Sunday, June 22, 2014

Why Being a Sea Captain is not a Realistic Career Today

Howard Pyle's "Walking the Plank" 1887 -- Harper's
from the wikipedia
Very few people will tell you that they mourn the passing of privateering. But sometimes when you ask a small child what he wants to be when he grows up, he will say "a pirate", and then all the grownups in the room laugh, and they suggest alternate careers, like being a lawyer or an accountant or a college professor.

But did you know that the privateering meme is so deeply ingrained into the American consciousness that when people who did grow up to teach in college and are now feeling the chains of wage slavery joke about alternative career choices, the specter of privateering immediately rears up its head?

“But I would have chosen what, actually—a sea captain?” Gregory wondered with a laugh. “Everyone is struggling.” 

This is a quote from a long article about the plight of adjunct lecturers. If you want to read the whole article, here is the link:

So the question is: if you don't go for one of those middle class bastions of respectability in your career choice, if studying comparative literature or French language is not an option, what is left? And right off the bat this woman asks whether she should have trained to be a sea captain.

It may sound like a facetious response, but think about it: if you did want to be a sea captain, where could you go to make that dream come true? Join the Navy or the Coast Guard and become a government employee? Or work for a cruise line or an oil company? None of those positions offers the scope and personal satisfaction that being an independent sea captain used to bring. Why? Because the freedom that this line of work used to offer is gone. No more prize money. No more payment for shipments in silver and gold.  People do not own their businesses. By and large, they work for others, and they do it within the structure of collective entities, not sole proprietorships. And they get paid salaries, not a share of the loot.

 How many independent sea captains do you know? It's not just that privateering or cargo shipping are not as respectable as being a college professor. It's that none of us have any idea how one would go about it. If any child wanted to sign up as cabin boy (or girl), where would they go?  It's a career opportunity that is no longer open to anyone.

In Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain  we don't just witness the end of privateering. We see the beginning of the end for many other lines of work that used to involve sole proprietorships, from spinning and weaving to cabinet making. How many spinsters do you know -- and I am not talking about the term for an unmarried woman. How many weavers? Even among lawyers, those who work for others are outnumbered by those who have thriving independent practices.

The way salaries are paid has also undergone a massive change. While the common unskilled laborer in 1817 might have earned a dollar a day for his time, most were not paid for their time at all. On Jean Laffite's vessels, the share of each crew member in the prize money earned is spelled out in terms of a percentage of the take. Jean Laffite considered this an "egalitarian" arrangement, because everybody had an opportunity to earn more when the tour was more successful. But the down side was that they got nothing if there were no profits.

Back in the days of independent sea captains, people identified with the ventures they worked on, because they understood that if the ventures failed, they would not get paid at all. Today, people expect to be paid for their time. And when that happens, it turns out that the time of adjunct professors is worth less than the time of cashiers at McDonalds.

And yet.... It's really not all about money. People do seek a line of work in which they can have personal satisfaction, which is why the adjunct professors may complain, but they stay at those low paying jobs. They don't want to work at McDonalds, and they are willing to lose out on better pay to keep doing what they do.

But what if they could be sea captains, instead? I think then all bets would be off! When your teenaged child is looking for work this summer,  suggest looking into the cabin boy posts. Because that is where the money and the personal satisfaction can go hand in hand! After all, that's what Aaron Burr would have done if it were not for his Uncle Timothy who insisted he go to college to study Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Motherless Fathers of Motherless Daughters

Today is Father's Day, and as usual I will recommend to your reading two articles about famous fathers.The first is Aaron Burr:

The second is Jean Laffite.

This morning, it occurred to me that Aaron Burr and Jean Laffite had more in common as fathers than one might suppose: they were both brought up motherless, and they both became fathers to motherless children.

Aaron Burr remembered his mother to some extent, and what he did not remember was available for him to learn from the journal she left behind. 

Jean Laffite did not remember his mother at all, according the Journal of Jean Laffite. But he was lucky that he had his grandmother to raise him in his mother's stead. Jean Laffite said that he owed all his ingenuity to his grandmother.

Inscription on one of Laffite family Bibles
p. 220 of Stanley Clisby Arthur's book, Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover
Although Jean Laffite and Aaron Burr had no mothers to  raise them, they each came from strong families with a sense of  duty and a desire to raise children. Neither of them was abandoned, and each received a good education, according to the means and the understanding of the family.

In those days, there were no debtors' prisons for fathers who failed to pay child support. There were only debtors' prisons for people who failed to pay the debts that they owed to others which they had promised to pay. If a man did not support his children or wanted nothing to do with them, he was free to abandon them. The loss, society felt, was his own.

As a result, fathers who took care of their children did so out of a strong internal urge to support their families and to nurture their children. Both Jean Laffite and Aaron Burr were absentee fathers, in the sense that their work kept them away from their children for many months and years. But they were both involved in their children's lives, supporting them financially and in more personal ways.

In my two Theodosia and the Pirates books, I focus on the parallel relationships between Aaron Burr and Theodosia and Jean Laffite and Denise. Both Theodosia and Denise grew up without a mother, and both had a close relationship with their famous father.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Is Theodosia a Strong Woman?

I like Theodosia Burr. I would not have chosen her for my heroine, if I didn't. There has been a resurgence of interest in her recently, and some of it has to do with feminism.  But while I do see Theodosia as a strong, intelligent woman,  in my books she does not follow the model of the superhuman, super-aggressive Amazon warrior that we have recently  been inundated with in popular fiction.

In today's fiction, women have been eclipsing their male counterparts in war, sex, business and life. This is meant to be empowering to young women embarking on their lives and careers, but I think it can be damaging to have completely unrealistic expectations. Of course, there always have been women who were better than most men at these physical and aggressive feats, but not every woman is going to be a Martina Navratilova or an Annie Oakley or even a Joan of Arc. There have got to be some role models for women who are intellectual, but not athletic, who are smart but aren't sharp shooters, who can take care of themselves, but who welcome the help of someone even stronger when facing the greatest challenges of their lives and of their nation's life.

That's why I recruited Jean Laffite to play that role alongside Theodosia. Could Theodosia be coupled with a lesser man? Sure -- in reality, she was --  and when that happened she would have been more clearly dominant. But how acceptable would those results have been, both in terms of dramatic tension and in terms of personal  and even sexual satisfaction?

Because we have been led to believe that a woman can be strong only when the man she is with is less strong, there has been a backlash of sorts, especially in the depiction of romantic and sexual encounters. Some reviewers have even likened Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain to Fifty Shades of Grey, conflating dominance with sadism.

I see this as a real problem at present in our society, as well as in our fiction. In order to be dominant, a man need not be a sadist. In order to submissive, a woman need not be a masochist. Dominance is a completely different issue, and if you are confused about this, you should read this article.

Living with a male chimpanzee day in and day out, I have had to confront and face the issue of dominance, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what it is and what it is not.

Dominance  does not imply any kind of superiority, especially not intellectual superiority. It just means that the dominant one has taken charge of the situation, so that the less dominant need not deal with the housekeeping function of policing right-of-way. Dominant individuals often defer to those who are less dominant, if the relationship is a happy one.

Theodosia and the Pirates presents an alternative way of looking at many things: politics, religion, war and even domestic relations. Read the two books with an open mind, ready to be surprised. Because nothing in this story is what you would expect!

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Economic and Social Themes in The War Against Spain

Frederick August Wenderoth 1875, Little Terrier
Image from the Wikipedia
Jules' dog, Bandito,  probably looked a lot like this
If Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain is really about what I say it's about, namely,  patriotism, unrequited love of country and how war should be financed, why is it that those themes come to the fore in the second half of the novel much  better than they do in the first? A reader asked me this, and it was an intriguing question that I had to think about for a moment.

I mean, the story starts with a boy, a dog, a mother and father, and a rebellious teenaged stepdaughter. At first, the larger themes are obscured by the daily grind of family life, the small conflicts that come up between husbands and wives, children and parents, and even dogs and their masters. Why did I do that? Because what I'm really interested in is what it means to be free, what slavery consists of, how best to achieve justice, and how this affects all people in their every day lives. So the War Against Spain is really not about the War Against Spain, so much as the war within each person against what is keeping him down. Then, once we understand what we want as individuals, we can band together with our natural allies to try to get that.

Minor themes that feed into the larger ones are:

  •  What is piracy and how does it differ from privateering? What is cannibalism and how does it differ from eating? What is taxation and how does it differ from looting?
  •  What is marriage and the place of women in a family? Why does society favor wives over daughters? How best to protect a family? 
  •  What is justice? Why must it be swift? Why was dueling helpful? What sorts of wrongs should not be litigated?
  •  What does the corporate structure of businesses have to do with our current problems in an industrialized society?
  •  How did the Panic of 1819 come about?  How was it related to the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812?
  • What is wage slavery and why was the North in favor of it?
  •  What did Jean Laffite and Karl Marx have in common? 
  • Why is the idea of egalitarianism so different today from what it was in the 19th century?
I am going to be addressing these themes in this blog from time to time, and when I do, I will link to the relevant blog post in this list. So if you want to see how all the minor themes relate to the big theme, come back and check for links.

For the time being, here is an interesting link to an article that gives us a small hint on how Das Kapital has been reinterpreted over the years.

Jean Laffite considered himself a champion of  "liberal" thought. But  "liberal" back then meant something considerably different from what  "liberal" means today.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

When did Privateers Fall Into Disrepute?

Today's blogpost  is a transcript of a conversation  I had in the outer pen this afternoon, as depicted in this video.

When did privateering go into disrepute? I would say that it happened sometime after the War of 1812. And I would say that it wasn't a coincidence that it happened then, and that it was part of a concerted effort to change the way Americans looked at those who provided them with protection and military service.

Prior to the War of 1812, it was understood that while there was going to be a standing navy, there would not  be a standing army. And the Navy itself was  to be much smaller than the navy of a large empire, such as Great Britain. The idea was that the services provided by the American Navy could be supplemented by private enterprise, by private ship owners, private captains and private warriors who would perform the same services as the military of the competitors of the United States without affecting the taxpayer, without affecting the civil rights -- the civil liberties -- that were protected in the bill of rights. And that was why prior to War of 1812...

 -- Can I borrow this book, Bow? I want to show the people the book, okay? --

This is my second book in the Theodosia series. Bow was reading it, but he took very good care of it while he was reading it. And this is where you see the transformation happen. All of a sudden, privateers are not the good guys, anymore. And it's not just Jean Laffite, although he certainly was a victim in this change in the way the wind was blowing. But there were other privateers, American privateers, who were suffering the same fate. All of a sudden it was decided that only the government was going to be waging war, only the government would be involved in major defense or offense efforts, and that anyone who wanted to compete with the government was not welcome anymore -- even if that person, like Jean Laffite, saved the United States in the past.

[Bow starts to protest.]

--Okay. You can have the book back. You're welcome.