We humans are a social species, which I guess why one of the most comforting feelings we can experience is the feeling of belonging. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I was born in northeastern Pennsylvania, where my father is from, but my parents moved our family to El Paso, Texas, where my mother is from, when I was only four years old.
From the time I was four until the time I was sixteen years old, I never saw any of my father’s family: my grandmother, my aunt and various uncles, their spouses and children, not to mention a variety of cousins, great-uncles and great-aunts, godparents, and the like. We simply couldn’t afford a cross-country trip like that. But when I was a teenager, I had an opportunity to go to West Point, New York, for what was essentially a week-long attempt by the USMA to recruit national merit scholars. We arranged the trip so that I could travel first to Wilkes-Barre and spend time with the family there.
I was nervous about that, as my only contact with any of these folks was through scratchy long-distance phone calls and the occasional holiday card. But to my relief, surprise, joy, call it what you will, from the moment I landed and reconnected with these long-lost relatives, I felt like they were family. I felt like I belonged. Is that DNA? Luck? Maybe we Pitcavages simply have charisma oozing out of our pores. In any case, it was a wonderful feeling.
I’ve always been interested in foreign words that have no equivalent in English—unless English decides to appropriate them, such as schadenfreude. If you think about it, without a word to express a concept, we don’t even really have that concept, do we? Our culture is the poorer for it, in most cases. Take the French concept of esprit de l’escalier—literally, “wit of the staircase.” Imagine leaving the apartment of your significant other after he or she has just cruelly broken up with you. As you trudge down the stairs, you suddenly begin to think of all the retorts and responses you should have made—only you didn’t think of them until just now. That is the wit of the staircase. It is a perfect concept—why is there no English word for it?
In which our intrepid hero is abruptly reminded that not everybody can come and go as they please…
Ohio has over 50,000 inmates in its state prison system, close to its all-time high. Ohio’s prison population is ranked 6th in the nation in size (Ohio is the 7th most populous state). The prison population has grown by about 33% in the past 20 years, during a time when the population of the state itself has increased only slightly. In this, Ohio is representative of a huge problem in the United States: the high rate of incarceration (the highest in the entire world, which is a sad and remarkable fact). It didn’t used to be like this; the incarceration rate was quite low through the history of the United States until the 1980s, when it began to precipitously rise. Longer prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, a lack of rehabilitation programs, the heavy criminalization of crack cocaine, and other factors combined to create this serious problem—a problem most people don’t know or care about (if you are interested in prison issues, I strongly recommend subscribing to Prison Legal News). I came across an example of Ohio’s high rate of incarceration myself on this excursion.