Monday, March 23, 2015

The Lion and the Mouse — and the Alligator (23 Jan. 2014)

"Do not insult the mother alligator until after you have crossed the river."
— Haitian Proverb I Like to Quote

            When I left Cornell U in Ithaca, NY, my friends gave me a copy of a book of classic insults, which had as its headnote what I have as mine above: "Do not insult the mother alligator until after you have crossed the river."
            I have not always followed this good advice, but at least in theory I would go further and advise against insulting even small alligators even when you're well beyond the river and are pretty sure you'll never see an alligator again. Yea, verily I would say unto you: If you can, make the alligator your friend.
            Three examples, two from the side of the human, and one from a small and figurative alligator's point of view.
            In my late teens, when I was a junior counselor or counselor at a summer camp, teaching archery, a father visiting "my" archery range nocked an arrow and drew a bow while facing away from the targets. We didn't have the term "zero tolerance" back then, and I wouldn't have liked the idea — I definitely don't like it now — but one should never, ever fuck around with weapons of any sort, so I told the aging juvenile to leave the range. I was later asked by a fellow counselor if I knew who the wise guy was. "Sewer Rat's father," I said, naming one of the less popular campers. "Uh huh," my colleague said, and left smiling cryptically.
            When the summer was over and I was back in the City, I read in the pre-Rupert-Murdoch Chicago Sun-Times that Sewer Rat's father had been found in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental with a couple bullets in his head: as we used to say at that time in Chicago, "an obvious suicide."
            On a later occasion, when I was a college junior or senior and a fraternity officer, I called the home of a pledge to remind him he was to come back from vacation a couple days early to help get the house ready for mid-year Rush.
            While we were mopping floors, or whatever, a fraternity brother of mine noted that the pledge in question had been dropped off by his father, who seemed somewhat pissed off at the house generally and, perhaps, me in particular. No big deal, but … "You were polite and respectful, right?" Of course I had been, but firm; I had other calls to make, and if I had to cut my vacation short a couple days, so could a freshman who would've been flunking out of school at a neighborhood animal house if I hadn't gone along with getting him depledged there and over to us in an arcane maneuver arranged by our Rush Chairman and agreed to by the other house with rapidity and graciousness that I should have thought more about.
            "You were polite and respectful right?" "Yeah. Why is this significant?" Did I know what the pledge's father did for a living? I did not. "Contract work," I was told. Maybe a couple contracts a year, and they lived on that, lived very, very well. When this Dad visited again, I didn't make a big deal out of it, but I did show, briefly, unostentatiously just how respectful I could be.
            Nice thing growing up in Chicago when I did: You learned the wisdom of manners if for no other reason than you could never be sure with whom you were dealing and if and how that person might be, as they said, "connected."
            An armed society probably isn't a polite society, certainly not in Chicago, but it can reduce young males' tendencies toward incivility if Ms. Manners might be a representative from the local B'nai Mafia chapter and advise respect while carrying a tire iron.
            My story from the other side, so to speak, is from the subtler world of scholarship. Long ago, I wrote a couple articles dealing with (among other things) Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's fine but underrated and under-read 1955 novel, Gladiator-at-Law. My writing went unnoticed for years, and then I came across an article by a young scholar that not only cited my work but (unnecessarily for the citation) commented on it briefly, but at sufficient length to suggest that it — my work on this novel, my whole rather old-fashioned approach, actually — sucked.
            Okay, I finally get a citation, and a bit of a comment to boot, and it's insulting. Like the guy could have just had the citation, or said that I took an approach different from his and one he thought less useful, but, nah, he had to say something harsh.
            A couple more years pass, and I get a note from the guy who cited me saying, more or less, Hi, hey, what a coincidence, the Chair of his department —let's call him Rick — was a friend of mine from grad school and Rick said that the young scholar should write me. The guy needed an outside evaluation of his scholarship, which he hadn't had time to write much of, so his Gladiator-at-Law piece was going to be important for him to get tenure, and I was one of the few other people to write on the novel at the time and Rick said that I'd write a carefully composed and effective letter for him because I was a nice guy and a responsible scholar and would always give an honest evaluation and all the young scholar had to do was ask me politely and grovel, just a bit. He groveled; I wrote. The punk got tenure.
            "Keep your words soft and sweet," mostly — to modify somewhat a quotation attributed to Andy Rooney — "just in case you have to eat them.” But we should go even farther than avoiding giving offense. And here I'll paste in a fable out of Aesop that I learned as a child and — since I read it in a Latin version in college, not because it was around in my childhood — I'm sure is out of copyright.

A Lion asleep in his lair was waked up by a Mouse running over his face. Losing his temper he seized it with his paw and was about to kill it. The Mouse, terrified, piteously entreated him to spare its life. "Please let me go," it cried, "and one day I will repay you for your kindness." The idea of so insignificant a creature ever being able to do anything for him amused the Lion so much that he laughed aloud, and good-humouredly let it go. But the Mouse's chance came, after all. One day the Lion got entangled in a net which had been spread for game by some hunters, and the Mouse heard and recognised his roars of anger and ran to the spot. Without more ado it set to work to gnaw the ropes with its teeth, and succeeded before long in setting the Lion free. "There!" said the Mouse, "you laughed at me when I promised I would repay you: but now you see, even a Mouse can help a Lion."

Beyond the cynical advice on waiting to insult alligators, beyond the obvious prudence of not insulting Mafia accountants or free-lance hit men — or anyone just casually — "The Lion and the Mouse" teaches the more positive but equally practical lesson of being nice to others whenever we can. As the tough-minded among the Anarchists and communitarians argued, we practice mutual aid in part because it is right to do so and because it feels good to do so: but that good feeling comes from a reliable sense of superiority as well as more admirable altruism; also, however, we practice mutual aid and should be nice to one another because the one sure thing in life is that we will eventually get into trouble.

            So, MORAL: do not insult even small alligators and help when you can. If nothing else, you never know when you'll need a favor, or from whom.

No comments:

Post a Comment