gall and gumption

Monday, April 28, 2008

Who Pays?

This morning at 9 a.m. a convoy of truckers will arrive in front of the Capitol to protest fuel prices. Last night on NBC news I heard the local reporter say that about 300 were estimated to be arriving.

It should make an impressive display, even though 300 truck drivers isn’t very many. I suspect that many more truckers, all over the country, will simply turn their trucks in. One of those is my brother.

My brother lives in New Mexico and he’s worked as a long haul trucker for about four years. On his last long run he drove to Boston, New York, North Carolina, before returning west to do some more runs out there. In that one week he drove something like 100 hours. The company pays my brother by the mile, and operating costs such as fuel are deducted from his paycheck. And when his truck payment, maintenance and fuel costs were all added up after that long, long run, he ended up owing a couple hundred dollars. Until a few months ago my brother was making a reasonable living driving his truck. There were other reasons my brother needed to give up the truck, but before those reasons came along in the last two weeks, it was becoming impossible.

If my brother had been able to continue trucking, he would have finished paying off his truck in two years or so. The company he drives for is based in Denver, and the owner has been good to my brother, because my brother is so reliable, smart, and so completely not a hassle to deal with. So this isn’t a case of someone having been mean to him. The impact of this thing has hit the owner-operators first. It will be interesting to see how the companies respond.

The cost of diesel has more than doubled in the last year. Here in Virginia it is selling for over $4 a gallon. Remember when diesel was the cheap fuel? So what I see is a whole industry, critical to the consumer and to business, that absolutely depends for its functioning not on fuel, but specifically on cheap fuel. When the cost of fuel puts the driver into debt to basically his employer, you have a business relationship that is just unsustainable, even in the very short term. The owner-operator starts to look less like an independent business owner and more like a fuel peon, owing more and more to the company gas station every week. Before they go down that road, a lot of drivers, like my brother, will turn their trucks back in. What would be their incentive to stay?

My brother quite likes driving a truck; however, he can’t afford to pay to keep trucking companies in the style to which they are accustomed. Someone will have to bear the increased cost. Right now, among owner-operators, it’s basically the truckers. And they can’t do it. Not "won't." Can't.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Neighborhood

Yesterday afternoon, deer were romping about in the meadow. The dogs were inside. Sweetie went out and it's so hot that she was too lethargic to get very excited, just held her nose up and took notes. Now that they have some room in which to exercise their preferences, I notice a distinct dislike of brisk activity in the warm daylight hours. Basically I let them out of the house in the morning while I’m getting ready for work, and after a sniff round the yard they just lie down again. Sometimes Sweetie doesn’t even want to get off the sofa. She is not a morning person. When the weather was cool, they would spend the whole day, if I was home, running up and down barking at things. Or barking at nothing.

In the evening we took a walk. In the meadow Sweetie found a turtle, an Eastern Box Turtle. It's about half a mile or so to his house, across the meadow and then through the fence and over the stream and across his pasture which is about twice the size of the meadow. From my front yard I can just see the light in his barn. That's the only light I see in any direction.

I haven’t been over there in a while; the last time I went through the pasture the horses kept following me around which was fine with me but it made the dogs absolutely loopy. We took our long walk along the trail in back and then I was standing on the driveway, wondering whether I wanted to go through the pasture and do the crazy dog-and-horse dance again, or whether I wanted to be dodging cars on the dirt road. And here came the horses again. They are curious and fearless, and one pony in particular looks at the dogs longingly; he likes to play tag with dogs. But my dogs are idiots. I had just about made my mind up to take the road again when the two dogs made one immense simultaneous lunge. I can’t say I felt any of this happen, it was so fast; there I was, laid out face down in the mud, half of me in the pasture, half of me on the other side of the fence. The dogs turned around to see what was wrong and I went into that zone, that zone that exists for me on the far side of rage, as if it is not possible to be as furious as I would like to be, no, I’m sort of catapulted over rage into the still waters beyond it. My dad can send me to that place. On the way home I speculated that if anyone in the house had happened to look out the window just then… the thought kept me from going back over there for weeks. But yesterday was just such a perfect day for that walk. We are staying away from the pond and the trail in back because I suspect that lots of geese are nesting and hatching there.

Ben and his girlfriend told me that a one night a week or so ago some guy was sort of hanging about in his SUV along the stretch of road between Ben’s place and mine, harassing other drivers. He had a loudspeaker or megaphone and was shouting drunkenly through it. I have encountered this particular form of amusement before: you drive past a jeep with a couple of dudes in it and someone shouts at you through a megaphone. He may have gotten separated from the rest of his party and was just trying to keep the fun going on his own, or perhaps he came into the area to dispose of an evening’s worth of Bud Light cans, and then stayed, the way some moose in Maine will wander into a suburb and fall in love with a lawn ornament or a cow or a pickup truck.

Anyway Ben, hearing all the commotion, actually got in his truck and drove over to see if I was OK. I never knew he did. He came by, my gate was closed, the dogs were in the house, I was fast asleep. I would never have found out if I hadn’t happened to wander over there yesterday evening. He went back home, the drunk guy with the bullhorn for some inexplicable reason followed him up his long driveway to his house. “He might have thought that’s where the party was,” said Ben. The guy sat there for a while, long enough for Ben to get his tags and call the cops. They caught up with this visitor down the road.

The thing is I’m just over the line between suburbia and the south. Another neighbor close by must be one of the biggest landowners in the county. It was one of the strange things about moving out here that my house was halfway between two Christmas tree and pumpkin farms; the cheerful smiley one is a very successful amusement park. It has a volcano, a petting zoo, a pirate ship, a big slide, a flying saucer and a rocket, all homemade, and on weekends near Halloween and Christmas the place draws big crowds.

Up the road the other side of me in the dark woods the neighbors I’ve never seen have their tree farm, which they advertise with the signs that look like evil elves from horror movies. He actually has a couple of thousand acres. Ben tells me that the reason the Christmas tree signs look so evil is that he recycles the Halloween pumpkin signs to make them. He also painted an evil face on a tree stump at the corner of my road. The family resemblance to the elves is too close for doubt. It’s an enterprising family, doing whatever they can to make a living off the land—for instance, by charging trucks to come in for decades and dump dirt until they have their own personal mountain, visible for miles. Now they want to get into the home made amusement park business, and are busy constructing no one knows what. I hear on good authority that it’s a castle. Ben thinks it’s some attractions.

Ben is a carny, I think I may have told you that. He operates carnival rides around the area, never traveling more than an hour or so from home in the season. He does all his own repairs and maintenance on his equipment, and looks after the 22 horses as well. The good thing about it is that he only has to work six months a year. Except that maintaining 22 horses and all the gear is a year-round job all by itself.

He isn’t really a suburban person at all. He is self-reliant, shrewd, practical, and utterly without pretension. He’s like the sort of people who must have lived out here before the suburbs moved in. Not large-scale farmers, just people with their way to make and enough land to park the half dozen or so vehicles they needed to make it go, open to turning a dollar out of whatever might turn up, such as truckloads of dirt. Not consumers exactly. The drunk with the megaphone and his brethren of the Bud Light cans and abandoned mattresses and TV sets (an abandoned TV set is an irresistible shooting target) are sort of part of the landscape. I’m in yee haw!!!! country, Snopes country, but around here, at least, it seems to be shrinking habitat. But then there’s my neighbor, who drives over to make sure I’m OK and doesn’t even bother to tell me. Interesting.

I told my mother the story about Ben and the drunk, thinking she’d like to know my neighbors watch my back, so to speak. Here is her reply:

Thank you for sharing that with me ... I should sleep soundly knowing
that there is a drunken maniac roaming the neighbourhood, probably
with an axe and a shotgun in the trunk of his car.

Oh, and yesterday afternoon while I was puttering in the kitchen the kitchen cabinet fell off the wall. Luckily it landed on the washing machine. This morning I had to dismantle it, it was sort of sagging there with all its contents underneath it. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I did. And I got some new shelves to replace this cabinet (hastily and badly thrown up by my landlord) and that means I get to use my power drill!

AND while I was at the supermarket I found a tick in my hair. That was about my fifth tick of the day (though not the last) and at that point there was a certain amount of heebie and jeebie under my skin as you can imagine.

After the visit to Ben I did my usual evening thing, sit outside and write for a couple hours and take phone calls. Not many phone calls last night, so I wrote for longer than usual, ate a snacky dinner and then watched British comedy reruns on PBS. It’s sort of a ritual. Usually I turn it off right after Fawlty Towers because I don’t like The Vicar of Dibley. Well, last night I was still sort of fidgety and feeling the pressure: the line my mother quotes to me is “I have not done the things I ought to have done and have done the things I ought to have done. Or something like that.” So I stayed up half an hour longer with my laptop, trying to blog, and the Vicar of Dibley was on and it was the one about blessing the animals and it made me cry.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tick Ranch Roundup

That's what I feel like ever since I bought my own power drill. I've only used it once, to fix some shelves. I'm thinking about that because I'm going to have to use it to hang a screen door. Sweetie is asleep in the driveway, Misha has followed me into the house (she follows me everywhere, basically). The back door is open and some sort of enormous buzzing creature is flying round my room bumping into things. As if that isn't enough, it is not exactly conducive to tranquility and reflection to have an obese German Shepherd leaping and plunging around after it, snapping her jaws.

Well now. Bug and dog have both quieted down.

I saw two very young foxes on the road today, road kill. A few nights ago an adult was on a stroll through the woods or, as I like to call them, "my" woods. It kept barking at regular intervals. This sent both dogs into a state. The fox walked the woods for the whole length of the meadow and then doubled back and hovered just opposite the back gate, but across the meadow and in the woods, barking at the dogs and being barked at. Then he continued on his way. It is a dreadful sound they make, a sort of shriek. When they are mating it sounds even weirder and creepier than cats; it sounds like someone is being murdered.

The turtles are out and about now. And Thursday morning there was a solitary wild turkey feeding in the meadow. I kept out of sight so I wouldn't frighten him away. I imagine the rest of the flock was back in the woods.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Writing for Posterity

Went to see Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre at the Gala Theater Sunday. I came away thinking Lorca’s plays are much more interesting on stage than they appear on paper. On the stage you can appreciate the sort of bareness of the stories and the evocativeness of the language. They are wonderfully uncluttered and direct. There is only one single action, just as Aristotle says there should be, and that action is a revelation.

When I was an undergraduate, and even for a little while after, I had a bout of Lorca-mania. So watching this performance I felt like I was sitting there exchanging observations with a much earlier version of me, the one that was still looking in books for what I expected to find, for what I already knew I wanted. That may still be true of me now—I have my tastes and preferences—but my knowledge of what it was possible to have and want from literature was much smaller. My basic feelings about things haven’t changed; It’s still really about life for me, first of all. And then it’s about the excitement of the medium; but there’s a third bit now that I had no way to get back then, which is the drama of creating. Not in any sort of “Agony and Ecstasy” way. I mean, I can’t bear the sort of movie where the Great Artist or Great Composer suddenly leaps up from his chair, tosses his quill pen on the desk with a triumphant “Hah!” and dashes out into the courtyard and the chickens scatter and he finds his girlfriend and they do that slow camera circle thing that always makes me feel dizzy. I’m talking about the drama of creating when you see it in what is created. Someone has a subject and has to find a way to make it speak, or let it speak. You track that drama through changes in tone, in point of view, in the use of things like metaphor, in the weave of what is made.

Some writers are easier to track that way than others: Tolstoy, Lawrence, Faulkner, Dickens, Wordsworth, Dostoevesky are especially easy (I’m talking about the ones that it’s worth following, of course). You can take their creative temperature by just reading what they wrote. Looking at Lorca’s work way back then I don’t know whether I couldn’t see the maker in the work, or whether I ignored him because I expected him to be somebody else. But watching the play I think I saw him.

So here are a few things that crossed my mind. The play is stripped down, lean, like a Greek tragedy, which is sort of interesting all by itself because there seems to be a sort of tradition in Spanish and Latin-American literatures of a certain indulgence in rhodomontade, or at the least an ornate and formal rhetoric. Someone like Alas loads his realism with irony, but you can’t really imagine Lorca capable of that sort of sly oblique humor that comes with full deniability. In the popular arts of our time, the subversive truths are in the mouths of a garrulous servant, daffy in-laws, a 1,000-year-old lady, by a cuddly space alien who talks like a hippie. Think of them as Sancho Panza’s idiot descendants. They are symptoms of repression.

Lorca was close friends with Bunuel and Dali and helped in the creation of Un Chien Andalou, and thereby collaborated in doing something far more dangerous. The Surrealists appropriated seriousness. Un Chien Andalou did two unforgivable things: it showed that it had no respect for the limits of “good taste” and morality, and it did so with the solemnity of a sacrament. This is something that I think goes far beyond the shock of any individual image. And if you think a piece of art like this is only about scandalizing the bourgeois sensibilities of early 20th-century Spain, you’re sort of missing the point. You’re likely to fall into the error of thinking of what they did as a historical event in a remote place. They appropriated seriousness because they might need it sometime. This is dangerous. I don’t mean only in terms of the risk of artistic failure. I mean people kill you over that.

Lorca’s landed peasants are terse and humorless; The Mother in Bodasis fearfully blunt. Not kings and queens, they are the nobility of poverty; they have their land—not good land but they own it and are bound to it as rulers are bound to their kingdoms, which fulfills, with just a touch of deadpan irony, another of Aristotle’s requirements. Strategic alliances and marriages take place; it’s a small world they live in. The action of the story couldn’t be simpler. A bride runs away with her married lover on the day of her wedding, they are pursued, and the groom and the lover both end up killed. That’s the whole thing, and there is nothing, not one single line, that suggests some kind of larger connection. It isn’t about the rights of women, it isn’t about the hard life of peasants, it isn’t about anything except the story. Except as you follow along you get the sense that something is at work there: the macho culture of “honor” that casually exacts the deaths of the two men, the rigidities of the society in which the play takes place, and last, a sense of the immanence of violence.

But the reason you get that sense of context is because the characters who make up this little society are so completely committed to these things. It’s the force of their commitment that creates the situation in which forbidden love has such catastrophic consequences. They have a few ideas: endurance, honor (men’s honor and women’s honor), family pride, and a relentless need to work their arid land for every penny of value it can yield.

This, I think, is what made the characters seem so strange back when I was reading Lorca. But it makes for great concentration on stage, and then, oddly, the story can accommodate these more formal and abstract elements, like the way symbols work their way into the language (carnations for blood, for example) and the personifications, and the way Lorca uses a sort of incantatory repetition, as in the chorus’s singing of an Epithalamion. These peasants don’t sit around playing flutes and weaving garlands and writing poetry; they’re the sort of people who, to borrow a phrase from Bessie Smith, get their hands on a dollar and “hold on to it till the eagle grins.” Lorca’s use of formal devices invokes a pastoral world that elevates them into a kind of nobility that they wouldn’t have in real life. But at the same time it seems so artless. Lorca’s flowers of rhetoric have a way of just seeming to randomly festoon his speeches. It’s like this touch of irrationality that appears. I mean poetic irrationality. Except that these seemingly random invocations of carnations as symbols of blood and violence, and the way that the violence infuses the language, get through to you in the end.

The violence is offstage. You don’t see it, of course, but by the time it happens you begin to feel that violence is immanent among these characters, in this world, as a presence, like Necessity, like any deity who manifests himself in a dust cloud or a bird flying overhead or a fit of madness. Violence preserves honor, it exacts revenge, it gives completeness and resolution to human action like nothing else does, its law holds the members of this society in their relations to one another. It is the law. And this law’s function is to keep the law of violence in place. There is a simple and specious rationality by which everyone lives: only a crazy person would break the law, only a person who had run off the rails would not shun its punishments and seek its rewards.

Except that The Bride and Leonardo discover that in submitting to the law they are betraying themselves, and they can’t bear to do it. So they run. And are pursued. Their forbidden love turns them, in effect, into prey. The Groom and Leonardo fight; both die. There’s no winner. The Mother is grief-stricken and her words are even more full of blood and death and despair and heroic resolution. The Bride follows the corpses of The Groom and Leonardo back to the village, and speaks to The Mother.

You too, you would have gone. I was a woman on fire, wounded inside and out, and your son was a stream of water that could give me sons, land, health; but the other was a dark river, filled with branches, that brought me the murmur of its reeds, and its song between clenched teeth. And I went with your son who was like a child born of water, cold, while the other sent flocks of birds that prevented me walking, and sent frost into the wounds of a poor withered woman, a girl scorched by the flames. I did not want it. Listen to me! I did not want it. Do you hear? I did not want it. Your son was my goal, and I did not betray him, but the other seized me in his arms like a wave of the sea, struck me like the kick of a mule, and I must be dragged along forever, forever, forever, forever, even if I had been old and all your son’s sons had held me back by the hair!

When she arrives onstage, dressed in her tattered wedding gown, bloodstained and dirty, I start to entertain the suspicion that the women in this play are drama queens and the whole thing is a guileless and innocent drag show. I can't completely put this idea to rest. You must understand; this is not, in my view, a bad thing. That's why it's so touching: I don't think he thought he was writing a drag show. He followed his instincts and a drag show was the result, but it's a drag show of terrible seriousness because he presents the violent world of the characters with the same sincerity and simplicity, with the same intuitive trust in his own imagery. Of course Lorca had personal experience of forbidden love. Certainly his being gay was one form of forbidden love. But his art was another, which is strange because he wasn’t a didactic writer. Whether he “belonged” to Surrealism with any kind of conscious intellectual commitment I’m not sure; he seems to have been the sort of person who would always just be himself. But in a time of reaction and disintegration, human uniqueness can be fatal.

His death was a perfect act of fascist violence:

García Lorca left Madrid for Granada only three days before the Civil War broke out, when the Spanish political and social climate, just after José Calvo Sotelo murder, became unbreathable. He was aware that he was certainly heading towards a city reputed to have the most conservative oligarchy in Andalucía. After the war broke out, García Lorca and his brother-in-law, the socialist mayor of Granada, were soon arrested. He was killed, shot by Nacionalist militia on August 19, 1936. Lorca was thrown into an unmarked grave somewhere between Víznar and Alfacar, near Granada. Significant controversy remains about the motives and details of his death. Personal non-political motives have also been suggested. Lorca's biographer, Stainton, states that Lorca's killers had made remarks about Lorca's sexuality, suggesting that homophobia played a role. The dossier compiled at Franco's request has yet to surface.

Because when the violent go into action, they pick off the weak first. They stalk their prey, they need to destroy and they don’t know why. Every rationale is a partial lie if not a lie entire. It’s not only that; the hostility that Lorca experienced, that law of violence, was killing him before any shot was fired. He was an intuitive person, not a theorizing speech-making political revolutionary; he knew instinctively what was up, and he translated that, simply, as he translated all experience, into his own distinct idiom of imagery and voices. He did not think like other people. He published his thoughts. He was strange. He was queer. He could be spared.

Society only has to gather the hate; some enterprising person can be counted on to turn up and carry out the kill. Fascism ruled in Spain for 40 years after Lorca was shot. Somebody appealed to Necessity in killing him and his brother-in-law. The historic moment demanded it, no doubt, they were acting in support of history and all right-thinking people and it would help them get on in the brave new world they were creating, and he was just a fag anyway. Nobody remembers who killed Lorca, and if their names could be recalled from oblivion justice would turn around and toss them into infamy. But Lorca is not forgotten.

You might as well write for posterity, all things considered.

Update: Slight bit of tweakage added overnight.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Through the Train Window

Note: I wrote some of this on the train and then I wrote some of it afterwards. I suppose I could press on and find out what the point of it is, but it has taken long enough for me to get it this far, and if I keep working at it it will lose whatever relevance freshness it had to begin with.

What you gain in comfort and speed you certainly lose in atmosphere. There is no Chinese man barking at us, no homeless guy, not much of anything.

No, for atmosphere I have to look out the window or read. Which is fine, because everything about the train is fine.

What I love about riding trains is they go along the back side of everywhere. Freeways travel through a sort of noplace, I believe “corridor” is the correct word. And one freeway corridor pretty much looks like another one, if you ask me. The same grey noise walls, the same plants—or if they aren’t the same plants they somehow achieve the same look). You don’t feel you’ve arrived wherever you go by freeway till you can’t see or hear the freeway.

Yes, I’m waxing lyrical. Bite me.

But the train always feels like an interesting place to be because it goes through interesting places. It skirts the back yards on the wrong side of the tracks (both sides look like the wrong side, from the train) and I love the sight of these ancient row houses and the backyards that—you don’t know what’s going to be in those backyards. Such odd private initiatives seem to have been implemented there. Odd awnings, pavement, old cars crowded into small spaces, mad lawn ornament menageries, doghouses, rubble. It’s always a bit of a pang to me to see the rubble. It represents a sort of failure; the power to even try is not there any more. Of course, a rubble-filled backyard can also represent “really don’t give a shit,” which, honestly, I can respect. (I wonder if people in the planes that fly over my back yard can see The Monument?) But the varieties of rubble are impressive.

An old warehouse or factory, rusting, decaying brick, with the old letters painted along the side reminds me that I’m in the Rust Belt, the Blight Belt, the Cheese Steak Belt, the Arterial Plaque Belt. These neighborhoods were never anything special, they were just working class and they must have stretched on for miles, block after block of row houses. But you could have lived in them, perhaps for a long time, and thought you were in the middle class. Even on those post-Apocalyptic Baltimore streets, I suppose. Now I see one of these blocks, or perhaps half of a block, standing crazily by itself with nothing but neatly graded dirt all around it, it’s like a mouth with one tooth in it.

I know this will seem really naïve, that I’m sitting in the train marveling at these things. I look at it and what I’d like to do is prowl around these neighborhoods with my camera taking pictures of all the little contrivances people came up with to make their places expressive of their individual tastes, or perhaps of the force of their really weird personalities. Something new.

I find myself recalling bits of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. It’s one of those books that when you read it, half-understood passages sort of come back to give you a nudge. Like you needed to observe something, or to experience something, in order for the thought that you read to make sense. In the passage that came back to me, Arendt is discussing how each individual represents a new beginning, brings something new into the world. You see, it sounds so trivial when you paraphrase it, doesn’t it? And it seemed trivial when I read it. I didn’t call it to consciousness; it just wandered in among my feelings at the sight of these old neighborhoods.

Each detail, each oddity, all of it, even the rubble, is a little piece of the working out of some private destiny. It’s the invisible made just a tiny bit visible. Why do people go and look out at the sea? (Robert Frost asked that question in a poem) They’re looking at space. Well, that’s what I look at when I look at the sea, certainly. And I like things like the changes of the water’s color as the cloud shadows chase each other across its surface. Space in that larger light. From the train shooting by these old places I’m not so much looking at space as I’m looking at time doing what time does.

This luscious and impeccable fruit of life
Falls, it appears, of its own weight to earth.
When you were Eve, its acrid juice was sweet,
Untasted, in its heavenly, orchard air.
An apple serves as well as any skull
To be the book in which to read a round,
And is as excellent, in that it is composed
Of what, like skulls, comes rotting back to ground.

So why shouldn’t all this ruination “serve as well as any skull”? How long has that lovely old brick church been abandoned and unused there? Not Grand Canyon time but the lifespan of small human hopes. What the peak of those hopes may have been, how far they carried any individual life, I can’t know from looking out the train window. But out the train window I do see how those hopes were all along in contention with that which makes Vanity of all Human Wishes.

And yet, some of these old buildings, these factories and warehouses, are more beautiful even in their decline than the new buildings, hurriedly and speculatively thrown up along the main drag in my part of Virginia, will ever be in their brief lifetimes. There’s the old appeal of ruins, but lots of the buildings are not ruins; they’re being allowed to decay, no one is apparently interested in saving them.

What makes these areas so unvalued now? The buildings are old, but not that much older than in other gentrified neighborhoods. Maybe they’re not near enough to transit. Baltimore’s Rubble Belt looks like the aftermath of a war. It’s beyond depressed; it’s despondent and suicidal. Clearly, nobody wants to invest in these neighborhoods. It’s all one vast tear-down, like the Tick Ranch. Any investment would be attended with displacement and extensive demolition. I concluded that this must be where poor black people live. Any money to be spent here will not provide those people nice places to live in their neighborhoods. The investment will be for somebody else to come live there when the “there” that is there now will have disappeared under the bulldozers.

My neighbor at the Germantown apartment that I lived in before moving to the Tick Ranch was an Indian immigrant. At one point last year I was thinking about moving to a house in Southeast DC, in a nice part of Anacostia. I told my neighbor about it and he said words to the effect that he himself would never set foot there. It was as though by merely being in Anacostia you’d be mugged not only of your wallet but of your respectability, too. I mean, it was something beyond any actual danger. Now, I don’t know what has happened to me, but somehow I don’t have that vague fear. Maybe I haven’t been anywhere scary enough. But when I was at J-school my beat was the South Bronx, and I would have to travel up there at all hours. I got lost once at around 11 o’clock. one winter night, and just thought, “this probably is not a good place to stop and ask directions, so get un-lost.” So, very alert, I found my way to where I needed to be. Another time I went, alone, into a city-owned apartment building that was haunted by crack dealers, every mailbox smashed and hanging open, water and smoke stains on the walls, and a man stoned into semi-consciousness sprawled on the stairs. Somehow these little class identity apprehensions had given way, and in doing so had greatly reduced the fear, which then was not as large as the curiosity. In St. Kitts and Nevis I think I learned that curiosity can carry you a little too far; if you don’t have your own space to retreat into, you’ll wear yourself out. I did actually figure that out while I was there, and that’s when I began to want time alone. Having adventures is all very well, but you have to live with yourself sometimes. And this has pretty much been the job.

Well, sometimes I wonder if whether I’m carrying the solitude thing a bit far now. I think of the past winter when I had just moved out to the Tick Ranch, alone out here in this strange neighborhood, walking the dogs along the lighted streets of the Potemkin Village over the way, feeling like some sort of interloper or impostor – if they knew I came up here from the Tick Ranch to walk my dogs would they run me off? Apparently other people dread the hood, while I dread middle-class suburbia. Or possibly I’m just getting used to seeing myself as an outsider.

I’m sort of feeling my way into this so you’ll have to forgive me if it’s a little muddled along the way. I think the view out the train window is a view also of the monetization of people. I mean, you only need to push your imagination a little bit to reach the point where you understand that everything can be a commodity; everything is convertible to cash. The people who gentrify a neighborhood represent a sort of commodity. You can leverage their presence, or their imminent arrival, into money. You can’t do that with the poor people of the Rubble Belt. It’s almost stupidly simple with me. I have a sort of revulsion against that in principle; I don’t want to agree with it, I don’t want to consent to it, I don’t want to play in it. I may have to, out of necessity, but I don’t want to carry that in my head. I’m sure that if I had kids who needed to be in good schools, that would be the kind of necessity to which I would submit. But I’d consider it a defeat if it started to affect my morals.

And this is because when I look at the places where the poor live, I don’t feel fear. I don't feel fear of being poor because well, frankly, I am, I suppose, relatively poor. I feel friendly curiosity which is really the fruit of my adventures and of the time that I’ve spent living in the places where poor people live. Oakland was the last Bay Area city to have the insane run-up in prices that made the housing bubble. The presence of a large, entrenched black population had something to do with it; housing prices stayed low in the neighborhoods that were black, even though these were close to the BART stations and the easiest commute to San Francisco from the East Bay. After J-school I moved to Oakland, to Fruitvale, which is sort of the border where East Oakland begins; my relatives who lived in the suburbs of Hayward and Castro Valley all assured me that I would be murdered. I wasn’t even close to murdered. I walked around at all hours with my dog (the late lamented Linus), made acquaintances in the very mixed working-class neighborhood –Black people, Mexicans, Central Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese people, Yemenis, the Finn who worked at the gas station, the old white lady who was recently back from the Peace Corps--that I lived in. I actually managed to get out and paint once in a while right there on those streets, I loved it there, the streets and the houses that didn’t all match, and the gardens that people had. I had a big, cheap apartment, half the top floor of one of the last old farmhouses that dated back to when Fruitvale was a village and not a part of Oakland at all, and it was full of light all day. One morning about a week after I moved in, I was at the bus stop on my way to work and saw a near-miss car accident on the busy street that ran down to the BART station. A man with two kids backed his van into the traffic, and so narrowly missed being hit by a Ford Taurus station wagon that the drivers of both vehicles stopped, just to recover from the fright. Mr. Van had not looked before he backed out into the road; he was completely at fault and he knew it. Mr. Taurus stopped his car right in front of me. Mr. Van was safely in his driveway again, he and his children looking, popeyed, out the windows. Was someone going to start shooting? Mr. Taurus cast at Mr. Van a look – a long silent look so rich with scorn, pity, and contempt that I cringed too. Mr. Saturn did not shoot; Mr. Saturn spoke. “You best wake up and smell the motherfuckin’ coffee, nigga.” I started to fall in love with Oakland that instant.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Can The New York Times Kill You?

Can I trade this in and get back the two hours I spent during my my J-school class reunion, listening to experts talking about blogging?

For the moment blogging is, as Times readers know, the Paris Hilton of technology tags.

The very least that can be said is that beating your head against your desk, often, is not good for you.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

How to Speak American

I think it sounds something like this.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I Love to Ride the Train

No, seriously. I LOVE riding the train. Going to New York on the train, well, I suppose those two very Washingtonian-looking folks across the aisle are all jaded with riding the train to New York. They'd probably think I'm a naif. As long as they don't think I am the person who complained to the guard about the loud conversation they were having in the quiet car...

Fine with me. Did I mention that I love riding the train? I get happy on a train. I do not know why. I don't feel this way about planes or cars. Only trains.

You could have me blithering on like this, or you could let Tolstoy tell you all about it.

Still in the same anxious frame of mind in which she had been all that day, Anna took a meticulous pleasure in making herself comfortable for the journey. With her tiny, deft hands she opened and shut her little red bag, took out a cushion, laid it on her knees, and, carefully wrapping up her feet, settled herself comfortably. An invalid lady had already lain down to sleep. Two other ladies began talking to Anna, and a stout elderly lady tucked up her feet, and made observations about the heating of the train. Anna answered the ladies in a few words, but not foreseeing any entertainment from the conversation, she asked Annushka to get a small lantern, hooked it on the arm of her seat, and took from her bag a paper knife and an English novel. At first she could not get interested in her reading. The fuss and stir were disturbing; then, when the train had started, she could not help listening to the noises; then the snow beating on the left window and sticking to the pane, and the sight of the muffled guard passing by, covered with snow on one side, and the conversations about the terrible blizzard raging outside, distracted her attention. And after that everything was the same and the same: the same jouncing and rattling, the same snow lashing the window, the same rapid transitions from steaming heat to cold, and back again to heat, the same flitting of the same faces in the half-murk, and the same voices; and then Anna began to read, and to grasp what she read. Annushka was already dozing, the red bag on her lap, clutched by her broad hands, in gloves, of which one was torn. Anna Arkadyevna read and grasped the sense, yet it was annoying to her to read - that is, to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She had too great a desire to live herself. If she read that the heroine of the novel were nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about his sickroom; if she read of a member of Parliament delivering a speech, she longed to deliver it; if she read of how Lady Mary had ridden after the hounds, and had provoked her sister-in-law, and had surprised everyone by her daring - she, too, longed to be doing the same. But there was no chance of doing anything; and, her little hands toying with the smooth paper knife, she forced herself to read.

Yessiree. I love that "getting all comfy with my book" part. And I know that Tolstoy would have totally dug having an AC outlet right by his seat for his laptop. You know he would, too.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


I can’t help suspecting that the proprietor of ALDaily must be losing an argument with a woman about once a week. Same woman, different woman, doesn’t matter. What do you suppose is the subject of that argument?

Migrant women make a choice to take their chances abroad. They are not passive victims, even if they choose to work in the sex industry... more»

“Shakespeare wallahs,” Germaine Greer stridently insists, created “a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women”... more»

It’s a lonely job, working the phones at a college rape crisis center. So is the crisis overblown? No. It just means more funding is needed to study rape, and... more»

“What is it about us women? Why do we always fall for the hysterical, the superficial and the gooily sentimental?” Charlotte Allen goes in for some self-flagellation... more»

Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby... more»

Revival of a marriage culture depends on convincing women that marriage should precede childbirth and children need their biological fathers at home... more»

Women’s travel adventure porn. Rolf Potts casts his cold, unsympathetic, male gaze over a genre the world might well do without... more»

It's a pretty killer combination, the theme that emerges from these. You've got on one side the theme that woman are not good judges, they're confused and don't know their best interests. On the other side these weak-minded creatures are solely and entirely responsible for the consequences of the choices they make, and if they make bad choices then we are free to hold them in contempt. Contempt enters the picture one way or another, sooner or later, somewhow. And don't forget "What? Why are you looking at me like that? I was just kidding. Can't you take a joke?" And, last of all, the quietly seething belief that "political correctness" is a dreadful imposition on his right to express himself. And a loathing for liberals and hippies that runs so deep that he cannot "believe" in global warming for the simple reason that they believe in it. The "other" side never gets a chance to be heard.

Not a stupid man, but a very sour one.