Thursday, February 27, 2014

Family Values and Piracy

The second half of Theodosia and the Pirates -- The War Against Spain --  is not so much a romance, but a story about family life against a backdrop of world conquest, colonization of a new island, the meting out of justice and receiving injustice in return, exile, diminished circumstances, and a new life as a respectable, productive middle class family. This is not primarily a book about sea battles and burning buildings on the shore, although there is some of that, too. It is more about family values than it is about the fires of first love, although there is a bit of that as well.

Next month I will be revealing our new cover with a stunning illustration by Colleen Dick and everything will be gearing up for the release of the new book. But for now, let me say that I don't think people have given much thought to what it is like to be a good parent and a pirate at the same time. No, it's not  a joke. I'm perfectly serious.

Jean Laffite was a privateer, a liberator, a protector, a husband and a father. He had three children by his first wife and two by his last wife. And there may have been some other children born on the wrong side of the blanket, but I'm not writing about that.

Jean Laffite and his second wife Emma Mortimore and their two sons, Jules and Glenn
painting by Manoel J. de Franca

Imagine being asked by your little boy why it is all right to pillage and loot. What would you answer? Would you say that you only go against evil empires, like Britain and Spain? Would you say that what you do is good, because the enemy is bad? Would you tell him that you treat women and children and the downtrodden with ultimate courtesy, but that the people you hurt deserve it? And if you said that, how much of it would you yourself believe?

Today on my Facebook feed, there was a discussion of Vikings. Apparently, the History Channel is running a series about Vikings. I have not seen it. I don't have cable. But people seem to be fascinated by the violence and the family dynamics of what they term "mafia-like" arrangements, and some of them are talking about having Viking ancestors, but at the same time saying that they were just farmers.

I don't want to make any statements about the life and morals of Vikings one way or another. But I do think that there's something that most of my acquaintances are overlooking about their own mode of making a living: almost all of them are a little like Vikings, except that there is a veneer of respectability that hides this fact.

"First do no harm." That is the mantra that most people adopt. But how many of us live by it? How many could explain to our children what we do for a living and why it is okay?

Take one of the most respected profession in the world: teachers. I have been a teacher myself, and I taught on the university level in Taiwan. But who or what paid for my fees? Even though I was working at private universities, did you know that the government of Taiwan had to authorize the universities to hire me as an assistant professor? There was so much red tape! And in the end I was issued a government document allowing me to teach . Behind all this was a complicated system that certified students, teachers and the validity of knowledge. And all at the point of a gun!

 I'm not being critical of Taiwan, when I point this out. All the countries I've ever lived in and all the countries I have visited have had some such a system, if not on the university level, then certainly for elementary education. If your work is regulated by the government and funded by taxes or coerced payments, you, my friend, are a pirate!

If you are a teacher, chances are you are profiting from some combination of government coercion and expropriation. If you are an elementary or high school teacher in a United States public school system, then you are probably paid with tax dollars, even those taken from people who have no children. If you teach at a private school, you probably still received some kind of certification that said you were allowed to teach and somebody else could not. The mandatory education laws indirectly send money into the coffers of private institutions as well as public one.

I have been a lawyer. That, too, involved government certification by the State of Texas where I practiced. I was part of a state-run monopoly on the practice of law. Are you a doctor? A registered nurse? A social worker? An insurance agent? A farmer? There are government subsidies, government monopolies and government coercion involved in all those professions. People can't help being dragged into these things, because it's everywhere.  If you are a retailer, chances are you are actively collecting sales taxes from your customers, because if you refuse, you will be shut down. We are all of us victims of piracy, but we are also willing participants. Where did your money come from? Are you sure it is clean? Would you walk the plank rather than join a government program that allows you to earn a living?

People revile welfare recipients, but they look the other way when the local grocer pockets the welfare recipient's money. It's almost impossible, in every line of business, not to somehow have gotten one's gain from someone else's illicit plunder. And even if you are clean yourself, the people you do business with are not, so that in some way we are all part of it.

"But I offer valuable services!" we may protest. "I work hard!" Doesn't everybody? "But the services I offer are needed. I help people!" Doesn't everyone?

Privateers help people, too, but they do so without leeching off the people they help. The good thing about privateers is that they do not plunder the people they are protecting. Unlike the local police officer and the military who serve us while living off our earnings without our consent, a privateer protects us from others by robbing others. Is it fair to those others? They probably don't think so. But at least it is honest.

And yet how do you explain that to a little boy? How do you teach him to respect others, not to steal or bully or abuse, when what you are doing yourself looks an awful lot like armed robbery? That's a big part of what "Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain" is all about.

So when you think of Vikings or your Viking ancestors, think of that!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Traditional Command Structure

Some people believe that anarchy is bad, because it leads to chaos. Those people cling to authoritarian regimes and institutions, because they think that is the only way order can be maintained. In fact, anarchy, if left to take its natural course, leads to traditional command structure in social groups. The problem with authoritarianism isn't the command structure. The problem is that natural selection processes have ceased to function. In an authoritarian regime, the command hierarchy has calcified into something that no longer functions.

In chimpanzee groups, leadership is fluid. In hunter-gatherer societies, people follow leaders only to the extent that they believe a particular individual whom they are following is going the right way. But as civilization becomes more entrenched, people stop judging for themselves what is true and what is false, and they delegate their thinking to institutions, traditions and authorities.

Real dominance is something a leader earns. It is not something inherited by virtue of race, sex, age, or social rank in a highly structured society. Yet when people talk about traditional family roles, they somehow assume that authority is what leads to dominance. Men dominate women, adults dominate children and employers dominate employees as a result of the structure of society, as opposed to the structure building itself out of the function that each person plays in the immediate social circle.

In Theodosia and the Pirates the difference between natural dominance and false authoritarianism is highlighted. The American Navy has the authority, but not the leadership ability to thwart the British in the War of 1812. The privateers under Jean Laffite have no authority, but they have the ability to do so and the true support of the people. Joseph Alston has the authority to command the local militia, by virtue of being the Governor of South Carolina, but not the ability to exercise that command. James Madison has the authority to secure a declaration of war, but not the natural abilities of a true warrior like Aaron Burr to be a good supreme commander.

Even within the sphere of the family, there is a difference between natural marriage and legal marriage. In a legal marriage in the nineteenth century, a man commanded his wife by virtue of her oath of obedience. However, many men were unequal to the task, as being male did not necessarily give them natural dominance over the women they married. Arguably, in many ways Dolley Madison was a better leader than her husband in times of war, even though she was not his intellectual equal as a scholar.

By the same token, though Theodosia was a far better scholar than Jean Laffite, she was not his equal in leadership under fire. It is for this reason, and not because of any authoritarian command issues or sexist preconceptions, that in this novel, Theodosia accepted Jean's leadership.

Excerpt from page 210 of Theodosia and the Pirates

Today, with all the egalitarian changes in the law that we have seen take place, people are still confused about these issues. The majority support authoritarianism in science and in education, because they fear anarchy. They do not seem to realize that if we just allow nature to take its course, the right leader will always arise in a time of crisis. People will follow not because they are compelled to do so by fear of reprisal, but because they want to do the right thing.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Role of the Government in War and Literature

Recently, we have had a series of revelations about CIA activity domestically and abroad. These new facts that have come to light are not as a result of leaks, but simply because it is such old news that now it is seen as history. We are allowed to know about it, whereas we are not supposed to know about the Snowden leaks. There is nothing anyone can do to change the past, so there is no "national security" rationale for keeping these things a secret any longer. Also, most of the participants are dead. Nobody can be taken to task.

A Battle Scene from the Shanameh by Ferdowsi

One of the revelations was that the CIA was responsible for the coup in Iran that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh and replaced him with the Shah. The motivation for this intervention was to prevent the nationalization of primarily British owned oil companies. Here is a news source:

As anyone who has followed international events knows, this American intervention precipitated a series of events in Iran that eventually led it from being a relatively enlightened, secular western-leaning power to becoming a dark theocracy with very few civil rights. These developments worked not only to the detriment of the average Iranian citizen. They also created a fierce enemy of the United States in Iran. Most of the consequences were negative in every possible way.

If you know nothing whatever about it, a brief look at this clip from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi will get you up to speed.

The other revelation is about the CIA's interference domestically within the United States in shaping and changing the direction of American literature. The CIA used government money to foster a literary movement through the Iowa Writers' Workshop that flattened writing and prevented anyone who wrote about greatness from ever being published and read as "serious literature." You can read all about it here:

Now, there are people who believe that the government should be involved in literature and espionage, but that perhaps these particular choices by the CIA are unfortunate. I am not one of them. There are people who think that we should beat all our swords into plowshares, and I am not one of those, either. I think that we need people who make war in the same way that we need people who make love and write great, epic works of literature. But the government must stay out of it. The government should step aside and let the warriors make war, the lovers make love, and the writers make heroic poetry. Theodosia and the Pirates is a novel -- a big, unflattened novel of ideas -- that makes this point.

Jean Laffite and not Commodore Patterson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The United States Navy was more in league with the British than with the privateers who saved it from destruction. The taxes that smugglers refused to pay saved the American consumer money and also financed the gunpowder that was needed to beat the British. The real pirates were in the government that confiscated goods and sold them for a profit.

Who should pay for waging war? I wrote about that here:

Read Theodosia and the Pirates. No spy agency paid me to write it. You might learn a thing or two about why taxing citizens to pay for war is not a good idea. But we don't need to give up on the desire for someone to stand up to international bullies wherever they are found. Real heroes don't require government support. They just need to be left alone to do what comes naturally.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Infant Mortality

Infant and child mortality is a big issue in Theodosia and the Pirates. The death of Gampy, Theodosia's son, is an event that casts a long shadow. It's not something she gets over. The death of a child is not something anybody gets over, no matter how well adjusted they seem.

The thing that made me think to write about this now is that I recently had a new comment on a very old hub of mine. It was an article entitled Misconceptions About Teenaged Mothers. I wrote that article long before I started writing my novel, Theodosia and the Pirates, but I have been obsessed by Theodosia Burr Alston for years, and I did mention her in the article. I mentioned both Theodosia and Laura Ingalls Wilder as examples of successful teenaged mothers who had respectable educations, good relationships with their fathers and who did not overpopulate the planet with their children, despite having a first child while yet a teenager.

I've had lots of comments on that hub over the years, but because after the Panda Google Update traffic to that site plummeted, the stream of comments dwindled down to zero for a couple of years. Then recently someone left this comment:

Your information about Laura Ingalls Wilder is really not very accurate. Her father did "interfere" in her courtship, and greatly disapproved of the age difference between her and her future husband. He made them wait until she turned 18 to marry. She did indeed have her first child at 19. While not supervising her child when she was about 3, the child managed to burn down the house- this was right after Laura had her second child, who died.
     Did the kid die because she was young? Probably not, it was a common occurrence of the time- but interesting that you would fail to mention it. Also, Rose, the child that lived (and who burned down the house) reportedly grew up to be a seriously depressed and unhappy woman, who blamed her unhappiness on her childhood of poverty and her relationship with her mother. Rose also made references to her mother not being a "grown-up" while Rose was a child, and this greatly distressed Rose.
      Read "Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder" rather than Wikipedia for a slightly more factual accounting of her life.
I never even bothered to mention the birth and death of Laura's second child because to me it was such a common thing that a baby died shortly after birth and never had a name, so that it never even occurred to me at the time.  In the Ingalls family, all the baby boys seemed to die in infancy. The reason Ma and Pa only had girls was because when a boy was born to Caroline Ingalls, it did not survive long. Laura's baby boy died the same way. When Rose Wilder Lane gave birth in 1910 -- in a hospital -- to her one and only son, that baby died as well. 

I don't think it was Caroline's fault at all that her son died. I don't think it was Laura's fault that her only son died, and I do not think it was Rose's fault that her son died as well. The idea that any of these deaths could have anything to do with neglect is something that would only occur to a modern reader, who has no understanding of infant mortality or how prevalent it used to be.

When I was studying linguistics, some of the field workers I met said it was common for aborigines in the Amazon  not to name their child until it was three, because they didn't consider them people until they had a pretty good chance of survival. And this linking of personhood with survival rate is also a consideration when looking at statistics on life expectancy. If you include all those nameless babies who died before they even had a chance to live in the statistics, it paints a confusing picture of how long people actually lived who survived infancy and childhood. When they tell us aborigines have a life expectancy of forty, we need to ask if they included the little ones who were never named in the list of people's whose lives were averaged.

But Gampy was named. He survived infancy. He was ten when he died. He was named Aaron Burr Alston. Yet he named himself Gampy, because he loved his grandfather!

Was it Theodosia's fault that Gampy died of malaria? Of course, not. Did she blame herself? Probably. Most mothers do.

But the other thing to consider is this, that if he had been a slave child on her husband's plantation, rather than a free son of a rich owner, he probably would not have died at ten. He probably would have died within two weeks of birth, unless he happened to have the immunity to malaria built into his system

In my novel, Theodosia and the Pirates, I let the fictional character, Hattie, make that observation.

The sad thing about infant mortality is that while it kills individuals, it makes populations stronger and healthier. That is why the slaves could stand the heat in the swamps, but the South Carolina free militiamen fell like flies when mustered in the summer of 1813.

If you want to learn more about this, read Theodosia and the Pirates. I changed the timing of some of the events, but there is enough truth left in the story for it to matter. After you read the novel, you will also want to do some investigation of your own into the historical background.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Synopsis of Theodosia and the Pirates in Chinese

Are you a student of history and also of the Chinese language? Did you know that Jean Laffite was enthralled by the I Ching?  Not only he, but also his daughter Denise Laffite Little, quoted from the I-Ching in their personal scrapbook notations.

In the 19th century, it was common for people to keep scrapbooks in which they copied poetry and philosophy that appealed to them, interspersed with clippings from the newspaper and very personal family mementos. It was the closest thing to a Facebook page that they had, and sometimes one person would write in another person 's notebook or scrapbook. If you are interested in this, you can find out more about it at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty, Texas, where many of the artifacts concerning the life of Jean Laffite and his family are stored.

Even before I knew this about Jean Laffite, I imagined that as a world traveler, he had come across some aspects of Chinese culture and being an open-minded speculative thinker, he may have adopted some of what he learned. So in Theodosia and the Pirates, I had Jean Laffite deal with Theodosia's morning sickness by applying pressure to the correct spot, according to acupuncture, to relieve her nausea. In the book, he says he learned this from a Chinese sailor.

Just as Jean Laffite was influenced by Chinese culture, I also wish to have an influence back on Chinese culture, so it is my great desire that my novel, Theodosia and the Pirates, should one day be translated into Chinese.

So far though. all that I have managed to accomplish in that directions is to translate the synopsis of Theodosia and the Pirates into Chinese.

In the following book trailer, the narrative is the Chinese synopsis.

The text of the synopsis, written in traditional Chinese characters, can be found here:
Here is a short glossary of unusual terms or proper names within the synopsis, in case you are a beginning student of Chinese and need some help:
西奧多西婭 -- Theodosia
海盜 -- pirates
愛國者 -- Patriot
讓·拉菲特 -- Jean Laffite
新奧爾良之 -- New Orleans
英國 --Britain 
奧多西婭 -- Spain
伯爾 -- Burr
亞歷山 -- Alexander
漢密爾頓 -- Hamilton
國稅局 -- Revenue Service
麥迪遜 -- Madison
火藥 -- gun powder

Let me know how you do reading the text and listening to the video, if you are a student of Chinese. If you are native speaker of Chinese, please let me know how the text can be improved.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Nature of Love

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and I posted a dry article about types of love. Today, I would like to share a discussion about the nature of love from Theodosia and the Pirates. I read from this part of the book to Bow a long time ago, and all the comments I got were about chimpanzees. So I am going to embed the video here for people who are actually capable of attending to the content. Bow, I think, was more interested in the novel than those who watched the video!

You can follow along as I read with these excerpt snapshots from the novel:

After you have listened to the reading and/or read the snapshot excerpts, think about the following questions:

  1. Do you approve of teenaged marriages, like those of Jean Laffite with his first wife Christina Levine or of Theodosia Burr with her husband Joseph Alston? Why or why not?
  2. Who was right about the proper age for men to marry -- Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin?
  3. What sort of love do you think Theodosia and Jean had in this section of the book? Attachment and Bonding or Limerent? Or was it some other sort?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Connections between Theodosia Burr Alston and Jean Laffite

The first time I met Theodosia, I was reading Gore Vidal's Burr. And she had a bit scene. She was not an important character at all. It was during the period when Jefferson and Burr were tied. Theodosia was about to go off on her honeymoon. She was about to be married, and she said to her father that he should grab the presidency while he still could, and he should not keep his promise to Jefferson. And he made some kind of joke about her honeymoon or her wedding night. It was a very kind of light banter. That scene made a really big impression on me, so that years later, I decided to read up on Theodosia herself.

And having read her entire life story, the tragedy of her death or disappearance -- whatever it was that happened to her after she boarded that ship The Patriot -- I decided that someday I was going to rescue her. I was going to give her a happily ever after, because I thought she deserved it.

Now, the first time I met Jean Laffite, I was reading the Journal of Jean Laffite. And the reason I was reading it was that I was looking for someone to rescue Theodosia. And at the time my interest in Jean Laffite was contrived. The idea of bringing them together was contrived. But as I got to know Jean Laffite better from his own words and his own description of the world he lived in, and  not just the great deeds that he did, I saw that there was a connection. And the connection involved Texas, the plans to conquer it. It involved being a filibuster. It involved being very patriotic and supporting Jefferson, and there was one person who appeared in both stories. It took me a while to figure this out. Because every biography that I had ever read of Theodosia mentioned a compliment paid to her by Edward Livingston.

It was something to do with being careful because her beauty might ignite the sparks -- or cause sparks -- and ignite a French frigate that he was escorting her on. Now I didn't understand what the significance of this compliment was, because, frankly, I didn't know who Edward Livingston was. I'd never heard of him, until he appeared again in the Journal of Jean Laffite. And Jean refers to him as his lawyer, Ed Livingston. It took me a while to figure out that was the same Ed -- the same guy.

In Theodosia's biographies, mentioning Edward Livingston was like name dropping. It would be equivalent to someone saying that someone from my period had been paid a compliment by Henry Kissinger or Alexander Haig. Now years in the future, nobody is going to remember who Henry Kissinger was. He just wasn't important enough to appear in long term history. But for the short term he was an important guy. Same thing for Al Haig. Edward Livingston was extremely important during the period when Theodosia and Jean Laffite were alive, but nobody really remembers him now. Lots of things are named after him, but if you ask a school child who Edward Livingston was, you're going to draw a blank. And most grown ups don't know, either. As I said, he was mentioned in the biographies as a kind of name dropping to show how important Theodosia was and how she was admired by the important people of the day. Although it does fall flat on the ears of someone who has no idea who this guy is.

But when Jean Laffite mentions Edward Livingston, he's not name dropping. Edward Livingston was actually somebody who was involved in his business and his life, and he really didn't feel that Edward Livingston was more important than himself, or that Edward Livingston's contributions were more important than those of Jean Laffite.

So, one of the things that I learned after I got to know Jean Laffite better was how very much in the same world he and Theodosia were living. Did they ever meet? I don't know. But it's entirely possible that they did. Whether before or after she disappeared, I don't know.

This book is a romance, and it's fictional. But if you really want to understand what happened in those days, what the power struggles were that people were facing, and possibly the effect of the politics of the day on what is happening to us right now, you should read it. It isn't just fantasy.  It's about connections that you haven't made yet -- that I hadn't made yet, until I met Theodosia and Jean..

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Criticism of Theodosia and the Pirates

As you probably know if you've ever read a synopsis of Theodosia and the Pirates, it's a speculative historical romance based on the idea that when she was lost at sea, Theodosia Burr Alston may have met Jean Laffite and fallen in love with him, and the two of them may then have gone off to save the United States from the evil British together.

Realistic? Maybe not. But romantic, exciting and patriotic, definitely. And yet there were those who found this notion offensive.

None of the Jean Laffite aficionados was offended by this plot device, but Theodosia apologists were. Is there a double standard in play here? And why do people like having pirates as bad guys in historical novels set in the War of 1812, when it is the British who behaved badly toward the American public?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Cover Artwork is by Lanie Frick

The cover illustration for Theodosia and the Pirates is by Lanie Frick. It is a painting of Theodosia and Jean Laffite aboard a ship together.

Suzy Blackburn, the model, Lanie Frick, the artist and Aya Katz the author
You can find out more about the process by which the painting was commissioned and painted in this article:

To order the book on Amazon, click on the image of the cover below: