gall and gumption

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Johnson of the Savior

For Palm Sunday I offer up above a lovely image of the Holy Family with the peepee pf the Infant Savior very much in evidence and causing no problems. It's unclear whether it was the chocolate or the visible penis that riled up that RC blowhard Bill Donohoe and his followers, but death threats and warnings of a boycott have shut down the art exhibit at the Roger Smith Hotel in New York that featured a crucified Jesus made out of chocolate. Details, images, and links available via Digby's Hullabaloo.

I hate so many things. I hate people who block the door in the subway for instance. I hate people who chew gum with their mouths open. I hate people who let their small children terrorize them in public. I hate people who are cruel to animals. I hate people who own Hummers. I hate news pundits most of all. The voice of those lying dolts, who are incompetent at the one thing that they do that is considered work -- if they were surgeons and performed surgery the way they make judgments and forecasts they would all be in jail and we'd all be safe -- when I hear them I feel a sort of panic of loathing. But it does not occur to me to make death threats to any of these malefactors.

The things I hate may annoy me to the point where my breathing becomes shallow and I am having a private one-sided inner Basil Fawlty conversation with them, "Can't get your great hog of a vehicle into the parking space? What do you call that monster anyway? Cadillac Nimrod? I suppose you feel safe, well, congratulations, you're certainly safe from easy parking, at any rate, but you look like a bloody idiot..." etc. etc. . But if I made a death threat to a pundit or to person blocking the doorway in the subway I would be doing a thing that is a whole lot worse than what they are doing. And I also understand that the irritation I feel will go away as soon as I get my mind off it. I don't believe that my hatreds should run unchecked. Not because they are mine, but because they are hatreds and therefore I should treat them with suspicion. My indulgence of my hatreds is confined to the inside of my head and to a few friends who listen to me whine. And oddly, that's all I ask of my hatreds, a little low private entertainment. My mother thinks even this is too much, and my better self would agree. I'm much happier when I don't think about hating anybody at all, no matter how deserving. That's why I carry a book and my iPod everywhere i go, and why I do not stay in any room where TV news is playing.

How hard is this, really?

Apparently it's hard for that Donohoe, who has led the very noisy charge against the exhibition. Well, who asked him? I do know this, though; I'd rather see a naked chocolate Jesus in every store window, with a big ole wang down to his knees if need be, than have a lot of people wondering around loose who think it's all right to make death threats and threaten people's businesses and livelihods because they don't like the way something looks. I mean, honestly, it should be like, "Oh, I see. You've given up on reasoning and you're on the threats now? Well, good, now your opinion counts even less. You don't need to think, you just need to threaten? Well, I don't listen to threats." Or maybe just start singing "I am the very model of a modern major general" really loud whenever they're talking.

My cousin was at a condo board meeting a couple days ago and a resident -- you know how there's always at least one loony and crank who turns up at every meeting and somehow makes the business of the meeting be all about the phantoms in her head? They always seem normal at first. They are friendly to strangers, let me tell you wherever I go these people find me, but maybe they just like the fresh meat, I dunno. Anyway this woman had a sort of eruption of anger at someone's not quite eager enough response to a proposal she had made to the board, and began reading out loud from the by-laws. My cousin asked her, after 3.5 minutes, whether she was going on much longer. (These meetings seem to go on forever under the best of circumstances.) The woman threw the book of by-laws at my cousin, I mean heaved it at her head. My cousin ducked and wasn't hit. And, she told me later, none of the board members or the other residents said anything. I mean, people are so timid and afraid of being conspicuous that they would rather let this woman rampage about and disrupt their meetings and throw things at people and bore the hell out of them and waste their time. Some of these folks are the sort of libertarian who thinks their sole moral responsibility is to get as much money as they can and hold on to every cent of it. Every man for himself is a coward.

I can't see where a chocolate Jesus is any worse than hot cross buns or chocolate Easter eggs or Easter bunnies.
And a chocolate sculpture of Jesus, no matter how lifelike, is just a symbol. It isn't the actual Christ and it isn't even a depiction of the actual Jesus because. We. Don't. Know. What. He. Looked. Like. The artists of the Italian Renaissance who gave Jesus the familiar look were studying 1) each other's work and 2) all this pagan sculpture that was being dug up in fields.

All we know of some things is what we imagine.

Imagine Jesus with his johnson or without it, it's still only what you've imagined. Imagine better.

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly. (Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sightings, II

Today I saw another beaver. I think it was a giant beaver. It was like a log with a big rodent head. It was at the Shady Grove Metro station. Along the walkway that connects the parking lot to the station itself is this canal with trees on its banks. Until today I thought of it as the Umbrellas' Graveyard because in addition to the usual plastic bags and paper coffee cups it had a few abandoned umbrellas in it. I was looking at the geese that apparently don't mind how depressingly dreary it is and I noticed a man several feet ahead of me looking at something that was not the geese. And there was the big beaver, just lolling about in the water. Also, across the canal, two young trees freshly gnawed through. Now I guess I'll have to rechristen the canal.

That would seem to be an unlikely place for a beaver, but judging from his size he has prospered there. I hope he has company.

Just When You Thought...

... there was nothing to add to the tale, chapter closed, etc. Someone posting on the SKN list in the name of the deceased sends photos of him in the morgue.

So now I have these things in my mailbox. I suppose I ought to delete them, having looked at them and reflected on them and gotten a friendly expert opinion on them and on the acute outbreak of the creeps that they induced. My expert friend said yes, it is very weird that pictures of a dead person in a morgue should be sent to a listserv.

I'm putting it to you all: Is there any reason anyone can think of why I should keep them? If no one can suggest a good reason to keep them they'll be deleted.


I should just mention that Sunday afternoon I took the dogs for a walk out by Little Seneca Lake, a big reservoir surrounded by parklands just at the back of Germantown. I western side because there are fewer people, and that was lucky. I saw a fox with a most definitely bushy tail. I think he may have been rather an old and seedy fox. Also I saw a beaver. The beaver was swimming, mostly submerged, this dark shape under the water with a nose sticking out. For a while I thought it was a log, but when it got wind of the dogs it dived with a great thwack! of its tail.

I can't believe I've been here a year and three months, or that my last daylight glimpse of California was the Sonoma Coast. Tom and I drove out there my last day, he took lots of pictures and when I turned my back on it at last I was very sad to go. New geographies are sort of meaningless for a while until you pick features out and build some kind of personal connection to them, some kind of meaning. And of course for my first few months here I was so wretched that I did not see much. It was the widening circle of dog walks that got me out and about, and now that it's spring again I discover that out of all those brooding walks last year I found a mental amusement that i did not have available in California. And I'm looking forward to it again.

Mushrooms. Or, if you prefer, fungi.

One day I might actually go get a guide to local mushrooms so I can call them by their proper names (if those proper names are pronounceable). In the meantime I identify them by this unscientific method:

The ones that look like biscuits
The ones that look like magic markers
The ones that look like big slabs of liver
The ones that look like ostrich eggs
The ones that look like Mexican pastries
The ones that look like the scenery in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The ones that look like a turd that's been stepped in (these are uncannily convincing)

There are many others, but my sightings all occur in a sort of flash as I'm being dragged along by the dogs. These are the ones I remember from last year, and the great thing is that I'll get to rename all the new ones. I'll try to keep better records.

I'd like to draw them [bitter laugh] but Misha, my Dad's dog, has a fear of nature not to mention other issues so there's no sitting quietly outdoors when she's around.

One thing I do not want to see this spring is native (i.e., non-gentrified) Marylanders butchering a turtle like I saw last spring. The natives eat turtle. Luckily when I happened on this crew the turtle had been long dead. That sighting was one of those little things that occasionally happen here that tell me I'm in the South.

(Oh and this just occurred to me. You know when you drive through Georgia there are all those big signs advertising pecans at these roadside pecan places? Does anybody really eat all those pecans? Are there people for whom the words "PECANS" in letters two feet high just produce mad cravings for a big ole sack of them? I don't know why, but the word "PECANS" in any size lettering leaves me quite unmoved. ARTICHOKES, however, never fails. If I see the words "ARTICHOKES" at the side of the road I want to stop. And berries. I will brake for berries.)

One of the other ways I would realize I was in the South used to happen at the old job, when I went to a nearby supermarket for lunch. They had a big, pretty good salad bar and a hot self-serve as well. This was in Prince George's County, which is a very black area. And all the food in the hot bar was basically Southern: Ribs, fried chicken, collard greens (apparently you cook them until they are close to dissolving, then, oddly, they look and taste a little bit like the vegetable we call callalloo in Jamaica), spoonbread, dirty rice. On Fridays -- or FRY-days as I prefer to think of them -- the place really went South. Everything was deep-fried in batter or some kind of breading: fried chicken, fried catfish, fried broccoli, fried okra, fried wings, fried giblets and some little mysterious lumpy bits of things, like popcorn clusters, that were apparently just deep-fried friedness. Over in another display case in the deli I saw packages of "Northern cornbread," while over at the department of Fried Things I noticed that there was "cornbread." I don't know how "Northern cornbread" differs from "real" cornbread. FRY-days were the busiest day over at that deli.

Oh, and on Sunday my father learned what the expression "chicken-fried" means. He already knew he didn't like it but did not know that "chicken-fried" was the thing he did not like. I didn't intervene in his decision to order chicken-fried steak because 1) I thought he liked chicken fried things and that was what he wanted, and 2) I didn't want to boss him around, which irritates him; and 3) he habitually changes his mind so suddenly and inexplicably that advice is no help anyway. But don't worry; even though I have worked out these reasons why it isn't my fault, and he scraped the batter off the steak and ate it, I still feel vaguely guilty!

Monday, March 26, 2007

What is Vulgarity?

After all the good wishes I changed jobs again. A chance to escape opened up and I took it. I hated the commute. If I'm going to spend an hour and a half on the Beltway I should like to do it for about twice the money at least. And it felt like I had fallen off the edge of the world when I got there. There were also internal reasons that I won't go into, problems that I didn't create, that weren't my responsibility or even within my power to solve. And that's what finally did it for me. We parted friends with a goodbye breakfast. They were lovely people.

Except one of them was one of the few people I have ever met whose vulgarity of language made me wince.

She didn't swear, at least not in front of me. But she would point to, for example, a document she was working on, and say, "This part's completely hosed." Or she'd wave her hand at a computer screen showing a directory full of files and say, "When we go over to the new system we'll be able to get rid of all this crud." Talking about her plans for a new content management system, she'd say, "Then whenever we need to make changes it'll just suck it in from over there." The woman who spoke this way was a white-haired grandmother, by the way. And here I thought you weren't allowed to use the word "hosed" if you were more than 13 years old.

There was a woman in the same cube cluster who was a serious Roman Catholic. The fourth person was an excitable and droll Indian man, a Hindu who had lived in the U.S. many years. The Catholic woman advised him that he was not to call Wednesday "hump day" because it was an improperly suggestive expression. And she also told him that when he said "Oh my Gad!" which was his all-purpose exclamation covering every emotion, that he was taking the Lord's name in vain. Which Lord, I wondered. His expressions didn't bother me at all. But the other woman's expressions did, for some reason.

Those of my small and select readers who know me personally know that I swear a lot. My swearing vocabulary, other than the old Jamaican street words that don't really travel so I don't use them, I got mostly from 1) my grandmother, 2) American kids; and 3) an English girls' boarding school. There were a few additions, probably from Richard Pryor movies, boyfriends, and the Earl of Rochester's poetry.

I have a strong stomach for reading and hearing strong language. And yet, here it happens that this woman's tame little vulgaritiies really got to me. It would seem that if I am growing less tolerant of vulgarity I would be more bothered by obscenity, no? Well, no. I doubt that it would bother me had she not shown such utter carelessness of language, it was as if she didn't know you could use words to communicate with other people. I looked into that and imagined these slumbering bigotries, there were generations of unthinking self-conceit, that never said no to any of its appetites, under this slovenliness. It gave me the creeps.

The other type of vulgarity that annoys me: One of the old bf's complaints about me was that I put things in the bluntest terms -- he said I was harsh. What he tended to do was say the most shocking things in the soft squishy language of pop psychotherapy, and he sincerely believed that because he used these "nice" words he could only be saying something nice. And because I used blunt, harsh words, I could not possibly be saying anything nice or deep. This was the point at which I began to take pride in being a deeply shallow person.

I think when you get in a relationship with someone the two of you sort of create a shared reality for a while that sort of has its own language. And then, for one reason or another, if the relationship starts to fail, one of the signs is withdrawal from that shared reality and shared language. I had a brief romance a few years ago and I knew it was over when one day the guy bought himself this huge bag of candy. But there's also good and necessary withdrawal: everybody needs to check in with their own private selves from time to time, I suspect. Oh okay let me put it this way I do. I have to read, I have to have the use of my own mind, I have my relationship with my dog, I have to keep in touch with my inner voices, to feel the continuity of me. I can remember being so emotionally needy at one point in my life that this sort of solitude just frightened me. Now it seems essential to any kind of sanity for me, and I'm disposed to feel that anybody who doesn't need that thinking space is not partner material. Go work! Go play! Go have some man time! Go gaze out the window and pick your nose! Come back more interesting. I withdrew into books and he withdrew into the Food Channel.

At one point we went to see a therapist, who turned out to be a very nice guy. The bf and I went to this meeting and the bf explained in his own words how he had decided to "invest in a relationship" with your friend. For about 10 minutes he spoke like this, self-serving and self-deceived and intent on deceit, marketing himself in this storyline in which he had made this magnanimous emotional investment and I was not coming up to scratch and giving him the kind of return that he ought to be able to expect and he had been very patient with this etc., all woven through with psychobabble. And I sat there and marveled at the idea that anybody thought they could talk about me this way, while great bolts of indignant revulsion lit me up. The words themselves weren't vulgar: the feeling was vulgar, which is whole orders of magnitude worse. Well, when you get to the point in a relationship when you find yourself having to explain things like this to someone it's time to go. In fact, that's a piece of advice that my mother has given me. "If you keep having to explain and explain yourself, leave." Where did she learn this? I don't know. For some people, that sort of endless palaver is really living. But for me, a sojourn in hell begins with the words, "We need to talk about our relationship..."

I reacted so strongly against the old bf because I really do have a horror of meanness that packages itself in pretentious language, of the misuse of psychotherapy to bolster a narcissistic sense of entitlement. I'm with Laurence Sterne on this one: solemnity of manner is a cloak for villainy. When I come across these things I feel like I'm not defending myself, I'm defending truth from a misrepresentation of its nature. It's not that I want to hurt anyone, but I am resisting being imposed on. And I like to see how much truth I can get away with speaking. Not belligerently, just plain.

Like a few weeks ago when my dad had his hernia surgery I had to pick my dad up at the hospital and then go back and get his car. My wonderful neighbor Mrs. G., the former Mrs. Santa Claus, Ha ha ha heheh ha hahaha haaaaa! Hoooowee! That Mrs. G., was headed that way and gave me a ride. She was helping some other friends out with an errand and they were in her van too. In fact the friend, another older church lady, was driving. Mrs. Graham likes to be driven about in her own car. Anyway I was so tired and anxious that I was talking and talking a mile a minute. I told Mrs. G., a story that made her weep with laughter. I had gotten lost looking for the hospital where I was to pick up my dad, and I drove around and around, late and frantic, looking for someone to ask directions. but it's all a car universe around here. I finally found an old man in overalls who I took to be one of the rare natives (not Native American, just from the pre-gentrification era). He was having a smoke on a break outside a grocery store where he evidently worked. I asked him for directions, and I couldn't understand a word he said. So I sat there nodding and then I drove off confidently in the direction he pointed me in, and immediately got lost again. I didn't want the man to feel that he hadn't been helpful. Mrs. G., thought this was hysterically funny.

I was talking to keep myself awake, and in the middle of it I told her that too" "I know I should shut up but I think I'm just talking to keep awake -- you can just ignore me." She said, "it's all right, baby."

Mrs. G. is a retired school custodian. She keeps her Christmas decorations up all year. When she gets really annoyed she can cuss. She likes to dress well, and most of the time she looks very elegant except when she comes out of her apartment without her teeth and stops to chat. When my dad started working again I got him a pair of these wool/capilene long johns. But then he noticed a day or two later that they were the wrong size. I dashed to the store and got the right ones, but the first pair, that was too big, I had bought at a different branch of the same store further away. So I gave the spare pair to Mrs. G., who always knows people in need of things. A few days later I saw her come home from the store all dressed up nicely except that she was wearing, under her dress, these army-green woolly long johns. She said they were wonderful. W had a good laugh about how they looked.

Mrs. G. operates by keeping in good credit in a sort of running general account of kindness. She has a whole theory of this. She spends a lot of time doing things for other people -- driving them on errands, making quilts for their new babies, cooking a big batch of potato salad for some church fundraiser. She is sure that if she is kind the Lord will look after her too. And if she gets a kindness it's something to be thankful for and pass on to someone else. In her complete confidence of this she will, herself, ask her favors which it is impossible to refuse. One, because she is so funny, and two, because she is so good. So from time to time she catches me in the hall and asks me to help her move some stuff out of her van, or she says, "Where your Daidy at?" Because she wants him to assemble a knicknack shelf for more of the Santa Claus divorce assets of miniature angels, Infant Jesuses, etc.

Mrs. Graham could stand in the hallway in those green long johns, without her teeth, and tell a story with cuss words in it and she would not be vulgar.

Friday, March 23, 2007

5:30 a.m. Confession: Envy

I wish -- and one or two of you may have heard me say this, but I don't think I've written it -- I had this one ability that dogs have. There they are fast asleep and something untoward happens. Today and every morning the untoward thing that happens is that Rommel the incredibly handsome young German Shepherd and his master the pleasant cop, walk down the stairs and out the door to take care of a bit of Rommel-related business.

Sweetie finds this deeply offensive, even in her sleep. She springs straight up out of a deep sleep (and she is not a morning person). She rushes at the door, barking furiously and sometimes even scratching at it. Then she leaps over the sofa up onto the recliner at the window and barks out the window until she can't see Rommel any more because he has rounded the corner of the building. So she watches for him, moaning. When he comes back about two minutes later she charges the window again, rushes at the door, back and forth, hackles up, barking, yapping, and making these hilarious frustrated yerping noises.

And then, when Rommel is back in his apartment where he belongs, Sweetie just curls up again on her bed or the sofa and instantly goes right back to sleeping the sleep of the just.

If Nature had given me that ability to go back to sleep (I don't think I'd have much need of the barking) I would not be writing to you at this moment.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I had a busy weekend, so that's why things were a bit quiet here. But I did post this at Glittering Generalities over the weekend, while its regular author, L7, was away.

Some discussion seems to have ensued in the comments to my guest post too.

Update: The author of the piece I commented on has turned up with a couple of friends to register a complaint. I have responded to their comments and probably enraged them further. Thus I continue to alienate the all the people whose friendship I am winning. I am an influence for evil.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My Low Tastes

Been on a run of various low topics here lately -- crime, boob jobs, bumping, grinding, naughty postcards -- why stop now?

I sometimes fear that the pleasure I take in stories like this is excessive and therefore probably in some way improper.

The hairdresser scrapes together $600 of her own money each month to keep up the program because the Prayer Palace – one of Canada's largest evangelical churches – stopped running it five years ago. Other charitable works, like a promised orphanage in Brazil, either dried up or never materialized.

Meanwhile, the three white pastors – Paul Melnichuk and his 40-year-old twin sons, Tim and Tom – lead lavish lives in contrast to the mainly working-class black families that make up the bulk of the church.

Between them, the pastors have amassed a real estate fortune worth about $12 million. Each owns a multi-million-dollar country estate north of Toronto (Tim's is worth as much as $5.5 million), they share a Florida vacation villa, and the pastors and their wives drive luxurious cars – among them a Porsche Cayenne SUV, a Lexus RX 330 SUV and a Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 convertible.

Congregants are largely unaware of the pastors' extravagant lifestyles.

"Wow," says Leslie Stewart, 63, who works in a paint factory six days a week and gives 10 per cent of his income to the church. "I never heard of anything like that. But if I release my tithe and they misuse it, they have to face God."

The Prayer Palace has a devoted congregation. Most worshippers believe in tithing, the practice of donating 10 per cent of one's income to the church, and each year they give a reported $3 million. "The people love (the Melnichuks)," Houghron says. "Pastor Paul ... loves the Lord. He does God's work."

In addition to personally funding the homeless program, Houghron – a staunch supporter of Pastor Paul – tithes and also gives him $100 to $200 cash for his birthday. "He's never given me gifts like that but he's given me spiritual gifts," says Houghron. "He encourages the work I do for the homeless."

Parts II, III, IV if you want more.

Since the publication of the articles the church board has begun an audit and hired a public relations firm, God help us. I get some satisfaction out of the exposure of such people as this preacher and his awful family.

But there's more. This congregation is largely West Indian, which, of course, caught my interest. Because I don't know, they always seem to add a little something extra in the way of drama and fun to this sort of affair.

Since the article's March 4 publication, reporters involved in the story have been inundated with phone calls from angry Prayer Palace members.

"You have touched God's anointed! Be careful! Be careful that you don't drop dead one of these days," shouted one caller who identified himself as Roger.

Other callers said that to ignore their warnings would be to invite tragedy into reporters' lives, including leprosy and possible physical harm.

One caller issued a death threat; another called a reporter a "Mormon ... a racist."

I was talking with my friend S. who lives in Barbados. She is from the Eastern Caribbean, but from a different island which I shall not name. And we both agreed that the belief in supernatural forces like obeah is much stronger and more widespread in our part of the world than people like to acknowledge. Because it is kind of a secret. Obeah doesn't really have rituals and gatherings; that's more the Shango religions. Obeah is an activity. It is an activity of using the supernatural to get your will over circumstances or over another person. You go to the obeah man to win your boyfriend back, to get him to marry you, to find out who stole your goat, to poison your husband, to destroy an enemy. In people's minds at least obeah was almost indistinguishable from actual poisoning, and among rural people especially there is a certain amount of watchfulness over who is handling your food. For instance, in some of the old Trinidadian calypsos the man suspects his girlfriend of poisoning him with green callalloo, and he describes how sick it makes him. And some country people in Jamaica told my brother years ago about a practice called "steaming your crotches," where a woman who wants to get rid of her husband squats over an open pot of rice as it's cooking (these are people who would cook on an open fire outside -- many still do that there). This is supposed to make the husband waste away and die. Or you have an enemy in the town where you live and you come home and find white powder scattered around your front door. This is a pre-scientific culture, really, even though they might all be watching the Discovery Channel on cable TV of an evening.

One day I was listening to Motty Perkins's show and this woman who stands in for him occasionally was on. And she said something that so riled up this one woman caller that the caller put an obeah curse on her, over the telephone, on the radio. Throughout the rest of the day other callers assured the guest host that they had the situation taken care of, she was not to worry or be afraid. One Rasta guy was already burning fire to clear away the evil, and another woman said that she was using the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to drive off the obeah curse, and no obeah curse could withstand the blood of the Lamb etc. etc. And I was listening to this live over the Internet while sitting at my desk editing research papers at this Very Big Scientific Institution in Washington D.C. The small pleasures of my life...

And so one of the attractions of being a Christian to people like this is that it offers better protection against the malice of your enemies, and against the powers of obeah. But for some people that sense of the world goes right into the church with them. It's not so much a thought pattern as a sense of the world in which malice and envy are on the prowl, looking for an opening, a vulnerability, and will strike ruthlessly and deviously. Like in that Bob Marley song,

Some will eat and drink with you
Then behind them soo-soo pon you...

"Soo-soo" is whispering.

Power, money, the ability to remove yourself from the yard where your neighbors are watching you, this is huge. And here comes this preacher, and he gives them so little for what he takes from them, and they are so touchingly generous. What sadly misplaced faith.

"I'm a Tits-and-Feathers Man, Really."

Goodbye, John Inman.

Some critics...described Inman and Mr Humphries as two of the best
friends of gay liberation on television. But the
gratitude was not universal. In 1977, the Campaign for
Homosexual Equality targeted Inman in Brighton, where
he was appearing in a seaside show. They handed out
leaflets blaming him for depicting homosexuals as
sexually obsessed, too extravagant in manner and too
eager to drag up. They argued that most homosexuals
did not behave like Mr Humphries, and that Inman was
contributing to television's distortion of their
image. Poor Inman, not a strong swimmer in the
fast-flowing river of controversy, argued that he was
not campaigning in any way, merely trying to make
people laugh.

There were compensations for him, too. Are You Being
Served? made Inman famous not only in Britain but also
in the US, where the series was sold. He was
recognised in Los Angeles as much as in London. Once,
in San Francisco, a young man fell off his bicycle
because he was so surprised to see Inman, and lay in
the road shouting "I love you, Mr

The controversy continues. Stuart Jeffries sees Are You Being Served as a snake pit of homophobia and misogyny.

Simon Fanshawe's
feelings about the Mr. Humphries character
are more complicated.

What neither of these writers mentions is that 1)Inman got all the killer lines and the breathless set-up to them, and the biggest laughs were divided between him and Mrs. Slocombe. 2) Of course everyone else at Grace Brothers understood his double-entendres; the amazing thing was that they gave no sign of thinking there was anything strange or improper about them -- that is, he wasn't any more peculiar than any of the others. They didn't seem to think it strange that Mr. Humphries was gay. 3) He was never punished for being gay. Mrs. Slocum and Captain Peacock get themselves into all sorts of embarrassments for a sort of low-grade hubris from time to time, but Mr. Humphries always triumphed.

Caribbean people love Are You Being Served? It is familiar, because the characterizations in that show come straight out of the pantomime and music-hall
tradition, which was a big influence on our own theatrical traditions. So broad-brush, stock characters, (there's always a Captain somewhere about the place, isn't there?) implausible plot lines, and all the rest of it are comfortably familiar. And not only that, but the formality of their relationships -- always addressing each other as "Mrs. Slocum, Captain Peacock," etc., for instance, and the formalities of the jobs themselves, were familiar to us. It was a feature of our world too. My first job was at a department store in Kingston. It was during the Christmas rush. The woman in charge of the evening gown section, where they placed me, was devoutly worshipful of the management and owners. She was addressed by everyone as "Mrs. B--" I've now forgotten what her last name was. (She was very kind, I do remember that, and I remember that one day she came to work and was chattering away as she usually did and I was listening but unable to concentrate because there was something wrong with her face and I couldn't figure out what it was. All of a sudden she clapped her hand over her mouth and exclaimed, "Oh my God! I forgot my teeth!" So she had to jump into a taxi and rush home to get them.) But in this formality at work we were following the same standard, it was what we were brought up to, and it has only abated under the influence of American culture. Our "official" culture, into the mid-1970s, was British culture.

Jamaica used to put on a big pantomime every year at the Ward Theater; it was one of the major arts events of the year. And even in plays that aren't pantomimes you see the influence of the pantomime style of writing. Like in the stock figures. There are all these farces and the same things tend to happen. The evil landlord or the unpleasant suitor of the female lead, or the genial con man, will very likely have to escape from somebody's house dressed in women's clothes. Or the pretentious higgler lady ("Miss Gatta") who has made a lot of money importing goods and selling them to her friends, and has returned from the US sporting very flashy clothes and a fake American accent, she will undergo some form of humiliation involving possibly a donkey, or donkey poop, or basically anything that reminds her of the humble origins that she has forgotten. When these moments happen in a Jamaican farce the audience goes totally mad. My own personal favorite stock character in Jamaican farce is the Chinese grocery store owner who I love, not as a stereotype, but because he has an accent like nothing else on this earth, having learned to speak English from his patois-speaking customers. No, it's no use asking me to do the accent. I know my limits.

On one hand you have all this total unreality, magic, wishes, cardboard villains and so forth, and the weird thing is that whenever some bit of current reality is introduced it is absorbed and turns out to be the zaniest thing in there. I think that's what Inman did, and I think it's pretty cool. You never knew if he was actually getting any sexual action. There was often something wistful about his little self-exposures, as if he were describing his wishes or his fantasies but lacked the courage to fulfill them. He was a timid gay man, with good reason, after all. But he wasn't necessarily timid because he was gay. And the broadness of his mannerisms -- well, what do you expect of a man who before he became Mr. Humphries was best known as a pantomime dame?

Are You Being Served, and Inman's whole acting style, belong to a humor
tradition that at the high end has Gilbert & Sullivan, and includes, as you descend, Benny Hill and those naughty postcards you find in English seaside towns.

It's working class entertainment, it's naff. Orwell, a self-made expert on the habits and tastes of the working class in England, wrote a great essay about these postcards:

Your first impression is of overpowering vulgarity. This is quite apart
from the ever-present obscenity, and apart also from the hideousness of the colours. They have an utter low-ness of mental atmosphere which comes out not only in the nature of the jokes but, even more, in the grotesque, staring, blatant quality of the drawings. The designs, like those of a child, are full of heavy lines and empty spaces, and all the figures in them, every gesture and attitude, are deliberately ugly, the faces grinning and vacuous, the women monstrously paradied, with bottoms like Hottentots. Your second impression, however, is of indefinable familiarity. What do these things remind you of? What are they'so like? In the first place, of course, they remind you of the barely different post cards which you probably gazed at in your childhood. But more than this, what you are really looking at is something as traditional as Greek tragedy, a sort of sub-world of smacked bottoms and scrawny mothers-in-law which is a part of Western European consciousness.

This isthe world of Victorian outings where the young man and his lady friend would go to Blackpool or Eastbourne for a day's holiday and consume an ungodly number of shrimps.

"Lady Jingly! Lady Jingly!
Sitting where the pumpkins grow,
Will you come and be my wife?"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
"I am tired of living singly,
On this coast so wild and shingly,
I'm a-weary of my life;
If you'll come and be my wife,
Quite serene would be my life!"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

"On this Coast of Coromandel,
Shrimps and watercresses grow,
Prawns are plentiful and cheap,"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
"You shall have my chairs and candle,
And my jug without a handle! -
Gaze upon the rolling deep
(Fish is plentiful and cheap) -
As the sea, my love is deep!"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

It's easy to forget, from here, what a difference there has been culturally, between the upper and lower classes in England. There are shared connections (the pantomime is one) but they really inhabit two different worlds. Over here, we notice that other one a lot less because when we go to England we'll all be hanging out with our cousins the Nobs, who can't wait for us to call.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Small and Select

Go read chuckling's post about not being a big blogger.

A nod from some bloggy quarters can send great waves of traffic to your site. As is to be expected, Atrios, who is sort of King Log in that respect, gets complaints that he isn't helping people by putting them on his (recently purged) blogroll. Apparently in response to some complaints, he wrote a list of suggestions under the heading "Why Your Blog Sucks.

Chuckling looks the advice over point by point:

Atrios gives some valuable advice, at least in a what-not-to-do kinda way, on how to be a popular blogger. This may surprise you, but poor chuckling has studied the question extensively. Before you die in a fit of laughter, or more likely shake your head sadly at the pathetic vanity of yet another blogging nobody, let me hasten to add that after studying how to become a popular blogger, I decided not to....

Every once in a while I realize with a shock how small my readership is. I check my site meter -- well, obsessively would be barely overstating it. It tells me how long visitors stayed, their geographic location, and how they got to my blog. These are the three things that interest me, though I do keep an eye on the number of visits too.

The best thing is the referrals. It amuses me that people come here looking for information about prostitutes in St. Kitts (the Cricket World Cup apparently has people thinking about other forms of entertainment), Desmond Dekker lyrics, and boob jobs. My apologies to them.

I'm sure if I wrote about politics I'd attract more eyeballs. But the people who do it well do it almost full time, which I can't. And for another thing I am skeptical of most political solutions to cultural problems and questions -- or rather, approaches to culture that frame it exclusively in terms of politics. People are nuts, really. I think there are cultural solutions to political problems though, over the long term, and by that I don't mean having positive stereotypes of, say, gay people as opposed to negative ones. I mean, sure, have positive stereotypes of everybody, nobody should be insulted or demeaned, but that is not where the interesting action is. The interesting action is when you realize that when you are looking at art, art is looking back at you -- and it has met you before. That's what interests me. It's pretty huge when you see that, bigger than politics, actually.

Gallimaufry, a small but nifty little Caribbean blog, for example, points me to this article about a subject that attracts seekers here, the "dry humping" style of Caribbean dancing.

Masquerading in non-carnival settings takes various forms: from women dressing the part of the courtesan of old, to the sultry, sexually experienced, aggressive woman who defies society, to the woman who is completely in control of her own body and expresses it to every beat of the music. We see her [*pg 196] in the club, winding suggestively to calypso or reggae beat,89 overpowering her male partner with the thrust of her hips, becoming the pursuer. In sharp contrast to her domestic or professional identity, she becomes the sexual aggressor, through her explicit grinding and purposefully explicit sexual dancing, with and without a partner. In addition, she often uses the movements of her body to exert control over her male partner.90 For example, she might use speedy and strong hip movement to throw her male partner off balance. Consequently, we often see an inversion of the mating dance where the man becomes the hunted and the woman the powerful huntress.

The male partner in the above scenario is overwhelmed by this contrary form of expression and does not truly understand the source of it, categorizing it as odd, licentious and problematic, even while fully participating in it. This adoption of traditionally masculine roles by women in these settings, of course, begs the question of whether this behavior ultimately benefits women or whether it simply duplicates the patriarchal system, thus, strengthening a system already oppressive to women. While it is certain that some women are simply mirroring a pattern of behavior learned from patriarchy, other women are attempting to carve out an identity that is in direct opposition to traditional Caribbean gender roles.

Oh dear. Where to begin. My hat is off to anybody who can separate out the women who are "mirroring a pattern of behavior learned from patriarchy" from those who are "attempting to carve out an identity that is in indirect opposition to traditional Caribbean gender roles" in the middle of a crowd of eleventy-fourteen thousand drunk people packed shoulder to shoulder and bumping and grinding their way down the street to ear-shattering soca music. "Oh look, that one over there in the red hot pants and the orange fright wig with green polka dots on her face, who looks like she's trying to mate with a pickup truck, she's definitely patterning behavior learned from patriarchy!" "But the one in the metallic gold thong who is rubbing up against the guy wearing the Carib Beer T-shirt, she's definitely carving out an identity..." "Well, the woman up on top of the band truck, the one where all you can see is her ass, jiggling violently, what about her?" "Hold on, let me check the manual."

And in the end what do you have? Things that you approve of and things you don't approve of. It's the old question again, "Is there sin in it?" or "Does it advance the cause of the Glorious Revolution or is it Counterrevolutionary?"

I've seen people dance like this in nightclubs and in carnivals and at concerts. I have done it myself, I couldn't help it. It is HELL OF FUN to watch and to do, because instead of sort of shuffling and bopping about you do this with the greatest gusto. This kind of dancing is in many respects just like any other kind of dancing. People do it because everybody does it now and a lot of peopleonly dance the way everybody dances now, the way they only listen to music that everybody listens to now and everything else is Oldies. Some do it because it is so funny and daring. Some do it because it's a stage in an ongoing process of flirting and seduction with their dance partner. Some do it because they are showoffs. And lots do it because like all the carnival arts it is a competitive activity. There are prizes to be won, recognition to be gained.

So it's about at the point where this sort of critic loses interest in the arts that I get interested. And ooh, don't get me started on how profoundly trivial I think that sort of criticism is. You know, this post was supposed to go somewhere but instead it's me that has to go. Go visit chuckling. Catch you later.

Monday, March 12, 2007

From the Mailbag

Bob, one of my small but select readers, is studying Russian because he loves Tolstoy. His relationship to Russian grammar is like one of those long love affairs with a beautiful and difficult partner who won't quite let you just leave but who makes you work like hell for the smallest favor.

In my four-hour sessions with Albina, a young, earnest university lecturer, I, an English professor who has been teaching half my life, am not one of those cheerful, bright students who never misses a trick; who has revelations at each clever explanation the teacher offers; and who never slumps his shoulders in despair at the unexpected twists, back flips, and booby traps of Russian grammar.

No, in spite of Albina's talent as a teacher, in spite of how well she has assessed my deficiencies, and in spite of how well she paraphrases simple Russian into simpler Russian, I wince and shake my head, about to weep with frustration when she asks if now I understand about reflexive verbs.

Only a foundering student would resort to philosophical questions at such a moment. And so I think, "What is 'understanding' anyway? Is it knowing? Is it a blurry image? Is it being able to distinguish colors or shades? Depth? Is it having a vague idea?"

At best I have a vague idea, but I don't think I understand, and after a several-moment pause, during which my teacher patiently waits, I admit I'm still in the dark: "Izvenitiya, Albina! Ya yesho ni punimaiyu!" ("I'm sorry, Albina, I still don't get it!")

Bob is a marvelous teacher, who wins the trust of his students and gets extraordinary things out of them. Teaching comes to him without effort, he has so many good ideas, and he respects his students' intelligence. He teaches at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, and it's like a first stop for immigrants who are making their way into American life. Probably half of his students speak English as a second language, some of them it's their first language but as far as writing goes it might as well be a second language. One reason -- probably the main reason -- why he is such a good teacher is that he knows what it feels like to learn.

I so know the feeling Bob describes here::

One day Albina tells me it's because I'm creative that I want to know why, for instance, the numbers 2, 3, and 4 are not plural in Russian grammar. I want to know why "to laugh" is reflexive but "to cry" is not.

I want to tell her it's not that I'm creative, it's that when I notice discrepancies in the few little things I do know, I feel frustrated because I realize, "Oh, no, there's something else I'm going to have to learn."

I felt the same resistance when I was learning to edit equations. But there was, at least, a "why" in all of it. And I was working with this editor whose way of explaining things was so clear and thoughtful that "why" became a whole interesting conversation in itself. Then all these intimidating details became easy. But in Russian, or in any language, there is not much "why." You have to have a strong desire to learn something to put up with this kind of frustration and bafflement. But it's so good for you!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The End of a Career

The Commissioner of the Royal St. Christopher and Nevis Police Force, Robert Jeffers, confirmed to me yesterday afternoon that Philmore Seaton Philmore Seaton was killed by police after (according to police) after trying to steal a woman's cell phone at gunpoint on the night of March 7.

I found out about it because of Larissa, a commenter in Basseterre whose house had been burgled by Seaton on Monday. I am very grateful to Larissa because had she not posted her story here I might never have known.

Hey, I am from St. Kitts and my house was broken into on Monday, in the same area where you lived. Let me tell you how this went down. Last week Thursday, I woke up around 2:30 a.m... I then began texting my boyfriend because i couldnt sleep. I then heard my gate outside open...which is very squeeky... and my little dog outside began barking. I knew that someone had to be in my yard for the way my dog was behaving... I am not as brave as you i guess... my body started shaking like crazy and i called my mother on her cell phone who was just in the next room because i was afraid to leave my room. She confirmed that she is hearing shuffling outside that couldnt be my dog cuz the dog was in her room. after my dog got quiet for a few seconds, i swear i heard whispering outside. My mom got up and turned on the lights and we looked out the windows and saw nothing... only the gate wide open. My boyfriend was asking that i called the cops and i should have, but my mom was like naahh its no biggy.

My first night in St. Kitts I heard whispering outside of my house, but I thought it was maybe due to travel, stress, etc.

I came home for lunch the following monday... around 1.30pm and walked into a ramsacked house. My entire home was upside down. My Xbox game system was gone, my digital camera that holds many cherished pictures, my camcorder which hold video files of my vacationing in the Bahamas, my best friend's wedding etc, my jewelry, my laptop, and money was all gone. The back window of my house was broken out. The perpetrator(s) must have been in my house for hours because they found keys to open safes and went through every single detail of my house.
I called the police and it took my about 45 minutes to get service. I called the first time and was transferred to the CID dept where no one answered, I called 911 and no one picked up, I called again and finally got someone after practically cussing at them. The police took after a half hour to arrive on the scene. They didnt even walk with anything to take fingerprints!
I asked if they had no intentions of taking finger prints. They then left to collect someone to do so and came back. They found fingerprints but never pulled them. Dumb huh?
Well my mom carried out her own investigation, my mom is so much braver than i am. She is a Christian, a firm believer in God. She walked the allies and went to the persons she believed in her spirit committed this crime. Of these persons were Philmore Seaton aka Kiddie and his younger brother Sanjay or Sanchez... Cant remember exactly what it was. They ofcourse denied having any involvement but witnesses overheard them snickering about breaking our house. We tried to relay this information to the cops... a Mr. Browne who was incharge of carrying out the investigation and till this day we can not get a hold of them.
My mom went to them.. (kiddie and sanjay) on Wednesday... 2 days after the burglary and said... "Listen, I know you broke into my house and you need to bring back my belongings. I am bigger than any obeah woman, I am a woman of God. Touch not the Lord's annointed!!! Bring back my items or destruction will follow you, mark my words. Destruction is closely behind you!!!" This shook em up quite a bit as you could have seen the fear in their eyes. Not enough to have them bring our stuff back though.

I love that part of the story. I bet Seaton was afraid of obeah. Aside from just being splendid, this lady demonstrates something very interesting: she wanted to find out the truth and she went and found out. She knew that people knew. Everybody knows this, but she acted. It says a lot for what courage, initiative, and the determination to know the truth can do, in a small place.

Well guess what? Philmore Seaton aka Kiddie was shot to death by the Police the following night.. Thursday 7th March 2007. He robbed a young lady at gun point for her cellular phone around 11.30 pm.
Lucky thing a defence force officer was nearby and attempted to apprehend him. Kiddie then gave the cop a gunbut in which the officer retaliated by shooting him. He died on the spot. He had a nine mm gun and a black mask on him.
Meanwhile, his younger brother and mother were said to have been arrested because after searching their house, many stolen goods were found.. (hopefully mine is there).
Well the latest i have heard is that the mother was released and the younger brother is still in prison.
From since Kiddie has been released... lots of houses have been broken into in the area of St. Johnson ave. Fortlands, and anywhere close to it. Well, hopefully things will go back to normal now that he is dead and his brother is in prison.
Just thought you would like to know... I guess... justice has finally been served.

The commissioner confirmed the details of the shooting. Seaton was carrying, not wearing, the ski mask. What would anyone be doing with a ski mask in that climate? I had seen, but not read, some posts on the SKN list this week about a fatal police shooting, but someone gets shot there with tedious regularity, so I didn't read them until this comment to my story. One or two of the listi commenters may have been police officers, though apparently not involved in this case. The general mood among the posters who wrote on this killing was celebration.

The rumor that a Jamaican security detail, in St. Kitts for the cricket World Cup, shot Seaton was not true, the commissioner said. I realized that the Jamaica Constabulary Force's penchant for extra-judiciary killing is now a standing regional joke.

Here's an updated timeline, with a few corrected details:

In October Seaton escaped from police custody, where he was being held on charges of indecent assault (my case? I don't know), and went to St. Maarten. In St. Maarten he was arrested for armed robbery, and returned to St. Kitts. But now I see that his escape from the plane was in November 2003 and that they didn't catch him then. He made it to St. Maarten (by boat probably) and got into trouble again there. It's after he was returned the second time that the police contacted me in 2004.

You might wonder why I wasn't following the details of this story while I was down there working at a newspaper. Well, by this time I was living in Nevis and working at a Nevis newspaper. I was short on staff, and I didn't have the resources to send someone to St. Kitts to cover this sort of thing. So small crime in St. Kitts was one of the things that had to be sacrificed. And, moreover I did not know that the guy in these stories was the same one who had attacked me.

I am struck by how persistent he was. This isn't someone who was tempted and fell one or two times too many, or who was in need. Apparently, as soon as he was at liberty, whether by escaping or being released, he went right back to robbing women again. Armed robbery, burglary, larceny, all againsst women, were what this guy did for a living. Those activities were his career. I don't really know how people like this think or explain themselves.

I had one friend who was English, a genuine Cockney, who had a brief career as a professional thief. You know in England there are these old crime traditions in some places. Anyway he had done some time years ago and gone into I don't know, construction or something out towards the boundary of legality. He was retired when I met him. One day he simply said to me quite bluntly "I was a thief." And when I looked surprised and amused, he said, testily, "I done some very stupid fings." And that was about it. I think he didn't like jail and I think that he probably didnt' much like being a thief, either. I imagine it's scary sometimes and he wasn't the sort of person who lived on thrills. He liked comfort and friendship, and he liked to work. He was lonely, among other things.

But this guy Seaton seemed something else altogether.

I myself don't feel like celebrating.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I Am So Glad...

... to find I'm not the only person who was bothered by the dog scenes in The Life Aquatic. When they sailed away and left the three-legged dog running along the beach I was so disgusted that I lost all further interest in the movie and didn't even finish it. That's the kind of smart-alecky too-clever-to-be-compassionate-or-loyal attitude that, in case you haven't noticed, I loathe as I loathe few things on this earth.

There is a real benefit to certain inhibitions: I mean, if you can't actually feel the distress of an abandoned animal then it's good at least to feel that it is something you should not enjoy or find amusement in. We do not suffer from a compassion glut in this world. And the costs of losing the inhibition against laughing at real unkindness is terrible -- a tolerance for cruelty, which will, in the end, make life even uglier.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

From the Mailbag

A friend and frequent commenter here posted on her own blog about this appalling story out of the Washington Post. The Post collects blog links to some of their feature stories, and Leslie's got picked up. (The link was there earlier today and now it's gone.) So here's what she wrote, anyhow.

Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache Sunday.
A routine, $80 tooth extraction might have saved him.
If his mother had been insured.
If his family had not lost its Medicaid.
If Medicaid dentists weren't so hard to find.
If his mother hadn't been focused on getting a dentist for his brother, who had six rotted teeth.
By the time Deamonte's own aching tooth got any attention, the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain, doctors said. After two operations and more than six weeks of hospital care, the Prince George's County boy died.

(And people are worried about Britney's children. Give me a fucking break. If anyone is so bighearted that he has time to worry about someone's kids other than his own, why doesn't he write a check for $80 and give it to a single Black mother who is working two jobs?)

Outside of the developing world (and a lot of developing countries want to do better than this, but lack the capacity, the United States has the meanest, most ignoble, most sordid conception of social justice and the well-being of the poor and needy -- old, poor, sick, and black, immigrant. It is immoral, it is a disgrace. For the last 20 years I have listened as the rationalizations for throwing the poor overboard have wormed their way into "respectable discourse," and the shamelessness of the scorn for the poor that you hear in this country, well, it would make Jesus gag.

This child died because meanness is entrenched in the institutions that should have looked after him. Everything is arranged so that people are made to feel ashamed of asking for help, and put to the maximum inconvenience for the most parsimonious handout. The whole thing is an insult. It is mean to believe that everyone who walks in the door of a social service agency is looking for something for nothing.

Where does that belief come from? People who go and gamble their spare cash in the casinos all over the country? What is that but getting something for nothing? People who have speculated in the housing bubble? Or people who made a killing in the tech stock boom of the 1990s? No work, no value added, just wait for the bigger fool. When you have an insurance industry that can decline to sell you coverage on the grounds that you have some likelihood of needing the service -- for which you are paying -- who is getting something for nothing?

The dot-com boom was a stock bubble. And when it burst because people pulled their money out of tech stocks they put it into housing. And housing started to climb, aided by low interest rates. Well, you'd think with the low rates houses would become more affordable. But no, instead the prices went crazy. The price of housing in areas like the DC Metro area, California, and Florida was out of any remotely sane relationship to wages or any fundamentals. Credit was cheap, borrow lots!It was a Ponzi scheme, which is predicated on the expectation of something for nothing. And it ran its course, as these things do, and there are all these people now who are sitting and waiting for the price they feel entitled to on the basis of totally artificial inflation. The mortgage brokers who made loans of half a million dollars to people who earned $75,000 a year, and then passed the note up the Wall Street food chain and made a killing off of loan fees because they carried no liability for the defaults that are now occurring all over the country? They got something for nothing. The poor are paying for all this, they pay for it by working for shit wages at Wal-Mart, by having to take jobs with no health benefits, with constant insecurity, with no provision for child care -- for some families it is more expensive for both parents to work than to have one parent stay home with the kids. I know families like this.

How many billions of dollars of reconstruction money just walked away into the void in Iraq? Cash taken off of pallets, stuffed into duffel bags, nobody knows where all that public money went? Well, a whole bunch of Americans there got something for nothing. Enron, easing itself out of the oil business and into the "deals" business and then into the fraud business before the admiring eyes of the world, was all about something for nothing. And oh, my god, the endless stream of seminars and workshops on "No Money Down" real estate, on day trading, on making your fortune with spam, multi-level marketing: there's one of these bloody things going on somewhere every single day. People go to these things and enroll in programs and plans and some huckster shows off his Jaguar or photos of the beach house, and he takes their money and gives them nothing except a bunch of cheesy pamphlets and books and maybe some DVDs. He is literally getting something for nothing,

In a culture that lives on the deathless conviction of entitlement to something for nothing, what is the source of this horror of the welfare state? If this woman could have taken her sons to a dentist and known that dignified, prompt, respectful, and competent care was available for them no matter where the money came from, if everyone here had a right to that kind of something for nothing, why would this be so much worse than all these other kinds of something for nothing?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

By Morons, For Morons

Thersites at Whiskey Fire notes this story of some guys who tried pitching the idea of making an action movie out of Paradise Lost.

Legendary’s chairman and chief executive, Thomas Tull, said his first response to the idea was, “Well, that’s going to make a lot of older folks relive bad college experiences.” Later he realized that “if you get past the Milton of it all, and think about the greatest war that’s ever been fought, the story itself is pretty compelling,” he said.

As with any Hollywood development project, things are changing along the way. The original script hewed a bit too closely to Milton for the producer’s taste, for instance. Mr. Newman, by his own account, told the writers he wanted “less Adam and Eve and more about what’s happening with the archangels,” the battle in Heaven between God’s and Satan’s armies.

“In Eden there’s the nudity problem,” he pointed out, “which would be a big problem for a big studio movie.”

Mr. Newman also knows that some might see this project as a fool’s errand. “It’s a 400-some-odd-page poem written in Old English,” he said, laughing. “How do you find the movie in that?” But he speaks of the project with unflagging enthusiasm, though it may seem his passion is more for the idea of the poem than for the poem itself. (It’s in blank verse, not Old English.)

“This could be like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ or bigger,” he said. Daniel Craig and Heath Ledger are two of his top choices for Lucifer.

I wish I could say something funny about this. But all I can do is bow to the mightier power of Silly. Even the Times writer can't keep it straight. I love this distinction between "blank verse" and "Old English."

This reminds me of once when I was in LA visiting some cousins. These cousins were all about my age, and they were part of a little network of Uptown Jamaicans who sort of ran together there. A couple of the people in this network I had even known in Jamaica. It is a very small world, that, as you can imagine. But somehow since I left Jamaica I had taken a very different turn through life. I didn't stay tightly inside my little ethnic community. My aunt and uncle in Northern California were at the very center of it, had established the Jamaica Association of Northern California and did all the slog of building an organization that held events, made contacts between Bay Area governments and city governments in Jamaica, arranged charity drives. And they had the best private Jamaican New Year's Eve party at their house for years. Good people who liked to enjoy life. But after I went up to visit for Thanksgiving or whatever I went back to California for a life of my own that was much more penetrated into American life than theirs ever was. Years and years of parties and you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Americans who came to them. And the ones who did always just began to seem like other Jamaicans after a while: Jamaicans are wonderful at assimilating foreigners.

My cousins in LA lived an even more remote existence from their surroundings. One of the two sisters was basically counting the days until she finished her schooling so she could go right back to Jamaica. It was as if she wasn't here in the States and had no plans for ever considering herself as being here. She was absent. And the Jamaican friends who hung out with them were all in this state to one degree or another. Even if they weren't going back they weren't here.

So one night I was there in LA and we all decided to go out, about half a dozen of us, to see a movie. And I suggested, I think, Raging Bull. And one of the guys (among these people the guys got their way in matters like these as a matter of course, a woman could only have a stupid opinion about it.) He looked at me said, in tones reserved for talking to idiots, "It's in black and white."

You must understand that a guy like this considered himself the finest product of a Jamaican upbringing and that life couldn't possibly get more interesting than the life of a middle-class Jamaican totally devoid of intellectual curiosity. When I left Jamaica I was a little bit like this. But I spent my first year away from Jamaica basically alone. I was at boarding school, and living with my mother on vacations. And my mother and stepfather dragged me around to look at things: plays, art exhibits, country houses, historic sites. And of course I read.

From then on it became increasingly difficult to maintain the belief that I could be a complete ignoramus and simultaneously as literate about culture as anybody needed to be. I tried, but then I ran into Alan Stephens and he shamed me out of it so thoroughly that I still keep the note he wrote on my first paper for him, which was about -- of all things -- Paradise Lost. I was about 19 when he wrote it. I keep it like a talisman, and every once in a while I take it out and read it and am grateful.

To think of this studio twit and this New York Times writer between them talking down to Milton for his 400-page poem and his "Old English," Jesus. It makes me want to believe in ghosts. It makes me want Milton, scrawny, blind, crankiest old bastard in a an era that was simply prodigious in its production of cranky bastards (a lot of them ended up over here, remember), and fermenting and perfecting that crankiness over 350 years, just to show up and scare the bejabers out of them.

The story is funny, but still, what a bunch of goobers. Do I think everybody should read and enjoy Paradise Lost? No, but it's like these people are doing such a crap job of what their part of this deal is, that is, imagining a movie. It's the fathomless self-assurance that riles me, and the total lack of curiosity.

What is the benefit, exactly, of being such a lump?

How To Succeed With Women

Roy just gives away the secret. As if he didn't know that there was a fortune to be made in instructional videos, booklets, workshops, and "complete packages."

Also, I am of the opinion that all women are beautiful, even the ugly ones. If you don't understand that, I'm afraid I can't explain it to you. It has something to do with upbringing.

It's the sort of thing that tempts me to iron a man's shirt for him. Just one shirt, mind you, not the whole load of laundry.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Step Away From the Poems

I can't help myself. I see the headline in the Guardian books section and I have to see what they do with it, because it's about William Blake. Here's a beautiful example of someone talking about scansion without having the remotest clue of what he is talking about.

Here's Blake's "The Sick Rose."

Oh, rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

And here's the carefully chosen expert on Blake and meter to explain the scansion to you:

Although it has the simplicity of a nursery rhyme, the poem has enormous political sophistication and technical subtlety. Look at the strange phrase "dark secret love" - where I think Blake is referring to powerful, sexual love. He puts an extra beat into the line there, an extra syllable, giving a strong and deliberate emphasis to the word "dark".

There is no extra syllable anywhere in this poem. There are subtracted syllables, not added ones. This critic, Tom Paulin, has set out on the wrong foot hahaha I made a funny. The basic meter of the poem is one that Blake used a lot, the anapaestic meter. It is the most commonly used of the three-syllable meters (the other two are the dactyl and the amphibrach). It's probably best known as the meter of (my apologies for calling this to your attention) The Night Before Christmas. Now you must never think of that wretched poem again in connection with William Blake.

An anapaestic foot looks like this (x represents the unstressed syllable and * represents the stressed syllable): xx*.

There are two feet per line, but the very first line has a substituted iambic foot -- "Oh, rose!" There are 16 feet in the poem (two for each of the eight lines) and 7 of them are iambic substitutions. That's a lot of substitutions, but it's legal.

What gives extra strength of emphasis to the word "dark" is not that it is an extra syllable (which it isn't). The line, "And his dark secret love" is only the second one that is completely anapaestic. In the lines preceding it it's just potential, it's in the background, an expectation that isn't quite fulfilled. And the anapaestic meter steps out of the background into that line, for the fullest realization of the effect: two short syllables and then this long, open one.

How hard was that, really?

But if I had given up on the piece I would have missed this.

No citation is given for this wonderful exchange, which I've never seen before. I hope it's true. I really want him to have said this.

Blake was a Christian, but he was strongly opposed to authority and hierarchies. His Christianity was strictly egalitarian. He was once asked if he believed in the divinity of Christ and he replied, "He is the only God", and quickly added: "But so am I. And so are you."