I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Disney has four key values, as laid out in the Disney Institute’s book entitled Be Our Guest. These inform their approach to how they manage their theme parks and their entire operation, and these “values” are, as listed in order of priority– Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency.
Now I can imagine why, if you’re a theme park with all kinds of potentially hazardous rides and with all kinds of shows that might involve fireworks or the like, safety would be first. So my point here is not to put down Disney’s order of priorities. But those priorities should, I think, likely be confined to the amusement park, for transferring them to, say, a family or a church or a college or even most businesses might not only be dangerous, but could even be worse than dangerous—it could be detrimental. And, anyhow, can “show” really be a value?
Just think about it. Imagine calling a family sit-down after dinner and listing those priorities to your children. “Safety first, kids.” That sounds good, but maybe it sounds better than in fact it is. Do you mean by it, for example, no contact sports, which by the way are nearly all sports? “Second, courtesy.” That one is, admittedly, hard to argue against. But what about “show”? “Always, kids, remember to put on a good show.” No, I’m afraid that would just be promoting hypocrisy. “And don’t forget to be efficient!” Well, yes, this is good, but is it really the fourth highest good? Wouldn’t sincerity, wisdom, diplomacy, kindness, gentleness, or even self-confidence outstrip mere efficiency?
In the case of church, safety first cannot possibly work. No preacher worth his salt can consistently preach safe sermons. Indeed, a good sermon must sometimes imperil the listener’s soul. What about courtesy in a church? Yes, I think that’s important, but normally the churchgoer would call this hospitality or gentleness or even humility. And “show.” I’m sorry to say that the churches that prioritize show are often the fullest but, paradoxically, simultaneously often the emptiest. And efficiency? No, I’m afraid not. The best sermons often run over time. The coffee hour after church should be anything but efficient—it should be a time of fellowship that seems to lack any sense of time altogether. No, no efficiency here.
Finally college. Should colleges be and/or offer “safe spaces”? While of course one hopes when one sends a child off to college that that child, no longer quite a child, will be safe, colleges, like churches, can only do their jobs correctly if they challenge the student, and that may mean by taking a sense of “safety” when it comes to their academic accomplishments, at least. “Courtesy?” No, not so much. Some of the best professors I ever had were quite rude. “Show.” God forbid. Taking college classes are not about being entertained but about being challenged and thus educated. And finally, efficiency? Yes, certainly it could be good for the students to be efficient. But professors can only be real professors if they chase the occasional rabbit and actually make “inefficient” use of class time. Professors are not mere conveyers of content. Books do that. The best professors I had, as I recall them, often went off on tangents that sometimes taught us more than the lesson itself.
So, I would not put safety first. I’m not sure it should be last, but if it were always first, the best we could hope for is tea and crumpets instead of sports and information instead of material that challenges us to the core of our being, all conveyed to us in the most efficient and courteous manner possible. Yawn; sounds boring. No, safety, I’m sorry to say, just can’t be first.
A train strike (sciopero) in Italy gives you time to think. And when you are traveling, sometimes time to think is just the right thing. For traveling should be—at least when you are traveling by yourself and especially not with small children—a time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Questions germane to traveling like “How did I get here?” or “Where am I going?” are also germane to our lives and, in a manner of speaking, they provide a framework for the kind of thoughts we should think if we are to be properly thoughtful people.
And traveling, in Europe at least, also helps us to think about being thoughtful because one often travels by train there—or I should say here, for I am writing this blog from Rome—and when one travels by train one has to negotiate one’s way through hoards of people, all trying to go in about the same direction. Really, they are going in various directions, and that is what makes working your way to your train so difficult. I try my best to be gentle about it, whenever possible acting as if getting to my train or making my connection isn’t all that important to me—even though it invariably is.
Now not making such a connection in Italy in the summer is not so bad as missing one in Switzerland or Germany in the winter. Of course the reason for that is the stations there are sometimes open-air and it is hard to stay warm in a not well-insulated or warmed station in the north. But in summertime Italy it is a different matter. Here one need not rush, need not bustle, for the country relies on a natural kind of lateness. Even my Italian friends call that “Italian time” and they take pride in a small amount of tardiness the way my German friends take pride in (or at least seem to expect) a certain punctuality.
Which brings me back to thinking. For thinking about big questions based on little ones is a good thing, and thinking about being gentle and knowing that what time you have to leave is not nearly as important as where you’re going or how you get there. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that in life there will be a “sciopero” of sorts, a personal train strike or temporary setback. You may not meet an objective because of external forces. You may be criticized by someone fairly or unfairly and have to slow down and remind yourself of the long-term goal, that responding sharply is very unlikely to be the right thing to do. Rather, that right thing is likely to be gentleness.
One of the things that struck me on this trip so far—aside from how fabulous Italian food is and how impossible it is not to mention food in every blog that I write while I am in this country, even in a world gone mad—was a conversation that I had at a fancy affair with an American, a very nice and courteous chap, a fine human being, a gentle person. Yet there was, it seemed to me, perhaps something recently missing in his life, and that missing thing had not to do with food but with traveling.
Now it could have had something to do with food. After all, the fancy affair at which we met was a grand party thrown for a recently successful archaeological team, a party that I, as a mere novelist and blogger, was clearly crashing. They were wrapping up an excavation of an Etruscan tomb near Viterbo. The person with whom I enjoyed a rich conversation seemed at first blush to be a hired musician, for he deftly played the guitar at this affair, accompanying a marvelous accordion player. That same person in question, however, turned out to be there at the invitation of one of the archeologist. As for me, I was invited along by a friend of a friend, and, being naturally curious, I accepted the invitation, even if in fact I was more or less crashing the party.
And I am glad I did, for I had never been in a movie before. No, this was not a real film, but it was as if a scene from a movie, a particular one, perhaps my favorite: The Godfather. Mutatis mutandis, it was as if we were in the opening wedding scene, a great celebration with food of a high order of deliciousness that just kept coming, course after course. Over a glass of wine that was hand-crafted by one of the local magistrates (a certain Angelo, whom everyone called Sant’Angelo), the gentleman and I fell to talking about the big questions, what I am calling in this blog, the travel questions.
Like me, he had thought about such questions. But when he had encountered a certain sciopero in his own life—a complicated church situation—the strike in his life had presented him with an unwelcome challenge, temporarily perhaps driving him away from church. Still, I encouraged him in the midst of it to remember that there is a directional aspect to the whole question of religion, an aspect that simply by going through the motions sometimes maintains a true faith or, better yet, even sometimes kindles a deeper faith, a faith perhaps one never realized was possible—a faith in a God who can produce miracles. And thus do I hope that he finds his direction back to church, with his guitar in hand, for I liked him and I suspect that his joy won’t be complete until he finds peace in his music, in church, in life—in God.
And here I will stop, for it was, after all, merely a lunch I was crashing, not a scene from a movie, not something from my usual world of fantasy, of otherworldly ideas beyond reality. Yet even if it was reality, it sure did feel like a scene from that best of films. Could we have been, for a moment, with a real godfather, could we have been characters in a story? Perhaps that is the point, perhaps we are a part of a story, and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. And to grasp that, to garner what we need to live, and love, and thrive, perhaps we may require, from time to time, to experience a sciopero.
I was going to complain about the fact that these days we have crazy politics, or about how people don’t listen any more but just multitask while they talk to you as they’re doing their Facebook or email or something. Yet all that changed when, earlier this week, I read an interesting article on marriage by philosopher/author Alain de Botton in the New York Times. I was suspecting that there might be a political agenda lurking beneath the innocent sounding title. In fact, I was expecting something not exactly uplifting, e.g., Matthew Johnson’s article in the Washington Post about the toll that having children takes on a marriage (“having children may make you miserable, but you’ll be miserable together”) or Sarah Wright’s piece in the newspaper which suggests that marriage is greatly overrated and will in any case end by 2042. (I’m not sure, but I think that date is coincidentally one and the same as that on which the current reinterpretation of the Mayan calendar suggests that the world is supposed to end. )
Another article, by Eleanor Stanford, of a few months earlier in that same New York newspaper, is much more practical. Stanford suggests 13 questions you should ask before you get married. Some of them are pretty legit: “How do you feel about children?” “How do you see us ten years from now?” Yet other questions raised there seem to me to make the entire love and romance bit sound rather as if merely the establishment of pre-nuptial parameters: “Is watching pornography O.K.?” “Do we like each other’s parents?” I seriously think if you are not going to marry someone just because you don’t like his or her parents then you are probably not in love with that person. And if your potential spouse is a porn user, then I should caution you to consider that he of she is highly likely to see people merely as objects. You’ll be lucky, in the case of a porn addict, if you even rank high enough to be one such valued object; more likely, you will play the role of mommy or daddy, nagging him or her to give up his vice and behave like a proper adult. (If you are in this situation now and not yet married, I would urge you to ask yourself: “Why am I even dating this person?”)
Yet to return to de Botton’s far more sensible and sensitive commentary. The article, indeed, shows no political bias, at least as far as I could tell, no anti-marriage theme or even a hey-face it-we-live-in-postmodern-times agenda. Rather, that author insightfully explains that being married is about behaving properly—and that the traits that are best to find in a prospective spouse are that of gentleness, civility, kindness and the like. Any person you marry will let you down at some point (in fact at many points) and you will let them down, likely, at least at an equal rate—in my case, I confess, at the greater rate. I heartily recommend the article, for it is a good, if brief description of how love evolves and grows. That article stimulated in me further thought on the topic. And so I have been thinking this week about love and romance. I met my wife nearly forty years ago now and I thought in closing that I might, with her permission, share a vignette about our first meeting, which occurred in Rome.
I was drunk at the time, sitting in a hallway. She was just arriving, rucksack on her back, long evenly matched thick braids of beautiful brown hair. She was wearing a white blouse and blue jeans. Along with her friend Nancy, she bounded down the hallway to check into the dormitory that was leased from a convent of nuns dedicated to Saint Mary; the chapel is still there, as is the contiguous building that provides the seat of that study abroad program. I felt that I had seen the most beautiful person in the world. I loved her from the moment I saw her. Of course, the feeling was not mutual. It was apparent to her that I was intoxicated, and as such I was prating away, intermittently, perhaps even babbling. She looked at me with great disdain, a look I recognize even better now than then because over the years I have seen it quite often. That aside, I spent the next several months—for the program of study was a full semester term—getting to know her better and hoping to show her that I was worthy of her love. (It took a while, as I had made a rather bad first impression.)
Yet then something wonderful happened. I tricked her into going to the opera (Luigi Cherubini’s La Punition); “I just happen to have an extra ticket,” I said. Then we went out for a date “as friends” to eat Italian pepper steaks. Weeks later we tried to meet up in Athens, but could not. Then goodbye on 10 January 1980. Then a reunion in New York on 24 July (sadly, the same day the great comic genius Peter Sellers died). Then some prayers, some more getting to know each other again, and eventually she said yes. No, her dad was never fond of me; in fact, I think that he did not like me at all. And it took Elaine Jakes a long time to warm up to her, as she had always liked better the girl with whom I had been naked in the back seat of a car—a story found on pages 161–164 of The Curious Autobiography. So as for the 13 questions, no we did not ask any of them, and for good reason. We were in love.
Love isn’t a contract or a matter of aligning interests or even of checking in on each other’s flaws or checking out each other’s parents. It is, rather, a matter of growing old together aright, as Robert Browning once wrote at the opening of his poem Rabbi Ben Ezra, “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be. …” For such growing old together to happen, one has to recognize that marriage is truly a matter of love, and love is a matter of choice—the choice to forgive, to smile, to sow seeds of joy, and to keep faith. And for that love to grow and deepen, one must carefully and thoughtfully permit it to change from mere passion to enduring compassion, from the flame of attraction to the glow of the family hearth.
Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.
That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.
Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.
That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.
But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.
Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.
Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”
“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”
“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”
He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.
“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”
“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”
“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”
“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”
He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”
I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.
“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.
Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.
As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.
My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.
Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?
And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.
No, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.