Welcome to August, gang! I’ll be back in the classroom in 22 days, with three FroshComps and my Age of Johnson class this term. It seems that we’ll be masked, at least for a while, which in turn means that I’ll be sweatier than Meat Loaf’s handkerchief, but I’ll be glad to get back in the classroom after some seventeen months working/sabbaticalizing from home. I’m spending this afternoon in my cryogenic chamber/office, which suits me just fine.
As an omnivorously bookish kid in the early 1970s, I read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, revisiting it a few more times over the years. I don’t know if it was once of the works that drew me toward becoming a writer — I’m pretty sure that would have happened anyway, as I was making up songs and stories even before I was able to write (and I have tape recordings to prove it.) But I do think it may have been one of the books that helped me understand that there were other folks — other kids — who didn’t necessarily fit into the world around them, and who weren’t necessarily heroic, but who were interesting.
(In the same manner, I got a lot out of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, which I think I discovered around third or fourth grade. I understood being the weird kid, and the images of Camazotzian conformity allowed me to recognize both the dangers and necessities of not fitting in. I’ve been told that both Harriet and Wrinkle were “girls’ books,” that boys weren’t interested in reading stories with girls as lead characters. I really hadn’t thought of those books in those terms, although I reckon I can see where and how folks have. I just thought they were good books, and I still do.)
In any case, Leslie Brody’s biography of Louise Fitzhugh came out late last year, and Jennifer WIlson discussed it in The New Republic. The article mentions both Fitzhugh’s lesbianism and leftist leanings, and offers a reading of Harriet in that context, suggesting the challenges both of Fitzhugh’s sexuality and politics in early 60s, post-Red Scare America. I didn’t pick up on that in the 70s in the Nashville burbs, but Wilson’s reading seems like a legitimate one. I don’t know if that makes the book quite as subversive as Wilson or Brody might like it to be — if that was Fitzhugh’s intention, it apparently didn’t take with me — but it’s an interesting take, and I may check out Brody’s book at some point.
Meanwhile, I helped get Jeff Bezos a little closer to a return to space a couple of days ago, picking up Kindle versions of three Lillian de la Torre collections of shorts featuring Samuel Johnson as an amateur detective. Those three are only $1.99 each, and thus far they’ve been money well spent. Ms. De la Torre clearly did her homework, and does a fine job of ventriloquizing Boswell, who plays the Watson to Johnson’s Holmes. Most of the stories fall under the heading of cozies, but a couple of those are pretty dark indeed, especially one dealing with a tontine. I’ve been able to suss out some of the mysteries along the way, but as I’ve previously noted, I don’t usually read mysteries for the puzzles, so this hasn’t been an obstacle for me. There’s plenty in the stories to make a Johnsonian like me smile, and they’re written with clear affection for the leads and the milieu. So if you have a couple of bucks to risk, I can safely say the stories are a safer bet than, say, a lottery ticket. And much safer than a tontine.
Speaking of Mr. Bezos and his ups and downs, I guess I’m short on peevishness. I’m not bothered at all by the space expeditions Bezos, Branson, or Musk are making. Honestly, the kid inside me that said he didn’t want to die on earth gets it, and were I in a similar situation, I might do the same.
Likewise, when I see people griping about “spending so much on this when he could be spending it to solve X,” it irritates me.
I’ve spent a significant portion of my life being told by others what they think I should do with whatever skills and talents I possess. I’ve told the story of my high school guidance counselor explaining what an “underachiever” was, as the entire class turned and looked at me, and I’ve had people tell me that I should have applied myself to the sciences or medicine to “really make a difference.” Heck, I’ve even had people tell me that if they were my size, they’d work out a ton and become more athletic/larger/more intimidating.
And now, I’m sure there are people who think that I should have accomplished more than being an English prof at a small college, a sometimes fictioneer, and a reasonably competent semi-pro musician. On my bad days, I think those things, too — the shadow of Zontar the Enormous is a long one. But the things I have done have done some good: sharing beautiful and wise things with other people, maybe decorating their lives a little bit along the way. It’s my hope that by doing the things I’ve wanted to do, some good has come of it (and one hopes more will come in the time I have left.) But from goofing off and writing poems in geometry class to making songs and a CD with the Berries and to donating blood (which I did earlier this week), they have been things I wanted to do. They weren’t altruistic, at least not in the sense that I felt like I was suffering for others.
Likewise, when I see folks like Bezos and Branson, what I think to myself isn’t what they should be doing. For one thing, I’m too busy with my own life than to try to direct theirs. Instead, I think that their wealth has come by developing ideas that have made my life easier or better. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get books, music, and other stuff with minimal delay and at prices I can afford.
Jeff Bezos didn’t force me to buy from him. He offered me what seemed to me to be an efficient way to get things I wanted. I freely chose to do that, and so have lots of other folks. Bezos had a good idea — it made him rich. Good for him. And if he wants to spend some of it on getting to the fringes of the atmosphere or beyond, good for him as well.
Some years ago, the Spawn told a high school teacher that he had no right to her potential — that she belongs to herself, that it’s her life to live. Likewise, those people who deem themselves better directors of Jeff Bezos’s wealth than he is are operating from that teacher’s mistake, in this case likely boosted by resentment and envy, the seeming ethea of our age.
As a student of the Seven Deadly Sins, I’ve noticed that the early writers saw Envy as perhaps the ugliest of the Sins. Sins like lust, gluttony, sloth, and greed can make a certain degree of sense — even if too much of a good thing. There are times for reasonable anger, and even a degree of rational pride (as distinct from vainglory.) But envy — hatred or resentment of the good of others — really serves no one. The envious man despises someone else’s good, thought it does him no good either. While I can’t see into the hearts of others, I strongly suspect that much of the “righteous anger” I see directed at the flying zillionaires is thinly disguised envy. Once again, I think Huxley nailed it in Crome Yellow.
The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.
[Side note: I, too, am a human being, and as such am subject to occasional bouts with envy. But I try very hard to be aware of that, to recognize it when it flares, and to turn from it when it manifests. My best remedy for that has been to attempt gratitude for the things in my life, and in the case of people like Bezos, for the ways in which they have bettered my life and the lives of people I love. End of side note.]
As promised in the post title, I leave you with a bit of music. Like last time, I wrap it up with Toronto’s The Sadies. At first, the song caught my attention because I though it included a character named Emily. The name in fact is “Anna Leigh,” and a closer listen to the lyrics revealed that what we have here is a nicely spooky ghost story of sorts, a modernized, alt-country version of the stories common to folk and Appalachian legends and ballads. I like it a lot, and hope you will as well. If you can’t quite make out the lyrics, they’re here.
See you soon!
Amusingly, this post sent me back to your “Zontar the Enormous Opines on Giftedness” post. Reading that, I immediately wanted to make a comment to it, only to notice that I had made that exact comment back in 2011 and forgotten all about it.
By the by, I still try to read your blog, but the “launching blog” I used to use to get here in my normal way (“Nobody Sasses a Girl in Glasses”) shut down, thereby disrupting my years-long routine. I still check in whenever I remember.
Hey, Andrew — great to hear from you! You’re welcome whenever and however you get here!
In fact, the “Zontar the Enormous” posts are probably part of the reason why. We had similar-ish childhoods, I think, though I was only ever tall for my age (never particularly broad) and eventually I settled into just being above average in height (a bit shy of six feet tall). So that similar-ish childhood makes me feel a connection to you. By the by, my own parents were intellectually fairly unremarkable. But, while I am the youngest and smartest of my family, all three of my siblings are intellectually remarkable. My poor sister graduated 3rd in her high school class of 300+ people, but has always known for certain she is the fourth smartest person in her own family. It is a bit of a puzzle to me how that happened. I’m pretty sure I know where I came from – the combination of good genetics and then a nurturing environment created by my sainted and sadly deceased oldest brother (who was a prolific book collector and 11 years older). But I don’t know where he came from.