My cousin Tony’s visit to our vacation home in the foothills northeast of Sacramento began with a question. As we walked to the airport parking lot, he asked: “Why did you park at an angle?” he asked. “I found this angled corner space where I could back in and watch the car from the lobby and see how our dog was faring in the back.” “Oh.” An innocent enough exchange, one would suppose. But it had started.
As we drove up the highway to our foothill cabin, he noticed an orchard of trees with fruit still dangling from the branches. “What are they?” “Persimmons.” “Too small. Still on the trees?” It was early January. “Yeah, I guess they’re not being harvested.” Cousin Tony says, “We got over 500 this year from our tree. Five buckets full. We gave them out to everybody. Why don’t we stop and get some? There’re plenty all over the ground.” “You can’t do that here. California growers are real particular about people crossing their trenches and picking up fruit.” “They’re going to waste!” I had to agree and my wife and I had wanted to stop and gather the dropped fruit on the way down, but I had to pull some mild expertise on him: “I think it’s against the law and orchardists have shot guns.” “Hmm,” he said, indicating that Californians know much less about fruit than New Jerseyians and that I was discouraging a potentially productive adventure, robbing us of some brotherly fun.
I gave out useful information about the passing almond and walnut groves, flooded rice and cotton fields, goose hunters, hawks and herons, about the changing topography as we climbed into the foothills. He scorned the casinos on the outskirts of town, but offered that the Indians were getting us back for the drumming we had given them. We agreed on that. We had shifted into a more harmonious mode so I did not want to break the spell, but I would have modified my comment to include that the casinos showed the Indians as shrewd but not wise.
Higher up, the olive trees impressed him and the white cattle lounging under their newly trimmed branches brought an exaltation of delight—“Just like Italy! “Yes, I said, they even named a nearby place ‘Palermo!’” He took in the new and exotic sights. When I mentioned the gold panning we could try in our creek, he laughed at California’s bounty, and seemed to signal my perspicacity in moving west and making a life in so rich and diverse a place.
But as we approached the cabin and walked up the wood ramp to the small gate that closed off the deck, he said, “Looks like your gate is sagging.” “Yeah, a little, but it still latches.” “Is it metal?” “Yes.” “Well, you’ve got it screwed to a wood post so you have to use bolts not screws to keep it from sagging.” With that little gem of shop-worn advice, a whole wave of anguish and familial pain washed across my psyche: I was being corrected in arts of home repair and maintenance by someone who knew just slightly more than I knew about such matters. Instead of responding to the grand view of the ravine from the deck, he was brewing up some minor humiliation for what he judged was some of my sloppy work. Where did this come from? what did it mean between us? was it a key to our long friendship or a source of ongoing and building tension? How would the week go with such a foundation to our conversation?
In graduate school I suffered the humiliations of professors who assaulted me and my fellow students from their vantage point of high and mighty authority. This was standard pedagogy, at least in the 1960’s—not supporting the good one had accomplished, nor cheerfully redirecting one to a better, more convincing path. These “experts” waxed particularly vicious when “educating” women. I berate myself to this day for not coming to the defense of a female friend who sobbed for nearly three hours as she was raked over the coals for her paper by the local acknowledged “authority.” He sat close and clubby in the small seminar room and never looked at his miserable victim.
Such attacks inspired few apprentices to emulate these masters, if that was their supposed purpose. They demeaned and destroyed, as if the obligations of a senior expert for the sake of some academic “discipline.” Good word—discipline, and punish—the strange and inappropriate “teaching method” that such old-fashioned authority deployed.
But what if there are no experts, no recognized authority, no masters to direct and correct the building of a viable thesis or critical interpretation or elegant diagnosis? I imagine everyone fumbling for a place to start, unsure where next to go, what steps follow, and completely unsure of the conclusion. Authority serves a most valuable purpose in all fields. And it provides the essential information and techniques to master the challenges of daily life—getting a job, earning a living, and feeding and clothing and housing ourselves.
However, lack of such authority and expertise characterized my working-class boyhood—and I still suffer from that in at least two ways: insufficient know-how and an attentive though distant circle of nasty critics. Since no one knew how to do basic, physical things well—building a house, gardening, cooking, or maintaining a vehicle--everyone was on the lookout for failures in workmanship and craft, actual or imagined. This induced a habit of finding fault that made ordinary meetings and conversations occasions for demeaning questions about very basic life skills. It made encounters contests in humiliation.