ebogjonson.com's haiti archiveland of my fathers and mothers; haitian politics, history, immigration, and other borderlands
February 12, 2007
best laid plannery
So no sooner do I (kinda) (plan to) get back up on the proverbial blogging horse than I find myself rushing off to Miami all in a tizzy, all my plans for a powerfully focused and active ebog February falling to the proverbial wayside somewhere between LAX and MIA. What happened is that the 89-year-old Haitian woman who raised me and my sister, who has lived in my parents' home since I was born as an occasionally confusing combo of grandmother, nanny and companion (to my mother since Dad died, that is) had a series of mild heart attacks starting two Thursday's ago. Since then her prognosis, diagnosis and planned course of treatment has been flipping from cloudy to underdetermined and back on a daily basis, so I'll likely be in Miami until the dust clears one way or the other. As a result I haven't really been able to focus on the blog until today.
After the initial heart attack (described as mild, in so much as any 89 year-old's ticker trouble is mild), my big fear was that I wouldn't get to FL in time. I got on the first LAX>MIA flight I could, completely freaked out and convinced that I'd arrive to find Saint Anne (dig those crazy rural Haitian first names!) already quite cool to the touch and stiff on a slab in a morgue, much as I found my father after getting the "come right away" call. I have no distinct memories of those last moments with my (un-embalmed) dad, my first moments of being, as my shrink put it, "fatherless in the world," but I do vividly recall the morgue attendant, who was this gigantic, Ruben Studdard-looking gent. There in the middle of my shock and grief at finding my father a corpse, dude starts humming and singing like he's in church, this before abruptly jumping up from behind his desk, launching himself across the few feet between us and throwing me in an inescapable bear-hug. He quite literally cooed at me, going, "It's okay, big man. No shame in a grown man crying for his daddy," and after struggling in vain to get away for a few seconds, I, needless to say, gave in to his embrace and bawled like a baby against his chest. That incident has since morphed into a favorite anecdote of mine, and in the process it has rather completely overwritten memories that should have been filed under "last moments with father," leaving me instead with a file marked "first/only moments with Ruben Studdard-looking morgue-attendant." Which is obviously neither here nor there when it comes to the question of fathers and fatherless-ness.
(Although, not quite. There is likely a short story somewhere in the above, where the state of living without a father begins with the protag's surrender to the loving embrace of a brother who happen to be bigger and stronger than he is. I'll give the story away open-source-ish to the group blogmind, but the stipulation is that whoever takes it has to write the same story three times: once as a queer love story, once as a kind of afrocentric-journey story, and once as a black frat pledge story.)
Anyway, when I got to Miami I learned that Saint Anne's condition is an attenuated kind of dire wherein she is in no particular pain, doesn't seem to be in danger of dying within any given, coming 48 hour span, and yet also manages to present something of a mystery to her doctors. They've switched her blood pressure meds this way and that, and then they put a pacemaker in (a freshly minted cyborg!), this on the theory that the paced ticker would allow for more aggressive treatment of her hypertension. They let her out of the hospital a day after her surgery, too soon perhaps as she was back in the ER a few days later complaining of chest pains. Now they are keeping her for extended observation and talking obstruction, cardiac catheterization, radioactive dye, clots in her legs and so on. There is blood in her urine and they are worried about her kidneys. They have detected anemia, want to check the color of her stool. No one has said the C-word, but the docs seem to think something is putting additional strain on her heart and organs. They say everything really, then they cap it off by saying "she's 89," like this should explain something.
The doctors and nurses also keep insisting she's a fighter, which I guess is true although it strikes me that that what she's actually doing is closer to maintaining. Saint Anne is already in her 50s and 60s in the bulk of my conscious memories of her, I can recall her nimbly darting into traffic after my toddling sister when she must have been almost 70. Even now she could pass for a hard-living recent retiree. I could picture her living a thousand years, is what I'm saying, shaking her head the way she does whenever she settles down to some annoying (yet integral) task of caretaking, putting her shoulder to 900 more years of arthritis, implants, diabetes, eye surgery, complaining high yellow brats and so on. "Fighting" to me suggests clawing one's way towards the better, whereas Saint Anne's energies have largely been directed towards the maintenance of a never-ending steady state. Her favorite show is Matlock, her only vice is decaf coffee, her favorite verbal interjection, this for use once she's stopped listening to you and needs to get on with her day, is (in kreyol) "have courage, my brother/sister! Have courage!" Maintain it is.
It's actually enormously difficult for me to write about Saint Anne without worrying that my words are going to fail her, that I'm going to get her story wrong. I feel that in addition to sitting at her bedside and interrogating doctors I owe her some or another accurate form of, well, analysis. Her life with us has always seemed to me as having built into it a broad range of inequities, so getting her story all fuck wrong would be insult added to injury, not what you want to do for someone during their (maybe) last days. My main fear isn't so much error as self-service, self-protection. I worry that I'm trying to alternately/simultaneously extract absolution and an exquisite, related form of indictment from her story. My relationship to her binds up so many of my most thorn-laden life strands that I have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for taking them in hand and untangling - that is, until there's a need for me to stand a particular kind of tall, to show the (reading) world my palms and bleed from them in public, to display various forms of bravery, clear-headedness, insight.
Another problem about writing about Saint Anne is that doing so makes my mother somewhat uncomfortable and unhappy. She once came across an essay I wrote in college that seemed (to her) to question her unitary maternal primacy, this in favor of the notion that Ebog (kinda) had two mommies. (Not because anyone was particularly dyke-ish, but because someone was born lighter and richer than someone else.) The spectacle of my mother's persistent confusion and hurt in response to thinking about Saint Anne in certain ways has always given me an inordinate amount of satisfaction, suggesting to me that I clutch my version of Saint Anne's story closer my breast precisely when I want to indict my biological mother for something, for being a certain kind of uncritical Haitian, say, or for not buying me that TCR racetrack I wanted.
I worry that I scrutinize Saint Anne's lot in life not to improve it but in order to make myself feel different from and better than my parents and their generation, which is a bit of a pickle, as this "better" and "different" thinking also involves my feeling, well, kind of white or, at least white-ish. I find myself immediately converted into a kind of cliché, a light child protesting that the dark woman who cared for him really was a member of the family, that his love really is a mitigation of the ways she's been screwed by various histories and people, some of them his blood relations. Even if I take myself at my word about the love and family and mitigation thing, the scenario is still a tornado of wild, often unfortunate association, something that is liable at any moment to lift me up and away from my usual zones (fantasies?) of solidarity and community in order to deposit me in nabes (shoes?) where the white folks live, some of whom I have likely been berating for various, taxonomically similar and often circumstantial sins since god knows when.
Of course, quite literally billions of people have been mothered by poorer, darker, whatever-er women since time immemorial, several hundred million such pairings at least producing bonds of genuine and mutual adoration that neither sum up to nor reduce to the circumstances/conditions of the caregiver's employment. My own such relationship has instructive nuances, but when I was a freaked-out, over-thinking kid, I had no idea what a nuance was, no predisposition to look for one as a neat, counter-intuitive way to navigate a situation. (Did I even have a predisposition for the counter-intuitive then?) I had to feel/think the whole thing through on the fly for myself, blind, under-educated (that is, young), all of that under the most stressful circumstance possible, i.e., under the hot spotlight of some kid asking exactly who that person living in our house was who didn't look like us and seemed to be doing all the woman's work. That kid might not have known shit, but unconvincing BS? Verbal laziness? Shame? Fear? All that, dudes could smell.
Because I was a teacher's pet-type, I proceeded from the foundational premise that there was a "right answer," something that would be true, (2+2 equals 4 under all meaningful circumstances, sorry) but that would also get me out of the social bind implicit in the question, its allegation of difference. Cube the above by the fact that I had distinct home (a middle-class African American block), school (a white Catholic school), and family (multihued bourgie Haitian) constituencies and my answer both called for and instilled in me a certain measure of (if I say so myself) clinicism and conceptual virtuosity. (Or is that another name for good bullshit?) For example, "the maid" was overly blunt, cruel and inaccurate, whereas "babysitter" implied that I was a "baby" and was also inadequate to the scope of how Saint Anne and my family had become intertwined and interpenetrated. And while the words "my nanny," are today liable to roll effortlessly off the tongue of every black media-hipster brat in Park Slope, such affectations didn't exist for me in 1970s Queens, calling for a discussion of class, Haitian history, diaspora, exile and so on that I technically wouldn't be able to moderate until I was, predictably enough, at Yale. (Or, as I would put it for a few too many years, when I "went to school in New Haven.")
"My aunt" or (as the years rolled on) "my grandmother" was wrong but it did get me closer to a few useful ideas, like how my family in Haiti ran a bakery and has a congenital, self-serving tendency to blur the line between "relative" and "employee." This genre of answer, though, risked my interlocutor doing a quick phenotype check and bringing things back to the initial, foundational instability about what it was I "was." A real stumper, that. Just as my parents had cornered me exactly once to talk about sex, they had had exactly one conversation with me about race, this to rather mysteriously explain that I should NEVER let any white American talk down to me seeing how there were thousands of said white folk living in Appalachia with six fingers and six toes on each and every hand and foot. ("Primitives, really," my father would say, peering over his copy of Popular Science.)
My sister can keep me honest on this, but my super-light, Haitian exile parents arrived here with a foreign and largely inapplicable (to Queens) racial self-concept, so I've always fantasized that I was the one who contracted the local strain of "race" from the kids (black and white) on the conceptual mid-70s street and brought it home the flu, promptly infecting everyone else in our house. Everyone, of course, except for Saint Anne, whose very presence in our home suggested everyone at the address had survived earlier, un-discussed pandemics, that actually there was more at play at 116-68 227th than just immigrant ignorance about US racial history/hang-ups, like complicity, self-denial, desire and fantasy. A mass of completely native history and ideology and personal bullshit so huge (and so growing!) that eventually my schema had no choice but to fall in on itself, collapsing into a mixed-metaphor of such density and gravity and strangeness that it proceeded to eat my entire life, sure, but in the process also opened up, you know, wormholes, some of them leading to quite wonder-filled (and profitable) zones of thought and experience that I would never have had access to otherwise.
In so much as I have a (wackjob) thesis about race and identity in America, it's the product of the compression and fireworks that went off in my head every time the street/school-yard forced me to come up with answers about who I was in relationship to Saint Anne. Like I said, that answer that had to serve many, many masters and highest among them was, of course, Saint Anne herself. A good little Catholic boy to the core, I tended to become most desperately afraid of disappointing people precisely at the moment I was sure my choice would safely escape their notice, and, for simple reasons of scale, I was therefore constantly afraid of disappointing Saint Anne. The high hedges of age, language, nationality, immigration, temperament, literacy, class, color and so on meant that the zone of free will created away from Saint Anne (the zone where I would literally show my true colors) seemed to my child's eye to encompass the entire world of "American" people, places, ideas and things outside our home. I was a normal enough kid (meaning I did the expected share of dirt), but whenever I found myself explicitly pondering moral dilemmas "WWSAS?" (what would Saint Anne say?) was an early litmus test that has never failed me, fuck teachers, mentors, theorists, peers, therapists and so forth. I have espoused countless ideas precisely because I figured my parents would disapprove of them, but with exception of, well, vice (the proverbial drinkin', druggin' and fuckin') I can't think of a single thing I believe in or do that if sat down to talk to her about it would bring that sad look of disappointment into her eyes. (Well, when I was 11 or so I once pranked called the house from down the block and said I was immigration, but she recognized my voice.) Her pride in me has been so consistent, her belief that I will do the right thing so intrinsic (in that she has little lived connection with the particulars of much of what of I do, like make blackface charts) that all I can do is be humbled and grateful for her faith in me, make sure I carry my imagined sense of her take on things with me everywhere I go.
(WWSAS about say about blackfacing on blogs? "Don't you have something better to do with your time?" "Did somebody tell you to put all that stuff on your face or did you decide to do that on your own?")
And WWSAS also explains, I think, the difference between me and John McWhorter. I attack the McWhorters of the world for using the hatred of black people as a kind of horrific balm for the pain of completely banal and common childhood traumas, but I have to admit that underlying my disgust with them there has always an undercurrent of "there but for the grace of god (or at least grace of Saint Anne!) go I!" Because there was clearly no black angel of better nature perched on McWhorter's shoulder during that formative moment when he was attacked for "talking white," no one black-talking person to whom he was beholden and whose loving counterpoint could have given him a way out of his subsequent, lifelong spiral of shame and self-erasure. (WWSAS to John McWhorter about talking white? "Is that what you're talking? Because you see, I don't speak a lick of English so you are basically just flapping gums at me. But: have courage, my brother!") As a result of this condition of being Saint Anne-less, the poor, unhappy lonely boy that I imagine McWhorter must have been grew up to be a self-hating, mediocre, bought-and-paid-for liar who very simply loves white people and what they represent in the racial schema more than he loves anything in the world. Me, I had the Saint Anne and I can't begin to explain or enumerate how grateful I am to her for that, this even as I acknowledge that given her druthers, there may have been something else she'd have preferred to do than look after me.
(This is an aside, but unlike McWhorter, I'm also grateful to the 70s and 80s street that both hosted and forced the crises described above. Among the many things about himself that McWhorter hates is the popular culture of his era, which is why instead of running home after his ass whipping desperately quoting Conan the Barbarian - That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger! That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger! Hey! Who said that again? - he was instead blubbering about how awful and black those kids were, thereby ensuring he would never risk confronting them again without the full support of all of whiteness, never risk winning or losing or being stronger or forgiving or seducing or anything that might transform both their relationship or his to the issues that structured the encounter.)
If there is anyone I feel bad for, it is, of course, Saint Anne's real, biological son. Back in Haiti, Saint Anne had spent her entire life caring for my family's various yellow brats, invalids, dysfunctional households and so on, and when she was sent in middle age to care for one more, she left behind a boy of her own. When I was a kid, I always imagined her son as my dark Haitian twin, a feral child running wild, abandoned and deprived in Port-au-Prince while I sat fat, pale and soft in NYC. It turns out that he was already grown when she left, that he now lives in Canada, has children of his own, and seemingly spends very little of his day plotting any form of revenge. When I was a kid, though, I figured Saint Anne's son must by definition hate me, creating elaborate, Cape Fear-like scenarios where she died and I brought her body back to Haiti for burial and he ended up chasing me through the countryside like Rutger Hauer chasing Harrison Ford around at the end of Blade Runner, one replicant eager to give another (if you buy into that reading) a taste of what his life had been like. In some versions I survive, in other versions he kills me, claims my passport and my life, and in some versions our lifeless bodies fall together onto Saint Anne's coffin, our family finally together and at peace. But when he calls to check in (largely with my mother) the conversation is mostly to review his mother's condition and his non-revenge-related travel options. He has visa issues that might keep him in Canada. He might be able to swing a quick visit when she's alive but worries he might not be able to afford to come to her funeral. He is worried about timing. If he gets the call soon enough he thinks he might be able to catch her just before she dies, see her buried and be back up north in a week, tops.
("That's what happened with my father," I offer, helpfully. "I didn't get the call in time." He murmurs sympathy. We may yet be siblings after all.)
But if I was telling all this to Saint Anne she would have said "have courage, my brother!" a few thousand words ago, my cue to shut the fuck up already. I can think and I can think and I can think, tell stories and make connections, but none of it has anything to do with figuring out how to keep her heart beating until her son can get to her. I am the lucky one again, I made it in time and now I have the freedom to look at the life we lived together, I can write words about that life, develop and elaborate theories, feel sorry for someone not myself. But in the end all this yack about color and class and memory is just a way of denying this moment wherein I find myself forced to face losing her. It really is like my dad all over again. There is a hole burned into my memory where he should be, dead, me leaning over him, my tears cooling on his face. But I don't remember a thing about that specific moment, none of it at all. I just literally remember everything else.
November 13, 2006
happy beautiful ed and patricia
Bradley was not married then. Or at least not to his widow Patricia Blanchet, a Haitian-American filmmaker, whom he seems to have married in 2004. The Aspen Times has a great article and picture of the two.[full link]
A great article and picture indeed. It's a small Haitian-American world, but I don't know Blanchet. My kreole is too rusty to offer a proper condolence, so I'll just say my thoughts go out to her and her family.
You can find the Aspen Times article here.
September 5, 2006
Ayiti: Cost of Life
I've been meaning to do a post on serious gaming forever, but, you know how it goes. The idea of using games and game experiences to effect social change strikes the expected chord in me, and it also dovetails with practical experience I've had that suggests the bulk of social networking and community activity in the black web space operates according to rules that are relatively game-like.
Anyway, this caught my eye:
Playing 4 Keeps is an innovative youth media project, in which a team of Global Kids Leaders at South Shore High School are gaining leadership and game design skills that they will use to develop and produce a socially conscious online game each year. Once produced, the game will have the potential to educate thousands of young people about a critical global issue. The program is a collaboration with the award-winning online game design company gameLab (gmlb.com), and the GK Leaders at South Shore will work closely with gameLab's experts to produce their game.
This year, participants chose to focus their game on the general topic of poverty as an obstacle to education, based on their learning about the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and about obstacles to receiving an adequate education that youth face around the world. They then decided to use Haiti as a case study and setting for the game. Ayiti: The Cost of Life is a role-playing video game in which the player assumes the roles of family members living in rural Haiti. Over the course of the game, the player must choose among and balance various goals, such as achieving education, making money, staying healthy, and maintaining happiness while encountering unexpected events. The player must make many decisions that contribute to or detract from achieving his or her chosen goals. [link]
The game isn't finished yet, but you can sign up for updates about it here.
July 31, 2006
word of the day 0002
bonus word: "Krome"
Posted by ebogjonson at 8:39 PM | Permalink
May 22, 2006
rips - Katherine Dunham
Her impressively long life was full of chapters, but Dunham's long association with Haiti - her fieldwork as an anthropologist and choreographer, her long residence and numerous philanthropic activities there - holds particular interest for me. I know a few Haitians (my father, for example) who always rolled their eyes at the mention of her name. She had never spoken out against the Duvaliers, Dad would complain; she glamorized the voodoo practice that in his doggedly materialist view kept poor, uneducated Haitians shrouded in superstition. Me, I've always been willing to forgive her getting along to get along (it's not like she was Duvalier's lawyer), and moreover, her interests dovetailed with concerns of my own.
Shortly before Dunham left Haiti, she experienced a personal crisis that revealed her ethical sensibility in matters of belief. She decided to perform a ceremony in which she would promise the loa to consummate the kanzo, or second voudun initiation, at a later date. She wanted to perform the kanzo rite itself before she departed, but Herskovits had written her warning against it; he had been cautious about tackling things that were beyond his reach while working in Dahomey--the place of origin of many of the voudun mysteries. After observing the kanzo several times, she felt uncertain about undergoing the trial by fire. She was concerned about her "moral position" in making promises for future initiations. Questioning her own motives, she asked, "Could Herskovits tell me, could Erich Fromm, could Téoline or DéGrasse tell me what part of me lived on the floor of the houngfor ... and what part stood to one side taking notes? Each moment lived in participation was real; still ... without conscious doing or planning or thinking I stayed outside the experience while being totally immersed in it." She longed for an indication of possession to prove to herself that she was sincere. [link]
My mother had occasion to meet Dunham in Haiti a few times, and her recollections of these passing encounters are always lit by the soft, warm, glowing light of vaguely abject gratitude, a kind of ambient halo-effect that middle class colonial subjects tend to project onto civilizing, uplifting visitors from the metropole. That the great Miss Dunham (American, ligh-skinned) would adopt her little, benighted island as second home reinforced my mother's fragile, complicated Haitian pride, and the reversibility of the equation - the question of Dunham's gratitudes to Haiti - was never much on my mother's mind.
Me, I wasn't born in Haiti, so my Haitian pride has an ocean in the middle of it (this when it's distinctly Haitian at all), and has to fully encompass empty leagues that my mother has at best only traversed. So instead of my mother's gratitude I feel a kind of anachronistic kinship with this African American artist looking across a gap at something that may or may not be a stand-in for her own, lost authentic blackness. Dunham's quest for unimpeachable proof of her own sincerity though possession brings to mind all the voudounistic, hipster Haitian ciphers I've lucked into in Brooklyn and Boston over the years and immediately begged off of, not out of any particular skepticism but out of fear: "I went to the hounfour and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Which is to say I can imagine Dunham being devastated if she started a fateful initiation and the loa didn't bother to come calling or riding.
[photos from the Library of Congress's Katherine Dunham Collection.]
May 16, 2006
uh, i thought said "good luck, rene"
"The crowd jammed into Port-au-Prince's central plaza grew angry when told they would not be allowed to watch Preval give his inaugural address unless they stood behind cement barriers erected well away from the palace gates." full story
Posted by ebogjonson at 1:19 AM | Permalink
good luck, rene preval
"René Préval, a quiet bakery owner who five years ago became Haiti's only elected president to leave office after a full term, was sworn in to a second term Sunday, restoring constitutional rule for the first time since an armed rebellion forced out President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago." full story
Posted by ebogjonson at 1:14 AM | Permalink
May 9, 2006
mr. jeb goes to port-au-prince
Imposter President Bush is sending his election expert - Jeb - to Haiti to represent the US at Rene Preval's upcoming inauguration. Hide yer babies and ballots.
Posted by ebogjonson at 12:26 PM | Permalink
May 5, 2006
always the last to know
Apparently I was on the radio on Wednesday, commenting on Haiti for Ed Gordon's News and Notes.
Posted by ebogjonson at 11:26 AM | Permalink
May 4, 2006
yahoo in haiti?
Actually, not Yahoo, just Kevin Sites.
I haven't been following any of Sites' trips through the, uh, "hot zone" (i.e., global trouble spots from Sudan to Uganda to Iraq to...) so I don't really have any context for the Haiti episodes. I'm glad the thing exists, but I can't say I'm particularly impressed. Sites' is a decent reporter, covering the basics and conveying appropriate outrage and human empathy, but his schtick feels like Anderson Cooper on some kind of post-extreme sports high. Similarly, seen in terms of internet media, the Hot Zone franchise doesn't do anything that, say, the BBC's website doesn't do just as well and with none of the tendentious "maturing medium" self-importance that comes from being a Yahoo product. (Isn't Yahoo getting out of the original programming biz anyway?)
Still, being master of your own sinking internet ship has its upsides, chief of which is the freedom to go to Haiti off-season (i.e., post-elections) if you feel like it.
Posted by ebogjonson at 5:27 PM | Permalink
April 25, 2006
preval, reduced to a symbol, invents strategies to avoid a deficit
[hat tip 893 for inspiring the post title]
Haitian president Rene Preval is trying to create some synergies with Venezuelan Hugo Chavez.
from Voice of America:
Venezuela's president has invited Haiti to join a program offering inexpensive oil to Caribbean nations.
The offer came during a visit Monday to Caracas by Haiti's President-Elect Rene Preval.
Mr. Preval met with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. They discussed Haiti's inclusion in Venezuela's Petrocaribe program which offers generous payment options to Caribbean countries for the purchase of Venezuelan oil.
During the meeting, Mr. Chavez said Venezuela would also donate diesel fuel for use by schools and hospitals in Haiti.
I think of this (likely largely theatrical) instance of inter-American amity against the backdrop of the small but rising anti-Latino chorus from black neo-cons (hat tip Steve Gilliard) and/or the know-nothing corners of the black blogosphere. The number of folks either directly on the racist right's payroll or naturally inclined to get down on their knees and fellate it (this, no doubt, while gagging out the words "no homo" every other sentence) is, as always, something to behold.
Posted by ebogjonson at 12:36 PM | Permalink
April 21, 2006
hand and eye of the father
right hand - Over the past year I've been having powerful urges to make stuff, as in with my hands make stuff. As luck would have it, there's an awful lot of easy to follow, maker-related media out there these days, meaning I'm either particularly attuned to changes in the aether or just another trend victim jocking today's iteration of the next.
I'm going to start my solid-state, open source kick small, with a homemade electric cat drinking fountain templated on nicrosin's hack pictured above. (Hat tip to the make blog.) I've actually owned two store-bought electric cat waterers. (Or did my cat own them?) The motor on the first one died and the second broke in transit from MA to LA. Complete ripoffs at 49 or so bucks twice, and me with no receipts. :(
I'll post photos when the thing gets a bit beyond the ideation stage.
left hand - This is likely a common chain of association, but the maker meme reminds me of my father.
Although he was born and raised in Haiti, Dad was a fairly typical American/home-ownerish type who believed in the powers of his own ingenuity and hammer. If something could be made from scratch, in his book it must be made from scratch. In his day he replaced car engines with salvage, hacked boilers, cobbled together roofs; he built carports, sheds and bathrooms. I was less than appreciative of his ways (I thought he could be unnecessarily frugal) but I went to the well gladly whenever I needed to, medalling in science fairs, for example, throughout junior high on the strength of his contraptions. My ambitions to, say, make bendable models of "spacetime" in the 7th grade (?!) found their perfect expression in an insight he had had (likely years before) about the properties of solder and thick copper wire, in his habit of buying odd things like magnets and lenses just in case he might need them later, for lord knows what.
His entire life, literally until the day he died, was one long, sisyphean work of home and auto improvement, our house and cars perpetual works in progress. Dad even managed to die with his tool-belt on: The stroke that killed him set in as a mild buzzing in the ears while he was picking up some obscure power tool at the home of a friend. The two discussed my father's worsening headache at some length in dude's garage, but instead of going to the emergency room (or, more plausibly just to bed, given his various anti-clerical temperments) Dad went to the hardware store, likely imagining that the fix for what ailed him might be found there. He bought a drill bit or some such, stopped for chinese, drove home and then promptly dropped dead in the driveway after perfectly parking his ancient, jury-rigged ride in his rigorously chosen, preferred spot.
(The location had something to do with a tree. It grew out of our sidewalk at on odd angle, and for thirty years my father had daily premonitions that it would fall.)
His orderly, suggestive exit aside, my dad's drive to make things was explicitly political. He was not much concerned with the environment as he was American hubris. As an involuntary immigrant he had ambivalent feelings about life in the land of plenty, saw connections between the grinding poverty in Haiti and the blithe excess here. He was a bit disconcerted by his hand in expanding evil in the world (like most Haitian men, he viewed his wife and children as extensions of himself, and my mother, sister and me are all inveterate consumers) and he took great pleasure in short-circuiting what he viewed as an top down directives to consume by making and reshaping existing products to his various needs. He had an analogue of the intuition part of the post-internet generation has come to, gassed as it is on its power to code lots of something out of literal nothing: even a world full of trash can be made anew. Shit, endless supplies of cheap trash might actually be a new-making pre-req.
Whenever my mother or I insisted on the freshly minted or new Dad would sneer that we were "making America beautiful," and it was in that crack that I found my own voice in opposition to him. I've clearly resconsidered my quarrel with my father on the question of making v. buying certain things (you wouldn't be reading this otherwise), but on the crucial question of aesthetics we will likely remain at loggerheads. My dear old dad, you see, did not much believe in beauty. For example, to my great chagrin he made my first bicyle out of a pile of parts he had collected at the no-joke, actual junkyard. The thing worked fine but was a mess to look at - seat, frame, spokes and handle-bars a mish-mash of styles and eras, states of disrepair and decay. I had to force him to put a new seat on (he was going to throw this crazy, gold-speckled banana seat he had found back in the junkpile), and it was another ordeal getting him to paint the thing a single color. I think he could have turned me on to the pleasures of symetrical ownership and sourcing sooner (i.e., pre-posthumously) if he had been less engineer and more artist, but therein lies the tale, right?
All of which is why you can bet that when I post my pics of my cat waterer there won't be tape on the walls like in the hack above. (Will that even stay on?) Part of the reason is that I don't want to mar my pretty walls and part of the reason is that all that tape seems unsafe. Dad would likely have also disapproved of nicrosin's design owing to some insistent disquiet about all that looping wire - just the thing a cat might pull down and chew and electrocute himself in a bowl of water. (Doh!) Now that I think about it, it seems that of the million things my father knew about jury-rigging and hacking and re-purposing, the only techniques he was at any particular pain to pass on concerned the right and wrong way to do potentially dangerous stuff - change a light switch, for example, or how to properly move cars on and off cinderblocks.
I always found his care on these topics somewhat insulting, like I struck him as some sort of moron or incompetent. The lessons took, though, and, if there's anything bitter at all at the bottom of this it's that while he had the eye that looked at left-over fish tank pumps and saw cat waterers, me, I got stuck with the vision that looks at a cat waterer and sees a kitty death trap. Which is to say, I got the evil, deconstructing eye, putting me somewhat at odds with the spirit of the age, after all.
Actually, it really does sting, all of it: the lost patrimony, the uninherited impulses, the need at this late stage for me to bend my knee north towards all those happy, shiny, optimistic, enterprising kids and websites, most of them in San Francisco, most of them very quite nice, just like James Murphy said. But you do what you have to, right? If you don't make your fresh lemonade out of the freely available lemons, you're just another consumer making America beautiful, just like dad said.
December 10, 2005
haitian fight song
Haiti is now the kidnapping capital of the Western hemisphere, surpassing Columbia. From the Miami Herald:
Among Haiti's litany of woes, kidnapping has surged into an epidemic in recent months, with an estimated eight to 10 people abducted for ransom every day -- including 25 U.S. citizens just since April -- according to the FBI. The 25 were later released, the FBI added, but three other Americans were killed trying to resist apparent kidnapping attempts.
Security experts say the rate of kidnappings in this country of 8.1 million people now dwarfs the notoriously high levels in Colombia, a nation of 43 million people where about 2,200 abductions were reported in 2003.
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