gall and gumption

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Foul Language

I posted this as a comment at Doghouse Riley:

I have to say that the first time I heard or read a news item that employed the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques," I found that I had a really neat measure for determining whether I thought that news organization had any moral credibility. Those who used it had no moral credibility. One result is that I no longer listen to NPR or watch television news. I find that the stink of this lie pervades everything else they do, and I feel like I'm countenancing a crime by listening to any of their other programming. "Oh, they're only cackling ghouls sometimes" just doesn't cut it for me.

(Couldn't fix the typos over there, though.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Sitting Duck No More

A couple mornings ago I was sitting outside my apartment building having a smoke (Yeah. Bite me.) and trying to finish a piece of writing I was working on and my neighbor stopped to chat. He's an older European immigrant, from the Eastern bloc, who has lived and run his own business in this country for 30 years. We usually exchange a word, probably talked as long as an hour once. He professes to dislike small talk and likes to discuss Real Subjects. So that morning he first announces that he is completely colorblind when it comes to people and always tries to see people as individuals. And I think Oh Christ here it comes. Then he tells me that he really understands this race thing, there are many sides to everything, and I think Oh yeah that too of course. He loves Barack Obama not because he's black but because he's brilliant. Yep. And pretty soon he's quoting Bill Cosby at me and I am wincing. He is giving me Cosby's advice about the fatherless black boys growing up and becoming drug dealers, the unmarried black teen mothers naming their kids Shaneequa and Taneesha and how do they expect to get on in the world with these names, he is telling me about the 25-year-old grandmothers living on government handouts. I manage to assert that there are no handouts, but that is beside the point. Because in the days since, as I have seethed and tried to figure out how to get the slime off myself, I have had time to figure out what the real issue is. Whatever he said about being colorblind--and I have no doubt he believes it--my line of contact with him, so to speak, has this conspicuous feature: his feeling that he is entitled to give me unsolicited advice about these problems even though I am 1) not a 25-year-old grandmother on welfare; 2) not a young black male drug dealer named Shaneequa; 3) not the mother or grandmother of same.

I don't know how it happens but I get this sort of thing from time to time. I remember in Santa Barbara a guy tried to chat me up by confiding to me how much he admired Ward Connerly and Stanley Crouch.

My feeling right now is that I do not owe it to people like this to a) encourage them to believe that they are perfectly nice when they drop this crap on me out of a clear blue sky, or b) give my consent to their delusion that they are having some kind of sensible conversation when underneath it their peculiar form of crazy is whooping and screeching at me; or c) agree with my neighbor that conversation with him goes best when it goes one way--he speak Kia listen because in his eyes I, despite points 1), 2) and 3) above, belong to the class of people who need advice while he belongs to the class of people who are entitled to dispense it without being asked for it, and what's good enough for the drug dealing nonexistent-welfare-mooching socialist Shaneequa is good enough for me. That these figments of his imagination, if they did exist, would be totally in their rights to tell him to go stuff himself if he tried it on them, I take of course as given.

I mean there are two levels of conversation going on--the spoken and the unspoken. In the spoken one there's a subject and I am sort of expected to watch this man blunder around with it and politely pretend that this pathetic spectacle is some sort of respectable intellectual activity full of mutuality and thoughtfulness and judicious inquiringness and detachment. But the reality, in the unspoken conversation is more like if someone walks up to you and announces, with great complacency at the contemplation of his own goodness and anticipation of your gratitude, that he did not piss in the washbasin today.

Well, for me the real subject is the unspoken conversation. This is my problem with the incoherent angry people Roy is talking about here. In the first place--and I just don't feel like moving from the first place till I'm good and ready--they cannot give an honest account of what they are angry about, and in the second place they don't feel any obligation to even try to be honest. So why should I listen to them? By countenancing their pretence that they are acting rationally and honestly I am helping them to be assholes. It's much kinder to let them manage that on their own.

As for my neighbor, if he ever dares to mention this subject to me again I shall tell him, as politely as I can, that I am not interested. Let him eat fish heads and rice. And now that the weather's nice I can go work round the back of the building.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Sunday

I'm pretty sure I've posted it before, because round about Easter I always feel like reading it again.

Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

Go read the rest of it.


Went to see the Morandi show at the Phillips Collection two Sundays ago and plan to see it again at least one more time. I think this is the same show that had been at the Met in NY last year. So then first of all somehow I missed the signposts and actually went through the show in reverse, that is, starting with the late paintings and then ending up at the early ones. But that turned out not to be bad--it's not like there's a surprise ending to spoil. The only surprise, and it wasn't a happy one, was that there were no watercolors. And the watercolors are what I like best.

You know that thing Pascal said? It is quoted to death, so my apologies: "All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room." Well, I'm reading Montaigne again. In fact, on my way to the show, on the Metro, I was reading his essay "On Solitude," which is about learning how to sit still in a room and like it.

A man must doe as some wilde beasts, which at the entrance of their caves will have no manner of footing seene. You must no longer seeke what the world saith of you, but how you must speake unto your selfe: withdraw your selfe into your selfe; but first prepare your selfe to receive your selfe: it were folly to trust to your selfe if you cannot governe your selfe.

(Quotes are from the Florio translation of the Essays, the first one into English, published in 1603. It's online here.)

But those late paintings of Morandi sure make it easier for me to sit still in a room. I mean, if they happen to be in the room. It's impossible to look at them and not believe there's something rich and interesting to be had from solitude. Like, the complete opposite of the idea that the point is to become a sort of celebrity. I mean, just by contrast, doesn't it seem like Georgia O'Keefe was always sort of expecting someone with a camera to show up? She always seemed so ready for that eventuality, out there in her own private New Mexico. I mean, some people's egos are so big they can barely contain themselves in a couple of hundred acres of desert.

I also remember this event in Sonoma County in the fall where artists living all over the county open up their studios and show off their art. It lasts a long weekend and I went a couple of times. Well, sometimes it was an actual studio, and sometimes a few people just had paintings up in their living rooms, but some of the studios and work spaces were sensational. I remember this place on a mountaintop just outside the town of Occidental, just a little hamlet in the redwoods, and this hell of house up above it looking west and south down a great dizzying sweep of grassy slopes and coastal scrub, dropping away at last to the ocean and not another house to be seen in between. Some wise older person--I wish I could remember who it was--observed to me that there was a huge disproportion between the lavishness of the studio spaces and the art that was produced in them. Alas, true.

I was there during the peak of the real estate boom, when the small local paper I worked for was enjoying a rich diet of wine country real estate ads, where the four of us in the newsroom would snicker over the sort of ad copy that showed up, big on "pairing" the "wine country lifestyle" with inevitably "this magnificent property," and inevitably, "tradition" lurking about somewhere. Here and there around the city of Santa Rosa you might have found a dark, poky 1970s vintage 3-bedroom ranch in a subdivision that had not acquired any charm with age, and maybe pay about $400,000 for it, if you were lucky. And then there were the shacks along the river, at least along that part of the river that was almost certain to flood every year. The odd bargain might have been found there. So the first thing that you had to consider about almost all of these artists is that they were loaded. They were spouses of someone with lots of dough, or they were trust fundies, or they were riding the real-estate rollercoaster to the top, or they just lucked out in the sweepstakes of life in some other way. No artist who had to navigate the choice between making art and making a living ever ends up in one of these fabulous canyon-overhanging, beach-viewing studios. Poverty is not a precondition of authenticity, to be fair, and heck, if you can really sit alone and work in your special architect-designed north-lighted cathedral-ceilinged custom-furnished loft-style addition to your vineyard house and can actually amuse yourself in there without going stark raving bonkers, more power to you. Knock thyself out, with thy paintings of windswept coasts and red barns and storm-blasted trees, of thy birdbaths and grandchildren and abstractions that look like ameobas; knock thyself out with thy impressionist palette and thy mysteriously lumpy handwoven fabric creations and thy brightly colored glass bubbles and thy still lifes of precious Japanese objets d'art; I'm the last person to begrudge anyone a harmless pleasure.

Oh gosh and now I remember going with the Ex to a talk by his meditation teacher, the one who was teaching him about self-awareness and compassion, and the teacher had a Q&A after his talk which was vaguely about painfully achieving self-awareness, finding spiritual connectedness etc., for personal growth, nothing strikingly new to a fan of Montaigne. A woman raised her hand and said that now that she had a nice property with a house on a creek in the woods she was sure she was going to be able to be closer to God. And the woman who, having seen a documentary film that mentioned the possibility of some sort of Star-Trek-like travel, wondered what sort of spiritual impact it might have. Truly, the lame and the halt are all around us and need our understanding. I do not think it possible to become that shallow without some sort of trauma--spiritual or moral trauma, that is. They had to get away from something, or perhaps get away to something from nothing and nowhere. They think they left their real selves safely and secretly buried in an unmarked grave at the side of the road between Buttcrack, Middle America and the California coast, and now they seek authenticity, having acquired the means to purchase it. I have, after years, learned compassion for these people, but I'd just as soon practice it from a distance. That kind of egotism will bite your leg clean off as soon as look at you, if it happens to find your leg standing between it and something it thinks it needs.

The great breakthrough for me was being able to write anywhere. It's like that's what I secretly always wanted.

And yet, for as long as I can remember I've been sensitive to architecture and landscapes. I can remember being struck dumb by places I'd see in Jamaica -- the Junction Road always did that to me, and the orange groves in back of the farm my grandparents owned when I was about seven. When I was in Jamaica my idea of heaven was staying in Newcastle, up in the cool, lush hills above Kingston, at the army training base there that had all these lovely old Victorian houses for the junior officers, that if you had a connection in the Defense Force, you could rent. I spent blissful weeks up there on these big jolly family trips, hiking, looking for wildflowers, and daydreaming alone for hours at a time. Where I live just outside DC it's very wooded and old and the streets are lined with fine old Victorian houses. One reason why I like DC is because of the old residential streets, as you may recall. I can get happy just walking among them, and yeah, I do fantasize about houses, about having things like a front porch and a garden and even more space, and I look at these lovely places and feel a mild pang of coveting, of "Gee what I'd do with all that beautiful space."

For most of my adult life I haven't had much choice of space. I've lucked out a few times and felt the difference it made to be in the good spaces, but at the same time I also learned that right space or wrong space, I still had to get something done somehow. My current apartment is almost embarrassingly large, and it has a spare bedroom that I use as a work space. I actually work there too. I am living, in effect, in luxury. I'm really trying to make the best use of the space and the solitude, and the fact that I like the apartment and the neighborhood.

In short, I am sensitive to space, can imagine how nice it would be to have a nice space, but don't feel that I must have a certain kind of space to work. All it needs to be is space. Everything after that is luxury, nice life but not necessarily work life. I don't envy it.

But with Morandi's paintings I do feel something like envy, a longing to have what he had, not the space but the sense of space. The interesting truth is he didn't have much space. Often the people toward whom I feel the strongest feeling like envy are the ones who make the best use of the worst space. Then I think they are so deep in what they do that the activity shapes the space to suit its needs. And there's a kind of integrity and purposefulness in that that I do envy, or wish I could emulate.

Morandi lived in the same apartment in Bologna for his entire life, with his three unmarried sisters and (while she was alive) his mother; his sisters all outlived him. His studio was a small room that he had to pass through his sisters' bedroom to get to. It was crowded with the bottles and bowls and objects that he used in his still lifes, and over everything there was a decades-long accumulation of dust. And yet his paintings have all this richly empty space in them.

There's a pursuit in his paintings. He's after things that you can only access by turning inward and probably spending a lot of time alone--if not physically alone at least with a certain amount of mental solitude and quiet. And it just amazes me that he can do this with just a few bottles and bowls and tea canisters. He used the same almost featureless objects over and over, but somehow each new arrangement of them matters, its uniqueness matters. It's like you look at the space between a bottle and a bowl in one of his watercolors and you're looking at infinite possibility as the fruit of attention and concentration. This concentration--on a few objects like what you'd pick up at a yard sale and the space around them (a very small space in reality in that small studio)--feels to me like a heightened state of being; it suggests all this rich potential in the mere act of seeing. For the sake of it, Morandi demanded little more out of life than the tiny studio, order and the time he needed, and not to be bothered.

More Montaigne:

Together with other concupiscences, shake off that which commeth from the approbation of others. And touching your knowledge and sufficiencie, take you no care of them, they will lose no whit of their effect; if your selfe be anything the better for them. Remember but him, who being demanded to what purpose he toyled so much about an art, which could by no meanes come to the knowledge of many: 'Few are enow for me; one will suffice, yea, lesse than one will content me,' answered he. He said true: you and another are a sufficient theatre one for another; or you to your selfe alone.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

For the Record

I knew people who thought Jamie Astaphan was a fantasist, a person who believed his own made-up stories; among these people the consensus was split oever whether he was completely evil or just not completely grown up. But I trusted his instincts and self-knowledge more than I trusted theirs. For instance, he was onto this particular scamminess in 2003. There were reinsurance companies in the offshore sector and Jamie thought they stunk. He wanted me to write something about it but you see he would get furious about things like this, and I'd get some sketchy details--a company name or an address--that I would sort of fish out of the torrent of cuss words, a torrent that usually concluded with the assurance that "You can figure it out." He vastly overrated my financial acumen and investigative resources. How do you find anything out, on an island of 10,000 people? A place where everybody knows you are the journalist and the people you would ask are in the business of keeping secrets?

As for me, I looked as far into it as I could. I read up on reinsurance and it seemed to sort of make sense except I couldn't figure out where the money was to come from if anything happened to trigger this chain of payouts. If A buys a home insurance policy from B, B gets insurance from C against having to pay A after the hurricane, C gets insurance from D against paying C, to infinity. Where would it end, logically speaking? Who would ultimately pay if a hurricane blew down A's house? Well, now we know. I had the name and address of one company in the reinsurance business. I saw simply a locked office with nobody in it. Nothing unusual about that either. So it wasn't that I didn't believe him; I simply had no way to corroborate what he told me, and I was out of my depth. But I believe he was right.