True Freedom

In re-reading some of John Steinbeck’s stories I came across “The Pearl,” which I had not read before. It is a fascinating story, well told, like all of Steinbeck’s stories, and one with a deep and disturbing message.

The story is about a young man, his wife, and their new-born baby who live in a poor village near the sea where the father makes a bare subsistence by diving for pearls. One day the young man, Kino, finds the “Pearl of the World,” a huge pearl that all pearl divers dream of but never actually find. But he has found it and with that discovery his life changes forever. He dreams of the wonderful things he will be able to buy with the pearl. And he dreams that he and his wife will finally be able to be married in the Church and their baby can be baptised. Previously they could not afford this. But with the dreams comes a creeping fear and anxiety. The entire village, and eventually the entire town, learn about Kino’s find and while the villagers are happy for him, there are those who would steal it because if its immense value. Steinbeck carefully creates the atmosphere in which Kino and his family are now living:

“In the brush houses by the shore, Kino’s neighbors sat long over their breakfasts, and they spoke of what they would do if they had found the pearl. And one man said that he would give it as a present to the Holy Father in Rome. Another said that he would buy Masses for the souls of his family for a thousand years. Another thought he might take the money and distribute it among the poor of La Paz; and a fourth thought of all the good things one could do with the money from the pearl, of all the charities, benefits, of all the rescues one could perform of one had money, All of the neighbors hoped that sudden wealth would not turn Kino’s head, would not make a rich man of him, would not graft onto him evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness. For Kino was a well-liked man;it would be a shame if the pearl destroyed him.”

Kino sleeps uneasily at night and hears evil music in his ears while others from the town plot to steal the pearl. There are several attempts to steal the pearl from his home, which is burned to the ground in the process. After he has returned from the town where he had gone to sell the pearl only to be told it was worthless and offered a fraction of what he instinctively knew was its real worth, he is attacked and kills one of his attackers. With his wife and baby in tow, he leaves the village in the dark of night and heads over the mountains to the city where he hopes to find an honest dealer who will buy the pearl for its true value.

Kino and his family are followed by a man with a rifle on horseback and two professional trackers who eventually catch up with the small and desperate family. After a violent altercation in which Kino kills the man with the rifle, takes it and shoots the other two men, his baby is killed. He and his wife return to the village with their dead son wrapped in a blanket. They walk through the town and the village to the seaside and Kino flings the pearl into the ocean.

The story is fascinating in so many ways. Its message to all of us is crystal clear. Indeed, it almost seems like a lengthy parable from the New Testament. We do not own things; they own us. They take possession of our souls and dictate our feelings and actions; they displace such things as compassion and fellow-feelings, just as Kino can no longer hear the family music and feel in harmony with his world: he hears only the evil music, is anxious, and cannot find peace. Until we free ourselves from the burden of our possessions we cannot be truly free. It’s ironic that so many in our culture are convinced of the opposite: that it is the things we buy that will make us free. But, as Kino discovers, those things bring fear and uncertainty, worry over things unseen and unheard, specters in the night. We bar our houses and change our passwords. We sleep uneasily and we make sure that the doors are locked tight. Kino never felt fear until he found the pearl. He was never free from that fear until he had flung the pearl into the sea. But in the meantime his infant son was killed and his house burned to the ground while he and his young wife lived through a nightmare only to discover that true happiness was theirs before they found the pearl. And it might never be theirs again. As I say, Steinbeck tells a remarkable story that is deeply disturbing in so many ways.

Do Cheaters Win?

When I coached the women’s tennis team at our university back in the Dark Ages we were initially associated with the A.I.A.W., which was an athletics association organized specifically for women in the early days of Title Nine. The organization made the huge mistake of taking the N.C.A.A. to court on the grounds that they were a monopoly and were in violation of anti-trust laws. The N.C.A.A., which even at that time was very powerful, won the case easily and the A.I.A.W. faded into the night. Our conference was faced with the option of joining the N.A.I.A. or the N.C.A.A. and I was delighted when the Conference decided to join the former. It allowed a great deal of local autonomy and there was very little politicking involved. For example, when we won our district Championship we automatically went to the National Tournament. In the N.C.A.A.  a committee votes on who gets to go to their national tournaments, though they pay the expenses, whereas the N.A.I.A. does not.

The Conference was dominated in most sports by the University of Minnesota at Duluth and when their softball team won their district championship one year it cost the university a small fortune to send the team to Florida for the National Tournament. The President of the university decided that this was enough of that sort of foolishness and he threw his weight around to persuade the other presidents to leave the N.A.I.A. and join the N.C.A.A. At that point I retired from coaching women’s tennis, thankfully. I was delighted that I would not have to deal with the N.C.A.A. which had a rule-book as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory and was an organization that was run out of a central office that allowed little or no local autonomy and politics were the order of the day.

Since that time I have had an opportunity to take closer look at the N.C.A.A. and especially its control over the large semi-professional (let’s admit it) sports programs at the Division I level. I have written about it and will not repeat here what I have already said. But I noted recently that Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference expressed his dismay over the alleged fact that the N.C.A.A. was lax in its enforcement of its own rules. He indicated that a high percentage of the universities involved in football and basketball at the Division I level were in violation of the rules and yet the N.C.A.A. was doing nothing about it. Bowlsby also claimed that their infraction committee hadn’t even met for nearly a year — even though it is generally known that there are violators of the innumerable rules governing fair play in all sports at the collegiate level. Furthermore, many of these violators were heading up very successful and lucrative programs, prompting Bowlsby to remark that “cheating pays” at the highest levels of college sports. Needless to say, a number of football coaches expressed well-rehearsed outrage at those comments.

Sociologists love to point out that the problems at the collegiate level merely reflect the problems of society at large. If this is so (and I don’t claim to be a sociologist) then there are a lot of cheaters out there who are very successful in spite of (because of?) the fact that they are breaking the rules knowingly. As some wag once said: “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” This is nonsense, of course, but I do believe that this attitude is widely shared and that the colleges and universities are merely in step with some of the most successful people in this society. As a culture we have lost sight of the moral high ground that Martin Luther King spoke about so eloquently and have convinced ourselves that since everyone does the wrong thing that it therefore isn’t wrong. When Nixon was caught in the Watergate scandal, for example, it was said by many outspoken commentators that this wasn’t such a bad thing because all politicians do that sort of thing. If everyone does it, it can’t be wrong. This is what logicians call the fallacy of ad populum, or the appeal to what is generally done. It saves us having to think about things and, of course, is a handy excuse if we do get caught.

But one would hope that the universities and colleges would hold themselves to a higher standard than politicians and other low-lifes, and if, in fact, cheating in college sports is widespread it should be thoroughly investigated and the culprits publicly shamed. The Commissioner I referred to above suggested that outside agencies, even the Federal Government, should get involved. I would hope the Federal Government has more important fish to fry, but the suggestion of an outside agency is not a bad one. If the N.C.A.A. cannot police its own rules, then someone else should do it. Or the N.C.A.A. should be disbanded altogether, which may not be such a bad idea. If the N.C.A.A. won’t even enforce its own rules, it seems to have outgrown its usefulness and appears to be motivated by greed, pure and simple. There is a hellova lot of money involved in collegiate sports these days — and that may be the root of the entire problem, come to think of it.

Learning From Failure

Toward the end of the recent British Open golf tournament (referred to, simply, as “The Open”), Rickie Fowler was chasing Rory McIlroy and actually tied him on the 12th hole during the third round. Later that round, he stumbled a bit, got a couple of bogies while Rory was getting two eagles on the last three holes to finish 6 shots ahead of his closest competitor. Rickie was later interviewed and he was confident that he could play better on the last day of the tournament and had a good chance of winning (which he nearly did).  He had played well to that point and he thought he knew what had gone wrong during those last few holes. He could learn from his mistakes and correct them and would do better, he was sure.

What a novel idea! To think that a person could learn from his mistakes! So many educators who are on the “self-esteem” bandwagon hell-bent to destroy their students’ ability to succeed in a complex world should take note. Failure is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can make us stronger. It’s what we make of it that is important. If the child never learns to fail, pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again he will never be a success in the “real” world. Fowler did just that. In the final round he played beautifully and gave McIlroy a merry chase, losing by only two strokes, thereby assuring himself a coveted place on the Ryder Cup team.

It’s ironic that it is in sports that these lessons can still be learned, not in the classroom where failure is generally regarded as an inherently bad thing. But, again, there are those who would not have the kids keep score in sports so they never fail there either. In a word, there are those among us, parents, coaches, and teachers, who live in a fantasy world where no one fails and everyone feels good about himself regardless of whether those feelings are well-deserved. And those parents, coaches, and teachers think they are preparing the kids to be a success in later life, whereas the opposite is the case. They are preparing those kids to be failures because they will never have failed before and will not have any idea how to deal with it when it comes. And that failure will come, eventually at some point in some form or other, is a certainty.

Steinbeck’s Wisdom

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls. But Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness, and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.'”

Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??

Priorities

There was an interesting take on the aftermath of the recent World Cup games in Brazil. The author nicely balances the pros and cons and leaves it to the reader to balance the two. For me, the cons greatly outweigh the pros: it is not just the USA that has its priorities skewed; the entire world seems to — as the article makes clear.

In the end, soccer’s governing body got everything it wanted – beautiful new stadiums, surprisingly efficient transportation, high-scoring matches, record TV ratings and a perpetual stream of images of fans having the time of their lives plastered all over social media. An even more significant victory was the muting of the protests that overshadowed last year’s Confederations Cup. They were nowhere to be seen, at least not within view of the international media’s cameras, as the focus remained squarely on the football much to the delight of FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Brazil president Dilma Rousseff.

But after traveling around the country and seeing the situation up close, it was clear that the outspoken proponents of improved services and functioning infrastructure were the biggest losers. Whether it was roads in desperate need of maintenance outside Natal or the abject poverty not far from Arena de Sao Paulo, you could understand why people here would gather and scream at the top of their lungs about $500 million spent on Maracana’s second renovation in seven years or the $300 million used to build a world-class soccer stadium in Manaus, an Amazonian jungle city with no top-tier soccer team and little use for a 40,000-seat venue requiring millions more to maintain.

Seriously?? A 40,000 seat venue in the middle of the jungle while thousands nearby cannot put food on their plates? Isn’t this a bit like fiddling while Rome burns??

Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

Machiavelli gives the following advice to prospective Princes:

“From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

I was reminded of this passage when reading John Steinbeck’s remarkable story “The Red Pony” in which he describes the complex relationship between the little boy, Jody, and his father whom he both fears and loves. Steinbeck has this interesting passage in the story:

“When the wood-box was full, Jody took the twenty-two rifle up to the cold spring at the brush line. He drank again and then aimed the gun at all manner of things, at rocks, at birds on the wing, at the big black pig kettle under the cypress tree, but he didn’t shoot for he had no cartridges and wouldn’t have until he was twelve. If his father had seen him aim the rifle in the direction of the house, he would have put off the cartridges off for another year. Jody remembered this and did not point the rifle down the hill again. Two years were enough to wait for cartridges. Nearly all of his father’s presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat. It was good discipline.”

Several things jump out of these passages. To begin with, the notion that discipline might be a good thing, that a young boy might have to wait a couple of years to get what he wanted, is a dated concept — Steinbeck wrote this story in the early 1930s. But what intrigued me most was the ability of Jody’s father to “instill” both love and fear in the young boy, the very thing Machiavelli says is difficult for the Prince to do. But it is a key to good parenting, I would think. A child should respect, love and even fear the parent a bit. I am not talking about child abuse here — while Jody’s father is a bit stern, there’s no suggestion that he beats his son — I simply mean that a twinge of fear in the child that comes from the conviction that he or she knows the parents mean what they say. Jody knows his father will not give him the cartridges if he sees  him pointing the rifle at the house.  Moreover, the need to demand that Jody postpone immediate gratification, only “hampers” the value of the gift in the ten-year-old boy’s mind; in fact delayed satisfaction, increases value — the satisfaction that comes from a long-awaited gift (even if it is given with “reservations”) — all of which seem to go into the difficult (Freud says “impossible”) job of parenting.

We have lost a great deal in trashing the concept of “discipline,” insisting in all cases that it amounts to disguised abuse, and giving in to the notion that good parenting means complying with the child’s every whim. These bogus notions came from the plethora of pop-psychology books that were all the rage in the 1950s that sought to tell parents how to raise their children. This was the outcome, in turn, of a movement that started in the 1900s when the “helping professions” regarding themselves as “doctors of a sick society” decided that most of the problems with criminals in this country resulted from bad parenting and the job should be taken over by trained professionals like themselves.

This, of course, was nothing more than self-promotion on the part of educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and penologists. To state the case as plainly as possible, the  parents are the ones who should raise their children. The child simply needs to know the meaning of the word “no,” and he or she needs to know the parents mean what they say and that whatever else might happen, they love their child and want what is best for them. All of this comes from that difficult balance of love and fear that comprise the core of respect that should be at the center of any relationship between a child and his father or mother.  Steinbeck knew this, and his story about the red pony (which is really about Jody) gives us a convincing portrait of a child who both respects and loves his father — and fears him in the sense described above.

Conundrum

Given my relentless need to understand the peculiar, it has always struck me as remarkable that ordinary folks who complain about taxes and rail about the cost of living will agree to school referendums that raise those taxes and make it harder to get along in order to build another school, increase the size of the present school building, support the expensive sports programs, or (as recently happened in St. Paul, Minnesota) provide $9 million a year to assure the kiddies the latest electronic toys. Our little town of slightly over 1200 tight-fisted people (which shows no sign of growing) also recently passed a referendum to add on to the practically new school building — including (of course) a third gymnasium. The whole thing defies logic. So I have come up with three possible explanations and will toss them out there and see which one strikes the reader as the most plausible — unless there is a fourth I haven’t thought of yet.

1. Despite the fact that they complain about the failure of the schools, parents don’t really want their kids to learn about their world. They complain when their kids have to do homework.  They think the teachers are under-worked and overpaid and have little or no sympathy for them when they demand higher salaries. They want cheap baby-sitters who will take the kids off their hands for most of the day — as long as possible. Thus, they fight for the sports programs and scream like wounded banshees when anyone talks about cuts in those programs. The sports programs give the parents pride and it also keeps the kids occupied, off their hands, and out of trouble after school. And newer and bigger buildings are something they can point to with pride: they make the parents feel good about themselves, as if they are making some sort of real contribution to education. Or…

2. Parents feel guilty because they see so little of their kids and want to make it up to them by supporting school referendums that build larger and more impressive buildings or the latest teaching fad. They get vicarious pleasure out of the successes of their kids on the playing fields and are convinced that sports teach the kids important “life-lessons” (which they are too busy to teach themselves). It makes them feel good about themselves and convinced that they are supporting the schools. Or…

3. As good, practical Americans, parents believe only in those things they can see and touch — or can be quantified. Sports are highly visible and have scads of figures for them to play with and buildings can be seen and boasted about. “Our town went to State last year and has the newest and largest school with all the latest advances in technical know-how.” Technology rocks — it’s what’s out there and proves to us all that our kids are getting the latest and best available tools to lead them to success — which is to say a high-paying job after they graduate. “Everyone knows that electronics are the newest and latest thing and must therefore be an invaluable educational tool. But teachers? Give me a break. They work short hours and are already paid way too much for the easy jobs they have. Don’t talk to me about raising their salaries.” For the practical, down-to-earth parents teaching is way too ephemeral and they simply don’t understand why paying teachers a living wage would draw better people into teaching and raise the educational level of the schools far faster than the biggest school building or the latest electronic toy. But successful sports programs are highly visible, as are the shiny new buildings and playgrounds. It’s all about the tangible.

Needless to say, I prefer the third explanation. What do you think? It is truly a puzzler. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three explanations?