Boxing Day

Sean Paul walks into the ring, headgear is on, gloves laced up tight. He wobbles his head left to right fantasizing he is Muhammed Ali. Before he puts his mouth piece in, tells Barton, “no head shots, alright?”

Barton–also known as Cauliflower Ears–smiles. “Okay.”

Barton circles around Sean Paul. They’ve known each other since high school and have been sparring partners for almost as long.

Barton’s got, not so much a Chesire grin, as leonine, cheetah-like. He comes in from the right. Launches a jab. Then a combination. Sean Paul fights them both off. He backs away. They circle each other. It hasn’t been thirty seconds in the ring and already Sean Paul is panting. For the first time in many years he cannot deny his age. Not so much old, as slower.

“Man,” he tells Barton,” I’m outta shape and boxing is hard work.”

“Wimp. I do this three times a week,” he says.

“Probably why you are brain damaged,” says Sean Paul.

“At least I’m not a heavyweight like your fat ass. I’m still Welter, bitch!”

Barton sneaks in a jab from the left, lands in Sean Paul’s ribs. He staggers back into the ropes. Shakes his head and moves into the center of the ring. Barton and Sean Paul dance some more. The bell sounds. Round one is over.

Sean Paul sighs in relief, as he trudges back into his corner. Sips some water. The bell rings. Round two begins.

Sean Paul sees an opening. Goes in for a right hook and lands a good one in Barton’s ribs. Barton winces as Sean Paul closes in for a better shot.

From the corner of his eye sees Barton’s devastating left hook land right on his face.

Time stops.

Sean Paul hits the mat.

“Damnit Barton,” he says on one knee, wiping the blood from his lip. “I said no head shots!”

“It was just one. Why you so twisted up about a head shot? You’re usually the aggressive one.”

“Because I have a hot date tonight!”

“Haha,” says Barton a touch of guilt in his eyes. “You’re screwed now.”

A Photo For Wednesday

Ethiopian ShepherdIt was my first full day in Africa. I’d arrived the day before from Dubai, via Amsterdam, New York and Houston. The air in Addis Ababa was dry and the horizon leaped out in all directions forever: a dome of blue collapsing atop warm orange grasses. I was unprepared for the beauty of the Great Rift Valley.

I found a driver by noon and was on the road north by one thirty. We crawled north on the main highway–naught but a graded dirt road–through a low range of mountains passing women carrying impossible loads of wood on their backs. We went up into conifers and came down into fields of tef. Gold, green, ashen rocks, blue skies and high darting clouds. Baboons scurried across the road while the harvesters piled tef stalks into bee-hive mounds.

Two hours out of Addis we came upon this scene. North of us was a low ridge of hills, behind nothing but tef fields as far as the eye could see.

I jumped out of the car and started snapping shots. I must have taken twenty or thirty of this scene alone, from different angles, up close, far away. The light was brilliant and as I think back on my time in Ethiopia, although it wasn’t the happiest period of my life, the light, a high arcing angularity, was everywhere. Goats kicked up dust. The young shepherd twirled his staff like boys the world over, carefree in the cool elevated air of Amharaland. His whistle broke the soft silence of the bleeting goats. I thanked him and jumped back into the car. Tomas and I drove off towards Lake Tana–the true source of the Nile–secure in the knowledge that  that the morrow would be brilliant. Had I but known how right I would be.

“The West Pollutes Far More Than India Does”

Tikka ColorsSB writes:

You clearly lack understanding and find India an easy target.

You say, “In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians.”

When you have a large population that lives in poverty, you immediate concerns are not the environment. Maslows theory is well known. And as far the pollution is concerned, the West pollutes far more than what India does. I guess what you really meant was sanitation.

My lack of understanding? Perhaps, as I am not omniscient, but I often find when someone uses, “you lack understanding” as an opener it means they’re just unwilling to listen. As I said, I may lack understanding, but I do not lack the will to understand. So, perhaps we can move this conversation forward and in good faith I offer a few corrections on my end.

Yes, there is a difference between sanitation and pollution. Many of the issues I address are, more properly, understood under the heading of sanitation. India’s very real air-pollution in cities aside, let’s focus on sanitation, as I’ve since been corrected many times, not only about the difference between the two, but also the fact that India’s carbon footprint, per capita, is one of the lowest in the world. I am also aware that the Indian conception of purity and cleanliness is much different than that in the West. It is a cultural issue. My point about sanitation is this: if Indians desire more investment from the West, this is something Indians need to address from a purely self-interested, pragmatic calculation. I’ll say it again: this is India’s choice, and as I have made clear, I respect India’s choices.

I’d also add, in India’s favor the fact that the wildlife in India is almost the most diverse and rich in the world, outside of Africa it certainly is. The lack of hardcore, industrial pollution in India is one of two reasons for this bounty. The other is the simple fact that most Indian’s are vegetarians of a sort, and the wildlife is much safer than in a place like China. This is to be applauded by all peoples, not just the self-righteous environmentalists of the West, in our increasingly small world

You say: “Infrastructure is poor. I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the US I guess.”

The West did not build all its infrastructure in one day. And when you have two hostile nuclear armed neighbors, you are forced to spend on defense.

No doubt this is true. However, China, which has a population larger than India’s, and started from a baseline GDP per capita similar to India’s created world-class infrastructure in less than 40 years. India is twenty years along in its reform effort and not even remotely close to where the Chinese were in a comparable stage. And China had the same excuse of nuclear armed neighbors: Russia and the US bases in Japan. You can use this excuse all you want, but it is a crutch, just like the one the US uses on the ‘War on Terror.’ It’s a false choice: either we invest in our own people and live up to our own ideals, as democracies, or we don’t. The US falls far, far short of its ideals, actually betraying them far too often for my taste. But having ‘bad neighbors’ or ‘people who hate our freedoms’ is a lame excuse. Nothing more.

You say, “The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in status.”

The British too had servants in the 19th century while the Americans had their slaves.

The likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson talked about right to freedom but never gave it to their black slaves. In fact racism against blacks continued till as late 1960′s and 70′s. That’s 200 years after they got independence. But those years did not have media scrutiny and internet.There are large number of illegal migrants in US and Europe who actually work as servants at homes.

I don’t dispute any of this. I’ll only say the following two things. One, you can lecture me on racism when a Dalit is prime-minister of India. Until then, I have an African-American president, and while I criticize him frequently, I am proud of that my country has largely, but not perfectly, moved past race. This is one ideal we have lived up to as a society. Not without pain and suffering, but we have made very real progress.

Second: Russia, Great Britain, France and the US all did away with slavery and involuntary servitude in the 19th century. When are you going to do the same? When does the reality of building an economy on the sweat of another man or woman’s labor become too much? And this is not about guilt, historical or otherwise, as guilt is too easy to project. It is about mobilizing the best capital you have in India: all of your people, men and women.

You say, “And I’ve seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does”

No doubt that India has its problems. But you never mentioned its strengths. India has democracy. It is perhaps the only instance where democracy has worked despite widespread poverty.

India cannot throw away slumdwellers like China does. For Beijing Olympics, large number of people were simply thrown out.

China has massive pollution. Most people, including those in cities actually drink polluted water.

India has its problems and at least for the next 20 years, many of these shall continue. But it is our democracy that gives us hope. Ours is an extremely complicated society. We have defied the basic definition of a nation state – which talks about people bound by common culture, language and religion. We have created our own definition. That’s India.

No doubt India has its strengths, some of which I have identified above. There are more. And I will write about them at length sometime soon, when I wind down a few writing projects I am engaged in currently. As I have said before in other forums: my primary aim in my ‘India Critique’ is to impart some realism about the hurdles Western businessmen will face if they choose to invest in India. A myth is being built around the ‘emergence of India’ and I think that myth needs to be demystified. I’m a realist. I see the opportunities in India. But I see them with open eyes, not rose colored glasses.

Do you agree? Disagree with the author’s opnion? Then leave a comment!

Further commentary on India can be found here. Reader responses to this story can be found here and here. Please contact me via Facebook (you can message me via Facebook even if you don’t have an account) if you would like to respond. My only request is that you be polite and not call me names.

“A Tipping Up and Putting Down”

Darrell ScottIt’s the first weekend I’ve had in about two years. It’s not like the recent past has been one long party, but the days have had a tendency to blend together, Saturday being no different from Tuesday and that sad, depressing feeling on Sunday afternoons is something I’ve forgotten. I suppose tomorrow I’ll be getting in touch with it once again. This morning laying in bed was odd: it was just before seven and the voice of discipline was telling me, “get up you lazy bum, shower, eat and then head to the coffee shop and WRITE!” But then there was another voice that said, “wait, wait, wait, enjoy the morning, take your time, don’t hurry. You worked hard this week.”

Soon both voices collapsed into a cacophony of dialogue and argumentation, most of which was about the show I saw last night.

Darrell Scott played at the Cactus Cafe and it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve been a fan of Scott’s for several years now. I’m not sure what it is about his music that moves me and touches me so. I grew up decidedly upper middle class: my father is a CPA and my mother was an executive with the State Government. Early in life we lived on a farm, but as my father’s career took off we sold it and moved into the city. Of course, we never really struggled–sure after the divorce things were rough for a couple of years, but we never wanted for much. So, it’s odd that Scott’s songs of working men and women, bruised and scarred lives, filled with doubt, alcohol and disappointment capture my imagination the way they do. (Oh, there are more reasons for this, but reasons I’m not willing to disclose just yet. Disclose is not the best word here: it’s story I’ll tell in due time, just not yet.)

Perhaps it’s kind of like my attachment to Bukowski and his story as well. Singing songs and writing poems about the hard edges of life in modern America. I certainly think a lot of it is due to the fact that while I went to school in Austin as a child, I was bussed over to the East-side schools and I learned early on that I could relate to anyone; anyone’s pain, or joy for that matter. I learned early on in life to value all life as a triumph of experience over hope–that the simple act of enduring for many people is vindication enough, like Faulkner’s ‘puny, inexhaustible voice’ echoing loudly at the ‘last ding-dong of doom . . . still talking.’ And while hope is that most essential of ingredients to life, in my opinion, and I have much–ever the eternal optimist am I!–for many hope is luxury they can ill afford. It’s the divergences that make life so rich, so potent and so full of potential.

But, I digress, back to Darrell Scott.

I smiled most of the show. It was just Darrell and his guitar up on stage telling stories. About half way through the show Scott played my favorite song of his, called “Uncle Lloyd:”

He was not my father’s brother
But he wished that he could be
Told us kids to call him uncle
And we would be his family
He had a wife and kids in Fresno
The youngest one was twenty-four
Dad had brought him into our house
They didn’t want him anymore

He helped us work the family business
Building fences in the sun
Worked just like a man of twenty
‘Til the working day was done
He and Dad would spend their evening
Sitting in lawn chairs in the yard
Where they’d drink a toast to Seagram’s
Seagram’s never went down hard

Won’t you wake up Uncle Lloyd
Got a lot of work today
We’ll get Don to make the coffee
Load that truck and be on your way
Friday night you can drive to Vegas
Maybe this time you will win
Buy a trailer by the river
And you won’t have to work again

He was sleeping in the workroom
With a mattress on the floor
When one night I heard him crying
As I passed outside his door
He cried, “Rita, girl I love you
Rita, Darling please don’t go
I’ve tried hard to make you happy
I’ve done everything I know”

Then I heard the bottle open
The tipping up and putting down
Heard the rustling of the covers
Then he did not make a sound
I thought of thirty years of Rita
Standing sternly by his side
All the years of hanging in there
All the emptiness inside

Then I thought of how their children
Have children of their own
And how a man at fifty-seven
Winds up living so alone

In so few words Scott tells the story about a broken man, who finds solace in his friends and his friend’s family. The most potent single word in the entire song is “want: when they didn’t want him anymore.” It sets up the entire story, the fulcrum the song launches out to us from, for us to earn it, or own it or just drink away our sorrows with. Sometimes people just don’t want us anymore and we become discarded like things. It’s this human land-fill which Scott mines for his best songs.

The whole night was like this: a veritable story-tellers feast. He played his standards, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” and “My Father’s House.” But it was “Banjo Clark” which blew me and the rest of the audience away: it was the consummate skill with which Scott played the guitar, one of the most amazing acoustic guitar solos I’ve ever had the pleasure to listen to. It was rich, not limited to any single genre, a touch of folk here, a pluck or two of jazz, bluegrass spilling off the frets and then the ever present Scott mix of blues and country. There were moments between verses where he just got lost picking away at the guitar, strumming, picking, plucking, hands moving up and down the rosewood-fretboard like a man finding love between the steel frets and the mother of pearl inlay, dare I say he was making love to the guitar. There wasn’t anything self-indulgent about the music, at all: even while he was lost in the music he carried the entire audience right along with him. Seldom do I leave a venue with such a large smile on my face. I felt like I’d been in the hands of a master-story teller, or better yet, a Celtic bard in the Middle Ages.

If you ever get a chance to see Scott do an acoustic set don’t miss it. Trust me on this one.

Rought Draft Now Complete

I completed the rough draft last night. I’m exhausted. One hundred fifty three thousand words. No doubt it will be shorter after the re-write. I’m exhausted. I’ve written 153,000 words in a little over six months. Plus countless blog entries. I’m exhausted. I’m taking a two week break. And I am going to let the manuscript rot and smell in some dank corner of my multiple backed up hard drives for at least a month.

I may pop in from time to time and I will be around. But I’m whipped. Please play nice while I am away.