gall and gumption

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gade Deye

In my last year of high school I lived with my family in St. Croix, USVI. St. Croix, in a neighborhood called Estate St. George. It was west of the middle of the island but not all the way west. It had been, like many St. Croix neighborhoods, an old sugar estate, and near the entrance to our road the ruins of the great house and the old sugar plant still stood, in process of being restored as a sort of historical park. But it was still partly being hacked out of the guinea grass that grew in the fields where the cane used to grow. Our house was uphill from the great house, in a relatively new subdivision of houses that were probably built in the 1960s. It faced south, looking across the cane fields at a stand of woods, beyond which was pretty much more empty fields and then the sea. Nothing. Above us on our street the road eventually turned back downhill without penetrating further into St. Croix's central mountain range. So we were, in effect, on a hillside.

You must imagine a very quiet place--no traffic to speak of, except one neighbor or another slowly driving by. A half a mile's walk in any direction led you into thickets of woods or dense growths of guinea grass.

But at night we would hear music. It came from the bottom of the hill northeast of us. Over there was a public housing project called "The Grove" and near to it, a drive-in movie theater that was slowly going out of business--would have gone already perhaps had it not rediscovered itself as a nightclub and concert venue. The prevailing wind, blowing from the east, would carry the sounds right into our bedrooms, late into the night. The bands had names we had never heard of before, and mostly never heard again: one group I remember was called "Milo and the Ten Sleepless Nights." I used to think that they just let anybody play there, and concluded that there was an insatiable demand for local bands that nobody had ever heard of, because apparently crowds of people were turning up for these shows every weekend. I was missing something--that some great music was being played there and that was why the crowds were showing up. It was really that simple. But things that simple were hard for me to get in those days.

So perhaps you need to understand another thing about St. Croix in those days; it was a very socially segregated society. The native Virgin Islanders and the down-islanders mixed socially, but they did not mix with the Statesiders, mostly white, who had settled on the islands. Neither group mixed much with the Puerto Ricans who made up a huge part of the population there. My brother and I socialized with the Statesiders, mainly because we went to school with them, our fathers, engineers, may of them, all worked at either Martin Marietta's bauxite plant or at the Hess oil refinery. Within the communities of the two plants there were exceptions to the segregation, but the general pattern was that way, and within the plants professionals and their children didn't mix it up much outside of work with the blue-collar people. A considerable number of the blue-collar workers at both plants were from down-island, from Antigua, Martinique, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, every island in the Eastern Caribbean. The accents! Among them, probably, were some who sent greetings home via Radio Antilles.

But their world was socially separate from the one my brother and I were born into, and separate from the one in which we found ourselves in St. Croix. Young and sheltered, feeling imprisoned, we lay in our rooms at night and listened to the sounds that drifted over from a nightclub where for any number of reasons we would not have dared to go. Thankfully, we are both over that foolishness!

The voice of the MC would be perfectly loud and clear as if he was shouting into the mike not far from our windows. And the music would come too. What we heard was, among other things, this:

And this:

(One night my brother made a tape recording of the music. He kept it for years, the way he does with a few precious objects of almost no value but great personal significance like his 40-year-old pillow). One night, years after we had left St. Croix for good, he played it for me and my mother at our apartment in California. What we noticed first was the roar of crickets and night creatures, peeper frogs, geckos, the whole singing buzzing chirping peeping, grunting humming animal kingdom of the night. And sort of weaving faintly but clearly through it, the music, so very distinctly itself, so insinuating, so sweet, and, on those nights in St. Croix, all we had heard.)

That tape recording happened because my brother, who was what you could call a "late bloomer" suddenly developed a passion for music--specifically, this music. And somehow at the same moment he sort of stepped forth fully formed as it were out of his solitude--it was like he wasn't going to pretend to be an adult till he could do it perfectly--and found a social life and friends among a bunch of Creole-speaking down-islanders. He even learned to dance, a thing that I never imagined would happen--he was very shy and very withdrawn as a teenager, hardly spoke. But when he started to dance to this music, it was as if he had done it all his life.

His passion for this music was like an obsession; he found the record shop where these songs were sold, and he bought the records and listened to his favorites over endlessly. There was one surreal night when I went out in a group with my cousin Mike, my friend D., and her brother and sister for a night on the town. D., and her brother and sister lived next door to us, they were Jamaican and worked at the plant too but they were strict Baptists and played hymns on the piano and spent almost the whole day in church every Sunday. But D. had now been at college for a year and rebellion, smoldering quietly for years, had finally broken out. We all went to meet our other friends at a nightclub in Fredericksted where a sort of reggae-rock band was playing. This strange wild tall thin man in a big hat was the lead singer and he had the whole place spellbound. Around 2 a.m. we returned home, D. having put away a decent quantity of vodka-mixed-with-something-dreadful but still clear-headed, just angry. Their father met them at the door when we pulled up and forbade them to enter the house. These were the good kids! Now they were really angry. So they all came trooping over to my house (my father and stepmother were off-island and the woman they had left to housesit had gone off with her boyfriend), and we sat up late into the night and D., angrier than all the rest of them put together, steadily worked away at a bottle of vodka and then nearly got into a fight with her brother when he tried to take it away, which was only a brief interruption to the way she was mainly passing the time: brooding and playing this one song (I think it was a Barry Manilow song) on the stereo, over and over. It was about this time that my brother arrived home from his late night out, his head full of romance and Creole music. "You have to listen to this," he said, and he put on one of his favorites and then, as if he couldn't help himself, began dancing, short shuffling steps and the most discreet but totally committed swinging of the hips, done to perfection. All of this with that simplicity and single-mindedness that are my brother's two leading characteristics and that baffle everyone who knows him. The fact that half the B. children had been kicked out of their house for going out drinking at night and were now camped out in our living room was just--well, an opportunity for him to listen to this wonderful song. They were tired and cranky and they didn't want to listen to it, and he simply couldn't understand it, he was sure they would be thrilled when they heard it, so completely abandoned to it he was.

My brother had fallen in love with a musical genre that had only been in existence for about three years: cadence. This music came into existence in the Creole-speaking islands of the Eastern Caribbean--in Martinique, Dominica, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe. They added something to Haitian music, which was of course sung in Creole also. But it is a distinct sound. It came from Dominica which in the early 1970s was an even smaller more remote and sleepier place than it is now. Zouk is a later form of it, but this was the original, the raw material, it wasn't all that far in time or place from the instant when the spark struck and it went from being village music to world music. Now, it seems like a wonderful gift to have been able to experience it just coming in through the window as simply as the sounds of peeper frogs.

Eventually despite his best care my brother lost the tape and the records in his adventures somewhere. And that was that. Then a couple of months ago he got an iPod. Since he realized that he can find cadence on the Internet he has been on an obsessive quest, finding all the old songs on obscure music sites, a few on YouTube, and sending links to me: "You've got to listen to this," as if 30 years hadn't passed. Once again, it's all he talks about.

The groups he likes best are Grammacks (probably the best known of them), Exile One, and Reflex. There are others though, and this is his area of expertise, not mine, so I'm sure I'm missing some. But I found that hearing those songs was like a kick in the head, they had gotten inside of me too. We've both got them on our iPods now, unfortunately without the singing of the night creatures. I try to imagine them back in, though.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Everybody Peepin'

Now that it's dark early and the gardens are pretty much finished for the year, on my dog walks at night I like looking at the windows of houses. In Iowa, when I lived there, I'd walk at nights with the late lamented Linus the streets with all those lovely old houses and the light inside so warm and it was very evocative for me. I wasn't curious about the people in them, I just liked the light, the color of it. I think the only way I can describe the feeling (I was very alone there, loneliness was the defining experience of that place for more than a few people), is that I would picture myself living an interesting life there--something easy and warm, not like my lonely anxious one. So it was nicer if the rooms were empty, if they had books on the shelves or nice furniture, or interesting objects on the walls and shelves and looked lived in. But then often I'd see the blue glow of the TV set and it would sort of break the little spell I was under.

When I ride public transit, I look at what people are reading. I suppose there, too, I'm looking for something like me. But about half the people I see reading are reading Malcolm Gladwell books. This I find even more depressing than the TV. I remember trying to slog my way through his New Yorker pieces from time to time, and giving up in the face of the unremitting dullness. It was worse than John McPhee, it was like after McPhee, Gladwell stepped up to carry on that mysterious New Yorker tradition of the interminable piece--you keep turning pages looking at the cartoons and ads and glancing hopefully at the text and by God, no, it's still going!--that no one reads except, for your sins, some geezer at a party who corners you and tells you about it at length. And of course if you say you can't read Malcolm Gladwell, when you finally get a word in, they are either wounded or assume you're illiterate and lacking in taste. OK me. That sort of thing happens to me.

Popper says that interesting hypotheses take risks; if they're wrong they'll be unambiguously wrong because they are sufficiently specific to be wrong, or at least specific enough for disagreement or questions to take hold of something substantive. Gladwell's writing leaves me persuaded only that whatever he's saying, the opposite is probably true too, he's going to say so several dull paragraphs later, and I can't bring myself to care much either way.

Here's some Hazlitt meanwhile.

It is only with very vigorous or very candid minds, that the understanding exercises its just and boasted prerogative and induces its votaries to relinquish a profitable delusion and embrace the dowerless truth. Even then they have the sober and discreet part of the world, all the bons peres de famille, who look principally to the main chance, against them, and they are regarded as little better than lunatics or profligates to fling up a good salary and a provision for themselves and families for the sake of that foolish thing, a Conscience! With the herd, belief on all abstract and disputed topics is voluntary, that is, determined by considerations of personal ease and convenience, in the teeth of logical analysis and demonstration, which are set aside as mere waste of words. In short, generally speaking, people stick to an opinion that they have long supported and that supports them.
Literary Remains

Marvin Mudrick taught his students not to be afraid of generalizations; you throw out a conjecture based on your sense of the subject, you are trying to build something, you should not be punished for it. If it's wrong, you change it or abandon it. The aim and end of it was to think better, act better, and find life more interesting. This is something a bit more than being able to do a creditable impression of a respectable dullard.

Sometimes it seems to me that we move through the world sort of paddling through the sludge of what everybody supposedly thinks about everything. I suppose I do too; I know there are all sorts of areas in which I don't think clearly at all, and when I feel incompetent I will probably grab blindly at whatever looks like common sense. Then later I discover that what I thought was common sense was just a reflection of my own temper of mind, the way I habitually think or not-think.

Most of my blind spots are close to me, though. I know I think by habit about those things. That's why my hair looks the way it does, for instance. I don't think clearly about my own feelings about people, so I try not to think about such feelings at all--except when I like the people and the feelings. But even those feelings sometimes just have to be ignored along with the others--and I can only ignore them for a while. I can see them in the corners of the room, holding their breath and blowing themselves up like Thanksgiving Day parade balloons, leering at me. Anxiety, Fear, Irritability, Guilt, Sadness, with their big cartoon faces. Oh, and that hissing noise? That's Infatuation deflating itself.

In other words I don't even pretend to conduct the life of my mind on purely rational principles. People who tell me that their opinions are based solely on objective facts and completely free of bias just give me the creeps. If they really believe it, they've been mis-educated; if they don't believe it but want me to believe it they are liars and bullies, and I can't deal with them for long without risking some sort of Loss of Temper event. There are people in my life who think that because I don't profess this sort of objectivity I must be incapable of it. I do not say that I am completely unsusceptible to self-deceit. I only know that I am not susceptible to that one. It's not a visible skill; it's not like being able to draw superheroes or get my dog to do tricks. This is one of those skills that if you don't have it you are likely to believe that 1) no such thing can possibly exist; or 2) it does exist and only a few geniuses have it and I (that is, me, Kia, your friend, hello! [waving]) do not look like the sort of person who has it; or 4) you have it in spades because you are as reasonable as a human being can or need be.

I am aware that a lot of people are afraid to be seen to be in error, and they protect themselves from this embarrassment by confining what they say to what (they believe) no right thinking person would ever disagree with; that is, tautology. But there's another thing too. When I was at my last job there was a woman who sort of glommed on to me, and considered me her particular friend because I had been kind to her on her first day. She had had some hard hits in life and now she was an editor and she had also just been laid off from a publishing company that, apparently, had an abusive corporate culture, the kind where everyone is kept in a state of terror and anticipation of backstabbing. She was a little frightened on her first day at the place where we both worked, and I just reassured her that she was among the kindest people and she herself came to see that after a while. But after that she would drop into my cube to complain about things or to try to get me to eat chocolate.

Oh, don't go psychoanalyzing people! you say. Listen. We would have these editorial meetings at work, one a week. Once I brought up a style issue that was sort of subtle, about an increasingly common misuse of the infinitive. It's hard to explain this thing because, like a dangling modifier, it's different every single time and you have to find the place where the logic went wrong. At the same time it looks all right, just as a dangling modifier does. So I had collected several examples from the journal I was editing, and brought them. Some people couldn't quite spot what the issue was, and I kept trying to explain it: not everyone in the room was a copy editor, and even among those who were some didn't see it. So I pressed on, fully aware that that even if they did get it everyone might agree that it wasn't worth bothering about, as far as they were concerned. Which would have been all right, you know, that's the editing business: you can't expect to have things all your own way. But while I felt that people weren't seeing the problem I of course kept trying to explain it so they could see it.

And then I began to be aware that someone was, figuratively speaking, firing spitwads at me. It was this woman. She was making these little jokes, these little humorous put-downs of my eccentric behavior in persisting with this matter. Apparently I had crossed some invisible line of decorum that existed entirely in her head. Let me see if I can lay out the thinking: first, she was afraid of the risks I was taking and was, in effect, making these little jokes that were intended to put me in my place and dissociate herself from the embarrassment she was sure I was bringing on myself; second, it was a wonderful opportunity for her to reaffirm her commitment to never departing from the straight and narrow path of acceptable opinion; third, a suspicion, on her part, that I was pressing this point not because I was interested in a thing but because I was making a claim for attention--more attention than I in my position deserved; teensy weensy bit of bully? yes, probably, but only I think because she had been bullied and frightened half out of her wits for all those years at her previous job. That is, I don't think she was evil.

But that's when I become evil. Because I take a deep satisfaction in seeing such efforts fail, so I like to make sure that they do. If she thought I was talking crazy before she started dropping hints...