Review: Stoner

Review: Stoner

Stoner by John Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is among the class I call ‘Goodreads Books,’ because so many of my friends here have read the book, whereas nobody I know in the real world has even heard of it, much less read it. Among a certain niche of readers, this book is quite highly regarded; some have even gone so far as to dub it the ‘perfect novel.’ I would hate to be the dissenting voice in this chorus of praise; so I am happy to report that I liked the book, even if I did not find it ‘perfect.’

The novel follows the life, from birth to death, of William Stoner, a farm boy turned man of letters. It tracks the few successes and many disappointments in his long and fairly undistinguished earthly career. What makes the novel special is not the character of Stoner—a rather bland and colorless fellow—nor anything that happens to him. Rather, it is the tone with which Williams narrates Stoner’s life—a sort of tender melancholy, searching for the beauty and sadness in ordinary things.

For me, the strongest parts of this book were the beginning and the end (which are very good parts for a book to be strong). We first see Stoner emerging from his drudging life of farm work into the halls of academe, and witness his discovery of literature. Any devoted reader will naturally appreciate this. The book ends with a striking narration of Stoner’s confrontation with his own mortality, and his acceptance of his deeply flawed life.

The middle parts of the book were dominated by a series of interpersonal conflicts, and I enjoyed these somewhat less. The dominant relationship of this novel is that between Stoner and his wife, Edith. Shortly after the marriage, it becomes clear that Edith has been emotionally (and perhaps physically?) abused, and is traumatized from this abuse, which turns her into an abuser. This makes the marriage hellish for Stoner; and the dynamics of a dysfunctional relationship are described quite expertly. However, I was frustrated by Williams’s portrayal of Edith, which is almost entirely without sympathy. As a character, she has no interiority, no real perspective, but is merely a kind of wounded automaton that goes on wounding. As a result, I found her actions incomprehensible and even unbelievable.

I would lodge a similar complaint about the novel’s other villain, Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s academic rival and eventual boss, he is possessed by a kind of vindictiveness that is never fully explained, or even investigated. The third major relationship in the book—the affair between Stoner and Katherine Driscoll—is far more sympathetic. Still, I was baffled by its eventual end. (Spoilers here.) Lomax threatens to have Driscoll fired, so Driscoll quits? Stoner ends the relationship to preserve his non-existent family life? This did not square.

It is fair to say that the only character granted interiority is Stoner himself. Judging from the reviews, many readers seem to have found in Stoner a certain nobility—seen him as a fundamentally decent man borne down by circumstances—and thus interpret this book as a tragedy of a good man in a bad world. And while I agree that Stoner is decent enough, I read this book as a case study of the pathetic man. To say this in a slightly more cultivated way, I interpreted Stoner as a prime example of what the existentialists call ‘bad faith.’

By that I mean that Stoner never seems to consciously choose what he wants from life. Even in the book’s beginning, when Stoner switches from studying agriculture to literature, this is narrated not as a conscious choice but as a kind of instinctual impulse. The same goes for his marriage, and for virtually everything else. Very often, Stoner seems hardly aware of what is happening, and most often he decides to simply go along with the current. The only time he really goes against the prevailing wind was in his attempt to prevent a bad student from obtaining a Ph.D., and even then he frames this decision as an attempt to defend the university from the world ‘out there.’ Indeed, Stoner’s whole attitude towards the university is that of a diver’s towards a shark cage. It is a shield from life.

My point is that Stoner is largely responsible for the way his life turned out. He could have divorced his wife, or have tried far more vigorously to have protected his daughter from his wife’s abuse. After Lomax decided to torture him, Stoner could have simply left the university and gone to another one. He could have eloped with Katherine Driscoll—why not? In each of these instances, Stoner simply did nothing, staying in a bad marriage, relinquishing his daughter to his wife’s power, bowing to Lomax’s schemes, and cutting it off with the only person he ever loved.

The best example of Stoner’s decision making may have been his refusal to enlist to fight in World War I. When it finally dawns on him that he would have to decide, for himself, whether to fight, he seems absolutely dumbstruck. He asks the people in his life to tell him what to do. And then, he does nothing, merely continuing on with his routine—not because he is against war, and not even because he is afraid of dying on the battlefield, but simply because it is the null choice. This, to me, is bad faith.

Now, all this is not to say that I did not like the book, or that I did not find any value in reading it. To the contrary, I think there is a great deal of value in exploring such a character. But I do not blame the world for Stoner’s problems.

Stylistically, I could not make up my mind whether I liked or disliked Williams’s writing. There were times when the prose swelled into beautiful lyricism, but mostly the narration is deadpan, often dreary, and occasionally even dirge-like—a kind of funeral procession for Stoner’s life. As for the story, I wish Williams had focused far more on Stoner’s relationship with literature, rather than simply narrating it from a distance. We never experience Stoner, say, savoring a poem; most of his energy is expended in rather dry academic work—though this, again, accords with his use of literature as an existential shield rather than a way of enhancing his life.

Regardless of one’s take on Stoner, or William’s prose, or the untapped veins in the story, it is evident that this book evokes strong reactions from its readers, some negative and mostly positive. And that, if anything, is a mark of a good book.



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Review: The World as Will and Representation

Review: The World as Will and Representation

The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.

Arthur Schopenhauer is possibly the Western philosopher most admired by non-philosophers. Revered by figures as diverse as Richard Wagner, Albert Einstein, and Jorge Luis Borges, Schopenhauer’s influence within philosophy has been comparatively muted. True, Nietzsche absorbed and then repudiated Schopenhauer, while Wittgenstein and Ryle took kernels of thought and elements of style from him. Compared with Hegel, however—whom Schopenhauer detested—his influence has been somewhat limited.

For my part, I came to Schopenhauer fully prepared to fall under his spell. He has much to recommend him. A cosmopolitan polyglot, a lover of art, and a writer of clear prose (at a time when obscurity was the norm), Schopenhauer certainly cuts a more dashing and likable figure than the lifeless, professorial, and opaque Hegel. But I must admit, from the very start, that I was fairly disappointed in this book. Before I criticize it, however, I should offer a little summary.

Schopenhauer published The World as Will and Representation when he was only thirty, and held fast to the views expressed in this book for the rest of his life. Indeed, when he finally published a second edition, in 1844, he decided to leave the original just as it was, only writing another, supplementary volume. He was not a man of tentative conclusions.

He was also not a man of humility. One quickly gets a taste for his flamboyant arrogance, as Schopenhauer demands that his reader read his book twice (I declined), as well as to read several other essays of his (I took a rain check), in order to fully understand his system. He also, for good measure, berates Euclid for being a bad mathematician, Newton for being a bad physicist, Winckelmann for being a bad art critic, and has nothing but contempt for Fichte, Schlegel, and Hegel. Kant, his intellectual hero, is more abused than praised. But Schopenhauer would not be a true philosopher if he did not believe that all of his predecessors were wrong, and himself wholly right—about everything.

The quickest way into Schopenhauer’s system is through Kant, which means a detour through Hume.

David Hume threw a monkey wrench into the gears of the knowledge process with his problems of causation and induction. In a nutshell, Hume demonstrated that it was illogical either to assert that A caused B, or to conclude that B always accompanies A. As you might imagine, this makes science rather difficult. Kant’s response to this problem was rather complex, but it depended upon his dividing the world into noumena and phenomena. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is phenomena—the world as we know it. This world, Kant said, is fundamentally shaped by our perception of it. And—crucially—our perception imposes upon this observed world causal relationships.

This way, Hume’s problems are overcome. We are, indeed, justified in deducing that A caused B, or that B always accompanies A, since that is how our perception shapes our phenomenal world. But he pays a steep price for this victory over Hume. For the world of the noumena—the world in-itself, as it exists unperceived and unperceivable—is, indeed, a world where causal thinking does not apply. In fact, none of our concepts apply, not even space and time. The fundamental reality is, in a word, unknowable. By the very fact of perceiving the world, we distort it so completely that we can never achieve true knowledge.

Schopenhauer begins right at this point, with the division of the world into phenomena and noumena. Kant’s phenomena become Schopenhauer’s representation, with only minimal modifications. Kant’s noumena undergo a more notable transformation, and become Schopenhauer’s will. Schopenhauer points out that, if space and time do not exist for the noumena, then plurality must also not exist. In other words, fundamental reality must be single and indivisible. And though Schopenhauer agrees that observation can never reveal anything of significance about this fundamental reality, he believes that our own private experience can. And when we look inside, what we find is will: the urge to move, to act, and to live.

Reality, then, is fundamentally will—a kind of vital urge that springs up out of nothingness. The reality we perceive, the world of space, time, taste, and touch, is merely a kind of collective hallucination, with nothing to tell us about the truly real.

Whereas another philosopher could have turned this ontology into a kind of joyous vitalism, celebrating the primitive urge that animates us all, Schopenhauer arrives at the exact opposite conclusion. The will, for him, is not something to be celebrated, but defeated; for willing leads to desiring, and desiring leads to suffering. All joy, he argues, is merely the absence of suffering. We always want something, and our desires are painful to us. But satisfying desires provides only a momentary relief. After that instant of satiety, desire creeps back in a thousand different forms, to torture us. And even if we do, somehow, manage to satisfy all of our many desires, boredom sets in, and we are no happier.

Schopenhauer’s ethics and aesthetics spring from this predicament. The only escape is to stop desiring, and art is valuable insofar as it allows us to do this. Beauty operates, therefore, by preventing us from seeing the world in terms of our desires, and encouraging us to see it as a detached observer. When we see a real mountain, for example, we may bemoan the fact that we have to climb it; but when we see a painting of a craggy peak, we can simply admire it for what it is. Art, then, has a deep importance in Schopenhauer’s system, since it helps us towards the wisdom and enlightenment. Similarly, ethics consists in denying the will-to-live—in a nutshell, asceticism. The more one overcomes one’s desires, the happier one will be.

So much for the summary; on to evaluation.

To most modern readers, I suspect, Schopenhauer’s metaphysics will be the toughest pill to swallow. Granted, his argument that Kant should not have spoken of ‘noumena’ in the plural, but rather of a single unknowable reality, is reasonable; and if we are to equate that deeper reality with something, then I suppose ‘will’ will do. But this is all just a refinement of Kant’s basic metaphysical premises, which I personally do not accept.

Now, it is valid to note that our experience of reality is shaped and molded by our modes of perception and thought. It is also true that our subjective representation of reality is, in essence, fundamentally different from the reality that is being represented. But it strikes me as unwarranted to thus conclude that reality is therefore unknowable. Consider a digital camera that sprung to life. The camera reasons: “The image I see is a two-dimensional representation of a world of light, shape, and color. But this is just a consequence of my lens and software. Therefore, fundamental reality thus must not have any of those qualities—it has no dimensions, no light, no shape, and no color! And if I were to stop perceiving this visible world, the world would simply cease to exist, since it is only a representation.”

I hope you can see that this line of reasoning is not sound. While it is true that a camera only detects certain portions of reality, and that a photo of a mountain is a fundamentally different sort of thing than a real mountain, it is also true that cameras use real data from the outside world to create representations—useful, pleasing, and accurate—of that world. If this were not true, we would not buy cameras. And if our senses were not doing something similar, they would not help us to navigate the world. In other words, we can acknowledge that the subjective world of our experience is a kind of interpretive representation of the world-in-itself, without concluding that the world-in-itself has no qualities in common with the world of our representation. Besides, it does seem a violence done to language to insist that the world of our senses is somehow ‘unreal’ while some unknowable shadow realm is ‘really real.’ What is ‘reality’ if not what we can know and experience?

I also think that there are grave problems with Schopenhauer’s ethics, at least as he presents it here. Schopenhauer prizes the ascetics who try to conquer their own will-to-live. Such a person, he thinks, would necessarily be kind to others, since goodness consists in making less distinction between oneself and others. Thus, Schopenhauer’s virtue results from a kind of ego death. However, if all reality, including us, is fundamentally the will to live, what can be gained from fighting it? Some respite from misery, one supposes. But in that case, why not simply commit suicide? Schopenhauer argues that suicide does not overcome the will, but capitulates to it, since its an action that springs from the desire to be free from misery. Be that as it may, if there is no afterlife, and if life is only suffering punctuated by moments of relief, there does not seem to be a strong case against suicide. There is not even a strong case against murder, since a mass-murderer is arguably riding the world of more suffering than any sage ever could.

In short, it is difficult to have an ethics if one believes that life is necessarily miserable. But I would also like to criticize Schopenhauer’s argument about desires. It is true that some desires are experienced as painful, and their satisfaction is only a kind of relief. Reading the news is like that for me—mounting terror punctuated by sighs of relief. But this is certainly not true for all desires. Consider my desire for ice cream. There is absolutely nothing painful in it; indeed, I actually take pleasure in looking forward to eating the ice cream. The ice cream itself is not merely a relief but a positive joy, and afterwards I have feelings of delighted satisfaction. This is a silly example, but I think plenty of desires work this way—from seeing a loved one, to watching a good movie, to taking a trip. Indeed, I often find that I have just as much fun anticipating things as actually doing them.

The strongest part of Schopenhauer’s system, in my opinion, is his aesthetics. For I do think he captures something essential about art when he notes that art allows us to see the world as it is, as a detached observer, rather than through the windows of our desires. And I wholeheartedly agree with him when he notes that, when properly seen, anything can be beautiful. But, of course, I cannot agree with him that art merely provides moments of relief from an otherwise torturous life. I think it can be a positive joy.

As you can see, I found very little to agree with in these pages. But, of course, that is not all that unusual when reading a philosopher. Disagreement comes with the discipline. Still, I did think I was going to enjoy the book more. Schopenhauer has a reputation for being a strong writer, and indeed he is, especially compared to Kant or (have mercy!) Hegel. But his authorial personality—the defining spirit of his prose—is so misanthropic and narcissistic, so haughty and bitter, that it can be very difficult to enjoy. And even though Schopenhauer is not an obscure writer, I do think his writing has a kind of droning, disorganized quality that can make him hard to follow. His thoughts do not trail one another in a neat order, building arguments by series of logical steps, but flow in long paragraphs that bite off bits of the subject to chew on.

Despite all of my misgivings, however, I can pronounce Schopenhauer a bold and original thinker, who certainly made me think. For this reason, at least, I am happy to have read him.



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Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has turned what could have been a routine re-publication of old essays into a genuine work of art.

The bulk of this book consists of eight essays, all published in The Atlantic, one per year of the Obama presidency. But Coates frames each one with a kind of autobiographical sketch of his life leading up to its writing. The result is, among other things, a surprisingly writerly book—and by that I mean a book written about writing—a kind of Bildungsroman of his literary life. Even on that narrow basis, alone, this book is absorbing, as it shows the struggles of a young writer to hone his craft and find his voice. And that voice is remarkable.

But this book is far more than that. Though the essays tackle diverse topics—Bill Cosby, the Civil War, Michelle Obama, mass incarceration—they successfully build upon one another into a single argument. The kernel of this argument is expressed in the finest and most famous essay in this collection, “The Case for Reparations”: namely, that America must reckon with its racist past honestly and directly if we are ever to overcome white supremacy. Much of the other essays are dedicated to criticizing two principal rivals to this strategy: Respectability Politics, and Class-Based Politics.

First, Respectability Politics. This is the notion—popular at least since the time of Booker T. Washington—that if African Americans work hard, strive for an education, and adhere to middle-class norms, then racism will disappear. Though sympathetic to the notion of black self-reliance, Coates is basically critical of this strategy—first, because he believes it has not and will never work; and second, because it is deeply unjust to ask a disenfranchised people to earn their own enfranchisement.

His portraits of the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—are fascinating for Coates’s ambivalence towards their use of respectability politics. Coates seems nearly in awe of the Obamas’ ability to be simultaneously black and American, and especially of Barack Obama’s power to communicate with equal confidence to the black and white communities. And he is very sympathetic to the plight of a black president, since, as Coates argues, Obama’s ability to take a strong stance regarding race was heavily constrained by white backlash. Coates is, however, consistently critical of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on hard work and personal responsibility (such as his many lectures about black fatherhood), rather than the historical crimes perpetrated against the black community.

Coates’s other target is the left-wing strategy of substituting class for race—that we ought to help the poor and the working class generally, and in so doing we will disproportionately benefit African Americans. The selling point of this strategy is that, by focusing on shared economic hardships, the left will be able to build a broader coalition without inflaming racial tensions. But Coates is critical of this approach as well. For one, he thinks that racial tension runs far more deeply than class tension, so that this strategy is unlikely to work. What is more, for Coates, this is a kind of evasion—an attempt to sidestep the fundamental problem—and therefore cannot rectify the crime of racism.

The picture that emerges from Coates’s book is rather bleak. If the situation cannot be improved through black advancement or through general economic aid, then what can be done? The only policy recommendation Coates puts forward is Reparations—money distributed to the black community, as a way of compensating for the many ways it has been exploited and disenfranchised. But if I understand Coates correctly, it is not that he believes this money itself would totally solve the problem; it is that such a program would force us to confront the problem of racism head-on, and to collectively own up to the truth of the matter. Virtually nobody—Coates included—thinks that such a program, or such a reckoning, will happen anytime soon, which leaves us in an uncomfortably hopeless situation.

The easy criticism to make of Coates is that his worldview is simplistic, as he insists on reducing all of America’s sins to anti-black racism. But I do not think that this is quite fair. Coates does not deny that, say, economic inequality or sexism are problems; indeed, he notes that these sorts of problems all feed into one another. Furthermore, Coates reminds us that racism is rarely as simple as a rude remark or an insult; rather, it is as complex, diffuse, and widespread as an endemic disease. Coates’s essential point, then, is that racism runs far more deeply and strongly in American life than we are ready to acknowledge—mainly, because persistent racism undermines most of our comfortable narratives or even our policy ideas, not to mention our self-image.

For a brief moment, after Obama’s election, we dreamed of a post-racial America. But, as Coates shows, in the end, Obama’s presidency illustrated our limitations as much as our progress. This was apparent in the sharp drop in Obama’s approval ratings after he criticized a police officer for arresting a black college professor outside of his own house. This was shown, more dramatically, in the persistent rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and of course in Trump’s bigoted birtherism campaign. And this was shown, most starkly, by the fact that Barack Obama—a black man entirely free of scandals, of sterling qualifications, fierce intelligence, and remarkable rhetorical gifts —was followed by Donald Trump—a white man with no experience, thoughtless speech, infinite scandals, and who is quite palpably racist.

As so many people have noted, it is impossible to imagine a black man with Trump’s resumé of scandals, lack of experience, or blunt speaking style approaching the presidency. Even if we focus on one of Trump’s most minor scandals, such as his posing with Goya products after the CEO praised Trump’s leadership, we can see the difference. Imagine the endless fury that Obama would have faced—and not only from the Republican Party—had he endorsed a supporter’s product from the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office! Indeed, as Coates notes, Trump’s ascension is the ultimate rebuke to Respectability Politics: “Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive—work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Whether or not Obama’s optimism or Coates’s pessimism will be borne out by the country’s future, I do think that Coates makes an essential point: that racism is deeply rooted in the country, and will not simply disappear as African Americans become less impoverished or more ‘respectable.’ Communities across America remain starkly segregated; incarceration rates are high and disproportional; the income, unemployment, and wealth gaps are deep and persistent; and we can see the evidence of all of these structural inequalities in the elevated mortality suffered by the black community during this pandemic. The intractability of this problem is bleak to contemplate, but an important one to grapple with. And it helps that this message is delivered in some of the finest prose by any contemporary writer.



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Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In any case, truly democratic debate cannot proceed without reliable statistics.

For such a hefty book, so full of charts and case studies, the contents of Capital in the Twenty-First Century can be summarized with surprising brevity. Here it goes:

For as long as we have reliable records, market economies have produced huge disparities in income and wealth. The simple reason for this is that private wealth has consistently grown several times faster than the economy; furthermore, the bigger your fortune, the faster it grows. As a result, in the 18th and 19th centuries, inequality was high and consistently grew: most of the population owned nothing or close to nothing, and a small propertied class accumulated vast generational wealth. This trend was only reversed by the cataclysms of the 20th century—the World Wars and Great Depression—as well as the resultant government policies, such as social security and progressive taxes. But all signs indicate that the general pattern is re-emerging, and we are reverting to levels of inequality not seen since the Belle Epoque.

This is a relatively simple story, but Piketty goes to great lengths to prove it. Indeed, the value of this book consists in its wealth of data rather than any seismic theoretical insights. Piketty is an artist on graph paper; and with a few simple dots and lines he cuts to the heart of the matter. The large time scales help us to see things invisible in the present moment. For example, while some economists have thought that the ratio of income going to labor and capital was quite stable, Piketty shows that it fluctuates through time and space. Seen in this way, the economy ceases to be a static entity following fixed rules, but something all too human—responding to government policy, cultural developments, and historical accidents.

Given the title of this book, comparisons to Marx are inevitable. Piketty himself begins with a short historical overview of the thinkers he considers his predecessors, with Marx given due credit. Piketty even concurs with the basic Marxian logic—that capitalism inevitably leads to a crisis of accumulation, with the capitalists siphoning off more and more resources until none are left for the rest of the population (with revolution inevitable). If we have avoided such a crisis, says Piketty, it is because Marx based his analysis on a static economy, not a growing one. The twentieth century was exceptional, not only because of its many calamities, but also because it saw enormous rates of economic growth, which also helped to offset the basic logic of capitalist accumulation. Growth rates have significantly slowed in this century.

In summarizing Piketty this way, I fear that I am not doing justice to his appeal. This book is at its most enjoyable when Piketty is at his most empirical—when he is taking the reader through historical trends and case studies. This is extremely refreshing in an economist. I often complain that economics, as a discipline, is needlessly theoretical, getting lost in abstruse debates about how certain variables affect one another, rather than focusing on observable data. Piketty explicitly rejects this style of economics, and puts forward his own method of historical research. This has many advantages. For one, it makes the book far easier to understand, since Piketty’s point is always grounded in a set of facts. What is more, this way of doing economics can be integrated with other disciplines, like history or sociology, rather than existing apart in its own theoretical realm. For example, Piketty often has occasion to bring up the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac to illustrate his points.

Well, if Piketty is even approximately correct, then we are left in a rather uncomfortable situation. As Piketty repeatedly notes, vast inequality leads to political instability and the undermining of democratic government, as the super-wealthy are able to accumulate ever-larger influence. So what should we do about it? Here, the difference in temperament between Marx and Piketty is especially apparent. Instead of advocating for any kind of revolution, Piketty puts forward the decidedly wonkish solution of a global tax on wealth. The proposed tax would be progressive (only significantly taxing large fortunes) and would extend throughout the world, so that the rich could not simply hide their money in tax havens. Yet as Piketty himself notes, this solution is nearly as utopian as the Proletariat Revolution, so I am not sure where that leaves us.

As much as I enjoyed and appreciated this book, nowadays it is somewhat difficult to see why it became so wildly popular and influential. This had more to do with the historical moment in which it was published than the book itself, I suspect. The world was still reeling from the shock of the 2008 crash, and the public was just coming to grips with the scale and ramifications of inequality. Specifically, while most people tend to think of inequality in terms of income—partly, because most people do not have much wealth to speak of—Piketty’s emphasis on wealth, specifically generational wealth, added another dimension to the debate. Piketty evidently succeeded in getting his message across, since I did not find anything in this book shocking. Now we all know about inequality.

While I am no economist, it does seem clear to me that Piketty’s argument has several weak points. For one, his narrow focus on income and wealth distributions lead him to ignore other important factors—most notably, for me, unemployment rates. Further, the major inequality that Piketty identifies—that wealth grows faster than the economy, or r > g—could have used more theoretical elaboration. I wonder: How can private wealth grow so much faster than the economy, if it is a major component of the economy? At one point, Piketty argues that the super rich can afford to hire the best investors and financial consultants; but from what I understand, professional investors do not, on the whole, outperform index funds (which grow along with the economy). Clearly, there is much for professional economists to argue about here.

Whatever its flaws, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an ambitious and compelling book that made a lasting and valuable contribution to political debate. Piketty may be no Marx; but for a man who loves charts and graphs, he is oddly compelling.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 9

Don Bigote: Chapter 9

The story so far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves
  7. Don and Dan Find Happiness
  8. The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part I

The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part II

“Want a story?” some lady says. “I got one for you.”

To recap, we’re sitting in a circle in a kind of hostel for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain. But instead of continuing on the pilgrimage—which, to be honest, pretty much sucked entirely, since it was just a bunch of walking—we are inside, swapping stories to pass the time. This is because of this new crazy virus, called cobid or something, that is apparently like a super nasty flu that also kills you. So, yeah, that’s the predicament.

“Go ahead, my fellow traveler,” Bigote says. “We have nothing but time in our present circumstances.”

She takes a breath.


The Landlady’s Tale

The big problem with today’s world is that people think you owe them something. Like, they don’t understand, money is money, and nice don’t pay no bills. Let me tell you about my life, then. My dad worked for his money. He worked in a sneaker factory when I was young, so I didn’t have a ton of money growing up. Ok? Got that? I was no rich baby. But my dad, he had initiative.

For years, he stayed extra hours at the factory, doing experiments with materials and so on, until he figured out how to improve the sneakers. But he was nobody’s fool, and he went and got his idea patented before he showed it to the higher ups. They saw what he had, and they couldn’t say no. Next thing we knew, we had money pouring out our eyeballs, we was so damn rich. We moved from a little apartment to a big old house with a swimming pool. 

I’m telling you this because I want you to know where I was coming from. I saw what my dad did, and I wanted to do the same thing, to make my own money using my own brains. So what did I do? I’ll tell you.

When I was twenty, my dad gave me a small loan of a million dollars, and told me to invest it. At first, you know, I wanted to just have a big party and buy a nice car. But I started thinking in the long-term. How could I use this money to buy something that would make me even more money?

Then, I started thinking about what our life was like before my dad made it big, when he was just a normal worker. Back then, we was always worried about making rent. In fact, one time we didn’t make rent, and the landlord came down and started yelling at my dad, cursing and screaming, and my dad didn’t even say one word back. And that left an impression on me, since my dad normally didn’t take shit from nobody. I thought, That man must be really powerful to make my dad act that way. 

So then I thought, Why don’t I buy myself some apartments and rent them out? If you know where to look—in the poorer part of town, I mean—you can snatch up some property cheap. I got three one-family units to start with, and put them on the market. It was crazy! I didn’t even have to wait an hour. There were so many desperate people out there looking for an apartment. It was kind of, like, overwhelming, so I just tried to choose some people who seemed nice.

At first everything was hunky dory. The money was coming in every month, and I felt like a queen. But then, a few months in, the problems started. One family had some kind of domestic violence, and the police got involved. Another family kept complaining the sink was clogged. A third family said the heat wouldn’t turn on. Problems, problems, problems, and of course the rent started to come later and later. I started to worry: Did I do something really stupid? Because now, I felt like I was at the mercy of these people. They could just trash the place and refuse to pay me, and I’d lose my investment.

Then a friend of mine recommended that I go to this kind of landlord seminar. It opened my eyes to this new business. The presenter was like, “Hey, this is your property. This is your money. It’s all yours. You don’t owe anyone, anything. And, remember, the law is on your side. You can kick people out whenever you want.”

From that day on, business was booming. If a tenant complained, I would just say, hey pay me and shut up, or leave. That’s really what it came down to. I didn’t want to be a one-woman charity. It wasn’t my job or my business to be going around providing people with free housing. They pay or they get lost. End of story. Rent too late, I call the sheriff and he comes in there with a team of movers, and everything gets left out on the curb. Bye bye. Honestly, demand is so high for my places that I don’t even need to worry about loyalty. I don’t even need to take too much care of the apartments, since if the tenants call a government inspector the first thing that happens is a big fat eviction for them.

As you can imagine, business was really booming. I acquired dozens of properties, and each one was just another income stream. Best of all was when I got someone receiving housing aid, since that just was a check straight from the government into my bank account. I felt like every time I closed my eyes I could hear the clink, clink, clink of coins dropping into the piggy bank. In fact, I was making so much money that I started to travel like crazy, and hired an assistant to take care of most of the work. This was the life!

But a few months ago I ran into some trouble. You see, like any sensible landlord—and, I guarantee it, this is just what everyone does—I divided my properties into white and non-white. Like, basically if a black potential tenant came to us, they would see some apartments and not others, and likewise with a white one. It’s just basic economics. You start allowing black tenants in a white neighborhood, you got all sorts of problems. The neighbors are complaining. People call the cops. And you might even start scaring white folks away, which means your property is worth less. No, no, that’s not a good idea. And obviously most white people don’t want to live in the black neighborhoods.

But one day, I got notified that I was being sued. What? Apparently, the old black lady I had evicted the week before had a grown-up lawyer son, who said that it was discrimination. Excuse me? Before I know it, the court had me handing over all my records. Then a judge rules that I was guilty of housing discrimination. Oh yeah, like it’s my fault there are white and black neighborhoods. I had to pay a big fat fine and got suspended from business for six months. So, I decided I’d come to Spain to pass the time, and here I am.


“What an interesting story!” Franck says. “I had no idea that housing was paid for with money in this land. In my kingdom, all the subjects are simply provided with a place to live.”

“Yes, my royal prince,” professor Allesprechen says. “It seems that, in many parts of the world, people believe in a scientific law called Supply and Demand, which they take to be as powerful as the physical laws of motion. And, indeed, all society must operate on this basis, even food and medical care.”

“Did someone say medical care?” a younger guy says. “Because that’s what my story is all about.”


The Patient’s Tale

So, the long and short of it is that I came to Spain to avoid medical debt. But ironically, before all this, I was studying to become a doctor.

I don’t say this to boast, but I’m the first person in my family to go to college. Both my parents are immigrants. They owned a restaurant and worked super hard, all day long, seven days a week. Like most parents, I guess, they wanted me to have a different kind of life, so they were super strict about studying. No way I was going to work in a restaurant like them. I absolutely had to go to college. And, of course, I couldn’t study sociology or English literature or anything like that. I had to do pre-med. Luckily for me, I found that I really liked pre-med, so we didn’t have to have any dramatic, rebellious confrontations.

As you may know, in pre-med you need to take a whole bunch of science classes—physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, and lots of bio classes. I also had to take a class on vertebrate anatomy, and this class had a lab component where we had to do dissections. I didn’t really like it, to be honest. So squishy and gross, and the smell is awful. But, anyways, we did a rat, a frog, a snake, a bat, and finally we had to do a pig. I was making the primary incision in its abdomen when my hand slipped and, somehow, I gave my other hand a bad, bad cut.

They took me to the university hospital and stitched and bandaged me up. Luckily, I was covered under the university’s standard health insurance, so this didn’t set me back too much. But, after a follow-up exam and a few X-rays, the doctor told me I had cut myself so deeply that my ligaments had been damaged. Without surgery, they wouldn’t heal properly, and I would lose mobility in my hand forever. Obviously, this isn’t good, especially since I want to be a surgeon! But the surgery was way, way too expensive, even with my insurance. And this is not to mention the physical therapy I would need.

When you’re in this kind of situation, the only thing to do is beg. I didn’t tell my parents, since they are really proud people. I made a GoFundMe and asked for $10,000 for the surgery, without much hope I’d make it. But my classmates, they were amazing. As soon as they saw it, they shared my page everywhere, and got the whole school involved. In just a month I was over my goal. You can imagine I was feeling pretty great.

But you can also imagine how bad I felt when I found out that the total cost of my surgery was wayyyyy more than $10,000. It was like hitting rock bottom. My whole life seemed like it was over. And now I had the added guilt of having taken all that money from all those people. I was scrolling around on social media, just trying to distract myself from how shitty the situation was, when I stumbled on an article about the difference in prices for medicines and medical procedures between the US and other countries. In fact, in that article it used the kind of surgery I needed as an example. They said it was four times cheaper in Spain. I did some more research, and that was right! In fact, the surgery was so much cheaper that I even had enough money for airfare—even with no insurance!

So, next thing I knew, I was boarding a plane to Madrid. They fixed up my hand, good as new. Best of all, I had some extra time and money to enjoy Spain, so I decided to go on this pilgrimage. But, I gotta say, this whole experience has really soured me on the medical profession in America. I kept thinking: Shouldn’t I be doing this to help people? In the States we just milk people for everything they have. Other countries don’t do what we do. I’m really not sure I’d enjoy being a part of something like that. Unfortunately, by the time I graduate I’m gonna have so much student debt that I basically need to do something that pays well, at least for a while. I have to think about it.


“Now, my dear Prince,” Bigote says, turning to the prince. “You must not take away the wrong message from this story. You see, the greatness of Western society is based on the inalienable rights of property. That means, of course, that everything has its price, and all debts must be paid.”

“Did someone say debts?” a bald, middle-aged man said. “Because I got something to say about that.


The Debt Collector’s Tale

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that’s never been more true than in my life. You see, I’ve lived the American Dream: I started from the bottom and I’ve used my own grit and ingenuity to make a comfortable life for myself. America is truly the land of opportunity.

Let me give you my backstory. I had one of those tough childhoods. Father walked out, mom was poor, moving around from place to place, dropping out of school at 16. Truth be told, if it weren’t for my cousin, I probably would have ended up like all my old friends—getting into drugs, crime, trouble with the law, that sort of thing.

But one day, my cousin pulls up to our apartment and starts telling me about this job. It’s easy, he says. It’s basically just like being a mover. You just got to lift some furniture. And the pay was good—much better than fast food. I showed up the next morning and we got right to work. Turns out, the job was being a mover—a mover outer. You see, this moving company did most of its business with the sheriff, helping them to evict clients.

It would work something like this. The sheriff would go up to the door first, hand on his pistol, and deal with the tenant. Sometimes they would yell and complain and make a big scene, but most of the time they would just say, ‘Ok,’ and let us in. 

We saw all sorts of places this way. Sometimes the apartment would be all nice and organized, and the tenant would be running around, trying to make sure we carried everything correctly. Most often, though, the place would be a dump, with clothes and things everywhere. And sometimes it would be so disgusting—with overflowing toilets, trash everywhere, roaches and rats—that we’d just leave most of the junk in for the landlord to deal with.

All in all, it was a pretty cushy job, since mostly we didn’t even have to take the stuff into the truck. We’d just leave it on the curb for the tenant to deal with. And, honestly, this was probably the better option for these tenants, since if they let us take it to the warehouse, they’d have to pay some big fee to get it back—which of course meant they wouldn’t get it back. After stuff sat in the warehouse for a year, it became fair game for us—take it or trash it. I got some neat stuff that way.

I did this for a few years, until I decided that I wanted a more serious job, one that paid a little better. After looking around, and sending out a few applications, I got a job as a repo man. This meant repossessing cars once people fell behind on their payments. You know, even if you’re late by one day, your car can be taken away? And that happens a lot, especially when your business doesn’t do any credit score checks or anything like that before granting a loan. At least half the people slip up, so it’s just loan, repo, loan, repo. You make a lot of money that way. 

Good thing about this was I was paid on commission, so I made a lot more money. But the bad news was that I had to deal with the client directly. This was the tough part. I’d have to go find them and tell them I was taking their vehicle back. And you got to understand, even this was a courtesy, since technically I didn’t even have to do that. And, of course, I’m willing to be a little reasonable. I’ll drop them off at home before I take the car off. But I don’t give any kind of extensions. 

Well, I’ve learned that people react a few different ways. For some people, this isn’t their first repossession, so they are just sort of quiet and resigned, they don’t fight too much. Then there are the nice ones, who act all sweet and friendly, hoping that this will somehow help. More annoying are the negotiators, who try to buy time, to ask for just a day or a few hours, to run some kind of errand. That doesn’t get them anywhere. My least favorite are the cryers, who break down and start to beg. That’s just messy. But, inevitably, the fighters give you the most trouble. They scream, argue, make a big fuss. A few of them even get in their car and drive off somewhere.

This was the most interesting part of the job, since it could be a little bit of a challenge to find them. I’d have to develop all these strategies. For example, I would try to find the phone number of someone in his family or a friend, and then I’d pretend to be, like, an acquaintance, and I’d ask about him. Or sometimes I’d just sit and wait outside his job or apartment. Or maybe I’d drive around his neighborhood. The key was to find a moment when the car was left unattended. Then, I’d walk up real quick, and I’d use my duplicate key to get in and drive it back. Easy peasy.

Once I got good at the repo business, I started making really nice money. I even got married, settled down, and got a mortgage. But by the time I hit 40, I was feeling a little burnt out. It was just the same thing, day after day. I started looking for the next step. I had always wanted to own my business, be my own boss. But what kind of business? After some thinking, I realized that being a repo man is the perfect training for debt collection. Best of all, you don’t need a ton of money to get into the collection business.

The biggest investment is to buy the debt itself. Now, this isn’t as expensive as you might think. It’s not like you have to pay the full amount of the debt to acquire it. There’s a whole market for old debts, lots of it selling for just pennies on the dollar. This means you can buy a lot of it, and even if you don’t manage to collect it all, you’ll still make a good profit. A lot of this is old medical debt, credit card debt, student loans, payday loans.

The debt collection business is complicated, you see. There are all sorts of ways to get the money back—garnishing wages, or your income tax refund, or you can just be sued. That’s for the really legitimate debt, when the government gets involved. But our business is to collect on really old debt, or zombie debt, which is sort of in this legal no-man’s land where nobody is really sure if you have to pay it or not. It’s one of those things where the government won’t go after you for the debt, but they also won’t go after me if I collect on the debt. Got it?

You may not believe me, but debt collection is a real art. I’m serious. It takes a lot of psychological subtlety. You’ve really got to learn how to manipulate people’s emotions, to give them the right mixture of hope and fear, to confuse them or stress them out. That’s the nature of the business. The first step is always a simple call. For this, it’s important to assume the identity of the original loaner. So, for example, if it’s for a credit card, you’ve got to be the bank. The first call, you have to be really professional, remind them of the debt, and then offer a few repayment options.

Sometimes, that’s enough, especially if it’s not a lot of money. They say, “Ok, yes sir,” and that’s that. You have income. But of course most people aren’t so easy. Some people, you’ve got to scare them. You’ve got to play up all the terrible consequences—credit score, eviction, garnishing wages, and so on. Doesn’t matter if any of it is based on reality, you’ve just got to take a high moral tone, talk about responsibility and consequences, and then offer them a way out—which means, of course, paying you. That’s the fear method.

But that doesn’t always work, either. Specifically, you get some people who get mad instead of afraid. They wanna fight you. Now, you can get into a shouting match with them over the phone, but that’s not really productive. Basically, you’ve got to soften them up somehow, find a weak spot. Usually this means going after other people in their life. So maybe you call someone in their family and explain that you’re concerned about So-and-so, since they’re in debt and not responding. Better still, you call their boss. That usually works.

This is normally enough. But some people are real stubborn. They need more than routine intimidation. For them, what you do is you make your presence felt. This is pretty easy. Find out where they live, where they work, where they like to hang out, and just trail them. Park the car in an obvious spot outside their place of work, for example, and make yourself known. If they come up to confront you, just sit there and let them yell through the windows. Of course, we reserve this treatment for the really big prizes, when we think we have a chance at a serious payday. I’d be lying if I said we got everyone.

As you can imagine, my business did quite well. We expanded into several municipalities, and I personally train all of my debt collection agents. Naturally, we get lots of complaints. The government has even fined us a few times, which is just the nature of the business. We pay the fines and move on. After all, our profit margins are so big we can afford it. We are basically making money for nothing—buying some old bills and paying for a few working telephones.

So, that’s my story: How a man born poor pulled himself up by his bootstraps. That’s why I can now afford a European vacation.


“Wow, it seems that this business of ‘debt’ is very serious,” prince Franck says. “I wonder how we have gotten along so well in Geheimnissland for so long without any money, debt, or payments!”

“Indeed, my prince,” Allesprechen. “It is a strange custom. What is more, I wonder at this tale of debt collection. According to the economics textbooks I have read, sometimes debtors are allowed to default and the lender must lose money, is that not so?”

“Maybe that’s what it says in the textbooks,” a suavely-dressed, older man says. “But you have to remember who makes the laws—lenders. How should I know? I am a lawmaker myself.”


The Lobbyist’s Tale

When I was in high school, we had a class in American Civics and Gov. It was a revelation for me. For the first time, I was really able to appreciate the beauty of our constitution, and the genius of our founding fathers. Everything we thought through: the checks and balances, the separation of powers, the protection of individual liberties—in short, a set of institutions that allowed for governing based on consensus and shared values, which was simultaneously effective, democratic, and individualistic.

By the end of the year, I was so inspired that I knew I had to make this my life. So I studied political science in college. All my free time was spent pursuing my goal. I volunteered for campaigns, I built up a network, and eventually I ran for office on my own. One thing led to another—local office, state legislator—until I became one a United States senator at the youngest possible age: 30. It was a dream come true.

But, as they say, my sweet prize turned to ashes in my mouth. By the end of my first year on the job, I was miserable. You see, being a politician is nothing like you think it is. I imagined I would be busily making laws to improve the country: developing infrastructure, setting rules, designing foreign policy, and looking out for the freedoms of the common man. My head was full of all these principles and ideas that I had been carrying around since high school, and yet my job was a lot more like being a prostitute than a statesman.

It’s no exaggeration to say that politics is fundamentally about money and influence. We rely on voluntary donations every time we have a campaign, and campaigning is expensive. All year long we’re calling potential donors. Every politician has to do it. We spent hours and hours each week in a cramped little grey office, complete with cubicles and headsets, as if we’re telemarketers. And in a way we are: We’re just selling a different product—namely, influence. 

That’s not all. You might think we spend our days having high-minded conversations and hatching grand plans. Instead, we spend our days getting wined and dined by lobbyists of every sort. They are everywhere, like cockroaches, just waiting to spring out at you. And of course you can’t turn them away, because you really need to keep them happy if you want to keep your job, since they are also the same people donating to your campaign and mobilizing your votes. So you end up having conversation after conversation about how natural gas benefits communities, how regulation is killing business, how tax rates should be lowered. And when you finally get down to actually writing legislation, this is all the stuff you talk about, since everyone is in the same position. It’s like being a hostage.

I got pretty depressed about this for a while. In fact, by the end of my first term, I decided to drop out of the Senate altogether. It was a hard decision to make. I felt like I was throwing my life and my dreams away. But it was also a big relief. Still, this didn’t leave me in a good situation. Being a senator doesn’t really qualify you for any other job. So what would I do, go to law school? Go into business? Start a charity? None of those options appealed to me. I was tired, and I wanted a cushy job.

This led me, inevitably, to lobbying. Most lobbyists are former politicians, after all. It makes sense, since we have the contacts already, and we know how the system is put together. Admittedly I had a lot of reservations, since it was all the lobbying that made me so depressed in the first place. But as soon as I started working, I fell in love with the job. It’s easy, it’s pleasant, and it pays a whole lot better than being a politician. Best of all, I finally got the feeling of power—of shaping policy—that I was craving as a politician. Because, finally, I had the power.

I started off in the automobile industry. This was back in the early 70s, when there was a big push to tighten regulations on car manufacturing, to make cars safer. My job was to push back against these regulations as much as possible. And we quickly developed the basic model for all my other gigs: Find a bunch of pliant and cash-strapped scientists, write them a big check, and then use their studies to prove your point. Of course, their studies always prove what you want to prove, for example that seat belts don’t help save lives. Something like that. Then, you corner as many politicians as you can, and you aggressively push these studies. This is useful for them, since having “hard data” gives politicians cover.

Now, you need to understand that this is always a rear-guard battle. We know, of course, that eventually regulations will get passed. But this way, companies have a lot more time to adapt, without hurting their profit margins. It was the same story with cigarettes, which was my next gig. I had all these studies “proving” that there was no link between smoking and cancer. After that, I moved on to the oil lobby, which is where the money has been since people started to worry about global warming. 

It sounds a little awful when I describe it. And sometimes I do feel a bit bad. But, really, the money is just incredible. I save my clients so much money, you see, that they can give me a really whopping salary, and still come out way ahead. If my conscience bothers me, I figure I’ll devote some time to charity when I’m older and retired. Until then, I’ve got a cushy job, a big house, and all the money I could ever want. I even have lots of vacation days, which is why I’m here, on this pilgrimage route.


“What a fascinating story!” Franck says. “It seems that money is far more important than I could have ever dreamed!”

“I agree, my prince,” Allesprechen says. “I find all of this information new and exciting. Specifically, I wonder how this practice of ‘lobbying’ is compatible with the systems of ‘democracy’ that are so universally lauded in this world?”

“Well, uh,” Bigote says, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I suppose the possession of money confers upon one a certain nobility, as it is proof of worthiness and personal merit. Thus, such people naturally are granted a stronger voice in government.”

“Hey guys,” I say, cutting in. “Gotta say, most of these stories are a bit boring. Let me give you a good one.”


Dan’s Tale

You might look at me and think, “This guy is no casanova.” Yeah, I’m not athletic or even really that good-looking. But I got moves. I’m charming, I’m crafty. And I’m really, really determined. What I’m saying is, basically, I’ve had some success in the lady department.

Let me give you an example. Once, I went a whole party pretending to be a French exchange student, so that these university girls would think I was a cultured European. (I forgot to keep up in the act the next morning, and they weren’t happy about that.) Another time I drove 12 hours non stop when one of my old hookups—who had moved away—told me her parents were out of town for the night.

But let me tell you about the strategy I’m most proud of. There was this new girl in school, right. Apparently from Italy. Her name was Fiorella. And she was a babe. Like hard-core. All the dudes noticed it immediately. But we couldn’t get anywhere. First of all, her English was pretty shaky, seeing as she was Italian and all that. And she didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. She ate lunch by herself. After school, she’d walk right home. Sort of a loner type.

I wasn’t going to let no language barrier stop me, though. So, I downloaded a few language learning apps on my phone, and I practiced every day—at least an hour, and usually a lot more. I watched movies in Italian, I listened to music in Italian, I even read the Italian news. Sure, I was failing all my classes, but that was always true anyways. Point is, four weeks later, I knew enough Italian to have, like, a basic conversation.

Still, I needed to have a strategy. She was shy. Seemed to have a scared look on her face. I figured I shouldn’t approach aggressively. I had to be sort of innocent, like her. Non-threatening. So, I looked for an opening—we were paired together in a chemistry experiment—and I started in on my Italian. You should’ve seen the look on her face when I spoke. Like, jaw drop, eyes wide. 

Long story short, instant connection. We start talking every day. She opens up, starts laughing. I’m feeling pretty good. I think this is going somewhere. But still, everyday after school, she doesn’t hang around, but goes straight home. So I’m like, what’s up with that? Finally, I ask her, and she tells me the whole story. She lives alone with her father. And he’s a total nut-job. Like, believes in aliens and UFOs and big-foot. But also, like, super duper catholic. Really conservative and masochistic. Wears like a spiky ankle-bracelet and rough wool underwear, to torture himself all day. You know. 

Point is, this guy is super controlling, and doesn’t want her daughter having any friends—least of all, boys. So that’s why she has to rush home every day. “Listen,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.” I’ll figure something out. You see, when it comes to me and the ladies, no obstacle is too difficult.

Next Friday, I put my plan into action. I arrive at his door, wearing like a kind of monk custom I got together from the local party store. And I use a bit of make-up to look older. I knock, he answers. He’s a big guy, with slicked back hair, and a little mustache. Looks mean. I admit, I was a little scared, and I considered bolting. But quitters never get their just desserts. 

“Excuse me,” I say to him, in my best Italian. “I am a brother of the local Monastery of the Weeping Children of God, and it has come to my attention that you, my son, have moved into the area. My sources tell me you are a very pious Christian indeed.”

“Yes, father,” he says. “Once I went the traveled all the way from the Vatican to Milan while crawling on my knees, while reciting hail marys and counting the rosary.”

“Very impressive, my child,” I say. “I am inspired by your devotion. I wonder, though, if you would have the strength to recite the Prayer of the Blessed Winds of St. Jackson.”

“Oh, holy father, teach me this prayer,” he says. “I want to please God.”

“Ok, my son. Listen carefully. This prayer is very difficult and requires a great deal of time. First, it is paramount that you perform this prayer outside, facing east, with your eyes closed. And you must perform it between the hours of 9 pm and midnight, continuously, without any pause for rest.”

And then I show him a series of funny little twitches and movements, and then teach him some strings of holy words I put together from my mom’s prayer book.

“Do this every day,” I say, “and the Lord will not fail to look kindly upon you and your family. You will enjoy good fortune and heavenly blessings. Amen.”

And with that, I took off.

The next two months were fantastic. The padre would be in the backyard, muttering and gesticulating, and I would sneak up to Fiorella’s room for, shall we say, less spiritual sorts of pleasure. In fact, we probably would have kept this up for the rest of the year if he hadn’t gotten a job offer back in Italy. Hey, maybe the prayer worked? Sadly for me, though, he packed up and took my sweet Fiorella away. Hmm, come to think of it, is Spain anywhere close to Sicily?

To be continued…