A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. – Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Prologue 43-46)
As I’ve stated before, I’m often inspired by other bloggers; I’ll read a column and then use it as a springboard from which to go off in a slightly (or even completely) different direction. The most recent example of this was my column for March 18th, which was inspired by a February 27th essay of Dr. Laura Agustín’s. Interestingly, the mind of another person who read that column went in the same direction as mine did, imagining the KKK (Kristof, Kara and Kutcher) as Don Quixote-like figures tilting at windmills. But while I understood this to be my own train of thought which was merely set in motion by Dr. Agustín’s essay, this other person seems to have convinced himself that the metaphor actually appeared in her text (which it doesn’t). And while I understood the comparison to be an apt and truthful one, Robert Benz of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation was enraged by a woman ascribing agency to prostitutes and daring to question the right of men like the triple-K to “rescue” them against their will. She published his letter in her column of March 9th, and in the comment thread following it we discussed our slightly divergent views of chivalry. As I explained there, my own thought on it evolved like this:
I was a voracious reader of fairy tales, adventure stories and such as a child, and I’m sure it’s colored my thinking so that I tend to think of knights-errant as saving damsels from actual distress rather than voluntary situations they defined as distress for their own purposes. I fully realize that such situations were as rare then as they are now, but suspect that there were very few actual knights-errant in any time period, and more stories about fictional ones.
I’ve also written at length about my favorite cousin Jeff, who certainly thought of himself as a knight; unlike Kristof and Kara, however, he fully understood the difference between women who wanted (and asked for) help and those who did not, and even lectured me more than once about interfering in the lives of people who didn’t want my “help”. So I think my perception of “real” knighthood was influenced by him as well, and he became the standard to which I have compared all other men to this very day.
Some of you may feel that my perception of Jeff was (and is) colored by my love for him, and that’s certainly true; he was by no means perfect. But both he and his closest friends were unusually noble, chivalrous men who really tried to live up to their ideals as much as any mortal can; in my column of one year ago today I mentioned that my ex-husband Jack “once said he would trust Walter to sleep in the same bed with me,” and he felt the same way about Jeff. Some of you have noticed that I’m very generous with my advice and assistance, and if I learned that from anyone it was Jeff; I remember riding along on a number of quests, missions and errands of mercy, often for strangers or near-strangers. For example, he once went with Philippa to help one of her co-workers move. He had never met the woman, and never saw her again after that day, but I remember the disapproving words he had for a group of people from her Christian church who only agreed to help if she bought them lunch, and even then worked only half as hard as he did (what makes this even more ironic is that he was an atheist).
Nor was he lacking in the department of knightly courage; once I saw him put himself in serious danger on another stranger’s behalf. In the early 1980s Lakeshore Drive was the most popular teen hangout in New Orleans, and every Friday and Saturday night throngs of young people parked or cruised along practically the whole length of the avenue. Well, one night (I think it was in May of 1985, so I was 18 and Jeff was 21) a small group of us were sitting in the back of one friend’s pickup, talking and enjoying the lake breeze, when we heard a commotion and saw a young guy (I reckon about 17) running toward us, being chased by a half-dozen others. It did not look like a game; he seemed genuinely afraid and already had a bloody lip, and nobody from the other parked cars seemed inclined to help him until he got to us. Without hesitation, Jeff – who was only 5’11” and perhaps 170# – stepped out between the pursuers and the pursued and said something like, “I don’t know what this guy did to piss you off, and maybe he was even in the wrong. But I’m not going to sit here and watch six against one, so let’s make it six against two instead.”
All around us there was a hush; people were turning their radios down to hear what was going on, and some of the other young men nearby looked as though they might join in if a fight did erupt. But it didn’t; the pursuers mumbled a few lame excuses and then started back in the direction they had come. Perhaps they figured Jeff was a black belt, or that he was armed; perhaps they thought his example might galvanize thirty other young men in the immediate vicinity to gang up on them instead. But whatever the reason, the result was the same; his action had saved a complete stranger from what looked like it might be a serious beating. We never did find out what the quarrel was about; the rabbit had taken advantage of the distraction to run, and had fled without giving an explanation.
“The least he could have done was to thank you,” I said indignantly.
“I helped him because it was the right thing to do,” he replied. “If you only help somebody because you want his gratitude, you’re doing it for the wrong reason.” I’ll never forget that night, nor his words, and I’ve tried to live by them ever since. Maybe that’s old-fashioned and idealistic, but in the face of such an example could I do less? Though he might disapprove of my sharing this story, he’s not exactly in a position to stop me from telling it. And in my humble opinion, the only men who truly deserve praise are those whose praiseworthy actions are performed neither for public recognition nor hope of rewards in heaven (which Jeff did not believe in), but merely because they are right.
One Year Ago Yesterday
“An Island of Sanity” demonstrates the fallacy of popular American political mythology by presenting a case in which Kansas Republicans derailed a bipartisan attempt to restrict women’s sexual rights.