gall and gumption

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Some of you may have noticed occasional mention on this blog of my having been attacked when I was living in St. Kitts. Well, the last couple days that little bit of personal history has come to my attention again.

Short version of the story (long version available on request), which I published on the front page of the paper. About 2:30 a.m., 2003, opening night of the St. Kitts Music Festival, I was alone in my house after working late at the paper. I woke up because I heard my front door swinging open. I went out to see if it was my temporary housemate, Rita, a reporter at the paper, who had gone to cover the music festival. I walked into the dark living room and there was this guy standing there holding a knife over his head. He jumped me, I screamed, he held the knife to my throat and said if I screamed again he'd kill me. So I fought him steadily for about 10 minutes and fnally succeeded, with some help from his stupidity, in immobilizing his hands (he had stuffed a scarf in my mouth and I had managed to lock my elbows while gripping the arm that held the knife. And I kept saying, "Please get out of my house." He was a young guy, but I don't think he expected quite so much of a fight (I did not expect quite so much fight in myself either, come to think of it.) from a woman. Anyway, he just suddenly up and ran out of the house and disappeared into the dark. Believing he had taken my phone I went out and woke up my neighbors, who called the police. I couldn't use my fingers because they were all cut up. And I believe he bit clean through my ear (I never did see quite what they stitched up there). Anyway, hospital, emergency room, stitches, sedative, etc., the other journalists were awesome, and it was a big to-do. (Those were the stitches that my friend Jamie Astaphan took out.) And I put the whole story on the front page of the paper the next week, including photos of my living room floor all bespattered with blood. Two other women suffered burglaries that night, but I was the only one injured.

After I got home the police took a detailed statement. It was dark and the attacker had knocked my glasses off at the start of the fight, so I couldn't tell them much about what he looked like, and they don't have sketch artists in St. Kitts. But they went off with the description. And about 3 weeks later they called me up and said they needed a DNA sample to match some stains on the shirt of someone they thought was a suspect. I gave the sample, and it was sent off to Jamaica as part of a batch. That's how they do it in the Eastern Caribbean. Everybody can't afford all that CSI stuff. Meanwhile Caroline was coming for a visit. Caroline who posts comments here sometimes. I didn't stay alone at my house at night any more. Rita went back to Nevis on weekends and I went over to my friend Margaret, an 84-year-old lady who lived in Frigate Bay and liked having company. But Caroline was arriving on a Sunday night so I planned to pick her up at the airport and taker her to my house. That morning the the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat blew and sent up an immense cloud of ash, so big that flights into the Leeward Islands were cancelled for 24 hours. Caroline had to overnight in San Juan. I found out about it too late to go back to Margaret's. So now I had to spend the night alone in the house. I tried to coax the dogs in but they were wary -- what the hell was I taking such an interest in them for? I stayed up, keeping my mind distracted away from scary thoughts, reading, writing email, puttering. The last thing I did as I tidied up the kitchen was pick up the big butcher knife and carry it off to bed with me. I hadn't given this any forethought, it was a sudden inspiration. Of course I compulsively checked and rechecked all the doors. But still, it occurred to me. I hid the knife on the floor and quietly made up my mind that anybody who got as far as the door of my bedroom would leave the house in a body bag.

After I gave my blood sample for the DNA testing I didn't hear from the police for months. They had been very nice. Meanwhile I got fired from that paper (another long story) and went to manage one in Nevis. I was working production, totally unable to leave my desk, one day in January 2004 when we got word that there was a police situation at the airport. Some guy had been boarding a flight to St. Maarten and raised the suspicious of an immigration officer. The plane was taxiing down the runway when the police had it stopped. The suspect jumped out of the plane on the runway, and after a chase the police caught him. I had no one to send, I couldn't go myself, to get this fun news story. A day or two later a friend at the radio station told me that the guy had been a suspect in a violent crime, had hopped off to St. Maartin some weeks before, got deported, and then some time after his return to St. Kitts been arrested again. This time, he walked out of the jail, through downtown Basseterre, and onto a ferry to Nevis. In Nevis he stayed for several weeks until this attempt to get to St. Maarten. I was so angry at having missed the story that I didn't want to even look at it in the other paper. I only saw it about 3 weeks later, when the detective working on my case called me in to her office in St. Kitts. She told me that this plane-jumper was the guy who had attacked me, he had a signed statement, and they just needed a few minor points in my statement cleared up. She showed me his picture in the other newspaper. She read me his statement. It was full of lies. He said I attacked him and he was trying to prevent me from injuring myself with the knife. When she finished reading the statement I had this brute of a headache, just blinding. I left her office and went straight to the Director of Public Prosecutions (basically the Attorney General) and asked him what sort of sentence was the guy getting for this attack. I learned, on this day, that the suspect's name was Philmore Seaton. The DPP told me that the charge was burglary with intent because this charge would ensure the strictest sentence. I said, "I'm not looking for revenge here, but I do want the charge to reflect the fact that I walked out into my living room and found a man waiting to jump on me with a knife, who did jump on me and threatened to kill me, and who caused me to sustain injuries." Yes, yes, he promised, burglary with intent was the most appropriate. Then he said there would be a sort of hearing, not a trial, since Seaton had already agreed to a plea. Would I be available in two weeks? Sure.

A year went by. I left Nevis and moved to Sebastopol, California. I got a phone call from my friend Quentin the Beeman of Nevis. I had made him a present of my old cell phone. The police wanted me to come down for this hearing. The one that was to have been two weeks after my last visit with them a year ago? Of course I was to fly down at my expense. This I declined to do. I could have put the money together, and I was certainly in favor of the principle of seeing this thing through even though I didn't relish it. The reason why I did not, I did not explain to them.

The reason was very simple. Tony Fetherston. He was an English shipping magnate, a billionaire from East Anglia. And it was kind of big news internationally when he was shot to death in an apparent mugging just outside of his vacation house in Basseterre in January 2000.

It is weird how I kept crossing paths with this dead man. I hated my house and the neighborhood. I looked at a couple other rentals, including a small house in Fortlands. The agent who showed it to me mentioned in passing that it was Tony Fetherston's house. It was a tiny little house, I mean there are tents bigger than that, and I sort of liked him for having billions but being quite comfy with his wife in a little poky house. No one had lived in it since the murder. I didn't take the house.

There was a suspect in custody for the killing, Joseph Hazel. He had been in custody since his arrest a couple months after. When I left Nevis in May 2004, two years to the day after the day I arrived there, Hazel was still in prison awaiting trial. Four years.

Henry Browne was his defense attorney. There would be little procedural flurries. Some sort of hearing or action on the case was imminent. The case was being watched closely in England. Every time one of these hearings loomed a little squadron of British journalists would appear.

What was dragging the proceedings out was DNA. The only evidence recovered in the case was a mask that the shooter had worn, which had been cut out of a pair of trousers, I think they were maroon trousers. Police took saliva samples from this mask and sent them to Barbados and the UK. The Metropolitan Police Forensic Lab in the UK tested the samples, among others, according to the BBC:

The samples spent seven months in England and were studied by some 15 forensic scientists before they were returned.

But the government in St. Kitts could not afford to fly all these experts down for the case, and so there was protracted haggling over it, all duly reported in the paper.

The afternoon after my attack I went to the office for a few hours and then went to happy hour at X's beach bar in Frigate Bay. There was an Englishman at the bar, very pleasant, smart man, who turned out to be a journalist too. He was from the East Anglia Daily Times, and he was there for the latest non-event in the Fetherston case. Very nice man, Richard Smith. He said all sorts of nice things about how brave I was, and I was very touched.

In January of 2004 the case finally came to trial. The court agreed to allow a video feed of testimony from the DNA expert. And in April Hazel was convicted on the DNA evidence, which was the basis of the prosecution's entire case. Hazel was sentenced to hang (it is extremely unlikely that he would have been hanged as the London-based Privy Council will always reject a death sentence.)

Two weeks ago the conviction was overturned and Hazel went free. It was the first time in St. Kitts that DNA had been used to secure a conviction in a murder case. The Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal overturned the DNA evidence. Here's the text of the decision.

Well, comes Monday evening here and I'm noodling about and I take a look at the old paper in St Kitts and there in the news is a story about Philmore Seaton . Broke into a woman's house, stole some stuff from her.

Celeste 'Susie' Liburd pointed to her signature on pieces of duct tape stuck to the flashlight and the black and silver cell phone that she took out of Philmore 'Kiddie' Seaton's pocket when she caught him red-handed in Mildread's yard in the wee hours of Saturday October 22, 2005.

Liburd of West Bourne Ghaut accused Seaton of La Guerite Village in court on Monday for breaking into her house around 2:30 a.m. on the said date and stealing two gold chains costing EC$1000, a gold pendant valued EC$250 and another gold pendant costing US$250. She said the total value of the items is EC$1790.

Seaton was previously charged for two counts, housebreaking and larceny and receiving the items.

Liburd recapped the incident.

"At 11:55 p.m. I was in my house in West Bourne Street, Basseterre. I closed up my house and secured my two doors. I took off my jewelry from my neck and placed them on my dressing table. I then went to bed," she said.

She got up about 2:30 a.m. to go to the bathroom, which is situated at the back of the house in the yard. When she came back in the house, she hooked back the door and went back to bed.

"While I was in my bed sleeping, not in a very deep sleep, I felt the presence of someone in my bedroom so I jumped up. When I jumped up, I saw the accused and said ‘Boy what the frig you doing in my house!’ He then ran out the front door and then out the gate. I ran behind of him. He ran straight down West Bourne Street," she said.

Liburd said she knows the accused very well and could determine that it was Seaton in her house from the street light that was very bright.

And in his version of events the woman attacked him.

Seaton decided to take the witness stand to testify. He said he did not go in Liburd's house. He said she tried to frame him.

"On Saturday October 22, 2005 a trans dropped me off because I was on my way home from work. On my way home, Celeste came and held me up. My phone fell on the ground," Seaton said.

Seaton said Celeste's son and boyfriend came towards him in revenge from an incident that took place some time before between him and the son.

"One was coming with a pipe and one with a machete. I ran a distance without my shirt. The son said, Boy I must catch you back, I must bust you head open. I then said, I done pay you your money."

Seaton also said the mother always had it out for him and every time she sees him on the road, she threatens him.

Where this all took place is just a couple of blocks from my house. He was watching my house the night he broke into it. I wonder what happened to the positive match of my DNA, and the plea and the conviction and sentence for "burglary with intent," the most serious charge carrying the weightiest sentence. And here's another thing. Seaton was not walking around St. Kitts for three weeks after he attacked me wearing a bloody t-shirt. The police had some idea of who to go looking for, they already knew something of Seaton's MO, and of course they had his fingerprints all over my living room. But somehow this violent repeat offender, who had already skipped town after coming under police scrutiny, who got deported from St. Maarten for misconduct over there, just strolled out of jail and went off to Nevis where somebody fed him chicken for three weeks. Less than two years after he agreed to plead guilty to burglary with intent he was there stealing things out of another woman's house, the same time of night, the same claim that he was the victim. And they can't figure this out?

The Fetherston case, meanwhile, is finished. It will never be known who killed him. There was no other evidence, no other suspect, it's totally dead.

Last night I was talking to my uncle D. on the phone. My uncle D.'s nickname in Jamaica is "Satan." His nickname derives from his many years as an officer in the Jamaica Defence Force. He was at one point in charge of security for one third of the island, and retired at the rank of colonel. He lives in Florida now but was considering going back, because he has some rather nice job offers there. The thing that made him hesitate was the violence. "I am a marked man," he said. "When you arrest someone, they never forget that it was you that arrested them. You arrest all sorts of people and you can't keep straight who is who. But they don't forget." So we talked about that for a while, and I told him how Seaton was still running around St. Kitts. "If you had killed him that would not have happened," my uncle said, quite calmly and not the least bit ironically or in jest. He was absolutely serious. He has killed people, very bad people, and will talk about with perfect frankness. It gives me the willies. But we agreed that we had discovered in ourselves a powerful resistance to the idea of handing our lives over to the first asshole who just carelessly wanted it. I don't think this is a particularly praiseworthy sentiment. But it was timely in my one rather minor brush with that sort of danger. So why didn't he want to carry a gun? He always carried a gun in Jamaica; in my last two years there my father did, too, and hated it. My uncle hated it as well. "You have to think about it all the time, you have to be aware of it all the time, you can never be separated from it," he said. "I couldn't go for a swim at the beach." My uncle, like my father, is a total water rat, better on sea than on land. One day, he said, a friend got him to go to the beach. "I stood in the water up to my ankles and just watched my pile of clothes there on the sand with the gun wrapped in my pants. That's all I could do."

Dog Brains

Skip if you like, obviously. The difference in temperaments and habits of these two dogs still surprises me. On weekends I try to make sure they get a little more of an adventure on at least one of our outings. Saturday's weekend adventure was a trip to the dog park. Not very adventurous, but that park has deer passing through it sometimes and deer smell is like good drugs to Sweetie.

Neither of them is mad about the doggie play area itself. Sweetie can't quite make head or tail of all the romping. She was part of a pack of half-wild dogs for the first year she was with me -- the others sort of attached themselves to me. As a result she has really excellent dog manners, but the downside of it is she reacts in the dog park like she's in a pack of dogs who all happen to be lunatics. She was the bottom dog in her St. Kitts pack, and at the dog park she can find dogs who are even more pathetic than she is -- and Sweetie is a dog who has been chased by a sheep. She hovers nervously next to me until some particularly goofy dog comes in and then she runs to join in the general pile-on. So the effect of the dog park on her character is not good. I keep trying in hopes she'll figure it out.

Misha on the other hand regards the doggie play area as some sort of gulag.

So this time, with the two of them, I thought, let's walk around the doggie play area and you can say hello through the fence, and then we'll go tour the park. But after circling the doggie area and a toddle around the picnic area Misha wanted to go back to the car. And could not be persuaded to go anywhere else. At last I just put her in the car with the windows down and the doors unlocked and then she was quite happy, she sat in there barking at everything. That is Misha's notion of a really good time. And Sweetie and I went into the play area for a while.

Later I realized that most of the past several times when Misha has been to that dog park my father has been along. We try her out in the play area and then my father takes her on a short short stroll around the picnic area and the two of them sit in the car, he has a smoke and does a crossword puzzle or chats on the phone with one of his lady friends and Misha sits in the back seat and barks at everything. And so now this is what she expects to do at the park: to go for a decorous waddle around the picnic area, and then to guard the car. The barking, by the way, drives my father nuts. My father hadn't come to the park, but
Misha was keeping up her end of the ritual.

She instantly makes a general and binding law out of any activity related to my father. If I go for a long walk and have him meet me at the lake or the shopping
center to pick her up (she doesn't like very long walks), she never forgets that that is where He once picked her up, and she will wait for him there and will walk no further. I forget, though, and then I can't figure out why she won't move except to lunge at passing pickups. Then I remember that my father picked her up once at this spot months ago.

A few weeks ago during the last heavy snow they both got salt between their toes -- this is very uncomfortable for dogs. Sweetie didn't let it stop her -- she was going to look for squirrels by God if she had to limp on one leg. And of course she never wants me to pick up her feet or interfere with her movements in any way while we are outside. She she was sort of limping along, the salt got shaken loose, and she was
back at full-speed circling and sniffing and charging about. When Misha felt the salt between her toes she just sat down, lifted up the paw and looked at me with
this totally bathetic expression.

I really think part of this difference is owing to Sweetie's being basically an island street dog. They have to be quick, adaptable, and independent -- that is, they have to live by their wits. It's not a life I'd wish on any animal, life on the streets in the Caribbean. But it does make for a smart, smart dog. There are some other factors in the difference that may not be all about intelligence. Misha had a couple years of really callous emotional neglect before my father rescued her from his ex-wife; second, she's a German Shepherd mix. And of course she has never had
to fend for herself on the streets or anywhere, her experience has been limited and a fair chunk of it was bad. So her temperament, breed, and experience tend to
make her even more attached to her regularities and expectations.

The late lamented Linus had all sorts of odd phobias when I first met him. We'd be out walking at night and he'd get spooked by something like an orange traffic cone or a discarded umbrella. Occasionally people would see his reaction to these things and suggest that maybe he had had a lot of negative experiences with whatever the object was. And this never really convinced me. For one thing, I couldn't imagine what sort of unpleasant repeated experience a dog could have with a traffic cone. It seemed like his fear was much more general in its basis than that: it was an
apprehension that the unknown object might turn out to be dangerous. That's one reaction to the unknown that seems perfectly reasonable to me. As he grew older, he
got less prone to being spooked by things. He had learned, I suppose, that most of these objects weren't all that threatening.

I guess he was lulled into a false sense of security; how did he know that the next
old umbrella wouldn't leap up and attack him? He wouldn't and couldn't, and neither could we, logically, according to David Hume.

This idea of repeated experiences is the psychological half of Hume's theory of induction. It is, as Popper points out, "the popular psychology." It has a great lineage. Another description of it is the "empty bucket" or "blank slate" theory. We animals are born, it supposes, with a mind like an empty bucket or
blank slate than then gets filled up by experience and that is how we come to know what we know. The logical problem of induction that Hume left us was that no amount of accumulated experiences could form the logical basis for a prediction. If you see 10,000 white swans, there's no basis for inferring that all swans are white, no basis for inferring that you might not yet see a black swan. That is, experience was no basis for inferring any kind of natural law. And yet we kept coming up with natural laws anyhow. Fabulous ones, like Newton's. Hume knew all about Newton, of course.

The assumption that there must have been several experiences that made a cumulative impression on my dog also didn't seem convincing. Anybody who lives with dogs can tell you that when a dog wants to learn something he learns it really quickly. Linus learned the word "biscuit" in about five minutes. Once I got him into a dog crate for travel by tossing a biscuit in there. That trick never worked again. You can play
a trick on a dog maybe twice. The first time you can trick him, the second time he is thinking "Well, maybe this time..." The third time the dog makes up its mind not to be fooled again. And it is now also on the lookout for tricks from you. Once it is on the lookout for tricks from you it becomes more wary. Sweetie, who
was abused in her first year of life, is very wary. I once punished her for chasing a cat by locking her in the bathroom for ten minutes. Since that one incident, the harshest punishment she has ever had from me, nothing will induce her to enter a bathroom. Or an elevator.

When Misha discovers one of her regularities, ("This is the place where He picks me up.") she is so attached to it. I might talk her out off her insistence on it -- "No, we are WALKing HOME." But she yields, if she yields at all, very reluctantly. If we go to that pickup spot again a week later, she is just as insistent that He must pick her up here. Now, Sweetie, having observed that he isn't coming, would stop expecting it at about the second time. She'll want to go back to the place where she saw the deer, or where she almost caught a groundhog, but she finds that the experience doesn't repeat itself (some of that expectation might be residual excitement) and it soon becomes like everywhere else again.

Popper solved Hume's problem of induction. That's a very big deal.

He began by proposing a new psychology of experience: animals (including humans) looked for regularities. He described, in his essay "Conjectures and Refutations," (it's in the book of that title)an experiment where someone held a lighted cigarette in front of a litter of puppies. The puppies smelled the cigarette and ran off sneezing. A few days later the person showed them a roll of white paper, about the size of a cigarette. The puppies ran away from that, sneezing, too. The puppies had gone from the single unpleasant experience of smoke to a more general expectation that a white cylinder might produce an unpleasant experience. But that expectation sits on a pretty complex set of prior expectations, such as the distinction between "difference" and "similarity". How did they get that in their short and uneventful little life?

Popper suggested that we are born with a tendency to look for regularities, to make
conjectural "theories" out of our experience, use them for as long as they're useful, and refute or discard them in the light of better insight or new information. The growth of scientific knowledge, he said, follows this pattern.

But Popper had noticed that most scientists thought that induction was what made science different from pseudo-science. There was still this disconnect between the psychology of induction and the logic of induction. If you accepted the psychology the logic wouldn't work. But, weirdly, the science still worked. I mean, even though there wasn't a very satisfactory explanation of how scientific knowledge increased,
scientific knowledge kept increasing. Popper cites Max Born (one of those giants of physics of the last century:

I recently came across an interesting formulation of this belief in a remarkable philosophical book by a great physicist -- Max Born's Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance. He writes: 'Induction allows us to generalize a number of our observations into a general rule: that night follows day and day follows night... But while everyday life has no definite criterion for the validity of an induction... science has worked out a code, or rule of craft, for its application.' Born nowhere reveals the contents of this inductive code (which, as his wording shows, contains a 'definite criterion for the validity of an induction'); but he stresses that 'there is no logical argument' for its acceptance; 'it is a question of faith': and he is therefore willing to call induction a metaphysical principle'. But why does he believe that such a code of valid induction must exist? This becomes clear when he speaks of the 'vast numbers of anti-vaccination societies and believers in astrology. It is useless to argue with them: I cannot compel them to accept the same criteria of valid induction in which I believe; the code of scientific rules.' This makes it quite clear that 'valid induction' was here meant to serve as a criterion of demarcation between science and pseudo-science.
[Italics are Popper's]

You can see what a problem this could become. Now, you can add to the anti-vaccination societies and believers in astrology the whole legion of creationists and Intelligent Design advocates and all the other pseudo-scientists now practicing. In fact, pseudo-science has sort of cultivated the appearance of being scientific: Intelligent Design's advocates keep insisting that it's a scientific theory and not a
religious one.

Against the people who attack science, a faith in induction seems an awfully weak defense. First of all the attackers are using induction too, they are using it in spades. They've inducted dinosaurs into their 6,000-year Biblical timeline and
have the museum to prove it. Second, they are all about the metaphysical faith. They, so to speak, wrote the book on faith, and they know that their faith is stronger, their certainty on the origins of knowledge, is strong.

Popper did not solve the problem of induction by finding that valid code that Born hoped was there; he solved it by pointing out that it wasn't necessary to believe in any valid code of induction. You could just stop looking for that nonexistent missing link. And he had another more interesting model to put in its place, a model he could trace all the way to the pre-Socratic philosophers. It wasn't even new. It was basically the critical method, which is essentially anti-authoritarian. Induction, on the other hand, can be a support for authoritarianism. All these freaks and frauds of the Intelligent Design movement use their "proofs" to prove that what they believe is irrevocably right and true and not open to debate. This is as big a problem as the bogusness of their "evidence." It's bigger, because that is not how people should learn to know. That is, it is dangerous to have people thinking that what they know is not open to critical examination.

Popper said we will make theories, it's in our makeup to do so, and it's in our makeup to be attached to them. But we can criticize them and discard them, admit sometimes that we don't know what to think next, and we can take up a new theory that solves the problems of the old ones or that, provisionally, is the best we can do. That's how knowledge advances.

Misha comes home from a dog walk and the first thing she does is look for my father. She checks the kitchen. Not there. She runs to his bedroom next. Not there. Glances in the bathroom door. Then, she hauls herself into the recliner and watches out the window and waits for him.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mind, Brain, Body

No, I know, nowadays it makes you think of something involving yoga and antioxidants and pastel-colored walls and gourmet bottled water. But you know you are safe here.

Gerald Edelman has a new book out. Years ago I beat my head against his book Neural Darwinism, trying to get hold of his theory, on the basis of a review of it in NYRB. It was very slow going, but I wanted to earn my way to the good bits. (That's one of my weird little habits and is the reason why I can't bear to read the abridged version of anything.) I never quite made it beyond the first few chapters. Probably something else caught my attention.

Edelman's vision of the process of brain cells separating themselves out and evolving their functional specializations really felt like poetry the first time I heard it described. I mean, basically, ever since then, I have pretty much felt bored to death by every time people compare the human brain or mind to a computer. You lose me right there.

Anyway the reason why I try to read books like that is because even if I don't make it all the way through I do learn enough to know that most of what I think I know about this or almost anything is just made up, just cobbled together out of chewing gum and hairpins, out of things misheard, half-attended to, assumed on the basis of stale metaphors, and just not thought about at all. So what I get from efforts to read stuff like this is 1) I see one thing in a completely new way, and that's the exact same reason I read poetry. 2) I recognize yet again that what Hume said is true: a lot of what we think we know is just custom -- it's just what we are accustomed to carrying around in our heads. But it doesn't have to be like that all the time.

Tidying Up

Long overdue tidying up has occurred. The blogroll is slightly less scatterbrained; I've fixed some links and added a few more regulars. The one thing I can't figure out how to fix is the mail tag. It looked all right in the template but it's still a no-show. I shall ask one of my small but select readers for advice.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Judging Crimes

I don't stop at Joel's blog often enough. This piece on slavery and the Constitution is fascinating.

We know how burning the flag flips people out. Imagine if a nationally-known journalist were to get onstage during a July 4 celebration and set fire, Jimi-Hendrix-Monterey-Pop-Festival style, to a copy of the United States Constitution.

That's what William Lloyd Garrison did on July 4, 1854. It upset a lot of people at the time, but I bet it would upset even more people today. Sixty-seven years after the Constitution was drafted, Americans could still see it as it was, as a document produced by men and accepted by other men because rejecting it wasn't a realistic option. It hadn't yet ascended to the quasi-religious status of "the miracle at Philadelphia."

Garrison, whose life is wonderfully told by Henry Mayer, called the Constitution "a covenant with death and agreement with hell."

That's the opening (aren't you curious? You should be!) of a beautifully written, linky little essay. If you read it there you'll get all the links too, which I didn't bring in this little sample.

Joel writes about criminal justice, the Constitution, and law-related matters, and also about the eccentric behavior of judges.

I think my views on democracy and the criminal law are consistent with the values of modern liberalism. The United States is several times more violent than any other developed nation. One reason, I believe, is that victims of violent crime are overwhelmingly the poor, members of minority groups, the disabled and the mentally ill. As Richard Hofstadter demonstrated half a century ago, social Darwinism remains the template for American attitudes about the proper role of government. Judging Crimes explores the strange paradox that the social Darwinist -- or, to phrase it more politely, the libertarian -- view has come to be considered "liberal" in one isolated area of American public life: the administration of the criminal law.

Go read.

Words Fail Me

I would never have imagined this in a thousand years. Truly we live in a

world of wonders.

via Counterpunch

Basketball Memories

For those of you (you know who you are) who remember the Lakers of the mid-1980s, here's a nice article about Kareem. I dunno why but it's nice to see he can still draw such a crowd. Interesting stuff about the Harlem he grew up in. And I did not know that music was such a big feature in his life. Of course I never know anything about sports anyway, but the occasional bits of his life that I pick up always seem surprising. Sorry, can't remember any of the others.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Glare and The Heat

I'm not talking about the weather, either. The Minister of Tourism in the Bahamas has resigned over allegations that he had an affair with ANS. Tom had emailed me an article about this tiny little piece of the Anna Nicole Smith Death Sideshow, which is on the tube now I think 24 hours a day, but at that time the minister had not resigned yet.

Well, we are now aware of at least one man who is not claiming paternity, which is surely noteworthy.

Gibson came under pressure to step down after the publication last week of photographs of him and Smith embracing on a bed and reports that he had fast-tracked her application for residency in the Caribbean nation.

Critics said he granted her residency status on the basis of their close friendship when, in fact, she met none of the criteria for such a permit.

Tom wondered why this would be such a big deal there.

Well, it's simple. The Caribbean basically has come to rely on tourism as the main source of revenue. Sugar is just about dead, bananas died about 10 years ago (killed off actually), bauxite has been undependable. And so for most countries what they have to take to market is tourism. And Caribbean tourism marketing is all about how you can come down to de islands mon and relax and have fun on de beautiful beaches. No Problem, Mon. And you hear about the rent-a-dreads and the passa passa etc., not to mention calypso. There's a whole genre of calypso songs in which a white woman comes down to the islands for Carnival and goes mad bumping and grinding in the streets. So the impression overall is of an easy-going, laid-back place with a great tolerance for public displays of lasciviousness, like the dancing you see in Carnival.

And the truth is that people fornicate like minks there. The man who does not have several girlfriends, the man who does not cheat on his wife, the man who is not chasing tail from one end of his island to the other, is the exception. But not officially. Officially and in their public characters most West Indian people tend to see themselves as very socially conservative.

Where this conservatism has become apparent is in two areas:

The extreme bigotry against homosexuals that so baffles people in the States. About two years ago the authorities in Nevis actually turned away a gay cruise, alleging fears that the men on board were all going to be running around the island naked. This was rubbish of course, but they persuaded themselves of it quite easily.

Second, attitudes to HIV/AIDS and prevention strategies. The Caribbean has the fastest increasing rate of infection outside of Sub-Saharan Africa (it's not equally distributed, but the rates in a few countries -- especially Haiti, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic -- are so high they bring the whole region up. And the resistance to the distribution of condoms (where teenage sex is epidemic, and where having multiple partners is the informal norm) is so far proving really hard to overcome.

It appears in a lot of other, smaller ways, if you live there, but you get the picture.

The people you never see in the ads are the people who don't spend their Sundays at the beach but spend them in church. And that is most of the people who are really local, who don't really have much exposure to the tourists. The most powerful non-governmental organization in any Caribbean country is the Council of Churches, because the church is the means by which most people will pursue their social aspirations and set themselves up as respectable people. The only other avenues are power and money.

There are married men in the Caribbean who will spend a whole Sunday at some wash-foot church and on Monday afternoon are in their cars trolling the gates of the high schools looking for girls. This sort of thing has been SOP in the Caribbean for generations. My uncle, who is writing down some of my family history, summed up his grandparents' generation: "They were nasty."

So as you can imagine these are very conflicted issues, and the way most people resolve the conflict is to maintain appearances. I can recall a couple of the Great Fornicators of my acquaintance in the islands, and when they were ready to get up on their legs and stand on their little dignity they were so ferocious in their indignation!

Add to the mix the presence of someone like ANS who in a place like that is basically an 800-lb gorilla of a white woman. It is alleged that this minister gave her a fast track for immigration papers so she could settle in the Bahamas. Well, I don't know of any country in the world -- especially a Caribbean country -- where they wouldn't throw the place open to anybody who showed up with the sort of millions that Smith had. A few years ago an American man showed up in Grenada with papers stating him to be a citizen of (I kid you not) The Dominion of Melchizedek, and a photograph of an enormous ruby, and on the basis of these bona fides was able to open a bank, run it there for about four years, and defraud investors in the US and Canada of hundreds of millions of dollars. This is my absolute favorite offshore story of all time. Unbeatable.

So that's not really it, I think. What bugs people is that image of him in bed with her. First of all it is the exposure of a kind of "slackness" that is officially not tolerated. Second of all, it hits on really old suspicious about white women, suspicions that go back deep in history. That is, the black man who is in bed with a white woman is in a humiliating position; he's a sexual servant. This seems weird, but it is only a sort of subconscious acknowledgment of longstanding inequality. And even though the little embrace with Smith was most likely perfectly innocent, first of all West Indians don't really go in officially for that kind of over-the-top Hollywood display of affection and secondly the photograph had this implication: that he didn't mind doing something that had the appearance that he was a white woman's sex slave. So it was embarrassing in several different ways, as you can see. That's my theory of why he had to go.

What would be fun would be to be down at the beach bar where all the lawyers drink and listen to the jokes. It would be wrong but it would be fun.

Henry Fowler 1915-2007

In 1971 I passed a scholarship exam that got me full tuition to Priory School in Jamaica. Its founder, Henry Fowler, was still the headmaster then. This photo was taken the second year that I was there. Mr. Fowler was an old-school Jamaican of colonial days, the sort of person that it is now fashionable to blame for all our ills.

He grew up in colonial times, when the Jamaican identity was associated with a culture rooted in a distant land. Even though, as a Rhodes Scholar, he was educated in 'Mother England', he set his sights on helping to build a new Jamaica, according to the vision of Norman Washington Manley who was to become one of the iconic figures of Jamaica's quest for nationhood and whom Fowler greatly admired.

After studies in England, Fowler returned to his native land and plunged into the social revolution which was being born. Self-government was the immediate goal and he took on the role of editor of the newspaper, Public Opinion, a vehicle for discourse on what the future held. He became part of a band of social activists/idealists who began to lay the groundwork for the 'new Jamaica'. Along with journalism, he also embraced the cause of education, founding The Priory School, which came to be widely regarded as an institution for the élite. However, along with Knox College in Manchester and Excelsior High in Kingston, it was part of a new ethos, challenging the old definitions of education and setting new boundaries for the young.

Among various appointments, he served as adviser on education to successive Jamaican governments and also represented the nation as ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), helping to place this country on its agenda through his interest and influence in education and the arts.

Henry Fowler had a deep passion for the arts and the theatre in particular. Perhaps his most noted monument is the establishment of the Little Theatre Movement (LTM), which he co-founded in the 1940s along with his first wife, Greta Bourke Fowler. The LTM and the Little Theatre which it built, have remained beacons in Jamaican and Caribbean theatre for over six decades now.

Under LTM auspices also, the Fowlers established the Jamaica Theatre School in the 1970s and later handed it over to the Government. It was renamed the School of Drama and became a component of the Cultural Training Centre, now the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Henry Fowler also led the establishment of the Ward Theatre Foundation in response to the urgent need to save the landmark building and preserve its heritage as a part of Kingston's cultural history. To the end of his life, he retained his interest in the LTM and the Ward and continued to be passionate in his advocacy for the maintenance of these symbols of national creativity.

But he founded this incredible school, and he put into practice there his passionately held ideas about education. It was called the "snob school" because it was a very expensive private school; my scholarship enabled me and my brother to go there, or my parents would never have been able to afford it. It was the school where all the expats -- ambassadors, bauxite industry executives and so on -- sent their children. Mr. Fowler was very proud that the school was international and encouraged us to be so too. In addition to the really first-rate, inspired teaching (graduates went on to Oxbridge and the Ivies every year), the school was an incredible place to learn drama.

The Fowlers had major connections in theater; they were friends with Noel Coward, who lived in Oracabessa (my grandmother's birthplace) on the North Coast of Jamaica. His house, Fireflies, is now a tourist attraction. Greta Fowler's daughter Jennifer, on Coward's recommendation, got a shot at performing at the Old Vic in London, when people like Sean Connery, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris were there. She ended up marrying the actor Robert Shaw. When they divorced she moved back to Jamaica and her two younger daughters were students at Priory. Kathy, the youngest, was one of my first friends there.

The result, for Priory, was that theater was just a normal part of school life. There was always a drama teacher on staff, and there was always something being worked on, and you just sort of got drawn into a production because you showed up for workshops, a workshop turned into a reading of a play, the reading of the play turned into blocking it out, and the next thing you knew it was a production. That is how I ended up in the school play for almost all the years that I was there, and why, when I finally left Priory to go to school in England, I seriously considered going into acting. I mean, it seemed so easy. But within a year I gave that up out of a foolish sensitivity that was totally unrelated to acting itself. My uncle was a professional actor at the time (he has since moved into directing, producing, and teaching), and I was so in awe of him that I couldn't bear to think of acting in front of him. I knew sooner or later he'd see me, and then he'd die of embarrassment after casting one reproachful stare that would burn itself into my soul indelibly like in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then one day he did see me; for a surprise my mother brought him to see me perform in a sketch at a schools' drama competition in Kent. His presence made me completely lose my head and I ran through my part at a sort of hysterical breathless gallop, just burning to get off the stage. This was a complete misreading of my uncle's character, but you must understand he had gone off to England and become very chic and sophisticated and mod. And cool people always told me I was an idiot, in my experience. I hadn't yet figured out that a totally groovy person like him would be groovy to me too. Well, he was and is. I acted in school, thoroughly enjoyed it, for the rest of the year but I gave up any thoughts of it for a career. Regrets? Only for my stupidity. But I'm over the stage fright (the only instance of it I have ever experienced) and I can even read things to my uncle without having an anxiety attack.

At Priory Henry Fowler was venerated. He was so smart, so kind, so warm, so completely in charge, so completely civilized. He had a way of roaring at you, too, when he caught you misbehaving, that would make your hair stand on end. His second wife, who was the British High Commissioner to Jamaica for many years, is a close friend of my mother's, and so I had news of him from time to time. He seemed indestructible. I saw him about 20 years ago when he took me and my mother on a tour of Oxford. I was thinking of going to grad school there and of course my mother, a diehard old colonial in her very soul, was very keen for the idea. But Marvin Mudrick proved the bigger draw.

My recent posts on Marvin got me reading around in Mudrick Transcribed again. In one class, he tells a story about a grad student who came to see him to complain that he had really just done a lousy job of teaching one session of a class. "Oh don't worry about it," he said. "The only way they will remember anything about you is if you vomited on your shoes." That grad student was me, though he didn't say so and made me a "he" (further misdirection). Well, as it happened, I once did vomit on my shoes at the front of a classroom. It was when I was in 7th grade (first form as they say in the old country). I felt sicker and sicker and kept hoping it would go away, and at the last possible minute (a defining trait of my character) I made my way to the teacher's desk, opened my mouth to ask to go to the bathroom, and disgorged a great stream of barf down the front of my clothes and all over my shoes. There was no need of further explanation. My classmates were, of course, delighted. Several minutes later, somewhat cleaned up and faintly reeking, I sat in the front hall of the main building waiting for my mother to pick me up and take me home. Priory's main building was one of the grand old wooden mansions along Hope Road in Kingston. The room was dark with aged mahogany panelling. Mr. Fowler came bounding up the front steps and saw this tearful person sitting there and immediately set to work to cheer me up. It was uphill going. He chattered away, laying on his maximum child-charming powers, and when I told him my name he said, "What a coincidence! We have a little girl here named Kia, she's very nice..." You know how when you're a kid and you're so sunk in your own wretchedness that you can barely even speak? I was like that. I managed to bleat out, "That's me. It's me!" When he finally heard me he was so shocked, he was sort of laughing and blushing and patting me on the shoulder and apologizing and exclaiming at his own silliness. He stayed with me till my mother showed up (they didn't know each other so well at this point), told her the story. When I visited him at Oxford he still remembered it.

As people die you lose the past. It was a very different Jamaica then, and he was a big part of why, at least for me.

(Photo note: The Chinese boy at the far right of the photo was a neighbor and a playmate of my brother's. In 1998 when I was teaching briefly at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, his housekeeper's niece was one of my students. A smart, funny and impressive woman who I remember fondly for saying to me in class one day, "Penso, your clothes is hexpensive but dey is hugly." Her first name was Monaco, as in Princess Grace Of.)

Note: If you are interested in his full and even more impressive obit here, if you scroll down a ways.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Boob Job Number Four

She always admired big breasts, thought they were the sexiest thing, but unfortunately didn't have them. So the first chance she got silicon implants. Scar tissue grew around them and they had to be removed. So then she got the saline implants and they were bigger, which was great, but they were too far apart. So then she got another set of even bigger implants. They were so big that they caused ripples, and, besides, one of her new breasts was dented on the side. Hence the need for Boob Job Number Four.

That was the first case I watched on what seemed to be some kind of plastic surgery makeover marathon on The Discovery Channel last night. The four chapters in the Boob Job Odyssey were illustrated with photographs that were blurred slightly so no nipples were visible, which -- I don't know. I suppose we are all a bit insane really. And people can calmly sit and watch these photographs of these grotesque misshapen fake tits, they'll munch on pizza while they watch lumps of fat lifted out of someone's buttock and tossed across the operating theater, but if they see a nipple in a program about breast surgery, their hair catches on fire.

I sat there and thought, it'll end after the next one. But then there would be another case, and the thing is the stories were interesting. This very nice girl with, unfortunately, a 38FF bust. She wanted hers reduced. But that one got me thinking -- what ever happened to those bossy and slightly grim, smartly dressed older ladies who used to work in the lingerie section of department stores? When you were shopping for a bra they'd say, "That's not for you," like it was a command. Then they'd sort of look at you for a moment -- sizing you up hahaha -- and then grab a couple off the rack and order you to go try them on. Because if that woman on that show was a 38 anything I really have no idea what I'm doing when I go shopping for bras. I mean this thing threw my whole bra sizing theory overboard. I'm in a state of deep doubt now.

Then there was the woman whose fiance had died suddenly two years ago. She was 52, and she always thought she was plain but he always said she was beautiful just the way she was, and then he died. The thing is that even though the woman never completely believed him when he said it, and he had been dead for two years, I never doubted for a minute that he meant it. I was fully persuaded that this woman and her fiance had one of those relationships that works, that they really coexisted, had unity and love. And it was so sad that she had lost him. "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with him," she said. So she got a face lift and it made her feel attractive and like she could get back in the game, so to speak. More power to her, I say.

I watched about four of these little dramas and began to think there would be no end to it all. I finally fled from the prospect of the little girl with a gigantic growth on her head.

I know there's a smart way to watch TV but I can't remember what it is. I don't watch it a lot, lately I can barely make it through an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Early last year, when I was unemployed and terrified and seriously homesick for oh heck any place but here, I watched those crime shows, one a night, because they were good for an escape. And there is always a rerun of one of them on somewhere. The other show that always seems to be on in reruns somewhere is Friends. i have never understood the appeal of this show. I have never been able to watch an entire episode, no, I've never been able to watch five minutes of it. I flip the channels and there's the apartment the size of Belgium and there's one or more of the -- Jesus, I don't even know how many of them there are -- pert young white people around whom the universe revolves and I want to throw a brick through the box. It amazes me how little there is to watch on all those channels.

OK so two weekends at the bottom of the TV universe don't make a trend. But if it did it would be a bad trend. I'm not sure why I'm even doing it. It's not like I have the time. It feels a bit like resting and maybe that's what it's about. But because I am a worrier of course I go looking for the darkest explanation: my brain is melting and this is the onset of senility.

I thought of this George Herbert poem (I really did! This is what I do!), "The Forerunners" (Caution: slightly annoying background music, hit the mute button before you go):

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark;
White is their colour, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
Must dulnesse turn me to a clod?

I have one grey hair and I like it. But I would just as soon put off being a clod for a while.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


So last November I bought my father a pair of YakTraks. One day last winter we were out walking the dogs together and he slipped on the ice and fell, hard, on his back. It terrified me. He got up and was fine as it happened, no further problems, but it took me a while to get over it. I was shopping for socks at the pricey outdoor gear store and saw these things and got them. But for most of the winter he hasn't really needed to use them. Till this week, when we got this storm that came in Tuesday. It left 4-5 inches of snow which partly melted Wednesday and then another storm came in and froze it into ice. Yesterday morning the snow ploughs didn't clear our apartment complex till nearly 11, and when I was out with the dogs it was awful, all the parking lots (there are several buildings) had all these cars foundering in them, people spinnning their wheels madly trying to get out of the snow. I surveyed all this and decided not even to try. I didn't want to drive my 35-mile commute on icy roads.

Under these conditions I try to do most of the dog walking anyhow. And I've given the YakTraks a couple of trial runs and I love them. You know when there's a lot of ice you do this sort of very very old person shuffle with your knees bent, and that's when you're not walking with two dogs that are totally demented about squirrels. And with the YakTraks I could just step out onto a sheet of the blackest slickest ice and it was like walking on a carpet. Take that, dogs!

My father works as a traffic technician. He goes out at night with a crew and supervises the repairs of traffic lights all over the District. And of course these nights it has been bitterly cold, with ice. So nag nag nag nag did you wear the things on your shoes? Don't forget to take them, I'm leaving them here by the door, maybe you should just put them on your shoes now so you don't forget, they're really good! "Yes, all right, Kia, I'll be all right." (trans. "You are boring me now.") In the afternoon there was another thaw, cabin fever was getting to me even though I had taken the dogs out, and I knew that the it was all going to freeze again. It had been a struggle getting my car out even after the ploughing. So I went to Home Depot and bought a shovel. Not a snow shovel, but a metal shovel that would break the ice. I got home and didn't even go inside. I whacked away at the ice in my parking space, and there was a lot of it. While I was doing that a woman arrived in a big SUV trying to park in the space next to mine and only managed to get stuck. So I helped dig her out. I was totally into this shoveling business. And then I thought what the hell I'll clear the path into a parking space for my father too. So I did that for a while basically until my arms started feeling like jelly. Oh and there was another little consideration. To break the ice I had to hold the shovel by the top of the handle and bring the edge of it down with as much force as I could. Kind of like pile-driving? Well I pile-drove the edge of that shovel into my toe. Luckily my toe was numb. That, plus the jelly sensation in my arms, finally made me stop.

I went inside and there were the YakTraks lying next to the door. He had totally forgotten them. So I called him and nag nag nag nag etc. be careful of the ice take your time and he promised he would.

At about 10 p.m. I took the dogs out for a last little stroll. And Misha was acting rather strangely. She kept sort of wandering about. Usually, as I think I've explained, she is the one who is mad to go back home again. But she kept leading us all over the place, in her sort of fretful and dopey way. We could walk on top of the hard crust of the snow without it breaking and it made a delicious sound. Especially with the YakTraks. At last, though, enough was enough, and we went in and I tried not to worry about my father. About midnight I heard Misha whining. I entertained for a few seconds the old folklore about psychic dogs and then decided I really didn't need to think about that. So I just said "Bugger off, Misha," which for some reason works with her. Woke up in a panic in the middle of the night because I didn't hear my father snoring. The dogs always push my bedroom door open, and his for that matter. No snoring. So I jumped out of bed and hurried down the hall and noticed that he had in fact made it home. Back to bed.

This morning I come back in with the dogs and my father is up drinking his coffee and doing that puttering about morning thing he does that drives me crazy. He told me that when he got home Misha insisted on being taken out. My father explained that she has been wanting to take a dump but can't find a suitable place to do it -- she wants to crap on a nice patch of grass and of course there is no grass. So they went wandering and wandering about in circles. I just do not understand this. This dog is -- it took her over a year to learn the idea of walking on the same side of the tree that I'm walking on. And her grasp of it is still not what you'd call sure. She passes most of her life in a state of existential befuddlement punctuated by near-hysteria. And then, inexplicably, when it comes to taking a crap, a thing that a dog, you imagine, ought to be able to do mindlessly, suddenly there is all this deliberation and planning and punctilio. When I'm out with her on a day when grass is visible, it's bad enough. If we're inside the grounds she must go down a hill to do it and find just exactly the right spot. Distracted rambling ensues. Then she finds the right spot, assumes the position, grunting and solemn, and at that moment notices that -- hey! This isn't the true spot, the true spot is about 8-10 feet thataway. So, still squatting, she does this sort of sideways shimmy to get to the true spot. She's fat and has this wonderfully expressive face. But you know, sometimes I'm pressed for time. And then I can't help asking her, "Why does it have to be such a production?"

So the true spot was buried under four inches of ice-encrusted snow. Her attitude to problems is that the person who can solve them all is my father. So he got home from work, walked across heaps of snow and patches of ice, turned right around when he came in to take Misha out -- and forgot the YakTraks again. And of course he fell.

This morning I hung the YakTraks on the front doorknob.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I cleaned off my computer desktop this evening and found this wonderful photo from SK: it's not one of mine, it's by the Prime Minister's press secretary. I got it off the mailing list where the two island governments post all their press releases. It was some sort of parade honoring and celebrating the island's senior citizens. These folks are all actually dancing as they go down the street.There's music somewhere, probably a steel band. Several of the hats are red because the marchers are almost all supporters of the ruling Labour Party, and their official color is red. So it's partly a political parade, but people dance in those anyway in the Caribbean. I downloaded the photo because I liked it. And after having it sit there for who knows how many months, I found it again and still liked it.

The square grey tower in the back is the main Anglican church on the island. My office was next door to it. In the graveyard of the church, there is a splendid old banyan tree and sometimes you could see monkeys scrambling about in it and among the old tombstones, right in the center of town. If these senior marchers keep dancing straight ahead like they are doing, they'll be on the waterfront in about a quarter of a mile. They are waving at Government Headquarters which is just outside of the picture. The dark doorway with the green SUV in front of it was Jamie's office, by the way.

Dracula for Blairite Cretins

It was past me bedtime but I watched a bit of that new Dracula on PBS last night. I have always had a fondness for that novel, particularly the first half. And the opportunities for campy effect and genuine creepiness are so easy, I am usually curious to see what people have done with it on film -- provided the bloodshed isn't too copious.

Well, I watched it for 30 minutes and it was, quite simply, unrecognizable. I don't know why they even called it Dracula. I mean, really, they could have called it "Fred." First of all, all the great funny moments of the Stoker novel, all gone. And in their place a story line so weak and needlessly elaborate you realize that its sole purpose is apparently to make one rather silly didactic point: Lucy and Mina are not passive Victorian virgins, they are red-blooded modern women like Bridget Jones! So they are always grabbing hold of their fiances' ears and trying to suck the faces right off their heads! Well, at least at first. Then Mina goes in for praying. I mean really goes in for praying. She sits, in one scene, in some serious acreage of draperies and says "rhubarbrhubarb" over a rosary. And it works. Dracula can't get into her room and so he goes to visit Lucy instead who he finds thrashing lasciviously about in her sleep. So he gets in there all right, and the two of them wrestle with more drapery together.

Dracula walks about in broad daylight, with 1970s pop star hair, eyeliner, and tight pants, and in one scene where he visits Arthur and Lucy (married but -- as Lucy tells Mina "The marriage is -- unconsummated") he's sort of lollygagging about the living room casting smoldering looks at the two women.

I've really never seen anything quite like it for perfectly pitched and unfailing vulgarity. There was a historical and/or dialogue howler about every 45 seconds, in addition to the story itself. The whole thing was like a costume party or one of those "theme" weddings. As done by people whose entire literary experience consists of People magazine and Bridget Jones novels. Or, possibly, by a committee of English professors representing a diverse plurality of interests and critical approaches. And of course the actors are all of them, to a man, woman and child, chewing up the curtains. I think it was Donald Pleasance who started that business of muttering dementedly in a corner, in that "Oh! Here's a nice big room and what's that sound? Oh there's that man in the corner muttering dementedly to himself again." Like it takes you a while to find the source of this state of general global demented mutteringness. Lots of that here.

Everybody's motive is mean and self-serving and still has the big numbered "Plot Device" tag hanging off it. Whereas in the book, you may recall, everybody except Dracula and Renfield is nice -- kind and earnest and loyal.

I thought it better to be asleep than watch any more, figuring it would only get worse.

Friday, February 09, 2007


In my last post but one I promised there would be a sort of punchline later. Well, you'll get it in this post, yes. I wrote this rather long and impassioned defence of Marvin Mudrick against some critics who had been rather dismissive of his criticisms of Shakespeare.

In what I wrote there I was pretty much concentrated on a couple of things that had nothing to do with the merit or lack of merit in Mudrick's argument about Shakespeare. They tried to suggest a standard, and some considerations that should enter the setting of a standard, for fair play in judging the unpopular opinions of a writer who you otherwise trust. I only wanted to look at it in the light of those considerations in that post.

That is, I think they should be persuasive on their own before you even begin to judge.

I didn't introduce a discussion of the merits of Mudrick's arguments against Shakespeare.

I didn't introduce any of the context for Mudrick's style and critical methods.

I made this choice deilberately. There are two other things I didn't do. I didn't mention that for seven intense years Marvin Mudrick was my teacher, my mentor, my friend, confidante, example, and hero. The people for whom I began writing this blog were also students of Marvin Mudrick, not all of them, but a few of the ones who were closest to him in the later part of his life. We all loved him. If this has any bearing on my defense of what he says, if it compromises me in relation to him in some way, I'd be very interested to know. I don't happen to think so myself, but of course that is not my judgment alone to make.

Last of all, I didn't get to what is to me the most important thing. I'll agree with paul k that these longer excerpts do more justice to Marvin than the short clips, and I apologize to him for thinking that he thought the short bits were the whole story. Having watched him for a while over at the other place I should know better. But there's something these writers didn't get, and to be fair to them I didn't get it either until after Marvin died. That is, when his last book came out I also was struck by the emotional intensity of it, and, like a lot of students, I was bewildered by the preface, particularly by this passage:

I write about the people in this book from the angle (with the bias) of certain at least theoretical choices of my own: either over neither, both over either/or, live-and-let-live over stand-or-die, high spirits over low, energy over apathy, wit over dullness, jokes over homilies, good humor over jokes, good nature over bad, feeling over sentiment, truth over poetry, consciousness over explanations, tragedy over pathos, comedy over tragedy, entertainment over art, private over public, generosity over meanness, charity over murder, love over charity, irreplaceable over interchangeable, divergence over concurrence, principle over interes, people over principle.

It was 1981, the year I graduated from the College of Creative Studies which Marvin founded and presided over as Provost until about a year before he died. Coming to California on the tail end of the 1970s, I entered a culture in which it was sort of unfashionable to make positive abstract value affirmations. It was so -- sixties. We would all be very cool and ironic in the next year or two. And here was Marvin laying down his weapons to make this strange statement.

The content of the statement was not strange to us; we had sat in his classes and talked about these things in the context of the whole range of literary subjects that interested him. It was the form of the thing that was baffling. Why wasn't he just swinging the axe and being a fun guy?

As I said, it wasn't till after he died. At a special meeting of the College, Alan Stephens, the other great pillar of Creative Studies literature, read that statement and said that it was Marvin's summary of an ethical approach to literature, a hierarchy of moral values that he had worked out of his experience of reading and life.

I would now summarize the summary this way. Marvin believed that the highest joy of life was the love of the good, and he had come up with a really rich view of the good. All his work, these disparate pieces, were tending to this statement. It wasn't the last word, it was a pause, to sort of say, OK, here's how far I have come. And the articles in the book were really, put all together, an inquiry and an exploration into values, and a justification of his theory of the good, of his hierarchy of values. This is what he had been doing all his intellectual life. And in 1981 he was just getting warmed up. "Energy is eternal delight," said William Blake, but if you don't recognize it for what it is it makes you nervous.
The exuberance that so grated on his critics was an urgency of feeling about the richness of this idea as he experienced it, and an impatience with all the phony or less satisfactory notions of the good that just got in the way. Yeah, there are people who laugh at their own jokes because they're nervous and don't know how to be cool. Marvin laughed at his own jokes because he was jubilant, full of high spirits, of energy, of rejoicing in goodness and beauty, in what was out there. It's all in those pieces, spelled out, it wasn't like he had it somewhere but didn't manage to get it in writing.

If you assume that his main function as a critic was to be a sort of hatchet man, then you can see that it would be perfectly reasonable to think that the hatchet man should not step out of his place and embarrass everybody. But he certainly didn't think of himself as merely a hatchet man, and it irritated him that people thought so. Because as I say he was very much in pursuit of something. He was a very good at whacking away at pretentiousness and shallowness and phoniness, but he didn't attack crap because it was crap; he attacked crap because it got in the way of something that was worth seeing, that was superior. It wasn't his philosophy or theory of literature he was pushing in Nobody Here But Us Chickens; it was the things that that theory enabled him to see. He was excited about them, and exasperated when he encountered confusion between these goods and what he would consider lesser goods. I don't think a lot of people got this about him, for whatever reasons.


You can listen to a discussion of Karl Popper on the BBC Radio 4's In Our Time. I haven't listened to it yet but I will. I notice too that it's only the most recent show that's available for podcast. The older shows, which are all archived and easily available, can only be listened to via their site. Which is still all right if you are sitting at "work" with nothing much to do.

From the blurbage:

Popper wrote: “The more we learn about the world and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance”.

But of course this is no substitute for reading Popper himself. I recommend Conjectures and Refutations and, of course, The Open Society. Also The Poverty of Historicism. They're a little bit difficult; The Open Society takes you on a pretty gruelling slog through Plato and Marx, but it is worth it. And the fact that, per the BBC blurbage, "someone close to Margaret Thatcher" was interested in his ideas should not put you off.

The best book about Popper is Bryan Magee'sslim little book Philosophy and the Real World; An Introduction to Karl Popper. Magee is an interesting writer on his own account as well as a trustworthy explicator of Popper's achievement. He is also possibly the only television personality who is an actual working philosopher. He writes beautifully and is an authority on Schopenhauer and Popper. His autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher is fascinating; it makes thinking about philosophical problems (real ones, not fake word ones) seem exciting. Because it's exciting for him, I guess. So he made a career out of trying to bring that excitement to a bigger audience, and succeeded rather well.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

So Not Over It

A thoughtful and voracious reader named paul k, who, like me, hangs out at Roy's place (the party is livelier over there) has left two critics' observations about Marvin Mudrick in the comments to the
post before this one
. They're old, but apparently they still have legs.

Here they are:

I also like Mudrick, but I think Wolcott was right about one of his limitations (re his dumping on the Bard):

Surely Mudrick knows that Shakespeare's reputation will prosper long after his spitballs have caked on the chalkboard, so why is he making such a commotion? Again, I think Mudrick has become overly smitten with his image as literature's fearless enforcer; he's taking on Shakespeare as a show of nerve.

And I think Michael Wood’s comment is fair:

[Roger Sale says that] Mudrick is "learned, witty, grim, quick to scorn and delighted to praise." He has an extraordinary gift for quotation, and a large fund of good sense. But that is all he has, and I am less taken with Mudrick's tone than Sale is. I find it strident and jangling, full of the sound of a man laughing at his own jokes.

I am pretty sure that these all refer to Nobody Here But Us Chickens, Mudrick's last collection of pieces from The Hudson Review. That book came out more than 20 years ago, but look, these still seem, to at least one thoughtful reader, to sum up most of what you need to know about Mudrick. And that's unfortunate.

Incredibly this comment arrived on a day when I had just posted a link to a Wolcott review in TNR in which he quotes Mudrick, as he does from time to time. And then I got home from the much-loathed job to find that Wolcott had linked to my post about his review. It was totally cosmic! And so I'm going to seem a tad smidge wee bit ungrateful for Wolcott's friendly notice and all the readers he has sent over here.

I'm not ungrateful really. But a few things need to be said.

1) These criticisms of Mudrick are status-based, not substance-based. They were in effect suggesting that Mudrick was misbehaving himself in his criticism of Shakespeare. They don't consider his arguments; Wolcott offers a theory of motive, but that is not a consideration of what Mudrick was saying. My own thinking about this is that if Mudrick's remarks on Shakespeare were, as he puts it, the firing of harmless spitballs then surely Shakespeare could look after himself, and Lord knows Shakespeare has enough defenders.

Who was risking more here, really? Mudrick didn't have a whole New York literary opinion-making establishment and all of received opinion at his back when he went up against Shakespeare. What he did have was years and years and years of reading Shakespeare and just about everything else, and thinking about it for himself. So it would have been more thoughtful and just at the time to ask why, given his trustworthy judgment on a wide range of other literary matters, he felt so strongly about this; to ask where he derived this opinion, rather than to dismiss it out of hand by infantilizing him.

2) I don't know who this Michael Wood geezer is, but I know this much: he knows absolutely nothing about what Marvin Mudrick had or didn't have, if that's all he saw in Mudrick's work. I mean, what does Wood have? I came across a wonderful word for what Wood did here: "shame-dumping." You can just sort of picture him dusting off his fingers, can't you? Having had to touch that unpatrician smart-mouthed vulgarian in order to put him firmly in his place.

3) There is such a thing as consensus opinion about literature. But interesting and real literary experience begins to happen right at the point where consensus has nothing further to tell you. I pick up a book, let's say, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. And I try to read it for the first time and it's hard and kind of boring. But I am aware that long-established and repeatedly proven public opinion
has great regard for this book, and that makes me think that therefore I ought to be careful when I make my judgment. Because the judgment of several generations has some weight. I am possibly ignorant in a lot of ways, my judgment is superficial. So even though my own experience has not been all that satisfactory I am willing to defer to established opnion and give it another go. There's a good chance a lot of people know better how to read this than I do. And maybe six months later I'm going trip somewhere and I throw it in the suitcase and this time I'm totally fascinated; I devour it. This is the beginning of my relationship with this book. And every couple of years or so I read it again and I get something different out of it each time, and I think it's great and that people don't really appreciate how great it is because it is so forbidding at first glance and it makes special demands on the reader. This is a complicated and nuanced relationship I have with this
book and it has nothing to do with public opinion. I've made my own opinion out of this relationship and I've worked really hard for it, with passion. This, incidentally, is a fair description of my real personal relationship with Clarissa, which I read every two years, give or take a couple months. So if someone makes a sort of normative statement that I am somehow out of order in my enthusiasm for Clarissa I just think that there is a certain point in literary experience where that sort of normative standard is just irrelevant. ("Who are you to presume..." standards.) Or else why would you read? If I want people to boss me around I stop reading and go to the office or a baby shower or get another boyfriend or something. (My idea of hell would be a baby shower that never ended, with maybe a musical Christmas tree thrown in.)

My experience is not unintelligible or incommunicable. There's a difference between a judgment that comes out of the real experience of a work of art and the judgment as to what sort of opinion conforms to some conventional standard of opinion-having. And it's interesting to explore this area of difference. It's a real subject.

You won't make any enemies standing up for Shakespeare. Moreover, awkward people like Marvin who put you in the position of defending their indefensible opinions -- it's so much easier to just dismiss them.

That's the way of the world. Mudrick on the other hand thought that if everybody could speak freely without having their personal status and essential moral character impugned for what they said, then you might hear something true that you had never heard before. The free flow of ideas depends on being able to freely make risky statements that can be freely picked apart, vigorously criticized and vigorously defended, and it should be fun. And in literature if you can't do this there is simply nothing to discuss. Nothing at all.

Public consensus will guide you to a work but, it will not guide you through it. Because like most received ideas it's just not that consciously thought out. I mean, what really is the value of
someone's opinion of Shakespeare if the last time they read it was in second-year college English, 12 years ago? We grow and change, we have to keep those experiences fresh so that our judgment is accurate. So sometimes public opinion hits a lucky number and it's right, and sometimes it's dead wrong (not taking Mozart seriously for about 200 years for example) and sometimes it just has nothing to say. And in any event everybody's own personal relationship to "conventional wisdom" if you like is equivocal and fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. Which is, you know, interesting, and a frequent subject of literature.

You don't read Shakespeare to experience public opinion of Shakespeare, you read it to find out your own. I mean, if you read it to experience what other people think of it you'll be bored and you'll be a bore too. And I know, I know, lots of people do that. But you don't have to.

And on this distinction Marvin Mudrick was absolutely serious. This was one where he did not play, and as I said, the risk and the cost were borne by him alone. It was an important piece of his whole approach to literature. Because once you could ascertain that, once you learned to compare your unexamined opinions with the evidence, you might begin to pick up a few things you never knew before, you might see things that were right in front of you that you never noticed or thought were important. Life got a whole lot more interesting. Which is sort of the point of literature, to give you a more interesting and revealing and rich theory of life and experience (including literature and music, yes) than the half-baked notions we walk about with unthinking. And it's unfortunate that so many people know Mudrick for being nothing but a smart-mouthed attack dog when his main driving motivation, just as evident in every single piece that he wrote, is somehow unknown.

See? I know I'm being sort of unhip and uncool here. I bring up this ancient history and go on and on about it so earnestly, not taking my tone from my surroundings etc. But I think that Marvin Mudrick's reputation has suffered because of reactions like these, and his major contribution to a viable ethics of literary study -- well, people have missed it, they have no clue. I don't know about anybody else but I get so bored and depressed when I get in amongst a crowd of people who can't bear for me to speak the truth of my mind, or who simply never get far enough into a subject so that it begins to yield some insight. Where people feel free to pursue an idea through changes, where they can kick the tires on an opinion, where you talk because you have something to say and you're excited about it, well, it's exhilarating and there's no comparison between that and knowing that you have managed to please some status-loaded bore by saying nothing but saying it in just the right tone and without ever laughing at your own jokes, even if you are the funniest person in the room. We have to eat, and that means you have to traffic with the traffickers in radioactive poo. But you don't give it head room. "You must clear your mind of cant," said Samuel Johnson. If you don't you feel weak and cheap and poor. So that's why I've gone on and on about this.

There's a punchline to this little bit of pleading, but I'm going to impose on my small but select readers and anyone who has gotten this far, to just do without that punchline for a day. Feel free to comment meantime. The punchline will appear here sometime tomorrow. I hope you'll stop by to see it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Silliest Man in New York

Wolcott reviews Adam Gopnik's latest book in TNR. Wolcott isn't Marvin Mudrick, but he remembers him fondly.

Gopnik's writing about art in the New Yorker in the 1990s had an almost emetic effect on the boyfriend I was living with at the time. Each week the New Yorker would arrive, I'd devour it almost from cover to cover, and S. would browse it, and when he came across the latest bit of Gopnik he would break out swearing. He would read each Gopnik piece, I suppose with the same sort of curiosity that makes you open that plastic container that's been in the back of the fridge for three months. And the effect, as I say, was similar. S., for one thing, was an artist who had grown up in New York when it was a place where artists really lived and worked. His parents were both artists, and many of their friends were as well. S. went to Dalton when it was still a school for artists' kids, and he grew up, well, among some of the people that Gopnik wrote about. S. didn't live in New York any more, he lived in Southern California, but he still had a sort of proprietary air about these subjects, the way you would feel about your childhood memories.

My reaction was less extreme. I just found that I didn't want to believe a word Gopnik wrote. His facts were, of course, all right; it was his prose, his tone, his designs on the reader The effect of his prose on me was like shaking hands with someone who has an extremely wet and clammy handshake. You just want your hand back, asap. I would get through a Gopnik piece, just barely, and feel I had been slightly cheated out of something. What I was cheated out of was the experience of whatever Gopnik was talking about. Obviously if I read an article about painting I don't necessarily feel cheated out of the experiece of seeing the painting. When I read Robert Hughes, for example, I get motivated to go see paintings or see them again because in some way he is really offering the experience to the reader, generously. Even when I don't agree with his judgments I can feel that at least he isn't getting in the way, just giving me something to think about when I do go and look.

Gopnik's writing has the completely opposite effect. He manages somehow to distill experience down to pure vanity, A sort of whimsical gushy breathless arch sentimental earnest and deeply solipsistic vanity: it is epidemic to the higher reaches of the magazine business, and it's part of the New Yorker brand, gently satirized in its mascot, Eustace Tilley (the fellow with the top hat and the pince-nez). But it is now epidemic as a sort of stance, a pose, an entitlement of the arriviste. It is the pose you assume when you have achieved a comfortable niche in the mountain of radioactive poo: "OK you are now allowed to be interesting. But you will be interesting in just this exact same way as all the rest of us."

My brief exposure to this sort of thing in the real world made me feel depressed. But it seems to make Gopnik euphoric. It's like he has persuaded himself that he was born a New Yorker New Yorker, that fictional creature.

A careerist with delicate antennae, he wants to be encouraged, petted, praised, promoted, and congratulated. (In Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, Renata Adler memorably encapsulated his modus operandi: "I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do.")

And you should read Renata Adler's book on the New Yorker.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Chekhov Anecdote

Bob sent me this anecdote from Ivan Bunin's "Memoirs and Portraits."

"Do you know what happened to me once?" And, peering into my face through his pince-nez, he [Chekhov] burst out laughing. "You see, I was going up the main stairs of the Moscow Assembly of the Nobility, and there, in front of the mirror, his back to me, stood Uzhin-Sumbatov, holding Potapenko by a coat button and saying insistently: 'Do understand--you are now the first, the very first writer in Russia.' Suddenly he caught sight of me in the mirror, blushed and said quickly, pointing at me over his shoulder: 'And so is he.'"

Update:Fixed those pesky line breaks.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Lucky and the Less Lucky

You may recall last May I blogged a story about a boat that was found adrift off the coast of Barbados with 11 dead Senegalese aboard. They had died on board after their engine failed and drifted all the way across the Atlantic. One of them wrote a letter. His body was sent back to Senegal. In the meantime none of the others have been identified. But the government of Barbados has done a beautiful thing.

After attempting to determine the men's identities using DNA sampling, the governments of Barbados and Senegal agreed to have the men buried here, said Cheryl Corbin, director of the Forensic Sciences Centre.

"The government of Barbados is very respectful of humanity and it did not make a difference where they would have come from," she said. "We were not going to bury them in a mass grave."

The remains of the 11th man were returned to Senegal two weeks ago, Corbin said. That man had left a farewell note that identified him and said that his family was in Senegal.

Each of the 10 men was buried with a stainless steel identification plate strapped to his body, and the precise location of each grave was recorded in case it's necessary to exhume them as part of the investigation of their identity.

Meanwhile in the course of work today I came across this press release from the U.S. Coast Guard. A merchant ship rescued 14 Senegalese sailors from a 60-foot catamaran 800 miles off Cape Cod. Well, who sails from Senegal to Cape Cod in the winter (against the prevailing wind, by the way) in an 60-foot catamaran? What a fearsome thing it must have been for them to set out in this little boat.

Human smuggling and human trafficking are increasing in the Caribbean. Before 9/11 some Caribbean countries (Grenada and Dominica) had arrangements whereby any citizen of those countries qualified for residency in Canada. These countries are poor, and like a couple other Eastern Caribbean countries they sell residency and citizenship. So there was a sort of trade in immigrants, many of them from China, who would buy citizenship for as long as it took to be able to move on to Canada. Well that ended after the terror attacks for obvious reasons. You can still buy citizenship there, and there is a whole new small wave of Chinese people in the region. But not all of those who arrive can buy citizenship or even particularly want it: they are in transit. They, like the Haitians and Dominicans, want to get to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands or to St. Maarten. And every year Dominicans and Haitians die on the seas trying to migrate.

St. Maarten is one of the two big shopping centers in the Eastern Caribbean; the second is Puerto Rico. St. Maarten is a duty-free port so they get all the cruise ship traffic and it's the ideal place for a lot of cruise ship passengers. I mean, you get off the ship right in front of the clean little picturesque downtown strip, Front Street, that is lined solidly from one end to the other with jewelry stores, Dutch souvenir stops (Delft doodads up the yin yang), electronic equipment stores, brand name designer boutiques, T-shirt shops, art galleries, the usual upmarket tourist trap tat with one or two truly fabulous things -- my favorite being the store that sells genuine Panama hats and only genuine Panama hats. All your favorite fast food places are there, so you can waddle off the ship where you've been eating since you embarked in Florida, across the pristine white sand beach, and a block or two away there's a Burger King and how long has it been since you had one of those? The three other streets that are beyond Front Street have more and cheaper shopping, with a big open-air market where you can buy all those tropical things so indispensable in the islands, the sarongs, wrap-around skirts, loud shirts and carvings and cheap knicknacks all, all, all, made in China. And of course restaurants and bars. Lots of those. Outside of Philipsburg on the Dutch side, over the hill, there's a big yachting marina that is the other center for the big private yacht industry (trading, cruising, chartering, having a crew just sort of sail it up and down just waiting for you to tell them where to meet you -- St. Barth's is of course the big one). And there are casinos. Also, the island's duty-free status makes it a shopping hub for people down-island (from other islands) as well. People come from Nevis or Antigua to buy cheap Chinese goods which they will sell in their own stores at home.

St. Maarten is where you go if there's something you can't find on the island you live on -- need a dog crate? Watercolor paper? Camera accessories? If you can't get it in St. Maarten your next stop is San Juan. So the stores there flourish because they serve the tourists, the local, and the regional markets. The Daily Herald is not only the best paper covering the Leeward Islands, it also prints many of its competitors in neighboring islands.

This clever little economy also gets a boost, probably, from being a transshipment point for cocaine (all the big cocaine hauls in the Caribbean and almost all the drug drama outside of Jamaica have occurred in the Netherlands Antilles -- Aruba and Curacao were overrun by Colombians a few years ago). I don't mean that the money laundering is probable; I mean I'm only guessing that it benefits the economy. In some ways it has harmed it, driving Front Street shop rents out of reach of most natives. But with all of that and considering how developed it is St. Maarten is pretty nice. Goods are cheap and plentiful, and people make enough money at their jobs in the hotels and casinos and stores to be able to buy them. It is a very civilized and prosperous place, clean, thriving, tolerant (by Caribbean standards), pleasant, and cosmopolitan. I actually considered moving there from Nevis, before I decided to come back to the States.

It is half French (St. Martin) and half Dutch (Sint Maarten) though to all intents and purposes the Dutch part is now independent. The island is really small. It has a total of about 38 square miles, and you travel perfectly freely between the two jurisdictions, with no currency difficulties -- prices are in euros and US dollars everywhere.

So I suppose it's no surprise that such a prosperous and busy and yet casual place should be a magnet for human smuggling. Do consider the size of the place when you drop in at this blog that covers, among other local matters, human smuggling just in St. Maarten.

The island's Ministry of Justice estimates that 20,000 of the 50,000 island residents are illegal immigrants. That's two out of five. But it's quite possible that without them the economy would not prosper nearly so well. It really helps, for example, in a place that gets a lot of European travelers, to have people in your hotels and casinos and stores who are native speakers of French, Dutch, Spanish, and English, and any educated down-islander will have one of these languages. The immigrants who manage to get into the economy get good wages and can buy things, so they are buyers too. There's still concern, as can be seen from some of the articles on that blog.

You really couldn't hide a half-dozen Haitians in St. Kitts, which is much more sparsely populated for its size, and where everybody knows everybody and foreigners are regarded with -- hmmm I can't think of a nice kind word for it. But in St. Maarten, where a sizeable portion of the population is from all over the Caribbean, it's a lot easier to just sort of blend in. Also, if you speak French Creole or Spanish it will be less conspicuous in St. Maarten where all the Caribbean languages and dialects are heard all over the place.

From St. Maarten it's only a short sail to the U.S.V.I. But the smugglers sometimes don't even bother to take the immigrants that far. Going into US territorial waters puts you at the risk of an unpleasant encounter with the U.S. Coast Guard and why take on that trouble when your passengers have already paid you? So some of them will sort of head out to sea, sail around and around a bit, and drop everybody back in St. Maarten again. This is not the worst of all the things that can befall the people in these boats.

It's good to remember that this traffic goes on all the time; every day, someone is out on the sea trying to get to a better life. You have to be pretty desperate to do it this way, because it's danger and hardship and the possibility of not ending up anywhere near where you were intending to go; you could find yourself in some place where you didn't have a plan or an idea or a vision of what would happen next.

Like those Chinese people who ended up in Dominica in 2003. There is (or was) a pretty steady human smuggling operation that transshipped people through Dominica, and the Dominican authorities just didn't have the resources to deal. These Chinese people, 21 of them, were arrested there. Well, Dominica is a very poor country, and they didn't have the money to send them all home. It was also too expensive to keep them in jail, eating up the national budget. I think they worked out a deal where they could stay in a hotel for a while, but that got too expensive too, so while these folks waited for their relatives back in China to scrape the money together for them to get out of Dominica they just wandered about the place. Truly marooned.

I don't know why I'm thinking about this. I would like to have written these stories. That's about the size of it really.