Reading V.S. Naipaul

The much-recognized Trinidadian-British author with Indian heritage, V.S Naipaul, died in August of 2018 at the age of 85. During Naipaul’s lifetime he won the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize for his writing, among many other awards and recognitions. I’d never read any of his work, and decided that I should tackle something to round out my reading life. Naipaul’s focus was place and identity, which are of interest to me. I chose A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961 and the first of Naipaul’s novels to achieve wide acclaim.

The book is based loosely on Naipaul’s father’s life, and runs to 578 pages. I have to say that by page 200, and probably a lot sooner, the reader knows that Mr Biswas is never going to get a house that doesn’t get blown away, that doesn’t fall apart, that he doesn’t get turned out of by his wife’s overbearing relatives. Mr Biswas dies at age 46, and he never gets that house — or a solid and stable identity, if that’s what the house stands in for.

This is a sweeping opus of post-colonial Trinidad, not without interest but for me a bit of a slog. I usually try hard to finish a book once I start, and I did finish here. Perhaps part of my frustration was reading about Mr Biswas while I was in Panama, where so much of what Naipaul wrote about was unspooling in front of my eyes in real time — and more powerful than any version of that reality in print. There’s not much solid and stable about the stark poverty in rural Panama either.

I’m glad I read the book, although I probably won’t read any more of Naipaul’s extensive list of highly acclaimed novels. Would I recommend it to you? Only if you enjoy a complex and detailed novel in which the end is evident from the moment you begin to read.

Our Infrastructure Problem

Nobody would call Panama’s government a sterling example of probity or effectiveness. That said, the government has successfully undertaken the building of a major extension of the new metro system that will span the Bridge of the Americas and greatly alleviate the choking traffic coming and going from Panama City into La Chorrera.

This isn’t a future plan, a wish list item, or a pie-in-the-sky political promise. They are actually building the extension. We saw construction underway on the recent trip from Panama City to the village and back.

Our country, by contrast, can’t seem to get its act together for any meaningful infrastructure projects, although anyone who has to contend with aging public transit, rickety bridges, out-of-date airports, and perilous rail systems would agree that the need is dire.

Here, from Matthew Iglesias, writing for Vox, is an explanation of why infrastructure projects here have such dismal prospects, even though the need is inescapable. This is his conclusion, but the whole article is worth reading.

From high-level choices about which cities to prioritizes to mid-scale decisions about routes to tiny-scale decisions about how to build stations and all the rest, if the country wants a modern transportation system it has to prioritize building useful transportation — rather than its current practice of trying to avoid any tough choices until the point where nothing gets built at all.”

Trump’s Predictable Shtick

Peter Beinart, writing for the Atlantic, has an excellent piece outlining Trump’s entirely predictable shtick whenever things are not going his way:

Trump invents a crisis. Then he actually creates one. Then he folds in the negotiations. Then he declares victory. Then what?

The question is whether, when Trump declares victory, he’s merely pretending to have won, or actually believes it. As bad as it would be for a president to deliberately and repeatedly lie to the public, it might be worse for a president to deliberately and repeatedly lie to himself. If Trump wakes up one morning and realizes that, despite the USMCA, American manufacturers are still relocating to Mexico, he might tear up the agreement and provoke a new trade war. The more Trump is forced to admit that his border wall isn’t actually being built, the more likely he is to declare a national emergency, thus creating a legal and even constitutional crisis.

Preventing the cycle from starting all over again might require allowing Trump to maintain his delusions of grandeur. It’s like dealing with small children: It’s safer to let them think they’ve won than endure the temper tantrum that will ensue if they realize they’ve lost. As dangerous as Trump is when he lies, he might be even more dangerous when forced to temporarily admit the truth.”

This article was posted just before Trump actually declared a national emergency in a power grab to find money for his silly wall to defend against the non-existent crisis on the border. Now we have a constitutional crisis.

You’d think Trump’s core supporters would get tired of the predictable Trump script. But looking at reality TV, which follows the same basic format every week, I guess not. Some people are easily entertained.

The rest of America most decidedly is not.

Panama 2019: Writing Around

I’ve done a lot of writing around how I feel about Minga’s death — characteristic of me to lead with my brain and my capacity for observation. Several of you have said you like the posts, which have given you a good sense of Minga, her family, and the images surrounding her death. I’m there in the posts, albeit indirectly as the gatherer and shaper of the information. I’m happy for the affirmation — thank you all who have commented.

Here’s what I haven’t said yet, at least not directly.

I really miss Minga very much, and her not being there on my recent visit was hard for me from beginning to end. Visiting her grave was hard. Not having her walk through her front door into the sunlight, arms open and with a broad smile, was hard. No one has the right to expect another person to be there all the time. We teach our toddlers early on that “Mommy is busy right now. You need to play by yourself for a bit.” But Minga seemed to sense how important it was for me that she was there each time I arrived in the village. On every visit up through winter 2017, she would look me in the eye at my departure and say firmly, “Pamela, I will be here when you come next year.”

She suffered kidney failure in November of 2017, and almost died, then went on dialysis. Her family asked me not to come then, as they were in utter tumult and didn’t have the capacity to take care of Minga and be responsible for me as well. I went in January 2018, when she was stabilized. For the first time, our parting did not include the assurance that she would be there. Nor did she say those words in November 2018, after our wonderful week in the city. I left on November 20th, and she died on November 27th. I knew she hadn’t said the all important words and it unsettled me, although I didn’t draw her attention to it.

I don’t much believe in premonitions. I think Minga just didn’t say things she wasn’t sure would likely be true.

Our friendship was uncomplicated in the sense that we never had to be anything in particular for each other, except “there”. When I returned to the village ten years ago, after a 40 year hiatus, she didn’t ask where I’d been, why I hadn’t come back sooner as I once promised I would, why I was there now, how long I was staying, or what I was going to do during my visit. I had been there, and then not for a long time, and now I was there again. To her, that’s all that mattered.

It was a precious, pristine, simple friendship, in the best sense of that word.

I miss her very much.

January 2018

Panama 2019: The Pictures I Take

Friend and regular reader Randi made an interesting observation about my Panama pics: they are almost all of people, not things or scenes or historical or cultural sites. She’s right, and that’s true not only of my Panama pics but of most of my photography. My abiding interest and passion is discovering how people make sense of their lives and create a sense of meaning. For me, that is revealed in human interactions, not so much in the physical context in which we live.

My first editor, Marie Cantlon, pointed out to me that I need more physical detail in my writing, that people are not disembodied souls but move in a physical world. She was right, all those years ago, although I don’t think I’ve made much headway in evoking the vibrance of physical space either in print or in photographs.

Hey Picture Lady, this post calls out for your comment. 🙂 [Picture Lady is my Rochester friend and reader who actually is a photographer, and a fine one.]

I do better capturing emotion with human interaction. Minga has my hand in both of hers.

Nature scenes a little stronger than other attempts to capture physical detail.

Looking into lobby of The Buenaventura, hotel in complex where we stay. So-so.

Update on Seattle Snow

There’s a real dichotomy here, with downtown Seattle pretty much back to normal — streets and sidewalks clear, grass visible — and the hillier neighborhoods like mine and Capitol Hill, which are still a mess.

The pic below is of my friend Louise’s cabin, near Alpental — ski country — about an hour into the Cascade Mountains from downtown Seattle. Area ski lovers are in heaven, with feet and feet of new powder. Lots to shovel, though, to get into your cabin.

All of that said, we’re returning to normal. Busses are running again; I rode one downtown on Wednesday to get my hair cut and colored — no more white roots. Late Wednesday afternoon my held mail was finally delivered — although I have a couple of Amazon packages still on weather delay because of lingering weather conditions. On Thursday Seattle Schools reopened, although on a two hour delay. Louise and I met for breakfast at our favorite neighborhood spot. I drove to Belltown and parked instead of walking as I usually would. Queen Anne hill is open, but there are still icy patches on the steep sidewalks.

I still have too much snow in my front and back yards for the mapaches to have returned to dig up my sod.

I’ve adjusted back to Pacific Northwest time zone but not to the chillier temps — although we’re in the high 30’s, which is hardly that cold. Panama was 90 degrees, and only a tad cooler at night. That’s a big temperature swing. I had to put a sweatshirt on in the house, even though my heat is set to its normal 68 degrees and I’m usually quite comfortable with that.

I’ve started to sort out my tax information, and I activated the new credit card that arrived while I was gone. I’ve handed out the small gifts I brought back, all but two.

Largely back in my routine, I’d say. 🙂

Panama 2019 Reflections: On Minga

My friend Louise, also a blogger, has a new post up about obits, and what we might share if we had unlimited space. Here’s the link if you’d like to read her post in full.

I’m mindful that Minga had no obit. There would have been no place to post one, since there are no print newspapers in the village, and most people don’t have regular access to computers. I doubt any of the family gave a eulogy at her funeral. Sounds as if they relied heavily on Padre Raphael to conduct the usual Catholic service, in which personal remarks from the family do not play a part.

I suppose my blog posts from Thursday might constitute something of an obit.

Minga would have found the concept of an obit odd, I think. The people who needed to know she’d died, knew. So much for the informative function of posting an obit. I think if I or someone had asked her what she wanted shared publicly about her life she would have smiled and shaken her head. Talking about herself, or having someone speak for her, would not — I suspect — have felt right. She did talk a lot one-on-one about her early life, the challenges of being left motherless at five, the grueling day to day struggle of feeding nine children often on her own, and what she hoped her legacy would be. Her legacy to the world was her family: nine independent adults, all of whom had a way to earn their living, and with the obligation to be good and generous human beings.

I’m of two minds about an obit. Jerry had one, in what was then the print edition of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. The informative function was a high priority. He died very suddenly, and professional colleagues, clients, neighbors and friends needed to know what was happening and where and when they should come to pay respects. When you get older, like I am, that informative function shifts. Like Minga, the people who need to know when I die will know.

My two thoughts are these: an obit is a good way of drawing together the threads of a life and sharing with everyone how, in the end, you made sense of your time on earth. That’s easier for someone left behind who is going to speak for you to carry out if you’ve first laid out the framework, maybe even written the thing ahead of time. Louise and I have a friend, Julie, who does “legacy writing” with clients — and writing a sample obit is part of her approach.

My other thought, though, is to look back on the creation of sacred mandalas — intricate sand paintings — by Buddhist monks. A group of monks visited Rochester years ago, and I went to watch them work. They skillfully array grains of colored sand into a complex pattern, working for hours every day without appearing to tire. The construction of a mandala takes weeks. When done, they ceremoniously sweep up the gorgeous creation and dump it in the river. The message is something about the beauty and fleetingness of our material existence.

If you think of the mandala as representing the complex elements of a life, while it’s there in front of you it’s there, and visible for all to see. When it’s done, it’s not there, and can be conjured up only in memory. No one tries to say what the mandala looked like, or what anyone is supposed to remember about it. Each person in touch with the mandala carries his or her own memory. Nor does anyone try to preserve the mandala. It’s there in all its glorious color and complexity, and then it’s not. That’s the preciousness of life and the sadness of loss, all in one fell swoop.

I’m still going back and forth between these two contrasting notions. Glad to hear your thoughts.

The Mueller Report

What concerns me about the Mueller report, if and when we finally see it, is that everything likely to be documented in the report is already visible to us. Trump’s mendacity, his self dealing, his fascination with autocrats and his need to curry their favor, his willing to skate over the legal and ethical line, his essentially cruelty and disdain for people who are vulnerable or can be made vulnerable to his vicious caricatures, his shady business practices — what is there that we don’t know and haven’t already seen? And yet Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, and on Republicans in Congress, remains near-absolute. Even if Mueller documents collusion with Russia, or conspiracy to steal the election, a bit over 30% of voters — his core Republican base — say they have no objection to the intervention of a hostile foreign power in our democratic elections.

That’s shocking, and pretty horrifying. Call Trump’s base “low information voters”, or people easily swayed by reality TV and Fox and Friends — call them what you will. But they are far too many to be disregarded. Indeed, Mitch McConnell values his hold on power more than anything, apparently, and he will not cross the base — even to defend the Constitution.

What a sorry state of a affairs.