Roger At The Bookstore

Roger Conant called about 9:00.

"Good morning, Mark. I'm taking the Allard for a little spin over to Bromfield's. How would you like to go along? I'll pick you up a 10:00."

"That would be splendid, Roger. I'll be ready. See you at 10:00."

Roger seldom drove himself except when he took the Allard. Though I had always lusted to drive it, I never asked, though I suspect Roger would have happily let me, just to see me enjoying it. Still it was a thrill just to ride in it, and Roger certainly knew how to drive it.

He could do a lot of things that no one would suspect if they did not know him. I've known Roger since I first met him during a research project for NorseCom, but that's another story. Nevertheless, what I knew about him set me up for a big surprise.

Roger was the least violent individual I have ever known. I always thought of him as a kind of pacifist, because he loathed the very concept of war. He even told me force against another individual could always be avoided, even in cases of self-defense.

The trip to Bromfield's was exciting, but brief. "I'll be looking for a copy of that Rachel McDougle's new book, Corrections."

"Corrections!? Well, Roger, I didn't think you'd be interested in that drivel."

"I'm sure I'll be bored to death, but it's part of the research. It's very popular, so must be read."

"Roger. You can get the book online for much less. I'm sure you don't want to own that book."

"If I were going to read it for pleasure, which I'm sure would be as impossible as finding any pleasure in any of your books, I might read it online. But I want to get through it as fast as possible and I can turn paper pages faster than any program can scroll pages online."

The strange expression, "your books," which Roger used, refers to any books produced on this planet. That and similar expressions he used, "your politics," "your customs," and "your beliefs," for example, always meant the same thing, the politics, customs, or beliefs found on earth. I cannot now provide more explanation of why he used those expressions, but I'd become accustomed to them, as you should.

Bromfield's is a huge sprawling bookstore in the center of the East Side Mall. The moment we entered we were facing a huge display of books featuring today's "special," with the title on a huge sign above: "Pride of the South." Roger remarked with some disgust, "What Southerners are proud of, decent men are ashamed of."

Roger had not spoken loudly, but he wasn't at all discrete about it, and he has one of those voices that "carries."

We were just passing the display when a neatly dressed gentlemen stepped in front of us. His hair, beard, and mustache were dark gray; his suit a light gray; and he wore the expression of one perpetually offended by a bad smell.

"Sir!" he said authoritatively to Roger. "May I have a word with you?" It was more of a demand than a question.

"By all means," Roger said courteously.

"Your remark about Southern Pride has grievously offended me, sir. I am a Southerner, and the pride of a Southerner is his Honor above all other things. You have insulted that honor, you have insulted me, you have insulted the south."

"I see," is all the Roger said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some books to find."

"I will not excuse you, Sir," the gray haired man said firmly. "I demand satisfaction."

"Try the service desk," Roger finally said sarcastically, and walked away resolutely.

We found the book Roger was looking for, then we both browsed for a while, and Roger found a few more books.

"Roger, I know what you think of "our" books, and know you only read them for your research. Are none of them any good at all?"

"It depends on what you mean by good, Mark. Some of your history is interesting, and I have enjoyed some biographies, but not many. I enjoy some novels as well, but again not many, and never as, what you call, a diversion. I've never understood your expression, 'killing time.' To 'kill one's time,' is to, 'kill one's life.'

"One enjoyment I do have in your books is learning how your different languages are used to express ideas. It is one aspect of this world that is most interesting, and peculiar—the multiplicity of languages and the very odd fact that most people never learn more than one. Even those who are considered multi-lingual only learn three or four."

This last can only be understood if you know Roger is a polyglot. I have no idea how many languages he knows, but in all of my experience, I've never known roger to not know the language of anything written or spoken by anyone. I cannot tell you how well he knows those languages, but know that whenever he uses a language of another, they apparently have no trouble understanding him.

"With rare exception," Roger continued, "my only enjoyment in reading on this planet is what I can learn from it about the people of this planet—even though most of it is quite horrid."

"Was that business with the Gent and his, 'honor,' an example?"

"Oh yes. It's an excellent example of the worst of human thinking. It's not a good word, honor. It has only one good meaning—when it refers to an individual's integrity. Then it only means one's honesty and keeping one's word."

"The other meaning of the word is quite bad. It refers to nothing, or if it refers to anything, it refers to one's reputation, or what the Japanese refer to as 'face.' In that case, "defending one's honor" means the same as the Japanese, 'saving face.'

"But there is an even more despicable version of this honor business. It is the source of endless evil. It's the belief that one's value and importance somehow come from one's history, who one's forbears were, or where one was born or lives. That kind of so-called honor is nothing more than second-hand borrowed hubris. It is a false pride, not in what one has ever done or accomplished or made of himself, but in what he believes his culture or society are, as though one's culture could make something valuable out of a piece of trash. The most worthless and useless bums weep openly for their pride in that kind of honor.

"All kinds of fools and thugs love that kind of honor. Barroom brawls, gang fights, duals in their day, and all wars claim some form of this delusional honor as their justification. Many of the most cruel and vile things human beings have ever done to one another have been done for the sake of that horror called honor.

"Decent men of strength and character are too independent, and too busy actually doing something of value, to care what others think or say about them. Fighting for honor is a display of childish insecurity or arrested adolescence. Large swaths of the American South are totally infected with it—and they are proud of it!" he concluded with a distinct note of disgust.

"What do you say we grab some lunch," Roger asked while standing in line to make his purchases.

Of course I agreed.

"I know a place that has the greatest chili-dogs in the world. However, they don't serve any kind of wine, I'm sorry to say."

I chuckled to myself. Only Roger would think of having wine with chili-dogs.

When we finally got outside, the "gray" gentleman was waiting for us. We ignored him and began walking past him to our car.

The man suddenly grabbed Roger's shoulder, probably intending to force Roger to turn around and face him. I could not see exactly what happened because it happened so quickly. All I saw was the big man lying on the ground with a bloodied face, holding his arm, and blubbering like a baby, "your broke my arm, you broke my arm."

While I was looking at the pathetic thing on the ground, and thinking about helping him up, Roger had proceeded to the car and was patiently waiting for me. Some other people on the walk had come to help the man by this time, so I hurried over to the Allard and climbed in. "Did you really break his arm, Roger?" I asked when I had closed the door, and Roger had begun backing out of the parking space.

"I may have. It was not my intention, but accidents happen," is all he said with a kind of finality that said the subject was closed.

On the way to have our chili-dogs—without wine—I tentatively broached the subject of defense.

"Roger, you have always spoken against using force, even in defense. I do not understand what you did back there."

"Back there? Oh, you mean the bookstore. I didn't use force, Mark. Not using force only pertains to relationships between human beings. When your insect repellent fails to keep a mosquito from biting you and its proboscis is already in your flesh, there is nothing to do but to slap it."

"But, Roger. The man was really hurt and bleeding."

"What of it, Mark? Who worries about a mosquito's fate after it's been slapped and brushed off?

I have to say, I was frankly annoyed by Roger's remark.

"Aren't you dehumanizing a man to call him a mosquito."

"If anything, I'm insulting mosquitoes. It's their nature to force themselves on people and suck their blood. It is a human being's nature to use reason to guide all his actions. When a human being surrenders his ability to deal reasonably with other human beings, he has surrendered his nature as a human being—he has dehumanized himself."

Roger was right, of course, but I was still annoyed. Roger only smiled.

—Mark Halpern