gall and gumption

Sunday, September 30, 2007


Roy posted some pictures of his workspace with some desk accessories. I'm not sure if the blue bucket on the toilet tank is a desk accessory.

I thought I might as well post some workspace photos myself.

This is the workspace as seen during non-blogging hours. During blogging hours (aka the wee hours) of course I am under the covers and can't take a picture of the bed.

The other workspace is the sofa, where I sit when I'm multitasking aka watching TV while blogging. The sofa is also Sweetie's workspace. Here she is not sleeping.

The Road

I arrived here on my birthday in December 2005. Tom drove across the country with me, and for most of the trip I was no fun because I was so unhappy to be leaving California. On the last few days in California we had driven out to the coast and around the vineyards, just getting in a last look at the loveliness and it was like the whole place was conspiring to let me know what I was leaving. And how did it happen that I had made so many friends there?

It took a week to drive here, and I drove Tom straight to Dulles so he could get back to Florida. Then I had to get from Dulles to Germantown. Traveling east from the airport towards the Beltway I somehow missed the Beltway – no, I know, it sounds impossible, but I did it – and found myself eventually on a ramp that went to the Pentagon and did not give me any option of going anywhere else. I had to go all the way in to this parking lot and then I didn’t know how to get out of there. It was a dead end. I had my car filled with my belongings and the dog. I did not want to be at the Pentagon. I spotted a uniformed man getting into his car and threw myself on his mercy. He led me out to the freeway and I headed north through rush hour traffic to my first look at Germantown.

When you move to a new place your radius of activity starts small. For the first couple of days I hardly went anywhere, no further than I could walk with the dog (I was still sick of being in the car). My apartment complex, one of those “garden” complexes, is on a corner on the west side of a state road. The southeast corner, across this road, is a park, just playing fields. The northeast corner is a mini-mall. The northwest corner is a high school playing field. My dog walks would take me daily past the southeast corner, outside of our building. There’s a curb cut, of course, by the traffic light, and a bit of landscaping. Have I mentioned recently my dislike of a certain style of landscaping? This kind: Patch of immaculately maintained grass on a “hill” or “bump” that bears no intelligible relation to anything around it, with some brightly colored annuals, bought in bulk, planted in a vaguely geometric design and discreetly replaced before their mortality becomes too evident. Nothing cheers me up quite like the sight of those slowly dying mutant freaks.

Water collects in the gutter below the curb cut. By some mischance of street engineering, it doesn’t flow away like water in a gutter is supposed to do. That first winter, this puddle of dirty, oily water froze into a black-grey sooty knee-high lump of ugliness, or, on warmer days, a puddle of slush that was deeper than it looked. It made me depressed to look at it, day after day. Last winter I had more walking routes so this spot ceased to have that dreadful inevitability. I tried to avoid it. And of course I was working, not unemployed as in the previous year, so I didn’t see it in daylight so much.

In the last few weeks, Sweetie’s groundhog obsession has been taking us past this corner again. Extremely tedious for me, hope ever new for her. Now that summer has departed—rather abruptly I must say—I wonder if I’m going to have another winter of stepping over and around and into that puddle. I’ve been wanting to move out of Germantown almost from the day I arrived here. To do so necessitates my finding permanent work and then finding a place to live, preferably somewhere where I don’t have to drive through this traffic to get to work. At various times since I moved here I’ve been close enough to it to make the move, even found the place and the neighborhood. But then one thing or another came up: changes in other people’s plans, car repair emergencies, the permanent job turning out to be – well, from my desk I could smell the brimstone and hear the screams of the damned. And while I hoped that the owners of this outfit would eventually take their place among the damned I did not wish to be dragged in along with them. So I got out of there asap and went back to temping. A little time with the Gummint and back to the Big Scientific Place. Now I’m waiting again for word on jobs. Yesterday it felt a bit like when you meet the guy and like him enough to hope he’ll call.

My mother sent me a bit of Buddhist wisdom about waiting for this thing.

If I get it, I get it
If I don't, I don't

Then she advised me, if I get the job, to take the dog for a walk. And to take the dog for a walk if I do not get the job. A suitable response to either outcome, really, and, moreover, totally of a piece with the whole “I-have-no-life” program.

I’m thinking of this because of how suddenly it’s become fall again. I went out for a walk one evening and looked up at a sky that was not a summer sky. Just like that.

So today, not having heard either way yet, I did the usual thing. I loaded up the dogs in the car and took them for a walk at an old farm that is now converted into a park. I had a map this time. I looked at the map that showed two trail segments adding up to nearly three miles and somehow calculated that walking the length of the trail and back was three miles. I was lugging a backpack and my camera, and wearing lightweight sneakers. I didn’t figure out my mistake till I was almost back to the car. Then I understood why my knees were feeling a bit sore.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Leslie Went to Jena

She's blogged about it. You can read it and look at pictures:

Part I

Part II

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Yeah That’s Just What I Would Do

If you were sitting in the living room of my apartment Saturday night, you might have heard me thinking out loud to the following effect:

After a major life trauma like your wife kills herself or is murdered, the very thing to do is move out of New York City with your alienated child and into a big old spooky house with creepy neighbors in a small town several hours away where you don’t know a single soul.

And yes, when the murderer is stalking about all over the house with a blood-smeared butcher knife, looking for me and I finally get outside (after trying places like the Scary Basement I won’t run to the neighbor’s house but I’ll run and hide in a cave with a big pool of nasty water in it.

When the butcher knife started appearing in horror movies in the late 1970s I remember thinking at the time that it was because they were appearing in people’s kitchens. A big style shift occurred right about then, it seems to me, in consumer habits. Something happened with the style of gourmet cooking, and the need for kitchen gadgetry. So now I think of every horror movie maker wandering into the kitchen in about 1980 and having the same thought.

What possessed Robert DeNiro to take the lead in this dog of a movie? It’s the acting equivalent of “Kindergarten Cop.” I wouldn’t be watching it but that he’s in it. At least, I prefer to think so.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Among the Elect

Nancy Nall went to a George Clinton concert. I place her now among the elect. Click through the link to Undercover Black Man's Interview with the Master himself.

If this isn't enough George for you, remember that if you get this wonderful documentary by Yvonne Smith, it may encourage a trend. It's not like we're exactly at risk of being swamped by smart, funny female black filmmakers.

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Enough Is Enough

Wrote this letter to Caribbean Net News today. I wonder who this twit is carrying water for, really.

I am a Caribbean national living in Washington D.C. I have read Caribbean Net News for years. Having worked in the Caribbean as a journalist, I appreciate the difficulties of trying to run a competent regional news organization with limited resources, but having said so much, I am completely at a loss to understand why you keep publishing the commentaries of Anthony L. Hall.

I assume that Mr. Hall is not paid for his work, and while I understand the principle of not looking a gift horse in the mouth, there are limits. His column today on the story of the woman spreading HIV is just too typical. He writes a long abusive rant at this woman of whose existence he produces no evidence whatsoever. Mr. Hall lives in Washington, D.C. and surely has access to Google. He might have tried to track down the news story there, or he might have gone to and found that urban legend discredited. He is a commentator and not a reporter but nonetheless even a commentator is expected to produce some factual basis for the stories on which he comments. For all you know it could have been spam he was reading. Even his attempt to address one fact in the story was misleading: it's not the incidence of AIDS that is higher in the Caribbean than in the US, it is the rate of increase. This is a serious problem. There are many extremely well-qualified people in the region who can provide useful information. I am sure that any of them would welcome a chance to address regional readers and members of the diaspora who want to know what the leadership in this field are doing. Mr. Hall's piece plays to demagoguery and misogyny -- and we need less, not more of those particular tendencies, especially in the discussion of AIDS. Caribbean people, facing this threat, need to know where to get good information, not unsourced, "I-can't-bother-to-look-it-up" foolishness. It was a thoroughly irresponsible piece of writing.

Mr. Hall's judgment as a commentator is not much better than his "reporting." I will never forget his commentary on the approach of Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans in which he suggested that the people stranded in that city should save themselves by buying lilos. The frivolity of mind and the callousness that could make such a suggestion at such a time were simply indecent, and even more so when the full scope of that tragedy became known. You don't seem to have it in your archives any more, but here it is off his site, just to refresh your memories.

The very least you can do, if you can't fix his attitudes, is ensure that he is accountable for sourcing the "facts" he comments on. As a respected and valuable news source, you should be able to demand at least that much from him.

Update: I meant to put in the links, but I forgot.


Unintentional Parable

From the Guardian:

The inquest heard Jordon was under the water for between 10 and 30 minutes before he was hauled out.

An air ambulance took him to the Royal Preston hospital where he later died.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, deputy coroner Alan Walsh said: "This is an inquest of utmost tragedy."

In a statement issued after the inquest, DCI Owen said there was initially some confusion about the location of the incident. When the support officers arrived, there was no sign of the boy in the water.

He said: "Having made an assessment of the situation, one of the PCSOs called the GMP control room to give out the correct location and an officer was at the scene within five minutes ... It would have been inappropriate for PCSOs, who are not trained in water rescue, to enter the pond."

There are some 14,000 community support officers in the UK. They have the power to issue fines for antisocial behaviour, public disorder and motoring offences.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Fantasist

The Books section of the Guardian this week has been running two items that amount to something like a collision of matter and anti-matter.

First of all, we hear from James Frey again, whose new book, he assures everyone, is fiction. Frey got into trouble earlier this year when it was disclosed that some of his "nonfiction" writing was lies. Here's a little of what I wrote about it at the time:

An illiterate person believes that a book's being factually true will give it more "impact." This is sort of the reverse of the thinking of any writer with integrity. If Frey had sold his book as fiction no one would have quarreled with him except possibly me because frankly it sounds to me like a piece of shit no matter what you serve it on. But nothing tells you how utterly devoid of literary instincts the man is like this business of insisting that this work of fiction was factually true. Because the factual claim has been discredited, and no reader will ever ever ever again trust a writer of anything who shows such poor judgement, who is such a wretched clumsy dimwit in his own chosen medium. But his making that factual claim shows such a dismal, utter failure to understand the nature of fiction and its truth-telling power, that he proved himself utterly disqualified to write that too. Frey is a con artist, he is a slob, and that is that.

Harsh words, you may well say. I will point out that I didn't read Frey's book, and you can make of that what you like. That's partly because of my skepticism about a lot of the "Memoir" genre, indeed the whole creative nonfiction thing that comes out of the workshops. It's like I can smell it before I even open the covers. When I wrote about this I also referred readers to this piece by Driftglass. You'll get some idea of what I mean.

Anyway there the matter sits, and here's Frey making an appearance with his new fictions which do even less for my curiosity than his nonfictions.

Alongside of The Man Who Can't Get Anybody to Believe He's Telling the Truth is

The Guy Who Can't Get Anybody to Believe He Was Making It Up.


As he gets more animated, his stilted conversational English breaks into the hiss and spit of quickfire Polish. This is the first time Bala has agreed to speak to a journalist since his incarceration - and he has plenty to say. 'Of course, the book is brutal, vulgar, the dirtiest I could write, but that's how art must be provocative. Just because I write a murder, doesn't mean I did it in real life.'


It was a brutal death, but it would have an even more gruesome coda. The first police investigation was abandoned in May 2001 after officers failed to find a single lead. Then, a year later, during a routine police review of unsolved cases, it was noticed that Janiszewski's mobile phone had never been recovered from the murder scene.

The service provider traced his SIM card and, astonishingly, discovered that it was being used by an unsuspecting businessman who had bought the mobile from an internet auction site on 16 November 2000 - three days after Janiszewski's disappearance and several weeks before his body was found.

The phone had been sold for 244 Polish zloty (about £44) on the Allegro website by someone with the internet username 'ChrisB7'. A cursory police search revealed that ChrisB7's account was registered to a Krystian Bala. That, in turn, led them to his weblog, a series of demented personal ramblings that would, three years later, be published as Amok.


Talking to him is an exercise in frustration. He refuses to address the evidence stacked up against him, dismissing the case as a giant police conspiracy to dismantle his right to freedom of expression. He claims he found Janiszewski's mobile in a cafe and brushes aside inconvenient facts as 'lies'. Through the course of our hour-long conversation, he compares himself variously to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Daniel Defoe, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Henry Miller and William Burroughs. He likes to make facile puns - 'They call it the system; I call it the shitstem' - delivering them with a half-smile, then repeating them to ensure the joke has registered.

'This book is obscene, vulgar, bawdy and pornographic,' he says. 'But this book is about language and how it works. I am a stupidity exposer, a jester, a rebel, but the book is fictional, it is nothing to do with my life. 'What has happened to me is a horror story of the ignorance, arrogance and lack of professionalism in our public servants.'

In court, much was made of Bala's apparent superiority complex. Two independent psychologists found he had a high IQ and was mentally accountable for his actions but diagnosed a narcissistic emotional disorder that left him incapable of empathy, with an extreme hatred of criticism.

'Krystian Bala is not a fantasist; rather, he says something about himself that is a lie, but as soon as he says it, he starts to believe that it is true,' says Wroblewski.

According to Liliana Lukasiewicz, a lawyer who worked with the prosecution team, the only time Bala showed any emotion during the trial was when the judge said that he must be taken straight to his cell without being allowed to speak to waiting journalists.

'He was immediately very angry that he would not get the attention he craved,' she says.


Friday, September 14, 2007

The State of the Art

A few days ago I met a Caribbean diplomat who lives nearby. He's from a small Eastern Caribbean country. Smart man. We stood around and talked for almost an hour about Caribbean affairs big and small, about which he is much better informed than I am. My people tend to jump into conversation with strangers at the deep end, fearlessly. At one point in the conversation the subject changed from political personalities to cricket personalities with no warning. No cricket enthusiast would feel he needed to give any warning. One minute you're talking trade union leaders of the 1960s and the next minute you're wondering who is responsible for the state of the team.

I'm not sure that people here get how passionately people feel about cricket in the Eastern Caribbean. In Jamaica there is some of that, but Jamaica has other sports at which they've earned an international profile: football, of course, and track and field. This diversity, like so many other of Jamaica's advantages of scale, diffuses some -- not all -- of the intensity of feeling about cricket.

If you grew up in the Leeward Islands and played on the Leeward Islands cricket team, you can fairly count on having a street named after you.

Cricket is a game, but it's not exactly play. So much national and regional pride is bound up in it, for one thing. And for the other, the cricket audience is very sophisticated about the sport. They've been playing it and following it internationally for their entire lives. So the state of West Indies cricket is like the state of the culture. Partisan politics don't get into it, only because it has a politics entirely of its own and equally absorbing; the quality of the captain and the success of the team are indications of the health of Caribbean culture and morals. The great captains of the past are proof that back in the day we raised our children right. The unpopular captains of the present are proof that everything is going to hell in a handbasket and that's why we lost to [insert name of B-level team here].

You hardly see it outside of the region, but calypso has a similar presence. You can get some idea of it from this useful commentary at Caribbean Net News. The problem here in the US is that unless you are in the middle of a community of West Indians, unless you live on Flatbush Ave or Jamaica, Queens, all the calypso you hear is out of context. That's OK, of course, take your Sparrow and Kitchener on any terms and enjoy. But every year on every island a small war is fought around calypso. Every year, these characters are getting up on the stages at parish festivals and fairs for the first round in a competition to be crowned king. Nobody is anything so paltry as a lord any more. One day you're repairing cars and the next day you are King. The finalists and the winner will saturate the airwaves for the next year or so, people will talk about it, it becomes public opinion in a way that a newspaper pundit can only dream of.

Respect is the real currency in the Caribbean. And that's why calypso is so devastating. Calypso is a powerful subversive attack on public identities, on those accumulated carapaces of respect. If you are a politician with a reputation for tomcatting about at night, the chances are people know about it and turn a blind eye. It doesn't get above the level of gossip. When this information becomes the subject of a calypso, well, it has partly achieved that eternal posterity that Shakespeare wrote about in his sonnets. If it isn't actual eternity, that year will feel like eternity.

One calypso (coughcough"Man's Best Friend"coughcough), three responses. On an island which I shall not name, a clever song about what the men of that country will “pay for cat.” Although the song didn't name any names, any listener who was current on local gossip knew the parties. At least two of the song’s subjects are ministers of government. The rest are public officials or private citizens, all well known. The minister identified as “the one who jumped out the window” kept quiet. The one who was rumored to have “paid scholarship for cat” quietly plotted revenge; a year later he struck by sending an “agent” to make a rude on-air prank phone call to a popular female radio talk show host. A third party, a well-to-do, respectable, married private citizen, paid the calypsonian to re-record the song and include him by name.

A politician who goes after a calypsonian inevitably comes out the worse for the encounter. The politician is protected by the libel laws, and the calypsonian sends as much damage as he can in the politician’s direction short of prosecutable offense. To prosecute a calysonian for calypso would expose the politician to even more ridicule and scorn. So what they do is they find other charges. Thus in St. Kitts two of the island’s most popular calypsonians have been charged, at different times, with physical assault, by the same politician. This strategy works rather well. It shifts the ground of the conflict to “Did King So-and-So actually hit the minister? Well, I wasn’t backstage, he could have been drunk, he’s got money worries, the minister is setting him up, why can’t these musicians behave?” It begins to look like a public argument in which the calypsonian got out of control. Artists are volatile people, ministers are not. Subject to a public indignity and a night or two in jail before the charges are reduced or dismissed, the calypsonian doesn’t get off altogether. It is really a pretty crude confrontation about respect; it is the Big Man syndrome. And the politician is then able to say that he is an open-minded person. And you have to hear a Caribbean government official when he gets on the subject of how negative and irresponsible this or that song is. Why, when so many positive developments to sing about – the new wing at the hospital – why do they want to wallow in lies and filth? It’s hurtful, man, it’s not hurtful to me personally, God knows I have to take my licks and these things can’t touch me personally – kisses teeth looks appalled and scornful at the mere suggestion, No, man --, but it’s hurtful to the country.

When you hear this speech, malice is slowly and quietly cooking somewhere.

The writer notes the emergence of Soca, which he doesn’t like.

During the Sunday night competitions the pace of the second song began to quicken. But instead of embracing the evolution of the music what happened was the creation of another genre of Calypso – Soca; with its own competition – Soca Monarch. So artistes such as Inspector in Grenada, Iwer George in Trinidad and Andy Armstrong in Barbados now had no reason to compete on Carnival Sunday nights, because they had a more attractive and more lucrative option.

Instead of having to compose two very powerful songs, one was now required to come up with just a hook, wrap some meaningless lyrics around it and suddenly you could have a title and a good pay day.

In the meantime fewer people attended the Sunday night competitions as the Soca Monarch competition became more and more appealing to an increasingly younger audience who didn’t require much to hold their attention.

In fairness to Soca which is as he describes it – little more than a punchy beat and a hook (“Feelin Hot! Hot! Hot!” Who Let the Dogs Out?”)– I only point out in passing that at any calypso competition you will hear calypsos that are so appallingly bad that they will make you want to rip your own ears off and mail them back to the manufacturer. I don’t know any Caribbean music that can be bad in the way calypso can be bad. But that tells you two things: how impressive a good calypso is – most calypsonians aren’t educated past high school – and how low the barriers to entry are. You probably can't become a good calypsonian without writing and performing a few stinkers. Part of the problem with any art is that if it’s bad for a spell, you think you have entered the Age of Lead. No, nothing can compare to the days when we had [insert name of choice here], the world is going all to hell, etc. And then a good song happens and the lost art of calypso is lost no more.

A singer can get up on a stage and sing two songs, one a piece of rubbish, the other one with something that takes hold. He can climb the heights of the competition, he can sell CDs – some calypsonians I know sell their CDs at the side of the road – he can be crowned King and hear his own voice singing his own song five times a day on the radio for months, he will be part of all the ensuing fun, he will step out of obscurity. People will never forget that he was a King. His song may even go beyond his own shores for success, picked up over the radio or carried by him to regional competitions on other islands. This is, with a few exceptions, what calypso has always done. Only a very, very small number of calypsonians have gone on to international fame. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Local and regional success is about what it always was. Outside of the competitions and the carnival festivities, calypso insinuates itself into public conversation. This is what it did when it was nothing more than the secret taunts sung by slaves. This movement of language, of comment and observation doesn’t just happen in music; it happens in speech and in dance and manners. The mockery makes its way to the target.

Calypso’s best advocate has been calypso itself. You can’t legislate great calypso into existence. You can, however, create a more or less nurturing environment. And an atmosphere in which there is a low barrier to entry, where there are reachable rewards and chances to grow and reach for bigger prizes, where there is public recognition of achievement, and where the artist is not working in isolation, where there is real mentorship, all this helps.

Artists have to fight for their art. Soca offers advantages and opportunities that calypso just doesn't have at its disposal, mostly. But relative poverty never hurt calypso before.

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Scary and Viscous

Years ago when I lived with the artist ex, we would watch TV together of an evening -- it was some time around that period that I began to appreciate the tranquilizing effects of the Law & Order franchise. We had this little game we played, which was that whenever a character would speak a line that was particularly maudlin, or a line that was so manifestly there for no other purpose than to give background information, one of us would turn to the other and say, "Did you write that?"

When I wrote about these poor souls I predicted, rather cynically, that one day the screenplay would be written. but I certainly didn't imagine it would happen this quickly.

The synopsis and the first 10 pages -- and you'd better not even think of stealing them -- are here.

Here's the synopsis.

Two very angry, brilliant, and edgy lovers grasp onto perceived professional, personal and political injustices when they find their careers are in jeopardy. When Duncan and Blake intensify their vitriol against their 'enemies' on a web-blog, they attract the attentions of a drug dealer and a priest; both men want to use them for their own personal, political and religious agendas.

After Duncan and Blake are found dead, a knockout female Puerto Rican detective, A. Rodriguez, is charged with navigating through the all the truths, lies and conspiracy theories. Rodriguez presses on the street, at home, and in blogosphere before arriving at a surreal and explosive conclusion; another worthy ending in memory to the complicated talents of the recently deceased Duncan and Blake.

But the writer has omitted one detail, and really doesn't do justice to his product. Let me fix it.

Two very angry, brilliant, and edgy lovers grasp onto perceived professional, personal and political injustices when they find their careers are in jeopardy. When Duncan and Blake intensify their vitriol against their 'enemies' on a web-blog, they attract the attentions of a drug dealer and a priest; both men want to use them for their own personal, political and religious agendas.

After Duncan and Blake are found dead, a knockout female Puerto Rican detective, A. Rodriguez, is charged with navigating through the all the truths, lies and conspiracy theories. Rodriguez presses on the street, at home, and in blogosphere before arriving at a surreal and explosive conclusion; another worthy ending in memory to the complicated talents of the recently deceased Duncan and Blake -- with fart jokes!!!!

Oh, you think I jest, do you?


Just more of your digital shit, you little shit. Her quips on Wit have become downright scary and viscous lately.


You're serious, aren't you?


Of course, you little shit! Frank's received complaints from the other tenants and I've overheard parishioners complaining about her blogs. Let'm talk to her...he's a priest.


Wit's not a child anymore. She'll just blow his mind right out of it's holier than thou holy water, just by lighting up her cigarette and putting it to all his gas upstairs. She doesn't even have to say a word -- so brilliant; a goddess, one of few upstairs.


(hitting him with a cane)

Blasphemy! He wants his chance. She's just going of many downstairs. I've seen it all before. That's where he always has to come in. Set it up. Pretend it's for Wit of the Staircase. If you still love her, Blake, you'll do it...Do you still love her?


Of course, I do...alright, alright.

Understand that we are not five minutes into this drama and we are on our second fart joke. So the whole thing looks very promising I must say.

It put me back in the classroom, I can tell you. Every quarter there would be a dude who would lay something like this in front of me with the air of a conquering hero. It was almost inevitable that the piece would contain gory violence, a homeless person who speaks profound truths, some sort of drug binge that ends up with the protagonist waking up at the side of a highway in Tijuana or some other remote and unhip place, a girl who posssessed big tits and a geographical name like Arizona, and who spoke entirely in enigmas. And it would have unintentionally hilarious gaffes in it like the quips that have become "scary and viscous."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Question I Ask Myself

Sometimes I go out to the supermarket, let's say, or just driving along the freeway, maybe take the dogs to the park and people pass me and I get that slightly alienated feeling. I get it whenever I walk the aisle of the supermarket or drugstore where the seasonal specials are displayed.

I end up in line at the supermarket or the big black SUV with the big slobby couple in it, I drive past the new houses and I wonder: are these people in front of me in the line those people? Are they the ones passing me on the left? Do they live in those houses?

Who, you ask.

The mean vindictive cowardly bigoted short-sighted dumb sonofabitches.

This growth in punitiveness was accompanied by a shift in thinking about the basic purpose of criminal justice. In the 1970s, the sociologist David Garland argues, the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there. Felons are no longer persons to be supported, but risks to be dealt with. And the way to deal with the risks is to keep them locked up. As of 2000, 33 states had abolished limited parole (up from 17 in 1980); 24 states had introduced three-strikes laws (up from zero); and 40 states had introduced truth-in-sentencing laws (up from three). The vast majority of these changes occurred in the 1990s, as crime rates fell.

This new system of punitive ideas is aided by a new relationship between the media, the politicians, and the public. A handful of cases—in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent—get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws—such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders—and political careers are made on the basis of the public’s reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.

Because, you see, I don't want to live among a public that thinks this way. And here I've been doing it all these years. I wish they'd just wear T-shirts or something so I could cross the street to avoid them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ravished Repeatedly

You’ll have to excuse this bit of almost-liveblogging. It is totally self-indulgent.

Bob (Thank you Bob!)sent me a CD of highlights of the old Karl Bohm Don Giovanni a few weeks ago. This gift mainly whetted my appetite and increased my determination to get the whole thing. I found it at last, ordered it, loaded it in the iPod right away and listened to nothing else over the Labor Day weekend. I mean, I had it in the iPod and in the CD player in my car. By the end of the three-day weekend I had listened to it four times. Don Giovanni was the first Mozart opera I listened to, when I was in grad school. I don’t remember a time when it seemed inaccessible. This recording, made in the 1960s, is awesome; it has Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, the amazing Martti Talvela as the Commendatore, and Birgit Nilsson as Donna Elvira. Fischer-Dieskau sings – he doesn’t shout. The effect is a suggestion of untapped vocal riches, as though whatever the music demands he will produce with the same ease and expressiveness. And apparently there was no note so deep that Martti Talvela couldn’t sing it. Everybody in this performance was a wonderfully LARGE voice, and yet, the pacing never slows down to let anybody be a ham. It keeps moving dramatically and musically; it holds you.

Mozart didn’t invent the story of Don Juan and The Stone Guest; it had been around for a while in several versions. But everything I’m saying about it here comes from the story as it is told through the music, where Mozart gives the story his distinct imaginative vision.

For a long time my experience of Mozart’s operas was of favorite bits alternating with slightly less favorite bits. The singing was easy for me to get at first, but now what’s started to happen -- the fruit of my long relationship with this opera -- is that the orchestra is becoming more interesting.

For instance there is a sort of lull in the story, near the middle of Act 2, when all the characters are wandering around in the dark, in confusion. They’ve all failed to stop or catch Don Giovanni, he’s even beaten up one of them just for laughs, they are grieving, confused, upset, all in the dark, literally and figuratively. If you only consider the story it seems a dull interlude. Just okay. But the music is what’s really doing the narrative work, because in it, as the other characters close in on Leporello (thinking he’s Don Giovanni) you hear the sound of this grief gathering and turning into a force, ominous and impersonal, and you can follow the music into this emotional state, a feeling that doesn’t belong to any one of the characters. Don Giovanni has caused all these people to suffer, and that suffering is producing a sort of negative moral capital that you hear accumulating in those slow recurring waves. That passage is the voice of the pity and awe that you feel when Mozart invokes the sublime. At those moments he’s giving you a glimpse into the workings of the moral universe. It’s big, it’s impersonal, it’s scary, mysterious, hope and forgiveness the most mysterious parts of all. Like in Act II of The Marriage of Figaro, or in the Tuba Mirum of the Requiem. In the walk through the fire in The Magic Flute, he does it with nothing but this trifling little flute melody. It isn’t power that defeats death, but beauty and love and grace. One of the things I love about Mozart is that he didn’t take sides with the universe against humankind. Mozart was sure that being was good; the universe didn’t play nasty tricks.

Remember Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence?”
The narrator has this moment of revelation; it’s the moment when he grasps the old leech-gatherer’s uncomplicated assurance that being is good. I’ll tell you, that poem was a revelation of sorts for me, too. Endurance is not a thing you think about much when you’re young, and here was a lovely representation of it. Mozart has something better than endurance: it is being alive as a state of exuberant and affectionate love, so abundant in energy and capacity for experience that being enjoys itself. “Energy is eternal delight,” said William Blake, and this is what he meant.

Don Giovanni is a libertine, but you only see him carry out harmless mischief, not any serious wickedness. (Yes, he kills the Commendatore, but only in a fair fight which he has tried to avoid.) There are two reasons for this. One is decorum, the same thinking that kept the killings off stage in Greek tragedy. You can’t ask the audience to see bad deeds succeed. The second reason is that he’s not impeached by any one single act. It is his unchecked appetites, his energy that are the problem, because they, and the law of honor are the only law he acknowledges. You can’t shame him, you can’t appeal to his pity, because he is just surging with the sense of his own power, with the enjoyment of being himself. This is what sets Mozart’s Don Juan apart from his predecessors. Near the end of Act 1, when he throws the big party and sings the “Champagne” aria, and follows that with “Vive la liberta” inviting everyone to join him in having a roaring good time, the orchestra gives body and breadth to this exultant sense of himself. It is the expression of Don Giovanni’s vitality, of his expansive sense of pleasure in being. What you hear is what he is feeling at that moment, and it is so grand that it seems to have possession of the whole world.

I believe that Mozart could describe vitality because he had it himself. Don Giovanni is a really interesting bad guy because his aliveness is so truly felt. When he exults in his own energies you feel through the music what that is, and you can feel it because Mozart felt it. It feels exciting, compelling, and huge.

It’s the force of this vitality, and that dark counter-energy that you only hear in a few passages, that drives the story on to that amazing last scene. There’s Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello, and they’re having a feast and they’re listening to Mozart’s music. Donna Elvira, who has been seduced and betrayed by him and is beginning to grasp the extent of his other misdeeds and crimes (and is about to discover what huge consequences he has incurred), arrives one last time, out of pity, to beg him to change his life. She’s his last chance on this earth; she’s motivated by a helpless love that Mozart treats with the utmost tenderness. At this moment, that helpless love is indistinguishable from divine grace. Your own chance of redemption could walk in the door just in this way. And the brute laughsat her! The thing is, it is actually funny that she could walk into a scene like this and think she could persuade him to reform his ways, She goes to the house of this thoroughly bad man and finds him embarked cheerfully on another night of scandal, he is moved only to amusement at her effort. As she leaves she is met by a giant marble statue walking in the door, and she screams! The man has monsters at his house now! It’s clear that all hell is breaking loose. You have to laugh, but kindly.

Mozart understood so beautifully how closely contrary feelings lived with one another. He understood the quickness with which one feeling succeeds another. And he could present an experience like this scene in several emotional aspects at once. Fear, admiration, comedy, pity, awe, all simultaneously suggesting something bigger – that this is what experience is like. It is feeling the generosity of Donna Elvira’s effort to save the man she loves, and admiring and being appalled at his splendid, fearless refusal. When he laughs I admire him. I love them both. That Donna Elvira’s effort ends in such a ludicrous failure doesn’t make the effort any less sublime.

Leporello goes to investigate, and then you hear him scream, and he comes back and he’s so frightened he can hardly speak. So Don Giovanni has to get up and go see, and this is when the orchestra “sees” the statue. You hear these chords, they’re like a double take. The first of the two chords is the orchestra screaming too. I like to picture them with their hair all standing on end. Up to now they’ve just been providing the entertainment for the dinner party (as they did in the earlier party scene), playing the libertine’s servant with the same zestful complacency. And then – eeeeeeeeeeeek!

From here the music undergoes a transformation. It has a whole different point of view, one of many such shifts in distance and relation to the characters and the audience that would be a whole study in itself. The orchestra here is not Don Giovanni’s servant any more; it is the breath of divine wrath. If you heard it out of the context you’d never associate it with comedy – and yet the comedy doesn’t stop.

The statue comes in and Don Giovanni orders Leporello to lay a place at the table. “Ah, boss, we’re all dead,” says Leporello. The statue isn’t interested in earthly food. He’s got more important business. He invites Don Giovanni to dinner. “He hasn’t got time, sorry,” says Leporello. Don Giovanni’s courage doesn’t fail him. He accepts the invitation and the statue asks for his hand. “Tell him no! Tell him no!” Leporello cries. Don Giovanni places his hand in the statue’s hand, and the statue demands that he repent. Don Giovanni refuses, and next thing you know the two of them are shouting at each other. “Repent, wretch!” “No, you old dotard!” He keeps refusing until the ground opens beneath him, and a bunch of demons rise up and carry him off to hell, screaming. Nothing less will stop some people, I guess.

That’s just a little of what I’m getting out of Don Giovanni now. There are lots of other bits that I just listen to and wonder at. Why am I telling you this? Partly to share this pleasure that I have, though for you, listening to it would be better than reading this. But if this little account helped you to get more pleasure out of it, that would be something, wouldn’t it?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


L. and I were on the phone yesterday evening (it was evening my time, she still had lots of daylight left), while she was driving to her happy place. She and I are part of a small, little-known fellowship of people who love the city of Oakland. L. and I are also part of an even smaller and more secret contingent of lovers of 18th-century novels. She’s reading Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, and so when I told her about what happened Friday she said “How impertinent!”

“Impertinent” is our new word.

Earlier on Friday, before the incident, I talked about this situation with another friend, (not an intimate old friend like L., who goes back with me so far) who doesn’t share my peculiar tastes. Nevertheless this other newer friend is a woman of good judgment and she said, “How inappropriate!”

The problem is an office neighbor (male) who seems to have entirely missed any training in personal boundaries. Friday, after several provocations of this type, I determined, at the urging of the extremely prudent M., that I needed to speak to this neighbor about his practice of materializing in my cubicle, practically pressed up against the back of my chair, to peer at my computer screen or the copy I am editing and comment on them, or to make some personal comment about my lunch or my clothes. I had first taken this intrusiveness as friendliness but now it’s like what happens if you start feeding raccoons. So I was mustering up the courage to say something, because as long as I feel some ambivalence about the justice of my grievance in these situations I hesitate; I’d rather put up with a minor annoyance than be unkind.

Well that’s where I was Friday afternoon when for the second time this neighbor came into my cube, practically leaning on my chair, looked at my computer screen and started cracking wise about “liberal blogs.” The tension of apprehending this sort of intrusion, the irritation of this presence breathing down my neck, the taking personal liberties on no basis whatsoever, it was like it all flashed on me at once and then all ambivalence ended. I was in fighting mode. I’m mostly fun, you know, but if you poke me with a stick? Make sure it is a long stick.

Why do you think it’s all right to walk into someone else’s cubicle and look over their shoulder at their computer screen and comment on what they’re reading?” I asked him, loudly. He purported to be shocked that anyone could find anything wrong with it. It must be because I am a little weird, he suggested. I do not recommend this strategy in any argument with the undersigned. Whose judgment is this, and what have they done for me lately?

Anyway he kept insisting he had never heard of objections such as I made, and I just kept after him, insistent, until he was out of the cube. “You should have been able to figure it out,” I said at last. “My brother and I figured it out when we were about four years old. And you know it now, you’ve been warned. After this you’re on your own.”

“Impertinent” is what it is, I said to M.

The difference is important to me. “Inappropriate” is a word you never hear me use as a criticism of anybody’s conduct, in that general sense. Inappropriate to or for what? Oh, just… inappropriate. Well, I don’t have kids, but I can imagine with sympathy some parent running out of reasons to keep a four-year-old from acting up and falling desperately back on “That’s inappropriate,” though I can’t imagine it is of any use. But it’s not a word I ever heard used in this way when I grew up in Jamaica. The word “inappropriate” without an object invokes for me some sort of generalized public disapproval. I have a sort of reflexive dislike of these imaginary people and I certainly do not need to recruit them into fighting my battles for me.

And you know what? I don’t care whether you (not you, oh small and select readers, but the generic you) offended a bunch of fantasy people. It’s enough, really, that your impertinence has offended me. Yeah, I do presume to take that much upon myself. Now, one of the things I love and miss about the Caribbean, and Caribbean culture, is that Caribbean people are not afraid to put a conflict in exactly these terms.

You could be party to an act of gigantic public inappropriateness and I can forgive and love you. My friend Jamie was an international pariah in public opinion on five continents when I met him. Made not a bit of difference to me, and when he died last year I wrote a profile of him that got so long I couldn’t post it here. But if you set terms for the relationship that make it impossible for me to maintain my self-respect in your company we are going to have to part ways. I had to learn this. The lesson holds. In the 18th century “impertinence” meant just that sort of intrusion on one's relationship with oneself.

I don’t break with people willingly. And yet it seems to me that all my breaks have been over that at last, without my even being conscious of it at the time. I think sometimes I’m inappropriate, because I feel like such a misfit. But who can make me more of a misfit than I’ve made myself? This is the great, great thing about walking away. Nobody can take away from you what you have already been ready to live without. And for the little bit of mental and physical space I call my own, nobody has offered me a decent price. I'm sure I have a price, but I don't know what it is. It is not the approval of selfish and inconsiderate and ignorant people, anyhow.

"I ain't going lie to you about no onions, baby," said my neighbor Mrs. G. See? She understands that some things may be worth risking hell for, but lying for the sake of withholding the odd onion from the annoying D. is definitely not one of them. You don't go to hell for onions.

But if someone offered me one of these I'd feel the whole structure, the whole painfully built edifice of my principles, shaking on its foundations. I think I'd be numbering the pieces of my scruples and loading them into crates for shipment to the buyer if he offered me one. I believe that I get a little more corrupted every time I look at a picture of one.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Norbizness has a beautiful dog and an unbelievably cute hamster. During the latest of those moments of those recurring moments in which he (Norbizness not the hamster; the hamster seems to be enjoying a state of Buddha-like inner serenity and completeness, living in the moment as we are all enjoined to do) despairs of sufficient bloggy love -- i.e., visits -- I promised that I would put him on my blogroll. I am happy to pass along to him whatever traffic comes to me in the way of people looking for naked Grenadian passa passa dancers and Sutton deodorant commercials. It's not much God knows but it's what I've got.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Uses of Blogging

What do you do when you wake up laughing from the first sex dream you've had in a long, long time, a dream that has no sex in it (but they don't actually need to) just a dim and remote prospect of sex and in between me and it a series of really silly pratfalls and improbable situations like 1) remembering that it isn't the third date but still, 2) having half a dozen of my relatives arrive for a dinner party, 3) the friendly sexologist who happened to live on the premises keeps spare condoms in a tree 4) My friend T. shows up with her husband for the dinner party, 5) the brief appearance of a duck.

The sad part is that I can't tell the other party about his role in this farcical fantasy. He does happen to be a real person -- it's always a real person, isn't it? -- I mean a person I know and not a celebrity. First, because dreams are boring, and second, it would just totally send the wrong message, or possibly several wrong messages simultaneously. "Hi, [slight acquaintance] I had the funniest non-sex sex dream of my life, a fiasco, a laff riot, and you were in the leading role!" I can certainly imagine good outcomes coming of such a revelation to the party of the second part, but many more and many more likely bad ones. So I tell you instead.

Scary Things

I'm lying in bed, it's Saturday night, and Sweetie comes into the bedroom with a slightly haunted air. She is looking for somewhere to hide. I invite her up onto the bed but no, she's too unhappy and won't feel secure up there, so she is searching around my room for a safe place. The usual safe places, under the desk or under my bed way up against the wall, are not safe enough, apparently. Meanwhile I'm wondering what's bothering her. I hear, out in the living room, a "bleep!" It's my cell phone letting me know that the battery is low. This noise scares Sweetie. Other noises that scare her are thunder and my father cutting up meat in the kitchen. The sound of the knife on the cutting board sends her scurrying under my bed.

Outside she isn't scared of a lot of things but last weekend she unfortunately found out about frogs. Frogs have the disconcerting habit of jumping plop! into a stream just as she is about to take a drink from it. Sweetie's attitude to bodies of water is like that of a lot of Caribbean females. It's for getting your feet wet or maybe lying down in the shallows right at the water's edge. The two times Sweetie has been in water she couldn't wade in (once when I threw her into the sea to see what would happen and once when she stepped through some duckweed into a pond she didn't know was there) she walked on the water to get out. And the water that she does get into must not be doing anything funny. Well, now, thanks to the frogs, the water is doing funny things. Some thing springs out of the bushes and goes plop! or ploop! and while it doesnt' seem to indicate any danger to her, the apprehension of being startled has dampened, so to speak, this particular pleasure of hers. She looks so discomfited now at the least little disturbance near the water!

Well it's easy for me to laugh. We were walking back to the car when I felt something sticky-scratchy-dear-god-please let it be a leaf.

This woman I work with at the Big Scientific Institution told me a funny story. She was on the Metro one day and noticed that a woman sitting near her had a praying mantis on her and was completely unaware of the fact? M., my friend at work, said to me, "What do you do?" Really, what does one do? I once saw a woman go into complete literal hysterics because of a lizard. It was at this posh restaurant in Kingston where my aunt had taken me and her two daughters, my cousins, for drinks. I was about 12 at the time, my cousin D. was about five. She was trying to catch a lizard, just a wee one, and cornered it under the tabletop. The lizard, in desperation, jumped and landed in my cousin's hair. My aunt swung at it with a rolled up newspaper and knocked the lizard lightly so that it went soaring across the patio and landed in the skirts of a waitress on a break. The restaurant was in an old great house and the staff dressed in vaguely 18th-century costume, the men in knee beeches and the women in full skirts with frilly petticoats. The lizard disappeared into all those frills and the poor waitress sat up like she'd been shot and started screaming bloody murder. She was completely beside herself, shaking and jumping up and down and tearing at her clothes and screaming, screaming, screaming. One waiter came over to help, but she was screaming too much to answer him. So he did what they do in the movies, he gave her a light, smart slap across the face. This stopped the screaming, just like in the movies. She told him about the lizard and he looked around and pointed it out to her on the ground a few feet away from her chair. Well, he was doing great up to that point. But he should not then have laughed.

So the thing is if you tell someone they have a big space-alien looking bug on them in the Metro you could cause an incident. And, as my cousin D. recently pointed out, it could end up harming the bug. M. chose to do nothing.

So what did I find on my shoulder this afternoon traveling up or possibly down my neck? I'll tell you but first you have my permission that if I am in the vicinity and you see something like this on me, just don't even tell me about it, just walk up, knock it off with a rolled-up newspaper or your bare hand if you feel brave, whatever. Then tell me. Because -- OK you have to understand how I feel about creepy crawlies. If it has some sort of skeleton, exo- or endo-, I'm all right, except for big hairy spiders in my underwear (I know more about that than anybody should have to). But squishy things. I cannot handle the squishy things. And this was some sort of large green squishy thing, this big ass caterpillar the size of a Greyhound Bus, this HELLWORM, on my NECK, with its vaguely scratchy suckery spiky feet so help me God. I brushed it off and managed not to break out screaming. (I almost rear-ended someone when I found a little inchworm crawling on me after a hike a couple weeks ago.)

You know those bumper stickers that say, "I brake for small animals"? I need one that says "I go completely batshit when I find caterpillars on me." For the next hour I was brushing imaginary caterpillars off myself. And now I'm wondering whether I should just stay out of the woods until these creatures finish up whatever project it is they're working on, the one that requires them to hang by invisible threads from trees and then drop on people.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Addio, Addio!

My mother reports that yesterday on BBC radio there were hours and hours of tributes to Luciano Pavarotti. Well, perhaps I'd better let her tell you.

...a few minutes
ago someone said he was the greatest tenor of the age.
Ross promptly shouted oh piss off, and switched the
radio off so I asked him who he thought was the
greatest tenor. Pav could only sing happy or not
happy, that's all, he replied. I said that someone at
Covent Garden had said Pav couldn't act for toffee but
his voice conveyed everything.

Nonsense! none of them can act, they all just go waaa

My stepdad is an passionate, educated, if slightly idiosyncratic listener to classical music. (I am thinking now of that interlude a few years back when all he listened to was old English church music). Classical music is the only kind of music he listens to. And like a lot of people who are serious about classical music, he had reservations about Pavarotti as a singer. I share those reservations though I am far from a serious listener. He had a beautiful voice, and what a lot of it! It never seemed in danger of wearing out. And he always seemed like such a nice guy, who was really trying to give you the music with all of himself. But at his worst he just sort of shouted to the music. (I've been thinking about this recently, as will become apparent in something I'm working on now.) I mean, in opera you can have a lovely voice and yet not sing. Pavarotti, singing well and singing badly, made classical singing accessible to a lot of people and that's ground for tremendous gratitude, in our day and age. But when you thought he was making the music beautiful it was the other way around -- the music was beautiful to begin with.

I used to cringe slightly whenever I'd see another one of those "pop" productions, like those Three Tenors things, because it was like marketing Pavarotti as the music. Now I feel a little more forgiving, as I'm sure the enormous commercial success of those albums helped to subsidize the production of music that served a smaller, but more devoted audience. He truly was a servant of his art, and a generous one.