Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Shameless Ramble: Part 2, In the Series Inspired by, If Not About, the Midwest

In thinking about the differences between the British (not to say English, because I'm referring to the entire United Kingdom), the Irish, and the Scandinavian, I find a review of the Antarctic expeditions a helpful frame of reference.

But first, let me address one question that a careful reader may be asking: Why am I not including Jews in this over-reaching attempt to generalize about a few varieties of white people and their American-diluted cultural differences?  

It's because I don't understand them.  And by them, I mean: the British, the Irish, and Scandinavians.  

I don't find the Jewish influence particularly baffling.  

Take my Aunt May, for example.  She was the only woman I ever knew who had her bangs cut like Liza Minnelli's in Cabaret.

I'd cut my bangs like that if there was enough product in the world to keep them in place.

May lived on West 25th Street on Manhattan, with a view of New Jersey and the Hudson.  Poet, romantic, sage, she could tell a joke in English or Yiddish or both.  She introduced me to gefilte fish, gnocchi, Soho, and Greenwich Village.  It all made perfect sense to me.  

Growing up in a town with a lot of Jewish friends, I frequently wished that I was more than just half ethnically Jewish. But someone (not my Jewish friends) would always remind me that I wasn't technically Jewish because my mother wasn't Jewish; and that my father wasn't technically Jewish because his mother's mother wasn't Jewish.  

I am proud of my Jewish ethnic background.   I was raised by atheists, so I wasn't brought up in the Jewish faith. 

So be it.  I am at peace with that.  

I am from Boston, but not Bostonian.  I am from Jews, but not very Jewish.  I am neither East nor West.  I ride with a western bridle and an English saddle.  You say potato.  I say potato. 

"Where Amundsen took one hundred Greenland dogs to the Antarctic with him, Scott took nineteen Manchurian ponies, 37 sledge dogs...and three tracked vehicles."

" can be fed on dog," [Amundsen explained.] "One can reduce one's pack little by little, slaughtering the feebler ones and feeding the chosen with them."

Scott's opinion on that:

"One cannot calmly contemplate the murder of animals which possess such intelligence and individuality, which have frequently such endearing qualities..."

The narrator notes, "the motor sledges lasted for less than a week.  The ten ponies plodded south with their loads and were shot when their useful life was over and cached as dog food..."

[From Scott's Last Voyage, Through the Antarctic Camera of Herbert Ponting, Edited by Ann Savours, Copyright 1975.]


It's not easy, back East, to find a book that focuses on Amundsen.  It's much easier to find a dozen books that focus on Scott or Shackleton.  But I did find one, and while his pragmatism regarding the dogs may seem heartless on the face of it, the book conveyed the enormous burden of responsibility that Amundsen felt for the lives of his crew.  

Their safety, always paramount in his mind, motivated a year of absolutely unfailingly meticulous planning.   

Whatever one feels about dogs, ponies, and mad men, history strongly suggests that the same extraordinary level of attention to detail did not go into Scott's or Shackleton's famous expeditions.

There may be something chilling in Amundsen's plan.  But there's something perverse in the British that attracts them to disaster.   

While traveling from Malaysia to Thailand on a train, I sat with a young English woman, 21, who had spent four weeks somewhere in Indonesia.  She had suffered horrible dysentery and lived in a shack the entire time.  For a bathroom, she'd had had to crouch over a creek on two planks.  This was where she had spent most of her time.  

She was sorry, she told me, to be going back to England.  There was no one that she missed in England, no one she looked forward to seeing again.  She would be glad to see her horse again. 

There was this other Brit that we met in Nepal, an ex-pat living in Indonesia who had contracted Malaria several times on his travels; most horrendously, in the Amazon.  He seemed to collect Malarial antibodies the way old ladies collect spoons.  

To be fair, I met other British people, too.  Some were very good company, some were completely potty, but I am culling out a few choice individuals to illustrate a particular character trait. 

I didn't say this was science.

My mother has at times displayed a peculiar affinity for adversity.  There were one or two bicycling expeditions in my youth when we covered one hundred miles over a long weekend--following many weeks of training, which included chicken potpies and television.  We rode terrible bicycles, equipped with leaky tents and aluminum packets of dehydrated meals--the pictures on the packages looked so much more appealing than their contents.  

I'll say no more about those adventures, except that they involved a lot of sweat, tears, blood, and clowns.

I never quite took to it, the way I might have, if I had had more of that particular gene. 

I am tempted to point out that there was no Scandinavian blood shed in the Donner Party expedition.  I can't say for sure that Mr. Donner was of British extraction.  I do know that Reed, an early member of the party who had made it safely across, was an Irish immigrant who found himself desperately trying to scrape a rescue crew together to go back in search of his imperiled group.  It does vaguely resemble Shackleton's frustrated early efforts to commandeer a proper ice-pack breaking vessel to retrieve his fellow travelers back on Elephant Island.  

Don't ever misunderstand me on this point: I love Shackleton.  Love him, love him, love him.  It would almost be worth signing up for that expedition to be near him.  Almost.

Now here's a bit of Irish folly that requires very little interpretation.  A group of Irish and British guys tried to repeat Shackleton's 800 nautical-mile voyage to South Georgia Island in a lifeboat rigged for sail.  This is ranked among incredibly difficult and perilous sailing feats second only to Bligh's 47-day sail to the Dutch East Indies in a lifeboat, after being booted off the Bounty.  

Long story short, that's exactly what happened.  These people who were attempting to repeat Shackleton's sail to South Georgia Island lost the will to continue.  

Quel surprise!  

The reason?  Because they had a choice.  

Shackleton's only choice was to give up and die.

You can't will yourself to do these things.  Well, maybe you can.  I can't.  That's not the point, though.

The point is, I don't think the Scandinavians would sign up for that.  The Scandinavians, as far as I know (which is nowhere, to be honest), are focused on one thing:  keeping the farm.  

I don't know much about Scandinavians.  But I think that's partly because I am from the East Coast, where we are totally caught up in our British and Irish heroes, and their glorious pursuit of drama, rather than our less romantic, less pointlessly suffering, more grounded Viking brethren.  

There may remain some hurt feelings on the East Coast with regard to historic Viking plunder, etc. Maybe I could say more about that if I'd read HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION (from the Vikings).

I don't know how the Vikings conquered for so long and still did not get the best write-up in the history books. 

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