Mark Twain worked on Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven for forty years. He never finished it, but in 1909 published it as an Extract anyway, figuring death was near and he'd never get around to wrapping it up.

The afterword notes that even had he finished decades earlier, it probably wouldn't have seen print until around 1909 anyway, due to its sacrilegious nature. I dunno. It's very mild. Yes, it pokes fun at the wings-and-haloes version of heaven, but while I suppose that even today there are millions of people who take that very seriously, to me it feels a bit like scoring points off flat-earthers.

Twain's version of heaven is hardly much deeper, though. It is a larger-scale version of Earth, with all the same countries, only they're a million miles wide. Wishes come true, unless they involve other people, because even in heaven if you want to hug someone the other person might not be too fond of the idea. People still have bodies, and even though they can look however their owners want, they're mostly elderly, because hey, who wants to hang around with a bunch of kids. It goes on in that vein for a while. There were only two moments in Stormfield that made me take note:

"The shoemaker on earth that had the soul of a poet in him won't have to make shoes here." Here Twain takes on the basic problem of human existence: you only get a few years to live. Usually it's well short of a hundred. And even in developed countries, most people spend the bulk of their precious waking hours doing stuff they don't want to do.

This dovetails with an interesting thread that came out of the third debate between George Bush and John Kerry:

MODERATOR: Mr. President, what do you say to someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who's being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States?

BUSH: I'd say, Bob, I've got policies to continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to go get an education. Here's some help for you to go to a community college. You know, there's a lot of talk about how to keep the economy growing. We talk about fiscal matters. But perhaps the best way to keep jobs here in America and to keep this economy growing is to make sure our education system works. I went to Washington to solve problems. And I saw a problem in the public education system in America. They were just shuffling too many kids through the system, year after year, grade after grade, without learning the basics.

Let's put aside for a moment the fact that for some reason Bush decided to name the hypothetical unemployed person "Bob." Bush's response touched off an indignant response from the left-leaning political web journals:

Daily Kos:
Bush: everyone is stupid except the well-off
Anyone notice how Bush's answer to everything was "education"? So if you are unemployed, it's because you're uneducated.

Let's outline this. Bush said you lost your job because you're stupid. Then he said you're stupid because elementary and secondary schools failed you.

Bush: There Is Outsourcing Because We Are Dumb

Now, sure, the left is supposed to be on the side of the proletariat and everything, but we're also supposed to be part of the "reality-based community," remember? Let's look at the sort of jobs we're talking about. There've been plenty of stories about the loss of manufacturing jobs in "swing states" like Ohio. Poking around online I see stories about people losing their jobs working in factories making ball bearings, rubber gloves, industrial pressure washers. Now let me ask you: who takes these jobs because they want to? Who says, "Well, I went ahead and got the MD, but y'know, what I really want to do is make industrial pressure washers"? True, an associate's degree is not going to be the difference between a factory job and a seat in the Google commissary. Fortunately, I have no obligation to defend the specifics of what Bush said. (And if I did, I could always fall back on his strategy of denying he'd made the comments even knowing full well they were on tape.) But the general point, I think, still stands. In the end, it does come down to education.

Why do factory workers lose their jobs? The main reason is that corporations chase cheaper labor, occasionally in poorer states but usually in the Third World. To stop them, you can either let labor here get cheaper (the much-discussed "race to the bottom" that would bring to America the sort of poverty found in India and Brazil) or you can try to stop the practice, which would at least in the short term torpedo the economy. If manufacturers had to pay workers more than a few cents a day, cheap products like the Chinese goods at Wal-Mart would cost more, people would buy less stuff, demand would go down, and so you'd lose the jobs anyway. A case can be made that the economy needs to be remade from the ground up and that short-term pain is the only way to avoid long-term disaster... but be that as it may, it's not going to happen. John Kerry has said he would knock down laws that actively encourage the practice of moving operations overseas, and that's about as far as US policy is going to go in that direction even in the best-case scenario for labor. Throw in automation and increased productivity and such, and it looks a lot like the American factory job is soon to be a thing of the past.

And really, shouldn't that be a good thing? I mean, which is the bigger problem: losing your job making rubber gloves, or having had to take the job in the first place? Having spent eight hours of your life, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, for however many years, on an assembly line? The universe began, eighteen billion years passed, you were born, you spend most of your days making ball bearings, and then you die? That's a life?

Sure, it beats starvation. And as the question was phrased — what do you say to someone who's lost a job — talking big-picture about education is a good way to get punched in the face. It doesn't do Bob any good to say that his fate was pretty much sealed when he was sixteen and flunked algebra for the third time. Except, well... it was. I've had students in my test prep classes whose reading comp scores are dismal and who want to know how they can get them up really fast, and the most truthful answer is, go back in time to kindergarten or so, and this time as you're growing up spend several hours a week reading for fun, because now you lack the skills and you can't develop them in four weeks. The retraining programs Bush was talking about are designed to address the desperate lament that crops up in just about every one of these factory stories: "I don't know how to do anything else!" But the success of these programs is limited by what the people enrolled in them are capable of being retrained to be. And that's largely a function of education.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm in a fairly unusual situation. As far as my balance sheet is concerned, I'm poor. I juuuuust make it out of the bottom fifth — economically, Aldous Huxley would call me a Delta Minus. I live in a town full of shuttered mills and crumbling factories. It's the poorest city in Massachusetts. There are areas of town, I've heard the local police say, where the adults are so far gone with the crack and whatnot that the children are basically feral. My particular street is not that bad — it's still a working-class area, but the people who live here have steady blue-collar jobs. Some of them work twelve hours a day six days a week to make ends meet. But not me. I could hardly be less like them. Why am I here? Because I don't want to be a shoemaker with the soul of a poet. I figure, y'know, I only get the one life, and I want to spend most of my time writing, reading, programming, working on various projects. I don't want to spend a lot of time doing something I hate to make ends meet. So I don't. I've never had a full-time job. I have a part-time job that's actually pretty fun, engages my intellect, and pays well enough that I can sleep in most days and still pay my bills. And what's more...

...because I am well-educated, I have the security of knowing that if ever I abruptly feel the need to change this state of affairs, I can. I'm like the girl in Pulp's song "Common People": the day I tire of the slacker life, I can bust out a 180 on the LSAT, go to law school, get myself a JD, and get a job that'd put me comfortably in the top fifth. But Bob can't. Why not? Maybe through no fault of his own — maybe, as Atrios put it, he grew up in an area like, well, Holyoke, and his elementary and secondary schools failed him. Or maybe he grew up somewhere with perfectly good schools and he just blew them off. As a teacher, I have seen innumerable cases of this: kids who are relatively privileged but who will nevertheless be spending the next thirty years at the Stop & Shop because they couldn't be bothered to pay attention in class.

Which brings me to the second bit of Stormfield I found worthy of note. Not only will heaven allow people to spend their time doing what they find fulfilling, Twain writes, but they will be celebrated according to their merits. Shakespeare and Homer have to sprinkle a path of rose petals before a tailor from Tennessee who dabbled in poetry. Acclaimed as the greatest military genius in history is a Boston bricklayer: "everybody knows that if he had had a chance he would have shown the world some generalship that would have made all generalship before look like child's play and 'prentice work." In short, Twain later puts it, in heaven a man gets rewarded for "what he would have been" had not circumstance intervened.

But this seems to me to contradict Twain's point in What Is Man? that people can't take credit for what they are. Innate ability is just a gift; hard work is merely the outgrowth of happening to have a predisposition to work hard. In either case, says What Is Man?, environment has the bulk of the say in how one's life will turn out — but it therefore seems to me that trying to set things right by taking environment out of the equation is absurd, because there's no such thing as what you would have been without being in an environment. There IS no being outside an environment — no Sein without Dasein.

This second point does make for an interesting angle on Bob's plight, though. In the debate, Kerry responded to Bush's answer by saying, "I want you to notice how the president switched away from jobs and started talking about education principally" — suggesting that Bush was just dodging the question and jumping on what seemed like the nearest talking point. Which, of course, he was, but I couldn't help but notice that Bush's rhetorical flailings had led him straight to my top issue. In a speech a couple of days later, Bush said, "In the final debate I talked about the vital link between education and jobs. The senator didn't seem to get it." I agree there's a vital link. If we didn't live in a country where people regularly vote down tax increases to keep public schools afloat, if we didn't live in a country where education is widely despised and the president mocks people for understanding math and speaking foreign languages, then maybe Bob would have gone to a decent school, and maybe he would have been motivated to actually learn stuff while there. And perhaps he wouldn't have lost his job because he wouldn't have had a job assembling industrial pressure washers in the first place. Maybe he would have cured cancer instead.

Even so, no matter what Twain says, when back in our world Bob does get laid off from the factory job, and then dies of a preventable illness because he didn't have any health insurance... we shouldn't greet him in heaven by thanking him for curing cancer.

Photographer Jock Sturges has a new book out called Notes, and whereas the trend up through his 2000 book was toward larger and larger volumes, this one's quite small. It's also mostly limited to works of the past three years or so, meaning that the narrative aspect of flipping from page to page and watching Sturges's subjects grow up is largely absent. In its place are the titular notes in which Sturges describes his process and short essays by people whom he has photographed over the years.

These will probably be very interesting to most people who pick up this book. But I found myself in the same fix with Notes as with the Nirvana box set. Just as I'm such a Nirvana fanboy that I already owned most of the obscure B-sides and outtakes that make up the box set, I have followed Sturges's work avidly enough, chasing down every interview and article I could find, that I was already familiar with most of the material about his background, motivation and process. I'd even encountered several of the photographs before, having seen them posted on the web sites of various galleries in the years before Notes was published. So I'm really in no position to say what someone new to this stuff might make of it — like the Shakespeare professor who knows every play backwards and forwards and can recite it from memory but no longer has any idea what it'd be like to see it for the first time.

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