gall and gumption

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Mountain

A friend comes through town on a visit from Martha's Vineyard, bringing me, as usual, the latest and best that is thought there. If my friend were a cynical and jaded person like me, it would be OK fun. But my friend has a sincere faith in the laws that rule the tenure of ideas in places like that. And this makes it much more interesting. She is the most earnest, sincere, all-out, full-hearted status-seeker I have ever known. It is awesome, a thing of beauty and wonder.

A couple of years ago, by what twists and turns I don't know, Haiti became a big thing on the Vineyard. And all these well-to-do women were flying there to wash the feet of destitute sick people in a hospice. It was a profound experience for them, as you may imagine. Actually I can't imagine--or so I was told by my friend who had gone and washed feet.

Whatever happens to these people (the Vineyard ladies, not the Haitian sick people), I infer with some wonderment, is not like anything that has ever happened to anyone anywhere else. On this visit my friend tells me with great solemnity that it is very important to know where your food comes from. At dinner we order linguini with clams. She asks the waiter where the clams come from.

The entertainment part for me is that whatever an idea may be when it goes up the mountain of public opinion, when it comes back down the mountain it always seems to have acquired a layer or two of silliness and, somehow, unreality. I don't know why this is. My friend, committed now to the locavore movement, helped to slaughter a pig. Apparently there is a group of ladies who felt it was necessary to learn to slaughter a pig. As an experience.

It is always as an experience that one goes through these things. Experience is expensive, so a lot of people can't have it, you see.

My friend and I went to the National Gallery to see two exhibitions. The first was the paintings by Arcimboldo. They were great fun as stunts but they were rather ugly. In the gallery with them were four or five tiny drawings by Leonardo da Vinci--some of his grotesque heads. The biggest of these was not two inches high. And yet I spent more time with them than on the Arcimboldos. Despite all their clever detail, I did not like looking at the paintings. A roast squab that turns out to be a nose is two kinds of ugly, that's all.

What to do with the Rather Less Than Great Works of the Past may be the occasion for another blog post in the future.

Then my friend and I went to look at the exhibition called The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting 1848-1875. The show was mostly photographs, and these included portraits of some famous Victorians and a lot of staged "arty" photographs of young women and girls, just what you'd expect from the sort of earnest late-romantic vision of people like the pre-Raphaelites. When I look at such things, these ethereal-looking ladies with leaves in their hair and wistful dreamy remote expressions, that sort of "Why have you just woken me up?" look about the eyes, I have a harder and harder time separating them out from 19th-century capitalism. The otherworldliness of the pre-Raphaelite world looks like a rebellion against capitalism, but it also seems like a product of it. Not necessarily in a bad way. The juggernaut of capitalism as it chews up everything seems to throw off these nostalgias. The fact that the Victorians used photography to sort of capture images of it, as promptly as they turned to painting, and with such an adventurous sense of beauty, I find touching. They had a trust in the image. What do we get at this late stage of the Empire? We get that woman who dresses up newborn babies like bugs, and Thomas Kinkade, for our sins.

There were half a dozen or so paintings and some of these were very familiar. What I had never attended to in looking at reproductions of them was how small they are. Rossetti's "The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere" is tiny! The effect is startling. I mean, if you look at a reproduction of, say, a Monet in an art book and you go to the museum and there's the Monet full size, you think, yes, super. But you don't expect a painting to be hanging on the wall about the same size as it is in the reproduction. Especially when it is such a large subject.

Some of these painters could have taught Kinkade a few things about light. They went for this sort of jewel-like color and detail in rendering. It's the quality of attention that makes someone like Millais or Rosetti interesting to me, so it was kind of cool that the last painting just before the exit was one of John Ruskin's watercolors. He wasn't a pre-Raphaelite exactly but he advocated a sort of ethics of attention that they all shared: careful, truthful observation of outer things, honest intention in every single mark, that yields a sort of inner revelation. Trust in the observed thing and truth to it. So here was this lovely little watercolor of just some rocks in a rushing stream. You don't get to see these little Ruskin watercolors very often, and I was enjoying it because when I was in St. Kitts, living on a much more slender diet of reading I did, for some reason, have some of Ruskin's books on drawing. His integrity as a critic and writer, his seriousness, made him good company.

My friend from the Vineyard looked over my shoulder and said, "I've got friends who can do better than that."

"No, you don't," I said.

"Yes, I do," she said.

"No, you don't," I said. "This is Ruskin. You don't know what he's doing, you don't know how he does it."

"Yes, I do."

Well, fuck it. So I just shut my mouth. What can you do?

Friday, November 26, 2010

One Day

Yesterday evening as I was about to take the dogs over to my friend Louise for Thanksgiving dinner I discovered that my Bose in-ear headphones had given out. What happens is that the join between the wire and the jack, where it goes into the iPod, gets so banged up traveling around in my pocket that eventually, after a year or so, it can't make the connection to carry the sound. It's obvious that something is loose because if you wiggle the wire the sound flips from one ear to the other and you have to fiddle with it to get the sound in both ears, and that's a recipe for driving me crazy.

So yeah, every year and a half or so I end up buying another pair of these. But I use them A LOT. They pay for themselves. And when I don't have them--especially for the dog walk but also for blocking out a lot of horrible noise (store music, gum-chewing, stupid overheard conversations on Metro, etc.,)--I get kinda panicky.

Which meant that this morning I had to go into the fray. Nothing but this necessity would have induced me to go. I went to Target first, but they were out of them, so I went to BestBuy. They had lots of them, and a crowd, and cops everywhere. And when the assistant gets the headphones out of the locked cabinet he carries them to the cashier. Well when I got to the cashier they had vanished and I was irritable because this errand had already eaten up half of a day in which this errand was the very last thing I wanted to do. So some sort of assistant assistant went looking for them and found them. The place was filled with people who apparently wanted to be there, that is to say, it was filled with loons and idiots. Or maybe a person (me, too, for that matter) turns into an idiot just by entering any big retail chain on Black Friday.

The other thing is that I'm still recovering from last week, when I was jammed up against this deadline, had my father's girlfriend in the house, PMS, unusual social activity, and the usual round of anxieties that decided to hold a calypso carnival in my head all week. By Friday the combination of the girlfriend and the work and the anxiety had killed my appetite (how? You ask. I am not at liberty to say) and I was running a sleep deficit. I'm still not caught up on food or sleep. So I actually recruited Louise to go with me on this errand because I thought that if I snapped or got faint, well, she could stand in line. Because I could not go a day without the headphones. As it happened this backup plan proved unnecessary. But most of the day was now gone.

I went home and forced myself to eat a sandwich, which took the edge off the anxiety. Eating is to be recommended. Then I pretty much waited 20 minutes or so for my blood sugar to get back up to some sort of functional level, so that I could take the dogs out.

And this is where it gets good. Because now, it is early evening on a fall day, there's this sky, a bright intense blue with fluorescent pink clouds visible through the now bare branches of the trees, and all the land colors are sort of muted and purply brown and mysterious, and leaves are still floating to the ground, and it's not too cold, just brisk and sharp, and I have my new headphones and I listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schubert lieder. They just go together, days like this and music like that. It's like the music is in the atmosphere, and the things I'm seeing are making the music more emotionally vivid. I don't think I'm explaining it well. But it is this strange poignant pleasure, and it is enough. And this, more or less, was what I was able to save out of the day.

There is always this one day in November, every year, when I feel like I give up my resistance to the winter and instead go out walking to meet it. On that day I don't worry that the dark is coming on so early. I actually want to feel the cool air on my face. I don't want to go home till I'm tired and cold. I'm glad that all the clutter of leaves is gone from the trees and I feel as austere and wild and mysterious as they look. And it's weird how on that day every year, my personal All Hallows' Night as it were, what I want to listen to is Schubert.

Here's Schwarzkopf

So you see, I had to get the headphones.

Update: On YouTube you can also find Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing "Du Bist die Ruh" which I could have put here but it is too sublimely beautiful and therefore does not fit in with my plans for getting through the next several days.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

No Shit, Sherlock

"Falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions," said Domeena Renshaw, MD, author, Seven Weeks to Better Sex, director, Loyola University Health System Sex Clinic and professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "This internal elixir of love is responsible for making our cheeks flush, our palms sweat and our hearts race."
Levels of these substances, which include dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine, increase when two people fall in love. Dopamine creates feelings of euphoria while adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for the pitter patter of the heart, restlessness and overall preoccupation that go along with experiencing love.
MRI scans indicate that love lights up the pleasure center of the brain. When we fall in love, blood flow increases in this area, which is the same part of the brain responsible for drug addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.
"Love lowers serotonin levels, which is common in people with obsessive compulsive disorders," said Renshaw. "This may explain why we concentrate on little other than our partner during the early stages of a relationship."

I mean, couldn't you with equal truth say that some addictions and obsessions are like love and that's why they are so compelling?

Lyrics and translation here.

I don't really know the answer. I think of my own travails with this sort of thing, and the wear and tear on my nerves, the weight loss, the effects on my ability to concentrate, the hypersensitivity, the way it would seem to take over my whole life except when I succeeded in being distracted. And, of course, the pain of things not working out. All of it had me wondering, "Is this just me?"

The one thing, the great great thing, that got me through it was that I could always work, whatever the job was I would somehow do it. I can remember times when I felt utterly shattered, a light gust of wind would just sort of tip me into nausea and tears. It was great to realize that I could put my head down into some task and, without resolving anything of the situation (totally beyond my power at that point), breathe and lose myself. Then I remember these peaceful intervals, when I was neither looking forward to a romance nor recovering from one, and now they seem like they added up to a small amount of time in which I could feel all right in my own skin.

After I came back from St. Kitts the big thing I wanted was stability and routine so I could write, because that has to be a habit. You have to do it every day, or at least show up to do it. And I still wanted more of what I went to St. Kitts to get, which was the feeling that I was having my own experiences and not simply being an adjunct to someone else's experience. I also came back for a relationship, though, and then the relationship didn't work out partly because I kept making the choice for the things I wanted to do. We fought about time, I guess. (The rest of the reason was, of course, him. Or me, or whatever in him or me made me start going off him.)

I remember that little things were such a big deal for me--like being able to pursue my own pleasures--trying out new music, taking myself out painting. Again, it wasn't that I hadn't had such pleasures before; I think for example of all those happy years of ballet and all the fun I get out of reading, and of course the writing, and my amazing friends. And walking with the dogs, and numberless good things that come by grace. But I would get sort of besotted, and I would forget who I was. So then I'd have to figure out that I needed to rebuild my trust in myself, and then actually do it. Listening to my instincts I found that I didn't want to be bored, I didn't want to waste time, and that certain forms of dishonesty in relationships made me crazy angry. At last I got it: there were worse things than being alone.

So I've got that, anyhow. But I don't know that I've advanced in wisdom on the love business. Like for instance, while you're in that state you feel things more acutely, everything around seems to have more potential interestingness in it, it is all vivid. I get that when I draw or paint, too, and when I work at a certain level of intensity at writing--or even at editing, believe it or not--I can get that same change in quality of perception. That increased intensity of experience is a good thing to want. Of course when you fall in love with someone you associate these perceptual changes with the particular person you're in love with. Or at least I always have tended to do so. And because I was so muddled and insecure I didn't really believe I could get that kind of intensity any other way. Because I couldn't concentrate long enough on anything, because I was so insecure, I guess. On the one hand, being a lot more centered, having a lot more reliance on my own inner self, that's totally good. On the other, the inner Krazy Kat in me says that I'm missing out on something big.

Something like this, maybe:

I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean'd till then ?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den ?
'Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

In novels people who are really in love almost never fall out of it, and certainly not without fighting it all the way (Mr. and Mrs. Morel in Sons and Lovers are the only ones I can think of, but I bet there's someone in Chekhov). Anna Karenina doesn't really fall out of love with her husband, Karenin, because she never loved him. I mean it's when she falls in love with Vronsky that she realizes how awful he is. That's that heightened perception thing, which Tolstoy understood so well. He's so great on the quality of perception. I mean, it's when Anna falls in love that her moral vision really reaches its full power and clarity. Suddenly she can't stand the society bores; her husband's mannerisms, that at most used to just sort of irritate her mildly, now revolt her. Her revulsion is so violent, too, because of how alive she feels. Not just feels, is. And the thing is, all her reactions are right; they are right about what she observes, and they are right in the intensity of her reaction. Her love might be blind with respect to Vronsky, but it opens her eyes to everything else around her. I have no idea how Tolstoy did it. It is just awesome, because it's true.

So, I suppose, that's what you miss. But a while back it occurred to me that maybe it doesn't always have to come from being in love with some guy. I mean, Vronsky is so, so dull. And at the moment when Anna falls in love with him she doesn't seem to be a person who needs to fall in love with anybody, much less this stick. That happens in real life too, though. So now I get it wherever I can--out of the pleasures of friendship, out of dog walks, out of writing, out of my trips to New York on the train. Listening to people and observing them. And looking at things I like to look at, reading. A year or so ago I remember taking a walk alone at night downtown, up 14th Street from McPherson Square to U Street, around midnight, after a party. Pure bliss. I was in love with the night. Most of the time this is enough. But sometimes...

I go around and around. Not too often though, these days. Nothing is solved. But there's no need to solve it either. I guess that's good.

Maybe this is all the effect of getting older, and not hard-won wisdom at all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stones on the Roof

When I was in a small Caribbean island working as a newspaper editor I was sometimes a last resort for people with really peculiar problems. They thought that publishing their stories in the paper might bring about some kind of resolution that they could not get anywhere else. In each instance I couldn't help them in the newspaper, and mostly what I ended up giving was just a sympathetic ear. But that counts too!

Like the mysterious man I nicknamed "Mr. Snuffaluffagus" who would appear in my office with stories of a conspiracy involving land titles, a former drug dealer, and a couple of prominent citizens, and a rich English man who had mysteriously disappeared. Mr. S. would bring this folio full of letters, survey maps, copies of deeds and set my head to spinning with all of it and assure me that all I had to do was check at the courthouse where the land titles were registered and I would find the trail of fraud and murder. I tried, spent hours flipping through documents, but I couldn't make head or tail of it. After about his third visit I realized that Mr. Snuffaluffagus, who lived alone up in the mountains somewhere, was out of his mind. I think he caught on to the moment when I realized this, because although I never said anything about it he never came back after that. Some people have a sort of instinct for the moment when the magic won't work on you any more.

Another was the Desperate Deportee, deported from the U.S. after a successful career as a "businessman" in the drug trade. He told me a little about his "work" and it was more than enough. He was desperate because he had been attacked by the junior gangsters. They had damaged nerves and muscles in his right hand, and because he was a deportee, he could not leave the island to go to Barbados where there were facilities to treat it properly. So his hand was crippled. He had taken a job working at what, in the U.S., would be a dollar store, and then he had gotten laid off. He was very bitter and angry. In fact he was so bitter and angry that he went back to the dollar store and, pretending to have a gun in his pocket, grabbed a bunch of money out of the till. This sort of thing was beneath the dignity of a player like him, but he was in that state. He had come to me because he wanted the story to be told of why he had done the desperate act he was contemplating--he wanted to get revenge on the owner of the store, he wanted to rub him out. I listened to this and said, "I can see why you're upset. But before you do that, why don't you go and talk to this man?" I gave him the number of a preacher I had interviewed a few weeks before, who worked with prisoners. He took the number and left. Then I called the owner of the store and told him to keep his eyes open, but he wasn't terribly concerned. I didn't see the Desperate Deportee for a few weeks and then one day he waved me down as I was driving by and he was beaming. The preacher had put him to work counseling the ex-prisoners and helping them to re-integrate into society, and he loved the work.

Then there was Mr. B., for whom, also, the press could do nothing. He had come to me because he was, as he said, desperate and couldn't take it any more. Mr. B's landlord was throwing stones on his roof. Mr. B. lived in this little village, just a single one-way street that curved away from the main road to the bluffs and then back up to the main road. It was a sorry little place, but Mr. B. rented an apartment there for himself and his two teenage daughters. There were three units altogether; one was occupied by a single mother with a 12-year-old daughter, and the third one, which was upstairs and overlooked the other two, was occupied by the landlord, who was quite simply the nastiest human being I have ever encountered. He had "interfered with" the 12-year-old daughter of the other tenant. Then he had bought her mother off from testifying in court by offering her a year's free rent. On the day when he appeared in court, the tenant and the victim her daughter were somehow off the island. The case was dismissed. But now that he had "won" the case he wasn't so disposed to keep up his end of the bargain, so he was trying to get the tenant out. She had complained about it to Mr. B., standing outside of her place, and the landlord had overheard. He retaliated by cutting off the water to both apartments, and then, not satisfied with that, had resorted to throwing stones on the roof of Mr. B.'s apartment. Mr. B. had stuck it out about the water (a neighbor had run a hose into the living room and from this they washed, cooked, and survived). But the stones on the roof were an outrage, he was shaking with indignation when he told me about it. There was nothing the police could do, as there was no law against a man throwing stones on his own roof in the middle of the night--even if there had been the remotest chance of catching the landlord in the act.

This mystified me at the time, and even after Mr. B. took me to his apartment to show me the lay of the land and where the stones were, I could not understand it. Later, I asked a friend. He said throwing stones on someone's roof was very bad, very malicious. "What would you say about a person who throws stones on the roof of his own house?" I asked. "I would say that that person has gone completely off the rails," he said. Well, OK, but I still didn't get it. I got it at last from one of the reporters, a nice, quiet, well-brought-up young woman of great good sense who had lived in that village briefly as a little girl. I took her there to take some pictures in case I could ever somehow put this story in the paper, which I was hoping I could do. We took the pictures and she showed me the house she had lived in. As we approached the main road she said, "They used to have a lot of trouble with stones on the roof here a year or two ago. But that time it was jumbies." "How do you know?" I asked her. "Oh, they hang out here," she said. At the corner of the main road she pointed to an old rum shop that had obviously been closed for a long, long time. "They come out here at night and they just walk up and down, up and down. Until about 3 in the morning. Right in front of this shop here." "How do you know that?" I asked her. "Oh I see them all the time." "What do they look like?" "They look like everybody else."

It all seemed so self-evident to her. This time, though, she assured me, it was the landlord.

Anyway there is a Jamaican newspaper that I too often forget to read. Which is sort of ironic because once on a long visit to Jamaica I got the idea that I would love to work for a newspaper like that in the Caribbean. And then that was exactly what I ended up doing. And if I were working at the Star today I might have been one of the lucky reporters who got to cover this story.

Yesterday when THE STAR visited the area, people were standing on both sides of the street close to the house and the occupants were seen moving out.

The residents claim some persons had gathered there from Tuesday. "Up till 4 o' clock dis mawning (yesterday) people still de pon di road a try fi see what a happen ova di yaad," a resident told THE STAR.

Residents said the stoning started approximately three weeks ago but was not occurring often. However, on Tuesday evening things allegedly changed, as they claim the ghost intensified its actions.

It is claimed the ghost began a relentless stone attack on the property, assaulting the occupants and even hitting anyone who was brave enough to enter. To make matters worse, the residents claim the aggressive ghost brought other ghostly company.

"It is serious," one resident said. "One of my friends go over there. When he reached the gate he was hit with a stone. When him enter di house him get (hit with) a figurine."

That figurine! Oh, that figurine!

Here's one where a ghost attended a funeral and behaved badly, it has a picture of the ghost too. And the lede, oh my god.

"Bwoy, mi neva believe inna duppy but when mi see dis mi convince. The devil nuh ave nuh manners," said Jenine Scott, one of the persons who attended the funeral of the late Yolanda Samuels on October 26.

The service, which was held at the Fullerswood Church of God of Redemption in St Elizabeth, went quite normal for the most part. However, it was after Scott, the videographer, and others were reviewing the recording of the funeral later that evening that they made the jaw-dropping, eye-popping and head-swelling discovery. They said there was a 'duppy' in the video.

Note the head-swelling effect. I've heard people mention this one. The other notable thing about these stories (and if you go to the Star site and search for "ghost" you will get more) is that the reporters completely believe.

You see, sometimes I want to explain to people that there are two universes in the Caribbean. There is the one that you see as an outsider, but there is the other one, the world of the villages, where stones on the roof are a serious business, where ghosts misbehave at funerals, where malice is a supernatural force. The interesting thing to me is how adaptable and persistent the old culture is, what a powerful hold it still has on people's imaginations. I know there are places where these beliefs are the truth and science is simply the folly of foreigners, and where the question of belief is never whether you believe but who you believe in.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

buckner: In the Galleries

Ruth Pigeon, "Pieces of My Body"
This installation/performance/activist artist presents an intervention involving the use of her physical form to make significant gestures that address feminist concepts of body image. (Center for the New Woman, 55 Sontag Blvd.)

Marc LaCure, “Painting as Conundrum”
The anti-paintings of artist Marc LaCure evoke simian pastiches that refer to antediluvian gesture and symbolism, paving the way for a new understanding of the development of human consciousness. (Gugusion, 69 Rampard St.)

Ludwig Pensieri, “I Am Me Am I”
This conceptual artist will present an installation that catalogs a lexicon of printed words, evoking images that pass through the mind like floating glyphs, evading our attempts to attach specific meaning to them. (Hotten/Raushlich, 101 Wittgenstein Ave.)

Claire Enuff and Buster Wilds, “Take That!”
This collaborative team will create an extravaganza of sensory experiences with bombarding sensations of sound and light, enveloping the viewer in a miasma of disorienting socio-political implications. (CYSMC—Contemporary Youth Social Media Center, 23 1/2 Wherzat Blvd.)

Junket Loo, “Robotoid”
Hi-tech gizmo artist Junket Loo will delight us again with his robot-like constructions that mimic the complex relationships of sentient beings. His charming miniature “go-bots” are particularly evocative of the breakdown of postindustrial society. (OptoSpace2, 500 Avenue of the Sciences)

Randy Pitts, “Drawing as Social Construct”
The anti-drawings of artist Randy Pitts refer to the hopelessness of environmental degradation and the impossibility of creating anything of lasting interest or importance. His self-inflicted “body drawings” pave the way for a new understanding of the development of human consciousness. (Tanner+Hyde Gallery, Plunket Community Center)

Sheila Kliket, “Focus on the Beast”
Photographer Sheila Kliket explores nature with these wall-sized digital prints of domestic animals, seen through the lens of contemporary postmodernist analysis. Revealing the intimate details of canine anatomy, she expatiates on the nature of the “self” and the “other.” (Paula DeKline Editions, Ltd., 303 Onoudint Square)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Laziness Takes Talent

Just ask Ella.