gall and gumption

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Econ for Lit Majors

My mother is helping me edit some materials for an immense and famous NGO, nameless here. They are in her field, economics, and she finds it amusing. She has worked in, or with, organizations like this one most of her life. She helps me with the logic of some of the really opaque bits, which aren't opaque because the reasoning is necessarily difficult. Just sometimes I can't find the little bit of sense -- and it only is a little -- that is dispersed thinly amidst all this redundant, long-winded, pretentious, turgid writing. My mother can find it. And she can fix it, too. She writes the way these people think they are writing. But she doesn't pad her prose; it's stripped-down, lean, formally correct, and lucid, and it moves. She is ruthless with jargon, empty pretentiousness, and the fashionable repurposing of words, and she sums up these labored exercises -- the entire paper -- in about two sentences.

She had a lot of fun with the comments feature of MS Word. So I find these sharp little observations just popping up like speech balloons all over the screen, and reading the whole thing, comments, edits, is like this portrait of my mother sitting at her computer totally absorbed and fiendishly entertained by fixing this guy's appalling prose and his weak grasp of his subject. I can't use everything she suggests because, as I explained to her, my job is only to make the writer seem passably literate, not to make a real economist out of him.

The second article is written by a writer for whom English may be a second language. But I'm not sure he has a first language. What he does have, though, is a subject, government finance in developing countries. Clearly he knows this subject well -- he lives in a developing country -- and what is funny, though it's not meant to be, is the disconnect between the language, which is almost impenetrable in places, and the simple reality that he is trying to describe in it. My mother knows this subject well, from her years at we'll just say Another Big Development NGO, working with the very people who are the subject of this article. She, however, is at liberty to call a spade a spade:

The developing country
section should be worth a few laughs, the one bright
bit was where he said finance ministers in
developing countries withheld info from parliament
etc. Pity he didn't add that any figures they provide
are largely figments of their imagination and budget
expenditure is decided on the basis of which regions
of the country voted for the govt., the work being
done by the company owned by the minister of whatever.

Reading this particular paper made me wonder if the purpose of it was intentionally to obscure the facts. The best of it is when the reality sort of gets near enough to the surface of the prose that you can actually glimpse it. What was funny about it was how in one long sentence he described how basically, governments in some developing countries cheerfully get with any new budgeting system or method, but since behind the scenes they go on doing exactly as they always have, the new system is "an additional layer of futility." I love to think of all those preceding layers of futility. Kind of like the Princess and the Pea.

Some of this obscurity is because of the quasi-academic writing style, in which the preference is for having the subject of a sentence be an abstraction rather than a person, and then burying the object somewhere out in the woods at the end of the sentence. I'm not a knee-jerk person about the passive voice, sometimes it sounds right, but it seems to me that when you can make your point more clear and forceful by putting it in terms of human agency, why wouldn't you go for it? Because you are in a muddle about that very thing and are just hoping not to be found out.

Economics is one of those fields of study, like literary theory, that's not supposed to work This Washington Post story is a bit of a revelation, not only about the successes and failures of one institution's development programs, but about their attitude to failure as well. According to the World Bank's own Independent Evaluation Group, 14 out of 25 World Bank projects to reduce poverty left people either worse off or with no improvement in their lives. The policies produced no economic growth, while in other places where they did produce economic growth, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

"For a sustained reduction in poverty over a period of time, it really
pays to worry about both growth and distribution," said Vinod Thomas,
director-general of the Independent Evaluation Group. "It has been a
mistaken notion that you can grow first and worry about the
distribution later."

Overall, between 1990 and 2002 the percentage of the world's people who
subsist on less than one dollar per day declined from 28 percent to 19
percent, according to World Bank research. But officials with the
evaluation group noted that much of the advance was registered in
China, which has rejected many of the tenets of the development model
advocated by the West while relying hardly at all on the largesse of
the World Bank.

"If you take out China, the numbers would be unfavorable," Thomas said.
"The sheer numbers of people living under the $1 a day definition of
poverty has been stubbornly high." By the Bank's reckoning, 1.1 billion
people were subsisting at that level in 2001.

When a policy fails, it turns out that either 1) It was meant to fail in just this way all along and that's just the market working its magic; 2) it is the fault of people being too poor/ignorant/corrupt/subject to hurricanes and really this theory would work if they tried it out on a better class of people or a better class of universe; 3) You don't get the subtlety of it, puny earthling; 4) Economics is really really hard, 5) Who are you to criticize me? Do you know who I am?; and 6) I am a deeply serious person.

Some of the report reads like an amalgam of the sorts of criticisms
that have been leveled against the World Bank for years by activists
who accuse it of an ideological bias toward market reforms and a
callous disregard for the people bearing the brunt of such policies.
The report chides the bank for failing to help cushion poor people
against price and currency liberalizations; for focusing on the fiscal
sustainability of pension systems to the deriment of the poor; for
promoting the privatization of power industries without thinking enough
about wiring up the indigent.

It criticizes the bank for failing to tailor projects to local
conditions, and for sometimes attempting to accomplish more than
national governments can handle. In the most striking example, the
report noted that in Uganda the bank assisted the government with an
ambitious effort to increase school enrollments, but failed to plan for
sufficient teacher hiring or classroom construction. By last year,
Uganda's schools had an average of 94 students per classroom, and each
book was being shared by three pupils.

World Bank administrators said it would be simplistic to view rising
poverty rates as a sign that their projects do not work
, noting that
the worst-off borrowing countries are grappling with war, famine and
natural catastrophes.

"There's a lot that has to go right for countrywide incomes to improve
other than just good projects financed by the World Bank," said Vikram
Nehru, director of the bank's economic policy and debt department.
"These countries are in very difficult circumstances."

Still, Nehru said the bank could benefit from greater consideration of
what is actually possible in any given country.

"We need to be much more sober in our assessments," he said.

That last line sounds like yer basic bureaucrat's promise to make life even harder for his clients, no? This is the tendency of the bureaucratic mind: to not ever be responsible for failure, and the best way not to fail is not to take the risk of failure. So bureaucracies sort of congeal. It gets harder and harder to do anything through the agency, it gets harder and harder to fix anything, it gets harder and harder to get anything (money, authorizations, information, service) out of them. Actually doing things could result in questions like "You gave them what? Who authorized it?" I don't imagine you get to be director of economic policy and debt by being cavalier and frivolous with the funds. You get it by being more and more sober in your assessments of the people who have made you look like an ass. That is, the bureaucratic reaction is to become even more close-fisted. Not, apparently, to use more informed judgment; to admit so much would imply that any other outcome among those hapless losers in Bangladesh or Ecuador, with their earthquakes and typhoons and famines, was possible.

Anyway one economist who you can read with profit (if you'll pardon the expression) is Joseph Stiglitz. But it's probably all even worse than he says.

Update: Fixed the link so it goes to the Washington Post article instead of that other site. Thenkyouveddymuch Tom.

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown 1933-2006

Well, if he wasn't immortal before he's immortal now. I hope someone names a star, or maybe a whole galaxy, after him.

If you ever see a copy of his autobiography about, grab it. The first half is simply amazing.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Five From Hell

I got tagged by Tom and I'm supposed to write five things no-one knows about me and then tag five other people to do the same thing. I think the way it works is if I don't pass it on I will lose money on real estate or catch some sort of skin disease. I don't happen to know five bloggers, however. I'm tagging Leslie. I need at least four people to post in the comments. There are four of you out there, aren't there?

Here are my five.

1. I used to be terrified of lightning and, later, of vampires.

2. I like to share a packet of pork rinds with my dog occasionally.

3. I eat fish heads.

4. It was me that threw up all over the bathroom at Uncle Tony and Aunty Fay's house that one time in 1970.

5. I really want to go to Sardinia again.

Since You Asked, or Spanish Painting Parte Cuatro

Leslie asked what I was reading on the bus. On the way up I continued reading Talleyrand: The Art of Survival, Jean Orieux's wonderfully gossipy and fascinating biography of the 19th century French diplomat who was not like any other diplomat or much like any other person anywhere, ever. I can't get enough of him. I also took along Conjectures and Refutations by Karl Popper. Which is really a good choice for a bus ride a few hours long.

The time I would have spent on seeing the Spanish paintings I instead spent at Labyrinth Books, a bookstore about which I have always had somewhat mixed feelings. But I scored a few nice things including Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond which made me envious of her daffy Anglicanism and her camel. I think it would be such a complete rip to ride a camel alone from Istanbul to Jerusalem, stopping occasionally to write a little and paint watercolors, while quoting to myself some of the more vivid poetical utterances of 17th-century Anglican theologians. I've almost finished it.

Spanish Painting Parte Tres

The Guggenheim Museum is closed on Thursdays. This is evidently the reason why they do not sell advance tickets for Thursdays. I found this useful bit of information out at the door of the Guggenheim on Thursday. I share it with you. This concludes my three-part series on Spanish Painting.

Spanish Painting Parte Dos

On Wednesday I went with three old friends (you know who you are!) to see the Vollard exhibition at the Met. Some very very nice paintings. I found three of the Gauguins more than restful, with the figures in the dark foreground and this warm outdoor light of the background visible through a doorway. I loved the color of that light.

I also tried to put myself in the frame of mind of people, contemporary with Van Gogh, who would not have wanted his paintings in their houses for any consideration. It wasn't that hard to do, even though I totally feasted on his color, which just seemed magical. Why did I want to imagine such a state of mind? It must have seemed quite reasonable to people at the time. What I imagined was that paintings are status objects, among other things, and sometimes their value as status objects is what makes them appeal to people. Van Gogh's paintings are still status objects but they are now status objects with an incalculably high status value, as opposed to back in the day when they had none, when putting them on your wall might make your neighbors think you had taken leave of your senses. But the greens are just as green, the yellows and the reds and purples as intense as they were then. And somehow the trick for me is to try to see the paintings independently of their status.

There was one of Renoir's bathers. It brought perhaps a little too forcefully to my mind the fact that he had started out as a painter decorating china plates. There was also a one-minute film loop of him and Vollard together. Even though the movements were sped up in the way that old newsreels are, you could still tell that he was a surprisingly animated person, for all that he was so old and stuck in his chair, with his fingers almost useless and deformed by arthritis. I had always imagined him as sort of still. But he was full of energy. That was interesting.

Spanish Painting

The Chinatown bus ride to New York -- Chinatown D.C. to Chinatown N.Y. was notable for the lack of the sort of friendly bantering chit chat you are accustomed to expect from airline pilots. I fell asleep outside of Baltimore, which I rather liked the look of, and woke up in I had no idea which state. I kept looking for some sign or something that could give an indication, but nothing. I did not know how much time had passed, so I couldn't even guess. We stopped at a truck stop somewhere and this was where the driver/conductor made his only announcement: "TEN MINUTE!!!!!" I went into the shop/restaurant place and inside the door was a big display of cheap gift items all bearing the logo, "I [heart] NY." This did not in any way reduce my sense of disorientation. Surely if we were in New York we'd be amongst buildings and not still on an interstate going through fields? An hour and a half later we were in Jersey City. Why do they sell New York souvenirs in New Jersey? Are there no New Jersey souvenirs? Not that I'd ever buy one from either place in any case. It was dark when we pulled up at what looked like a particularly dreary and desolate corner of Chinatown. But I had noticed that Chinatown still has the best restaurant names of anywhere, and there were still lots of Chinese people about buying things from the stalls that spilled out of the densely packed little grocery stores. This is no longer the case in D.C. Chinatown. I think there are maybe about eight Chinese people there.

For the trip back I took a different bus company that left from Penn Station (what a bloody horror that place is!) I got out off the station and took off in totally the wrong direction to find the bus, but at least that gave me the opportunity to give a dollar to a youngish black man who was sitting on the crowded sidewalk with his legs stretched out straight in front of him. He was wearing a plastic bag and was festooned all over with cunningly twisted shreds of newspaper, and he also seemed to be in blackface. He was in quite good spirits too, though he looked like a poster boy for homeless wretchedness.

I was pretty sure I had missed the bus I wanted, but another bus headed for D.C. Chinatown would be there shortly so I wasn't too worried. I went to the address for the second bus and that turned out to be where all the buses waited. A man walked up to me and said, "Vamoose?" "Yes," I answered. That was the name of the bus company. The early bus was still there. So while I waited to get on I got to listen to him and the two Orthodox Jewish guys who ran the operation accost people with luggage, saying "Vamoose! Vamoose!" It was quite pleasing. When the passengers were all in, one of the Jewish guys collected all the money and left.

I sat next to a nice black lady who laughed at everything but wasn't too chatty. The couple across the aisle had a tiny dog with them. The fare for the Vamoose bus, which went to Bethesda (a little closer to home for me) was $5 more than the Chinese bus. "You pay a little more, but it's insured," said my neighbor, laughing.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Neville Willoughby, 1937-2006

Another voice out of childhood. A smart, creative, professional radio journalist whose voice and name were known to every Jamaican, man, woman, child. Genial, tactful, always good-natured, with perfect diction and appropriateness of tone. Gosh, there were some good broadcasters on the air then. We were a little dinky country, but we trusted these people who brought us the news every night, or hosted the programs on the radio, they were as good as we could have wanted: Neville Willoughby, Roy Lawrence (big, sentimental sportscaster), Dennis Hall, Don Topping, Erica Allen, Barry Davis, and Cynthia Wilmot. And, of course, Motty P. I'm sure I'm leaving some out. If anybody from Jamaica stops by and sees that I've missed anyone, post his or her name.

Neville also sang and wrote songs; his voice was often heard singing in radio and TV commercials, too. The one I remember best was the Wincarnis Tonic Wine jingle, I still can't get that wretched thing out of my head.

In Jamaica the radio plays just constantly almost everywhere. You are listening and then not listening, it's just the background to everything, this loose and variously textured weave of voices. Neville's voice was one of the constants. He had a relationship with his public that had been built up over a 45-year career of being heard every day.

He was also a close family friend, as truly nice in person as his on-air persona seemed. He and his sister were among that cohort of lifetime friends of my Aunt J., friendships not cooled by distance or bad luck or good luck or marriage, that somehow still kept their adolescent intensity and effusiveness. These were giggly and snuggly friendships, deeply affectionate, deeply loyal. So he was part of our life in that way as well, a friend to my father and his brothers, almost family. This makes them sad.

Update: I did think of another one: Lindy Delapenha. All of them public-spirited, conscientious, good journalists, trusted by their audience. It happens sometimes.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chinatown Bus

Of course I am looking forward to my visit to New York the next couple of days, but I'm also excited about the Chinatown Bus too.

Going to see the Spanish Painting show.

And I will be seeing friends.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Not in Tortola, By God!

I first learned about the dance called "dutty wine" when I read an article in the Jamaica Gleaner this past summer, about an 18-year-old woman who had died while doing it. "Dutty Wine" means "Dirty Wind;" it's mostly done by women. They shake and rotate their hips and they fling their heads abour violently. The dancer in Jamaica apparently died of neck injuries, though the autopsy was inconclusive. Physicians have said that it's dangerous.

There is a DJ called Tony Matterhorn who does a song called Dutty Wine, and where the song goes the dance goes -- or vice versa. I haven't heard the song. According to Caribbean Net News and the BBC, the government of the British Virgin Islands has banned his show. It's clear from this story, in Caribbean Net News, that the government was worrying about more than slipped discs:

The Chief Minister said government reached this decision because of two reasons:

'First, the Government-required application process to hold this performance was incomplete. Second, while I am quite aware of the popularity of this dance in the Caribbean, I am also aware of the life-threatening consequences associated with this dance.' the Chief Minister said.

The Chief Minister said, 'I am told that the 'dutty wine' dance is a head rotation dance in which dancers use their heads, necks and other parts of their bodies. And those dancers have to move their necks in both ways. It is a strenuous whirlwind of a dance in which the head and posterior are rotated simultaneously.' The BVI Chief Minister said he heard a chiropractor on the BBC Caribbean Report had warned about the dangers of this dance as there has been a reported death resulting from it.

He said, 'While I know there will be discussions that if Government disallows this show, then Government should look at other issues, I say let us take one step at a time.' The Chief Minister said he appreciates the concerns expressed about the possible negative impact this could have on the young people and he knows there are differing opinions but at this time, his Government does not feel this type of show is in the best interest of the British Virgin Islands.

Anglican priest in the BVI Father Ronald Branch was the first in the BVI to speak out against this show in his sermon at the St Georges Episcopal Church last Sunday.

Via Wikipedia, you can see some video of it here, though you might not want to be caught watching it at work.

Look, this is part of the reason why Caribbean culture can seem so incomprehensible. People abroad can't understand the reaction of those societies to openly gay people, for instance. I can explain it, though I'm not sure the explanation will give much comfort to anybody on this issue. On the one hand you have this "Yeah, mon!" "Everyting cool, mon!" culture where everybody spends all day on the beach in boozy, blissed-out relaxation -- "No problem!" And you can get weed without any difficulty at all and nobody will give you any problem if you just practice a little discretion like don't actually blow ganja smoke in the police officer's face. Calypso, too, is a deep-rooted musical tradition celebrating mischief, scandal and sexual license: there's a lot of sex in Sparrow's songs, for instance:

Tell me you tink ah sweeter dan honey
Tell me if I ever leave you you kill me;
Scratch up me back, bite up me ears,
When I ask 'What's the matter?'
Tell me it's too much wood in the fire...

Sex is passionate, beset with little difficulties ("Wait, wait, May-May, a sandfly bite me down dey!"), mostly untroubled by worries about fidelity, opportunistic, mercenary, ("No money, no love") and totally without penalty.

This tradition goes all the way back into slavery days, and it's like it keeps turning up in new forms; in calypso, for instance, and in dance hall. But the other side of the culture is the church side, and the church and respectability are the way people rise up the social scale. So they find themselves at odds with the old cultural forms. The relations between the church and the old metamorphosed African cultural forms is uneasy, even now. Every single notion of social progress and advancement somehow entails personally rejecting that disreputable license. People love their music, the crowds turn out, and these songs take possession of the population in the months leading up to Carnival, but the churches are there trying to win them away from "slackness". Government ministers (not just the ones in this article either) grumble about it. Somebody gets shot and killed, or bottle-throwing war breaks out on the main street of the capital Friday night, and some minister of government is sure to be heard a few days later trying to link the incident to the "degrading" music and dancing.

But some form of this sort of dancing has always been present there. Most Caribbean street dancing has always been of the kind that would get banned from the Ed Sullivan Show. It's only more aggressively so now than it has ever been. I mean, basically if you go out dancing in the Caribbean, dancing among locals, you are going to be dry-humping someone to music with your clothes on. Does it result in more real sexual activity? Probably. But there has always -- I mean always -- been a lot of loose sex in the Caribbean. That's not new, either. Not everybody, but it's an old established way of life. Caribbean men cheat. I knew a woman who told me her brother, a physician, had 27 children. One day his wife was giving birth to one child in one hospital delivery room while one of his girlfirends was in labor in another, room also delivering one of his children. They cheat without a single qualm of conscience about it, not a shred of shame. They cheat as if it is their duty. Churchgoing educated professional married men, taxi drivers, it makes no difference, they are chasing tail all over every island. At the gates of the high schools, when school lets out, there are guys, long out of school, cruising by in cars. No government has succeeded in changing this ancient pattern. There are laws requiring the payment of child support. And Jamaica has some public service radio ads encouraging men to think more responsibly about what it means to be a father. But the tradition is just to scatter children about the place and pay.

(And before anybody goes all "See? African savages!" on me bear in mind that this is exactly what people in France were doing 200 years ago. When Talleyrand was still a bishop he had an affair with a married woman and she had a child. He would drop by from time to time to pay a visit to his son and everybody knew why he was there. Just as everybody knew that he was the father of the painter Delacroix, whose mother was the wife of a someone in the foreign service. Also, in the years of the Directorate, between the fall of Robespierre and the crowning of Napoleon, women walked around in these clothes that were so transparent that they were practically naked. (I got these details out of a life of Talleyrand by Jean Orieux.)

It's not that people never did these things and then one day the Beatles or Public Enemy or Eddie Murphy came along and suddenly evil walked the earth. What changes is public opinion of them. Unfortunately in the Caribbean there has been little force of any kind to countervail the old bigotry of ignorance, which becomes even more intractable when coupled with the bigotry of the church. In the Caribbean you can always find an American Bible thumper on the radio and on TV. My best friend in St. Croix, where I lived in my last year of high school, basically wasn't allowed to listen to anything else on the radio. That's how those TV preachers spend the money they collect, beaming horseshit at places like the Caribbean. And for many Caribbean people, the way that they will become respectable and rise out of that backward, low-class life to join the modern world is through the church. It isn't just a move towards material advancement; this is a movement towards consciousness as well. The church will teach them how to behave and what to think. And when you are moving uneasily up the social ladder, a lot of your intolerance is the social climber's stare, that glare of extra special indignation towards people whose inability to conform threatens your uneasy footing. Whatever they actually do, a lot of Caribbean people feel they ought to profess the values of intolerance and the totally debased Puritanism they get from the churches, because that respectability is what they want to be identified with. These transitions are weird.

(I must tell you, because this reminded me of it, there was this Holy Roller church in a village in one island I used to live on (I'm not naming it on purpose). Brand-new church across the street from a brand-new rum shop whose owner had lived abroad and then come back. I had a friend who lived next door to this rum shop for a while. Every night, from inside the rum shop or the bench outside, you could look straight into the church and watch the service. The church was brightly lit with fluorescent lights, and they had services on weeknights as well as on Sunday. On a weeknight there might be 10 to 15 people. And when I went to visit my friend Ricardo, if the church was open it was almost impossible not to stare. You couldn't really hear much of the preaching, or maybe I did and it just went out of my head. But sooner or later one or two women would get filled with the spirit and go staggering about the church, and then fall on the floor, lying in the aisle, twitching and thrashing about with total abandon. Everybody else just kept on singing or sitting quietly, while waves of shuddering ecstasy passed through the woman on the floor. Free entertainment for the rum shop, and the combination of the goings-on in the church and the heckling in the rum shop was, well, special.)

So on these issues it's a lot harder to change people's minds. (Jamaica is way ahead of everybody else on this, by the way; the island's gay people and some supporters are trying very bravely to organize. And there's a great local human rights group, Jamaicans for Justice who are seriously committed, smart, and articulate. And there might be something in Trinidad. But on the small islands, next to nothing. The smaller the island the more socially conservative "public opinion" is likely to be. The BVI are among the most conservative. It was only three years ago that the government struck down the law prohibiting the wearing of dreadlocks. The effect of this law had been to keep Rastafarians from entering those islands. Rastafarianism is one of the few grassroots, local challenges to public opinion, by the way.

Not much art that challenges anything. Art is respectable, the artist is supposed to help express our culture in a dignified way. So probably any nude who is not represented as a suffering slave would make people uneasy.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jesus Christ on a Cracker I Hate Those Pants

Meeting with a recruiter and a client tomorrow. The last thing the recruiter said to me on the phone was, "And remember to dress properly," so I felt compelled to drive out into the winter night to look for something proper to wear. I have one skirt that is presentable for job interview. It looks like a nun's skirt especially when I wear it with the thick ribbed grey tights and black shoes. All I need is some sort of headgear and a ruler. So I went to Lord and Taylor's instead of the usual you takes your chances discount stores that I like.

You know how in department stores they sort of cluster together little collections of separates or "looks." It seemed to me that every single cluster, every single rack where I went to look for a skirt, had instead these wretched I don't even know what you call them, they come halfway down to your calf. pants. I would reach for something that looked like a long nice tweedy skirt and it would turn out to be another pair of these wretched pants, mocking me. After about 20 minutes I was in a terrible temper. I raised my eyes to heaven and actually said out loud, "Jesus Christ I hate these fucking pants."

When I get into a fever of irritation like this some friend always feels compelled to tell me something reasonable. Well, just don't bother. I hate these pants and I don't want to be talked out of it. Tight in the thighs and then wide at the calf, as if you wanted your ass to look big and your calves to look skinny and forlorn, as if you wanted your feet to look as if they really ought to be attached to some other person. I think you might look all right in them if you are six foot two and weigh about 110 pounds. And if you were on the beach digging clams.

The blouses and sweaters did nothing to improve my temper.

I found two skirts that were just tolerable. One of them was this tweedy flared one that looked like, well, another nun's skirt. The other was this black stretchy thing. I bought that. I figure I have a couple more years in which I can actually show off my behind in a tight skirt and might as well make the best of it. Plus it was comfortable. I grumbled at the very friendly sales clerk. "Why do you have so many of those awful pants? I hate those pants. Not exactly flying off the racks, are they? Why? Because they're ugly, that's why. Does anybody actually wear them? Have you ever seen anybody wear them? You realize that there are maybe two people on the whole planet who look decent wearing those pants, right?" Well, he didn't speak much English.

So then I got lost trying to find my way out of the store because by then I had forgotten that I was down one floor from where I had parked. I went around and around and wandered into a whole other section of women's clothes -- the "non-clamdigger, non-skankwear" section -- and found several skirts that would have done just fine. But then I couldn't really justify spending any more money, so I said to myself, "Kill them at the interview then come back and buy something else."
And luckily I remembered that I had come down the escalator. So as I was riding it back up, I looked out and didn't see any of the part of the store where I had been. Had I just gone into some horrible sort of opposite-retail parallel universe or what? I saw a sign that said "Petites." It looked vaguely familiar. Was that where I was? Suppose I had bought something petite! That began to worry me: I don't know why, as I had tried the skirt on and it had fit. Nevertheless I was beset by the worry that I might have been shopping in the Petite section without knowing it. But then I remembered that all the tweedy skirts except the one I tried on were all like size 16 and size 18, so maybe they weren't Petite. So that was a relief.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Two items for your consideration:

Firstly (I have had a secret yearning to use the word "firstly"): The AMTRAK train passes right next to my apartment building. If you happen to be on it and give me fair warning, and if I have no pressing engagements elsewhere, I'll wave a big hanky at you as you go through the station.

Which station, you ask? Ah.

Secondly (doesn't sound as impressive somehow, can I just say "firstly" twice?): I know I frequently complain that nothing interesting happens in my life. But yesterday something did and immediately when it happened I thought of my small but select group of readers. Of course I imagine that this sort of thing is all old hat to you, you're all so sophisticated and have real jobs, but take a gander at this anyhow.

Yes. The upper egg has two yolks. Wow! It certainly put a "sizzle" in my breakfast experience! We stray from the oatmeal path at our peril, eh?

Not impressed? Fine, fine, whatever. Well, here's a picture of Sweetie reading John Lothrop Motley's The Rise of the Dutch Republic. She was supposed to have blogged about it like two months ago but forgot completely.

What is your pet reading?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Today I Feel Like A Genius

Mark P. gave me a Dell desktop a couple of months ago, just to get it out of his apartment mainly. But it had the password protection turned on and I couldn't get into it. He said, "Just wipe it," i.e., erase the whole hard drive but I had never done that before. My upstairs neighbor is from India, a really smart guy on one of those geek visas. The day after Thanksgiving he went to Best Buy at 3 a.m. and found a line of people who had started camping there at 4 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. By the time he got into the store the place was almost stripped clean. So he went to Staples or somewhere and picked up a laptop for a few hundred dollars and felt he had done not too badly. He told me that he doesn't use Windows at all. I am a Mac devotee but most of the places I have worked use PCs. My neighbor said he uses Linux, and he told me about some of the Open Source software I could get to use with it, and I thought, well, one really ought to learn it, and here's that Dell PC sitting here useless and it's free...

Well, last night I installed Linux on the Dell desktop and got it running. It has a very clever GUI, quite simple once you get used to its looking a bit different -- that would take all of about four hours if you were not in a hurry about it. You can download Linux from lots of places, it's basically free because it's an Open Source system, and so is the software. I bought this book that had it on a disk inside the back cover. The installation and learning to navigate the desktop took me about 2.5 hours. The CD comes with a word processor, presentation software, a database builder, a spreadsheet program, an email program and the Firefox browser. Also several games, music and sound applications.

OK. Linux is much easier to use than it was in the days when people had to type in commands in a black screen. But still. Still. I feel like a Genius.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Do They Just Hate Women, or What?

From Sideshow I followed a link to this story in the Daily Mail.

You have to check out the pictures. They are worth the thousand words I will spare you here.

Oh, heck, I just know you won't go look at the damn pictures.

Here's some text:

Looking as different as chalk and cheese, the swimwear clings to Miss Hunter's voluptuous curves and reveals acres of cleavage while on clinically underweight Miss Berglund, it shows her protruding hips and ribs and appears to hang off her.

Barmaid Miss Hunter, 24 - who weighs 11 stone and is a healthy size 12 - was reduced to tears when she was castigated on the reality TV show for not taking a food and exercise regime seriously.

Judge Tandy Anderson, managing director of Select Model Management, criticised her for having "stocky" legs while supermodel Rachel Hunter, a fellow panellist, reprimanded her for saying she wanted to prove larger women could be successful models.

Swedish blonde Miss Berglund, 18, who made it to the final with her, was meanwhile praised for having a "sensational" body for modelling despite having a body mass index of 16.1.

It fell well below the minimum BMI of 18 for models taking part in Madrid Fashion Week in September, set after catwalk model Luisel Ramos dropped dead from self-starvation.

Steve Gilliard posts one today about another model who starved herself to death.

You know how there are all these model shows on TV? I don't know how many, I just see all these promos running for them in the commercial breaks and it seems like about 500 too many of them, from where I sit.

The Daily Mail story reports that Giorgio Armani has banned size zero models from appearing in his shows. Well, that's nice, the size 2s can stagger down the catwalk and back and then collapse, they're only malnourished, not actually starving. If they banned bitchiness the whole industry would be out of work, I imagine.

Life 101 (or 880)

Shortly after I arrived on a certain small Caribbean island about which I have written here before (I am not naming it for reasons that will become clear), I mean, just a couple of weeks, I made a joke that had consequences that reverberated throughout my stay there, and I did not realize this for almost a year. I had befriended the son of one of the old plantocrat families there, and we started sort of I guess you could call it dating. This weird Canadian woman one day told me that this man was totally unsuitable, a mess, led around by his mother who controlled all his money. "Well, show me someone suitable," I said, playing along. She pointed out this Senior Drinker from Georgia or Alabama or somewhere, a former prosecutor now in the offshore business, a man hagridden by a fundamentalist upbringing who had plunged himself into the dissipated expat life, neurotic, wretched, charmless, and when the fundie mojo would get on his back he would turn into a cranky, belligerent, slightly hysterical drunk. A total basket case, visible to the naked eye. "He's got lots of money, and he's lonely," she said. "Well, that's good to know," I replied.

I thought she was joking.

Relations between me and this woman soon cooled. She was a bore and a bully. I dated the plantocrat for a few months and then he began to get on my nerves so we parted ways, but the romance left me with two very dear friends, his mother and sister. It was some months after the breakup of this romance, I ran into his mother and sister during Carnival, they were having a rum punch. The subject of the son came up, naturally, how's he doing, etc. His mother, I discovered, had taken it as quite a matter of course and no reflection on me that we hadn't made a better go of it. Well, that's putting it mildly. Here are her exact words. I remember them because it was at that moment that she became my friend: "Oh my dear! He's my son and I love him but he's impossible! No sane woman could live with him." She was about 82 years old at the time.

At any rate, over the course of the year the Canadian woman spread the rumor that I had come to the island looking to marry money. This was what she had done, and in so doing had placed herself in the role of queen of the little expat society there, or, as I still prefer to call them, the Senior Drinkers. When these people began unaccountably to give me the cold shoulder I sort of vaguely noticed it but didn't really study it as I had long before lost interest in them. They were very boring.

During the winter another group of expats would come down and sort of pad out the group. Some of these were genuinely pleasant people. But a couple of them were even more boring than the Senior Drinkers. There was the Austrian man who should not have been going about with his shirt open and his sweaty chest exposed to all the world. His way of being boring was to complain at tedious length about various administrative arrangements that he found were not up to international standards. He showed up at the beach once with a piece of paper that he handed to me. "I hef a fex," he said. It was about the airport. The airport restaurant was run by a crony of someone in the government, and it was a national embarrassment. I suppose the cronyism could have been forgiven if the owner had not been also a self-promoting bullying blowhard who tended to introduce himself as "The Greatest Human Being I Have Ever Known," and if he had not kept the Christmas decorations up year-round and if the service and the food had not been vile. But that was the situation and nobody seemed able to do anything about it. Some friend of the Austrian, waiting for a flight that had been delayed, had made the mistake of trying to get a meal at the restaurant. The fax was hilarious, unintentionally so. Somehow the ancient hot dogs going around and around in their machine became for the man an image of despair. The truth is that the airport restaurant only kept up the appearance of wanting customers at all; it was a hangout for a few highly placed members of the government and their party followers. And now the Austrian expat brought this to me because I was the editor of the newspaper and was supposed to hold somebody's feet to the fire or something so his friend could get good service. He handed it me and gave me this look as I read it, unutterably smug and righteous. But there was really nothing I could do. One member of the government was trying to get this low-rent Donald Trump out of the airport, and with all his resources as a minister and all his capacity for vindictive mischief, he had been unable to dislodge him.

The Austrian, having given up on me, decided to try my friend Jamie, who happened to be the brother of the minister in question. But while Jamie would happily have cussed the airport restaurant guy to me with all his riches of invective, he tended to get touchy when expats made the mildest criticisms of anything on the island. I mean, touchy as in telling them to go intercourse themselves, calling them names, and finishing up with a promise to deport them. And here we were sitting at the beach and along comes this bore with his fax. But Jamie was not predictable. This time, perhaps because his friend Tex and I were visibly cringing, he did not let loose until after the Austrian had departed. "Who is that asshole?"he asked, as if he could almost see the guy being frogmarched onto a plane for boring him.

But the champion and ultimate bore was an Italian man named, for our purposes, A., who was married to an English woman who was slightly less boring but not much. When they weren't wintering in this island they lived in a village in Scotland. After they left, no doubt, the villagers all came creeping back to their homes, lit a bonfire and danced around it roaring drunk. A. and Mrs. A. were quite wealthy and threw exclusive dinner parties to which I was never invited. A. could clear out an entire bar. I am not exaggerating. I would stop by X.'s beach bar of an evening to wait for Tex and Jamie, and there would be no one there except A., his wife, and one person who had not succeeded in escaping in time. The rest of the crowd had all migrated to the next bar of the beach, where the music was too loud to talk, the owner was tiresome, and where the wind across the salt pond blew this horrendous stench into your face. There they would all be, peering hopefully from time to time around the side of the building to see if A. was gone yet. Then as soon as A. and his wife left, they'd all hurry back over to X.

If you chanced on one of A.'s conversations (with his wife sort of piping up assurances that yes, indeed it was so), you usually heard something like this: "I am deadly allergic to parrots. I could die if I am near a parrot." "He very nearly died once," pipes up Mrs. A.. Which one of several times is Mrs. A. referring to? They argue about when and then they argue about where. "I did not know there was a parrot in the Ouse, and this man, he brought the parrot near me, and I faint. They took me to the Ospital, I could not breathe." Long graphic and tedious description of symptoms ensues. "Meanwhile I was running around frantic trying to reach his children, thinking oh my god this is it I'm going to lose him this time, you can imagine the state I was in..." Mrs. A. contributes. "She was frantic," Mr. A. observes in corroboration. Then they argue about details. No matter what anybody else was talking about, sooner or later the conversation would devolve into this sort of duet on the theme of A's near-fatal encounters with parrots. Part of the problem was that there was an expat on the island who kept a pet parrot and carried her about with him wherever he went, giving A. frequent occasions to recall his parrot traumas and to apprehend new ones. You coudln't even be amused by it, it was just soul-crushing.

But there were people who would sit and listen to A. and Mrs. A., who courted them, who wanted to go to their dinners and wanted to be near them because they had money. One person I knew told me frankly that that was the reason why he hung around them. Shades of Mr. Eliot! And I'm sure you thought Jane Austen made those people up. I drew an invisible circle around myself and said that no one who sucked up to A. and his wife, or who took their social tone from the dreadful Canadian woman, could ever be inside it. (The Canadian woman thought I was out to steal her husband -- that's how she had got him.)

I reconnected recently with someone I had lost touch with about 18 years ago. I gave him a sketchy outline of my adventures. He said, "You've certainly tested your mettle." I suppose I have. Enough to know that testing your mettle is, well, a bore. Unless you can make people laugh about it. The person to watch is the one who knows how to be happy.

To develop the habit of being happy, it seems that we should simply do what makes us happy.

Yesterday I went to my happy place--Oakland--I can hardly describe the happiness I feel there. The sky was blue, sunlight dappled the water of the bay, people were wandering through the farmers market buying flowers and vegetables, and all was right with the world. I also went to Glittery Shiny Heaven, a beautiful magical place of color and light and amazing mosaic art that never fails to lift my spirits (there's a huge mural outside that contains the phrase "freelance angel"! They had a pet portrait exhibit that was fantastic! There's a spiky heart in the corridor! Huge flowers in bright paint decorate the cement walkway! The whole building is pink and purple! There's a mosaic house about 7 feet high that I would give all my possessions to own! The kitchen is filled with flowered Mexican oilcloth, bright colors, and one wall is covered with mosaic art, an image of a beautiful woman reclining!). Then I went next door and waited in line for a million years for the absolute best chai I have ever had.

(And, joy of joys, a Port-A-Potty fell off the potty truck on 880, and, really, what could be funnier than a downed Port-A-Potty, door flapping, while two drivers stand at the side of the road, scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to retrieve it across three lanes?)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

That's Enough!

Our apartment is one of the two that is closest to the door. The dogs take turns sitting in the recliner next to the window and peering out. When you arrive at our building the thing that is most striking about the front entrance is the sight of Sweetie standing in the recliner and Misha's big head and ears, looking out the window and barking at you. Misha does most of the barking. She doesn't bark at most of the people who live in the 12 apartments in our building: she barks when my father comes home of course, but it's that "Ohmygod Openthedoor!!!" sort of excited barking. She barks at the teenage boy who comes on weekends to visit his sister, a lovely boy with brains and very nice manners. She barks at him because he is afraid of dogs.

All delivery vans are, of course, delivering evil, except the mailman, who they like. Well, they like him but he's a little scary. But he really likes them.

And they bark at Frank. Frank is a retired policeman from Maryland; having had some heart trouble, he now lives downstairs with his daughter who is a visiting nurse. They bark at Frank because he does not take them seriously. Frank's daughter has a Jack Russell terrier named Edgar. Sweetie is quite fond of Edgar; Misha has eyes only for my father, of course, and Oreo, a long-haired Chihuahua a few doors up whom she has a crush on. But Edgar or no, they bark at Frank. Frank then looks up from the door and makes remarks to them, like "And what's YOUR problem?" and he laughs at them. They can hear him laugh at them. So they keep it up until he is inside and out of sight.

At about 5:30 almost every morning Sweetie, who sleeps in the living room, suddenly jumps up, barks furiously at something, and then goes back to sleep. Misha does not participate in this mystery. She is to be found sleeping halfway under his bed, preferably having pulled some of his covers off it for herself.

There are times when Misha barks and barks at something and won't shut up. She doesn't even get up. She sits there on the sofa, or she's curled up on the dog bed, and she's barking and barking away, looking offended. "That's enough!" I yell after a minute or two of this. She looks at me reproachfully and apprehensively, and then she lets out a few more barks. "Hey. What did I just say." Then we get the muttering. I mean, if a dog could mutter that is what it would sound like, like she got the message about shut up but she still has a lot of cussing to do so she's just going to do it very quietly. So she emits these peevish growls, going up and down the scale, not quite giving up the point, you see.

My father's theory is that what makes her bark like this is Mrs. Graham. She actually likes Mrs. Graham. But Mrs. Graham has a high, loud, rather piercing voice. And she stands out in the hallway sometimes and talks to the neighbors. As long as Misha can hear her voice, she barks or does the annoyed growling thing. Mrs. Graham also offends by not taking her seriously. It amuses her that Misha barks continuously when she's talking to her neighbors in the hall.

On a different point that is related, if you have a dog do you ever meet these people sometimes when you're out with the dog? You can tell they are terrified of dogs because when they see the dog coming they freeze and stare straight into the dog's face, or begin to do some strange slow evasive dance. The effect of both these maneuvers is almost always to mesmerize the dog, who would have totally ignored them if they hadn't started doing their weird Kabuki of Fear. So now the dog is staring at them, trying to figure out what this is all about, and the person starts making these very careful moves to try to get around the dog or just out of its line of sight, all of which only makes the dog even more curious. They couldn't have succeeded better in getting the dogs' fixed attention if they had been holding a hamburger-scented squirrel in each hand. I've got the dogs reeled in close and they are leaning hard at the person, they can't take their eyes off him, they aren't barking, just -- fascinated. "It's OK, I've got them, just ACT NORMAL!" Really, the person could break the spell by just saying something like "Hey! That's enough!" or "Bugger off, you!" and the dogs would instantly get alarmed and scamper off, dragging me with them.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


When I taught literature I was always glad that the books we used were cheap. Didn't have to buy those big old dull textbooks, because our textbooks were just regular books that people bought to read. I always loved it that I could buy a Signet edition of, say, Great Expectations, for a couple dollars. I could have a literary experience as rich and interesting and enduring and genuine as a genuine Rembrandt, and throw it at stray male dogs if I needed to. (When I'm walking only one dog I read as I walk). I could get a used copy for less than the price of a copy of the New Yorker and I could travel with it and leave it behind, lightening my load as I went. I've never been really into "collecting" books as objects. I accumulated a library because I wanted to read everything. And I wanted to read a lot of it more than once. I have long-term relationships with books and authors. But I did come to value particular books, some of them because they are kind of rare (like the three-volume memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon) or because I don't want to find myself without a copy (Montaigne, Blake, Marvell) or because I am just totally guaranteed absorbing entertainment (Faulkner) or because they are now part of my annual Ritual Reading (Sterne, Austen).

When I was teaching I got a lot of instructors' copies, of course, a brand spanking new one for every text I used. This was nice if I wanted to work out of a new book, and it was also handy if there was a particularly hard up student; I could just lend out a spare. I left most of these in a great heap on the floor of my office when I quit teaching, and told students to just help themselves. I stripped everything down to the barest minimum. Most of my books are still in storage in Santa Barbara. What I have with me now, approximately a third, completely covers one wall of my bedroom plus two bookshelves in the living room. Luckily I have all the ones I call my "Precious Things", the ones by Marvin Mudrick and Al Stephens and all my friends, and two copies of my own that I will not part with for any consideration, as they are now very difficult to get.

I kept myself to basically one copy of everything. Well, I tried, let's say. Like my OUP paperback edition of The Monk. And my set of Hazlitt. The trouble is that these books are now going on 20 years old. I read the Hazlitt and the glue starts to fall out of the binding and by the time I'm halfway through it the cover has detached itself completely from the inside. I never imagined that the books would age, when I bought them. I never imagined life so far into the future. The Monk I can replace but what about the Hazlitt? And what do I do with the paperbacks that I inherited from Marvin? The ones that were his old extra instructors' copies? I can't bring myself to give them away, even if they do fall apart. I don't think he was sentimentally attached to them, but now I am. I have the one-volume Pelican Shakespeare, which I dip into from time to time, but in storage I have almost all of the single editions of Shakespeare's plays, inherited from Marvin. I don't need all those books in any practical sense; I'm not that mad in love with Shakespeare and Marvin certainly wasn't. But I will always feel as if something is not quite whole in my life until I have them all with me where I can see them. Meanwhile I watch the cheap paperbacks disintegrate.

One friend, (you know who you are!) sends me the Oxford Classics in the neat little hardbound volumes that they used to make. I have almost a full set of the Barsetshire novels, several of the Palliser novels, lots of Tolstoy and, best of all, Tristram Shandy. The Tristram Shandy went with me to the Caribbean and read it twice in the two years I spent there. It is battered, with a mysterious brown stain on one page, but it is still holding together. The pages will never fall out. It is probably 30 years older than any of the disintegrating paperbacks.

I have a copy of La Regenta, by the Spanish novelist Leopoldo Alas. It is a great novel. I started reading it and about 100 pages in the pages started falling out to an alarming degree. I basically gave up and put it back on the shelf because I just couldn't stand the disintegration. The fear of disintegration makes me hesitate to read that nice Ecco Press complete Chekhov too. When I read Clarissa I end up literally tearing the book to pieces. It comes out in this enormous single volume, published by Penguin books; 1400 pages of probably 9-point type. By the time I am halfway through it is split, and then it is easier to just read it in pieces. I have tried with the copy I have now to be extra careful and it has actually survived a reading. It looks pretty good.

Because I don't have all my books the present state of my book collection looks strangely incoherent. They have been in boxes in this storage unit for years, and yet still, I have the sense of incompleteness, of essential things missing. What's missing? My old copy of Dryden's complete poems that I used when I studied the Augustan poets with Ken Ellyson; the Theodore Besterman life of Voltaire; a very fragile old pocket-sized copy of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (though why should I complain about that when I have another edition in much better shape here?); D.H. Lawrence's letters, all of Lawrence, actually. (It's not that hard to get hold of all of Lawrence, but these have associations.)

No, if the circumstances of my ridiculous life had permitted me I would not have parted with a single one. I can use them all. And although I don't collect as avidly as I used to, in my mind I keep a list of things that I want to get, to read and add to the collection because I got the idea that they are going to lead me somewhere. It's nice that they are out there.