Swimming Against the Currents in the Late Afternoon

I am in a testamental mood these days. I know the word does not yet exist. I am just trying to blend together the virtues of “testament,” as in, “last will and testament,” of the Biblical and legal term “testimony,” and maybe even of the term – not so common on the street -, “testes.” So, now, the word “testamental” exists. I just made it up and you all understand it. By the way, I know, there is a word “testamentary.” It does not suit my purpose.

I am old, now, older than I ever anticipated being (80, N. S. !). When I was growing up, life was much shorter than now; so, we had modest expectations. People died at every age of everything and nothing. Antibiotics were few, scarce and expensive. Both the anti-polio and the TB vaccines were invented while I was a kid. My paternal grandmother died at around sixty; my maternal grandfather, at twenty-six (of course, the cause was not illness; it was a German bullet.) My maternal grandmother, his widow, lasted only until age 75. (She left with a Gitane clenched in her right hand.)

Today feels a lot for me like late afternoon. I am swimming in a mostly calm ocean. The sun has not gone down much yet but there is a sense that night is coming. Even the seagulls have gone quiet. So, I look back, infrequently and only superficially, but I do. Overall, I had a lucky and almost charmed life. I was in good health most of my years and so were those most dear to me, or mostly so. I served in the military but my existence was never really threatened by armed others with bad intentions. Mostly, I had pretty much the life I wanted without necessarily deserving it. More on this below.

Emigrating to the US, I morphed in reasonable time from a French high school dropout to an American scholar, not a great American scholar, mind you, a fairly well respected one (1350+ scholarly mentions and counting, according to the specialized outfit ACADEMIA that keeps track of those things. That’s pretty good; ask anyone.) In America, from day one, numerous strangers and acquaintances gave me a hand, or a push upward, even a shove, occasionally. During the hard years, the benevolence of many helped keep my head above water. Even a Chinese restaurant server in San Francisco, regularly gave me double helpings of fried rice for the price of one. He was an older man with whom I did not have a single word in common. I have every reason to feel grateful and I do, every day. America makes everyone better, even the bad guys.

Fast forward a few years. Soon I was teaching college. From then on, I was always involved in research. Yet, I made my living mostly by doing something I liked, telling stories, or teaching, same thing. In the end, I also found a way to get paid for reading, exactly what I loved doing as a child and as a teenager. I retired about fifteen years ago. Since then, I have written three-plus books. The first and the third are in English, the second, in French. Incidentally, the third book, the second recent book in English, is under a nom de plume, the pseudonym: “John René Adolph.” You can just guess why I had to use a pen name. (Or, you can look up the electronic version of the book on Amazon. Warning, not a family reading!) I also wrote a slew of short stories plus a goodly number of political essays. None of the latter is of a scholarly nature. They are more of a kind of fou-fou sociology. So, I had a second career as a writer, one lacking somewhat in seriousness, a career as a moderately and pleasantly frivolous writer. Most of my stories and nearly all my essays are on my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com. Most were also published, after a fashion.

The three books written since I retired are all published by Vanity Press, I am afraid. (A fourth book is in the hopper.) I figured I did not have the time at my age to go around begging commercial publishers to take a look at my productions. From the little I have seen, they treat you very badly. In fact, they generally won’t even talk to the poor souls who think they are writers. They only deal with literary agents. And you need an agent just to get an agent. Plus, I am convinced that unless you write porn or romances novels (same thing, more or less), you won’t find a publisher unless you are serial killer, or a disgraced politician, someone who already has a name! I am not surprised. I always knew, if only in a vague way, that the easiest thing about books, after reading them, is writing them. Do I wish I had tens of thousands of readers? Yes. With the royalties income to match? You bet! Am I bitter? Not at all. Remember, I am talking about my second life.

Of course, I can hear some unsympathetic murmurs from here: you were an unpublished writer. What did you expect? The world is overflowing with people who think they are writers and who have no right to think so. Again, what do you expect? Well, in fact, when I did the first of my last three books, I had already published two earlier ones, much earlier ones, unfortunately. Both books had been commercial successes. One was in French. It had even received a national award in France. It does not count, I was told, because it’s in French. The other was a thin volume in English, published forty years earlier. Too old to count, I was told. I never mentioned my many scholarly publications in that context because that’s the kiss of death for a regular writer, a trade writer. Who wants to read a book by a professor that has not been assigned and the reading of which will no produce a grade?

I have been married twice. The first time, when I was a pretend-hippie, it was for four and half months. The second marriage lasted forty-five years, so far. (Let no one claim that I don’t learn from experience.) My wife and I managed to adopt and raise two children. My academic job gave my talented wife space to be a painter who did not often have to work outside the home. More luck: I really like her paintings; they make me feel rich; I don’t have to pretend. I don’t even want her to sell them. Early on, when we were fairly poor she sold one good one, for a good price. I have not stopped mourning it. And, by the way, I dabbled in painting myself for several years. It’s hard to explain but I have no illusions about the quality of my own paintings. I am what the French call derisively: “un peintre du Dimanche,” an amateur who paints only on Sundays, as a hobby. Some of my many small paintings nevertheless generate much pleasure in a certain part of my brain. Shoot me but I actually like looking at my paintings! Every so often, I give one away to a friend – always with the dim fear that it will end up in his garage. (In my scenario, my friend’s wife orders him to put “this horror” away. Most of my friends are American-born males, of course. Almost all of them are wimps who obey women. This fact irritates the women in their lives, I have noticed.)

There is one more happy thing I need to mention about my life, even if it will not be clear to everyone. Because I lived in California, not far from the sea, because I made a decent living, and because I had plenty of leisure time, including time to travel, a wonderful thing happened to me that I dared not even dream of in my rudderless youth. Between ages 20 and 60, I mush have spent 15% of my wake time underwater. I don’t mean scuba diving, that’s just not chic; I mean free diving, holding your breath. Moving alone under the sea is so different from everything else you know that it’s is like having another, parallel life. The best I can say is that, in my case, it was as if I had had a long-term affair and that my wife approved of it. I would love to tell you more about my underwater biography but you probably wouldn’t believe me. Fortunately, I have photographs as evidence whenever I feel like bragging.

I was born and reared in Paris, that is, in a fairly cold and rainy place (outside of the travel posters). It’s also at the latitude of Labrador; look it up. Daylight there lasts about six hours in December. I realized far into adulthood that had always suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a real and widespread but largely ignored illness. The Paris climate and latitude made most of my childhood unhappy, although I did not even know it; I just thought it was normal to be cheerful only late spring and summer. When I moved to California – latitude of Algiers – for other reasons, my emotional world opened up, like going from black-and-white movies to Technicolor. I became contented on a regular basis, almost year around. My personality even changed from sometimes somber to mostly sunny.

Yet, in my old age, I find myself swimming against more currents than I had hoped for. Three in particular form obstacles to my well-deserved senior peace of mind. It all begun with radio host Rush Limbaugh’s departure from this earth to collect his own much better-deserved reward. I had been listening to him almost every morning for twenty years. Discombobulated, I beat the bushes looking for new radio shows to furnish my mornings. Perhaps as a result of gross incompetence (I wouldn’t put it past me), I ended up with a mixture of BBC World Service and National Public Radio. I know, I know the latter sounds unlikely for a libertarian-leaning conservative like me but, actually, NPR has a handful of really good programs. “How I Built This” is one, the Sunday morning show hosted by the author of Freakonomics is another. And then there is the excellent story-telling hour, “The Ted Radio Hour” that airs also on Sundays, I think. By the way, I would give my left big toe to be invited on that latter show though I have not even applied. Incidentally, I did local radio for three years. It was very interesting, unlike any other experience. It earned me many friends. Ten years later, shopkeepers who recognize my voice still give me discounts.

Anyway, once you have your radio set adequately tuned in the morning, sometimes, often, you don’t get up to change the channel. What you picked at 8 AM. stays with you till noon though the programming has become inappropriate, unhinged from your interest and preferences, or downright objectionable. So, for two years now, I have been served a steady diet of talks, and pseudo-documentaries about sexual crimes and recriminations, diatribes against inequalities (plural) and, of course, alarmist, uninformed preaching about climate change. Together, they spoil the quality of my daily life, of my last swim. They make me feel as if I were working hard against three significant currents. Now, one unpleasantness at a time.

The frequent talk and cries of anguish and claims of being a “survivor,” and confessions, and forced resignations, and voluntary resignations around real and/or alleged sex acts, and acts of a superficial sexual nature that aren’t sexual but are treated as such, blend into a cacophony that is never far out of my hearing. It makes me feel almost like a stranger to the human race. The reason is that it appears that almost everybody – every male human being (“XY”) – as we used to call them, at least, has committed some grave sexual infraction, yesterday or thirty years ago. But I think I haven’t. And it seems that I have lived my whole life surrounded by rapists or near-rapists without a hint of that reality. So, I feel excluded.

I performed a scrupulous examination of my memory from age twelve. (Fortunately, I have a good memory in general, down to small details, except for names.) I am completely certain I never touched a female human being (“XX”) without clear and repeated signals, not even in kindergarten (nor a male human being, by the way). In fact, I was often called “slow” in that area. A French woman my age thus, an old lady, told me just recently that when we were both fourteen, at the beach, she spent a whole summer trying to get me interested. All to no avail. The thing of it is that I liked her and found her attractive. She ended up seducing my brother, a couple of years later, as a consolation prize, I suppose. I am 100% sure I never raped any woman except by insistent, repeated, and clear requests on her part. (Yes, some women’s fantasies swing that way, wouldn’t you know?) Once, when I was about thirty, a woman in my age range even tried to force herself on me. She went so far as to break down my bedroom door lock to get at me. It was more farcical than tragic, actually. I never thought of turning her in although she was a colleague. I am positive attempted rape is different for women though but I am less than confident that you can even mention this nowadays.

Looking to avoid the appearance of sainthood, I dig further. I discover it’s likely that, on several occasions, I used off-color language in the presence of women (cis- and perhaps trans-women; I don’t know) to whom I was not especially close. I shouldn’t have done that and I am very sorry. If there is an excuse for such detestable behavior, it is that I learned it in the bosom of my family. I had a grandfather, a widower, who delighted at family meals in having for dessert several discreditable jokes he told right at the table. The women present, including my Mom, would roll their eyes but their eyes were always smiling, I noticed, even as a small boy. By the way, this is the same grandfather who died in his seventies, in his mistress’ s bed. The mistress managed a good wines and spirits shop. I come from good stock! Enough about near-copulatory events but I still don’t know if I am a saint or a pariah thanks to NPR’s obsession with sexual misbehavior.

Then, there is the issue and the non-issue of inequality. (It’s now often called “inequity,” for greater moral heft.) It comes up several times a day on my radio. First, liberals and, I think, perhaps, most people, routinely confuse inequality and poverty. Here is a small exercise. Consider the following (imagined) facts. This year, my income is twice higher than your income. The following year, my income quadruples while yours only triples. Thus, there is no doubt but that the inequality between us has increased greatly. Question: Are you poorer the second year? Difficult to get the straight answer this question deserves: “No.” But, of course, we are today very far from considerations of simple income.

Nearly every morning, I overhear touching interviews of successful African American women, singers and actresses for the most part. It’s always the same story: How difficult it was to make it in a world dominated by white men. Yet, the most highly remunerated entertainer in the history of the world, the richest, is a … Black woman. (Yes, I mean Oprah, of course.) Go figure! Interviewers, all white upper-middle class females with that particular diction – you know – clearly enjoying their white guilt, never think of mentioning this contrarian fact. Or the great Tina Turner who is quietly enjoying the end of her life in royal luxury on the French Riviera. (Yes, I agree, she earned each and every diamond of it.) There are many other examples. White demi-stars often follow the Black interviewees on the same channels. They all try to find some tremendous obstacle – besides the obvious male chauvinism – they had to surmount. It can be being short, of Italian background, or being born in New York City, or being born in the Midwest, nearly anything will do. At last resort, they can always claim they were molested as children. It looks like almost all women were, at least those who amount to anything or who are on their way to it. (See above.) “Almost all” because my own sisters and my wife never claimed they were molested but then, they were never interviewed on NPR. No, I am not denying that sexual violence against women exists. I also know that in most American states, rape will get you 10 to 15 years. If this does not get predators’ attention, nothing will and it’s time for women to pack heat. As for the horror of child molestation, I blame it squarely on parents’ lack of attentiveness, on their distance from their children.

The inequality narrative is competitive and it often turns almost insane. Recently, on one of those two networks I mentioned, somebody celebrated the anniversary of the first space walk by two women. What is being celebrated here, years later, I wondered? I am sure walking in space is fiendishly difficult and scary. I am a tough guy but I am also sure I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Yet, dozens of guys had done the same before those two women. So, what’s to brag about, that the girls went out of the space station without a strong dude even holding their hand for re-assurance? Isn’t this a self-defeating inequality story?

There is worse. Only a couple of days ago (late May 2022), BBC World Service interviewed a Kenyan man because he had been a member of an all-Black team to climb Mount Everest. The team had been put together by an African American mountaineer who had recruited Black men from several parts of the world. Nice, I am thinking, an international team! But wait, where is the edifying part of the story? I agree that the Kenyan guy had merit. The opportunities to become a good mountain climber are far and few in sub-Saharan Africa. After you have done famed but not that steep Mount Kilimanjaro a half-dozen times, it must get old on you. So, I don’t think at all that the Kenyan climber deserves kudos for his negroid features or for his dark skin, or for the disadvantages unfailingly associated with such features. And neither do the other Black victors over Everest. That Kenyan is in the same league as the beloved Jamaican Olympic luge team of several years ago much of the world remembers well. We are ready to love him because of his location of origin, not because of his race. By the way, any African American in the team was free to live on top of the Rockies and to train relentlessly, and to train several days a week. Same for the Black Canadians, if any. So, where is the big deal?

Here is the very best worst I heard under the general rubric of inequality. I hesitate to recount it lest I be accused of making it up abut I swear it’s true. Someone was discussing on the radio, as usual, the impending end of the world from climate change. Within a couple of sentences, the speaker, perhaps carried away by righteous emotion, asserted that “indigenous communities” would be the most severely affected. Now really, do I have the talent or the nerve, to make this up?

And, by the way, if you consider recent meetings of Defense Ministers of Western democracies you will notice that they look more and more like 1960s coffee klatches, with purses, skirts, nicely done hairdos, and lipstick all over. Which reminds me: the new French Prime Minister is a woman. Did you happen to see all the violent protests in Paris, the riots by Frenchmen who don’t want to be governed by a woman? No, you didn’t! There wasn’t even a murmur. I think that you female dogs are usually barking up the wrong tree. How about directing your attention and your anger where they are really needed? I am thinking Afghanistan, for example where several million teenage girls are currently prevented from going to school at all. Not a whisper from you about this humanitarian disaster.

The gem above about indigenous communities makes me think of the third current against which I am forced to swim every day. I refer, of course, to the incessant hysterical whining about climate change’s impending shutting down of the world. The first personal unpleasantness connected to this issue is that 95% of those I hear pronounce on either what causes climate change, or on its multitudinous consequences, all bad, 95%, I say, are obviously not trained or credentialed to say anything on the subject. (OK, let’s be perfectly honest here. I say 95% in an effort to appear moderate. In fact, I am really convinced that over 99+% have no idea what they are talking about.)

And then, there is the generally low quality of the research endeavor on climate change. Oh, the elusiveness of much needed metrics, the defective metrics, the readily available good metrics ignored, the sloppy collection of data, the faulty and/or dishonest study designs (Remember the hockey stick, anyone?), the haphazard or overly imaginative causal reasoning, the actual suppression of contrary evidence, the blinding omission of what obviously belongs in the discussion! I am referring last to the fact, for example, that nuclear energy produces no (zero) greenhouse emissions yet barely earns any mention from climate missionaries. And how about the benefits of the global warming aspect of climate change; do you ever hear about them? Isn’t it true, for example, that the northern and southern limits of wheat maturation are going to move respectively north and south, making bigger harvests possible?

And then, there is the deliberate disregard of the human (economic) ravages implicit in most of the solutions advanced to remedy the alleged consequences of climate change. I mean the continued poverty of those who are poor now. This disregard leads to blindness toward fairly obvious solutions. Ocean rising? Why not call in the Dutch? Most of them have been living very well six feet below sea level for centuries. At the time, they managed it all with their hands and shovels, with horses and windmills. Too much carbon in the atmosphere? Quickly plant billions of trees that will remain privately owned. It’s pretty cheap, and everyone likes trees, even conservatives like me. Etc.

No, it’s OK, no need to throw me a life jacket. I will just keep swimming. I will manage. I am pretty sure I can reach the next shore in spite of the currents. I am certain, I will make it before the end of the world at least. I am in no hurry anyway. Thanks all the same.

Please keep it civil

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