Why I Love Paris, partie première.

I ran into a woman today who said she had no desire to go to Europe. It’s true she lives in a California beach town, and we have great wines, and rolling hills and it’s lovely here.

Inwardly, though, I just started stammering. But-but-but-but!

I guess there’s no way to explain it if you don’t already get it, and if you already get it, you probably want to share your love for Paris. Paris is like a lover that your partner has no trouble accepting into his or her life. Paris cannot grow old, and yet it is already old and beautiful and still sexy. A person can get a little jealous of Paris.

The small town I grew up in was cheerful, and a great teacher of lessons about people. But it was not Paris. How the Parisians stand themselves, I don’t know. I would be inwardly gloating every minute, if I lived there. It seems to me that most of them do have that je ne sais quois attitude, and when I think about it, most of the words I’d use to describe what I love are…French:

Style. Attitude. Elegance. Sophistication. Art. Music. Towers. Cathedrals. Museums. Culture. Enchantment. Glamour.

If these words aren’t completely French, they’re still derived from French – which I wish I could speak. After years of trying, it’s not the language itself that defeats me. Non, c’est l’aire, la mystique, la mystère.

Now, it’s true that some French are a bit imperious, which is why I’m shy speaking to them. And they really do cut people’s heads off, occasionally, usually for the right reasons – but sometimes, the wrong person. But the ideas behind the violence are good ones. I totally understand the motive.

And then, there’s the Art. Where else can you stand in front of a huge painting of a huge historical event, with realistic detail, from centuries ago – and the events depicted took place just steps from where you’re looking at the painting? Who did that, back then? Who recorded history so meticulously – or had the talent on hand to do it? The French.

Sure, some of the people who painted were immigrants, but the French don’t care – as long as as you are a good painter. Not a good painter? Don’t paint in public, please, and we won’t exhibit your drawings. You can still draw and paint – just do it at home.

They say that 75% of Parisians play a musical instrument of some kind. On the Summer Solstice, at Fête de la Musique, anyone who pleases can come out on the street and play. Manu Chao gives a concert up on Montmartre hill, the college kids bring their stereos into the streets, the Churches get their groove on with sacred music and organ work, classical music is never overlooked, and jazz is everywhere. Just wandering around, on our first night on our first trip to Paris, we ran into Potzi and part of his manouche group. We stayed up until 2 a.m. in Montmartre, at Au Clarion des Chausseurs (highly recommended – ignore Tripadvisor on this one; and I’m a Tripadvisor Destination Expert – just not for Paris). Potzi was amazing, but his bass player was equally amazing. I tried to tell him that – he thought I was confusing him with the guitar player (of course – most bass players think that). I think I managed to tell him I was a bass player too and that I admired his bass playing. I said it was “Superbe.” He corrected my pronunciation. Really. He did. I should have said “Magnifique” in the first place.

So I’m boning up on French words for Awesome (okay – now, that’s one great English word):

Redoutable

Extra. C’est extra! Genial!

Extraordinaire.

Miraculeux.

En plein forme!

Beau/belle.

Superbe.

Merveilleux/Merveilleuse.

Excellent.

Remarquable.

Sensational/le.

Stupéfiant.

And sometimes, Dingue.

That’s crazy, dude. C’est dingue, gars argot.





Two Princesses and a Dungeon

Moat view of Castello Estense

Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy, begun around 1385

The Renaissance was just a short time ago.  It was a revolution of aesthetics and the beginning of the Modern Age.  Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, but we’ve been civilized for only 6,000.   Today, one of the famous symbols of civilization is a painting:  Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.  In my view, the woman who is Mona Lisa was herself shaped by a privileged, but male- and church-dominated life in a Castle.  You can see the castle walls in the painting, and you can see the lands she controlled in the background: Mantua’s famous lake country.  In my view, the real Mona Lisa – Isabella d’Este – belongs on anyone’s list of extraordinarily accomplished women.  For one thing, she’s one of the first women about whom we know so much.  It’s hard to compare our lives today to people’s lives at 6,00o years ago – but 600 years ago, that we can start to do.  Isabella d’Este was born 537 years ago.  She didn’t blog, but she wrote more letters than any other woman of her time.

When farming first began  in Italy only, 6000 years ago, population density was low.  Jobs were practical, like dam and canal building.  The dam builders were still farmers, not truly specialists. Little by little, farms produced more.  Families began to specialize in  pottery, weaving, earthworks, woodworking, metalworking – and soldiering. Most sons grew up to be whatever occupation their father was, or if their family could arrange it, they were apprenticed to another family to learn a trade.  No castles were built.  Artwork existed – but nothing like Leonardo. Bureaucratic positions, such as Castellan began to emerge, but nothing like what was to come later.

In Europe, a system of simple symbols called pictographs had been moving in the direction of  an actual writing, but it wasn’t until 3,800 years ago that true writing showed up in Europe. This was of course the Phoenician alphabet, but the odd thing is that the Phoenicians and the Greeks show up at almost exactly the same time, and with the same seafaring set of skills. Building boats isn’t that easy, and these boats (like the boats of the Norsemen, also already in production) were quite sophisticated.

Depiction of Greek ship from around 3,800 years ago

Greek ship as one might have looked at 3,800 years ago

By the time of the Renaissance, Justice was a two-tiered system. Nobility had one system and commoners had another.  Italy didn’t exist as a nation, like France or England.  Instead, it was divided up into several different kinds of states:  city-states, duchies, kingdoms, papal states and others.  Each had their own money.  Each had their own laws, and each had their own ruler.  They rarely got along.  Each Duke or Prince or Marquis or Doge could pretty much do as they pleased.

France tried to have a strictly patrilineal system of noble inheritance, called Salic law with only one monarch, going back to the Salic Franks, one of those so-called Germanic tribes (nobody was much calling themselves “German” at 700 A.D., this is an anachronistic name, always bugs me).   Anyway, usually the oldest son inherited the power, authority, land and money from his father and all the other kids had to just deal with it.  Every semester, at least one male in one class of mine is in this same privileged position, his siblings have been disinherited and he will be trusted to make the right decisions regarding the family property – usually a California ranch style tract house.

Italy wasn’t one big nation, like France tried to be.  It did not work the same way as France.  Popes do not usually pass their power on to their sons.  Whatever else you want to say about Catholicism, one thing about Renaissance Catholicism is that it didn’t follow strict rules of inheritance.  The Church was free to frolick about, choosing a new Pope however the Cardinals saw fit, resulting in some of the most bizarre and interesting leadership choices in the history of Europe.   If you’ve been watching the Borgias (Showtime), you already know that.  Okay, so maybe “frolicking” isn’t quite the right word – but you know what I mean.

The little Duchy of Ferrara, nestled in pretty Tuscany, had its own rulers and relative peace and prosperity for a very long time, perhaps even in days before the Etruscans.  For the first 2,500 years of Italian farming, farmers were few and far between, still working at adapting crops to the Italian climate.  But, then the Etruscans arose and civilization began on the northern Italian peninsula. By 2,600 years ago,  they also had writing which strongly resembled European pictographs and Greek writing, at least to my eye.  They were also a military people, with a strong penchant for building towers.

Whoever built Rome (Greeks and/or Etruscans), by  600 A.D., Rome had seen its ups and downs. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the little cities of northern Italy felt disconnected and less prosperous, even with all their glorious towers.  Getting people to pay the taxes to upkeep the cities became the job of each local prince or duke.

That’s when some Teutonic tribes saw an opportunity and moved into Northern Italy.  Whether the Este clan, who ruled Ferrara, were Teutonic (like the Langobards who took over Lombardy), I don’t know.  I strongly suspect it.  At any rate, like the Langobards, the Estes took care to marry into other local ruling houses and to solidify strong alliances.  They left everything to their oldest son, following ancient traditions for preserving power within the family.  They tried to marry their daughters off to other people’s oldest sons, of course.  They also knew they needed to build a strong castle around the existing tower for defense against all manner of marauders.  And when they built their castle, they also knew it needed a dungeon with several cells.

The Estense Castello was begun in 1385 and by the time of the two little Princesses, was about 200 years old.  It was the Hearst Castle, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Tower of London rolled into one. Ferrara was an amazing city and the castle was at the heart of it, with working drawbridges and moats.  The living areas were enormous, and beneath the formal rooms and great halls, hung with amazing tapestries; below the huge kitchens, there were dungeons.

That way, if the Duke of Ferrara had enemies or needed to imprison a wrongdoer, he had them right where he could see them.   Everyone in town knew and agreed there was only one Duke and one Duke only, and anyone who disagreed either left town or ended up in the dungeon (or dead).  This system worked pretty well.  When the townspeople were unhappy about something, they knew who to complain to (the Duke).  If the townspeople got into an uproar, the Duke knew what to do (imprison their leaders).  None of this due process stuff; no trial by peers.  Frankly, almost no one could read.  The Duke and his family employed anyone who was anybody and paid them pretty well, and the rest of the town had to just live with their decisions.

But did this keep the Estense from having family feuds?  Nope.

Eleanor of Aragon

Eleanor of Aragon, from the Louvre, probably Cristoforo Romani

Eleanor of Aragon (Mona Lisa’s mom) was a beautiful and cultured woman, daughter of the King of Naples, descendant of the noble family of Aragon, Spain. She married Duke Ercole I of Este and moved into the Castello in Ferrara in 1473.  She was known far and wide for her gentleness, her refined taste, her education, her needlework and her devotion to the arts.  She had been married once, already, to the aged Sforza Duke of Bari, but Bari was a tiny place in the middle of nowhere, compared to Ferrara.

On approach to Ferrara, gardens had been planted so as to give visitors the idea that the entire town was an island of paradise. Visitors arrived by boat, up a canal from the Po River.  There were fountains and birds of all kinds awaiting them as they disembarked.  Eleanor’s dining hall and evening entertainments were legendary, all the best musicians and poets of the day were at her court.  Recitations, plays, recitals, dances that resembled ballets, all of this was part of weekly life, and every night had some sort of marvelous entertainment.  Ercole was a Francophile, and, some would say, a traitor to the notion of Italy:  when Charles VIII sought to take over the Kingdom of Naples (depicted in The Borgias on Showtime), Ercole was his strongest ally.  Ercole had to be quiet about it, but in those days, simply withholding information and silently supporting (with goods and services) the enemy was a powerful tactic.  It would be as if New Mexico decided to aid and abet Mexico in Mexico’s bid to take over Arizona.  And he kept it on the down-low, which is amazing.  To a great extent, he even managed to look like the good guy on the block, while Ludovico Il Moro, Duke of Milan certainly looked like a traitor.  It’s possible Ercole set him up to take the fall, it was fairly easy to do.  Ludovico was his son-in-law and trying to side with his father-in-law.

When Eleanor’s first child with Ercole was a girl, Isabella D’Este, unlike many patrician families, they rejoiced.  They were not caught up in the “we have to have a boy” mentality of so many of their contemporaries, at least not with that first baby.  Little Isabella would grow up to become the First Lady of the Renaissance, as most history books call her, a patroness of the arts whose own house at Mantua rivaled the house she grew up in.  I believe that Isabella D’Este is clearly and obviously the woman known as the Mona Lisa (more on that in later posts).  All you have to do is look at Leonardo’s famous drawing of Isabella and read his notebooks, where he speaks about how to “turn” a profile drawing into a three quarter drawing – and there you have her, Isabella D’Este, right where she should be – the most important painting in the world.  Because Isabella D’Este, the woman, was the most important woman in the world at her time (maybe rivaled a bit by Queen Isabella of Spain of Castille, her distant cousin).  Leonardo didn’t spend much time with Isabella, and he probably used Lisa Gherardini as a body double, back at his studio, to help with painting Isabella’s body – and obviously, over the years, Leonardo used Salai (as usual) as his model and little by little, Isabella D’Este started looking more like Leonardo’s friend and model, Salai – so he could never have given the portrait to her.  She was, as it turns out, more than a little spoiled, extremely demanding and prone to refusing and strongly criticizing portraits that she didn’t like, that made her look fat or just generally didn’t make her look gorgeous.  I’m guessing she liked the one by Titian, which makes her look 30 years younger than she was at the time it was painted.

Mona Lisa

I believe this is an attempted portrait of the perfectionist, Isabella D'Este

As a girl. little Isabella was a demanding and petulant princess, accustomed from a very early age to dominating the servants and the courtly world around her.  Eleanor of Aragon knew how to raise a princess.  Isabella’s life was one of brightness, ease and complete luxury. By age 15, she was ready to have her own court and to marry the boy she’d been betrothed to since childhood, Francesco Gonzaga, future Duke of Mantua.  The two of them carried on a shy and proper courtship via letters.

One year after Isabella’s birth, in an attempt to produce a boy, Eleanor gave birth again – this time to another girl, and there wasn’t quite so much rejoicing.  Beatrice D’Este, considered less beautiful than her sister, was also a bit superfluous – a second girl wasn’t needed.  A boy was needed.  Dutifully, Eleanor produced another baby a year later, this time, a boy, Alphonso.  He’s the one who will go on to marry Lucrezia Borgia.  

In the meantime, things weren’t always so peaceful in Ferrara, as Duke Ercole couldn’t resist being drawn into a war with the Republic of Venice, allied with the powerful deRovere family – who happened to have their man up as Pope at the time.  By the time the war actually came to Ferrara itself, Eleanor had had three more children, for a total of six.  Eleanor was home  when the Venetian conditierre (mercenaries) came to take Castle Estense.   She had to issue orders, get the drawbridge pulled up and ultimately escaped with the children, who probably would have been massacred.  She ran from the castle with her children in arms, the older ones running behind her – and not much else.

Eleanor of Aragon was not pleased with this outcome.  If she spent any time pondering whether children were supposed to be killed in war, we’ll never know.  She certainly knew that taking over a Duchy meant capturing the Duke – and his heirs.  Even if the children were only to be hostages, which was quite the common procedure of the day, Eleanor was not happy about it.  She’d been living in a Disney-like paradise, with her six beautiful children (or, 5 beautiful children and Beatrice) and now it was all in ruins.  Not only that, but on the day the enemy came, her husband the Duke was nowhere to be seen.

Ercole was able to make peace by bribing the Venetians and the Pope, ceding property to them and staying neutral in all future wars involving Pope Sixtus.  This was extremely humiliating to him.  Eleanor reacted by sending at least two of her children away from home and harm’s way.  She sent the precious heir  and Beatrice to their grandfather, the aging King Ferrante of Naples, who had his own fiercely defended and rather bizarre court.  No one messed with Ferrante of Naples, at that time (more on that later).

Isabella was kept at home, perhaps because she was old enough to be a companion to her mother, perhaps because she was her mother’s favorite.  Both Isabella and Beatrice had had lots of lessons by then, and Beatrice still learned plenty at Ferrante’s court, but in general, Beatrice was allowed to run wild, be a tomboy and had way more fun at her grandpa’s house, while Isabella continued on her course of becoming First Lady of the Renaissance.

The clothes, harps, keyboards, and other implements of the Este household at Ferrara were all at Isabella’s disposal (and Beatrice’s too, until she left at about age 10).  The two little girls would have taken music, dancing and singing lessons upstairs, right above the dungeon where their other grandpa, Niccolò III d’Este had imprisoned and then decapitated his son Ugo and his wife, Parisina.  I like to picture little Mona Lisa/Isabella and Beatrice (who would later turn out to be quite a beauty herself) running up and down the stairs of the Castello, playing Princesses in the Tower, waiting for their princes, tossing things in the moat, picking flowers for their hair, riding their ponies over the drawbridge and just generally having the life of Renaissance princesses.  Their maids helped them with their hair and dress, although Isabella always favored just wearing her hair loose around her shoulders, while Beatrice’s hairstyle would later become the rage of all Milan.  They had those cool dresses with the slashed sleeves and all the ribbons anyone could want.  Occasionally they must have demanded, “Tell us what happened to Uncle Ugo again?” and listened in horrified entracement as someone, maybe a servant, told the story late at night, with the Tower looming over their heads.

So the two little princesses would have been brought up with the tale of how Daddy’s younger (illegitimate) brother Ugo was beheaded at the foot of the Tower.  It would surely have been obvious that adultery was a serious crime, and that even sons of Dukes could lose their heads (and wives of Dukes too). Poor Parisina, the doomed lover of Ugo, was married off to a much older man (much as Beatrice would be), and was known for her gentle kindness, her care for the impoverished and the fact that she treated common people, servants and even the poor with equality and fairness.  Unfortunately she also fell madly in love with her husband’s handsome young son.  Niccolò would repent of his overly hasty decision, but the blood was still on his hands.  Aside from having to confess his sins in the usual Catholic manner, nothing happened to a Duke who beheaded his wife and his son.

renaissance dress

What an Este girl might have worn

I can’t help but think that Isabella D’Este’s extremely proper, decorous, competitive, obsessive and perfectionistic persona had to be shaped by growing up above just such a dungeon.  While men focused on war (and many must have feared it), women had to stay at home, ever aware that dungeons were made to punish any crime the Man of the House and Lord of the Town deemed necessary.  A good girl didn’t have to fear a dungeon, and Isabella D’Este was going to go down in history as one of the best girls ever.  Her famous smile is a testimony to the fact that she survived, independent and powerful – as a woman – while her own little brothers, unfortunately, ended up being put in that same dungeon by their older brother, Ercole’s son and heir, when he became Duke Alphonso d’Este.  Isabella D’Este, somewhere between a Lady Madonna and an Overprivileged Princess, survived to a ripe old age, opened a school for girls that wasn’t a convent and had many more adventures, liaisons and good times.  She was the Original High Maintenance Woman.  To me, her smile says it all.

So were there ever lots of happy, traditional families?  Does sibling rivalry get out of hand?  Do people harm the ones they love?  Do we really differ that much from people 500 years ago?
Not by much – it’s just that most of us don’t really have a dungeon under the dining room floor any more.

dungeon Castello Este

Dungeon under the Main Hall, Castello Estense, Ferrara


Main Street, USA

It was 1959, I was 4, and Mick – the German man who ran this tiny tobacco and candy shop on Main Street was 78.  That made him quite old to me, although he lived for many more years.  It was Christmas Eve and there was supposed to be a parade and Santa Claus was going to be at the end of the parade.

My dad and I stood opposite Mick’s Newstand and waited, but it was freezing cold and raining, and they cancelled the parade.  My mom, always sensible, had refused to go in the first place, but I was so convinced that Santa would magically be there, that my dad went and stood in the cold with me until it was formally announced by a police car cruising Main Street:  No Parade.

To ease my disappointment (I was a resilient child, I can’t say I was devastated, I certainly didn’t cry about it), we walked over to Mick’s Newstand (where my mom had once worked, in one of her brief stints of part time employment) and Dad talked with Mick and I looked at comic books (I could read a bit, I liked Archie comics) and I chose some candy.  I got this long pointed lollypop thing that has had to be outlawed since then, because it was so long and pointed (shaped like a rocket, I thought) that a child could easily poke their throat or their eye or fall and stick it through their brain (or so I was told).  According to Mick, of the 25 or so rocket pops he had on hand, one of them was guaranteed to have a prize inside.  I wanted the one with the prize, badly.

So I looked at each one, thought about it, and finally made my selection.  I’ll never forget Mick’s gnarly old finger coming over the counter, pointing downward, and with his slight German accent, saying, “No, I think you want that one.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I looked up at him with such gratitude, I felt so favored, I felt better than a princess.  I grabbed the one he pointed at, we bought it, and I unwrapped it right there in the store.

At the base of that rocket pop was a dime.  An entire dime!  No prize of any kind could have been more cherished by me.  I already had a bank.  Every penny I found, the coins dug out of the couch – and usually, all the pennies from my dad’s pocket at the end of the week – went into that bank.  It was cast iron, looked like a bank, and was held together with a screw that was difficult to open – for another year or two, I needed help getting that bank open.

I was always saving for something, and I also dipped into the bank every Sunday to take something to church, to Jesus.  It was usually just a penny for the offering plate, but my total bank balance was in the neighborhood of 100 cents or so.  I guess I should have thought about giving a tithe – but I didn’t do percentages yet.

Now, I know a bit more about those rocket pops and know that they didn’t come with prizes.  Mick put that dime in there.  He tampered with the packaging (would he be arrested today?) and put it in there.  How long had it been there?  Why did he choose me?  Well, he knew I was a disappointed 4 year old on Christmas Eve.  But that’s the kind of Old White Man I grew up with.  Mr. Aardappel, who ran the appliance and hobby store across the street wasn’t that old but he was so nice too.  He sold me chemicals to make my own chemistry set.  He was the only person in town who had any 45’s, that I knew of, and he also sold Matchbox Cars.   I knew just about every shopkeeper on Main Street, actually.

So, I want everyone to know that when I talk about “Old White Guys,” I do not include these wonderful, ethnically Anglo-European old men I knew as a kid, and I knew many.

Oh, and by the way, the word “redneck”, when I use it, still refers to exactly what it referred to throughout most of my life.  To be a redneck, you have to be a pale skinned person who wears an uncollared shirt in public (a big no-no in my own family, with the exceptions of the redneck members who were the palest and the proudest of their sunburned skin – perhaps more on them, later, it’s a sad story).  My dad has never, ever appeared in public in just a T-shirt.  T-shirts (of any kind) were regarded as underwear by all proper men and never worn in public by virtually anyone I knew.  A man in his front yard – maybe (even then, you wouldn’t catch my dad in the front yard in one).

In addition, to be culturally redneck these days, you have to have more vehicles than there are people in your household, at least some vehicles stored in your front yard, and a penchant for either chain smoking cigarettes OR deep-frying everything (or both).  Your hobbies may include muddin’, off-roadin’ or heavy drinking and gambling – but those are optional.  That’s my short taxonomic list for “redneck.”

Mick, the tobacconiste, never smoked in his store (I don’t think he smoked at all) and always wore a shirt with a collar – in fact, most of the time, he wore a dress coat at the store and men’s dress pants.  About three years after the Christmas incident, mom and I had stopped at his store to buy candy and say hello.  We went there often, he really liked my mom – who wouldn’t?  He had needed a person to run his store for awhile, and my mom accounted for every penny, fronted every product perfectly, cleaned the whole place and could not have done a better job as a temporary minimum wage employee.  I suppose we were buying cigarettes for Dad, too (Viceroys, always Viceroys), as this was before the information about second hand smoke or any of that.

We were in the car already, it was just getting dark and Mick came out of the store and bent down at my window, which was rolled down.  “Do you know what year I was born?”         he asked me.  I shook my head.  I was about 7.

“1881,” he replied and let that sink in

“1881!”  said my mother.  “I had no idea!”   This was 1962, the final year of cultural innocence in the United States.

“Yes,” said Mick, “and I have kept this silver dollar with that date, 1881, for many years.”

He pulled the silver dollar out of his pocket and showed it to me.

“Have you ever seen one that old?”

“No,” said I.  I had a couple of silver dollars that relatives had given me.  These were not in my piggy bank, but in a special jewelry box that my mother stewarded.  I was amazed.  Later, I would ask my grandma Nina about her year of birth, as she too seemed very old.   I’m not sure she was all that pleased to tell me (1890, I think).  Grandma Grace was 1887.  So Mick was really old, even by grandparent standards.

“I don’t have any grandchildren,” said Mick.  “So I want you to have this and always remember me.”

Even at 7, I was such a serious kid and I believe I did get tears in my eyes.  I didn’t know what to say – or if my mom would allow such a gift.

She did.  She understood.  “Why, Mick, that’s just such a wonderful thing for you to do.”

“Thank you, Mick,” I said (because he always told me to call him by his first name).  “I would never forget you!”

“We’ll put it in a special place,” said Mom.  I got out of the car and hugged Mick and we all admired the silver dollar and the grown-ups talked about how long ago 1881 was, and how that was before the Great War, even, and the Turn Of the Century.  They talked about how Mick had watched horse and buggy days disappear, seen electricity be linked to people’s homes, seen airplanes invented – and space travel start to happen.  He was only 81 that year.

Mick lived quite a bit longer – at least another 15 years.  I was away at college when he died.  I’m not sure I ever knew his last name.  He sold the tobacco and candy store when he was in his late 80’s.  It was a place filled with mystery and memories for me.  Men’s magazines behind the counter, the only place in town where a person could buy Playboy.  All kinds of vices (Coca Cola, candy, cigarettes and cigars, Popsickles).  And those comic books, which he would let me read without buying.  Oh, and those magazines:  True Confessions and True Stories, which he would not let me read and which I would have to wait until my early teens to sneak a peak at, at my best friend’s house (her sisters were older and bought those magazines on their own).  The pulpy underside of America, the sweet, branded fragrance of all those American candies and pops, the occasional grape soda on a hot September day – and all of this just half a block from the Santa Paula Library.

It was like growing up on Main Street, Disneyland.  The only things missing were a player piano and men wearing straw skimmers.

Oh, and yes – I still have that silver dollar.  For me, that’s a major feat and a promise kept.

The Montagues and the Capulets

Clearly, urban people have been having feuds and “gang problems” since at least the time of Shakespeare.  Or, at least, Shakespeare thought his audience would find it believable that Italians would have violent street battles and terrible, terrifying rivalries among Houses.

As it turns out, I’m a Montague.  I’ve figured out who several of my ancestors were during Shakespeare’s day. They were Montagues, Kingsmills, Malthouses, Tyndales, Taylors, Thurstons, Stubbs and others.  The Montagues were the ones with the best connections – just a few generations away from being nobility.  The name isn’t Italian, but it must have sounded exotic to Shakespeare.  The moral of Shakespeare’s play seems to be that such enmity is the source of great personal tragedy.  The families forgive each other only after the two beautiful young people die.  That’s probably what it takes to settle a feud of that kind.

Today’s gangs are not exactly families or Houses in the same sense, and their feuds don’t die when beautiful young people die.

Elena, the woman whose family member stole from her (see May 13th: Mayan Changes), would like to have a feud with that woman. She’d like, at least, to beat her up (so would I, but I’m not good at beating people up).  The desire to have revenge when we are wronged is strong, especially if the wrong is criminal and especially when civilization has declined to the point where our little petty wrongs have to be huge in order to be investigated.

In Elena’s case, there is now a family feud brewing.  Details have to be worked out.  Family gatherings still have to take place, but are now a breeding ground for further angry action.  One side has already armed itself and shown its gun to the other side.  The other side is thinking of getting a gun.  The family is divided, the actions of one person accomplished this.   We are lucky, our Bad Neighbors are merely that.  They are not family.  Our House remains undivided.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main antagonists are young.  In the situations I’m describing, the players are getting a bit old for such nonsense .  The older Montagues urged some degree of decorum, although they certainly did not see their way clear to resolving the enmity between the Houses.

In my own neighborhood theft case, the main culprit is the oldest man on the block and his family (even older).   Is this new?   He’s not a Baby Boomer – but his wife is.  Is this what we have to look forward to?  Elderly criminals?

Crime is almost always depicted as being mainly the purview of the young.  I know now that this Old White Man has been shady for a long time.  Probably since fourth grade or something.  Perhaps his Stealthy Wife turned him on to a more active life of crime.  He seems never to have had a real job, but boy does he have The Lifestyle.  Her own malfeasance at her job (public sector) has made the newspapers, and just this week, the court ruled against her side.  Discovery will proceed.  We’ll see if she accepted bribes or not.  She’s going to have to go to court.

Meanwhile, they’ve fled the state.  Several people who know the whole story thought that was their intent all along (they bought a $100,000 RV after she retired from her $60,000 a year job).  Even one of the policemen said it would be interesting to see if they’d flee when the court ruling was about to come down.

All of this has made me think about how we recognize our enemies.  If I am a Montague, then the Capulets are my sworn enemies.  This clearcut notion of family alliances makes life easier to understand.  You’re for me or against me.

The way I was brought up, everyone in your neighborhood was categorized as Friend.  Few people violated that trust.  Neighbors looked out for each other.  To some extent, territorial youth gangs still follow this dynamic of trying to trust their own peeps, while hating the next hood over.  Some boys down the street stole my brand new scooter the day after Christmas when I was 6, but other than that, the neighbors I knew growing up were either honest, committed purely domestic crimes – or crimes against strangers.  There were certainly Con Men in that small town I grew up in, and my parents warned me about them, but they lived in apartments after getting kicked out of their family homes  – or were in jail.

And Elena couldn’t have used any quick and nifty division of people into friends and enemies, because her enemy turned up inside her own family.  This seems to happen a lot.  Well, if not a lot – certainly more than I would have thought.  If you’ve ever been a Total Farker ( http://www.fark.com ), you’ve heard the stories.

I think it’s nothing new, but that we should be warned about it a bit more.  Maybe warned isn’t the right word:  taught about how it happens and who is likely to do it.  Actually – I just think we should be less afraid to talk about it.  It’s not easy to admit what’s going on.

Because, we certainly don’t want to go around suspecting everyone of criminality.  The world I want to live in is trusting and happy.  Since these problems are not actually new, I’ve learned some solutions from my recent historical studies, I’ll be sharing them in upcoming days.

Right now, more about our current feud.

The Old White Man, whom I’ll call Mr. Klaus, is both an actual neighbor and an archetype.  He isn’t just any Old White Man, he’s adopted the demeanor, hairstyle and beard, clothing and implements, of the Aging Well-but-not-Super Classy Old White Man.  I’m sure you’ve seen this guy, he’s on commercials.  They choose this type to appeal to a certain demographic.  This demographic is socially above redneck, but certainly not urbane.  It’s your “next door neighbor archetype”:  sure, everyone knows he drinks a bit, but he’s friendly in a loud, ho-ho-ho kind of way, and he has a white beard.

His voice is not strongly masculine, nothing about him is strongly masculine, even his beard.  He’s gone completely snow white, like Santa Claus.  His beard is not as big as Santa Claus’s, that would be gauche, from his own point of view.  It’s neatly trimmed, like some of those guys you see on TV. There’s a PBS travel program announcer who looks exactly like our neighbor.  There are, in fact, hundreds of people in SoCal who look exactly like our neighbor.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t look much like anyone else – much less, exactly like anyone.  None of my friends looks like a SoCal archetype, either – but if you drive through L.A., you see them all the time.  Oh – there’s a Kim Kardashian wannabe.   Oh – that guy thinks he’s Keith Urban.  Years ago, everyone tried to be Harrison Ford.  Now, there are a lot of Jesse James imitators (or maybe Jesse is imitating the average white man of Southern California, hard to say).

Protective coloration, the police told me (when I was teaching at the police academy, which I did for several years – learned a lot), is often adopted by criminals.  People with giant purple mohawks, they said, almost never receive police attention when a crime has occurred.  If the criminal had a mohawk, someone would have noticed – hard to disguise it.  People with tattoos in places that are always visible don’t commit crimes where they have to be invisible (unless they are stupid).  People actually try to look a lot like everyone else, before they commit their crimes.  We’ve had all manner of bank robberies in town and the bandits have 21st century names.  No “Pretty Boy Floyds,” nope, they’re the “grandpa bandit” or the “dodger cap bandit” or the “sports watch bandit,” because their identiying features are…normal.  These people aren’t stupid, they’re pretty smart, as thieves go.

So Mr. Klaus has adopted an entire persona of Hail Fellow, Well Met, the oversized t-shirts of today’s youth and middle-aged men (but hardly any Very Old Men wear them – so he manages to look 10 years younger than his fourscore and fifteen).  He has the submissive white guy voice down to a T.

Elena’s family member committed her crimes mostly at family gatherings – or maybe entirely at family gatherings.  Mr Klaus and Stealthy Wife (The Ninja) have the same pattern, except their family isn’t speaking to them , so they try to have a “social life.”   Elena’s family member also has a track record of her own family members avoiding her.   So, I now have a clue:  When your own kids won’t speak to you, that’s a big red flag – especially if it’s all of the kids.

Being completely happy without going to parties or gatherings, myself, I’ve always wondered why the neighbors like to entertain so much (or used to – I think maybe they’ve run out of friends to prey upon). Elena’s family member likes to socialize too (of course she does, she’s always looking for an opportunity to go through someone’s purse).  The same thing (stealing from purses) happened at party where Mr. Klaus and The Ninja were hosting.

But was this type of behavior going on in the Renaissance?  We all know that if a Capulet showed up at a Montague party, one could expect trouble.  They’d have to disguise themselves, of course.  But if the party was truly all-Montagues, did they steal from each other?   I’ll bet they did – some of them.  I’m basing this bet on some things I learned from history, and you’ll just have to stay in suspense until I get around to writing about why I think it’s not so different now.  Did the Montagues mistakenly blame Capulets when it happened?  Probably.  If the real thief was known, did they get punished – I’m certain of it.  Indeed, one of my ancestors had an eye gouged out with a hot stiletto by his brother, after a terrible misunderstanding in which younger brother was accused of trying to take land belonging to the older one.   This was way before the Renaissance though – that was medieval.

I was led to believe there had been progress since medieval times- it was drilled into me, in my youth, even at university (although frankly, there were some brilliant professors at Stanford who taught that progress might be a myth, gave us a lot of new ways of thinking about history).  Surely some things have changed since the Middle Ages.  Surely, the Renaissance was kinder and nicer, and then the Enlightenment came along and things were still better – right?

That’s my mission – to solve the mystery of what has and hasn’t changed, as well as answer the question how the hell I ended up remaining so naive at my age.  I can learn, though, right?

One of the most brilliant of my professors, Renato Rosaldo, said:  “You can always study deviance; people think studying ‘normal’ makes for good anthropology, but when you study deviance, you uncover a whole lot about the culture and its ethos that you’d never see if you tried to see it directly.” Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.  Anyway, he was right.  He also pioneered an anthropology where we don’t refuse to see what’s right in front of us.  I’m trying to learn.

At any rate, my work with the police, my fieldwork at mental hospitals and jails, and now, my experience in my own neighborhood has given me data on deviance.  But, it seems to me, feuds aren’t deviant at all.  It’s very human.  We certainly should not pretend that we’d all like to buy the world a Coke or ask whether we can all get along.  We can’t.  Some people are just plain mean and nasty – and they are opportunistic as well.

Note to self:  Deal with it (and try not to resort to human sacrifice or stilettos).

The Mayan Changes

People ask me all the time whether I believe the Mayan Long Count calendar predicts catastrophe at the end of 2012.   The answer is no, it doesn’t predict catastrophe, it simply speaks of great changes happening in our time.

I think I know what these changes are, we can already sense and feel them.  It’s one reason I’m traveling. I want to see a lot before the changes – and hopefully, see the world again afterwards.  For some places, these changes are going to be a good thing, for other places, not so much.

The primary change will be a change in ethos, in the manner of seeing the world.  One big part of the change is just about complete:  the world is linked together by a common worldview, by pictures and stories that unite nearly everyone.  Two Taliban suicide bombers in Pakistan today know that their story will be heard nearly everywhere.  Now, I’d like to know how much coverage the story got in Sierra Leone or Pingalap, and that’s part of my quest.  To do anthropology on a worldwide scale, one needs to know a lot about information flow.  I’m not exactly weak on information retrieval skills, so I’ll be posting what I find out.

The change in ethos, though, is it real?  Or is it just my imagination?  I’m enlisting the help of virtually everyone I know, and I’m studying history to find out.  Traditional history is virtually worthless, in helping an anthropologist to figure out culture changes.  Historians focus on whatever the documents tell them to focus on.  A few of them, and only recently, have decided to use a bit of archaeology.  But let’s face it, they do that only when forced to, as when they want to know what happened in the region they’re studying right before writing began.  There are some real exceptions to these comments about historians – hopefully, I’ll make it up to historians later, because I do admire and love history – it’s just not enough to help answer my questions.

Historians don’t typically use nearly enough material, physical data to inform their stories.  Economic historians have led the way in analyzing the transfer of goods, which often tells a different story than the historians do.  An anthropologist has to bring all of this together.  We have to make artifacts, goods and ideas speak to worldview and ethos.   Anthropologists are experts in social structure and language, as well – there are only so many ways things can be transferred from place to place, and only so many independent inventions.  Studying how language changes is another important source of information.

So is the world getting better or worse or staying the same?

One issue that’s been on my checklist regarding this question has to do with community.  I grew up in a small town, people did not lock their doors until the 1980’s.  The town had reached a population of about 20,000 by then, as opposed to the 8,000 people of my childhood.  Were there lots of break-ins?  No, and there still aren’t that many.  Violent crime peaked in the United States in the 1970’s, and my small town absorbed that news a decade later.  Since then, crime has decreased, especially during the 90’s.

Property crime, though, is on the increase where I live right now.  Is this a sign of impeding apocalypse?   We were victims of theft.  It was a small theft, as thefts go.  A woman down the street had $38,000 stolen from her savings account through identity theft.  Identity theft is the fastest rising type of crime where I live.  Usually, the person who commits identity theft is an acquaintance, a family member or someone else who has access to your home.  Bank employees and other people in positions of financial trust account for something like 12-15% of identity theft.  In our case, it was a neighbor we thought was trustworthy (more on that later).  She also had ties to banking.

But this week, a good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Elena, revealed that her entire world was turned upside down by a recent theft.  The thief was a family member.  Every semester, two or three students say they can’t turn in their work because a relative has stolen their laptop.  In one class, a quick survey showed that 1/3 of the class knew victims of theft by family members.  The age of the thieves was not surprising – usually between 18 and 30.  This semester, textbooks have been stolen.  At first I was skeptical and thought it was the old “dog ate my homework ruse.”  But some of these students I know quite well, and I realized why the books were stolen.  They were stolen the same week the bookstore put those “textbook buy-back/cash for books” signs up everywhere.  This is the first semester those signs have been up, by the way.  The result was that several people had their textbooks stolen just before finals.

In Elena’s case, the person was female, and the family is making excuses for her, even as one by one, people admit they have been robbed by this same person – sometimes more than once.  She steals jewelry.  She leaves behind the sterling, she steals only gold.

That’s because all these “we’ll buy your gold” stores have sprung up.  The items stolen from Elena were mostly sentimental:  christening bracelets and naming bracelets for herself and her children.  Her wedding and engagement rings.

The police are doing nothing, as they did nothing in our case.

In our case they said (given the facts of the theft):  It has to be a neighbor.  We agreed.  But, due to the small amount stolen, the police said they couldn’t put any time into investigating.  We did our own investigation and it didn’t take long to figure out who it was.

We called the police again.  Fingerprinting would not be done, it turned out, since these people had been in our home – invited – and it would be difficult to determine whether any prints left were from normal visits or thieving visits.  We know they didn’t steal while we knew we were in the house, we were watching them the whole time.  Did we ever really trust them?  That too is a question for the future.

The question today is, did people ever really trust each other?  In the United States, there’s this illusion that once upon a time, we were all honest and straightforward.  I think the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were predicated on a certain type of person being a citizen.  I think Plato’s Republic was similarly based on the idea that good citizens would be abundant – that only a rare person would be a bad egg.  Were the Founding Fathers and Plato simply idealists, whose ideas were so hopeful that we should be quietly laughing at them?

Or has something changed?  Is it possible to have a community of honest, straightforward people who don’t steal from family, neighbors and everyone else?  Is it possible to have pension fund managers that don’t take bribes to put money in banks overseas?  Is it possible to get bank employees that don’t practice identity theft?  Where are all those ATM card readers that are stealing information being made?  Are these underground ministries of crime a human universal – at least in big cities? Durkheim seems to have thought so.  Was he right?

We’re going to Paris.  Yes, there are pickpockets in Paris, as there are everywhere – but other than that, the time we’ve spent there has been extraordinarily peaceful and without worry about street crime.  So far, the suburb where I live is not ridden with street crime either – just identity theft and stealing from family and neighbors.  We used our credit cards wantonly all over Europe over the past few years – and not a single digit was stolen, not a single person grabbed that data and misused it.  I read the daily Paris paper as well.  They have their crimes of passion, but it doesn’t seem as if they that much financial malfeasance.

Here in California, well, that’s a different story.

The amount of emotional time and energy it takes to deal with a thief is not often talked about. Victims, like Elena and I, commiserate.  My boss, the operational CEO of the place where I work, had her identity stolen this semester too.  Like me, she felt like a bit of a fool.  Unlike me, she doesn’t think it’s someone she knows personally – but I think it is probably someone who had access to her office at work or to her trash at home.  If she’s like Elena and me, she and her husband have spent hours and hours pondering how it happened, blaming themselves, and simply feeling violated.  For Elena and I, the fact that we know the people – but can do nothing about it – really stings.  I do consider investing in identity theft insurance, like Howard Stern is constantly advertising.  But something is making me dig in my heels.

The police, it turns out, don’t have time to investigate such small crimes.  They really like to stay out of family squabbles and neighborhood feuds.  “Put up a bigger fence,” is what they said.

So is it a sign of the times when the police speak poetry to you, instead of investigating wrongdoing?

Good fences
make good ne
ighbors…

~ Robert Frost