gall and gumption

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Easy on the Eye

Check out this Sickert painting at wood s lot. I am mad about the color, even in this little pokey onscreen version. That ex-coronoer who writes murder mysteries with spies in them, Patricia Cornwell, wrote a nonfiction book purporting to prove that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. I actually read that dreadful book in Nevis. When you're on a desert island you can't be choosy.

Also if you scroll down the same page a bit you will see a links to a couple of other interesting things among the usual blither. (It is ever thus with them, so much of the sort of thing where you imagine some mousy little person mumbling it to an audience of academics, and everyone else in the room is successfully pretending to be enjoying it (believing it too!) and thinking it fascinating -- so subversive! -- or something and I'm the one who is sitting over to one side with my head nodding forward, asleep and unaware that I am drooling.) Oh, you think I'm bitter because I don't have an LTBP*, don't you? Well, you're wrong.

Pass over them to the essay by Clive Wilmer on Ted Hughes and translation. He's a good poet, nice man, too, as some of you may vaguely recall, who actually, you know, thinks when he writes.

The New Yorker has online a reminiscence by Gunter Grass, about his spell in the Waffen SS as a teenager. There was a little flurry of scandal about this some months ago.

*License To Be Precious, for the noncognoscenti.

...But You Never Think It Will Happen To You

Received an email from a dear friend via my J-school class mailing list, and wrote him the usual personal reply, if anything a bit more personal than usual, given that we usually discuss figures of speech in English (he's Japanese and sort of collects them and I explain them). Hit the "Send" button and when I checked my mail a little later, my message was in my mailbox, which is when I realized that I had sent it out to the entire class -- or at least the diehards who are still on it.

Worst of all I signed myself off "your blinky lighthouse" -- reference to a an old private running joke between us.

Update: It could have been worse. Much worse. Thank you, reader L 7.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Spare a Good Wish for Mr. Stanley

NIA denounces shooting incident

The following is the full text of a statement by Acting Premier of Nevis the Hon. Robelto Hector on the occasion of a shooting incident in Church Ground.

On behalf of The Nevis Island Administration, I wish to express words of comfort to the family of prominent business man and social commentator Mr. Edric W. Stanley, who sustained multiple gunshot wounds in an apparent robbery attempt about 1a.m. on Wednesday May 30, 2007.

The Administration wishes to place on record its strongest condemnation of this vicious act of violence. The incident will only strengthen our resolve, as we continue to give our fullest support to the police in their crime fighting efforts.

These types of criminal activity threaten the very fabric of our peaceful and loving society in Nevis and we will not rest in our endeavour to ensure that Nevis continues to enjoy the tranquillity it is reputed for.

I want to take this opportunity to appeal to members of the public to assist the police in any way necessary so that there can be a speedy resolve to this matter and the perpetrator/ s be brought to justice.

Mr. Stanley is kind to dogs. He owns a gas station and grocery store all in one and works the register himself always in a clean white shirt and tie. He is the great friend of my former colleague Mr. Bramble, whom I love. He is respected for his shrewdness, independence and fair dealing in business, and for his opinions. He has lots of opinions. When Mr. Bramble owned the Leewards Times he would put Mr. Stanley's opinions on the front page of the paper every few weeks. If, with his limited means, he couldn't get enough news together to fill a paper, then there was always the latest conversation with Mr. Stanley to report. And there was always a latest conversation with Mr. Stanley.

What a terrible thing.

Update: Now it's being reported on the SKN list that the person who did the shooting is the one who was accused and acquitted of killing that Englishman, Tony Fetherston, seven years ago.

On Walking Away

I had been laid off my second tech writing job in March 2002. They shut down the whole development department of this small company, stopped funding it, laid everybody off. Exactly one week later my dog Linus died. That was one of those moments when life divides itself, as if a great river suddenly sundered the land into two shores, the Linus period of life on one side and the non-Linus period of life on the other. I wasn’t unprepared for it, as he was almost sixteen and had been failing. But for three weeks I really did almost nothing but mourn. And then I wrote him a love letter, a thank-you letter, a letter promising that I would never forget him. He was only a dog, he couldn’t read, he certainly couldn’t read when he was dead. But I couldn’t resume writing just as if nothing had happened. So I bought a new journal, and started it with that love letter to my old dog, and then I could go on writing.

It was some time after that that I had the first round, so to speak, with the ex. It didn’t work out, the sting of rejection occurred, and I was very hurt, but I was on my way away. So I was counting the days, packing, saying my goodbyes. I did have some
experience with “away.” I had tried it out on smaller occasions but never really thought about it. Like years before, during a particularly painful period in a long-term relationship I was in in grad school, I just drove away without telling anybody where I was going. I mean, instead of waiting around and being anxious for him to resolve the situation, as I had been doing for weeks, I just packed a bag, bought a
big bag of fresh English peas, drove up to a motel in Solvang for the night, turned on the TV, and caught up on weeks of overdue Russian homework assignments and then kept going, munching on raw peas, very fresh and sweet they were. Had breakfast alone with a book, went for a drive around the Santa Ynez Valley, and got home late in the afternoon. I felt no hurry to get back, for all that I had been so weepy and preoccupied for so long.

In those weeks before I moved to St. Kitts, clearing out my apartment, I was hardly eating anything, drinking way too much coffee, had the shakes etc. and still grieving the loss of my old dog, and, besides, the sting of rejection taking up all the space in my brain that was left over, I used to listen over and over again to this one song. I have a recording of it sung by these old Cuban ladies, Las Faez. They must have been in their seventies when they recorded it, two sisters, who sing these songs with their creaky but confident voices as if they have never forgotten what it was like to be just sick with longing, to feel that it takes over your whole life and leaves you empty. The song is by Felix Luna and Ariel Ramirez, it’s called Alfonsina y el Mar", and it’s based on the true story of a poet, Alfonsina Storni, who walked into the sea and never came back.

Along the pale sand washed by the sea
Her small footstep no longer returns.
A solitary track of pain and silence arrived
At the deep water
A solitary track of mute grief arrived
At the foam

God knows what agony accompanied her
What ancient pains silenced her voice
So that she would stretch out, lulled to sleep
By the song of the sea-conch;
The song that in the dark depths of the sea
The sea-conch sings.

You go, Alfonsina, with your solitude.
What new poems did you go to seek?
An ancient voice of wind and salt
Has taken hold of your soul
And is carrying you, away, away,
As in a dream, asleep, Alfonsina,
Dressed of the sea.

Five little mermaids take you
Through streets of seaweed and coral
And phosphorescent sea horses will dance
A rondo at your side
And the creatures of the water are going to play
around you.

Lower the lamp a little more
Let me sleep, nurse, in peace.
And if he comes, don’t tell him I’m here,
Tell him Alfonsina will not return;
If he calls, never tell him I’m here.
Say that I’ve gone away.

(Rough translation by yo si misma.)

Well, I didn’t want to walk away into the sea and not come back, but I did want to walk away and take my time coming back, come back with something I had claimed for myself, just experience, experience I could have without waiting for someone to give me permission, without waiting for someone to give me a piece of their experience after they took the first bite. (e.g., the boyfriend who surfed, while I sat on the beach) And I went to St. Kitts and I did that.

To have things of my own: it seems huge. A few days ago I was listening to this old John Prine song that has a line about a place “where the air smelled like snakes,” a phrase I like. And then yesterday I took Sweetie for a walk along Little Seneca Creek and we stopped at an even littler creek where there’s a place where she likes to get her feet wet. The deer cross there. There was some sort of webbing along the side, recently put in, to prevent erosion I suppose, and she stepped onto this in her tentative, dainty way, ears up, sniffing warily and then it was like she had hit a wall. Something she smelled made her rear back and back away up the bank, where she stood, peering over the edge, looking alarmed and disgusted. Well that’s about when I noticed the discarded snakeskin in the water, and I noticed the smell all around us, and I knew, right away, that that was the smell of snakes.

Now, if you hear that you might think, "Big deal!" But I had only read in books about those snaky places. It’s like having an idea that changes from interesting language to interesting experience, mine in my own words. And so I have this draw to the experience of “away.” It didn’t have to be the sea but I was always at home in the Caribbean sea. So the sea had that draw. When I swam along the reef there was usually nobody else out there. It wasn’t very deep, I doubt it was much more than 20 or 30 feet at the deepest points.

It used to happen in Brooklyn when I walked there with Linus, the strangest things would prompt it. Like coming round a corner in the last ungentrified bit (watch out! Black people) near where I lived, and a little storefront church was holding a service or celebration in the middle of the street. They had moved the pews and a sound system into the street and these gospel musicians were rocking the block. People were dancing. Or one night when I was walking around the jail and the whole place erupted in a great chorus of roars and shouting; they were watching the Yankees in there. I mean these things would happen and give me this sense of the world being blessed, at least for the duration of the walk. I had seen it, for a few minutes, it was out there. I felt it very strongly in Brooklyn as if its human landscape was, for me, beyond my imagination the way the sea was. I feel that way walking Fulton Market, or looking in the windows of the cheap department stores and seeing all those things. Oakland, CA, makes me feel that way too.

Sunday afternoons when we’d take those long walks together, me and Linus, the afternoon light would move me, the whole place seemed suffused with this romantic glow. I felt it again in this last weekend, when I took a cab home from the play and had it drop me a little short of my destination so I could walk. Once upon a time this would have frightened me, to be walking in a strange place in the middle of the night. But people were out, it was busy, it all seemed so rich.

More and more, I see what I want. It isn’t a thing or a place. It’s a state. It’s really a state of being in love, but with being. (Don’t let the Christianity frighten you, just pay attention to his feelings.)

After this my sense of divine things
gradually increased, and became more and more lively,
and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance
of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it
were, a calm sweet cast, or appearance of divine
glory, in almost every thing. God's excellency, his
wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every
thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and
blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water,
and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I
often used to sit and view the moon for continuance;
and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds
and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these
things; in the mean time, singing forth, with a low
voice my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.
And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature,
was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly,
nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to
be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck
with terror when I saw a thunder storm rising; but
now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so
to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm;
and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to
fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the
lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice
of God's thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly
entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my
great and glorious God.

And of course no one can give that to you, you have to seek it for yourself. I had to learn this. And of course “knowing about it” is not the same as “having achieved it.” I don’t stay in such a state all the time, but I try to at least make it the context of feeling. The sanity clause, what I’m after. I have
these images of happiness and peace, these experiences, they seem like a kind of impersonal glory. I like that it’s impersonal, though I suppose that's all in my head.

At work today I was having lunch with this guy named John, and I mentioned buying books for my niece, who was just finishing up the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For her birthday last week I bought her a copy of David Copperfield and three P.G. Wodehouse novels. She’s 10. She can totally handle these. I explained my choice. “I’ve got one brother, the ostensibly sane one, a grown man, a navy flight instructor, who reads those ‘tits and swords’* novels, and I wanted her to find out about this other stuff. I said to John, “How do they do it? How do they turn out just such reams of that stuff? Why can’t I turn out reams of anything?” I added, “I suppose they just live there.” John thought about this for a minute and suggested that anybody who wrote a work of fiction had to live there. John is very just, not like me. He was right. I myself would not choose to live (or spend 10 minutes) in a place where people spoke the dialogue you get in those books. It makes me think of people who say things like "The Renaissance Faire – it’s gone totally commercial now…" But I’m trying to live somewhere in my head too. I’m “working on a building” as the gospel song says, and though it isn’t the building in the song, mine is beautiful, and it is made of real places and real things. I look out through the windows and see infinity, on especially clear days.

And of course no one can give that to you, you have to seek it for yourself. I had to learn this, it’s basically part B of the project, learning that I can do it for myself. I used to have trouble distinguishing this longing to be in love with being from my feeling about the men I fell in love with and that I think is why when I fell, I fell so hard. It’s reasonable, really; those two longings are twins.

P.S. I am not actually that fat.

*phrase possibly stolen from someone over here and then mangled.

Item #138.1

Now I'm back at the Big Swanky Science Institution and getting used to the toilets again. They do not have handles for flushing. They have some sort of electric "eye" which it took me almost half the length of my assignment here last year to get used to and now I have to start all over again. You get up, you see, in that dreamy absentminded state that settles over one in such places and as you are reassembling yourself you hear behind you -- rather low behind you -- a noise that sounds like a cross between a slow camera shutter and a really pissed-off small rodent. Then there's a moment of silence in which you feel like a complete idiot for starting in alarm, and the toilet flushes itself. As I leave, I tell myself to remember that noise the next time. But somehow I don't. It's like a toilet that jeers at you.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Braver Than Me

No, it's worse than that. I mean, maybe a life without all that excitement isn't much to look at. But I really have had enough of the pain. I can remember it, I can remember feeling like I was carrying an extra 80 pounds of something on my back, I can remember being sick with anxiety, losing weight, getting the shakes, the pit-of-the-stomach, the self-consciousness, the worry what if he doesn't like me? what if he thinks I'm weird? why doesn't he call? he thinks I'm weird, he doesn't like me... the excitement (all your silly hopes bouncing off the ceiling again) when the call comes and the gradual subsidence of that short-lived excitement to the monstrosity your normal life seems to have become -- when you do not know how to be inside your own skin. And all of this he must not be allowed to know, really you're quite normal. And then when, inevitably, the end comes, you are totally helpless and there's that pain.

When I broke up with the last one I had to make myself walk away. I was no longer in love with him, but I had to force myself to understand that there was no one there for me to be friends with, I had to give up trying to make him understand why I was angry. The anger was painful, and the forcing myself to abide by this and to forbid further communication was painful. But I did it. And the pain stopped. First time in my life I ever did that. This is the great lesson for me: walking away. Well, and so what if those two people sitting in the train are holding hands? Let them! With my blessings! I am walking away! I am seeing how far I can go. Away. If you just walk far enough away you get to some other interesting place in the universe. You just have to walk (or swim) right out of your own head. In St. Kitts I would swim, the reef was close in to shore and on the far side the water was deep, I could see the big parrot fish swimming among the rocks. I might have arrived at the beach with the spasms of anxiety wrenching my guts, but as I moved out into the water it stopped, and I'd just go along slowly, not really wanting to reach the point where I'd have to get out of the water, slower, slower, just putting off going back.

Well, so I'm here now, very far from the beach or the reef, and I'm still basically walking away. Into my own personal unknown, sending back descriptions of the flora and fauna.


Technorati Profile

Monday, May 28, 2007

I Could Write a Book

Discussed relationships with a friend who is recovering from "the sting of rejection" -- rejection by a guy she didn't like in the first place -- and who is warily eying another dating prospect who is going to some pains to make a rendezvous.

I'm two years out from any relationship-type business. I feel like the pleasure of my own company is my own personal New Found Land, and I still remember driving towards that land, so to speak, and feeling thrilled, in California back when I got out of the last one. I used to feel that happy when I was driving to the airport to pick up whoever I was madly in love with at the time, that happy anticipation.

Now my theory is that all the things that make you able to live with yourself make it hard for you to live with other people. Like falling asleep every night with books all over the bed and the light on. Or having dog toys all over the living room. Or letting the dog sleep on the bed at nights. "Beats sharing the bed with women!" says one jaded male friend.

Well, wait, no, I tell a lie. There was this one guy I met at a party just before the Big Breakup. He somehow got hold of my email address from a friend who was there and we began a correspondence, he was very sincere. And also he was living with a girlfriend, they'd been together 18 years, and she didn't understand him, he told me quite early on in this correspondence. and that he was confident I understood him. I was not sure I understood him at that point, but I felt quite confident his girlfriend did. But his emails were long and often amusing and he was a creative person (musician) and he was, like me, dissatisfied with his life. But while he had persuaded himself that I was going to be the catalyst for some amazing change in his life (based on having seen me once) I just was glad to have someone to write funny letters and whine to. And I ignored all this other business as just something he told himself to have an interesting life. We communicated for months, right through the breakup, during which he was sympathetic and kind. But he was also a bit of a narcissist, subtly, intelligently. And maybe that's why I was unable to take him completely seriously, and was just glad that he lived a good five-hour drive away and never seemed to go anywhere.

Anyway during one of these email exchanges I introduced him to the idea of "The Posse." The Posse, I explained, was this group of men who I sort of had in my life all at the same time and all of them together almost up to something more than a boyfriend. Most of them didn't know each other. There were about six or eight of them at one time. There was the one I talked books and writing with (actually there were a couple of those), there was the one who was richer than god and I wrote him funny letters and he told me "Dog Walks Into Bar" jokes, there was the one who was gay who I went out with every Friday night and sometimes even more on the weekend. We'd go bar-hopping in San Francisco, and I'd catch the last BART train home and he would go out looking for adventures, and the one who no matter how horrible things felt or actually got I could talk to him. So I said, in this email, describing the posse, "Wouldn't it be great it you joined the posse?"

Never heard from him again. To this day I don't quite understand it.

I haven't really wished for a boyfriend just to have a boyfriend. At least not since high school anyway, then it was a chronic (and unfulfilled) wish. I only like the people I like. I'm terrible at wishing such things into existence, though I did get all the way to St. Kitts using the mystic power of Small Plastic Farm Animals. Occasionally I think I wouldn't mind whatever would evolve out of a long slow period of wary cirling at a safe distance and somehow if the anxiety stage could be bypassed altogether, and a long list of similear self-serving qualifications, to the part where the getting on of the nerves and the hurting of the feelings don't occur.

For every one time I feel the slightest faintest pang of that sort, though, I have already been through three pangs for access to an academic library (or at least a library that professional lit majors could use), and to the remaining half of my book collection, still in storage in California. That's what would make me feel whole right now, and in the absence of a solution, especially on the recent nights of the past few weeks when I stare helplessly into the notebooks and write almost nothing, I have little bouts of slight panic.

So I've been following Tom's discussion of the availability of academic journals on the Internet. Pangs and suspicious! How about the one where everyone who isn't getting paid for the brain work that they do must be a deluded pathetic wanker? What could sad freaks like us possibly want to read scholarly articles for?

Status in a democracy is radioactive poo. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It's like its own all-pervading, portable think tank, propping up a lot of weak and venal minds. Not propping them up socially, though I suppose it does that (and you know what? knock thyself out, enjoy it) but it's like it supplies so much of what passes in people's minds for thinking in intellectual and aesthetic matters, and I really do hate this like poison. It is the enemy, the corrupter of judgment.

New York Fantasy (Not that Kind)

I met my first blogger while I was there too. I mean, obviously I know people who blog but this was the first time I met someone because they had a blog. Well, not only was this a thoroughly pleasant and stimulating conversation but it took place in Brooklyn, in the very streets where the late departed and still lamented Linus and I used to walk. I loved walking those streets with Linus, back in the day. But this time, in addition to walking with the actual human blogger, I sat on a stoop. I have always wanted to sit on a stoop.

I stayed with my friend Mark even further out in Brooklyn, where he was housesitting for some old
friends. We sat in the garden and smoked and drank coffee and harrumphed about things together happily for hours, out of that strange inertia that happens on holidays when you know you need to get moving but you can't, it is too pleasant not to move, even when other pleasures are the reason you have to move.

Why did I ever leave Brooklyn? Remember that Gershwin song, “We’ll take Manhattan?” Well, they can take it and keep it. I have many favorite things about Brooklyn and one of them is how when I come out of the subway onto the street in a strange neighborhood I don’t know what country I’ll find myself in.

I used to have this fantasy when I lived in New York of just taking photos of bodega windows, the way they have all the laundry soap and the brightly colored cans of stuff stacked up so neatly, I loved looking at those patterns. I didn't happen to have a camera then and I didn't think I could be trusted to use one. I take a lousy picture in both senses of the word. This
trip I didn't see any bodegas but there were no end of marvels. Walking to the subway to meet Mary with all my luggage I couldn't let this window get away from me. Another instance of where sometimes you get more than what you remember. I've added to my fantasy of photographing bodegas the fantasy of adding the department store windows, the places where people shop for the necessities of life (plastic kitchen containers, cheap sheets, baby things, hair bobbles,
boxer shorts, ruffly lacy little girls' dresses, and mysterious gift sets). I don't know why, but I find it touching. My heart is there, somehow.

And later, all I could think about as I walked through SoHo was getting out of it as quickly as possible. I have friends who are artists who live in lofts in SoHo and TriBeca. It must be like waking up one day and finding yourself living above the mall. Not the Fulton Mall but some mall in maybe Gaithersburg or Northern Virginia or the San Fernando Valley. With eleventy-gazillion tourists.

Canal Street reminded me of my third New York Fantasy: starting at one end of Canal Street to the other, and arriving at the other end with a complete outfit, every article of clothing -- including socks and underwear -- and every accessory (watch, fountain pen, the works) a fake, preferably transparently fake.


It’s really hard to say anything helpful about a play written by your own mother so I won’t even try. I did have moments when I felt like one of the two characters was channeling her voice and that was strange. See? Right there is why I have nothing intelligent to say about it. I haven't put the title up, you can write me if you want it, but last night was the last night, though they're trying to set up a few more performances.

It was in a nightclub, basically, which the Jamaican owner gave over to the production and its small audience of mostly West Indians, whose reaction to drama probably keeps a lot of their acting compatriots in business and jazzed up. They are such a fun audience to play to. They talk back, they get into it as if the story is a real scandal occurring right before their eyes. They have complicated feelings about their own life experience (so do we all, I know) but one of the ways they get access to their own experience is through drama, because they identify so keenly with any story acted on a stage. They react as if they are on the stage with the characters, or as if they are overhearing an actual conversation in which they have a personal interest. Because they feel it all intensely, it’s really magical for them, they are not jaded about it. You hear people muttering all the familiar exclamations you hear in conversation – disbelief, scorn, derision, indignation, and this certain laugh they do with a long tail at the end, when truth has been revealed at the cost of someone’s pretensions. They do it with plays, they do it listening to the radio (our last domestic helper in Jamaica, a sweet old lady named Beatrice, used to sit upstairs and listen to her evening soap opera – a local production about the endless trials and tribulations of a young woman named “Dulcimina” – while we were having dinner, and we’d hear her up there, talking back to the radio, “Yes, tell him! De wicked brute,” “But a whey you a say! No! You tellin’ lie! Lick ‘im again!” etc.). But the best thing is this: West Indians love their arts and will happily pay to go see them and enjoy them. One reason the house is so small tonight is that there’s an Oliver Samuels play on in the Bronx, and Oliver, as every Caribbean person calls him, is a huge draw.

That’s why theater thrives in Jamaica, simply. Funny stuff happens as a result: one of the two characters is a woman prison guard, very religious, always quoting the Bible and singing hymns. During the London run, this character was played by a popular Jamaican actress who had had a previous role as a “Boops” girl. To make it clear that she was a Boops girl her nickname was Boops. So there’s this one moment in the play when she’s singing a hymn to herself in a low voice. My mother said that out of the audience a stage whisper was heard: “But wait. Ah no Boops dat?” Trans: Isn’t that Boops?

This audience all sang along, to a pretty little song that the two characters sing. It’s not in the script for them to sing, but they sing because they all know the song, though they probably haven’t heard it for decades. It’s a children’s song that had ceased to be taught in schools before I was born, a little bit of late Victoriana that lingered on. “That’s an old song,” I heard one woman say to herself, when the song was over, and there was a sort of contented murmur of pleasant recollection. If they hadn’t come out they might never have thought of that old song again, but they did, all the words came back. That just seems so nice.

Friday, May 25, 2007


(aka Unable to fall asleep blogging)

I have never stepped foot inside a Hooters till today, because I am increasingly averse to heavily branded things. I place my order, “Just a burger, fries, and a bottled water, quickly, please,” and realize I am in hell. The waitresses all have the same hair style, a sort of pageboy bob, and they are all wearing these tiny little low-cut T-shirts, tight orange shorts and, of all things, gleaming white crew socks and gleaming white sneakers. That’s all right, that’s not the hellish part. The hellish part is realizing that everybody is moving slowly. I don’t know if their apparent speed is a function of my urgent wish to get back and not miss my bus, which is due to arrive round the corner any minute. But they are like zombies. (“What’s your hurry? We've got all the time in the worrrrrld! moohoohoohaahaahaahaahaaaaah!”) and I can’t help it, every few seconds I groan audibly, like the damned. I’m the only customer in the place. Finally the burger arrives and the cashier opens the Styrofoam container to show me that it is, in fact, in there. “He’s just bringing your fries,” she says. “Oh, forget the fries,” I say, and dash out the door. The burger is the size of a dessert plate.

Round the corner the bus has pulled up across the street from the bus office and there is a crowd gathered around the door. The black guy who has been assigning numbers to passengers is holding the door of the bus and calling out numbers. I’m number 66. “Three!” He shouts. There’s no way all these people can fit on this bus. But there’s another one on its way, and if we don’t get on this one we’ll get on the next one. Or maybe not. No one associated with the outfit seems willing to commit himself. Some people bought their tickets online a day or two ahead of time, some bought theirs at the office (with or without reservations), and then there are people like me. I have no ticket or reservation and I couldn’t get the Chinese man in the dingy little basement office to sell me one. “Get back in the line!” he shouted, when I told him I needed a ticket. So I got back in the line. And then I went to Hooter’s to grab a burger, and then I came back. The people around the bus door are muttering and eying one another suspiciously. God help the person who tries to cut ahead is all I can say. I realize pretty early on that I am not going to get on this bus. It fills up at about number 28 and the rest of us all troop back across the street, a whole other bus full of people and then some. Some people have been doing this since 9 a.m. I think my bus was supposed to leave at 11, so I’m not the worst off person here, as it’s only a little after 11 and that bus is the one that just left. A few people get newspapers and spread them on the stops of an old empty row house next to the bus office and sit down. I see, with some regret, that the little scraggly looking red-faced man did not make it onto the other bus. He’s got an enormous floppy backpack, he’s wearing a sun visor, his red hair is stringy and graying. He says something unintelligible and then he goes back to his former place, flopping flat out on his back in the dirt under a tree, raising a great puff of dust, and there he lies, chuckling to himself. The black guy gives out all new numbers – I am now 18 – and assures us that if we don’t have a ticket we will not be able to get on the bus. “Hurry up, go get your ticket,” he says to me. He’s been extra nice to me, letting me go to Hooters and everything. So I obediently rush back to the office. The same Chinese man is at the counter and once again when I tell him I need a ticket he shouts at me to “Get back in the line!” Then he and the other Chinese man, the one talking through the cigarette clenched between his teeth, shout at each other and I can make out the words “Peh an Bass.”

There is a bus that has been loading up to depart for Philadelphia, and apparently to ease this crisis they have suddenly decided to let us board that and have it carry us on to New York. “Have your ticket out for the superintendent,” the black guy says. “If you want this bus to leave soon, have your ticket ready.” I tell him I don’t have a ticket. His eyes bug out, he’s upset and he starts sputtering. “I asked him for one and he said just get on the bus,” I wail at him. So he waves me on.

As I go up the steps I am praying quietly to myself that I don’t end up sitting next to the little scraggly man, who is in front of me. “Please God, I know I am not usually lucky in these matters and I’m not questioning your judgment of my just deserts, I’m sure you know best and I know I’m a pain in the ass and a disappointment in so many ways but if you could give me a break this time, five hours, God! That's all I'm saying, five hours. There are limits, God, even for you.” Five hours. I remember once taking a dance workshop run by Jacques D’amboise and we had to pair up and I ended up with this quietly crazy woman. The scraggly man walks in past a couple of seats, looks down the length of the bus, which is more than half full at this point, and says, “Welcome to America! I believe I’m the only fucking white person on this bus! Except you, and oh, there’s another one! Hello, sir!” I grab a seat next to an older black lady who looks quiet.

She is quiet, bless her heart. She’s from DC, but like a lot of black people in DC, she came here from somewhere south and rural, I hear her speech and I’m sitting on the porch of an unpainted house in Mississsippi somewhere, late afternoon looking across the vegetable garden and the hollyhocks and the sunflowers with the porch-sitters, every 10 minutes or so the long silence breaks when someone says “Mmmmmhm,” in that way that is so loaded and loamy with implication. The one who is saying, “Why, yes, Miz Loubelle, I will have some of that lemonade, thank you. You mean there’s more huckleberry pie, too? Don’t mind if I do.” That would be me. And maybe Mississippi John Hurt arrives in a wagon drawn by two contented mules, asks for a cup of that Maxwell House Cawfee and sets to tuning up his guitar.*

Then there’s another drama. The guy in the very front seat is wearing an extremely silly pair of sunglasses. In fact, they were probably marketed with the word “extreme” somewhere in the whole package. He has commandeered his seat and the seat next to him. He has been here since 9 o’clock, he’s trying to get to Philadelphia (he’s on the actual Philadelphia bus), but the woman he’s traveling with is the one who has the tickets, which he bought days ago. And she isn’t here. People keep getting on the bus. “No reserve seats,” the black guy shouts, “She’s on her way,” Mr. Sunglasses repeats. He’s been saying she’s on her way for half an hour. “You got to have a ticket,” the black guy explains. “She has the tickets. They’re already paid for. She’s on her way.” The black guy says he can’t hold seats and if he doesn’t have a ticket he has to get off the bus. “She’s on her way.” Mr. Sunglasses feels all the injustice of this, as he has reserved tickets, paid for them online, and has been waiting all morning, and they’re telling him to get off the bus? This argument goes on for about ten minutes as people continue to board. And then Mr. Sunglasses makes the mistake of stepping off the bus to see if his friend is coming. “I just spoke to her on the phone, she’s on her way!” The black guy hands him his bag. The rest of us listen as he begs and pleads to be allowed to get back on. “Please, sir, I’m begging, please…” But they don’t. The black guy keeps apologizing, sincerely. “With all due respect, sir,” he says. “The superintendent says no.” The superintendent is the guy who shouts. The one with the cigarette is the driver.
The bus pulls away and half the passengers are peering out the window to see if the friend of Mr. Sunglasses has arrived. We see a woman hurrying up the street carrying bags and we all know it’s her. We’re all dying to see her, and all thinking the same thing (two of my neighbors certainly are – they said as much, something along the lines of, “Well, what did he expect?”) and we’re all probably going to hell for it and I can say from personal experience that I have some idea what it’s like. The superintendent takes a $20 bill from me for my fare (no ticket, no advance reservation, no problem) and when he’s finished collecting tickets and cash he hops off at the next traffic light.

*Woke up from that pleasant idyll to the sound of Miz Loubelle chewing ice. Chewing it, smacking it, slurping it, sucking it, gulping it, shaking another mouthful out of the gigantic paper cup. As I may have said before in these pages, that’s why we have iPods. And that’s why we should make sure we don’t accidentally turn them on while looking for our Metro card and let the battery run all the way down. Anyway that’s why my hair has turned completely white.

Eleventh-Hour Alert

On very short notice I shall be off tomorrow to New York. Gonna go amongst My People, to see a play in Brooklyn. I've looked at the venue on the map and it is apparently in the hub of the West Indian area. It's written by my mother, and this Jamaican woman is staging it. It played in London several years ago to, I must confess, mixed reviews. I haven't seen it so this is my chance. I've got my apprehensions about it, I read an early draft and wanted to get at it with the scissors but everybody in my family is morbidly sensitive about these things except me.

I'm planning to see a couple of people downtownish/Brooklynish, one friend who is getting ready to go teach English in Turkey. And Mary. And whoever else I get hold of. Last time I did this, and, really, whenever I visit New York, I run myself right into the ground. I did that last time and came back to DC utterly knackered. And still missed the Spanish painting show. I've got some slack time and I'm looking for things to do that aren't shopping. Art shows especially.

I'm only going to do one shopping thing, which is try to get over to New York Central Art Supply and look for beautiful paper. I'll probably do the play tomorrow night and spend Sunday mooching about. I should probably stay out of The Strand. I will at least call some of you, you know who you are. If you want to play, and not rely on my less than perfect phone technique, email me ( or post a comment here.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Paint Update

Went out today with a couple of people to Pennyfield Lock. I went to this one a couple of times last year. Last year I saw a raccoon playing in the water all by himself, unaware that he was being watched. Also it's where I sat down on the edge of the canal one day and heard "plop!" and looked and saw a snake swimming away, so I moved away a few feet myself, sat down again and heard "plop!" again and damn if it wasn't another snake. So then I sort of went off the idea of sitting there, for some reason.

Today I painted on the grass, next to the haunted house, looking across the lock itself at the lock house. It was not much of a painting but what a perfect day! Anyway this old couple in very professional-looking riding gear came up the tow path and dropped their bikes just right at the lock, where the grass was green and there's a bit of shade from this fine old tree. They asked if they were in my way and I assured them they weren't. They settled down to have a picnic or something, I don't know, I wasn't studying them, as they say in St. Kitts. Except periodically I would hear these exclamations, just sort of squawks and "oh my god! Look at the size of that one! And there's another one!" coming from the direction of the two cyclists and I became aware that people were stopping to look at something over near where they were sitting. At last the cyclists seemed to change their minds about the picnic. As they moved away, the wife shouted, "Too many snakes," at me. And I shouted back that no, it was hard to be comfortable if there was a snake sitting next to you -- or something equally polite and fatuous.

My dad showed up a little later, as part of my secret program to get him and his dog to go out on dates. (I had Sweetie with me and she was as good as gold, she earned a medal today.) So I said, "Let's go look at the snakes," thinking, "Well, how many snakes."

Well, it turned out to be a lot of snakes. The rock wall of the downstream gate of the lock, on the sunny side, was snake headquarters. They were sunning themselves. The temperature was in the high 60s, it must have been utter bliss to be a snake on those rocks, they were just basking. Big ones, little ones, mating pairs. It wasn't so much that they were arriving as that they were emerging into sight, like your eyes getting accustomed to darkness. It took a minute or two and then you realized they were all over the place, they kept appearing like the hidden objects in a pubble among the rocks.

The dogs regard all reptiles with deep suspicion. The smell of one snake was enough to determine Misha that the car was the place where we should all be. She kept trying to drag my dad there, which put him all out of temper.

They were either water snakes or Northern Brown Snakes. I suppose water snakes get out of the water once in a while.

Also saw this incredibly colored bird, bright bright red body that made a cardinal's coloring seem rather subdued), with wings, gives the impression of wearing a loud vest. Well, I had just given up on one painting and was getting ready to start the second one when this man came over and asked to see what I was doing. "I've got nothing to show you," I said. "I just tossed one and I'm about to start again." He was kinda cute, and I was enjoying myself hugely at this point so I didn't care who bothered me. So he petted Sweetie who took rather a liking to him and did her whole gazing-tenderly-into-his-face routine. "Well at least I get to meet your dog," he said, I said, "She seems to think you're fabulous." "Maybe she's right," he said, and all I could think of to say was, "Well, she's a cheap date, you know." but lacking that much courage I told some long story about how she used to be shy but had learned to like people. I noticed his binoculars and asked if he'd been birding. Yes he had so I asked him about this splendid bird and he said it was a scarlet tanager. Then off he went to the parking lot and I thought "Well, you managed that brilliantly." Thus two ships passed in the night.

Tolstoy on Blogging

From the mailbag, Bob B. sends me under the above title two quotations from Tolstoy's essay on Amiel's Journal. It seems to me a book I used to see around a lot that I don't see any more.

The Tolstoy essay is not online; it's in a collection of his essays on art, What Is Art? And Essays on Art, translated by Aylmer Maude. It's one of the old hardbound pocketsized indestructible OUP World's Classics that I am so fond of (thank you Bob), so if you see it get it because the title essay is both provoking and important.

Here are the quotes:

"For a writer is precious and necessary to us only to the extent to which he reveals to us the inner labour of his soul--supposing, of course, that his work is new and has not been done before. Whatever he may write--a play, a learned work, a story, a philosophic treastise, lyric verse, a criticism, a satire--what is precious to us in an author's work is only that inner labour of his soul, and not the architectural structure in which usually, and I think perhaps always, distorting it, he packs his thoughts and feelings.

All that Amiel poured into a ready mould: his lectures, treatises, poems, are dead; but his Journal, where without thinking of the form he only talked to himself, is full of life, wisdom, instruction, consolation, and will ever remain one of those best of all books which have been left to us accidentally by such men as Marcus Aurelius, Pascal, and Epictetus."


Amiel's whole life, as presented to us in this Journal, is full of this suffering and whole-hearted search for God. And the contemplation of this search is the more instructive because it never ceases to be a search, never becomes settled, and never passes into a consciousness of
having attained the truth, or into a teaching. Amiel is not saying either to himself or to others, 'I now know the truth--hear me!' On the contrary it seems to him, as is natural to one who is sincerely seeking truth, that the more he knows the more he needs to know, and he unceasingly does all he can to learn more and more of the truth, and is therefore constantly aware of his ignorance. ... He is talking to himself, not thinking that he is overheard, neither attempting to appear convinced of what he is not convinced of, nor hiding his sufferings and his search."It is as if one were present without a man's knowledge at the most secret, profound, impassioned, inner working of his soul, usually hidden from an outsider's view.

Not News

When the shovel of reflection strikes the bedrock of self-complacency about two inches down, the digger puts that dented shovel away for another year or so, satisfied that the world is still where it is supposed to be.


So I've been a bit -- 'ow you say? -- down in the mouth or possibly just tired the last week. You know I'm working the day job with the hour plus commute (by train, thank God). It's nearly 12 hours from the time I leave the house till I get home in the evenings at which point the dogs and I go out for the big excitement of their day. Well Rommel going out for a walk is very exciting too, yes, but not much use to me. So it can be eight or later when I sit down to do a bit of writing in The Notebooks.

Did I tell you about the notebooks? Did I tell you I hired a typist? My typist is a guy who doesn't really know how to type. Also I think I had the loony magnet turned up when I met him. He is sweet but each installment of pages comes with a little note attached, slightly hysterical, with soem latest drama of his life. Most of these dramas are really small and insignificant but they seem to loom large for him, and frantic apologies for how slow he is. he thought, you know, that he might be able to knock off one notebook in a week. He has just finished one -- after more than two months. He is typing from handwritten manuscript, and my handwriting is quite neat and legible, but occasionally he has to guess at a word or its spelling. Here his subtlety of invention becomes evident. I believe he has managed to corrupt the morals of his spell-checker. He doesn't know what "double-spaced"is. He types in 10-point single-spaced Times New Roman, apparently out of some notion that he is giving me good value for money by cramming tiny type onto the page. He does not know that he has actually earned twice as much money as he thinks he has. I amuse myself with thinking how I'm going to break the news to him. My preference is to just break it to him with a check.

But he now feels it part of his duty to give me comments on what I've written. He once helped a lady avoid eviction by suggesting some touches to a letter to her landlord, and he thinks he can help me too. So a few weeks into this he suggested we could meet for coffee and he could lay out his ideas. But now somehow his vision of this meeting has expanded. He thinks it would be a good idea if I took him and his teenage daughter to his favorite Greek restaurant and we could talk about it there. My vision of this meeting has also now expanded, to include belly dancers and the guy who dances with the table in his mouth. I see no way to avoid this meeting, to tell the truth, so perhaps I should do it soon, before it turns into a bigger event, possibly involving a Bounce House or balloon animals.

But I haven't been able to do my bit of nightly scribble, even. I go to my office (small patch of sidewalk outside) and sit down and feel too tired and depressed. I've written myself into a corner on the piece I've been working on. I know I have to cut things, and I'm not attached to the writing, but I do feel the loss of the time. This is ridiculous, of course. And all the usual -- various family worries and money worries and time worries and space worries and again, I feel overwhelmed. A bit like my typist, I suppose.

Anyway I hope that explains this latest long gap in posting. I have begged a couple of people to do some guest blogging or send me stuff by email. So don't give up yet.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Useful Categories

Gummint director: "Anything urgent today?"
Middle management dude: "Bullshit urgent or real urgent?"

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sailing Home

The Carib Gli Gli sailing canoe arrives in Charlestown, Nevis, en route from Dominica to the British Virgin Islands. Photo courtesy of Nevis Island Administration.

For centuries, they made voyages like this the way you and I might drive a hundred miles to visit relatives." They were as completely at home on the sea as on land.

In May of 2003 I flew to Dominica for a long weekend. There are places that I have what I call a “draw” to; India, Italy, Scotland, South Africa, some of the more peculiar parts of South America, and Dominica. In the Caribbean, I’ve heard people say that Dominica is the only island that Columbus would recognize if he came back. That's what I wanted to see, and also, in case you haven't noticed, heaven, for me, is a Caribbean mountain landscape.

Here is what I wrote the day I arrived in Dominica:

From the air St. Kitts is brown. From the air and on the ground Antigua is brown and bare. Antigua is northeast of St. Kitts. From Antigua you fly straight dead south, passing high over Guadeloupe. You are then flying for just long enough to become tired of straining to see what the next island will look like and you don’t see Dominica until the plane is dropping over it and instead of the dark blue of the sea this intense eye-popping green is suddenly spreading on all sides beneath you, hillsides deep in green and you are falling slowly into it, dropping below its surface. You know that for as long as you are there you will be under that green.

Why was Dominica so much greener than the other islands? The question is answered with two words: no cane. You don’t have to be much of a geologist at all – and I’m the total opposite of a geologist -- to recognize that these islands didn’t all emerge through the same processes. Anguilla, long, narrow, and flat (its name comes from the French for “eel”) is a coral island. Its soil is basically the dead bones of ancient coral reefs, slowly accumulated and still accumulating. The Grenadines, the hundreds of tiny islands that belong to St. Vincent, are also coral. But the volcanic islands are really different, steep, rocky and sudden. The islands where sugar cane is grown in the Caribbean will vary in size but have a similar basic geography: a central mountain range, densely forested, and spreading below it like a skirt, a more or less broad coastal plain, sloping gently to the sea. In parts of Jamaica you can still see what this plain would have looked like once upon a time; the area called Caymanas, west of Kingston as you travel towards Spanish town, looked like this in places when I was a child. It was flat land with enormous trees at a respectful difference from each other. South of Caymanas a vast mangrove swamp fringed the coast. I suppose some of Jamaica’s coastal savannas have lasted so long because of luck. I am sure that what remains is considerably less wooded than it was before the Europeans arrived. But in the smaller islands none of this land could be spared from the planting of sugar cane. One consequence of the giving over of every inch of flat land to cane cultivation is that Antigua is in a state of almost constant near-drought and there are parts of the island where the ground looks like some of those awful places in Haiti, bare and furrowed with erosion. St. Kitts and Nevis have water worries also, though not as severe. St. Croix also was in a state of chronic water shortage: when I went to school there in the 1970s, every house had a cistern for collecting water, and you didn’t flush when you peed.

Nevis got its name from the Spanish for “snow.” A thick cloud sits on top of those mountains, so that for days at a time, weeks at a time, you don’t see the peaks. It’s not snow, but I suppose to a homesick sailor it could look like snow, from a distance.

The offshore night breeze in Jamaica, the dreaded “Norther” of my childhood sailing adventures, results from the cooling of the air under over the mountains there too. The cooler air comes rushing down, and when the southeastern trades have slacked off in the evening and you’re trying to get back to shore in a sailboat without an engine, you’re beating against that offshore effect.

St. Kitts and Nevis capture the rainwater before it leaves the mountains and distribute it through its government water system. As you travel around St. Kitts you will notice that most of its villages are along the main road that rings the island, often situated at the intersection of the road and a dry water-course called a ghaut (pronounced gut). These old riverbeds only have water when there has been a severe storm; then water, mud, and all sorts of accumulated debris -- tin cans, old tires, old old appliances, plastic bottles, tree branches, etc. -- come rushing downstream.

At the mouth of one ghaut, near the village of Old Road in St. Kitts, is a place called Bloody Point. It was the site of the massacre of the last Carib Indians on the island of St. Kitts (St. Christopher). I never went there. I never wanted to see it, such a shocking and cruel thing that was done there. The killing off of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples is a horrible tale. You can get a sense of it at this Trinidadian site and still be able to sleep nights.

My favorite story about the Caribs comes from this invaluable book by Richard S. Dunn: Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713.

It appears that the Caribs traveled from South America, crossing the narrow straits between Trinidad and Venezuela, and made their slow way up the chain of islands, all the way to Jamaica. But what is certain is that they were adventurous. What would have prompted them to leave the abundance of that whole continent at their back, to go exploring among those little islands without any idea where they might fetch up at last? And they knew the sea. By the time the Europeans arrived they knew it very very well, better than these English settlers imagined anybody could know the sea. So when I think of people who talk about how the enterprising Europeans made it all happen here I think of the enterprising and shrewd Caribs. It’s anything from a few hours to a day’s sail to travel from one of the Eastern Caribbbean islands to another. That is, in a big comfy sailboat, with good maps and a compass and two-way radio or a cell phone and running lights and channel markers. The Caribs sailed up and down the islands in their sailing canoes.

An early disaster in St. Christopher was reported home in a London pamphlet of 1638: News and strange Newes from St. Christophers of a tempestuous Spirit, which is called by the Indians a Hurrin-cano or whirlwind. The excited author told how some of the colonists hid in caves, some lashed themselves to tree trunks, some climbed into hammocks suspended between two trees where they swung to and fro “like a Bell when it is rung.” The force of the wind tossed men into the air “as if they were no more but rags, clouts, or feathers.” The pamphlet was illustrated by a crude woodcut showing a coal-black Carib Indian pointing to strange circles around the moon (the sign that a hurricane was coming)….This particular storm sank five ships and killed seventy-five men; damage would have been worse except that the Caribs warned the English to batten down their hatches. Even so, the Caribs were to blame. If barbarous and sinful Indians had not lived on St. Christopher, God would not have punished the island.

Thirty years later the English were still deeply suspicious of the Caribs’ ability to forecast hurricanes. St. Christopher and Nevis were hit in 1657, 1658, 1660, 1665, and 1667, aqnd every time the Caribs on Dominica and St. Vincent sent a warning ten or twelve days in advance – obvious evidence that they practiced witchcraft and consorted with the devil…

Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1972

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. For daring to be competent, for daring not to be docile, the Caribs were slaughtered or enslaved, or, in the case of the St. Vincent population, shipped off to Honduras. And so the devastation went on, on just about every island.

Except Dominica. For the simple reason that Dominica has no flat land to speak of. Not enough to make any kind of return for the amount of sugar cane that you could grow there. Because there’s really no getting rich from growing a little bit of sugar cane. It’s all about scale with cane, and there wasn’t enough land in Dominica to make it worthwhile to even begin. And so, for Europeans (and, to tell the truth, for a lot of Dominicans), it has been an economically unprosperous place, undeveloped and, at least in money terms, poor. Although it is economically poor it is an environmental marvel of a place, lush and green and fertile, with rivers and streams flowing abundantly everywhere. You never seem to be far from the sound of running water; some of the streams are hot, too, as you travel the island from one gorge to another. No doubt the difficulty of getting around the island was another bit of good luck. Here, where there was nothing for anybody to want badly enough, the Caribs have been able to hold on. But they didn’t go to sea like they used to.

And so it’s with that background that that image at the top of this post makes sense, you see. Because this group of Caribs is sailing in a traditional sailing canoe from Dominica to the British Virgin Islands. This weekend they stopped in Nevis, to play a little music and to talk about their culture and their efforts to reconstruct it. They’ve traveled into Guyana and connected with other indigenous tribes there to learn something of the culture where they began their journey. What would that be like for you? Finding the descendants of remote relatives, the ones who didn’t leave the Old Country, or who didn’t leave the Even Older Country. Meeting these distant relatives, the relatives who didn’t take to the sea, and learning a little bit of something about yourself from them. Why? To remember who you are.

Photo courtesy Nevis Island Administration

...Paulinus Frederick, Head of the Carib group, chief musician and lead spokesperson, explained that the exposition through the Leeward Islands which will culminate in the British Virgin Islands, served to raise the consciousness of the role played by the Carib people in the development of the Caribbean.

“Our ancestors were the first inhabitants of this entire region and we too played a role in the development of this region. We have been protecting our islands and we have also been protecting our culture. Some of the main things we are really doing are to preserve and to maintain the Kalinago culture.

“Some of it has disappeared and through research and contacts with other groups especially in Guyana, we were able to rediscover some of the aspects of our culture that had been forgotten and we are very grateful to have it. We are here to raise the consciousness of the Leeward Islands and to make persons be aware of the role that we have played in the development of this entire region,” he said.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Repeat As Necessary

I posted this comment over at Digby's Hullabaloo in response to a post that featured a longish quotation from Hazlitt. I've tweaked it a bit.

Chait grants that the netroots "instrumentalism" (our "practical interest") is perhaps necessary, but he frets that there is a danger that the movement will devolve into some sort of unthinking know-nothingness that rivals the right.

Chait here falls for the right's self-promotiing stance as defenders of culture against the know-nothing dirty fucking hippies. The "intellectual" right in this country has adopted the stance that it stands for "high" culture while the left stands for oh I dunno the Grateful Dead and the Beatles and sex on the teevee and sensational art exhibitions. In the first place this division is completely bogus, and their pretensions to culture are even more bogus. John Dean said it in his book: They have no ideas.

Their claim to be defenders of western civilization is so utterly empty. I mean, is Harvey Mansfield supposed to represent the best of Western philosophy? He could only seem so to empty and ignorant or deliberately dishonest people. I don't know how so many people got taken in by this stuff, but I do think that liberals are partly to blame for letting it get so far. Some of it was owing to what happened to education in the 1980s, in my view. What I saw during my academic career was this: the conservative movement was moving in on things, i.e., positions, power, resources, while people in humanities departments were arguing about words. I don't mean that the academic left should necessarily have been out on the barricades, but a lot of time was wasted not teaching students how to spot these frauds for what they were. Someone like George Will or the egregious Mansfield could not pass for a person of culture in any place where cultural literacy had been effectively taught, where, to use Ben Shahn's word, culture was "integrated" into your understanding and wasn't just a highbrow form of Trivial Pursuit.

The behavior that Hazlitt describes is not confined to one political party or even to politics. I've certainly run across it in personal life, and, come to think of it, in academic life. And the only way to fight it is head-on, ferociously and not giving an inch of ground. You must make them afraid to tell you a lie, you must make it not worth the trouble for them to try to manipulate and con you, it is the only thing that works. This is very old wisdom. Well, so then they can't be your friend. So what? They are not people whom you can trust and that is all there is to it, and the sooner you understand that, the sooner you understand the speciousness of all their reasoning, the better off you will be. And yes, if you want to learn how to mop the floor with such weak reasoners, read Hazlitt. And Samuel Johnson. And Edmund Burke. And Sophocles. And Alexander Herzen. All these writers and thinkers these posers claim for themselves and whom they never read.

What I didn't write over there was that in my experience, lots of people who pass for liberals on campuses are not particularly liberal or, for that matter, particularly high-minded. A veneer of sophistication over howling incoherence and spite, shot through with the most grubby self-complacency, status-seeking, and self-servingness. And this sloppiness, carelessness, and incoherence are also responsible for the political plight in which liberalism has found itself in recent years. Nobody was minding the store. I know I'm being vague, and if you want me to be more specific I can. Just dare me. Otherwise I'll go on and on and on.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


By the way I actually use the address book and the calendar that came bundled with the software for my Mac -- most of what you read here is composed on an iBook G4. I mentioned recently that my Safari browser broke. Now it seems that the calendar, the address book, and, worst of all, iTunes are now all broken as well. I can't get any of them to launch. Restarting would be the obvious next move but I'm dreading that as my finder hangs. And last of all my MacHelp will hang if I try to use it. When the Safari browser broke, I installed Opera which I rather like. But I don't know if it interfered with the address book, the calendar and iTunes, or if they were hinky before. I suppose it is time for a re-install of the system software. Which, it seems, I lost in the moves from Sebastopol. Sorry about the thumping sound, that's me beating my head against the wall. Possibly these technological annoyances are what prompted the dream in which I accidentally drove my car off a cliff. No, seriously, this is true. It was two nights ago. I was only trying to get into the car wash and somehow missed the turn and the car went slowly over a high cliff and as I descended past the all the rocks with the water rushing, as they say, towards me, I thought "This isn't what I meant to do at all." If I ever get paid for the past six weeks of work that I've done I'll go upgrade to what is it? Panther? Tiger? Ocelot? throw in some new memory, and flirt with that Spanish guy at the Mac store.

Meanwhile, commenter Zo, if you're still out there, and have an interim suggestion, I'd be so so so grateful.


That was a beast of a long post. I will try not to go on and on and on.

A Walk in the Woods

A couple of weeks ago I unpacked a box that I thought was full of journals and found that there was a layer of old sketchbooks at the bottom. They were more than 10 years old. I had to flip through them all, and what pleased me, a little poignantly, was how much time I had devoted to drawing and painting. The sketches were of the most ordinary subjects: flowers, landscapes, fruit, various still lifes, people’s heads, and lots of drawings of the late lamented Linus. I missed myself doing all that drawing. I still try to get some in, as you know, but not nearly as much as I did then when I was teaching and had more free time.

I spent a decent part of this weekend plotting and scheming how to get out to do a bit of painting. At first I puzzled myself with ambitious plans -- like take the oil paints (which I haven't used in years), all the gear, and the dog, and go to a park that I haven’t explored yet. I realized that if I wanted to court failure, disappointment, and bitterness that would be the way to go about it.

In Sebastopol the private and paramount pleasure of my life, other than my excellent friends Patti, Barry, and Gail, was going out painting landscape. We managed, Sweetie and I, to make quite a routine thing of it. Because I worked for the local paper, I found all these great places, mostly on the edge of town, where I could hang out for hours. There was an old ruined farmhouse that belonged to this foundation that looked after the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and there was a big expanse of the Laguna that belonged to the state Fish and Game Department, backing onto some small farms. These places had the type of California landscape for which I feel special affection; meadows with oak trees. I could set up my easel, Sweetie would sniff about a bit, maybe find something disgusting to roll in, and then she’d settle down for a long session of blissful basking, stretched out on the grass and occasionally looking at me and thumping her tail. At first it was hard to get myself started; I’d spend an hour just wandering around, working up to a small anxiety attack, it was awful. But after a few weeks the anxiety stopped and I could begin as soon as I was set up. The best part was how quickly I was getting better at it, too. By this point in life the office was more home than home was, and I tacked the paintings up on the wall around my desk. I stuck with watercolor because I was beginning to get it. I had abundance of places to paint – the old cemeteries that dot the rural parts of the county, the unused railroad tracks in Fulton and Healdsburg, and little odd corners of Santa Rosa that hadn’t yet been “redeveloped,” like the old walnut and pecan orchard over on the east side of town. As far as my personal pleasure was concerned I would have been content to spend every weekend working my way through these places.

But I moved here, instead. First it was winter. Then I had to learn my way around. I found a group to go painting with but they go out on Mondays and right when I found them I got a job after months of agonizing unemployment. Then there were car problems. So in the nearly 18 months since I’ve moved here I’ve only gone out half a dozen times, and at such long intervals that I haven’t built up the routine by which you actually make any progress. I go to the life class but who wants to be in a room full of oddballs drawing an uninspiring model when spring is blooming outside? I’m working and writing and the days are long, and I have no more car troubles. So I’m determined to get out.

The biggest problem remaining is the dog. Since she has moved to Maryland she has become a different animal from the one I brought from St. Kitts. At home she is still an excellent house dog; without any training she has perfect in-house dog manners, which, I may have said before, comes from her having spent a good year as part of a pack of basically wild street dogs. To explain Sweetie’s general bearing before we moved to Maryland, it is perhaps enough to say, “Sweetie has been chased by a sheep.” Also by donkeys and cats.

But when we got to Maryland, well, first it was the squirrels, then it was the groundhogs, then, most momentous of all, the deer. Now, when she’s out in nature she is a total hunting dog, she’s mad with it, she has this strange glow in her eyes. Well, I want to paint and I feel guilty leaving her home in the lovely weather after she’s had to spend so much of the week cooped up in the apartment.

Along with puzzling this out, I indulge in thinking about the Ideal Small Painting Kit. A smaller kit means more modest expectations somehow. It also enables me to indulge in a pleasure that is not really related to actually making anything: the pleasure of being a Tool Fool. I like to think I am a fairly discriminating tool fool. I don’t like gimmicky things (except those pens that hold water are way cool) like the gadgets all those TV artists sell. But I do like nice things. I like nice paint, and I really love good paper, and I think the French easel is one of the greatest inventions ever. I seek the perfect watercolor kit. And I want to find a hidden trove of the old Fabriano watercolor paper, the one they don’t make any more that was infinitely nicer than the new one.

Various watercolor kits. I had a black metal one that had the tiniest little pans you ever saw, a wee brush, a built in reservoir for water, and a little metal cup. All folded up, it was like a little metal half-cylinder about 6 inches long. I think I lost that one. It was cute, but it was really too small. Still, I got a lot of pleasure out of it. In the UK you can get these really nice heavy-duty enameled empty palettes that hold half-pans or full pans. These paintboxes are different from the cheap aluminum or tin ones that seem to come out of Germany or somewhere, which tend to get dented. I finally replaced my battered old one of these with one of the really sturdy ones, and we get along great. Still, I can’t resist those flat aluminum palettes from Korea or Japan, they’re incredibly cheap, but they get bent out of shape if you look at them sideways. I use one of those for gouache. For hiking I got this really cheap Cotman kit that had the water bottle and the palettes and brush all built in, and the whole thing fits in a fanny pack. (Yes, I use a fanny pack; it holds my iPod and a lot of poop bags OK?) And last of all I got one of those two-dollar plastic folding palettes and squirted some tube paint in it. It's cheap and it weighs nothing. I try these things out, you see, in hopes that they might enable some expansion in the routine. But none of them have really done that, though each has been serviceable in its way. I still feel most comfortable with that nice heavy enameled English palette.

An old b/f who is an artist used to make fun of my preoccupation with materials; I am even more nutty about writing materials, believe me. But I’ve made peace with it, it’s a source of pleasure mostly, though I’m still not over the way Waterman discontinued the brown fountain pen ink cartridges. Years of being a writer who was terrified to write gave me personal acquaintance with every single specious dodge, especially the “things you do that are not writing but that make you feel like you’ve been writing,” like spending an hour browsing office supplies. Or sharpening all your pencils. Or tidying your desk. I have no illusions about this sort of thing any more, mercifully, but along the way I did learn that enjoying the materials I work with increases the pleasure of actually working. But in order to get that pleasure out of the materials I have to work: because I like things to be a bit lived-in, worn in by use and habit.

My appetite for art supplies extends now into the realm of Things to Keep Them In. I hit the thrift shops and discount stores for jars and baskets. It is one of my ambitions in life to reduce my use of ugly plastic storage containers to an absolute minimum. By a nice piece of luck, there is a cigar store across the street from me, and on a weekend afternoon I will go in and pick out something nice. There are people who make pochade boxes out of cigar boxes, which is an excellent idea that I, I can assure you, will never execute.

Once I watched a crow as it tried to cope with a foil teabag wrapper. The teabag wrapper was so bright and shiny, apple- or lime-green on foil, that the crow was really quite taken with it. He would pick it up in his beak and walk about with it along the edge of the fountain, but then, what do you do with a foil teabag wrapper if you're a crow? So then he would put it down and walk away from it but it would catch his eye and he'd hop back and pick it up. He couldn't think what to do with it, but he couldn't part with this nice thing either.

I feel exactly the same way about Altoids tins. I cannot dispose of an Altoids tin without regret. Mostly I end up storing bits of charcoal and crayon in them that I almost never use either. So the other day I was looking for some of that old Fabriano paper, and I tried looking in UK art shops, and somehow instead I came across all these people who make watercolor palettes out of Altoid tins.

Oh, laugh at me all you want, but the Altoid tin watercolor box is such a perfect marriage of packrattitude, the time-wasting gimcrackery, the love of everything connected with this activity, clever use of an Altoid tin, and looniness, that it made me want to make one. Except I don’t have any Altoid tins at the moment. Because I don’t really like Altoids. I used to, but they don’t seem to agree with me.

But I wasn’t going to blow a weekend making an Altoid tin watercolor kit and then have no time to paint.

So I decided to go in the woods near the house, where there's this lovely trail that winds along next to Little Seneca Creek, and then the creek empties into a lake. I knew I liked it there. I decided to take the dog, too, and see whether we could make any progress in the task of learning how to sit quietly in Maryland’s deer-haunted woods. I took a sketchbook and the smallest watercolor kit and a camera.

I was all set to go, and then my dad’s dog Misha decided she had to go too. I have been trying to communicate to my father – without words, as words would be wasted – that just as I want a bit of quality time to work on my relationship with my dog, he should give a little quality time to his. Misha had somehow got wind that a ride in the car was in the offing. So I ended up traveling with Sweetie in my car while my dad followed with Misha in his. (We had to take both cars because he had to get ready for work and couldn’t stay in the woods for hours.) I had a revelation: my dad rather likes to take a walk in the woods with me. It would never occur to him to ask, he probably doesn't quite know he likes it, he would not think of doing it on his own, but if I get him to come he gives distinct signs of enjoying himself. Even when I am shouting things at him like, "Oh for God's sake why are you talking on the cell phone while the dog is dragging you down a slippery bank? Drop the leash, just drop the leash!" He walked beyond the usual distance at which he usually starts to grumble, even, and didn’t grumble. He's not really a land animal, my dad. He's a marine mammal, totally at home on and in the water. I’m not sure he thinks walking is a natural activity. Then, per our plan, when Misha had had enough of Nature the two of them made their way back to the car and Sweetie and I went on with our adventure.

It became clear that drawing was quite out of the question. Sweetie couldn’t sit still, there was just too much stimulation all around. Among who knows what other things, the white-tailed deer, which move through there constantly and leave, of course, their scent everywhere. I took pictures of things I would like to paint sometime or just because I wanted to come out of there with something. It wasn't a total bust. At a certain point it just became about wandering along these trails and liking so much of what I was seeing. The wildflowers, the creek winding under all those tall trees, the light gleaming off the lake, the ruin of an old mill with ferns and moss growing on the stones, and the surprise of little critters showing up like this ugly little toad. The next plan is to go find some slightly less deer-haunted place. If she can’t get the hang of hanging out, she may have to stay home for a few hours, but the days are long and I can make it up to her. But if I don’t try to teach her, you see, she definitely won’t learn.

No, well, you’re right, it isn’t much of a life I’m describing. In fact it has a certain eerie repetitive quality like The Blair Witch Project where those filmmakers can't get out of that one spot in the woods. I suppose I could get out of the woods. Why am I not chasing the fleshpots of that nearby Big City? Why am I not trying harder to go out on dates? The answer? I have no idea.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Bezzle

In many ways the effect of the crash on embezzlement was more significant than on suicide. To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes. Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter. Weeks, months, or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net gain in psychic wealth.) At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in -- or more precisely not in -- the country's businesses and banks. This inventory -- it should perhaps be called the bezzle -- amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly....

Just as the boom accelerated the rate of growth, so the crash enormously advanced the rate of discovery. Within a few days, something close to universal trust turned into something akin to universal suspicion. Audits were ordered. Strained or preoccupied behavior was noticed. Most important, the collapse in stock values made irredeemable the position of the employee who had embezzled to play the market.