Hot Water


Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone, ©Richocet Dream, permission requested.  Music available at

Hot Water.

My mother’s view on what really got dishes clean was Hot Water.  This meant that our water heater was turned up higher than what, today, is the recommended hotness.  It means that my own water heater is still turned up higher than it probably needs to be.  While I recognize the ecological implications of that decision, that’s not what this blog is about.

The water in our house was so Hot that it was expected that our family understand how to run a bath without scalding themselves.  I was doing this by age four, successfully.  But, when we washed dishes, my mom wanted them rinsed in the Hottest possible water.  She was mysophobic, afraid of germs.  When we visited certain relatives and they didn’t rinse Hot enough, she had a hard time eating their food.  She would push it around on her plate, eat a small amount of whatever had been heated to a high enough temperature, but not eat the part that touched the plate.  That didn’t happen often, because her own mother and her sisters shared her view well enough that she was satisfied.  Her mother was as much in favor of Hot Water as she was.  Aunt Eulala was not quite so stringent and Aunt Ferba refused to do dishes with anyone else around.

Aunt Ferba, the eldest and most gracious of the four sisters (everyone said so), never did dishes when guests were in the house.  I have thought about that many times.  My mom and grandmother were of the opinion that a hostess cleared the table and immediately did the dishes and every female worth her femininity (and in particular, we young females) were in the kitchen helping.  My mom judged other women by their willingness to help with dishes and it led to some conflicts.  She complained (maybe even gossiped a bit) about the women and girls (especially the girls) who didn’t help out with the dishes.  So I knew, perfectly well, that when I was a guest at anyone’s house that if I asked to be excused from the table, I was really asking if I could go start doing the dishes.  This meant I hung around and listened to lots more boring adult talk than I would have liked.   (Yes, I had to ask to be excused, I couldn’t just get up and leave when I was finished eating at someone else’s house – and sometimes, this rule was imposed at home if my parents thought I was getting too uppity).

Children and teens who did not ask to be excused were regarded as poorly brought up and a potential source of future trouble.  At some point in the 1980’s, my mother acknowledged that things were changing and when I refused to ask my own daughters to follow this arcane rule (no one else in our social universe was following it) my mom just shrugged and said it was perfectly okay that her grandchildren didn’t ask, as she was their grandmother and if they wanted to leave the table any time they wanted, they got to leave.  This lead to an amusing set of circumstances involving our youngest, who actually left the table frequently and walked around while eating (something Mom still tried to discourage and which I tried to discourage when at Mom’s house – and eventually, in general, as it turns out that eating and walking at the same time is not always safe for a kid).

Anyway, the rule about the women doing the dishes after dinner meant that the party naturally broke up, Victorian style, into men going into the smoking room (back then, the men pretty much all smoked) or going outside to smoke (as Aunt Ferba preferred it) and the women, instead of retiring to the parlor, went to work in the kitchen.  This is still expected in many families I encounter here in SoCal.

Some women rebelled, they wanted to smoke, they wanted to participate in the exciting, topical, political conversations of the men.  Aunt Eulala was one of those.  Since she was my mom’s older sister and had long ago learned to make my mom pipe down (and for long stretches, had no husband to give input on her behavior), my mom didn’t much criticize Aunt Eulala for this (just a little).  My dad said nothing about it.  Aunt Eulala tended to go back and forth between the two worlds.  She helped put the food up, she went and talked with the men, she offered to cut pie and serve it.  She did not wash dishes.  Mom recognized Aunt Eulala’s wisdom and worldliness, just as she recognized Aunt Ferba’s and I think mom really tried to combine both of her sisters’ philosophies in her life.  Aunt Eulala, mom said, was the only one of the sisters who had to work for a living, she was entitled to join the men’s realm if she chose.

But Aunt Ferba abolished altogether the dual sex situation.  Everyone left the table together and everyone proceeded into her spacious (for such a small house) living room and there we interacted together as a large family, with both men and women.  The men still clumped together sometimes, but not always.  No one washed dishes.  My mom could hardly stand it.  She would “stack” the dishes, which was permitted, with Aunt Ferba frequently telling her to stop and join the conversation.  Aunt Ferba herself spoke little, but she listened so well.  She was the world’s best audience.  She was one of the most non-judgmental people I ever knew.  She claimed to have no talents (she sang very sweetly and everyone said her sense of style and interior design was the best of the family), but she laughed gaily at people’s jokes, encouraged more storytelling, poured more coffee and quickly excused youngsters from the table to go play, if they wanted.  From her, I learned the art of being a good audience (a skill some people don’t know I have – but I not so bad at it!)

Aunt Ferba, when pressed as to why she didn’t allow the dishwashing said, “Oh, I just enjoy having everyone here so much, all together, that I don’t want to waste a minute of it on something like doing dishes which, by the way, I enjoy very much.  Not everyone enjoys doing dishes as much as I do!  Tomorrow, when I do my dishes, I’ll be enjoying myself, remembering all the fine conversation from tonight – and that’s how I prefer to do my dishes; alone and with pleasant thoughts.”  She really did articulate things like that when she wanted to.

So there, in my family, were two proto-feminists.  What an awkward way to describe them.  Feminists?  They were just two women with different approaches to life.  Everyone preferred gatherings to be at Aunt Ferba’s house, but I don’t remember many discussions about why that was.

Then, there was Uncle Bob.  Uncle Bob was not as frequent at these gatherings as my other uncles because he lived in a faraway land.  Now, Uncle Bob was willing to do dishes (I think; I’m not sure I ever saw him do them, but he came into the dishwashing area, fully knowing his offers to help would be thoroughly rejected).  Then, he often hung out in the kitchen instead of joining the men.

This irked both of my parents considerably, although my grandmother helpfully pointed out that this was a very good strategy, as having my dad and Uncle Bob in the same all-masculine conversation had had unsettling results in the past.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure Uncle Bob smoked – but no one would have suggested, back then, that he could have put wanting to avoid smoke over his masculine duty.

Uncle Bob would almost always ask to dry one dish, in order to illustrate to me the Biblical principle:  that men and women dry dishes differently.  It was true!  Uncle Bob did dry dishes just as the Bible said men did, and all the women dried them just as the Bible said women did, too!  Women do not need to flip the dish over to dry it; men turn the dish this way and that.  Even at age six or seven, though, I didn’t think Uncle Bob (who was a strongly Bible believing man) was enough of a sample.  Years later, I would still be watching how men and women dried dishes, in university co-ops, in restaurants, in their homes.  It’s generally true – men and women do dry dishes differently, across several cultures (but I don’t have data for enough cultures to generalize completely about the truthfulness of the Bible on this point).

Uncle Bob was one of those guys who could resist raising his voice in an argument and I don’t think I ever heard him cuss a single bit.  Instead he would launch into some long, apparently reasonable and highly animated explanation of why his own views were correct and everyone else’s were wrong.  My dad, on the other hand, while very verbal, was not prone to giving lectures.  He told stories instead, and at a certain point in a disagreement, would flat out declare that no further words need be said, he wasn’t changing his mind.  Period.  He could and did occasionally use the word “dammit.”  My mom was precisely and exactly the same way about changing her mind, except for the cussing, which she deplored and thought put my dad’s soul in danger.  But in this overall way, they were so well suited to each other that many an argument was avoided between them (with some pouting and stomping around, but at least, no more words and dad never, ever cussed at my mother – just other men).  Maybe one day I’ll get around to telling the story about the one time mom cussed (it has to do with cold, though, not hot).

Aunt Eulala, while perfectly willing to disagree with Uncle Bob or my dad or both simultaneously, kept a sense of humor that sometimes set her apart from both Uncle Bob and my dad.  Uncle Cecil (Aunt Ferba’s husband) would listen without comment, unlike Aunt Eulala, but he would often shake his head rather than laugh.  When asked his opinions, he would say something like, “Sometimes a person just wants to keep their own counsel in their heart.”  And everyone would feel a bit chastised but in the mildest possible way.

When it came down to decisions about what to do, how to vote, whether to allow your child to listen to rock and roll or dance in the new style or whatever it was, Aunt Eulala’s advice was what I took away.  She’d actually acknowledge my presence at the edge of some of these discussions (rare thing) and lean down and say, “Just remember this:  if you do the best thing you can, at the time, with as many facts as you can get together to make your decision, and you really think it’s the best decision, don’t feel bad about it later if there are new facts:  you did the best you could at the time.”  My mom, on the other hand, deferred all these questions to Aunt Ferba who, fortunately for me, approved of rock and roll even though Grandma was pretty sure it was Satanic.

Uncle Bob would appear jovial in these discussions (even though we could often tell he was as mad as my dad), while my dad would look downright mad and sometimes stalk off.  This was known as “showing the LeValley temper” at our house.  My mom’s family did not have “the LeValley temper.”  Uncle Harold, my mom’s brother,  was expert at diffusing things, asking my dad to go help him take a look at some malfunctioning car part or to view how shiny and polished his car looked.  Uncle Harold took a humorous  view of his cars; they were always perfect, my dad while careful about washing his car, was not quite as careful as Uncle Harold and never could be, my dad lacks the perfectionist streak that Uncle Harold had.  My dad liked to poke a little loving fun at Uncle Harold’s perfectionism, they both found it funny.  “Bob probably doesn’t even wash his own car,” is something dad would say.  “Probably goes to some car wash in Los Angeles.”  Dad pronounces it “warsh.”  Now, I have no idea whether or not Uncle Bob washed his own car or not, but as a child, I was convinced that he did not.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Uncle Bob lived far away, way off in Los Angeles which, when all was said and done, was my dad’s explanation for Uncle Bob.  “He can’t help it, he lives in Los Angeles,” dad would say, once we were home and he was explaining why Uncle Bob was so wrong about something (Nixon, the Vietnam War, Catholicism, the Apocalypse, the chapters in the New Testament where this or that is prohibited, the Second Coming, whatever it was).  Los Angeles was a realm of deep corruption (like all cities, according to my dad, with Paris possibly being the worst city on the planet, far worse than L.A., even) which tainted people even when they were good people who resisted its pollution.

Sometimes, when dad was angry enough at Uncle Bob, he’d hint darkly that it was Uncle Bob’s college education that made him so rude or so wrong.  First of all, Dad would say, Uncle Bob liked to be in the kitchen with the women, talking and talking.  Interrupting the women’s time together.  Forcing his ideas on women, who were not only too busy with dishes to really put together good arguments against his positions, but, Uncle Bob should have been taking his views outside – where the men (and Aunt Eulala) were.  Then his ideas would be put to the test.  Mom agreed.  Grandma agreed too.  Aunt Ferba would laugh and say that people were all different.  Mom and Grandma didn’t want men in the kitchen while they were cleaning up, and, then, of course, sometimes both Mom and Grandma disagreed on some of Uncle Bob’s theological points (this happened a lot in our family in those days).  I would go off and read the Bible some more, often during the very same event – there were always lots of Bibles around.  Dad never saw himself as rude or wrong.  Mom often managed to conclude these evenings with an acerbic, “Well, we all know that Art LeValley is never wrong.”

Sometimes Grandma would tell Uncle Bob to pipe down.  Then, when we got home, Mom would wonder if Aunt Thelma could be happy living in Los Angeles and when, if ever, Uncle Bob would ever allow her to come back home.  Uncle Bob, happily, did bring Aunt Thelma back home – many years later, they moved closer to the rest of the family and by that time, oddly, nearly all of these little issues, these seemingly-enormous (at the time) disagreements had cooled and everyone was so different.  We used paper plates.  Mom never had anything at her house and never had to do dishes at her own house.  She stopped complaining about the water temps at other people’s houses and the two main offenders (the tepid water users) had either died or were on my dad’s side of the family.

Oddly, while there was gossip about Uncle Bob being in the kitchen, there was very little about Aunt Eulala being where ever the men were.  Dad used to say that mom’s family had a little tendency to treat in-laws as out-laws.

My dad’s family was, in general, not fond of hot water (except Aunt Freda) and my mom eventually got used to it.  Aunt Betty was an incredibly thorough dishwasher, according to my mom, no complaints there.  But there were a couple of other aunts whose dishwashing methods weren’t up to snuff.  My mom actually made a comment to one of them, when I was about six.  Not only was the water not hot enough, but not every single fragment of food was cleaned off the plate in the soapy water before it got to the rinse.  

Consider that.  If my mom was mysophobic, which she was, can you imagine what the combination of not enough Hot Water meant, when combined with little fragments of food still on the plate or utensil…did to her psyche?  She offered, she begged to be the one who washed the dishes at Aunt Pat’s house.  No way.  Aunt Pat was the official dishwasher in her own house and no one else would do it.

For one thing, Aunt Pat said my mother was so slow in her dishwashing that they would be in there all night.  No way did Aunt Pat want to spend that amount of time waiting and waiting for my mom to wash each dish and then pass it to her for rapid drying and putting away.  Mom offered to wash and have me dry, so that Aunt Pat could go…do what?  Aunt Pat was another of those “women wash the dishes, men go outside and talk about fishing!” kind of people.  And while in the kitchen, women talk about women’s things, as sure as the sun rises.

This led to one of the most famous quotes of my childhood.  We were washing dishes.  Aunt Pat was washing, it had been a big meal.  Mom was drying and I was putting away.  Aunt Pat loved me very much and praised my ability to quickly figure out where things went – not that she would have cared at all if I put them out of place (my mom would have directed the whole thing like a symphony – and that has its points; it’s nice to be able to find things again when you need them).  But Aunt Pat was happy enough with my ability to put away and said that she often just left dishes to dry in the drainer without putting them away, so it was great to have someone do it.

Mom kept frowning and showing me these little specks of sauce or whatever that were still on the plates when she, as drier, received them.  Little by little, my mom’s tea towel (no paper towels back then) was getting covered with specks of food.  Finally, mom very politely and somewhat timidly, handed a particularly egregiously still-dirty dish back to Aunt Pat and said, “Oh, this one still has a little gravy on it.”

Aunt Pat fixed my mom with a steely gaze and said, “It’s a damn poor dish drier that can’t get off what the dishwasher leaves on.


Now, this led to many discussions on the long trip home, through Santa Fe and Taos, across the Navajo Reservation and through Hopiland, through Cameron Trading Post and at Grand Canyon, through Little America in Flagstaff and Needles and Barstow.

“Can you believe she said ‘damn’??” was the initial thrust of the conversation.  “In front of a child!”  Unfortunately, my dad’s immediately reaction to hearing the story the night it happened was to burst out into laughter, which did not make matters better.

“Well, I guess I know more about you, then, than I ever did before,” said my mother.  Turning to me, she said (many times in that long journey and many times after), “I hope you remember this.  You never know a person until you’ve married them.  You know what you know when you marry them – and you get what you marry.  No one changes.  But you don’t really know them until you’ve lived with them a long time.”

Mom interrogated Dad.  Did he really want to eat off dirty dishes?  Of course not (he agreed a little more than he really wanted to, I think).  She hoped he knew that if he got sick, she didn’t want to hear him complain.  Would Mom be forced to eat at Aunt Pat’s house again?  Dad got riled up.  This was his sister, perhaps his favorite sister, he loved her.  Yes, she would have to eat there again (and she did, although there was strife about it for years to come).  Mom promised she would be able to go without food if necessary, for one day if it came to it.  She was so hurt.  She never went through on her threats – she ate food at Aunt Pat’s house, using her usual techniques.

“It’s a damn poor dish drier that can’t get off what the dishwasher leaves on.”  Forty years later, my mom actually laughed about it and told it as a joke.


“When you first stick your hands into very hot water, it’s going to feel like you’re getting burned, but you’re not,” were my mother’s instructions.  “You have to get used to.  I’ll make it a little less hot for you right now, honey, but once you’re used to that, we’ll make it hotter.  You’ll see if you make it hotter little by little, your hands can stand a lot.”  My mom’s hands were a bit dry, rough and red from her dishwashing, her hands always looked older than her sisters’ hands, but I remember loving her hands and wondering when I’d grow up, when my hands would turn veiny and red and dry like hers.  No matter how much lotion she used, her hands, for many years, always had that look.  The water was pretty hot.  She may have been a bit wrong about the scalding part.  And, due to the invention of the dishwasher and the dishwashing husband, my hands have yet to turn into those kinds of hands (now I hope they never will!)

As a child, there were tears.  The water was so hot that I cried.  She tried to acclimate me over a long period, but ultimately, I had to face her Hot Water requirement.  She let me off the hook a lot of times, doing it herself, but by middle school, she had had enough of my wimpiness.  It was time to use Hot Water and both of my parents agreed that if they could do it, I could do it.

My friends would come over and offer to help with dishes.  All of my friends were well brought-up (they wouldn’t have been allowed back in the house, I don’t think, otherwise).  They’d squeal at the hotness of the water, they’d look at me with admiration.  “How can you stand water that hot?” they’d ask.  Mom would wash the dishes in extremely hot water, then put them in the rinsing side of the sink, where the rinser’s job was to hold the dish for quite a while under that very hot water.  The dishes themselves would get so hot, it felt like your fingers were burning.  So naturally, my friends dried and put away, I became the rinser.

I had developed many techniques for the mental part of handling hot water, but ultimately, my mother was right – you do get used to it.  When it came time to learn to take hot and heavy things out of the oven, sure I burned myself a few times, but I didn’t drop anything – I was used to very hot things.  I worried about it some (both my mom and I got some bad burns in the kitchen) but I wasn’t afraid.  My mom was certain that all women could do it and that I could do it too.  She was, I think, a third type of “proto-feminist.”  A woman who could handle hot water.

Later, when I did my fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico (and a faulty stove exploded and singed off my eyebrows and gave me some pretty good burns) and dishwashing was by far the least of my concerns, I realized I was using the same techniques to deal with life there.  And I realized that my mother’s views on germs and Hot Water were not universally shared.

I also realized that, if you listen to multiple points of view and try hard to bring them all to the table (or the porch or the kitchen), people are bound to get hurt, testy and angry.  Years later, what matters still matters, what doesn’t, doesn’t.  My mother used to say “100 years from now, no one will know the difference.”  There is a virtue, as Aunt Ferba knew, to getting everyone in the same room and letting all the views mingle, there is a virtue to being able to handle Hot Water.

But in the work I’m doing now, she is likely wrong about one part.  Our College will still be around in the future -and what all of us who work there are doing right now may well make a difference 100 years from now.  I can assure that you all of my colleagues treat it as if it will make a difference, long after we’re dead and gone.  That’s why we do it and that’s why we have the discussions, that’s many of us tolerate the Hot Water.

The spirit of what she said, though, is true.  30,000 years from now (whether or not we have extreme Global Warming or an Ice Age), I do not think the College will be recognizable as it is today.  So, mom, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take as my motto some of your wisest words, with just a little modification:

Honey, no one will know the difference 30,000 years from now – just do the best you can.


Will: The Force, not the Person (Part 1)

I’m thinking about the role of Will in history.  Who isn’t, you might ask?  We’ve all read Nietzsche, right?

Actually most people have not read Nietzsche, nor does reading Nietzsche assist everyone in understanding Will, specifically the Will to Power.  I grew up in a small town, where education even today is not what it is in places like Evanston or Westwood or Palo Alto or any other university town.  I went to university with a lot of kids who grew up in places where education was more thorough.  People from El Paso or Sherman Oaks or the Bronx had had routine experience with computers and programming.  They had studied a bit of logic.  All of that was foreign to me.

I had heard of philosophy.  I learned that it existed when I was 13 and first opened a university catalogue.  I was planning to go to university, not just college (I had figured out the difference).  As I thumbed through the catalogues borrowed from a middle school teacher, three fields of study stood out to me as possible majors:  English, anthropology and philosophy.  I had never heard of either anthropology or philosophy until then.  I used the college catalogues to plan my trips to our local library.  I could see the names listed as great writers or thinkers in the introductory courses in English and philosophy.  It was in this way that I encountered Socrates and Plato.  Had it not been for those university catalogues (which I continued to pore over all through high school), I would doubtless have gone off to University as clueless about Plato and Aristotle as I was about Karl Marx.

When in the first few weeks of university, a teacher kept mentioning Marx, I knew only of the Marx brothers, and I was pretty sure that the teacher wasn’t referring to the entertainer; within a week after the first mention I was in the library, searching for Marx – it took awhile for me to connect Marx up to the Communist Manifesto, I encountered his piece on German Ideology first, but within 10 days of hearing his name for the first time, I had a glimmer of who he was – I considered him a philosopher at that time.  Similarly, when I first heard of Lenin, I thought that teacher was speaking of John Lennon – that took longer to figure out (spelling through me off).  There were no “For Dummies” books back then, and our university bookstore wasn’t the kind of place where Cliff Notes were prominently displayed, but they did have a great section for public consumption and my self-education in philosophy began in earnest.

Nietzsche, however, eluded me.  I tried to read him.  I couldn’t get through enough philosophy courses to get formal instruction in Nietzsche.  Our introduction to philosophy teacher, John Mothershead, was an expert in aesthetics and Kant.  He did not cover Nietzsche, but he did introduce us to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and we ended the course with Hegel.  

When I ultimately became an anthropology major, it was natural for my professors to assign some Engels and Marx (both had views on primitive society, primitive socialism and of course, class), and mention was often made of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but we were not assigned to read those two.    Clearly every educated person knew something about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, so I attempted to read them.

I knew the concept of Will was important to Nietzsche, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly was meant by the word.  I had heard all manner of arguments about Free Will, of course (that, at least had been introduced to me in the protestant church discussions of my youth, and elaborated on in by Prof. Mothershead).  Power I could understand to some degree.  But Will, in and of itself, eluded me as a concept.  Years later, I would meet and get to know an actual philosopher very well, and he explained it to me.  It turned out it was quite simple.  Things always seem simpler when you have a good teacher.

Will is the desire or conception within the human mind to get something done, to make something happen.  It is motivation, it is the force of mind.  It is stronger when it is conscious, but unconscious aspects of will must be considered in a proper exploration of will.

Nietzsche clearly thinks that this force of the human mind is important to history, and it surely is.

Many questions arose in my mind once I realized that will is akin to motivation, power of belief, and, well, stubbornness or even arrogance:  strong intentions to accomplish one’s own…will.

First, I tried to find out more about the psychology of motivation and learned that psychologists, around the years 2005-6, were just then coming to terms with how to study motivation, an elusive pattern or process within the human mind.  Psychologists deal with both unmotivated and motivated human beings in clinical settings, and everyone knows that unless a person is motivated (has the will) to change, they aren’t going to change much.  Even if they are apparently motivated, they might not be able to accomplish a change.  Addiction studies, rehab, etc., all deal with such issues daily; in ordinary therapeutic transactions, will is at issue.  Experimental psychology still has a long way to go in figuring out how to study motivation.  Functional MRI’s and other measurements of brain activity are only somewhat promising in trying to figure out what sorts of energy patterns occur in the brain when a person really wants to do something.  Chess players, for example, who are trying very hard (willing themselves) to win a game, exhibit high activity in their finger motor cortex, and in the frontal lobes related to spatial reasoning and general reasoning, but little else distinguishes them from a person watching television (a person who must have the will to watch television?)  How could a brain state, like will, be distinguishable physiologically from any other brain state?  Isn’t will always present?

Apparently not.  For example, many people show up in clinical settings with the complaint that unwanted feelings or thoughts are in their heads.  They wish to will those thoughts and feelings (often depression) away, but the thoughts and feelings keep coming back.  This is usually regarded as a jointly biochemical and cognitive problem, and most psychiatrists and psychologists believe that the biochemical issue (often serotonin levels) should be addressed early on, and that cognitive-behavioral therapy as an adjunct will help eliminate the unwanted thoughts.  This does work in many people.

But people will themselves to commit suicide, to kill one another, and to do many other problematic behaviors just as surely as they will themselves to take care of their children, to feed the dog and to water the houseplants.

It can easily be said that some people’s wills are stronger than others (they will themselves to do more difficult or unusual tasks) and it is at this point that,  as an anthropologist, I want to pull in a structural (social structural) analysis.

Some people are in a position, in society, to be able to more easily accomplish their will.  And some actions are much more easily accomplished within a given society, because society provides the means to do so.  The rules, structures and mechanisms of social control within a society all play a role in the ease of accomplishing one’s will.  So, if in today’s Great Britain, one wills that another person be dead and decides to act upon that will by murder, they will have a harder time getting a gun to do so than a person living in the United States.  A person in Arizona, where people are allowed to openly carry handguns in public, will have an easier time shooting their congresswoman than an Ilongot in the highlands of the Phillipines (where guns are virtually non-existent, but the technical means of head-hunting are available).

So, isolating sheer will remains difficult on the anthropological and psychological fronts.  A person might have a strong will to do something, but lack the means to do so.  Often, as it turns out, a collective will to do something is important, and understanding collective will is a bit trickier.  Certainly

If we look at the Occupy movement, it appears to be predicated on collective will, and specifically avoids having A Leader to round it up.  The problem with having A Leader is that it rapidly becomes difficult to distinguish between the collective will and the leader’s will.  If people agree to assign some of their individual will over to another person, which is what happens in the leadership structure, it is hard to know when (and how) to get one’s individual will back.  In formal military structures, soldiers agree and vow to ignore their own will in favor of the next highest leader’s will, until the will of the person at the top of a chain of command is accomplished.  Naturally, most people analyze history in terms of who the real leaders are (whose will gets accomplished) in these hierarchical military settings.  Soldiers can and do mutiny, individually or collectively, or exercise will in ways that are counter to The Leader’s will, but they have frequently agreed not to do so.

If, on the other hand, a collective chooses A Leader who embodies their collective will more or less perfectly, then it may be possible to use the efficiency of a hierarchical structure to accomplish the collective will.  This is how many revolutions start out, and unfortunately, the same system that transfers individual will to A Leader still holds:  it is still difficult for the individual to know when to opt out of the movement, and The Leader may still have power to do as he or she pleases, even if many of the individuals opt out of the movement.

The leaderless front of the Occupy Movement, therefore, is attempting to keep this situation from arising.  In that way, it is an historic, conscious movement that attempts to preserve individual will.   This leads to a different structure of power.  Criticisms leveled at the Occupy Movement have included that fact that not all members share the same stated ideas about what should happen; they do, however, share the will to Occupy.  The fact that the movement is so centered upon this shared will is crucial to understanding it.  They may not agree entirely on what they want, but they know they strongly want something.  As the movement as progressed, two central sets of demands are emerging:  Tax the 1% who control the vast majority of wealth and resources at a higher rate, and Save Education.  These are perfectly reasonable goals, and there are probably very few Occupy members who individually will otherwise.

In my next post, I am going to look at a radically different sort of situation, historical situations in which one person became the embodiment of the will of a people or, alternatively, one person imposed their individual will on a group of people (it’s very hard to discern the difference, even in contemporary movements).  These are the kinds of situations Nietzsche had in mind, and so, in a sense, I’m doing a kind of Nietzschean anthropology of the past.

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.