Sunday, April 20, 2008

A week in the life: 13 to 19 April, 2008

Read: Kei Miller's new novel The Same Earth

Re-read: Bruce Chatwin's Utz and The Viceroy of Ouidah

Wrote: emails; brief blog posts about Aimé Césaire

Listened: to Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Op. 96 String Quartet; to Coltrane; to Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain; to Ella Fitzgerald's recordings of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and "Love for Sale"

Went: to the vet, with Pablo, my labrador; to hear David Dabydeen's talk at the National Library; to the supermarket, twice

Wished I could go: to Martinique, to witness the farewell ceremonies for Césaire

Acquired: piles of Paul Theroux travel books and Anita Brookner novels from my friend and colleague Jeremy, who has been clearing his bookshelves; a second-hand printer and scanner from Georgia

Ate: a lovely Spanish omelette I made last Sunday night; lots of pasta

Felt: overloaded with many small tasks; still not quite well

Worried: about getting the May CRB to press

Other significant events: filing cabinet acquired last week fell apart after one day, necessitating the re-distribution of files across my study floor
"Please eat less meat"

Just ahead of Earth Day on Tuesday, the New York Times Magazine has published a special Green Issue, promising "some bold steps to make your carbon footprint smaller". There are worse things you could do with your Sunday than browse through the dozens of short articles on everything from Chicago's "cool alleys" to the Blackle search engine to green architecture. Some of these ideas are so cutting edge, it will be decades before they're widely adopted, if ever. Some are inspiring examples of what can happen when concerned citizens, enlightened government, and responsible private enterprise find ways to co-operate. Some are really basic, practical projects you can literally do yourself at home. And, having posted this nearly two months ago, I'm inspired to point to this particular segment of the Green Issue's "Eat" section:

THE HIGH PRICE OF BEEF: Late in February, the governors of Maine, Rhode Island, Washington, Maryland and other states received letters from Lindsay Rajt of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, asking them to encourage the citizens of their states to become vegetarians. The governors of those states have been fighting for tighter vehicle-emissions standards as a way to combat climate change. That made them a target for the folks at PETA, who argue that the climate impact of the car pales in comparison to that of the cow. A 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock production accounts for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions -- more than all forms of transportation combined. Meat’s supersize impact comes from fuel- and fertilizer-intensive agricultural methods of growing feed, all the power needed to run slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants and the potent greenhouse gases produced by decomposing manure. Pork, lamb and poultry all have their impacts, but beef is undoubtedly the Hummer of the dinner plate. Sixty percent of the deforestation in the Amazon River basin between 2000 and 2005 can be attributed to cattle ranching; much of the remainder was cleared to raise corn and soy for feed. And cows, once fed, burp -- a lot. Each day, a single cow can burp as much as 130 gallons of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps more than 20 times more heat per ton than carbon dioxide. Trimming the amount of meat Americans eat would not only help the planet -- a mere 20 percent reduction is the equivalent of switching from a Camry to a Prius -- but would also be likely to reduce obesity, cancer and heart disease. Until recently, it was only animal rights groups like PETA that were willing to ask Americans to forgo the pleasures of the flesh. That changed in January, when Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and a vegetarian), uttered four little words: “Please eat less meat.” He continued: “This is something that the I.P.C.C. was afraid to say earlier, but now we have said it.” DASHKA SLATER

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"At our limitless command"

... and there is room for all in the rendezvous of conquest and we know that the sun turns around our earth lighting only the portion that our single will has fixed and that every star falls from sky to earth at our limitless command.

-- From "Memorandum on My Martinique", by Aimé Césaire (25 June, 1913-17 April, 2008), trans. Lionel Abel

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What the world sounds like

A map of the world in musical notation, via the ever-wonderful Strange Maps. You can even listen to it performed on piano here. An energetic rush of notes opening on a C major chord and--ending abruptly on a slightly plaintive repetition of high G?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A week in the life: 6 to 12 April, 2008

Read: vol. 1 of Richard Schomburgk's Travels in British Guiana; Alfred Mendes's and Grace Paley's short stories; misc. reviews of Patrick French's The World Is What It Is; misc. essays in The Art of Literary Publishing, ed. Bill Henderson (this last given me by Georgia, as she clears her shelves in preparation for moving office)

Wrote: emails

Listened: to Ella Fitzgerald (mostly Cole Porter songs), Julie London, Anita O'Day; to a random recording of "In the Bleak Midwinter" (Holst)

Went: to a CRB budget meeting; to the preview of Rachel Rochford's Golden Glance

Acquired: a little two-drawer filing cabinet that just manages to fit under my desk (from Georgia--another welcome hand-me-down from her ex-office)

Ate: Kenny's spicy fried mushrooms; many slices of my mother's bread pudding

Felt: not quite recovered from travel and illness in March; reclusive

Worried: about late copy for the May CRB

Wanted and did not get: a haircut; room for another bookcase

Other highlights: acquisition of a filing cabinet (see above) triggered a short bout of housekeeping, and now the floor of my study is not entirely covered with books, papers, and assorted ephemera

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Then there I was

self portrait in manaus traffic

Self-portrait in a taxi, stuck in morning traffic in Manaus; March 2008

More than once during our week in Manaus I caught myself saying I'd wanted to go there ever since I saw Herzog's movie Fitzcarraldo. But that wasn't really true. I'd wanted to see Manaus long before that, probably ever since I first heard of the city in the Amazon, in the middle of the rainforest. I'd imagined the silent unbroken green of the jungle rolling thousands of miles, broken only by rivers and creeks, then suddenly, abruptly, a ring of gleaming skyscrapers around a low hill, church spires bristling, the dome of the opera house shining above plazas and boulevards and gardens, then a great curve of the Rio Negro--and suddenly, abruptly, the forest again, rolling on a thousand miles to the sea.

Of course, it was not quite like that.

We arrived in Manaus on Easter Sunday, not the best day to arrive anywhere. The drive from the airport to the Centro took us through a series of suburbs, laid out like orderly housing estates. Along the highway were billboards advertising banks and insurance companies; we passed a factory for fibreglass swimming pools, with examples of its manufacture displayed on a huge lawn, upturned like monstrous shallow boats.

The skyscrapers, when they appeared, did not gleam. Their paint was peeling and blotched with mildew. Our hotel, just off the Praça São Sebastião, almost in the shadow of the Teatro Amazonas, was like every other small, cheap hotel I've ever stayed in anywhere--cramped, flimsily furnished, smelling faintly of disinfectant. Our room was clean and spare and two of the three lightbulbs worked. We had a wall of windows opening onto a telephone pole knotted with wires and cables, and below that the Rua Dez de Julho. Across the street was an endoscopy clinic.

If anything is happening in Manaus this afternoon, it will be down at the waterfront, we decided, so we strolled down a broad, sloping avenue past shops shuttered and barred, past little kiosks wrapped in tarpaulin and bound with twine like parcels.

The respectable citizens of Manaus were at home, or were sporting in some distant respectable quarter. The crowd at the waterfront apparently had been celebrating Holy Week with gusto. Their revels were not yet ended, but the diminuendo was fading. One or two still managed to dance, or at least sway, to the music slurring from the open-fronted bars. Most were collapsed over tables, slumped across benches, slumped over each other, over cars parked haphazardly in the street.

No one here was young anymore. Everyone had spent too many years working the wrong shifts, drinking too much of the wrong drinks, sweating with the wrong unnamed fevers. A woman of maybe fifty--or maybe forty, with too many wrong stories--dressed in a tight black miniskirt, her dyed-black hair hanging in knots, bent over the handlebar of a motorbike. She was peering into the rear-view mirror, smearing red lipstick over her mouth with an unsteady hand. The motorbike's back tyre was flat.

The gutters reeked of urine and rotting fruit. We turned a corner, past the famous covered market, now boarded up, and there was the river--the Rio Negro, rippled pewter, the far bank a distant black line, and something like a sunset happening behind some clouds.

I shouldn't have come, I thought. I should have let Manaus remain a city of my mind, strange and distant and unknown.

The next day the streets of the Zona Franca teemed with hucksters and hustlers, the little kiosks unbound and unwrapped and offering mobile phone accessories, pirated DVDs, women's underwear, shoes, magazines, and various beauty aids. There was something grimly jaded about all this bustle, all this commerce. No one seemed to smile. Only a rare face showed a hint of freshness. Even the young people--tending their kiosks, hauling bales of goods--seemed already hard-used, coarsened, scarred. I started counting men and women missing an arm--always the left arm, for some reason. Eight, nine, ten.

It was relentlessly hot--what did I expect? This was the tropical jungle--and the fetid air pressed down with the weight of humid, unhappy smells--rotting fish, rotting fruit, rotting river mud. Maybe I was running a fever too, or my blood running thin. I trudged laboriously back to the Praça São Sebastião and took refuge in a small café, and drank frothy lime juice. I thought: I shouldn't have come.

I went back to the hotel, turned up the air-conditioning, and lay staring at the ceiling.

We travel to learn we are wrong.

Thirst drove me outdoors again. It was the cusp of evening. It had rained gently in the middle afternoon, and some of the Easter weekend filth had been washed down the gutters. A breeze had struck up, at last.

In the tropics on lucky fine evenings there is a brief spell, as the sun slips over the horizon, when the sky turns deep violet and the light turns pink, and just like that the whole world and everything in it seems lit up from the inside. Everything glows, every colour is more intense. The world and everything in it seems to pause for benediction. It does not last long.

That evening in Manaus, it seemed to last so long--so long, at last. I was strolling down a narrow street just below the praça. I forgot what I'd left the hotel for--a bottle of cold water. The buildings were now washed with gold and rose, and in that glow you did not notice their mildews and peeling paint. There were trees rustling and whispering, their leaves also lit up--they had been invisible all day until now, in their yards and gardens. There were gardens! Lights were coming on in the houses and shops and cafés. People stepped out of doorways and exhaled, their faces softening. They smiled and chatted, took each other's arms, stepped into the gold and rose dusk.

At the tops of the ugly skyscrapers, even the ugly radio masts were lit up, gilded in the sunset--now they were pinnacles and spires. The cathedral bells pealed as if from a great height. I no longer noticed the direction I was strolling--then as the bells stopped I came out in the square below the cathedral, thronged as if for a holiday with men and women released from the day's labours. The kiosks were strung with lights, the trees were whispering, and through their thick leaves shone the floodlit cathedral on its little hill. Young women strode past in twos and threes, clutching shopping bags. Men loosened their ties and women let down their hair, and they clustered around the gate to a little park, where a vendor sold chunks of beef on wooden skewers from a smoking charcoal grill.

Streaked with scarlet taillights, Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro ascended gently towards the dusk-darkening sky. The shrimp-pink Teatro hovered above the black-and-white waves of the praça, like the backdrop to a stage set. Loudspeakers set demurely among the trees hummed Verdi, and young lovers were already taking their places on the benches, giggling and embracing.

The waiters at the Café do Pensador had put out tables along the praça's southern edge. I sipped a sweet, sticky caipirinha and thought: this is why I came.