gall and gumption

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman

I keep people like him are going to last forever, and then I feel disappointed. But really, selfish thoughts aside, I just feel like one ought to rejoice the thought that he had such a long and rich creative life.

My mother and stepfather went to see The Seventh Seal night before last. You have to understand that my stepfather is as ignorant of popular culture as it is possible to be. He somehow managed to get through the 1960s and 1970s without ever having become more than dimly aware of the Beatles. He likes classical music (has good taste in it too) and old English church music, even though he's a total nonbeliever. He is fanatically devoted to all things British, the one exception being his Jamaican wife and her family.

So they went to see this film, my mother reports, and his verdict was "not a barrel of laughs."

I Saw a Loofah Vine in Antigua

I am reminded of this because today is a special day. Happy Falafel Day.


I Take It Back

OK you remember how I said I loathed the Celebrity Profile as a genre? I take it back. Follow up with the companion piece in the August issue of Harper's.

But I still hate the lifestyle trend piece, until further notice.

Giving things a Boost

Wake up from some bizarre and extremely oppressive nightmare set in some sort of futuristic prison, and unable to get back to sleep, I check my blog stats -- oh god why did I ever install that thing -- and it seems to be mostly google searches.

I can only assume that there is some dreadful rumor about Grenadian girls that brings people here looking for naked ones. I think I can safely assure you, brethren, in advance of knowing what that rumor is, that it is a lie.

Ditto the people who come looking for Passa Passa. I dunno, call me cynical, but I don't think that the sound of me nattering on about its cultural significance is what they were looking for. That is, I'm beginning to think that the Passa Passa searches are guys basically looking for porn.

The thing about porn is that probably you can search for anything and turn up porn. (I know it's not relevant but that old Michael Kelly piece is the funniest thing I ever read about the Internet. Oh, and he's posting again, happy day, happy day.) The converse is apparently true. Look for porn, end up at my site reading about dogs and John Donne, literary critics and and Caribbean news.

I'm going to assume that the person who went on this search was not seeking to know whether I have had a boob job, but wanted to know what I had written about a boob job.

Oddly, the one post I ever made on that particular subject doesn't show up in the search.

The other possibility, that I am making myself into a social pariah even among my small and select readers, has not crossed my mind for oh let's see about half an hour now. I mean, it starts to cross my mind, you know, but it never seems to make it all the way across, it stops somewhere near the middle and just sits there staring at me with an insolent expression.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Where Ignorant Armies Type By Night

A friend and fellow editor sends me a link to this Gary Kamiya piece in Salon.

My friend wants to know what I think of it. I don’t know what he thinks of it. And that makes me a bit afraid to tell him what I think of it. So I'll tell you for sure, and then I'll tell him later. It’s also shown up on two of the editors’ mailing lists that I subscribe to.

The piece is not really written in a recognizably human voice; it is written in the voice of the hive mind of the professional media person. Although it’s written in the first person, it’s impersonal, a smooth, unthreatening, steady flow of bromides. I don’t quite believe that this speaking person exists – it’s a persona. When I criticize it, therefore, I’m not making any personal criticism of Kamiya, who barely makes any appearance in the piece at all. Well, it’s journalism, it’s not supposed to be personal. And as they always said in journalism school, “Who cares what you personally think?” Well, the person out there who does care what you personally think is me.

I recognize a familiar tone, the appeal to in-group solidarity, the patronage those poor dimwits out there (readers, students, the uncredentialed, the writers who are trying to get your attention and send you all sorts of junk, the people who think you can just sit at a keyboard and write) for whom, mind you, Christ also died. The ones who don't understand or appreciate the Editor's Burden.

I used to hear this in the hallways of English departments, too. How put upon the faculty were, how hopelessly inept, callow, ignorant, and feckless the students were -- it was quite hilarious really. Indeed it was always good for a laugh. It was one thing that could make all those various intellectual factions lay down their offensive weapons and slap each other on the back. How dumb the students were, how we were all there to "Teach Them How to Think."

It always made me feel uncomfortable, and I refused to indulge in it myself. I didn't go around yukking it up with the English professors about how dumb students were. I mean, these were people who could not teach who were making fun of people who could not learn from them.

Editors, like academics, are prone to this sort of in-group frame of mind. Kamiya notes that the people formerly known as readers have started writing and publishing themselves on the Internet, without the ministrations of editors.. Predictably, it prompts him to strike the elegiac note.

In the brave new world of self-publishing, editors are an endangered species. This isn't all bad. It's good that anyone who wants to publish and has access to a computer now faces no barriers. And some bloggers don't really need editors: Their prose is fluent and conversational, and readers have no expectation that the work is going to be elegant or beautifully shaped. Its main function is to communicate clearly. It isn't intended to last.

If Flaubert were alive he’d have to add the word “blog” to his Dictionary of Received Ideas.

BLOGS: Will not ultimately stand the test of time. Written by uncivil adolescents.

In a piece like this the writer must always look to the silver lining. It turns out all is not lost: readers will still depend on editors to choose their reading for them.

Still, editors and editing will be more important than ever as the Internet age rockets forward. The online world is not just about millions of newborn writers exulting in their powers. It's also about millions of readers who need to sort through this endless universe and figure out which writers are worth reading. Who is going to sort out the exceptional ones? Editors, of some type. Some smart group of people is going to have to separate the wheat from the chaff. And the more refined that separation process is, the more talent -- and perhaps more training -- will be required. In any case, real editing is something different. It takes place before a piece ever sees the light of day -- and it's this kind of painstaking, word-by-word editing that so much online writing needs. If learning how to be edited is a form of growing up, much of the blogosphere still seems to be in adolescence, loudly affirming its identity and raging against authority. But teenagers eventually realize that authority is not as tyrannical and unhip as they once thought. It's edited prose, with its points sharpened by another, that will ultimately stand the test of time. There is a place for mayfly commentary, which buzzes about and dies in a day. But we don't want to get to the point where the mayflies and mosquitoes are so thick that we can't breathe or think.

Oh, those damned teenage lawyers, English professors, business owners, biologists, and journalists!

How much writing in print will stand the test of time? Does anybody remember the Edward Hamilton catalog? Some 32 pages or so, tabloid, every column inch packed with a brief description of books that publishers were unloading for pennies on the dollar, just to get rid of inventory. It was the best one of its kind, totally unselective, and you could find the odd treasure if you dug through it patiently, but most of the books for sale were junk. Newspapers are preserved, not because of literary interest, but because they are part of the historic record. Most newspaper writing, as writing, deserves oblivion. Here I live in the Trade Association (or “lobby” if you prefer) Newsletter Capital of the World, and I know that of all the self-serving printed dreck that is produced here by the ton, daily, and shipped out to members, the best thing that can be said about it is that it has no shelf-life.

I mean, if you are going to talk about writing that has no shelf life at all, why always look at the bloggers? I am sure Kamiya reads good bloggers and not just the crappy ones. But the intent here is to set the class of editors apart from those outsiders, those teenage yahoo movie producers and investigative journalists, and it’s much easier to point to the existence of – oh gosh, he doesn’t even give any examples of what he finds so adolescent but trust him, he knows, he’s on the inside – the bloggers (real or imaginary), that is, who are beyond the pale and shouldn’t be let in. This is the hive mind talking.

But that is how we all find ourselves with Kamiya and Matthew Arnold out on Dover Beach: it’s considerably crowded as all of us editors are out there and there are probably more editors now than ever before – we’re not an endangered species, though our status (or our status in our own wishful minds) may be endangered.

The art of editing is running against the cultural tide. We are in an age of volume; editing is about refinement. It's about getting deeper into a piece, its ideas, its structure, its language. It's a handmade art, a craft. You don't learn it overnight. Editing aims at making a piece more like a Stradivarius and less like a microchip. And as the media universe becomes larger and more filled with microchips, we need the violin makers.

Hush! Hark! OMG can you hear the violin?

The writers hardly fare any better.

The truth is, you have to learn how to be edited just as much as you have to learn how to edit. And learning how to be edited teaches you a lot about writing, about distance and objectivity and humility, and ultimately about yourself.

In an odd way, the exchange between writer and editor encapsulates the process of growing up. The act of writing is godlike, omnipotent, infantile…

Sounds a lot like some editors I’ve met. Whenever I've gone to some workshop where there's a panel of editors, there's always some self-important little It Girl who, explaining her criteria for accepting work, feels compelled to say, "And if you misspell my name your manuscript goes right into the trash."

I’ve spent time working through boxes of submissions, and I’ve thrown out stories for all sorts of reasons, but in all cases the reasons had to do with the story. I wasn’t actually looking to fill the pages of the magazine with the correct spelling of my name. I don’t know if I’ll ever find myself digging through a slush pile again, but if I do, I can promise you this: if you turn in a good piece of writing and you’ve misspelled my name in your cover letter, no problem. I’ll fix it! I’m an editor!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Via Arts & Letters Daily this interview with the old man at Spiegel Online.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Big Bug Liveblogging

I never know how they get into places exactly but there's one of those big bugs, some sort of giant fly, bumping and bouncing and buzzing all over my room. You know the ones I mean? You never see them in the daytime, they always seem to show up just when you want to do a little reading in bed. Hardly worth mentioning except that Misha, who is hanging out in here again in her usual needy hangdog apologetic groveling way, is really having issues with this bug. At first she was chasing it and then the bug got quiet and Misha went into the closet to lie on my laundry, then she came out of the closet apparently being chased by the bug. I heard some snapping and sort of plunging about in the hallway and then she came back in here with her tail between her legs and dived under the bed. If she is lying on top of my good watercolor paper I will make her think of that bug with fond nostalgia.

It's kind of like that movie Independence Day. Now if she's going to save the bathroom she's gonna have to go in there. And she has. With great solemnity and seems to be attacking a whole horde of them\.

Good work, Misha! Good work! Much more productive than barking at people out the car windows. My latest theory of Misha barking out of car windows is that it is the German shepherd equivalent of shouting "Asshole!" at everybody who passes by. She just enjoys it so much more than is compatible with any kind of decency. A friend at work says it's like she's mooning people. I wish Misha would just moon people, it would be quieter. Mind you, no one would be able to tell, would they?

Oh crap the bug has chased her out of the bedroom again. This would be like if the aliens chased Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum out of the mother ship before they had time to blow it up and followed them back to earth and the whole set of shenanigans started up again.

What? Oh I suppose you were watching the Democratic debate tonight, well, swell. I watched Independence Day. But I was working while I was watching it! Ask Leslie!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The New Relationship

It's with the radio. Saturday is one long day of radio heaven for me. I listen to WPFW, the Pacifica station here in DC. Saturday is soul day. All morning they play soul and R&B, not just the obvious stuff that shows up in car commercials and telephone service commercials but everything. It's "Oldies House Party" and the host is "Cap'n Fly." People call in and make requests and send greetings out to friends and Cap'n Fly says, "You ready to get on the train?" and the caller always says yes, which makes me so happy, that the train is still rolling down the track and letting people get on board.

In the afternoon it's Da Gator, who plays R&B and funk and blues. And he sort of covers local events, his friends call in and tell him what's happening at the fundraising barbecues, festivals, and music events. On Da Gator's show you hear one man call another man "baby", as in "We havin' a good ol' time out here, baby." And it is a beautiful thing. And I'm listening to these wonderful voices and thinking, "Who are these people? Are they riding the Metro? Where do you find them?" They may be looking nearly at middle age, but they haven't lost an inch of groove. Yesterday afternoon Da Gator played half of an R&B tune that was recent but in the style of an earlier era; the female singer had a voice that was sort of halfway between Etta James and maybe Gladys Knight. The main theme of the song was that "Eatin' Ain't Cheatin'" I don't know who this singer is. This used to happen when I used to listen to the old Johnny Otis show, too, there were all these singers who weren't huge, who weren't fashionable exactly, but they were rocking out the genuine article, these very original songs that told stories or were little sermonettes, they never got on the regular radio or sold CDs at any of the usual outlets -- and these songs were so smart and funny. The last line I heard yesterday was (sorry I can't give you the exact words but this is close) "That man left my house with his mouth looking like a glazed donut..." How the guy's mouth got to look like that was explained in the next line, and at that point discretion got the better part of Da Gator.

My Visit to the Drugstore

There, in a big end-of-aisle display I saw what looked to be possibly some new kind of -- well I didn't know what it was to tell the truth. Got up a little closer to take a look and discovered what it was (a weight-loss drug) by reading the very conspicuous warning that included this alarming detail.

Treatment effects (side effects) occur when a patient taking alli consumes a meal with too much fat; Treatment effects include loose or more frequent stools that may be hard to control, an urgent need to go to the bathroom, and gas with oily discharge...

I just hope it comes with a similar warning for anybody who sits next to the user on an airplane. Then you can join in the program. Lean across the seat and -- "No butter for you on this flight, neighbor!"-- take the offending items right off the tray table.

Yes, I do need to get out more. I missed my chance to go here today and yesterday, and now I admit it I'm sulking. How did I miss my chance? By making my departure contingent on the doings of two other people whose convenience and pleasure (and assertions as to when they would be home or when they would call) in relation to my own activity I was foolish enough to consult.

Remind me never to do thatagain, would you?

Howlin' Wolf - Shake It For Me

Friday, July 20, 2007

If You Hear Me Howlin'

...I'm probably in the car next to yours, and I've got Howlin' Wolf turned up really loud and I'm singing along. Yesterday I even caught myself doing a little head-bopping while I was driving to Bethesda. How the minutes flew by! I've been listening to him in my car for two weeks. Okay some trips only take a couple of minutes like my morning drive commute to the other end of the apartment complex (why do I drive that short distance? Because I just finished walking the dogs and I'm running late, and also I'm hauling a rather heavy laptop and the apartment complex is large and none of the roads go in a straight line and I'm carrying the laptop because I write on the train.)

Willie Dixon wrote most of Howlin' Wolf's most famous blues, but Howlin' Wolf got inside them as if he'd been living in them since he was born. He made them completely his own. First of all was that voice, so intimate and insinuating even though it is a rasping roar that yeah, suggests a wood shop or a construction site.

And the way his guitar comments on the situations in the songs -- it's not just this aggressive-sounding noise, it's this whole other medium for insight and irony and pure evocation of specific feelings.

I am a back door man.
I am a back door man.
Well the men don't know, but the little girls understand.

When everybody's sound asleep,
I'm somewhere making my midnight creep.
Yes in the morning, the rooster crow.
Something tell me, I got to go.

And listen to the guitar in "Shake It for Me" and tell me if it doesn't suggest to you that really fast, high-energy jiggle of jello. Try not to picture that woman shaking it, and the singer's hearty appreciation.

You better wait baby, you got back a little too late
You better wait baby, you got back a little too late
I got a cool-shaking baby, shake like jello on a plate
When my baby walk, you know she's fine and mellow
When my baby walk, you know she's fine and mellow
Every time she stops, her flesh it shake like jello

Yeah I know it seems like one of those things everybody knows about that I'm just discovering, last to the party etc. How can I expect to be taken for cool when I just go and like something that everybody liked a while ago and they've moved on?

Well, that's me. I get there late and I never move on. But really, I actually discovered Howlin' Wolf for myself right when I began to take an interest in the blues, a little more than 10 years ago. First, Robert Johnson and then Howlin' Wolf. Not because I am a guitar nut but because I am a poetry nut. But what happens with these two, especially, is that from time to time I just go mad for them all over again, they stay new for me, I keep finding new things in them.

And I so like how ordinary it is. It's not romantic at all. (Robert Johnson: "You break my heart when you call Mr. So-and-So's name...")

By the way this is the first time I have ever posted a YouTube clip. I set it up this morning and I don't know where the clip is going to show up. I mean it will show up on the blog but I don't know where. Yes, I'm late to the YouTube posting party as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


No, I'm fine now, thanks.

The Band with No Name and Many Names

1.) I'm quite certain he doesn't know, as he refuses to go anywhere near the Internet or computers.

2.) If anybody can tell me how I can find out who put these up I'd be grateful. Oh dear me.

Oh it makes me so sad to remember all those songs. Jesus Christ it makes me sad. I haven't been sad about it for years. I was mostly relieved and busy. I want to download them all but I'm afraid to listen to them.

How weird is it that yesterday, totally unaware of the existence of these things online, I made this little note about that period of my life:

For years after I left Jamaica I felt vaguely oppressed by the feeling that I ought to look to some Law of Propriety and Taste to find what was good. Everybody was getting this and other information from somewhere in the culture, but somehow my antenna were not tuned to the messages. I didn’t want this feeling, but it took me a while to get rid of it. It seemed to me that people who didn’t have this feeling had a more direct access to interesting experiences than I did, whereas what I was experiencing was different flavors of the same thing: What Is Approved.

Other people, like my friends, were somehow more free to enjoy themselves. I believed (all this I think was left over from the very conventional social ideas I brought with me from Jamaica) that the way I’d get to be free to enjoy myself was if someone gave me permission. How this was to happen was not quite clear. At a certain point it seemed hopeless, and I felt cursed.

The feeling of being shut out from experience, of being disqualified and not permitted, was the cause of a few years of horrible depression. I mean that really nasty kind where you’re trying to climb out of a hole and someone keeps swinging at you with a shovel to keep you from getting out, and the person who is swinging the shovel at you is yourself.

Strangely, I had never felt the need for permission with respect to books. With books I read whatever I wanted to read, and – this is important – I knew from the books themselves that what I wanted to read was good. I knew my judgment was good. When I read critics to find out about new books, I’m judging the critics. So during those depressed few years, I taught literature courses that were packed with reading, and, in spite of the depression, really inspired most of the time. The classroom was one piece of real estate I felt I owned; everywhere else I was a squatter, in those depressed days. You would not know from the liveliness and ease in the classroom that I went home and pretty much just curled up in bed for the rest of each day. But I had torpedoed my teaching career by giving up the tenure-track job.

These songs are the soundtrack to that whole period. I'm leaving out a lot of the story I suppose. The band had no name. Every time they played a gig they called themselves something different and Shawn would make a painting that was basically a poster for the band. The names were incredibly goofy. And then he would produce these tapes at his own expense. And here someone has digitized them and made them into free downloads and he has no idea.

I really thought I was over blaming myself. I mean, I saw the songs, and I remembered what I wrote yesterday, and it's like matches and gasoline. Well, maybe if you hadn't let yourself get so depressed... Well, maybe if you had been more aware, more considerate, more understanding... OK I know that's not true. Did I misunderstand something back then? Fail to do justice? I really couldn't see or understand a lot of what was going on then. And that's why I had to leave. Did I miss something? Did I try hard enough? Was it my fault in some way that I just couldn't see then? Am I that clueless now? Can you understand a little about why I stayed so long?

2.) Someone explain to me again. I know some of you were around.

I have the journals I wrote during that period. I haven't looked at them in more than 10 years. I remember how much work these guys put into these songs, and I'm moved to see that someone still cares about them and wants to get them out there.

But what odd things come along with that feeling.

Such as now I start to wonder: what if I'm depressed now? What if the reason life seems bearable is because I am totally numb with depression? Because here a feeling comes lurching up out of the past quite by accident and I feel like I've been punched in the gut.

3) If someone is willing to burn me a CD, please drop me a line and I'll give you more details. Then I can put it in a box with the journals and not altogether lose the songs, even if I don't feel quite equal to listening.

They're completely original and clever and funny. "Sleigher" is the Christmas album. I am almost certain he has no idea that they are there.

Here's my address again, just paste it:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Watch Out for the Gigantic Prams!

There are several types of journalism that I loathe, as some of you may know from this blog. The fawning celebrity profile per Rolling Stone, for example. I bought one to read the interview with Bob Dylan, after his most recent album came out. I was curious because I kept hearing songs from that album and they were good! But about three paragraphs in I gave up. Slobber was just sort of seeping out of the pages.

The sentimental news story is another.

Also the one where the journalist gets the exclusive with the big shot on the understanding that he will not make the big shot uncomfortable with any challenging questions. Nonetheless, after being enlisted to the task of turning this Pod Person into a human being, and failing, the writer presents his subject with great breathy excitement as if All Is Now Revealed. The buildup is out of all proportion to anything actually revealed, but in a way that's a good fallback: "You’re disappointed? Well, I told you he was an inscrutable and arrogant megalomaniac." Worse yet in this category is the one where the journalist, not really having anything to report that wasn’t already known, just gasses on about how awestruck he himself is to be watching Paris Hilton eat a stick of celery.

But the piece that really gives me the pip is the "lifestyle trend" story. I believe it is the main reason I rarely read newspapers any more.

Whenever my eye catches one I'm sure it's the worst one ever. Obviously that can’t be true. That said -- seriously, this is the worst one ever.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the young and the aimless hightailed it to New York City in pursuit of an altogether different urban experience than the domestic bliss enjoyed by Miss Miller and many of her bosom companions. High on a cocktail of recklessness and abandon, they came here to find their id, lose their superego, shake up the world, or simply shake their thang. Then they promptly chronicled these exploits in confessional sex columns.

But recent years have seen a breed of ambitious, twentysomething nesters settling in the city, embracing the comforts of hearth and home with all the fervor of characters in Middlemarch. This prudish pack—call them the New Victorians—appears to have little interest in the prolonged puberty of earlier generations. While their forbears flitted away their 20’s in a haze of booze, Bolivian marching powder, and bed-hopping,

Maybe so, but the mean cynical person in me thinks that these are probably the people who made New York unlivably expensive for those people who went there to work. And then this piece, as you can see, starts from a much narrower definition of work. All the people I know who moved to New York in the 1980s and 1990s went there to work. They worked in bakeries, they worked as housepainters, as proofreaders, as copy editors, and at all sorts of odd jobs to support their real work – painting, writing, music, dance, sculpture, theater.

But those people, the ones, who, you know, did all that unpaid work, would be outside of the living memory of fashion. The ones I’m thinking of are in their 50s now. Walking corpses the lot of them, I must infer. In the living memory of fashion a woman in her 30s who hasn’t gotten herself nicely settled is staggering forlornly from bar to bar, crying about the one(s) that got away.

Another 26-year-old Brooklynite and New Vic, named Christine, is hardly “drifting”—she’s also an editor, a literary one—but she is more introspective than many of her contented brethren and sistren. “Maybe this is also fallout from the sort of these boomer ideas about what sexual freedom is,” she suggested. This theory is a popular one among New Vic observers, just as it was popular to blame the priggishness and probity of the Old Victorians on the ill example of their Georgian predecessors. In this case, the reaction isn’t against specific syphilitic laxity and moral decay, but is rather a vague fear of too much sex (hello, STDs!) as well as the pressure for procreative sex (even men have biological clocks these days!) and the attendant nightmare of becoming—pardon the phrase—an aging spinster, lurching around New York sloshing cosmos and wearing age-inappropriate Capri pants, as in the TV version of Sex and the City and its many spinoffs.

“Don’t people in New York always talk about how it’s hard to find men?” Christine asked rhetorically. She has already received a lifetime’s worth of warnings from elder “singletons”—that overly chirpy, Brit-inflected term. Time and again she has been lectured on the scarcity of men, the sorrows of solitude, and the Clomid-chomping horror of post-35 pregnancy attempts.

In fact, just a few months ago, Christine was out with friends when a pair of slightly older women launched into a jeremiad of dating and despair, imploring her to hold tight to her boyfriend, lest she wind up single and, gasp, 30-something, just like them. “It’s like I was being terrorized by these older women who were like, ‘Don’t let him go, there’s nobody out there!’” she recalled with an alarmed laugh. “I was really scared.”

No, I don’t think I will pardon the phrase, you brainless trend-zombie. For one thing, I don’t know whom to pardon: is that your phrase or Christine’s? Why didn’t you make that clear, you twit and a half?

May you and your very very serious, responsible editor be run over by a gigantic pram.

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I'm looking at...

...98 handwritten manuscript pages. This began as some 12 pages typed by my slow but small and select typist. That's 12 out of the 75 he typed for me altogether in the first small batch. So I pulled out one 12-page piece and have now expanded that piece until it is now, as I said, 98 handwritten pages. Which, of course, now need to be typed. Obviously I can't keep working like this. That initial 12 typed pages was an early piece, just a sketch. Now it's definitely not a sketch. It's dreadful to have put in all that time on these things and then look at them and realize that I haven't actually said some of the things I thought I said. So the rewrite of the last couple months (remember I'm working full time and commuting more than two hours a day and walking the dogs and trying to keep you all entertained here and occasionally -- very occasionally -- indulging in some small amusement) has been filling all these little holes that I could only see and fix when I got it typed.

Not everything I've written will get this treatment, mercifully. I'm hoping that the things that I did later -- like last fall and earlier this year -- are a little more fully written.

But the 98 pages represent one completed piece. I expect it will be a little shorter after it's typed as there is some crossing out and, I hope I'll find some stuff that I won't mind cutting. But even at, say, 75 pages it is an awkward length.

This one is about obeah, power, status, propriety, Jane Eyre, and Jean Rhys. And one pervert. See how silly that sounds?

If I have my typist do it it will take forever, and I've got some other things for him to work on so now I'm thinking I'll just type it myself. I'll have to see how many pages I can manage in a day. I'd like to say 10.

Anyway this is in case you were wondering what I've been doing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ain't That The Truth.

I don't run into much profound life truth in the material I edit but when I do I feel I should share it with my small and select readers:

Effects of uncertainties accompanied with usual errors emanating from estimation of demand prevent deterministic forecasts from representing an uncertain future.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Voice

Yesterday after work I walked out of the building and crossed the street and entered a strange scene. Ahead of me was a woman walking with a white cane. Instead of sweeping the ground with the cane she was tapping it hard, irregularly, as though she expected it to hit some hazard that she dreaded. Her progress was very slow, and the sense I got of her movements was that they were in that state you get into when nothing is making sense any more in what you are doing and you are just sort of whacking vaguely and randomly and helplessly. As I passed her I noticed that her face was red with rage and frustration. She was maybe in her early forties. Two women walking some distance behind were watching, but like me, they didn’t know what to do. I crossed the cobblestoned driveway of a courthouse, and there the blind woman stopped; she could feel the change in texture of the pavement but was too consumed with panic and frustration to know what it meant. If she could have calmed down she could have figured it out but she was way deep into confusion and rage. She stood there, slapping at the ground with the cane and stamping her feet, not uttering a sound, just livid, miserable.

Two black guys on bicycles came down the street and stopped at the corner,waiting to cross. Not spandex-and-water-bottle cyclists, but I-can’t-afford-a-car cyclists. One of them had dreadlocks. They looked like the sort of guys who in their younger days were always either being made to stop or being made to move on. The Invisible People of D.C.

I turned away from them towards the station, and then I heard, “Come on, baby.” It was a “velvety baritone.” Velvety and sweet and rich and solid. It could have been Lou Rawls, it could have been a Stylistic, or an O-Jay or a Temptation or an Ink Spot. It belonged to the cyclist with the dreadlocks. It was warm, intimate, reassuring. “Come on, baby.” I looked back. The whole scene had stopped. The blind woman was still stuck at the edge of the cobblestones, the two black guys were looking back, the two women bringing up the rear had stopped too. And now me. The foot stamping stopped; she was listening. “You all right now. Just come on straight.” Something relaxed; the woman reluctantly stepped forward onto the cobblestones and made her way, hesitant and then with more confidence, towards that marvelous voice. “Come on, baby. Come all the way to the corner.”

Monday, July 09, 2007

Is It Just Me?

So a couple weeks into this latest gig (a repeat of last year, you may recall) I was sitting in my cube editing away when this odd little man sort of blew by. He was a new face – he wasn’t from my part of the building. He was looking for someone in one of the offices nearby; had I seen him? No, he hadn’t been around all day.

Whereupon the man noticed my accent. And I noticed that there was something sort of disorganized about him, as if he had woken up in his car beside an empty beach bar and only had time to shave and splash some water on his face. He was even wearing a tropical print shirt. A weird sort of lack of gravitas, not completely grown up. Despite his completely white hair and moustache. So of course he asked where I was from and I told him, and he told me about how he had some friends in Puerto Rico who he used to visit a lot so he knew a little about the Caribbean. And then he said something about the Caribbean that prompted me to give one of my little on-the-spot information dumps – Did you know this? Or This? Or this? And no, he didn’t know that or this. He told me about his friends who he didn’t visit any more, but their children had all grown up and done well in their professions. He said, apologetically, that one daughter was teaching at the University there and consequently, to get on, you know, had to become a bit of a leftie. And somewhere near the end of the conversation I made a joke about terrorists giving the VP an apple-pie bed. And then he sort of blew away about his business, and I halfway hoped that my Cheney joke had scared him off.

Oh then weeks went by and there may or may not have been another encounter. I can’t remember, but I do remember that the first one was more than long enough. Like, you have to like someone a lot to want to talk to them for that long. And I only felt vaguely that I had been sort of whisked into whatever sort of dust devil blew him by my cube and then whisked out again after getting whirled around for too long.

So this morning I’m coming up out of the Metro station and he comes bounding up the stairs to catch up with me, and he’s beaming, apparently delighted to see me. We walked the half a block and he’s chatting now as if we are old friends. He’s late for a meeting. I made some joke about how it’s a pity you can’t just take a nap in a meeting really. He blamed it on the train and then he said something I didn’t quite get and then he mentioned Dick Cheney. And I made another joke about the VP that would be too tedious to explain. Whereupon this man said, “I rather like him, actually.” “Well, I suppose it takes all kinds,” I replied. “My brother likes him, but then my brother is an Angry White Black Man.” (This is sadly true. My brother is a long haul truck driver and spends his days listening to wingnuts on the radio and believes every word they say. Occasionally, if anyone is so incautious as to provoke him, he goes into a rant that would make Archie Bunker seem like a Unitarian minister.) So then this guy says, “Well, maybe I could become an Angry Black Man. I’m very well endowed.”

That’s when my presence of mind, the little I had of it at that moment, completely deserted me. I just turned and stared at him, wondering, “How the hell did I get here?” And then he laughed, rather disarmingly I must say. Apparently he was making a little joke against himself and it didn’t come off quite right, the whole conversation was an exchange of jokes that didn’t come off quite right. Or, I don't know, men are insane. I am completely at a loss. I am doing the world’s longest double-take.

Alan Wolfe on Russell Kirk:

Everything wrong with Kirk's conservatism can be found in his treatment of religion. When the moment comes that trite animadversions will no longer suffice and he must deal with an actual intellectual problem, Kirk runs away. The result is a denunciation of everything that we modern people do without any convincing account of how anything could be done differently. One knows this immediately, because as soon as Kirk arrives at his conundrum he does what all conservatives do when they find themselves in an impossible situation: he quotes Yeats's "The Second Coming," the most abused poem in the English language. However passionate everyone else may be and however blood-dimmed the world has become, Kirk assures his fellow conservatives, he is one of the best, full of conviction, holding to a center that everyone else has abandoned.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Tune Up

What I shall call a harmonic convergence of the Gods of Money enabled me this weekend to get new memory and a new OS installed in my little machine here. I really ought to call this computer Kia II. I went to the place with the cute Spanish guy who doesn't seem so cute now; I have a sneaking suspicion that he is the owner of the Humvee parked next to the shop. And that puts him completely beyond the pale. It was amazing really how this one errand -- a fifteen-minute drive from home -- managed to eat up so much of the day. Part of the reason was that I was booked for the evening. Mark P., and his wife M. invited me to go to a party with them. He called me Thursday about this and I agreed with a promptness that I regretted for every waking moment until I was actually dressed and in my car on my way to meet them.

What is that, anyhow?

I was very glad I went to the party, as it happened, it was a fundraiser in D.C., and interesting people were there, and I did a teeny tiny bit of good, and best of all I got in some talk with Mark P., who knows me so well that it is eerie. Many of the people who were at this thing were working on various causes. I was aware that I'm not working on any causes. I always feel such a frivolous person at such gatherings. But then this woman who works at NPR was there and someone was talking about why they don't listen any more and I said "I used to be a faithful listener. Now I can't listen because I get so angry I start swearing at the radio." Which is the gospel truth by the way. She said "Well, it's good that you engage with it." It was the sort of of crowd where people said "engage with" a lot. You see, I never use an expression like that. I think that proves that I'm illiterate. And then the others chimed in and when there was a pause I said well, rather a mouthful. Intellectual dishonesty of pundits, why did they hire a fundy creationist science reporter? I said it wasn't a matter of hearing opinions that I disagreed with, but a basic corruption of judgment that was beyond agreement or disagreement. These people got things wrong the same way week after week, and now they had a Creationism-flogging science reporter: "Why can't anybody figure this out? How hard can this be for the biggest public broadcasting news organization in the U.S.?" And that's when she ran out of the room. So much for my networking ability.

But for the days before this party all I thought of it was how it would disrupt the flow of my weekend. My weekends are not exactly a work of art, as regular readers well know. Usually the high point is the dog walk. But between the dog walk and the nap and the Noteobok writing sessions (at least two per weekend day) it does get filled up. And yet last week I went quite happily to that dance concert. So what was the difference? Some of it was social anxiety, the apprehension of going to a party with a whole bunch of people I don't know. I start out, as I do when searching for jobs, with the assumption that no one there would want to have anything to do with me. Which sort of almost guarantees that I will just be anticipating misery. This is what happened on July 4 as well, when my cousin took me to a party on the waterfront to watch the fireworks. I didn't want to go, but my dad, who was also invited, wanted to go. It was on a boat, and being a water rat he was curious, and to tell you the truth, anything that can give my father any pleasure in life in this barren exile he lives here is not to be refused. So we went and everybody was happy and I was a bit bored until the fireworks came on, but -- and this is important, people -- I wasn't bored and resentful.

Anyway I do feel the pull of my habits, and I find it rather surprising that I have habits. Pleasantly surprising, mostly. I feel like it's my highest aspiration in life to have a routine that makes me happy and enables me to work, not necessarily in that order. If I'm working I don't worry about whether I'm happy. I'm pretty much OK till I lift the pen from the paper or close the laptop and have to look about me again. I think there's supposed to be something more, though.

I could stand a little more financial security. I'd like a day job that was, like, a real job, i.e., had some relation to my abilities and interests. I'd like to get out more and meet more people and see more art and hear more music (provided they don't interfere with the writing habit) and there really are things I have to do that I'm finding it difficult to do now. I miss my friends. I miss all those books in that storage unit in California that I can't get to.

I wonder how come I'm not working as a journalist or as an academic. Where did I go wrong, is how that question comes to me sometimes. That diffidence, that conviction that I would not be wanted anywhere, is a big part of it. It's like I keep trying to squeeze myself into a smaller and smaller space. I think I am living inside my laptop, on the pages of the notebook, and at the end of the dog leash. It's a sort of defiant submission, it's fatalism. But maybe I'm missing something.

For example. A couple of months ago when I was working at the gummint, a friend here gave me a job listing for a BIG MAJORLY AWESOME editing job. Senior editor at a Very Important Quasi-Gummint Institution, the money was unbelievable, too, and my mother would be bragging about me for the rest of her days. From the job description I knew that I was qualified, it was the same subject matter I'd been working on for the past year, a little bit technical, a little bit legal, a little bit economic. I knew that I could do the job, but I did not believe that I could persuade anyone that I could do the job. So last week I learned that this same friend (who has a pretty good gummint job except he's overworked and it's a bit of a madhouse) applied for it Senior Editor job and got an interview. And what he learned at the interview was that, in his words, "It was more what you do than what I do." He anticipated a rather steep learning curve.

I'm not saying this a bit resentfully. I was delighted that he felt adventurous and got the interview. When he expressed some doubt about his ability to do it I assured him he could learn everything in a few months. I don't think I convinced him of this but I tried. I mean, if I had got the mere interview for this job I would be able to believe that I was a plausible candidate.

At my own suggestion, my mother now calls me her Idiot Child. And when I told Mark P. the story he said, "Do you have some kind of death wish?" Well, to be fair, when I was depressed I did. But I haven't been depressed or experienced anything quite like that since the night I had to actually fight someone for my life. It was kind of a life-changing experience. I've been sad and angry and anxious and tired and fed up and disgusted, lots, but not depressed like I used to be. I was pulling out of my last depression just before the attack, oddly.

I do great interviews. I can only remember one really bad interview in recent history, and it was for a job near where I live. I didn't really want the job. My friend Tomar had called me and told me not to even bother. "You'll hate it," she said. I knew she was right. I didn't like the guy who interviewed: the number of men I can stand the sight of in a yellow polo shirt is very small. I mean, if I love you you can wear just about anything, but if you are an unprepossessing stranger the yellow polo shirt will drag you down. I believe it may even have had some sort of golf-related heraldry on it. Which puts you right down among the Humvee owners, frankly. Anyway I chattered on, aware that I was losing the guy and really unable to do anything about it. After about five years of this conversation I made my escape. Even when I interview with actual humans I have the suspicion that they don't want someone who is quite so much of a human as I am.

I just don't want to enter a fight I believe I have no chance of winning. It feels like added trouble when I've already got enough on my hands. But I realize that the flaw in this is the conviction that I don't have a chance of winning. I've got to overcome this, not in some totally non-reality-based way, but enough to make that little bit of an effort to actually play so I can actually find out what will actually happen. Attention to this is required.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Usual Mess

Judge Jan Harmen Bosch of the Court of First Instance had considered it proven that the now 22-year-old man from Guadeloupe had committed an act of public violence in which he had inflicted severe bodily harm upon Ryan Smith and Richard Jefferson, two homosexuals from the United States, with a wheel wrench near Sunset Beach Bar on April 6, 2006.

This conviction was mainly based on the statement of one of the victims who said he recognised his attacker by his “pom-pom” hairstyle.

After Javois had launched his appeal several witnesses were heard who indicated that Javois was not the man with that hairstyle. Therefore, the judges of the Appeal Court found it could not be convincingly proven that Javois had been the man who had been wielding the wheel wrench.

I haven't been following this case closely and only came across this story by accident today. I suppose the remaining three years were for that part of his participation that did not involve the use of the wheel wrench.

As for the idea that this clown or any of the others were "offended" -- don't believe it for a minute. They beat these guys up for the pleasure of it. In the Caribbean a homosexual man is someone who can be mocked, harassed, beaten and vilified with impunity - in the abstract or in the flesh. Beating these two men up was a good time for the participants. And when they went into the court and said they did it because they were "offended" they were appealing to the bigotry of the court and the public. You can understand how deeply we were offended, your honor, we got completely carried away. Lie. In a just world, such an argument would have doubled their sentences.

The idea that these beach loafers suddenly turned into morally sensitive souls at the sight of the victims would be laughable if the outcome hadn't been so horrible.

It's all about the perception of power. Morality doesn't enter into it at all.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

He Had Their Number

Benjamin Constant>

Almost all men are obsessed by the desire to prove that they are greater than they are; writers are obsessed by the desire to prove that they are statesmen. Consequently, throughout the centuries all great operations of extrajudiciary force, all recourse to illegal measures in situations of danger, have been recounted with respect, described with satisfaction. The author, seated tranquilly at his desk, casts opinions in all directions and tries to infuse his own style with the rapidity he advocates for decision making; he momentarily believes himself invested with power, as he preaches its abuses; and his speculative life is fired with all the demonstrations of force and power with which he embellishes his sentences. Thus, he endows himself with something of the pleasure of authority. He repeats at the top of his voice high-sounding words about the people’s salvation, the supreme law, the public interest; he waxes ecstatic at his own profundity and is amazed at his own energy. Poor fool! He speaks to men who ask nothing better than to listen to him and who, at the earliest opportunity, will use him to test his theory.

This vanity, which has distorted the judgment of so many writers, has created more difficulties than one would think during our civil conflicts. All the mediocre spirits who have won a share of authority were inflated with these maxims, which stupidity welcomed all the more readily since they served to cut the knots it could not disentangle. The fools dreamed of nothing but measures of public safety, great measures, coups d’état.

(Benjamin Constant On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, quoted in The Ruin of Kasch by Roberto Calasso.)

Monday, July 02, 2007

My People

Sunday I went to see “Latido Negro,” a performance of Afro-Peruvian dance and music at the Gala Theater. It was a small group, maybe eight people altogether.

It had the barest sketch of a story line in the first act, all for the purpose really of dramatically explaining some of the historical context for these dances and how the form came to be what it is. A theater group (like the one we were watching) sits around getting ready to rehearse, talking about what the style of their work represents. They don’t seem to sure about it but it doesn’t seem like they need to be. Along with this are little bits of comedy, music and dance. In the second act it’s all traditional dances and songs with the whole range of influences –- Waltzes, African dances, music played on instruments that the slaves invented when the Spanish banned their use of drums; vendor songs, a “devil dance.”

If you grew up in the Caribbean all this would seem familiar right away. I grew up hearing the songs of the peanut vendor and “Fudgie” (all the vendors who sold popsicles and ice cream were called “Fudgie”). The devil dance was great fun, and related, I’m sure, to the jonkanoo dancers who appear around Christmas in Jamaica and to the masquerade in St. Kitts, among others. The old shango religion made an appearance. The dancers went at it with energy, charm and a sense of fun, and of course there was a lot of hip waggling and flirting in all of it – one dance involves each woman trying to light a red fabric “tail” that hung from the seat of her male partner’s trousers.

The raciness of the dances too, was tamer than it would have been. I mean, I see a direct line between this sort of thing and the current style of dancing that has the church crowd complaining all over the Caribbean. That line passes through Calypso, and through the origins of calypso in little songs that the slaves and ex-slaves made up about their masters and each other. At Christmas time in the Caribbean, at least, the slaves were given a few days to celebrate, and they celebrated with this jubilant, raunchy defiance.

Even though I had never seen these particular dances, and even though the performance really was pleasing, I knew, watching them, that the real thing was way more intense than what we were seeing. I know, from experience, that real jonkanoo on the street can be menacing. You aren’t sure if they are playing or genuinely trying to shake you down, and that ambiguity is fearful. The jonkanoo dancers I saw in Jamaica as a child took a certain pleasure in being scary.

And yet even though as I say this was relatively tame and out of context I felt a sort of proud pleasure in it all. As though these forms and themes, extending throughout South America and into the Caribbean, represented a common experience, and it is, simply, the experience of those who were brought to those places as slaves, and of what they and their descendants managed to invent for themselves out of their circumstances. It bespoke such intelligence and spirit. It reminded me, too, of how the music made its way around the Caribbean. In early calypso the Latin influence is more marked. There was much more regional movement before the Second World War. Caribbean people went to Venezuela, to Cuba, to Panama to work on the canal. They went where opportunity was, mostly. They picked up the music and bits of language. (One trope of early calypsos was the one where the singer shows off the Spanish he has picked up). Many folk songs mention sailing in schooners among the islands, to Venezuela, leaving the little girl in Kingston. Working sailboats traveled the waters. One of my great-grandfathers operated one of these, carrying goods between Black River and Kingston. Another great-grandfather migrated to Jamaica from Columbia. My father and his brothers and sister called this grandfather "Papi." Soem of the relatives settled in Costa Rica and live there still.

Nowadays regional migration is Haitians, Dominicans, and Guyanese. Those are the three countries with the worst economies; Haiti, of course, has other dangers. There is also a little bit of Jamaican migration too. I am not sure if that's regional as just Jamaicans as usual turning up everywhere.

The choreographer for this show is Lalo Izquierdo and if you ever see his name on a program for anything you had better go. He’s the real thing – a physical comedian of subtlety and great resources. A short, middle-aged man with the complete opposite of anybody’s idea of the ideal dancer’s body, he had what I can only call intelligence of bodily expression. Whatever he was supposed to be feeling, the balance between tact and fullness of expression always seemed perfect, the purest concentration. He drew attention without trying to upstage anybody, you were drawn by the intensity of his energy to take an interest in what interested him. It was extraordinary. And he could dance too.

Also the other lead guy in the show, Rafael Santa Cruz, who also directed it, was the most beautiful black man I have ever seen. One more hour in that theater and I would have followed him home. Since his role in the performance was to sort of act as a narrator and interpreter and witness to the goings-on, he was on the stage a lot and I did enjoy seeing him. (Fans self.)

And there was one Peruvian woman, older, who sang with a lovely, ringing voice that reminded me of Celia Cruz. There were at least two other terrific voices, both male tenors kind of like Pio Leyva, in the small cast. How come this singing is so marvelously resonant and expressive? I mean, how come there are lots of people who sing like that there but nobody sings like that here, if you see what I mean? And what about the way it seems to come as easy as talking?

Of course on my way home I had to listen to some Mexican music. I would have listened to Cuban music but Mexican was all I had in the car. Why do these songs get to me? Therapists and friends, Dear Abby, all the voices of health and sanity tell me that the frame of mind that these songs express is unhealthy. But no, I listen to, say, this Lila Downs song, and

….Si te cuentan que me vieron muy borracha
Orgullosamente diles que es por tí,
Porque yo tendré el valor de no negarlo
Gritaré que por tu amor me estoy matando,
Y sabras que por tus besos me perdí.

Para de hoy y adelante el amor no me interesa
Cantaré por todo el mundo
Mi dolor y me tristeza.
Porque sé que de este golpe ya no voy a levanterme
Y aunque yo no lo quisiera
Voy a morirme de amor.

If they tell you that they saw me very drunk,
Proudly tell them that it is because of you,
Because I will have the courage not to deny it.
I will cry that because of your love I am killing myself
And you will know that because of your kisses I was lost.

From today on, love doesn’t interest me.
I will sing my pain and sadness everywhere.
Because I know that from this blow I shall never rise,
And although I didn’t wish it,
I shall die of love.

Damn! I know what this feels like!

Of course, it never does you a bit of good with the other party to carry on this way. This is the phone call that a glass of wine will tempt you to make. It is the phone call you must not make. Better to call a friend and go out and do some nasty dancing. But you won’t, will you? Fine. Call, get it over with quickly, and then go to bed and cry yourself to sleep.