gall and gumption

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tom Waits

The Other Tom sends me this interview with Tom Waits.

All the interesting creative people I know are great accummulators of interesting bits of this and that, consumers of oddity.

I just went to see the Joseph Cornell show at the Smithsonian American Museum/National Portrait Gallery. I was tired about halfway through, just because it demands such attention, not because it was boring. Because it totally was not boring. Cornell was a man who could not see a newspaper article with the title "Our Debt to Flowers" without reaching for the scissors and glue.

Cornell produced a newsletter called the Joe Goop's Poultry Press. It was part collage part his own writing, parody of a small-town newspaper. Funny funny stuff. They also did a sort of recreation in a vague sort of way of his apartment - at least of the working part of it, which must have been a little kingdom of wonders. Where do you get that many watch faces or small plastic lobsters? A purity of attention and impeccable sense of the authentic in his choice of objects, that's why I like him so much.

I am delighted to see that Waits carries a notebook around and jots down things like laws about what you can legally throw out of a car window.

Oh, the National Portrait Gallery has on loan from the Netherlands a portrait of Maurice, Prince of Orange, the father son of the great great William of Orange.

Update: Fixed a typo as you can see.

Abraham Lincoln the Writer

Bob says it's a good book. You can read his review in the SF Chronicle here.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he was caricatured as a yokel, and in spite of the published evidence that the man could write and think (in 1858 he had taken on the savvy, slightly slimy Sen. Stephen Douglas in a series of debates that were collected and widely published), it took a year or two of captivating wartime speeches, messages and letters for Northeastern intellectuals to catch on "how a man with no formal education, scant familiarity with polite society, and a 'peculiar' way of expressing himself could be, at the same time, so unorthodox and so effective. ... In Abraham Lincoln they were forced to come to terms with a man who read lowbrow comic writers to his cabinet and had a reputation for telling dirty stories, yet could write better, nobler, and more inspiring prose than any of them."

The Ghost of Voltaire

I have a close relative who, from our last, rather disconnected conversation, seems to be experiencing some doubts about the Christianity he grew up with.

What struck me in what he said, and was part of the reason I was not much help to him, was that he apparently needed to settle this whole business as a matter of fact. That is, he was puzzling over the question of whether Jesus existed or performed miracles/son of God, etc. He had read a book (I forget the name) and it had apparently put the matter into some doubt in his mind.

The question of fact in religion has never troubled me. It always seems to me to be totally beside the point. And boring. I have always thought that those branches of Christianity that try to make themselves more "scientific" ("scientistic" is really the more appropriate term) always seemed a bit creepy: that whole school of calculating the exact date of Armageddon and then having to recalculate with, no apology, no explanation, just going on as if you hadn't made an ass of yourself, they all just seem to be idiot creeps to me. And the ones who are hoping to tilt events toward Armageddon are just plain evil. All of that exegetical text-munching through the Apocalypse to prove its "facts", just nuts. Those are people one crosses the street to avoid.

In so far as I had any religion in my upbringing at all it was the kind you got in Anglican grade schools. Prayers and a hymn in the morning, occasionally a visit from a Bishop or other dignitary from the diocese, Scripture classes along with art and science and math and English. A Christmas pageant of course, and Easter activities. I have only the fondest memories of all of it. The hymns move me, perhaps because they are so evocative of that period of my childhood.

One day shortly after I arrived in St. Kitts I found myself on the street during a children's parade, led by one of the local steel bands. They played "Onward Christian Soldiers" and I have never heard anything like it. I heard it and my eyes instantly teared up. If you’ve only heard a steel band playing in a hotel it sounds like the smarmiest thing, a superior form of musical tranquilizer that gets the tourist geezers onto the dance floor. But on the road it seems to be calling to your very insides to get up and march. As the band came closer to where I was standing the music seemed to be punching the sky and taking full possession of everything on the ground. Behind the troupe of little children, solemnly dancing and looking lost, there were a few volunteer marchers who had hitched along -- these neat little old ladies in their little everyday straw hats and their homemade dresses with the pleated skirts that is like the standard workday wear for a certain type of elderly church lady -- and they were dancing along, eyes half-closed, in a happy trance, winding their waists discreetly.

Any version of the Bible other than the King James I don't even try to read. I indulge in the sentiment that they are a form of vandalism against the English language. Jamaican language is steeped in the King James Bible. My mother, who is a practicing Buddhist, still dredges up little scraps of it, usually because it has some relevance to whatever Kia’s Current Issue is. For a while she was big on "I have not done the thing I ought to have done and I have done the thing I ought not to have done." Part of the poetry of the King James Bible and almost all proverbs as spoken by my mother is that she mangles them slightly.

Here is a sample of a proverb that she has been saying to me for a few years now, when we talk about whether or not I should have opened my big mouth and said something indiscreet. This is how she says it.

There are three things that once you let them out they can never be called back: words, smoke, and I forget the third thing. I think it's a belch. Well. Anyway, you get the idea.

And she also says them as if their relevance is only striking her just now, all these years after grade school, and she finds that kind of piquant, amusing. Which means that her religious education was a lot like mine. We heard the poetry of it and nothing else.

My grandmother was also a great nonbelieving quoter of Scripture. She was also a teller of naughty jokes that usually involved something embarrassing happening to a clergyman. She knew the Bible. In 1980, living in California, she befriended this rather sweet young American woman at the supermarket, recently returned from a sojourn with a Rasta boyfriend in Jamaica. (It was like we had known her for ever hahaha.) Not long after she met Mama, Betsy joined this weird cult where you had to give up all your possessions, dress in a white robe, and walk around looking for Christ who was, according to this group, walking around looking for His children. Mama tried to talk her out of it, to no avail. Betsy, wearing her new white robe, came by to say goodbye with these two tough characters, two road-hardened women in robes who continually rolled cigarettes and smoked them, squinting at the smoke and looking villainous. And Mama kept trying to get Betsy not to go with them. It began as a discussion of what their plans were, and of their religious doctrine, and then evolved into an intense theological discussion. For every point they raised, quoting the Bible, Mama could match them with another quote that contradicted them. She kept this argument up, steadily, cheerfully, tirelessly, for about two hours and I never saw her even begin to lose her cool. And she did not have a Bible in front of her; it was all out of her head. But she got at least one of the other two women irritated and defensive, and would have enjoyed that more had they not won the argument by taking Betsy off with them. We never heard from her again.

The housekeepers who had charge of me and my brother when we were home from school in the afternoons also quoted the King James Bible at us, along with little scraps of poetic Victoriana that they had picked up during their few years of school.

For instance, Bernicie, who worked for my grandmother, said, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen is an abomination to the Lord.” She said that when I showed her how I had learned to whistle. Which, as I had been looking forward to impressing her (I adored Bernicie), was a bit of a let down.

But actually believing that it was true? I never saw any need to. It was vivid to my imagination, and for me that has a kind of emotional weight that I feel just as forcefully as if it were true; for the same reason, I have never been able to watch or read “Old Yeller, or any of those stories or films where the heroic dog dies. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves scared me, because the thieves got cut up and hung in pieces in the front of the cave. That always seemed dreadful to me. And I was always alarmed lest the Two Old Bachelors in Edward Lear’s poem would actually eat the mouse along with the muffin, and after my grandmother read me, at seven, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I made a solemn pledge to myself that I would never go anywhere near an albatross. I have kept that pledge, too.

I'm with Voltaire: it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you don't act like a shit and don’t preach foolishness.

But with this relative I mentioned, his difficulty arises, from where I sit, from the difference between reasoning from origins and reasoning from consequences. All religious nuts reason from origins. Even when they imagine consequences (the slippery slope to mass euthanasia, cloning, abortion on demand and Islamofascists in the shrubbery) they are still starting from wacky origins. They all want to believe that their foundational origins are matters of fact, with the same kind of authority as science. And that wish seems to me a total misunderstanding of both science and religion.

This relative is also a Republican. And during his short visit, a few other relatives took issue with his politics. And it turned into a long argument. I usually stay out of these things but I didn’t this time. At one point he said, “Well, I’m just going to trust the facts.” Which always sounds pretty great. The facts are out there but a lot of what is so terrible about the times we live in is not the availability of facts but the corruption of judgment. After we have tediously hashed out a provisional and tentative agreement as to the facts, what am I to do when I discover that a person judges the victims of hurricane Katrina to be “losers”? To correct this judgment is not a matter of fact; it’s a matter of feeling. And you can’t tell me that feelings don’t matter. Once the facts have been settled, feelings are everything. It’s our feelings that will decide how we act in response to the sufferings of others. Even if I believe I am only dealing with facts I have made a value judgment about the facts that should matter. What kinds of judgments should I make?

One day I was out in Santa Rosa, California with the Last Ex. We passed a homeless man with a cardboard sign at an intersection and the Ex said that he didn’t give people money because they might spend it on drink or drugs. He said it rather sorrowfully, as if he was rather disappointed that their undeservingness prevented his charitable impulse. I hear people say this all the time. Well, once when I was at Columbia this guy stopped me; he was obviously in serious trouble. He was gay, he was sick, he had just been released from the hospital, he didn’t have any money, he was homeless, and he was very hungry. He begged me for whatever I could spare and promised me that he wasn’t going to spend it on lobster or anything. The sad thing was I sensed that in better days he probably had liked living high. I gave him a couple dollars and I wished that I could have given him enough to buy another lobster dinner.

In New York that same year I got accosted by a crack addict who was twitching to get his hands on whatever change I picked up at a little bodega. It was dreadful the way he hovered around me looking hungrily and savagely at me. I gave him some change, less than a dollar, and was angry at myself for it, but I didn’t know how else to make him go away. That was the only time I ever felt irritated by someone begging. Because it was so clear what he wanted to do, and he was so unhuman with it.

But in general I prefer to just give, no questions asked. So what if they are going to get a hit of meth or a can of malt liquor? They still need to eat. And I don’t really see what puts me in judgment over a person who is suffering, I don’t see what entitles me to police their life and decide whether they should eat on the basis of some judgment about what they might do. I don’t care whether a person is homeless because she is an alcoholic, or because she can’t get her act together. I feel the hardship of their situation is so urgent, that all judgment seems like an irrelevancy, self-indulgence on my part. I see them and I think, they need shelter, money, a kind word. My god, if I can’t spare them some change at least I can spare them from the presumption of my superiority. But none of this, as you can see, is based on fact. It’s based on feelings.

William Blake told the journalist Crabb Robinson about his conversations with visiting spirits and angels. Marvin Mudrick used to quote one line from Robinson’s notes of the things Blake said.

"I have had much intercourse with Voltaire and he said to me, "I blasphemed the Son of Man and it shall be forgiven me. But they (the enemies of Voltaire) blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me and it shall not be forgiven them.'"

Voltaire was one of the spirits who visited Blake. Marvin admired this statement immensely.

I do not need proof that there were angels in the room, or proof that the ghost of Voltaire visited Blake, to be impressed with the truth of what that ghost said. I am skeptical about ghosts. I am skeptical of the existence of spirits and angels that drop by and chat. I do not believe in the Holy Ghost. Strictly speaking I don’t really believe in blasphemy. I don’t believe there’s a heaven or a hell or that we will be called to account for our actions before the throne of God, in whom I don’t believe.

But I believe what Blake says Voltaire told him.

(And when I listen to the Tuba Mirum. in Mozart’s Requiem Mass--

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
cum vix justus sit securus?

I get totally real shivers.)

I like to put that Blake statement up against this Jesus one: “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these you do unto me.” (I’m pretty sure I’ve mangled it – blame my mother.) By itself it sounds great. But next to Blake it sounds different: it sounds like the Disciples are beginning to get on His nerves. Imagine if you had a great troop of people following you around expecting miracles. You know that after they got converted to believing in you these misfits would behave themselves for a few days and the bickering would start up again. They’d be feeling superior to all the unconverted and would go on and on and on about it, and the bickering would drive you half mad. And since Jesus couldn’t get them to shut up for their own sakes He tried to get them to shut up for His sake.

There is a certain psychological truth in this story, factually true or not: to quote Theodore Zeldin, “There is a shortage of respect in the world.” We are so sluggishly, dimly aware of the life of others. We are like crabs in a barrel. The compliment of recognizing the full humanity of another person, of recognizing in them the humanity we aren’t even sure we have ourselves, we pay most reluctantly, saving it up for the most conspicuously deserving. Like Donald Trump. (Nope, makes no sense to me either.) But that is often how it works out. At any rate, somehow Jesus got through to these dimwits and they saw that He had the Holy Ghost. It was probably the miracles that did it: kung fu might have worked as well, or being a NASCAR driver or having boatloads of money. They weren’t quite evolved enough to see that each of them had the Holy Ghost too; they didn’t see that what they did to others they were doing to themselves. And just at this point I think Jesus must have been sick and tired of trying to get it into their thick skulls.

But Blake, you see, saw it all in a flash. Voltaire’s ghost wasn’t talking about his personal enemies. It was mostly his intellectual adversaries, the religious persecutors, the promoters of pious nonsense and intellectual frauds, the forces he had battled as a writer and thinker and scholar. “They blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me,” said the ghost of Voltaire. They blasphemed the Holy Ghost in you, too. Yeah, you. Who did you think I was looking at?

At any rate between Jesus and Blake there is this one little point of agreement; that each of us is possessed of a bit of the Holy Ghost. Or all of it. (You and St. Augustine can go work the details out between you.) They share the idea that to sin against the other is to sin against the Holy Ghost that is in you. You can see what a useful idea this is. I haven’t really found a substitute for it. I don’t believe in it the way I believe in natural selection or heavy metals or mitochondria or magnetic fields, but I find it useful, indispensable, for my imagination, which is where I actually conduct most of my relations with other people.

But if I am put upon to defend this position, how do I do it? Am I supposed to go, “Well, the justification of my moral preference is in Dr. Bunglewit’s treatise on Biblical archaeology?” Where is the justification, exactly? I honestly don’t know, finally. I only know that I have to appeal to feelings, to use my imagination to feel what another person feels. I confess that I think people who can’t do this are not really human. And I’d have serious reservations about letting them associate with my dog.

I haven’t done more than state a preference; but it’s a preference that takes up a lot of room in my head. I prefer to pay people this compliment; I prefer to see them this way.

So is there some more forceful way to justify this preference? Without referring to social science experiments (they bore the living shit out of me, frankly). Too general a question, maybe? Maybe it only matters what you do in a particular situation, you just rely on your instincts and your good nature? But when you appeal to this principle or some version of it, what is this principle resting on? That’s what I’m asking.

It doesn’t need to be resting on anything, is my whole point. But even though it doesn’t rest on anything I’d still fight to defend it and wouldn’t yield to anyone on it. I will not let myself be persuaded out of it.

Job Hunting

Some people have an Inner Child.

I believe I have an Inner Hysterical Rodent.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

I Actually Cooked

My father does all the cooking here. Except when he's away, and even then he tends to leave me great quantities of stuff he's prepared so I don't have to do anything but reheat things. He likes to cook and he's remarkably efficient at it. But he cooks exactly the same kind of food that basically I grew up on in Jamaica: a substantial meat dish of some sort or other (stewed beef or pork, curried chicken or goat, roast something, steaks, escoveitch fish, red beans and rice (which in Jamaica is called "stew peas", oxtail stew. He cooks up enough rice to last a few days, and then throws in a steamed vegetable almost as an afterthought. He eats salads out of a sense of obligation. This is, as I say, the fare I grew up on, though it was usually cooked by the live-in housekeeper. But he cooks it all as well as any of them ever did.

When my father goes to the supermarket he doesn't by meat; he buys meats.

His M.O. in the kitchen is a very different thing from mine, which is part of the reason why I stay out of the kitchen. I come home from work and the whole house is smelling of curry or roasting meat. There is a puddle of clear but highly suspicious liquid spreading over the kitchen counter, the handle of the boning knife is covered with grease, there is a cleaver in the sink, and a general impression of titanic battles having gone on in my absence. I look at it all and I just don't want to know.

He never refers to a cookbook. When he isn't sure of how to prepare a dish he calls an old girlfriend, or an old girlfriend of his brother, and gets answers to his questions.

He likes to eat sitting at his computer or on the sofa, while watching CNN or the History Channel or some dreadful dude movie. He never seems to be interested in any of it. When he has finished eating the dogs, who have been lying about half awake and apparently not paying much attention, suddenly spring to life and race him to the kitchen where he distributes the table scraps and kindly remarks. I don't eat, myself, until after I have walked the dogs and sat down for a spell of writing in my various colored notebooks.

This is our routine and it suits us. I'm not sure how it happened but I found last week that I had agreed to do some of the cooking for Thanksgiving dinner for three of us; him, me, and my cousin, though I guess if you add in the dogs that comes to five. I bought two ducks since none of us is all that crazy about turkey and we do like duck. My father bought a ham, per the plan. I roasted the ducks and made a sauce of duck stock, port, and cherries. It was supposed to be thickened with arrowroot but now I'm glad I didn't do that. I don't really like gloppy sauces.

I haven't really done much cooking for many years, though some of you can no doubt remember a time when I was really into it. Then, I stopped, and I won't go into why. But it has been years. I don't say I never cooked, but I stopped cooking as if it was interesting to me. I just tended to knock together whatever could be made quickly. And I ate a lot of takeout. And then all of a sudden I had to roast two ducks and make a sauce and wild rice and have it all be done in time for an early dinner and have it match with whatever my cousin was bringing. And somehow I managed it.

I have a feeling that the whole proceeding made my father nervous. I am a creature of uncertain temper and he had never really seen me at work in a kitchen before. But I went to work and quite enjoyed myself. One thing that puts me off cooking is the huge mess afterwards. So I had learned the habit of washing as I go. While something is simmering I just wash up whatever's in the sink, toss the onion peels and carrot heads, and try to start the next step of the preparations with everything clean. It all went very smoothly except I had to do a little improvising with the sauce; missing the red wine vinegar to caramelize with sugar, I borrowed a spoonful of some mysterious Jamaican substance called "browning." That was OK. And the ducks came out just perfect. Moist and not greasy, just great. None of us had the courage to try the cherries that had simmered in the duck sauce. And it went well with the yams my cousin had baked to perfection and her dish of green beans with sesame seeds and lemon, and the ham.

My father was sort of nervous and happy -- he is very attached to my cousin. I'm not sure how he managed it but at one point lifting up the dish with the roast duck in it he managed to knock a glass of wine into the yams. Then he seemed rather surprised that he had to carve the duck. But he was willing, and it was a bit of a job as the joints on a duck are not quite where you'd expect to find them. At one point he was standing up and sort of putting all his weight into it. Sweetie immediately put her tail between her legs and ran to hide under the desk in my bedroom, in apprehension that he might get out the cleaver. After he carved the duck he had to move his seat when he discovered that the glass of wine he had knocked over belonged to my cousin so they had to switch seats, and as he got up he carried a considerable length of the tablecloth with him or perhaps it came to life and followed him the way the dogs do. I can't explain it but the more formal a social occasion is the more likely my father is to have this sort of thing happen. When I was prepping the duck I asked him to open a pack of skewers as my hands were already all covered with raw duckness. I watched him open the package and knew that they would scatter, he was opening them with such nervous energy. And I also knew that there was no point in warning him ahead of time that that was what would happen. Because that is just me being a pain in the ass. And I was determined not to be a pain in the ass. So sure enough, the package of skewers opened suddenly and violently and skewers went skittering all over the floor. So by noon he was emotionally drained and had to have a beer and take a nap.

My cousin made an apple crumble which we ate with creme fraiche. And we had some aged gouda. Neither she nor my father had ever had that one before and they both liked it. It's sort of cheddary but without the bitterness.

We talked about family stuff. We are such a small party this time because so many of us have died, and the ones who died were the ones who really held us together. My father's older brother and his only sister, much beloved (the mother of this cousin); last year, another aunt who was the first wife of his older brother. Others of us are scattered about. His two surviving brothers are not speaking to each other. His mother is in a nursing home. My brothers and the grandkids are out West. Another cousin is in North Carolina. Other cousins are scattered between California and Jamaica and divided from us, some of them, by old quarrels, divorces, by various intractable miseries. And yet at one time we were like this huge formidable crowd that gathered at my late uncle's house in California, this great, rambling place on a hilltop in Hayward, and we filled the place up. There was almost no distinction among us of nuclear families. We were a tribe that included all these aunts and uncles and cousins and a whole host of old Jamaican friends. And my father really loved being of a tribe. The three of us felt very much like survivors today, but that was the one thing we didn't say, in all the talk, the revisiting of old scandals, the analyses of people's characters, the news and the histories.

As the conversation went on his dog, Misha, began to be concerned. So she sat at his feet moaning at him. Immediately he needed to know what she wanted. Did she need to go poop? "She just wants your attention," I kept saying."Or probably she wants you to give her a treat," at which point the dog suddenly looked bright and intelligent. He got up and she went through this little charade of leading him to the kitchen. "Well, OK, then," he said, and cut her some bits of ham. Sweetie of course immediately went in and they both had a little treat He did this a couple more times, and then marveled at Misha's persistence in sitting at his elbow and moaning. That was when the Specter At The Feast (that would be your friend) pointed out that sitting at his elbow and moaning was delivering the goods.

We took a walk down to the little lake, a big pond really, the one with all the warning signs. Deep Water, Thin Ice, Pick Up AFter Yor Pet, Don't Feed the Geese And Ducks, Beware of Snapping Turtles. My cousin and I walked to the lake with the dogs and my dad drove there for the walk around it. It was almost dark and it was quite deserted even though there are houses all round it. My father and I got into the tedious recurring argument about why we don't let the dogs off the leash. It has to do with Misha's issues, the hyperprotectiveness, the lunging at other dogs and occasionally people when she's on the leash. But I compromised. I took us to this one stretch where there is a big wide lawn. If the geese aren't hanging about on it I let Sweetie off the leash because she just runs around in figure eights until she's out of breath. The good thing about that spot is that you can see people coming from a distance so if you need to hook them up again quickly you can. We let them off the leash. Misha first. She just stood there next to my father. What was the point of going anywhere; where else was there to be but there, by the side of -- HIM. I unleashed Sweetie and she took off in a straight line and disappeared into the woods. "I think I see her just over there," my father said, but that was a bush. It was that dark. About a minute later I heard the receding sound of yelps and canine shrieks. That was Sweetie, dashing up the creek after something, the scent of deer makes her shriek like that. So I ran up the trail that follows this little creekbed, just a stream really. The others caught up with me while I was standing and waiting. We argued about whether to split up, occasionally pausing to whistle and call out to Sweetie. A few minutes later, she came trotting down the trail wearing a fresh coat of mud and a a rather sheepish demeanor that was transparently phony even in the dark.

Had I had such rich serving of schadenfreude, I would have taken it and been nursing it and sipping slowly and noisily at it the rest of the night. But my father has no taste for that sort of thing.

Misha dragged my father the whole way back to his truck, having had quite enough of the great outdoors thank you very much, and he drove her home while my cousin and I walked back the not quite a mile. When we got back to the apartment my father was watching CNN (well, it was on) and the dog was sitting in his truck, per her usual practice, refusing to get out. "See if you can get her out," he said to me, per his usual practice. I went out and there she was looking dismal and desolate. I sort of burrowed about underneath her and found the leash and she got out of the car and followed me perfectly contentedly back to the apartment. It's not because she thinks I am so wonderful. She wants my father to take her for a long ride in the car; life offers her no greater happines. And when it doesn't happen she can't seem to think her way out of the car. My father loses his patience and leaves her there.

Tomorrow we will give half of the extra duck to Mrs. Graham across the hall; "Ha ha ha ha heh heh ha ha ha ha haah, WhooooooWEEE!" That Mrs Graham. She told me a long story about why she doesn't speak any more to D., the rather boring woman who lives downstairs, and while there was no single one catastrophic event, there were a whole lot of little ones and I can't remember them all but I do remember only this one line that sort of sung out at me from the jumble of detail: "Girl, I had no idea that that woman was balt haided."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Entertainment News

This is a comment I started in response to a posting by Charles Pierce at The American Prospect, on the Michael Richards n-word uproar.

I don't get it. Why does this post make people so angry? I remember faithfully watching every episode of Seinfeld as they appeared and enjoying them. But in reruns a lot of the humor now seems dated, and dated in a specific and unpleasant way: it's based on a nasty meme that began to emerge in the 1980s I think -- "Yeah we're jerks -- but if you think you're not a jerk you're a hypocrite and a dupe." It was about permission to be an amoral jerk, so it was a direct descendant of Animal House and that whole school of unspecified, objectless irony. (Well, I suppose the irony had an object: you, the viewer.)

Richards's tirade isn't really about race; race is just one of the the characteristics of the greater chumps, the styleless, the ones who don't package themselves with the appropriate slickness, the losers. (Remember how popular that particular epithet was a while back? I remember walking down Braodway in 1997, right outside the "Seinfeld" restaurant, as it happened, and hearing a Columbia student shout at a homeless man, "Why are you such a LOOOOSER?" Somehow, somewhere, he had been taught to think that that was funny.) Richards was putting the unwashed in their place, and I think the impulse to do that is not deep in his subconscious at all. It was always pretty near the surface in Seinfeld.

I don't say that that's all the show was about but the conflict situations with minor and incidental characters were about that, often. And really, we'd all be better off without that stuff. It's just mean.

But I loved the Jackie Chiles character. He was the most likable person on that show. He had dignity, style, self-possession, assurance, and he spoke in rhyming couplets and he did not condescend to notice all the eye-rolling and winks that were supposed to convey to you, the viewer that you were supposed to think he was a clown. It didn't work because he was too irrepressibly himself.

Update Well the post went up over there about seven times. No one can stand to see that much of themself.

Further Update Lively discussion of this over at alicublog. I'll fix that long comment over there, Chuckling.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ask "Monk" Lewis

A recent poster described the elections as a "speed bump on the way to theocracy."

Well, if it is true, this story is like the car slamming into a big pothole and breaking an axle.

The DailyKos diary quotes this passage from a profile of Louis Sheldon in The Jewish Week. Sheldon is head of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Then, as if things could not get worse, there was the disgrace of Sheldon's own friend and colleague, Rev. Ted Haggard, the Colorado mega-church leader and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an even bigger pillar of Republican support on the Christian right. Sheldon disclosed that he and "a lot" of others knew about Haggard's homosexuality "for awhile ... but we weren't sure just how to deal with it."
Months before a male prostitute publicly revealed Haggard's secret relationship with him, and the reverend's drug use as well, "Ted and I had a discussion," explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal then: "He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn't. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that."

Roy found a piece by David Frum (coiner of the phrase, "Axis of Evil") the week the Haggard story broke. Here's the bit he quoted:

Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.

One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.

The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution...

...the first man may well see his family and church life as his "real" life; and regard his other life as an occasional uncontrollable deviation, sin, and error, which he condemns in his judgment and for which he sincerely seeks to atone by his prayer, preaching, and Christian works.

Yet it is the first man who will if exposed be held up to the execration of the media, while the second can become a noted public character - and can even hope to get away with presenting himself as an exemplar of ethics and morality.

How does this make moral sense?

I believe that Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis can clear matters up.

Ambrosio felt embarrassed as He entered the Chapel. Guilt was new to him, and He fancied that every eye could read the transactions of the night upon his countenance. He strove to pray; His bosom no longer glowed with devotion; His thoughts insensibly wandered to Matilda’s secret charms. But what He wanted in purity of heart, He supplied by exterior sanctity. The better to cloak his transgression, He redoubled his pretensions to the semblance of virtue, and never appeared more devoted to Heaven as since He had broken through his engagements. Thus did He unconsciously add Hypocrisy to perjury and incontinence; He had fallen into the latter errors from yielding to seduction almost irresistible; But he was now guilty of a voluntary fault by endeavouring to conceal those into which Another had betrayed him.

. . . .

He determined at all events to continue his commerce with Matilda, and called every argument to his aid which might confirm his resolution. He asked himself, provided his irregularity was unknown, in what would his fault consist, and what consequences He had to apprehend? By adhering strictly to every rule of his order save Chastity, He doubted not to retain the esteem of Men, and even the protection of heaven. He trusted easily to be forgiven so slight and natural a deviation from his vows: But He forgot that having pronounced those vows, Incontinence, in Laymen the most venial of errors, became in his person the most heinous of crimes.

Once he rationalizes his hypocrisy to himself, Ambrosio goes into some very dark ways indeed.

How dark?

Oh, I am so glad you asked: well, there’s idolatry, blasphemy, iconoclasm, black magic, blasphemy, illicit sex (and lots of it – once he gets going he’s like a mink), hypocrisy, lying, murder, invocation of demons, rape, incest, matricide, voyeurism, selling of souls to the devil… and I think I may have missed a few. In the end he is punished, of course, but it is too late for the reader (that would be me), who knows by this point that she has enjoyed it all far too much and knows that enjoying it puts her in closer moral proximity to Ambrosio than is quite comfortable. The book was such a scandal that it earned its author the nickname “Monk” for the rest of his life.

Now, Lewis is not a great moralist. The book, for all its diabolical subject matter, has a weirdly pantomime atmosphere, as if you have met all the villains before -- well, all of them except the Grey Nun. (I do not complain of this quality, I rather like it.) I don’t think you would call Lewis a deep thinker on moral questions – a deep thinker on moral questions would not have written The Monk. It would have given a great moral thinker like Samuel Johnson the horrors, and I don't mean the fun kind. And Johnson understood human fallibility. But Lewis was a competent moral thinker: he knew just exactly what public opinion of Ambrosio’s behavior would be. That, I think, partly accounts for the pantomime atmosphere.

Which is all my way of saying that the objections to hypocrisy are not in such hard-to-reach places; even a man like “Monk” Lewis could find them ready to hand when he needed them. Like the authors of bodice-rippers, thrillers and romances for the popular taste, he knew that you win your readers by respecting their norms in matters such as the meaning of hypocrisy or dishonesty, even while you tickle them with the illicit, sublime, and subversive.

But if you would like a more respectable source, consider George Herbert:

Think the King sees Thee still,
For his King does.

Paradise Lost is too long to quote here.

And here’s one that every Jamaican child learns, suitable for the simple.

Speak the truth and speak it ever,
Cost it what it will;
He who hides the wrong he did
Does the wrong thing still.

So I'm not sure what traditional values are represented by "damage control," which Ambrosio the Evil Monk would recognize in his very bones as hypocrisy and the work of the devil whom he knew so well. God, at the very least these people reveal such a low and bestial incompetence in the very matters on which they profess to have exclusive authority, it's revolting. It's like even in matters of religion and truth they have to frighten and bully you into buying their sleazy cheap wares.

You know, I think that anybody who travels far to fetch back an argument in defense of the indefensible Oh, hi, Mr. Satan, I'm your neighbor, the wife and I live just across the Universe, and I was wondering if I could borrow a cup of arguments from you -- and comes back to set you straight with tortured reasoning like Frum's, reeking of brimstone and dog turds, is even worse than a person who tries to mislead you as to facts. This person is trying to corrupt your judgment. And that must surely be a first-class ticket back to that other place.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Why I Miss Caribbean Journalism, Yet Again

Demon possession at Shortwood Teachers' College?

The Star validated its headline by describing the signs of demon possession in the girls as 'frothing at the mouth', 'jumping all over the place ... barking like a dog', speaking a 'different language' and in a 'coarse voice'. One little girl who was allegedly possessed, was said to be very strong. However, in the same story, the reporter quoted Bishop Ade-Gold who said, "The affected students were influenced by demons, but were not possessed. He said the difference was that the students were aware of what was happening, which is quite different from what happens when someone is possessed when they are not conscious."

It has been ever thus. The real party is always somewhere where Kia isn't.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Campaign Manager

Tbogg explains the real reason George Allen lost.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Kicking it Around

Two readers of my last entry started other interesting topics. "L.," over at Glittering Generalities writes about "self-indulgent personal crap."

Ha Ha I made a funny. What I mean is she writes about how people say they aren't interested in a bunch of self-indulgent personal crap. L., also writes about self-indulgent personal crap. Like what James Boswell wrote. (Pay no attention to the fluffery and puffery that opens this post; it's a very short paragraph before you get to the good stuff.)

Chuckling who hangs out at Roy's Place with a bunch of jaded hipsters and lefty oddballs, posted me in comments a link to a new Vonnegut piece. Chuckling thinks before he writes. Or during. Anyhow he thinks.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Why Whine

don't blog about politics. In the current ghastly state of affairs maybe I should. But there are so many people out there doing it who are more focused on it than I am. They work at it full time, which I can't do. I read some of them. If you want me to point you to some of the good stuff let me know.

So what do I write about here? I've been having to think about this because of the job quest ordeal again. It always involves this reassessment of my life and how I got where I am. I'm not sure it should but this happens because I hate writing job letters.

Or maybe I hate writing job letters because this harrowing internal scrutiny seems to attend the process.

One day I was telling some people at work some story or other -- can't remember what it was about but it sort of came out of conversation. I heard myself wondering how it happened that I have had so many strange adventures. Only a few of them are the sort of thing that travel magazines, for example, call adventures. Most of the adventures were unsought, unexpected; not all of them have been unpleasant but some of them certainly were.

Apparently the one thing I do not have the remotest idea how to do is to plan my life. Or how to carry out a plan of my life, if I had such a plan. Sometimes I think that most of what I’ve achieved has happened out of a sort of desperate stubbornness, as though someone, somewhere, is expecting me to fail -- not so much at some particular task or at the job itself, but to fail in some inner way, that will demonstrate that I’m really no good, a poser whose pose has failed, I’ll spare you all the gruesome elaborations of it.

The only way I know how to answer this anxiety is by work, by concentrating on whatever job I’m doing. When I taught at Creative Studies, during the early 1990s my classroom was the one where you’d hear people roaring with laughter. I taught a lot of difficult stuff that it was a challenge to make students believe they ought to be interested in, and I succeeded in getting them interested. And then at the end of every single day I went home and pretty much lay in bed with the covers over my head till it was time to walk the dog.

In St. Kitts I ran myself into the ground. And even on the night when I got attacked I didn’t want to stop. When they were taking me to the ambulance I kept telling Rita, the reporter who was staying in my house, to take pictures of all the blood on the floor. Within hours of being back home from the emergency room I was back at my desk. And the next issue of the paper had a long, detailed story that I wrote describing the whole incident.

I can walk straight out of utter wretchedness and give a talk to an audience and make people laugh, energize and then go right back to utter wretchedness again as soon as I’m by myself.

I think the European Brown Rat is like that, if I remember that story by Joseph Mitchell correctly, the one about the rats?

I don’t believe in luck; my father believes in luck. We were driving across the country in my car in 2004. I was on my way back to Calfornia from Nevis. He kept speeding and I kept complaining. (I know he thinks it is rotten luck indeed that he ended up living with the only child he has out of the four who “back seat drives” -- a thing he hates deeply. Do I care? No.) He said, “Oh, they’re not going to stop me.” This is a statement of a person who believes in luck. I don’t. And if I did believe in luck I would want to save it up for something really big, not waste it on traffic tickets. When I find myself waiting for what luck is supposed to deliver, I am miserable. Because I hate hate hate games of chance, crapshoots. And since my job hunting has always had the appearance of a crapshoot I hate it.

I also don’t like haggling. When I was a freshman, before I got into Creative Studies, I was taking science classes and not doing brilliantly, having never been in a classroom with more than 20 people in it before, among other things. People would take exams and then go to the professor’s office and argue him into giving them a few points more. I could not bring myself to do this, the idea of doing it just utterly disgusted me. My whole trouble in life is that I don’t want anything that you have to get that way, by bullying people or by bullshitting. I am sure the professors might have made mistakes from time to time, but it seemed rather mean and sordid to want to profit by a few points from such mistakes.

But the whole idea of taking exams that way seemed really stupid to me anyway and still does. It’s a stunt. “It’s to weed people out,” you hear people say. And I always think, “Well, if you don’t want me here, I’m leaving.” It’s sort of a reflexive impulse to any sort of situation where my right to be there is in question. This trait is another family inheritance. I like to think of it as the Family Curse. We expect to be rejected. We cannot stand the suspense of waiting to be rejected. So we eject ourselves from a situation.

It was very lucky (hahahaha) that I found my way into Creative Studies then, where you were not punished for wanting to learn by being “weeded out.” And the strange thing is it worked, as anyone can tell you who knows what its students have accomplished for the 30 or so years of its existence. I had heard about Creative Studies, this college for unusually motivated students where the science majors got to work at original research and the arts and literature students, in the brochure, all looked like they were into whatever they were doing. And my first conclusion was, “They would never take someone like me. “ But a friend of mine took a class there. And I thought that if they let herhang around they could probably stand to have me. I took the class, Marvin Mudrick’s class in The Writing of Narrative Prose. The rest I won’t bore you with. I was weeded in.

Last year I went to this party in Sebastopol and I met a woman who was home visiting from her first tenure-track teaching job in English. The job was at a small college out in Ohio somewhere. We got talking about English-related stuff and I asked her a lot of questions and realized that she hadn’t read anything. She had written a dissertation somehow or other, I don’t remember about what, and she was looking about for the topic of her next effort of scholarship. Coming in on the tail end of New Historicism she was going to do some economics research involving welfare rolls or wills or some sort of public records in some English county which was all to prove something or other about literary texts in which she had no literary interest as far as I could make out.

I said, “Well, that sounds very nice, but you are at liberty now to do something that you could actually care about. So why not go for what really interests you?”

I said it nicely, OK?

She agreed with the sentiment but really couldn’t get a grip on it.

My mother is an economist. I remember when she was studying statistics, as she did her undergraduate work when I was in sixth or seventh grade. And I remember her complaining that statistics were hard. She did them though. Later, when I was in college, she picked up a Columbia MBA. She’s retired now, but a lot of her work was in development. She volunteers on a couple of charity boards, one, for example, involved with microfinance for women entrepreneurs in Grenada. She has worked with the EU, and with organizations involved in local and international economic development. Now, I have some idea of where literary studies has gone over the last 20 years or so, and I know that it has not equipped anybody to go wandering into raw 17th-century statistics or economics. So the whole thing would be a swizz and a bore. Guaranteed. But this condtion of affairs she just accepted with a sort of placid trustingness. Beavering away at utterly pointless useless work, that no one but an English professor with corrupted judgment would read, that would be contemptible in the eyes of anyone who actually knew anything about the subject, was the whole reason she became an English professor.

It’s like there are two kinds of knowing. One is the knowing of actual things the way I know all my favorite writers, or the way my mother knows how to put together policy reports for NGOs who want to take some action. Or how my father knows how to install electric poles and power them up without electrocuting himself. Where you know, or you don’t know. And you can know that you know. Or not.

Then there’s this other kind of knowing. It’s the kind of knowing where a person who has barely achieved competence in the study of English literature and language, is hired to teach it on the basis of research she is going to produce by researching economics -- a subject about which she knows, in that first sense, even less than she knows about English. But she apparently knows something else, by this other system of knowing, and the people who hire her think they do too, and think she does, and that something that they know is not anything that you could describe as “a subject.”

What is it?

I have not the remotest idea. I believe that Stanley Fish is a well-known exponent of this particular type of knowing.

I’ve met academic stars and stars-in-training; a specialist in Renaissance Poetry, a whiz at getting grants, who cannot scan Ben Jonson’s verses (Jonson is one of the easy ones). I met people who make sweeping pronouncements on scientific theory without having ever read any of Richard Feynman’s serious writing on science, or Karl R. Popper’s descriptions and critiques of pseudoscience. Or Darwin. By some totally (to me, at any rate) inscrutable mental process, writers like these who actually know something about these subjects are scrupulously excluded from a discussion of, say, what is a scientific theory. I’ve met people who study literature and make no secret of the fact that they think it’s all crap. Totally uncurious about Pushkin but stopping in the hall eagerly to ask, “Have you seen the new Frederic Jamieson piece?” People who are incapable of recognizing criticism from outside of the intellectual framework to which they have committed themselves.

An inability to think through to the practical, general, or logical consequences of any positions to which they have committed themselves is another characteristic.

Thus, I once had a colleague ask me, “But surely you don’t believe that there are universal human values?” This person was questioning my liberal cred on the basis of some offhand remark I had made, which I totally don’t remember now. But yeah, I kinda do think there are, or at any rate that large numbers of people seem to think there are, starting with human rights, the Geneva Conventions, and a whole long list of my own personal preferences, and a whole lot of things that individuals and societies have tried to describe, have believed in, have tried to achieve, have died for. It’s a huge subject, a splendid subject. It’s a subject! I mean, you can start with Sophocles’s opening chorus to Antigone, you can work through Clytemnestra’s speeches in Agammemnon, you can hit Dante, you can find it in the Knight’s Tale, in medieval Persian epics, in Voltaire, in Montaigne, in the writers of the Enlightenment, all the way up. Apparently as soon as people are able to take pen in hand a large number of them will begin to be preoccupied wth the question of whether there are any universal human values, whether there should be any, what they should be, why they should be those in particular, what the consequences of such belief might be for good or ill, what they should be based in (religion?which religion? consent of the people? laws of nature? my inner child? what?).

But when this woman thought of the phrase she thought of it in this very narrow sense in which it had come to her through literary study -- she thought of it through the provincialism of one method of reading, where you went seeking the colonialist patriarchal oppressor in order to condemn him. And from the perspective of that method that’s all there was. That’’s all she had, and you see what I have. And yet, I feel like the person who does not know.

Is that weird or what?

This is the “cultural relativism” that sets the wingnuts to foaming at the mouth, even as they are daily busted for practicising it themselves, to a degree, the record of the last six years now shows, that is beyond the most fevered dreams of the nuttiest campus liberal, and real, not hypothetical, destruction and misery have been the result.

So even as I make this critique of the “liberal” humanities I’m not losing sight of the fact that most of the critique of it from the right is in totally bad faith. They attack the “multiculturalist agenda” and “political correctness” as cover for a racialist, anti-feminist, anti-humanist agenda that is simple and practical. There is no equivalence between the two.

This has been another edition of "Not Writing Job Letters." I'm doomed.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Thank You, Lord

The best election gloating site, I think, is over at Tbogg. He is in San Diego. And to all my California readers I hope you were dancing in the street to learn that the egregious Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) has been given his walking papers.

I went to the polls last night, at the high school. My dad was registered over in Anne Arundel County, where he was living before we took up housekeeping together here in Montgomery County. He had neglected (what with having a lot on his mind the last few months) to change his registration. But I found out when I got there that he could use a provisional ballot. So I sort of removed all the other mental obstacles one by one -- he is like me, he gets discouraged easily -- and drove him there. He got it done, which took much longer than I expected. (The building was broiling hot and dreary. I forgot to bring anything to read and see? See? What happened? I had to spend 40 minutes mooching about the hallways reading all the photocopied uplifting mottos taped on the walls. Let this be a warning.

The only motto that didn't depress me was one that had been slightly modified by some wag with a ballpoint pen. It was something to the effect of "When I was young I cared only for Intelligent People: Now that I am older I care only for Kind People. This student had modified the last three words so that now they read "Kinds of Poop." But I didn't get enough amusement out of it to last me the whole time, so there was nothing to do but gawk at this South Asian woman who was wearing a sort of coverup I have seen around here from time to time. It is a three-piece affair; a head covering, then the top that is like a poncho-- fitting rather close around the shoulders and then poofing out and covering her down to her wrists. Then a full skirt all the way to her ankles. All three pieces are made of some sort of bright cheerful bland pattern and I guess that is a nice touch. And the decoration at the hems (six different types of rickrack) is a nice touch too, suggestive at the very least of some wish to make it not quite The Most Hideous Garment On Earth. Not succeeding, but meriting an A for effort, nonetheless.

There was a big fat white guy about my age and it became clear that he had somehow been encouraged to believe he was managing everything because he is the big white guy. I have a cousin like that. And he had been doing a lot of work. He came and told me all about the crazy people -- no details, just how he managed them. Apparently he had seen a lot of crazy people that day, and he'd call and say, "You'd better come get this one -- she's flippin' out." Well then of course I began to suspect that he was possibly a bit tetched too. And that probably throughout the day the other poll workers had gone through the Five Stages of Dealing With Slightly Batty Blowhards Who Think They Run Everything: impressed, horrified, bored, wearily indulgent, and at last grateful and forgiving. You can forgive everything, and appreciate their genuine good qualities, if you just don't have to listen to them for 14 hours straight.

But there were lots of other people doing work too, just that they weren't making quite so much noise about it. They were all making an effort to be nice and polite. I've worked a precinct and it's a long, tedious day. The woman in the strange garment was older than I am, the garment made her look even older. Oh lord the headpiece had some sort of flap that was evidently supposed to be a daring bit of flourish. But she had this wonderful elegance and birdlike alertness. She used her hands really intelligently, like a person who really used her hands. And from time to time she'd sort of stand up straight and look about her, evidently assessing the condition of her provisional voters (the provisional ballot had a lot of other stuff you had to fill out, it was a bit of a pain). You watched this woman and you knew she was smart and you knew she knew she was smart.

I am sure my dad was glad to have the little adventure of voting, and now he can share in the gloating.

When you are discouraged easily from doing things and you actually manage to bring yourself to do the thing you thought it wasn't worth your trying to do, you always feel relieved, I think.

Except job letters.

Friday, November 03, 2006

New Jamaican Commercial

On the radio, of course. Uptempo dance-hall beat, faster than the old rock steady/reggae beat, if the dance-hall beat isn't familiar to you imagine the old reggae beat doubled up and you kind of get the idea. Cheerful little tune sung along to it in the same dance hall singing style. All I catch is the one line:

Bop mek all o dem die!

Bop is bug spray.