gall and gumption

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dr. George M. "Jamie" Astaphan

At X's beach bar in Frigate Bay, in early 2003, with his usual poison, soda water. The bit of arm showing next to him belongs to me -- that's as much of me as I can show without revealing my incognito (such as it is) and and rather too much bra strap. Six months after I arrived in St. Kitts the rumor mill said we were having an affair. This, and other fantastic tales about me, may still be circulating there for all I know. Didn't have an affair with him, wasn't tempted. Nor was he. But I did grow to love him, and whenever I talked to him I always felt happier. He was my doctor and he was a very dear friend, a funny, funny, kind, brilliant man with a loving heart.

He died at age 60 on Friday August 18. The world seems a stupider place without him.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Work in Progress

It has been rather quiet here. I've been working on something rather large for the past week. It will be here soon. Promise.

Meanwhile, here's a quote from Gide's Travels in the Congo:

Sapoua is a triple or quadruple village, more than a kilometre long; it is situated in a wide stretch of savanna, sown with Palmyra palms and encircled in the distance by the forest. There were quantities of children, some of them so charming that we kept them with us; one man was playing on an extraordinary instrument -- a calabash, held between the legs, in the middle of a bamboo, which was strung like a bow with six(?) strings. He sang with great subtlety and delicacy what our interpreter translated as meaning: 'I have so many hookworms in my foot that I cannot walk.'

Friday, August 11, 2006

Jamaican Commercials

I have not lived in Jamaica for 30 years. But I still remember two television commercials that regularly appeared on TV there. One was for Sutton deodorant. You saw a black background, with a male symbol (the circle with the diagonal arrow) at the top and directly below it the corresponding female symbol. They were apparently snuggling. A very smooth male voice said,

"John and Marsha had a problem."

At which point the two symbols moved away from each other suddenly, saying things like "Oh, dear!" and "Ugh!" in tones that would be used by genteel people being forced to acknowledge the presence of a bad smell.

"Sutton solved it."

Whereupon the two symbols met and merged in the middle of the same background.

"John. I like your Sutton Stick," the Marsha voice said.

"Marsha. I love your Sutton roll-on," and no matter how you tried you couldn't prevent your mind from heading straight to the gutter as it were.

The second commercial was for Anchor butter. This great lout of a man in a dark and poky little house demands that his wife makes him some bread and butter. She brings him a plate with some sliced white bread, buttered. He takes a bite and chews for a moment and spits the mouthful of bread and butter into his hand.

"But a no de Anka Butta dis!" (Anglice, "But this isn't Anchor Butter!")

The wife makes some lame explanation of how no, this is some cheaper butter. Whereupon he roars at her to go get him his beloved Anchor Butter. Next scene he's happily eating some bread and butter, and, with his mouth quite full, grins at the camera and declares, "I like my bread well buttah!"

I think of these commercials because one of the things that hasn't changed in all the years I've lived away is the spectacular awfulness of Jamaican commercials. I listen to them on the radio now. There is one for home equity loans featuring the two most annoying female voices on the planet. My mother went to the hairdresser on a visit to Jamaica some years ago, and when she got back she had me cracking up with her imitation of these middle-class Jamaican ladies and their peculiar plaintive drawl, something that has emerged in Kingstonspeak since we left there.

But it's the ones for the lottery that get me. Especially the one with the man who is saying in a voice of desperation, "Come on! Get up! Get up!" He's frantic, pleading. From a little distance away, and evidently from among the bedcovers, a female voice calls out, "Baby you ready?" in a tone that is meant to sound seductive and teasing but, somehow, sounds like it could shrivel every testicle in a ten-block radius.

This ad is for some lottery game that allows you a second chance at winning. Unlike this poor man who can't get it up and is about to disappoint his eager partner.

The other lottery ad in this "second chance" series has a woman trying to seduce a traffic cop. She seems to be the same annoying woman who was so surprised to hear she could take out a home equity loan.

Imperfect Heroes

Some, probably most, of the people who do truly great and humane things are ordinary imperfect beings like you and me. When we aren't sure we are perfect it's harder to do good things. Craig Murray is one of those imperfect beings who did something great. You may have heard or read his story. He was a talented British diplomat, starting out his career in Uzbekistan, who decided that he couldn't keep quiet about the horrors there. By the time it was over a promising career was totally trashed, that road to glory closed, and the horrible situation in Uzbekistan goes on, but now you can't say you had no way of knowing.

I have known people who didn't like to be brave, but had to be brave because the alternative was so much worse. That's my favorite kind of courage I must say. I think this guy had that kind of courage.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Biographical Blowup

The second volume of the Stephen Walsh bio of Stravinsky is out. It sounds like interesting reading, according to Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books. Stravinsky lived long enough into our celebrity-mad age to become a very valuable quantity, one entitled to the full treatment: the monumental biography and the emergence from musty corners of the woodwork of various people who attest that he was really a jerk and not that much of a genius at all.

I loved those Stravinsky conversations with Robert Craft, but from this review it sounds like Craft has become the center of one of those posthumous shitstorms.

Kimmelman's review is definitely not promising. Announcing that the book is both "exhaustive and eloquent" (Watch out!) he sets the background up as follows:

The biggest hurdle remained the image that Stravinsky assiduously cultivated of himself in later years, through his remarkable factotum and collaborator, Robert Craft, who has published a biography, a diary, three volumes of letters, two scrapbooks of photographs and documents, various conversation books, and many articles, and who was involved, in one way or another, in all of Stravinsky's musical activities after the mid-1940s. Craft, with his encyclopedic knowledge, acute musical sensibility, and remarkable prose, came in a sense to own Stravinsky, or seemed to wish to, and while he opened up the study of Stravinsky in many ways, his presence also could intimidate those who might imagine challenging him. For decades in these pages and elsewhere, he refined a view of Stravinsky's life, and of his own role in it, that increasingly was questioned not least because he could be so adamant in defending it. Walsh, in the new book, calls Craft's work "riddled with bias, error, supposition, and falsehood." His volume ends up being nearly as much about Craft and his relations with Stravinsky, and with Stravinsky's family, as it is about the composer, who became inseparable from his amanuensis.

Well, what a couple of villainous old wizards Stravinsky/Craft must have been , eh? The "assiduously cultivated image of himself" cultivated by himself or by the Svengali Craft (later on in this piece Kimmelman suggests that Stravinsky in the interviews was "channeling" Craft.

Stravinsky belonged to all scholars, you see, and Craft tried to hold a monopoly on him: think about this statement for a while -- "...he refined a view of Stravinsky's life, and of his own role in it, that increasingly was questioned not least because he could be so adamant in defending it."

Craft! You, you-- bastard.

Yes, a man's determined defense of his own account of a relationship that lasted nearly 30 years, a relationship that was at the center of his emotional, creative and intellectual life, must be suspect, must it not? As Mr. Pecksniff might say, "It has a deep appearance." How dare he! And he's just a scribbler, an amanuensis, a dogsbody, a Figaro, a gofer, a boy Friday! Not like the intellectual aristocrats of the academe! They aren't amanuenses, they are more like the Princess and the Pea.

See, when you get among the sort of swirling vortex of issues like there undoubtedly must have been with Stravinsky and Craft (Craft vs. Stravinsky's family, Stravinsky vs. Stravinsky's family, Craft vs. everybody who wants a piece of the last great composer in the European classical tradition. As a property Stravinsky can still deliver value. If you venture into this vortex of interests, grievances, claims and counterclaims with such assets at the center, decency and your own respectability demand a certain decorum of language.

All trace of the weasel must be scrupulously purged from your language. This is not the place where the weasel needs to be showing his face. The weasel has a particularly disreputable appearance here among the dead and the settling of wills and all that not quite extinguished glamor and other assets, to say nothing of those ancient fossilized academic scores to settle.


Whatever cannot be said without such locutions as "not least because" should not be said.
Whatever cannot be said without suggesting a close affinity between "owning" and "seeming to wish to own," simply should not be said.

It's dangerous. Picture me and Kimmelman out at a bar. it's not a date, he's not really my type, you know, but we meet as acquaintances and we're chatting. And he tells me that the man two seats over from me owns his very own private Caribbean island. "Back in a moment," I say. Weeks later, after the wedding, in fact, my new husband tells me that no he does not own his very own private Caribbean island. But he went there once on a cruise and had a really good time. I go back to Kimmelman, as you can imagine, and demand an explanation. "Well, he seemed to want to own one," Kimmelman explains blandly.

Or maybe he did indeed have an island and I invaded it and killed a bunch of people because Kimmelman told me that the guy had weapons of mass destruction hidden there. I find no weapons, and Kimmelman says, "Well, he seemed to want to own some weapons of mass destruction."

Catastrophe all around.

Note how early on in this piece the attack on Craft begins. The first cannon-shot fired straight into the edifice of Craft's work, which Walsh describes as "riddled with bias, error, supposition and falsehood." Craft is still alive, by the way.

And by God, they're going to get that bastard factotum even if they have to take Stravinsky down with him. This review, in the grand old academic tradition, presents Stravinsky as, well, quite loathsome. I mean, spectacularly so. For most of his later life, a sort of musical fraud propped up by the dogsbody Craft. Who didn't have his own opinions, who was mean and didn't play well with others. I suppose it's possible the book will persuade me that all these things are true, though I don't need to believe Stravinsky was a person I'd want to have a beer with -- that doesn't happen to be my own personal gold standard of intellectual and creative ability. Whatever the case to be made for or against Stravinsky, I'm not confident that I'll be convinced by the book, on Kimmelman's showing.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Left Luggage

One way I can spot West Indian women is that, like me, they wear gold bangles. It is an old tradition in the Caribbean. My grandmother put my first pair of gold bangles on my wrist when I was three days old -- or that was the story that she told me many many times. This was the mean grandmother, by the way. I lost them when I was seven and until I was in my early twenties from time to time, my grandmother would pick up my wrist, shake her head and say in a sad, deceptively weak and pathetic voice, "Lost the pair of beautiful gold bangles that I put on you myself when you were three days old."

I have never asked anyone for jewelry. But people have given me jewelry, and I am, in some strange way, superstitious about it.

When I was sixteen my father gave me another pair of gold bangles. I still wear those. They are the traditional open ones, a piece of gold wire with the little knobs at the ends. Since then he has given me some even nicer ones, two closed ones from Saudi Arabia, where he worked for several years.

I like to treat myself to earrings. My favorite earrings ever were two pairs of traditional Sardinian earrings that I bought one winter on a trip to Sardinia (don't ask what I went there for). They do this sort of filigree work, it's medieval-Spanish in style sort of, with pieces of this coral-red coral. I bought one pair that was gold plated with very elaborate filigree and small pieces of coral and another pair that was solid gold with big ovals of coral. I lost them both in St. Kitts. The only way I'll ever replace them is if I go to Sardinia again. I would go there for the earrings.

I also like cheap costume jewery earrings and can waste a lot of time at street fairs looking over the sort of thing you find there. I had a pair of iridescent glass drops that I just loved. Lost one of them, too. But then losing one of those is an excuse to go look for replacements.

I also wear a gold chain around my neck that has this weird sort of pendant on it, just a little bar, like a flattened out chicken wishbone, vaguely. This necklace has an interesting history. When I was living in Nevis I was dating this English guy who was -- well, let's put it this way: the first time I met him I was sitting at a beach bar with a bunch of new acquaintances and this very nice older tourist couple, and he was sitting there looking depressed. He looked like a parody of your basic working class English guy, what you call a navvy. Which, it turns out, he was. Anyway this whole group of people were all chatting and he wasn't saying much till in a lull in the conversation he remarked, "I can retract one of my testicles at will."

He was ex-army, he was the sort of person whose idea of a really good time was to go to a pub with all his mates and get shitfaced and maybe get his teeth knocked out in the general brawl that seemed to conclude such evenings. He was almost illiterate, and when he was drunk he said and did incredibly foolish things, he was half a maniac. But one of the things I liked about him was that we could do things together, like go and swim in the rough sea on the windward side of the island, or take hikes in the mountains. He was always up for adventure. When he got drunk he would try to intimidate me and only succeed in irritating me. One night in a jealous rage he was driving his car crazily along a country road we didn't know too well, he was trying to frighten me and impress on me how angry he was, and I was just sort of sitting there braced against the dashboard not saying a word and at one point I said, "Could you stop somewhere? I just really need to pee." And when I got back in the car he was raving about how splendidly brave I was. This was a relationship without a future, obviously, but there was room in it for a lot of genuine affection. During the "romance" period of this relationship he had gone off to England and come back with this gold necklace, as a surprise, and some tubes of paint that I had asked him to bring me. But a few weeks later we had the first breakup, on a rainy day, he was the one who was backing out, and during this awful quarrel we had about it I took the necklace off and gave it to him. He tried to get me to keep it but I took it from him and threw it away, just tossed into the grass.

A couple days later I ran into him and he was feeling sorry for himself, complaining that he was lonely. And we started going out again. But by this point, my hurt feelings were quite recovered. So he was courting me again, and was very susceptible to jealousy, which was inconvenient because of the sort of work that I was doing, which involved meeting people (including men) and for some of what I was doing it looked a lot like dates. He would make the most ludicrous scenes. After one particularly awful one he went off to England again for his vacation, I had told him not to even bother to write, just to fuck off out of my life, it was all really too insane. I got an email from him about two weeks later.

"Dear Kia" it said. "You are right I was an asshole I think I'm going to buy a mussel."

I didn't know what the hell he meant. What, to keep it for a pet? Why? So he explained tht he was talking about the thing you put on a dog, a muzzle, not the shellfish.

The thing that made me like him so much was that he was totally a stand up guy. If he said he was going to do a thing, he did it. He got along with the locals, he wasn't condescending to them at all, and one of the things that was so fun about hanging out with him was that he was so at ease with them, as they were with him -- which was not always the case with expats. He was punctual, had a sort of mad pride in being able to do for himself and look out for others. He was the sort of person who "had your back." And when he had done wrong he owned up to it, handsomely. In this respect, in addition to the ordinary little gallantries and foolishness, he was truly gallant. He had this wonderful sense of occasion. Once after one of hiis drunken escapades he invited me to dinner at his house and he had made some sort of sandwiches with English muffins and ham and cheese, and he had cut the slices of cheese into little hearts. He'd show up if I was working late at night with a complete Chinese dinner and candles. He was not always good, but he knew what good was and when he failed of goodness there was a certain point where the only thing he could do to go forward was to fess up, and he did. Without quibbling or any kind of haggling and some equally mad gesture of reconciliation that was meant to show you the person he was trying to be.

Whatever the latest craziness with him, there persisted this genuine feeling of mateyness between us that made life so much fun. We were never at a loss for words, which is strange considering the differences in culture and education. He was so good at living in the moment and at generously leaving you room to live in it too. And he knew how to share space with a woman in public places. Not to be crowding her or leaving her to the predators. Just this mateyness, is the nicest word for it. So despite all our quarrels -- once I even put my foot in his backside and kicked him out of my house -- we were totally quits. Along the way in the mad course of this friendship he presented me again with the necklace I had thrown into the grass and I wore it. I still do, and aside from the fact that it is pretty it reminds me of him, and I like to remember him.

Well, just about a year ago today I ended the relationship that took me to Sebastopol. It ended like one of those car wrecks in the movies, the car bouncing down the hill in slow motion before bursting into flames. For weeks after I moved out any communication with the ex would send me into rage so powerful that it gave me stomachaches. It would take me hours to calm down after I got an email from him. Those post-breakup communications induced in me a revulsion so violent, because I just saw bottomless dishonesty in them, I could not trust a single word he said. And the revulsion was really insurmountable. The indignation and disgust would just come roaring ashore and swamp me totally. One thing would have surmounted it -- a straightforward admission of the truth. This he was utterly incapable of. So instead I learned, for the first time in my life, to talk myself down. I had to say to myself, like a mantra, "You cannot afford to think about this."

Anyway I had to write him last week to find out if some papers had gone to his house. They had, and he sent them along. He also asked if I could tell him the name of an album of Cuban music that I was very fond of and used to play all the time when we were together. I looked up the album on Amazon and saw that it was unavailable. So I burned him a copy and sent it on to him with no note. Meanwhile the package from him arrived. It contained some CDs that I had forgotten at his house, the papers I was hoping for, a box with some jewelry and a note.

The jewelry was a pair of earrings he had bought me at the Gravenstein Fair in Sebastopol. Just cheap little glass beads but I really liked them. The other was a necklace and earrings made of amber from the Black Sea. The amber washes up on the beaches there, and it is different colors from white to amber, sometimes clear, sometimes opaque and milky. It is beautful stuff. He was traveling to Latvia a lot while we were living together. I had left the jewelry in a box at his house, quite deliberately, fond though I was of it. Because to me jewelry is something I wear, it carries intent with it. And for me, it was like these things were poisoned with the same stuff that had made me so bloody angry. In the note he suggested that if I didn't want them I could give them to one of my cousins. But of course if I think something is unfit for me to wear for these reasons, I am not going to pass along that bad juju to any of my cousins. Or indeed to anyone I have any respect or care for.

So I suppose I must send them back to him with an explanation that the same reasons that made me leave them behind are the same reasons why I cannot give them away.

Or I can tell myself (or you can try to persuade me) that attaching all this baggage to some jewelry is totally ridiculous. But of such ridiculous stuff is my whole life made.

Now I suppose that I ought to admit that he is not a person of total ill will. I think he has tried to be kind. But the sense of his dishonesty is so predominant with me it's like I don't want anything from him that has any likelihood of being tainted with it. And maybe I'm not being fair to him. But he is a person it was impossible to be fair to. There are people like that. And the effect on me is such that a year after I left that box of jewelry on the bathroom counter, when I found it in the box this weekend it was as if I opened the box and found a snake in there. This has of course nothing to do with the monetary value or even the esthetic value. These are beautiful things that I used to enjoy wearing. My feelings about them have nothing to do with them as objects.

Am I thinking about this the wrong way? I don't know if I've explained it very well.