gall and gumption

Saturday, September 26, 2009

From the Correspondence Files of

From: Kia

To: Da Gator

Dear Gator,

So I was driving home from some errands this afternoon catching as much as I could of the Saturday programming on WPFW, as usual. Honestly I could listen to it all day, and sometimes I do. But I only caught the very tail end of your show and the bit I caught was almost entirely taken up by this one song that was so awesome that when I got home I sat in my car listening so I could write down the information about the artist. But I guess you must have done that beforehand.

It was the song about the lady whose man hadn't given her any action in 6 years and it was their 20th anniversary so she went out to Frederick's of Hollywood and got three nekkid jays (after you put it on you're still nekkid as a jaybird) to sew together to make one big one and then she cooked him some pork chops and ordered his favorite booze, had it delivered from the liquor store; it was Ripple, two bottles. And then after all that he didn't show up so she drank all the Ripple and then she ate all the pork chops and went to bed and woke up to find him snoring beside her and drooling all over her arm, and when she reminded him it was her anniversary he told her he didn't want to hear about it. So the next day after he left for work she changed all the locks. And then when he came home she had all this cooking--greens with smoked meat, macaroni and cheese, a roast chicken and about three different kinds of cornbread, with the windows open so the smell was blowing down the street. That song. It rocked my world and made my day. Who was the artist and what was the song? I bet it's not his/her only good one.

I know you're busy, but I hope you have time to tell me just this little thing. And thanks for many awesome Saturday afternoons.


Friday, September 25, 2009

The Mysterious West: Did That Popsicle Taste Funny to You?

Well, I've tried. Is there possibly some folkloric tradition involving a baby and a giant eggplant or possibly a normal sized eggplant and a very very tiny baby? But that wouldn't explain the popsicle though, would it, unless they had popsicles in the Ancient Far West. Possibly these are based on the theory that among the peoples of the West anything can be improved by simply sticking a baby on it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Great is Truth..."

Photo by Erasmus Williams

I meant a while ago to take note of this little news item, but it sort of got away from me, what with one thing and another.

But I've wanted to get back to it, because if I were to tell you all about me and Mr. Bramble you would think I had made it up.

So this is just a little.

When I was in my senior year of high school--the only year of school I had in the US before college, I lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This was the year after my year at the English boarding school. My father and stepmother and my new baby brother had been sailing round the Caribbean and settled in St. Croix, just by a sort of fluke, really, and we had all been reunited there, and I discovered that I loathed the place and was stuck there, miserable, miserable. First of all I disliked my stepmother (it was mutual and hardly a secret) and second of all it was such a small place--and the locals had this accent that was an affront to my Jamaican ear. I had gone to a place that was closer to Jamaica than England, and more similar to Jamaica than England, and I guess that was something. For a long while St. Croix for me was just the non-Jamaica, the almost-Jamaica, with just enough of a resemblance to offer a sort of teasing delusion that something real for me as Jamaica was might be hidden there somewhere. And my year there was one long lesson in the futility of that hope. But in spite of my resistance I learned to appreciate some features of life there for themselves. One of the first was Radio Antilles, The Big R.A. It had a powerful signal and broadcast from Montserrat, of all places, to all the Leeward Islands and even as far north as the St. Croix, where on Sunday afternoons I'd listen to it, partly because of the signal; you could hear it, it was the strongest and clearest one.

What I didn't know about the Eastern Caribbean then I am ashamed to admit now; but Jamaicans in those days did not condescend to know anything about the small islands. I began to learn from listening to The Big R.A. And what I was listening to was greetings. The format was familiar, but the accents weren’t, the names weren’t, the places weren’t. Norma in St. Thomas was sending happy birthday to her beloved brother in St. Kitts; a young man in St. Maarten sent his love to his special lady friend; Icilda sent love to Irvin; a whole family in Tortola said happy birthday to a great-grandmother in Antigua. It had nothing to do with my social or educational ambitions. I'd be loafing around the living room, with nowhere to go, reading and trying to think cool thoughts, and this noise would be the background and I would find myself drawn in, my attention arrested by all those messages of love crossing the water. It made me think, in my complete ignorance, that Montserrat was a big, important place.

And then I went away to college and escaped from the Eastern Caribbean. When I went to St. Kitts in 2002, Radio Antilles had long gone. It had had money troubles and then at last even the building was gone, destroyed by the volcano along with the whole city of Plymouth. Mr. Bramble had been a sportscaster for the big R.A., but I learned this from him long after he had become a hero to me anyway.

Except for his time at Radio Antilles, a whole generation ago, I don't think he has ever worked for a major news organization--even a Caribbean major news organization. Most of his fame as a journalist rests on his newspapers. He had one in Montserrat, and after the volcano he moved to Nevis, where he started another one. In Montserrat he had experienced his family connections to the government (he was the son of one Chief Minister and the brother of another) as both a liability and an asset. In Nevis, though, he was on his own. He wrote and gathered the editorial content; his female assistant, a young woman with a high-school education and singular presence of mind, tact and kindness, who laid out the paper, took in the few ads, and helped manage the commercial printing press that subsidized the whole thing, and a couple of printers who operated the press. If his circulation ever topped a few hundred issues of each weekly edition I never knew about it. Occasionally, because of one problem or another a paper wouldn't get printed, there'd be a gap. But it would always come back. It was about 12 pages in all, three spreads, printed on sheets of bond paper. He had to travel to Puerto Rico in person to buy things like printing inks.

When I first encountered it at the all-night grocery in St. Kitts, I didn't know what to make of it. On the front page, typically, the sort of screaming headlines usually devoted to major catastrophes (144-point block caps) would declare Mr. Edric Stanley's opinion of some latest piece of Nevis politics--a land deal, some proposed program, some bit of ministerial malfeasance. Below the headlines there would be a stock photo of Mr. Stanley. Sometimes it was not Mr. Stanley but some other prominent Nevisian, who would basically have almost the whole front page to air their views. These Nevisians were businesspeople, mostly, who found themselves in opposition to the government. Page 2 was usually occupied by a full-page ad for a hotel on the waterfront in Basseterre that belonged to Mr. Bramble and his wife. There was another regularly running half-page ad promoting, weirdly, gasoline and vitamins. This ad, I learned eventually, was for Mr. Stanley's gas station. The rest of the paper was mostly the same edited government press releases that filled up half of the other local paper, a puzzle and comics page, and a couple of regular columnists including a public health nurse. It sounds terrible, except that what it supported each week was one piece of serious journalism written by Mr. Bramble, and a funny, nervy, and completely original editorial written by Mr. Bramble.

In his one piece of actual journalism, and in his one weekly editorial, Mr. Bramble showed two rare virtues: one, he wrote beautifully, and two, he was tenacious. He did not let go of things. He did not move on, he did not forget or let you forget. He had a special gift for attacking certain sacred cultural assumptions. There was a minister of government at the time (he's dead now), he was actually the deputy premier, a big useless lump, grossly obese. The brother of this minister was considered a Great Man because he had a very successful ice cream shop in New York and had once been featured in one of those "model immigrant makes good" stories in the New York Times. The ice-cream shop brother's aura of fame and success sort of extended as far as the big useless minister brother. And Mr. Bramble did not spare them. I just remember one editorial in which he was attacking some government project of dubious public value but probably considerable private benefit, and announced that if it went through, "Mr. Guishard will be able to sit up to his neck in ice cream..." He was a genius at needling. He was shrewd enough never to come close to running afoul of the libel laws, but he just stayed steadily on the attack, he just wouldn't move on.

To understand what is at stake, you need to consider a couple of things. In the Eastern Caribbean newspapers first appeared as organs of political parties. Each party has its own paper, embarrassingly partisan and with almost no content outside of political exhortation, self-congratulation, and mud flung in the general direction of the other side. Governments tend to think of newspapers as extensions of their political arms, and have a history, throughout the region, of trying to make sure that newspapers stay in that role. Because of what I call the system of "status patronage" there are numberless opportunities for conflicts of interest between supposedly independent newspapers that, say, stand in need of subsidies from the government or want printing contracts (no newspaper can pay for itself in any single country in the Eastern Caribbean); and so the basis is found for little backroom deals, not to mention the multifarious family and business connections. All this, plus the actual threats, have been challenges to the emergence of independent media.

In recent years, attempts to require annual licensing fees on Montserrat and Antigua and to revise the penal code on Montserrat (both potentially punitive to the press), were proposed and withdrawn. The Newspaper Registration and Surety Ordinance, as the bill was called, stipulated a prohibitively-high EC$50,000 bond for publication. Considered an effort of the anti-Bramble political faction, it was written two months after Howell Bramble started the Montserrat Times in 1981. Montserrat's legislation must be approved by Great Britain, and in this case the British foreign secretary said he would not consent to the bill. The 1983 revision of the penal code, thought to be aimed at journalists, would have given the government the right to decide on potentially seditious material. (Mass Media and the Caribbean, by Stuart H. Sulin and Walter Soderlund, 1991)

What Mr. Bramble did in his newspaper career is, against great difficulties, hold on to independence. And he's not a man who has had an easy life, or a man of extraordinary brazenness or recklessness. No one was paying him a big salary to do the brave thing he did, just hanging in there. He did it because he couldn't not do it once it was there to do. But not satisfied with that only, he also insisted on being decent.

He told me once about one transaction involving his most vicious competitor in the newspaper business, a man who enjoyed all sorts of advantages because of his mostly favorable position in relation to the party in power, in other words, a man who had built a career in sweet little deals and a newspaper on what I call the "status patronage" system that operates even when you don't see any money changing hands. Despite all his connections this competitor was once arrested at his workplace. Mr. Bramble had gotten wind that it was going to happen, and a photo of the event would have sold out his little paper--but he wouldn't do it. And yet, when the same man knocked up a young woman on the island, he published a an account of it as told by her mother.

One day we were both down at the ferry terminal in Nevis, waiting for the arrival of some paper from St. Kitts. I was probably grumbling about something. Mr. Bramble and I were both unhappy in those days, for various reasons; you will notice that I don't work at that paper any more. Neither, sadly, does he--and that's a much greater loss. Well, on this particular day I was bitching and he, I presumed, was listening, gazing out past the dock to the sea. Well, you know how you can suddenly notice that the other person has not been listening and you've been talking to yourself? I had that moment, and I paused.

There was no sign of the ferry, but the coast guard's inflatable dinghy, the one with the absurd-looking wooden kiosk sprouting up out of it, was tied up to the dock. That meant the governor-general was on the island, having sailed over from St. Kitts in his little box. He was probably engaged on one of his main official duties in Nevis, which was shaking hands and delivering a birthday card on behalf of the Queen of England to every senior citizen who reached the age of 100. There are a surprising number of them in Nevis.

"I wonder how the governor-general gets in and out of that boat, though," Mr. Bramble said. I glanced over and I didn't know how, either. It was about four feet from the surface of the water to the top of the pier. The governor-general is a large, pear-shaped man in his eighties.

Mr. Bramble sold the paper to its current owners, and for a little less than a year I worked for them, alongside him, and learned things from him about real courage, real dignity, and real goodness that I hope I never forget. I was happier when he was in the office--the workings of his mind were a source of continuous delight and wonder to me, not to mention big, happy laughs. Of the days before my departure from St. Kitts and Nevis, the one I recall with the most sadness was the evening when I sat with him on the balcony of his hotel in Basseterre, and we talked and I felt the minutes speeding by much too quickly, knowing that when I walked out I would not know if or when I'd ever see him again.

For me Mr. Bramble's great achievement is that all the respect he now receives and so richly deserves, is for work that completely originates with him--from his own editorial judgments, which, as I said, are first of all moral judgments; from his own self-created writing style, formal, funny, and thoughtful; from all his struggles to do what he loves, to report and write the news even when the most ordinary contingencies (wife needs car) get in the way; to do brave and generous things because as much trouble as they are, it would be a lifetime of trouble if he took the coward's way; his large and kind human curiosity; his natural gallantry and magnanimity. He owed none of this to any boss, to any compulsion, to the hope of any material reward. It was a continuous struggle, for the thing for its own sake, with what modest resources he had, and I doubt it ever earned him a dollar. What he finally made was himself, as a source of action in the world, action that originated in his own considered values and out of his struggles with contingency, a self that's a good man and not a monster, standing for something. So maybe this won't mean much to you, but I'm so glad to see some recognition of his value.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

The Elect, Heard From

Below is my posted response to "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Screenplay," a piece at the Village Voice site by this screenwriter named Josh Olson who got an Academy Award nomination and now is approached by all sorts of people wanting him to read their scripts. I'm not familiar with his oeuvre--a guy like that, with so many pressing demands on his creative judgment and all, must surely have an oeuvre--but I don't think that matters.

If Olson can make a judgment about a screenplay within a page or two (I don't doubt it's possible--I do it all the time with other types of writing) why does he have such a big pile of screenplays on both sides of his bed? Surely he'd be getting through them quickly? Are they coming in at such a prodigious rate?

Second of all my own feeling is that the person who gets to do what they love for a living is enjoying a sort of privilege. I'd like everyone to have that privilege, but I acknowledge we are far from that state of job Nirvana. In the meantime it's nice for the lucky ones to share, to give a little, instead of imagining that one's material success is necessarily a proof of one's greater deservingness, which the not-yet-pros don't appreciate or they wouldn't importune you with their pathetic hopes etc. Notice that there is a sort of reflexive hostility of insiders toward outsiders? You ever notice how easy that is? And how easy it is to like and admire the person you're looking up the ladder at? You haven't noticed that or learned to question it yet? There is no surer sign of the insecure parvenu than these snarls toward those approaching from below. Someone's got to show the beginner where to begin. Kindness is needed so it might as well start with you. If that doesn't motivate you, then consider that those writers are your most attentive readers. It can be a way to give back, and you can make sensible arrangements to do it so you aren't waylaid and it doesn't take over your life, just like any other formal giving. Hire an intern for four hours a week and pay them to learn how to move the crap out the door. "I have a great mountain of scripts by people I like more than you and are better writers than you" is very likely untrue and definitely rude.

If someone's screenplay or short story appears to you to be rubbish after five minutes's perusal, then tell them so in the sixth minute. Why waste any more time? Honestly, if you need weeks to figure out why and how to say it then maybe you don't know your shit as well as you think you do. Or you're marketing your own profundity or something. Because the amount of money it would take for me to lie to people about my opinion of a piece of writing would have to arrive in a fleet of armored trucks, and I am certainly not going to bother to do it for free.

Finally, stories about real life are funnier when they're true and accurate.

See that? That engaged with the writer's ideas and endeavored to teach him something about his responsibilities as a writer and how he might more satisfactorily fulfill them. Took me a little more than half an hour.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"Get Out! Get Out!"

The reason for the silence will become apparent soon, I hope. I've been working on something to put up here, and the trouble is every time I think I'm going to write a short note it keeps not being a short note. It has become two notes--one very long and nowhere near finished and a medium-length one that may be finished if I can convince myself I've really said enough. Too much and not enough. It's about Al Stephens and right now the only way out is through. For weeks after he died I didn't want to do much besides write about him. Fun was had, certainly, dogs were walked, and I kept cheerful enough, but a big stupid indigestible lump of sadness sat where my writing brain used to be and I've just been trying, trying, to write my way out of it. For weeks I was going in circles, writing each sentence three or four times in the morning and then deleting it all at night, or else sitting with the big legal pad and filling it (I'm on the second one now) with more, more, more.

I have always been a somewhat stingy writer. I mean, when I began I wrote the absolute minimum needed to complete any task. This wasn't so much laziness as the creeping approach of anxiety and fidgetiness that in combination would sort of explode me out of the chair into any distraction. Because it was so hard for me to get myself to write I couldn't afford to commit myself to anything that couldn't be finished in one session of writing. Didn't want to rewrite--I almost never rewrote anything till I wrote my doctoral dissertation, and then only because Al's comments were so brilliant, and because I was writing for Al. And even then there was little that had to be reconceived or stripped back down to nothing and rebuilt.

So this task of writing about Al has had its terrors, in that I had to write, for weeks, scratching away at this thing, without feeling sure of what I was doing, and knowing that a lot of what I was writing would just have to be thrown away. I'll admit that this terrified me, and that the habitual dark imaginings would come visit: brain going, FAILFAILFAIL yer life is a farce and a charade haven't got the stuff any more kiddo visions of living in my car shopping cart plastic bags what will I do with all my watercolor paper then? watercolor paper or clothes? brain gone completely gibbering bag lady riding the subway Have you seen your ass lately? etc. No one will ever know who she really really was. Except Al (now departed) and her closest friends who have had quite enough of the craziness. See? I can keep this sort of thing up for, like, forever.

And then I spent the weekend on a quick-turnaround editing gig. It was supposed to be 37 pages, a report for a possibly not completely evil think tank. It ate the weekend because it was twice as long as they said and had 25 tables.

So with all this growing load of miserable apprehensions and sadness and furious editing of NGOese, for the last two nights I got maybe four hours sleep per night. Last night I lay awake alternately worrying (I mean that horrible chill in the guts feeling like when you've just been dumped), looking to see if there was anything on the Internets (nope) and reading the entire Penguin Book of Ballads. I know you're wondering which ones my favorites are.

Sir Patrick Spens
The Twa Corbies (but not the version that's in this book)
The Wife of Usher's Well
The Unquiet Grave

When I got through those I had Ben Jonson ready to jump into next, though I was afraid of anything that might make me think.

So it was a rather dazed me that arrived to work late this morning, but then I had lunch with a kind friend--one of those lunches one is always meaning to have--and she turned out to be exactly the person to talk to about the various stalking horrors of the night.

And then I went back to work and when I came up for air from the editing I read this little news item. And that's when I lost it.

Back to work, stop and think about that story again and find myself losing my composure, all alone in my cube. At last I stopped by a friend's office and tried to tell her the story and found myself doubled over and weeping, my sides just aching, completely gone, I can't remember the last time I laughed like that, laughed till it hurt.

This is the passage that did it:

The awful stench coming from a Queens apartment on Monday was so bad that cops thought they would find a body inside.

But when firefighters busted down the the door, they found tenant Ming Li Sung was very much alive - and living with rotting garbage piled floor to ceiling.

"When they started trying to clear away some of the trash to get in, he popped up inside, yelling, 'Get out! Get out!'" said Ray West, who lives across the hall.

After work I decided to walk from the office to Union Station, and I don't know why, but everything seemed beautiful and to be loved. It's not a particularly scenic walk, except in faces, and I enjoyed that, moving along easily without haste or fatigue in this inexplicable beatific haze.

All this, of course, explains nothing.