’s hard to explain but I have no illusions about the quality of my own paintings. I am what the French call derisively: “un peintre du Dimanche,” an amateur who paints only on Sundays, as a hobby. Some of my many small paintings nevertheless generate much pleasure in a certain part of my brain. Shoot me but I actually like looking at my paintings! Every so often, I give one away to a friend – always with the dim fear that it will end up in his garage. (In my scenario, my friend’s wife orders him to put “this horror” away. Most of my friends are American-born males, of course. Almost all of them are wimps who obey women. This fact irritates the women in their lives, I have noticed.)

There is one more happy thing I need to mention about my life, even if it will not be clear to everyone. Because I lived in California, not far from the sea, because I made a decent living, and because I had plenty of leisure time, including time to travel, a wonderful thing happened to me that I dared not even dream of in my rudderless youth. Between ages 20 and 60, I mush have spent 15% of my wake time underwater. I don’t mean scuba diving, that’s just not chic; I mean free diving, holding your breath. Moving alone under the sea is so different from everything else you know that it’s is like having another, parallel life. The best I can say is that, in my case, it was as if I had had a long-term affair and that my wife approved of it. I would love to tell you more about my underwater biography but you probably wouldn’t believe me. Fortunately, I have photographs as evidence whenever I feel like bragging.

I was born and reared in Paris, that is, in a fairly cold and rainy place (outside of the travel posters). It’s also at the latitude of Labrador; look it up. Daylight there lasts about six hours in December. I realized far into adulthood that had always suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a real and widespread but largely ignored illness. The Paris climate and latitude made most of my childhood unhappy, although I did not even know it; I just thought it was normal to be cheerful only late spring and summer. When I moved to California – latitude of Algiers – for other reasons, my emotional world opened up, like going from black-and-white movies to Technicolor. I became contented on a regular basis, almost year around. My personality even changed from sometimes somber to mostly sunny.

Yet, in my old age, I find myself swimming against more currents than I had hoped for. Three in particular form obstacles to my well-deserved senior peace of mind. It all begun with radio host Rush Limbaugh’s departure from this earth to collect his own much better-deserved reward. I had been listening to him almost every morning for twenty years. Discombobulated, I beat the bushes looking for new radio shows to furnish my mornings. Perhaps as a result of gross incompetence (I wouldn’t put it past me), I ended up with a mixture of BBC World Service and National Public Radio. I know, I know the latter sounds unlikely for a libertarian-leaning conservative like me but, actually, NPR has a handful of really good programs. “How I Built This” is one, the Sunday morning show hosted by the author of Freakonomics is another. And then there is the excellent story-telling hour, “The Ted Radio Hour” that airs also on Sundays, I think. By the way, I would give my left big toe to be invited on that latter show though I have not even applied. Incidentally, I did local radio for three years. It was very interesting, unlike any other experience. It earned me many friends. Ten years later, shopkeepers who recognize my voice still give me discounts.

Anyway, once you have your radio set adequately tuned in the morning, sometimes, often, you don’t get up to change the channel. What you picked at 8 AM. stays with you till noon though the programming has become inappropriate, unhinged from your interest and preferences, or downright objectionable. So, for two years now, I have been served a steady diet of talks, and pseudo-documentaries about sexual crimes and recriminations, diatribes against inequalities (plural) and, of course, alarmist, uninformed preaching about climate change. Together, they spoil the quality of my daily life, of my last swim. They make me feel as if I were working hard against three significant currents. Now, one unpleasantness at a time.

The frequent talk and cries of anguish and claims of being a “survivor,” and confessions, and forced resignations, and voluntary resignations around real and/or alleged sex acts, and acts of a superficial sexual nature that aren’t sexual but are treated as such, blend into a cacophony that is never far out of my hearing. It makes me feel almost like a stranger to the human race. The reason is that it appears that almost everybody – every male human being (“XY”) – as we used to call them, at least, has committed some grave sexual infraction, yesterday or thirty years ago. But I think I haven’t. And it seems that I have lived my whole life surrounded by rapists or near-rapists without a hint of that reality. So, I feel excluded.

I performed a scrupulous examination of my memory from age twelve. (Fortunately, I have a good memory in general, down to small details, except for names.) I am completely certain I never touched a female human being (“XX”) without clear and repeated signals, not even in kindergarten (nor a male human being, by the way). In fact, I was often called “slow” in that area. A French woman my age thus, an old lady, told me just recently that when we were both fourteen, at the beach, she spent a whole summer trying to get me interested. All to no avail. The thing of it is that I liked her and found her attractive. She ended up seducing my brother, a couple of years later, as a consolation prize, I suppose. I am 100% sure I never raped any woman except by insistent, repeated, and clear requests on her part. (Yes, some women’s fantasies swing that way, wouldn’t you know?) Once, when I was about thirty, a woman in my age range even tried to force herself on me. She went so far as to break down my bedroom door lock to get at me. It was more farcical than tragic, actually. I never thought of turning her in although she was a colleague. I am positive attempted rape is different for women though but I am less than confident that you can even mention this nowadays.

Looking to avoid the appearance of sainthood, I dig further. I discover it’s likely that, on several occasions, I used off-color language in the presence of women (cis- and perhaps trans-women; I don’t know) to whom I was not especially close. I shouldn’t have done that and I am very sorry. If there is an excuse for such detestable behavior, it is that I learned it in the bosom of my family. I had a grandfather, a widower, who delighted at family meals in having for dessert several discreditable jokes he told right at the table. The women present, including my Mom, would roll their eyes but their eyes were always smiling, I noticed, even as a small boy. By the way, this is the same grandfather who died in his seventies, in his mistress’ s bed. The mistress managed a good wines and spirits shop. I come from good stock! Enough about near-copulatory events but I still don’t know if I am a saint or a pariah thanks to NPR’s obsession with sexual misbehavior.

Then, there is the issue and the non-issue of inequality. (It’s now often called “inequity,” for greater moral heft.) It comes up several times a day on my radio. First, liberals and, I think, perhaps, most people, routinely confuse inequality and poverty. Here is a small exercise. Consider the following (imagined) facts. This year, my income is twice higher than your income. The following year, my income quadruples while yours only triples. Thus, there is no doubt but that the inequality between us has increased greatly. Question: Are you poorer the second year? Difficult to get the straight answer this question deserves: “No.” But, of course, we are today very far from considerations of simple income.

Nearly every morning, I overhear touching interviews of successful African American women, singers and actresses for the most part. It’s always the same story: How difficult it was to make it in a world dominated by white men. Yet, the most highly remunerated entertainer in the history of the world, the richest, is a … Black woman. (Yes, I mean Oprah, of course.) Go figure! Interviewers, all white upper-middle class females with that particular diction – you know – clearly enjoying their white guilt, never think of mentioning this contrarian fact. Or the great Tina Turner who is quietly enjoying the end of her life in royal luxury on the French Riviera. (Yes, I agree, she earned each and every diamond of it.) There are many other examples. White demi-stars often follow the Black interviewees on the same channels. They all try to find some tremendous obstacle – besides the obvious male chauvinism – they had to surmount. It can be being short, of Italian background, or being born in New York City, or being born in the Midwest, nearly anything will do. At last resort, they can always claim they were molested as children. It looks like almost all women were, at least those who amount to anything or who are on their way to it. (See above.) “Almost all” because my own sisters and my wife never claimed they were molested but then, they were never interviewed on NPR. No, I am not denying that sexual violence against women exists. I also know that in most American states, rape will get you 10 to 15 years. If this does not get predators’ attention, nothing will and it’s time for women to pack heat. As for the horror of child molestation, I blame it squarely on parents’ lack of attentiveness, on their distance from their children.

The inequality narrative is competitive and it often turns almost insane. Recently, on one of those two networks I mentioned, somebody celebrated the anniversary of the first space walk by two women. What is being celebrated here, years later, I wondered? I am sure walking in space is fiendishly difficult and scary. I am a tough guy but I am also sure I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Yet, dozens of guys had done the same before those two women. So, what’s to brag about, that the girls went out of the space station without a strong dude even holding their hand for re-assurance? Isn’t this a self-defeating inequality story?

There is worse. Only a couple of days ago (late May 2022), BBC World Service interviewed a Kenyan man because he had been a member of an all-Black team to climb Mount Everest. The team had been put together by an African American mountaineer who had recruited Black men from several parts of the world. Nice, I am thinking, an international team! But wait, where is the edifying part of the story? I agree that the Kenyan guy had merit. The opportunities to become a good mountain climber are far and few in sub-Saharan Africa. After you have done famed but not that steep Mount Kilimanjaro a half-dozen times, it must get old on you. So, I don’t think at all that the Kenyan climber deserves kudos for his negroid features or for his dark skin, or for the disadvantages unfailingly associated with such features. And neither do the other Black victors over Everest. That Kenyan is in the same league as the beloved Jamaican Olympic luge team of several years ago much of the world remembers well. We are ready to love him because of his location of origin, not because of his race. By the way, any African American in the team was free to live on top of the Rockies and to train relentlessly, and to train several days a week. Same for the Black Canadians, if any. So, where is the big deal?

Here is the very best worst I heard under the general rubric of inequality. I hesitate to recount it lest I be accused of making it up abut I swear it’s true. Someone was discussing on the radio, as usual, the impending end of the world from climate change. Within a couple of sentences, the speaker, perhaps carried away by righteous emotion, asserted that “indigenous communities” would be the most severely affected. Now really, do I have the talent or the nerve, to make this up?

And, by the way, if you consider recent meetings of Defense Ministers of Western democracies you will notice that they look more and more like 1960s coffee klatches, with purses, skirts, nicely done hairdos, and lipstick all over. Which reminds me: the new French Prime Minister is a woman. Did you happen to see all the violent protests in Paris, the riots by Frenchmen who don’t want to be governed by a woman? No, you didn’t! There wasn’t even a murmur. I think that you female dogs are usually barking up the wrong tree. How about directing your attention and your anger where they are really needed? I am thinking Afghanistan, for example where several million teenage girls are currently prevented from going to school at all. Not a whisper from you about this humanitarian disaster.

The gem above about indigenous communities makes me think of the third current against which I am forced to swim every day. I refer, of course, to the incessant hysterical whining about climate change’s impending shutting down of the world. The first personal unpleasantness connected to this issue is that 95% of those I hear pronounce on either what causes climate change, or on its multitudinous consequences, all bad, 95%, I say, are obviously not trained or credentialed to say anything on the subject. (OK, let’s be perfectly honest here. I say 95% in an effort to appear moderate. In fact, I am really convinced that over 99+% have no idea what they are talking about.)

And then, there is the generally low quality of the research endeavor on climate change. Oh, the elusiveness of much needed metrics, the defective metrics, the readily available good metrics ignored, the sloppy collection of data, the faulty and/or dishonest study designs (Remember the hockey stick, anyone?), the haphazard or overly imaginative causal reasoning, the actual suppression of contrary evidence, the blinding omission of what obviously belongs in the discussion! I am referring last to the fact, for example, that nuclear energy produces no (zero) greenhouse emissions yet barely earns any mention from climate missionaries. And how about the benefits of the global warming aspect of climate change; do you ever hear about them? Isn’t it true, for example, that the northern and southern limits of wheat maturation are going to move respectively north and south, making bigger harvests possible?

And then, there is the deliberate disregard of the human (economic) ravages implicit in most of the solutions advanced to remedy the alleged consequences of climate change. I mean the continued poverty of those who are poor now. This disregard leads to blindness toward fairly obvious solutions. Ocean rising? Why not call in the Dutch? Most of them have been living very well six feet below sea level for centuries. At the time, they managed it all with their hands and shovels, with horses and windmills. Too much carbon in the atmosphere? Quickly plant billions of trees that will remain privately owned. It’s pretty cheap, and everyone likes trees, even conservatives like me. Etc.

No, it’s OK, no need to throw me a life jacket. I will just keep swimming. I will manage. I am pretty sure I can reach the next shore in spite of the currents. I am certain, I will make it before the end of the world at least. I am in no hurry anyway. Thanks all the same.

© Jacques Delacroix 2022

Posted in Socio-Political Essays, Stories and poems in French | Tagged | 2 Comments

Fighting for Every Inch of Ukrainian Soil

I ask myself: How much would I be willing to sacrifice to protect the Ukrainians from Russian slavery. The answer is clear: I would take 50% cut in my living standard. That would be maybe not forever but for a long time.

Then, I ask, how much of a cut would I take to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and my level of support drops like a stone. Let me explain. Defending a territory is often the best way to defend the life and liberty of its inhabitants so that the one and the other are almost identical. I believe this is not the case in Ukraine. As I explained in detail more than a month ago it’s likely that the territories Russia seized largely by proxy in 2014, including Crimea, today shelter few people who want to be protected from Russia. [https://factsmatter.wordpress.com/2022/04/24/i-dont-want-to-fight-to-the-last-ukrainian/ ] In fact militias of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from those territories appear to constitute a large part of Russia’ front troops in its attacks against the rest of Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy insists that he wants to recover every inch of Ukrainian territory lost to Russia and to pseudo-independentists. While I find his courage and firmness of purpose admirable, this particular goal leaves me cool. Perhaps, both his resolve and his political thinking belong in the 20th century. Perhaps, that’s why he reminds many of us of Churchill.

When I ask myself, what I would sacrifice to help Ukraine regain its whole territory my mind turns resolutely to forgoing a few beers. I don’t like the thought of helping brave Ukrainians lose their lives for land. In general, some Ukrainians’ – and their president’s – apparently quasi religious attachment to their land rings the wrong historical bells in my head. Let me explain.

I think that very few well educated people today could explain why the vast carnage of the First World War took place at all. After all, there was no obviously evil side (as there was in WWII, for example). The same Great Powers that massacred one another’s men for four years had been conducted brisk and abundant trade among one another, practically until the minute before the war exploded. In my reading* one specific cause stands out in the initiation of the conflict. Let me say quickly that I don’t know that it’s a very important cause of the war, but I think it was a cause, for sure.

There was a willingness and a capacity effectively to mobilize in France, one of the main military powers at the time (first or second). It’s difficult to assume causation but there are abundant proofs in the daily French press that many in the French political class never accepted the loss to Germany of rich Alsace and of the northern half of Lorraine in 1870 (a consequence of the “Franco-Prussian War”).* Schoolbooks, incredibly, kept the sense of loss alive for forty-four years. In 1914, millions of ordinary French men joyfully marched to war against Germans who had not done anything to them for the same forty-four years. World War One killed about 10 million soldiers and sailors in Europe alone. The figure includes my grandfather, First Lieutenant Maurice Adolph, pulverized somewhere near Verdun.

Germany lost. Communism arose in Russia and elsewhere and France recovered Alsace and the half of Lorraine that it has lost. Sure, there were celebrations in Strasbourg, the beautiful capital of Alsace. Frankly, I don’t know who organized them. I do know that there was enough reluctance in the Alsatian populace that the French Republic had to make special rules for that province. (They are fairly mild and mostly about the place of organized religion.) Today, the language of instruction is, of course, French in all Alsatian and Lorraine schools. It corresponds only moderately well to linguistic reality because for many of the inhabitants the language spoken at home is a German dialect. Of course, there has been an influx of others from outside the region who are French speakers (some of them, by default, instead of Arabic, Tamazigh, or Wolof). The European union has made the French-German border largely irrelevant. It’s odd and pleasant little facts that remind you of it. Thus, on Sunday morning, there is heavy traffic on the main bridge from Germany to Alsace because of the many Germans who are coming to enjoy the superior Strasbourg sauerkraut. So why did so many Europeans had to grow up without a grandfather, one wonders?

In total contradiction to what I just wrote, yes, if I could be convinced that taking every square inch of Ukraine back from Russian aggression would be instrumental to keeping the Russian monster at bay for a long time, I would change my position. Different topic.

* Disclosure: My maternal grandfather’s own grandparents had left prosperous Alsace for raggedy central France in order to avoid living under German rule, according to family tradition. My mother’s maiden name was “Adolph.”

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Casus Belli?

Thinking about the Russian destruction of Mariupol and its naval blockade of the remaining Ukrainian sea outlets, including the big port city of Odesa.

I keep reading and hearing commentaries to the effect that the difficulty the Ukrainians are meeting in exporting their wheat, their corn, and their sunflower seeds threatens famine in poor parts of the world.

If the threat of famine is real, I wonder if it constitutes a sort of humanitarian casus belli.

Do we expect to see Western countries attack Russians ships from the air to remove their naval blockade in the name of solidarity with the innocent people of poor countries?

I wonder what the Pope would say about it.

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Islamophobia (My)

The continuing Russian brutalities in Ukraine are diverting my attention from other horrors perpetrated elsewhere in the world.

About ten days ago the de facto government of Afghanistan, the semi-literate Taliban, announced that Afghan women had to cover their faces in public, that they must avoid going out of their houses at all, and that most significant travel required that they be accompanied by a male “guardian.” In the meantime, teenage girls are forbidden to go to school in most of the country. The Taliban took these important measures against a background of famine, as if they were urgently needed.

I understand that the Taliban are primitive people from an earlier age (How else could they have beaten the American armed forces and other modern militaries while fighting in flip-flops?)

I also understand that religion is often the more or less inert and innocent vehicle for repulsive cultural traits and actions. My own ancestors for centuries used a religious pretext to assuage their simple desire for land. It was called the “Crusades” from the word for “cross,” the cross of Christ. I am not a real Christian myself, but I am completely sure Jesus wouldn’t have told them to go ahead and set the Levant to flames and blood. I am kind of familiar with the basic Christian Scriptures. I think they don’t authorize such military adventures (except when you go way back into the Old Testament, when God had not yet become civilized Himself).

I am no a theologian but I would expect many Muslims to argue that the Taliban are misguided from a religious standpoint, in this instance. If I were forced to bet, it would wager that the covering of women’s faces in nowhere to be found in the Quran nor does it appear in the oldest and most trusted Hadith. So, I have been paying attention to different kinds of media, in English and in French, for unfavorable public Muslim reactions to the Taliban barbarity. I would think that thousands, perhaps millions of Muslims who will insist that they care about all human dignity, including that of women, should condemn that particular Taliban’s policy loud and clear.

I would expect some denunciation from some specifically Islamic sources because the Taliban took this anti-woman measure explicitly in the name of religion, in the name of Islam. I fact, I don’t know if there have been such public negative reactions at all. There are hundreds of millions of possible sources of such reactions. I may have missed some. Yet, the protests if any were few and quiet enough to completely escape the attention of this leisurely old man who lives with some sort of mass media about fifteen hours a day. That’s not good enough for a tolerant rationalist like me with no penchant toward Islamophobia. (See below.) This seeming silence makes the worst impression!

Frankly, I did not expect much from within the likes of either Saudi Arabia where they practice this form of oppression, or from tyrannical and murderous Iran (where they don’t). I had higher expectation that voices would arise in Indonesia, where the large Muslim majority used to be open-minded, or from India, where the 200 million Muslims are forced by circumstance. to think of the impression they make on others. Wrong, nothing!

Of course, I just may be factually wrong in some small way, or even in a big way. I hope some will bring any public statements by Muslims on face covering to my attention. If I judge them credible, I will immediately correct myself right here.

I was hoping for comments coming from three more specific countries. The first is Algeria, 95% Muslim but explicitly founded on a secular basis. The second is Egypt which houses what I understand are the most respected Islamic theological authorities, including at Al-Azhar University. Incidentally, I was even secretly hoping that a scholar or two at the latter would discuss the old Islamic idea that adding laws to the Quran and the Hadith can easily become blasphemous. My mistake! The third country is Turkey, simply because it has a large class of nominal Muslims educated in the Western way, including a good acquaintance with the Enlightenment. I have heard and read nothing from any of the three.

My final hope concerned the large, well established Muslim minorities in such liberal countries as the UK and France. I know the situation in the latter best. French Muslims seem to be present in all sectors and at all levels of French society. They are blue collar workers, of course simply because many are recent immigrants. They also direct prestigious medical school hospitals . They are public servants, including at the highest levels, and they are politicians. The best loved French comic appears to be a Muslim and also one of the main popular French singers. I say “seem” and “appear” because I have no way of knowing who is a real Muslim. I can only tell that someone has a Muslim name. I don’t know what’s in his or her heart.

Yet, there are in France Muslim organizations that are explicitly expected to represent Muslims vis-à-vis the civil authorities. There is little doubt that those representatives are genuine Muslims, whatever that may be. These people live in the comfort and with the freedom of a democratic society and they are protected by it. I don’t see why they don’t raise their voices in protest of the Taliban’s barbarities. That is unless, they approve of the Taliban’s treatment of women or unless they are frankly indifferent to it. In either case, their silence where there should be voices raised gives Islam a bad name.

Few of us will publicly comment on this silence but we do take note. That few of of us will comment results in some part from a successful intellectual swindle perpetrated in the West in the past twenty years or so. It has become almost accepted that Islamophobia is pretty much like racism or even a sort or branch of racism. That is ridiculous, of course. Racism depends on highly visible physical characteristics that cannot be changed. The same physical features we know do not allow for predictions about the person’s intelligence or morality, or good judgment. Islamophobia, on the other hand, the dislike of Islam, is based on the assumption that the Muslim is a person who possesses a well articulated set of beliefs and ideas about reality. These beliefs are easy to ascertain (at least at a superficial level). They can reliably and logically be linked to certain preferred behaviors: Hate to be obvious but knowing that someone is a Muslim if enough to predict that there is a higher than average chance the he will avoid pork and alcoholic beverages. Mostly and definitely, at least under certain fairly common circumstances, it’s possible, even easy, to stop being Muslim by abandoning the said set of beliefs and ideas. I am being a little cautious here because in several mostly Muslim countries, apostasy, abandoning one’s faith is theoretically punishable by death. It’s not in France, of course, it’s not in the UK, it’s not anywhere in Western Europe; it’s not in North America, etc.

The Muslim silence in connection with the latest Taliban horror thus joins the Muslim silence regarding the widespread sexual mutilation of little girls in predominantly Islamic West Africa, and about the practice of “honor killing” in the wider Middle East. None of these savage customs are mandated by Islam but they coincide closely with areas where Islam has its sway and they are at least tolerated there. This tolerance of the intolerable couldn’t be better calculated to inspire dislike among the civilized people of this world. This tolerance breeds Islamophobia. It’ not prejudice, “pre-judgment,” it’s rational judgment.

I speak freely as a poor candidate myself for Islamophobia. I have known Muslims all my life. I have liked every single one of the Muslims I have known personally. (I can’t says the same about members of any other religious group, including my group of origin, Catholics.) I have visited several Muslim countries and liked everyone of them. I spend five golden months in 100% Muslim Morocco several years ago. I would move there in a minute. (My wife wouldn’t though.) I like Middle Eastern music – not specifically Muslim, of course but closely associated with Muslim culture areas. I like mosques, inside and outsides. My preference extends to Arab calligraphy – also not specifically Muslim but kept well alive by the Islamic faith. As I write, I have hanging nearby a nice small wooden board inscribed with the Arabic formula for the Shaada, the Muslim profession of faith. It does not mean that I am about to convert. It means that I tend to be friendly. My friendliness is just being tested too often.

Some Muslims will object, of course, that they have nothing to prove to me. Sure enough! I am just trying to explain. If religious authorities in the Christian and formerly Christian West resumed burning witches, do you think I would let it pass without comment?

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I Don’t Want to Fight to the Last Ukrainian

I hope the brave Ukrainians will soon decide to stop dying. I seems to me they have to. The Russians have demonstrated that their armed forces are too incompetent to conquer Ukraine and to reduce it to a satellite. Their capacity to bomb and pound whole cites into a fields of rubble, however, is not in doubt. Even if the Ukrainians managed to expel all Russian troops from all of their country, the Russians could still destroy most Ukrainian cities from their own territory. It does not take much talent if you don’t mind the expense of throwing the same missiles over and over against the same large targets. And the expense may not matter so much while several NATO countries are still paying their fossil fuel bills to the Kremlin. And, if the Ukrainians succeeded in bringing the war to Russia itself to make the attacks cease, they would immediately face a measure of abandonment by world public opinion, including by NATO countries. In addition, even a slight invasion of Russia would probably trigger a wave of self-righteous Russian patriotism. The reluctant Russian soldiers and sailors we have seen in largely pathetic action thus far might soon be replaced by enthusiasts eager to sacrifice themselves for the motherland.

It seems to me the Ukrainians have established they are able to preserve their independence and their recently earned democracy. Yet, it appears that Pres. Zelenskyy has announced his government’s determination to boot every armed Russian from every square inch of Ukrainian soil. Such a project involves going on the offensive against an entrenched enemy because the Russians have been present in the Dombas eastern region, in some guise or other, since 2014. Attacking an entrenched enemy is always very costly in lives as the Russian military’s own failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital showed anew. I hear in the mass media military experts of diverse nationalities assert that it takes many tanks, among other equipment, and mastery of the skies. The Ukrainians have few of the first and little hold over the other. So, the Ukrainian president’s inflexibility is a signal that many more Ukrainians will die. I can’t help but wonder why it should be so, or what for, except that Zelenskyy may be making the bet that the Russian invaders will soon fold and retreat from every area that was Ukrainian in 2013. Zelenskyy may know things I don’t know, of course but from where I sit, in the calm, his attitude seems unnecessarily dangerous. Let me explain.

After eight years of war – even if most was low intensity war – a good half of the Donbas region, most of its cities, including the puppet “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, is probably inhabited almost entirely by Russian speakers who are pro-Russians. The others must have left long ago or been driven out. Making the existing pro-Russia population of Donbas submit would place the current elected Ukrainian government in the same situation as the Russians now are in some other parts of Ukraine: occupiers, hated, unable to reduce the local population’s resistance, liable to commit atrocities out of sheer frustration. The currently virtuous Ukraine Republic could quickly be transformed into the kind of vicious monster it is now facing on the rest of its territory.

The prized Crimean peninsula was annexed outright by Russia in 2014, soon after it was seized, and following a questionable referendum. However, since its annexation there have been few protests there against Russia. I don’t think there is a pro-Ukrainian popular movement in the Crimea. ( I believe that if there were, I would have heard of it. Correct me if I have been inattentive.) It’s also good to remember that the ties between Crimea and Ukraine may well be historically shallow. Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine Soviet Republic in 1954 (yes, 1954) pretty much as a gift. In the 2001 count, the last conducted under Ukrainian rule, only 24% of Crimeans were identified as Ukrainians. It’s notable that in the several years between the Russian annexation and the current invasion of Ukraine, it seems there have been few serious statements by any country, including Ukraine, to the effect that the latter had to be reversed. (Correct me if I am wrong.)

As I write (4/23/22) Ukraine’s military position appears strong but it’s facing an offensive where Russia’s military inferiority may not compensate for Ukraine’s smaller numbers and lack of heavy materiel and airplanes. This is the right time to make peace proposals. It appears that Putin is not the kind of person who will admit defeat or even that his project was ill-thought out and ill-planned. Even if he is not actually insane – which have has been suggested by several credible sources – an oblique approach seems well advised here This might be done, perhaps by asking various Russian oligarchs – who stand to lose even more by continued hostilities – to contact Russian general officers who are probably not eager to be dragged further in a reputational mud hole, or who might want to save what’s left of their army.

I think a peace agreement would grant Russia control of all of the Dombas which again – it had already mostly under its control – and an extension south through devastated Mariupol to form a land bridge between Russia proper and Crimea. Some of the arguments against such a resolution smack of the 19th century. First, President Zelenskyy speaks of the territorial integrity of his country as if it were a sacred concept. Yet, we know of a number of countries that lost territory and subsequently did well in every way. At the end of WWII, for example, Germany was amputated of about ¼ of its territory. Yet, it emerged in insolent health ten years later.

A main objection to Ukraine relinquishing the Donbas is that it’s its most industrialized section. This sounds like more 19th century thinking. The Donbas has a considerable steel industry and a heavy metallurgical industry because it also possesses coal mines (with coal difficult and expensive to mine). This raises the question of whether the country should exchange the lives of many of its young men again an energy source that seems to be on its way out anyway and the kind of associated heavy manufacturing favored by Stalin. The examples of Singapore and of geographically nearer Switzerland come to mind. Both countries maintain a superior standard of living without the benefit of either rich energy sources or of conventional metal-based manufacturing. These examples make it easy to argue that the real riches of a country may be its people rather than so many million tons of coals. One more reason to be stingy with Ukrainians’ lives.

If the Ukrainian government made what it probably now thinks of as the sacrifice to sue for peace immediately or soon, it would gain a big prize. I mean that it would be able to keep the big port city of Odesa which is now almost intact. With Odesa, the Ukraine would retain a single access to the sea which is probably more important economically than any coal mines. Odesa was about 2/3 Ukrainian in the last count with Russians making up less than one third. It does not pose the same kind of retention problems as Donbas.

One last but major consideration. The Ukrainian government is fond of affirming that its country is fighting for all of us, not just for itself, against Russian totalitarianism and aggression. This is an almost necessary argument to prime the military and economic pump from the West. It may even be partially true. Yet, right now, – and paradoxically not a little thanks to Putin’s wake-up call- it’s pretty clear NATO can take care of its own. I mean this, even given the lightly brandished nuclear threat. I am pretty sure the Russian General Staff has in its possession a list of its military installations that would be wiped out in the first round of riposte to a nuclear event, a second list of fossil fuel extraction and transformation sites that would be gone on the second round, and a list of Russian cities that would suffer the fate of Mariupol on the third.

I think NATO has the means to return Russia to the Third World status it ever only barely escaped. I also think the Russian military knows this. So, I am very much against the possibility of the West fighting for its freedom and for its prosperity to the last Ukrainian. That’s so, even if the Ukrainians insist they would like too. I am filled with horror at the thought of being even a smidgen responsible for making even more Ukrainian orphans and widows.

And yes, the peace I envision would be another form of rewarding aggression. However, in this case, there is a good trade-off. Russia would acquire some industrial territory in the old mold at the cost of having demonstrated to the world a surprising degree of military incompetence. We, in the US should keep supporting the Ukrainian war effort just to say “Thanks” for this demonstration.

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Many Conservatives Lost in the Tall Weeds

A surprising number of my conservative FB friends, and also of my real- life friends, got lost in the moral tall weeds in the past month or so. I mean that they seem to hesitate between the victim, Ukraine, and the aggressor, Russia. Thirty days-plus after the beginning of the Russian invasion, faced with the utter destruction of whole Ukrainian cities, they still hesitate to condemn anyone clearly. Instead, they seem to be saying, often – not always – that there must be wrong on both sides, like a timid teacher on a boys’ play ground.

This is disturbing but not all that surprising. They are worried that the US might somehow be drawn into the war in Europe. I will admit that the two main last instances of American military adventurism should inspire caution. I mean Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s possible that my conservative friends do not trust the current American ability to conduct a foreign war, nor to extricate the country from one. The fact that old, senile Mr. Biden is the current Commander-in-Chief does not help restore confidence. But, there is more to their unwillingness to choose sides.

After being exposed for at least ten years to the mendacity of conventional media, it takes some effort to admit that what they are saying and showing is the closest approximation of reality available. (By the way, I have an advantage in this respect because I follow both American media and French language media. I find that they overlap quite well.)

In my experience, conservatives, especially those leaning libertarian, tend to be intellectual types. As such, they initially offer resistance to the notion that things may be pretty much what they seem to be.

And then, there is the fact that inside the mind of libertarian-leaning conservatives is a secret core of pacifism. To my mind, that’s a personally comfortable, but morally indefensible position. Others have taken it apart better that I could.

Last but probably more important is the fact that the libertarianism that influences them (that influences me) does not have much by way of foreign policy thought. It seems to me that theoreticians of libertarianism think of the world from the standpoint of a city apartment with doors and windows tightly shut and safely locked. Faced with unprovoked aggression against a peaceful country by a tyrant who is also a gangster and a killer, they are intellectually defenseless.

A highly visible unimpeachable metric might go a long way toward pulling my conservative friends out of the tall weeds. It turns out there is one. Let me explain. Before the invasion of thirty-three days ago, Russian dictator Putin justified it in advance, in part by claiming that Ukraine, the country, was persecuting its Russian speaking minority. We should think of the latter as an ethnic group. I don’t know what percentage of the total population of the Ukraine those might make up but, the figures I give below probably mean that it does not matter.

Inhabitant of the Ukraine have been fleeing the violence and the destruction in large numbers. Where they flee to is a sort of practical vote. If Russian-speaking Ukrainians had been persecuted, you would expect them to flee toward Russia. It seems that they don’t.

According to the UN specialized refugee agency about 4,200,000 Ukrainian nationals have left their country as to about April 3rd. Of those, 350,000 went to Russia. That’s a little over 8%. That’s only a little more than went to small Slovakia. That’s fewer than went to tiny and fragile Moldova. How can that be, I ask, if Ukraine was persecuting Russian speakers before the war?

Ukrainian citizens of all kinds have been voting with their feet.

Incidentally, the numbers above do not include those numerous citizens of Ukraine who were forcibly deported to Russia, according to increasingly credible reports from the theater of war.

Please, think of sharing this.

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Why I Can’t Take Feminists Seriously (More Escapism)

My thirteen-year-old granddaughter is lithe, slim (with curves) and tall for her age. She is also pretty. (I feel free to brag about her because she has hardly more genes in common with me than if I were a bonobo. Another story, obviously that I will tell another time.)

She goes to school in Santa Cruz where we both live. The town is a small but significant laboratory of all “progressive” folly. She even has a new teacher, an apparently male human being who insists on being referred to as “they.”

There is a boy in her class she likes quite a bit but he is unfortunately on the short side. (In case you are curious I, myself, like what I know of the boy, including his looks.)

She says the boy won’t do but she admits that, “I am keeping him under control in case he has a growth spurt.”

I can’t take feminists’ narratives seriously until they factor in what’s hard wired.

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How This Paris Boy Became an American Scholar (Plus a Disquisition on Language Learning)

Here is another escapist story. If the autobiographical genre annoys you, I don’t blame you and don’t read this story.

First of all, don’t wince or grimace. I just said “scholar,” not “eminent scholar,” nor “famous scholar,” not even “respected scholar.” It’s just a descriptive term; the word describes much of what I did for a living. Period.

I grew up on the unglamorous east side of Paris where visitors never go, or didn’t then. My family’s apartment was in a government subsidized project. It was really a project but a good one, well built, well maintained, with central heating and full bathrooms, but no elevators. Graffiti had not been invented yet. I shared a room with two brothers. There was only enough space for one small desk, an important detail in my story.

My family was not poor but it definitely wasn’t rich. Everyone was unimaginably poor in the forties and fifties by the standard of 2022 anyway but, fortunately, we didn’t know what 2022 would be like. France was in a period of economic expansion for much of the time I was growing up. We could almost feel the tide that was going to raise our boats too. We did not have phone service but we never went hungry; we had good medical care. (I did realize though until the French Navy clothed me that I had been cold every winter of my childhood and youth. It was normal.)

And then, there were the schools. It seems to me, seventy years later, that the elementary schools did a more than adequate job. I am guessing that almost all of us came out reading, writing and doing a little more than basic math (including trigonometry). Elementary education was adequate and more for people who were going, in their vast majority, to rise but modestly in the social scale of the time. I seem to recall that half my fellow students quit school at fourteen to become apprentices. The rest -including my three sibling – went on to a variety of schools, many of them more or less vocational. Not me.

When I was twelve, a miracle happened in my family. I passed an exam that got me accepted in a respected, prestigious academic school in central Paris (Lycée Condorcet). It was a combined junior high and high school It’s hard to explain to Americans but it was a public school; there was no tuition. It was a feeder school for the best French universities. Many famous people were alumni. Few children from my part of Paris made it there. (In fact, I never met one in six years.)

As you might guess, there was a social class aspect to this respectability although it was a free public school. I would guess that as many as two thirds of the students there came from bourgeois families, as conventionally defined. Their parents were top managers in big corporations, attorneys for same, or they owned one, or they were doctors, and high-level engineers. (I know quite a bit about those bourgeois kids because around age 14, I began going to parties at their apartments where I discovered wall-to-wall carpeting.) There was even a sprinkling of foreign kids whose parents were diplomats. Some of the bourgeois kids came from private elementary schools; many more came from public schools that were just better then mine that, perhaps, maintained higher standards. Their home environment was probably more propitious to studying in ways that I still don’t understand well. After all my own home environment favored and rewarded studying hard and getting good grades and even “prizes” at the end of the year.* (But maybe, they each had their own desk where they could stack up their books.)

So, at twelve, I had pretty much the run of Paris by subway because the school was far from where I lived. It was good for my maturation. Classes began at 8:30 five days a week, they ended at 11:30 then, began again at 1 to finish at 4:30 four days a week . We had lunch at school. On Wednesday, or Thursday, there was no class at all. There was school on Saturday but only in the morning. On full school days, I chose to stay after class at study hall until 6 or 6:30. That added up to eight hours or more inside the walls of the school, a long time for a young boy.

The study hall was a large single room with ten rows of desks. It served without distinction students from age 12 to 18. You could do pretty much what you wanted in study hall except that you were not allowed to make noise because it might disturb others who were actually studying. So, no talking allowed. For three, or maybe four years, study hall was nearly always proctored by the same man. He was apparently qualified to teach English but he was not part of the faculty. In that elite school, it was not enough to be formally and practically qualified, you had to carry prestige or, at least, the seed of prestige in your attaché case. I think most or all of my instructors had achieved a scholarly degree pretty close to a PhD (“l’aggréegation”). My Spanish professor did not have one but he was a ranking Spanish Republican refugee. My first math instructor possessed that degree and he was also a well published author of fiction. My second geography professor was an expert on American science fiction. And so on.

The study hall proctor was the nicest of men whose function put him in a difficult position: Sometimes, he had to discipline students. As far as I now, he had only one punishment. He made you copy the three main forms of English irregular verbs: “go, went, gone.” How many verbs you had to copy depended on the depravity of your transgression: twenty verbs, fifty verbs, uncommonly, one hundred verbs. After so many hours at school and, perhaps, I was hungry, had low blood sugar, I did not maintain the silence discipline very well. In the course of several years, I must have copied five times three hundred irregular English verbs. Somehow, I did not mind. A part of my brain was smarter than I. (Happens all the time if you pay attention.)

After my second year in that good school, my general performance began to slip. I am not sure exactly how it started but I became gradually disengaged from several disciplines. I often cut the corresponding classes. As befits an elite institution, my school operated on the basis of a loose, ill-defined honor system. It was such that my parents were never made aware of my delinquency. And, no, puberty did not particularly trouble me except for the fact that it took me a while to figure out whether girls liked boys who looked a lot like them or rather, hairy rough types with broad shoulders and even some acne. In those years, there were events and developments in my nuclear family that bothered me and distracted me and these may have played a role in my long and slow fall from academic grace. It started with math which became too difficult for me and on which I just gave up. Then, physics and then, chemistry also dropped off my radar. No one said anything, in part because I was earning the equivalent of straight As in French, later in Spanish and, of course, in English. I was also doing quite well in History and in Geography. I was thus an excellent student to half the instructors; that was good enough for the other half.

Things went from bad to worse. It did not help that when I was seventeen, I had a hot hot girlfriend. She had many assets. One of those was that both her parents weren’t home one day of the week. That was a day when physics and chemistry were scheduled. Of course, I cut school on that day! What would you have me do? In those times, there was a high school graduation exam that also served as an admission ticket to most universities. The exam was then difficult and deliberately selective. I went to take the exam like a sheep to the slaughter. I failed, of course but with excellent grades in History, in French, in Spanish and… in English. I repeated a senior class in high school with the same predictable outcome. In the France of then, it was like social death. I had not been apprenticed to a pork butcher, or attended a graphics high school like my older brother and my younger brother. I had nothing. I was no one.

By some concourse of circumstances right out of a reverse morality tale, about the same time, I received a scholarship to spend one year in high school in California. It was a merit scholarship. I hightailed it to the US. There, I did quite well. I spoke English badly but I understood everything. If I had not been blinded by the humility surprisingly common among young men, I would have noticed that I wrote English better than many of my American classmates. In California, I noticed with interest the wonderful American institution of the community college where just about anyone can go in and the good ones come out to transfer to a real university. So, yes, in case you are counting, I spent three years total as a senior in high school. Nothing to brag about, really!

Fast forward: I am twenty-one and about to be released from the French Navy into which I had been drafted. I have no skills, no particular revealed talent, no diploma, no nothing. I apply for a visa to go and study in a California junior college near where I had spent a year. Long story short: At the community college, I discover I am a late bloomer. I do well, better than well, in fact. I win a full tuition scholarship to Stanford where I transfer as a junior. I do well there too. After graduating in four years flat, I go back to France for a year to work in a very good job, in urban planning. There, I decide I want to study some more. I apply to graduate school, also at Stanford. I get accepted with full tuition fellowship and a stipend.

I performed well in graduate school also, in large part because I could write well. I earned a PhD. A fairly normal and quite respectable academic career followed. (Go ahead, Google me.) The fact that I wrote well and easily had everything to do with the good course of my academic research. My writing made me attractive to others with research skills far superior to mine. They recruited me eagerly throughout. I became a member of star research teams without striving, or even trying. I was very productive with the other guys. I might not have been otherwise. Hard to tell: I only have one single authored scholarly article. It has had a very long shelf life but still, that’s only one.

What does this have to do with my French high school study hall proctor, you might ask at this point? Well, it does; bear with me. Remember that nearly all of my scholarly career took place in a language other than my native tongue. As an immigrant in polyglot and multicultural California, I became well aware of the struggles of diverse categories of immigrants to operate in a foreign language: English. A teacher for thirty years, I also witnessed at close range the struggle of hundreds of US-born college students to learn languages other than English, mostly Spanish and French. I also saw several of my fellow professors try and fail. As a matter of fact, other than teachers of modern languages, I only ever met one (1) Anglo reared in the US who had mastered a foreign language. (The language instructors I encountered were all competent.)

I had many occasions to ask myself: What do the students who fail to learn a language (beyond knowing how to ask for more beer), the monolingual Mexican immigrants who earn half of what they otherwise would, and my few colleagues who tried in vain, have in common? The answer came to me a little at a time and then, it became blindingly clear: They failed to clamber over the wall of irregular verbs conjugations. It’s simple: Those who do go on to learn everything else; who who don’t just give up, mostly forever.

But now, a digression. I am completely convinced that, contrary to an idea that is very widespread in the USA, living in the country of the language one studies is not a necessary precondition to learning it nor is it a miracle cure for monolingualism. If it were, immigrants would learn quickly the

language of the country where they live. In fact, few if any learn it without formal schooling. And, I hate to tell you, college parents, but your children’s expensive “study abroad” stays almost never bear that particular kind of fruit. (they may be useful in other respects.) Your children never come back “fluent in _____,” whatever “fluent” means. How do I know? I interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds of them (over thirty years) in the weeks and months following their return. None of them could ever say, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have gone.” None! (“Si j’avais su que cela allait être comme ça, je n’y serais pas allé.” “Si hubiera sabido que hubiera sido asi, no hubiera ido.”) None!

The main, all-important reason people fail to learn a foreign language is that they give up when the time comes to master more than handful of irregular verbs, or even earlier. Here are two natural and fully representative examples; you may notice that they are about verbs everyone uses in everyday life:

Spanish: Verb to go: Ir

Present: Yo voy

Tu vas

El va (You formal address: Usted va)

Nosotros vamos

Vosotros vais (You, plural)

Ellos van (Ustedes van)

Simple past: Yo fuí

Tu fuíste

El fue (Usted fue) Watch the spelling!

Nosotros fuímos

Vosotros fuísteis

Ellos fueron (Usted fueron)

French: Verb to be: Être

Present Je suis

Tu es

Il est

Nous sommes

Vous êtes

Ils sont

Well, you get the idea!

In summary: There is no articulate sentence without a verb. Verbs have to be conjugated, person by person (I, you, he). In European languages, there are tenses to indicate timing (I am, I was, I will be). If you don’t control both person and tense you can often still communicate but it will be at the level of a five-year-old: “I go yesterday.” That is neither encouraging nor rewarding for adults. It’s also quite limiting.

Now, in my dotage, I think back at my early life. If my study hall proctor in Paris had been a less mild man, he would have imposed a less fruitful punishment; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been more disciplined, he wouldn’t have had occasion to punish me the way he did; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been worse, he would have had me expelled from study hall; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If the boys room in our small apartment in Paris had been larger, I might have had my own desk; I would then probably not have attended study hall; I wouldn’t then be an American scholar. Go figure!

Sometimes though, I can’t help but feel some regret. I am pretty sure I would have made a really good pork butcher. I think I would have been an inspired designer of esoteric pâtés, for example. That’s if my parents had not blindly pushed me toward a classical education. That’s if that study hall proctor had not meddled in my destiny!

© Jacques Delacroix 2022

* In the 1940s, at the end of each school year, the best students in each class of 30-40, were ranked. h Those best students,perhaps 1st to 6, st –received a prize in a formal ceremony everyone else hated. The prizes were well chosen books. Books were still expensive then. Once, I received the French translation of Gulliver’s Travels. (Just bragging.)

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Posted in Short Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Bloody Hawaiian Paradise

I have been away from this blog because I was busy with politics on Facebook (my bad). Also, I have been struggling to produce a new book. It’s a collection of stories:”Astonishing Women.” Wish me luck. Below is another story not in that collection. It’s an escapist story, of course. Don’t we need one, right now?

I am moving idly on the surface looking for I don’t know what. I am in the ocean, at the bottom of a cliff close to my house near Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. At that time, I have under my belt (weight belt, of course) ten years of intense diving in the cold, murky waters of California, and a little less in the warm, clear waters of Mexico. Here is an important detail: I am a free diver; I go down holding my breath. Scuba (based compressed air tanks) is kind of wimpy and it involves too much equipment that will distract you from your real goal. The real goal is catching something good to eat, of course. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging but OK, I don’t really care so, here goes: I have become such a proficient spear fisherman that I rely entirely on a sling, a long, light aluminum handle with a steel trident at one end and a strong rubber loop at the other. It’s a far cry from a spear gun. The sling requires that you get real close to the prey.

On that day, I am just exploring. I am new to Hawaii and the spot I have chosen is not promising by conventional standards. It’s just close to the house I am renting. There is plenty of sea life in the fairly opaque water but nothing to get excited about. I notice a surfer in the water. I can tell from afar that he is a brown skinned native Hawaiian. Soon, he is gliding by me shouting something. I did not catch what he said but I guessed that he was yelling at me to get the f… out of his way. He told me later, on land, that he had come by to re-assure me, to tell me that there was a big shark in the water nearby but that he had talked to the shark and asked him to leave me alone. He also said he knew I would be fine because his family had the same shark as a clan totem, and thus, he had influence. When he told me all this, I don’t know if he was in earnest or he he was putting me on. I have to admit that with the constant flux and re-flux of naive continentals, haoles, on his island, the temptation must have been great. Whatever the case, I forgive him and the fact is that I was not bothered by any shark.

I swim away in another direction and soon find myself in a patch of clear water where I can see the bottom. I dive down to explore some scree of fallen rocks, the kind of formation that provides hiding places for sea creatures. Sure enough, on the third dive, I make it to the bottom and look under a rock where a large gray pointy mouth with beady eyes on both sides faces me. It’s so big that at first, I don’t recognize what it is. And yes, I know, I am beginning to sound like a typical fisherman; so be it! Back on the surface, I catch my breath and my train of thought and I realize there is a conger eel in that hole, a big one. I have caught conger in France before but the size of that tropical specimen has thrown me off. I arm the rubber band on my spear, drop down head first and shoot the fish right in the mouth. It convulses wildly but, in the process gets out of its hole. I swim up vigorously holding the spear straight up with the eel writhing wildly on it. Fortunately, the water depth is modest and the shore close. I land on a grassy edge of the water and there, I am afraid, put the poor conger out of its misery with a large rock.

More fish story: The largest conger eels ever caught according to Google weighed 300lbs; it was taken by net. Mine wasn’t even close to that because I was able to half-carry it, half-drag it up the cliff to where my pick-up truck was parked. I observed that it was a little longer than I was tall, maybe six feet. I guessed that its weight may have approximated mine, 180 lbs at the time, or perhaps less. Anyway, I drive the few minutes to my house. I had just rented it a couple of days before. A newcomer to Hawaii, I had resisted the temptation of the small, expensive condos lining the lagoon that borders the south face of the small city of Hilo. I am on a teaching sting, not well paid enough for such luxury and anyway, my adventurer’s heart has told me there must be more interesting housing arrangements. Guided by a local young man, a student, I ended up renting a big house in a plantation village ten miles from downtown. My house had been used to shelter cane cutters in the days when there were still many cane cutters. Then, the sugar industry quickly mechanized and the houses became useless almost overnight. An adventurous Filipino immigrant had bought one as a rental. My new home has six bedrooms arranged along a central corridor, a big kitchen, and a toilet. The shower is in a separate hut outside. My house is one of twelve or so disposed around an oval dirt path surrounding a grassy area where kids play baseball.

I have not yet met any of the adults in the settlement but like everywhere, children have the run of outside and of much of inside. As soon as I park in front of my house, a swarm of kids surrounds my truck. When they spot the big conger eel in the back, there are many shouts, most in their dialect I do not understand. Two ten-year-old run to another house all excited. Shortly afterwards, an old lady comes out of the same house carrying a hatchet. She crosses the grass to my truck and without a word, without even looking at me, opens the back-gate and instructs several children to carry the big fish next to a log stump nearby. When this is done she proceeds to hack the fish, my fish, into a dozen of so chunks. The chunk she leaves for me is plenty enough. The kids all run home carrying big pieces of my big fish in recycled vegetable plastic bags the old lady has brought along. I am so stupefied, I have no idea what to say. Yet, since I am already somewhat of a social scientist at the time, I recognize that I have witnessed a demo of what Karl Marx has called “primitive communism.” OK, I know, I know, there isn’t much to this story so far but wait, I am going somewhere with it.

The conger eel’s flesh is dense and a little flaky. It tastes very good. It’s reminiscent of lobster if you don’t overcook it. I eat a big piece parboiled for dinner, hot, with rice. I have more, cold, with pineapple from the backyard, for lunch the next day. (I had to resort to pineapple because I couldn’t remember how to prepare from scratch the mayonnaise the cold conger was entitled to by French right.)

The next day is a Friday. Around six, two men in their late twenties knock at my door. One is the normal mixed brownish color common on the Big Island. The other has flaming blond hair and green eyes. (He is a descendant of the many Portuguese imported from the Azores to cut cane, after the Chinese and the Japanese and before the current Filipino immigration. Detour on Hawaii’s demographic history: The island’s planters kept bringing in people from different parts of the world for the arduous job of cutting cane. Every group’s children snubbed the cane fields and the planter had to try again with another group.) Both guys say hello. One begins talking to me in a dialect I do not understand well. At any rate, I gather that they have come to invite me to go hunting the next day. They will pick me up at 5 am sharp. I know it’s “sharp” because the guy keeps hitting his wristwatch with his index finger. I do not know anything about hunting in Hawaii but I am game pretty much for any game.

In the morning, I am up and waiting with my first cup of coffee and a piece of bread inside of me. I am wearing strong shoes and a thick shirt, with jeans. I am holding the shotgun I have brought to Hawaii on the off-chance I will be able to hunt birds with my gifted Labrador. A big SUV rolls by and stops. The guy from the day before comes out. He barely says “Hi”, and mentions to me to return the shotgun inside the house. He hands me instead a nice, visibly well oiled rifle. He spends all of two minutes making sure that I know how to load and unload the gun and how to put on the safety. We get into the car where two other guys are waiting, including Blondie. They all say “Hi.” We take off toward the top of the volcano. Twenty minutes later, I still don’t know what I am going hunting for. So, I ask and it turns out one of the others speaks standard English. “Goat” he says, “feral goat.” I am a man of immense culture so, I remember that “feral” designates animals once domesticated that have returned to the wild. But, “goats” ? To me, they are kind of nice animals living near a farm from which one gets goat cheese. I am perplexed but I say nothing.

After thirty minutes or so, we stop and get out. There are two dogs with us. We walk and stop, walk and stop in the foothills that line the volcano. Few words are exchanged. The dogs, nose to the ground, seem to be searching in vain. Then one guy swears softly. We are on the edge of a sort of shallow valley. The hill on its other side is one large meadow. There, right there, on that the side, is a herd of ten or twelve goats. There is more muttering from which I gather that the animals are too far to shoot and that there is no way to approach them without being seen, heard, or smelled. The others begin to turn away with more swearing. I don’t know the rules so, I tell myself, “Why not?” I stop, click a shell into the barrel, shoulder, aim at a white goat, easily the most visible, and shoot. The animal goes down, the others flee uphill.

The other guys turn back and more swearing erupts, loud swearing, this time. We all run across the little valley to go up and retrieve the white goat. What can I say? Beginner’s luck, probably but still, I am in good health, I have perfect vision, I am steady on my feet, I don’t get excited easily, I know enough to press the trigger slowly and steadily. (Believe it or not, I had a bit of training, in the French Navy, of all places.) I was good in California at taking down ducks and geese in flight with a shotgun. So, there is a chance I am a good rifle shot who does not yet know it. And, in case you are wondering: My companions are not spiteful; they seem glad to not have to go home empty-handed. It seems they hunt for the larder rather than for the glory. My goat is good and dead with a bullet through the chest. In twenty minutes, my buddies have gutted, dressed and quartered the animal and apportioned it to the plastic garbage bags they have brought along. I ask for the pelt but they tell me it has too much lice.

Back at the village, I receive my share, more than enough for me alone. For lack of more culinary knowledge, I barbecue it the next day. I am a Paris boy, after all; where would I have learned to cook goat meat? I wouldn’t even know people ate goat if I were not such an eclectic reader. Anyway, several children invite themselves and bring their own Coke. The meat is pretty good, tough but tasty, kind of gamy. Afterwards, I have to nap in my hammock outside, overwhelmed as one can be after gorging on large quantities of animal protein.

Life goes on; I teach my classes during the week but the next Friday, the same guys come to invite me to hunt. This time, I ask point-blank what we are going for. My brain is getting used to the Hawaiian dialect but I can’t believe the answer: Tomorrow, we are going for feral sheep. Part of me is a little worried at this mention of yet another farm animal. What is it going to be the next time around, feral donkey? We drive to another part of the volcano early the next morning. Long story short: We kill two small brown sheep. The second is downed by two shots. I am pretty sure mine was the first shot but I don’t make an issue of it (obviously!) This time, I get a whole hind leg. I invite two of my university acquaintances from the mainland – fellow haoles – to join me the next day. I bake the meat the way I would any leg of lamb. It smells strongly but it has more fat than the goat did. I enjoy myself. My guests less so. They are a little too effete for the experience, it seems. They think of meat as coming wrapped in cellophane. It doesn’t matter; we have plenty of beer and they brought dessert. They are at least intrigued.

The next weekend, two older men invite me to go fishing with them. They tell me they can lend me a rod but that I am welcome to try to spear fish in their area. We leave the village at a decent hour in their four-wheel drive, go a short distance on a dirt road near the shore and then, straight cross-country. I have never done this before. We ride over big boulders and muddy areas at the speed of a man’s pace. It’s uncomfortable and worrisome but the old dudes obviously know what they are doing. Finally, we stop in a clearing on the edge of a low cliff. The men lay out their gear while I put on my light wetsuit. Once in the extremely clear water, holding my thin spear, the thought strikes me that probably no one ever has dived in this spot, never, ever! It’s a warm feeling. There are plenty of fish around, including giant multicolored parrot fish with protruding rabbit teeth, that must taste awful but also several species I know to be edible. A part of my brain tells me this is a time for exploring, not for bagging ordinary fish. I go up and down looking under rock formations when I am down. (Remember that I am free diving, diving on my own air.) After an hour, I have caught three nice sized spiny lobsters (with small claws, langoustes, langostas.) They are difficult to see in the penumbra under rocks because, unlike the reddish California and Caribbean lobsters’, their carapace is dark blue and yellow mottled.

I am also bringing back a cowrie the size of my fist. It’s sitting on my desk as I write. It’s not different from one you would find in any good curios shop yet, it almost cost me my life (another story). The old guys have caught by hook and line all the fish they wanted. We drive home slowly. They give me some fish, I give each a lobster. They protest energetically, which suggests that lobster is not often on Hawaiians’ menus. I eat the third lobster by myself, like the pig I am!

Speaking of diet, at the time, I am diving several times a week. Sometimes, I even spear fish between classes. Actually, I bring home a lot of fish that I usually share in the village. Having been reared in surprisingly cold and rainy Paris, I enjoy a lot tropical living. The water where I dive is often warm and clear. I love picking a banana off my own tree every morning before breakfast, and the super-ripe pineapples the landlord sends my way every other day. I collect easily four or five kilos of ripe wild guavas whenever I want just stopping my car on the side of the road on my way to work. Everything is expensive in Hawaii but I don’t buy much, just gasoline to go to work and to explore the island a bit, also rice, bread and beer, and coffee. (The locally grown coffee – Kona – is the best in the world, I think. Of course, I can’t afford it.) I eat mostly fish and wild meat, and the occasional small lobster, with a little rice and fresh fruits from around the village. I am in the best shape in my life.

But, soon and with regrets, I am preparing to leave. I actually want to stay in Hawaii for at least one year but my doctoral dissertation is stuck and there is a nasty divorce coming over the horizon. I just have to return to California where I have lived for most of fifteen years. I have a plane ticket for a Wednesday. On my last Friday in the village, my buddies show up to invite me to go hog hunting. Of course, it’s feral hog! The wild boar of Asia and Europe does note exist in the Pacific. The Polynesians who first settled the Hawaiians islands brought small domesticated pigs on their giant canoes. They must have fed them coconut flesh and fish leftovers on the long journey from Tahiti. Some pigs escaped and established themselves happily in the Hawaiian fruit-rich bush. There, they grew in size and grew and grew and they have never stopped growing. Now, they tend to be huge.

We leave earlier in the morning than usual, when it’s still dark. Today is different. No one hands me a rifle so, I go back inside and grab my shotgun. “Don’t take it,” one guy says. There are three SUVs this time. Astoundingly, in each one are a man or two and six or seven dogs of all kinds and sizes. There is even a large, blond French poodle. I recognize only two dogs from around the village. We drive to another area of the volcano, one covered by old lava and exposed to weather so it’s almost forested. As soon as we stop, the dogs are let out. I notice vaguely that still, no one is carrying a firearm. I am puzzled, but it’s my place to observe and learn, not to question. Within a few minutes, a dog gives voice and the whole pack leaves off barking and running in the same direction except two that seem too busy to sniff the ground to join in. All the men follow the pack. Fortunately, we are running almost all downhill on the uneven ground.

In a short while, the dogs sound louder and we join them in a sort of natural circus. They have a pig trapped there against a lava wall. It’s a big black beast with a huge head. The dogs keep it harried so it does not pay the several of us men much attention. Our leader pulls a long knife off his belt and hands it to me. “Are you out of your mind?” I shout. He shrugs lightly and walks forward, kneeing the dogs out of his way. He steps straight to the hog and cuts its throat in a single swift gesture. The blood spurts; the dogs surge forward to get a taste. I catch my breath and examine the animal. I am transfixed by the double set of curved teeth jutting out of its mouth, like in the movies. The guys let the dogs lick the fresh blood for a while then, they kick them out of the way to begin doing what needs to be done. In less than a half hour, the beast is gutted, skinned and butchered; the meat is neatly divided into five black plastic garbage bags for each of us to carry up the hill. When we get back to the cars, the dogs that had stayed behind are nowhere to be seen. We just abandon them as we hustle the other dogs back into the vehicles.

Back in the village, I get my largely unearned share in the form of what looks like a big roast. My hunting buddies have noticed my interest in the set of curved teeth and they sort of know I am leaving. So, they hand me today’s trophy in the form of a lower jaw with four curved fangs still in. I still have to ask them about the mysterious thing appeared out of nowhere, a ready-made hunting dogs pack, although I have already half guessed. It turns out that whenever they want to go hunting for hog, the preceding Friday night, the guys visit their buddies who are in charge of the dog pound. Now, it’s a special dog pound. It does not hold stray dogs captured on the streets. Nobody cares about stray dogs in Hawaii. (It’s America but also the Third World, then.) Instead, the municipal/county pound houses dozens of dogs at one time that are in quarantine while their owners prepare to join them from somewhere or other on the mainland. (My own Labrador had spent two months there, I believe, at great expense to me. Somehow, she got pregnant there. Another story.) So, as it happens, the inventive islanders have developed a system whereas impounded dogs can be paroled for a weekend. The hunters pay a small fee and take charge of however many dogs they can transport. The hunters return the dogs on Monday morning. The pound supervisors get an income supplement; the hunters have an instant pack they couldn’t possible support; the dogs no doubt enjoy the vacation. How about the owners who are paying through the nose for their dogs’ maintenance? Well, what they don’t know can’t hurt them. There is still the small matter of the dogs who got lost on the volcano. Well, they must be declared dead of cardiac arrest. Their owners will get another pet and recover eventually.

Back home, I rub whatever I have on the roast, including Coke in addition to salt and pepper and I place it the oven at moderate heat. Then I roll up my sleeves and consider the big pig jaw. Now, remember, I am a Paris boy. Not much prepares me for the task. I quickly figure out nonetheless that pliers are not the way to go because they might break the trophies. I figure that bone is softer than ivory so, I decide to boil the whole jaw. It stinks to high heaven but the jaw does seem to soften a little. I let it boil for ten hours, all windows open. My landlord is an amiable guy and tolerant. Plus, he says he is sorry to lose me. He would like me to come back. I eat the pig roast with a lady neighbor who brings cooked sweet potatoes. The roast is tough but tasty. The neighbor goes home with half of the remaining half, for her nephew, she says. The next morning, I repeat the stinky jaw softening operation for another five or six hours. Passers-by smile knowingly: haoles!

The Monday preceding the Wednesday when I am flying to California, I eye an old couple walking up the path toward my house. Somehow, they seem dressed up. I am puzzled, of course, but I go back inside. In minutes, there is a knock at my door. I open and the old Asian couple says good morning while bowing deeply, Japanese-style. (More than half of the population of Hawaii is of Japanese origin; at the time, some are even immigrants from before World War II.) I bid the old couple in, sit them down and ask them if they want coffee; they assent. They are silent while I boil the water and prepares the coffee. I have never met those people although I am not surprised they are neighbors. “I am Mr Yamoto,” says the old guy, “and this is my wife, Mrs Yamoto. We speak for the Japanese in Papaiku.” -Silence – “We heard that you are leaving, maybe. If it is true, we hope you will change your mind. If you do not, we hope you will return soon. You see, among us, we need sashimi all the time, for Christmas, for weddings, for birthday parties, for almost all occasions. The past couple of years, with the new big hotels opening downtown, we have not been able to get all the fresh fish we want. With all your spearfishing and all, we were hoping you could become our regular sashimi provider. We think it’s an honor but we would pay you well too.” I am instantly flattered like I have seldom been but also instantly saddened. I confirm that I am going back to California, unfortunately.

Then, the old lady pipes in with a voice I barely hear, “If you come back, we will make sure you are elected to [ ].” The last word eludes me but I get the drift. The Big Island has an exotic political system, a mixture of straight California political science design and of exotic Third World additions. The latter include a plethora of tiny elective positions that bring the incumbent some social honor and sometimes also a small stipend. I have gathered that it’s common for the factions to stand a haole for such elections as a convenient way to avoid direct clashes between the different ethnic groups. (I think the Japanese-Americans could probably win all the elections if they wanted to; they are careful not to.) I promise to write if and when I plan to come back. The old people get up to leave with contrite smiles.

On Tuesday morning, finally, I manage to pry all curved hog teeth from the softened jaw. I celebrate silently while I pack them carefully in plastic. Then, I go dig a hole in the backyard for the jaw. (Won’t 22nd century anthropologists be puzzled when they find the remains?) I have time to pack and take a long last swim in the warm Pacific. In the evening, some of my university colleagues give me a skeptical going-away party. They are skeptical because they don’t really believe I am leaving this job and this liefstyle for good. Half of them half think I will be back for the next semester. My boss is miffed because he had recruited me personally. He will have to recruit all over again. Sorry. On Wednesday, I am lucky to the end. As my plane lifts off, it’s raining heavily over Hilo which saves me from strong regrets at having to leave.

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Reel forward eight months. I am now living in Indiana where I have obtained a tenure-track position. Indiana wasn’t my first choice, being so far from any sea. But the university there has promised to help me solve a serious problem I have with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. (It will, eventually, yet another story.) In California, back from Hawaii, I had found lodgings in a converted wood water tank. (Would I make this up?) It belonged to an old black lady who treated me like her white pet. (Not complaining, here; could do worse.) Soon after arriving, I had looked for someone with drill bits small and hard enough to pierce my hog teeth. Then, I did the obvious and got a dentist to drill four neat holes in four minutes in return for an abalone dinner. Contrary to what you might think, I did not hang the trophies on a thin gold chain; I am too well-bred for this. Instead I threaded a fine, ordinary string through them and tied a square knot in the back to close the loop. As I was finishing my thesis, I allowed myself a handful of parties in town. Against my manly tanned chest, the necklace seemed to make an impression on some of the women, an animal impression, if I dare say so. Well, I had to leave for a real job. I don’t even remember what I lived off during those few months without a job.

My doctoral dissertation is in the can finally, not gloriously but not ignominiously either. I drove from California to Indiana in the same old pick-up truck, the truck of the conger eel. My smart Labrador went with me, of course. I hauled a small trailer across country with my five sticks of furniture. I began teaching almost before I could find my bearings. I found a place to live easily, a little out of town. The cost of living is low here. The local people are pleasant and polite. Still, the divorce has now rolled over unto my side of the horizon. I am saddened and alone. One evening, instead of driving straight home, I stop at Papa Bear’s for a drink. I meet someone who buys me a drink just because I am new in town; I reciprocate, of course. Several of his friends join us because it’s past six pm. One of the friends is pretty girl with a flared skirt. I happen to be wearing my hog tusks necklace that evening. (May have been premeditation; I don’t put it past me.) The new girl shows an interest in it and I tell her half the story. Of course, she thinks of Hawaii as impossibly exotic. She beams at me.

We have several more drinks. Then, I realize that everyone has left except the girl. She and I get even more drinks and we become cozy, thigh against thigh on our bar stools, with little kisses on the neck. The girl is in her early or mid-twenties. I can tell from her speech that she is not a student, or faculty member, but a local girl. Soon, I tell her it’s time for me to go home to feed my dog. I don’t exactly invite her but I explain to her how to reach my little duplex near the lake. The Hoosier girl makes it there right after me. (Yes, we drove drunk a lot in those days. The figures show that we also died a lot.) I am barely getting out of my clothes; I am hanging the hog tusks necklace on its nail in the bedroom when she comes through the door.

I don’t want to go into details because I sincerely hope this story is going to make it to Family Story Hour. Let’s just say we do what healthy young people will do when they are a little lonely and a little needy, and more than a little liquored up. We stop long enough to feed my dog, after all, and to make sandwiches for ourselves. She leaves early in the morning because she has to go home to prepare for work. We have exchanged neither vows, of course, nor phone numbers but it’s a small town and I have told her in what academic department I work at the university; and she knows where I live, obviously. She also knows the scar high on my left thigh. I wake up with a hangover, naturally. I get up for a remedial cup of coffee. Then, I take a shower, hot, cold, hot. When I re-enter my room to put on my clothes, I vaguely detect that something is a little bit off. Then, it hits me: The tusks necklace is not hanging from its nail above the bed. I look inside the bed and turn back the sheets. I look under the bed. Nothing! I have to face the obvious: The girl with the flared skirt has stolen my necklace.

The Hawaiian hog tusks have become a trophy for the second time. This time, the winner earned it fair and square (unlike me with the original win), if you know what I mean. In any event, I never bumped into the girl again, not at Papa Bear’s, not in any other bar, not at the small downtown, not on campus perchance. Her evil deed done, she has vanished into thin air. I recovered from the loss in the end. Nowadays, there is even a good spot in my heart where I think of her. I imagine that there is a sweet young girl in southern Indiana who received a baroque, primitive necklace made of curved animal teeth from her grandmother who was smiling warmly and knowingly as she handed it to her.

© Jacques Delacroix 2022

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