Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Women of Osage County

I don't remember where I heard this advice to men, but there may be truth in it. If you want to know what your sweetheart, your wife, will be like after 20 or 30 years of marriage, look at her mother.  At the end, women turn into their mothers. And women, if you doubt this, listen to the voice in your head, the tone that you use, the judgement that wells up instinctively as a first reaction. Of course, it is possible to unlearn your early childhood conditioning. Hopefully, as you progress in the world, you become your own person, with your own ideas. It's not easy to be objective about your mother, but it is possible to understand what shaped her, and to appreciate her influence on your life. It might even be possible - often after she's gone - to see her as her own person.

And so, Meryl Streep comes to her ultimate role of motherhood in the person of Violet Weston in August: Osage County, the John Wells film based on Tracy Letts' award-winning play. In the first scene, her husband Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is briefing a new housekeeper who is evidently Native American (Misty Upham). Violet enters and immediately displays an acerbic temper, an upwelling of racism and her waspish, vitriolic long-harboured world view. She's a falling down alcoholic and drug addict. But her words have the sting and bitterness of truth. It's ironic that her cancer is of the mouth.
Violet (centre) and her sister Mattie Fae with Violet's daughter Ivy.

Shortly after, the family gathers when Beverly is found dead in the lake. There's Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) the third daughter who keeps her own counsel and sanity, quietly serving Violet while keeping out of her way. Karen, the middle daughter, turns up with the latest boyfriend Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney). The eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). The family is complete with Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) - their mother's favourite says Violet - her husband Charlie Aiken (Chris Cooper). Their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives too late for the funeral, but not too late to find his own place in the family unravelling.

Violet and her daughters, Ivy and Karen

Playwright Tracy Letts received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the play August: Osage County which had opened at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Illinois where it was awarded the 2007 Joseph Jefferson Award. Letts was born in Oklahoma to parents Billie (writer) and Dennis (actor), and is one of three sons.

On transforming the script for the John Wells film, Letts says, "There's another dimension in the film that is not in the play, and that's Osage County. I would take them [filmmakers] to my home and show them the landscape, that's kind of profound for me as a guy who not only has written a play, but written a play that's somewhat autobiographical. The landscape itself becomes a character." Oklahoma's Osage county in the summer is unbearably hot, dessert dry and open as the unshaded prairie.

The secret which Barbara wishes should remain untold is blurted out to Ivy.
The older Letts, Dennis, originated the role of Beverly Weston in the first production of August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (2007). He was diagnosed with lung cancer in September of that year. Despite his diagnosis, he moved with the production when the show opened in New York (December 2007) where he remained a full cast member - performing eight shows a week - until February 2008 when he died at age 73.

Tracy's mother, Billie (her published works include Where the Heart is) says of his work,  "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead." This story by Tracy succeeds in peeling away layers of civility and formality - the veneer that makes life feel tolerable or normal -  to bitter nubs of irreducible despair.

A moment of happiness for "Little" Charles Aiken and Ivy Weston
At the end, Violet repels all her "loved ones." Beverly escapes through death. Karen leaves with the boyfriend Steve, ever hopeful for happiness with a man. Ivy may be driven mad by the secret which her mother dumps upon her. And Barbara - whose husband has left the house and their marriage with their daughter - may already be afraid that she's turning into her mother.

Is this the woman that Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep's role in the Bridges of Madison County) or Gail Hartman (Streep in The River Wild) turns into?

Violet Weston and her grand-daughter Jean Fordham
Indeed, what is the process by which a woman becomes a fury, a bitter force for hate in the world? Low self-esteem, disappointment in love, frustrated hopes, alcohol, drugs, disease all seem good enough reasons, but are they? And what steps may be taken to prevent the curse continuing through all the women and tainting the family forever?

(All photos from IMDb)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Chinese in the Caribbean

Traditionally, the Chinese didn't wander far from their homeland. However by the end of the nineteenth century, waves of Chinese were leaving to find better lives in America, south-east Asia, Australia, until those lands closed their borders to stem the rising tide of immigration.  In the 1930s, the Empire of Japan seized the opportunity presented by China's civil war - between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists - to invade China; an invasion in which they were supported by Germany. Fortunate were those Chinese who had begun travelling away - as far as the Caribbean - relocating their families before the great conflict - 1937 to 1945 and the Japanese capture of Nanking -  after which China closed its own borders.

My father's father brought his sons to Trinidad in or around 1936 (the culmination of the civil war). He returned to China with the youngest of the three sons, my father, Wong Qui-on, to bring his wife and the younger children. Although it must have been an arduous and long journey - by sea from Guanzhou to Canada, overland to the east coast, and by boat to the south Caribbean - my grandfather seemed to have made regular trips back to China, and would remain a Chinaman all his life, speaking Chinese to the other resettlers of his generation but enough broken English to build his business, a number of shops in Laventille, Belmont, Woodbrook and Carenage - businesses which he left to different sons to run.
Photo of one of the Wong Chong boys, 11 years when he first travelled to Trinidad: We believe this was the eldest boy, See'On (Neville).
Some of the Wong Chong girls: Leemoy, Sy and Yolande (not sure)

Henry Wong Chong successfully transplanted his family to Trinidad, having started a second family here. His Trinidad wife raised seven children further along Belmont Valley Road from his Chinese family - also with seven children. Of the three eldest sons who were born in China, one married an Afro-Amerindian woman, producing handsome strapping sons; another elder son fathered beautiful daughters.

Chinese couple of the era when there was regular migration to the Caribbean.
It was the third son Wong Qui-on - who was Christened Cecil Lionel Wong Chong - who caught the entrepreneurial spirit of the new land, and went from being the shopkeeper in his father's shops, to making and building his own business. He built a small incubator in the back room of his Woodbrook shop. He bought property and went in to farming, rearing chickens, ducks, pigs and goats.  Later, he bought real estate and constructed apartments to rent. The code he lived by was to be independent and self-sustaining.  The story of the Wong Chong family - Wong was the family name in Guanzhou, Chong my grandfather's personal name - in Trinidad has echoes throughout the Caribbean - in Jamaica, in Guyana - wherever free Chinese migrants settled.

Chinese in Trinidad observed China's National Day, October 1

The first migrants would set up support systems for their families and friends who would come later. In some cities, these gave rise to Chinatowns. In Trinidad, Charlotte Street featured "friendly societies" which were specifically rooming houses where the new immigrants could live.

Kerry Young's first novel, Pao, (published Bloomsbury, 2011) tells the story of Yang Pao (his name was anglicised to Philip Young) who came to Jamaica from China in 1938, with his mother and his brother. They arrived on the island under the patronage of Zhang, friend of their dead father. Pao, 14 years when he arrived, quickly settled in to the life of the island's Chinatown. His brother did not adjust so well, and he travelled on to the USA.

Chinese groups were among mas-players in the late 40s and early 50s

Cecil's daughters: Gail, Helen and Margaret (in mother's arms)
Descendants of the Chinese who came to settle in Trinidad around the same time, will find many similarities with Young's Pao who took on the role of a benevolent "godfather" not only to the Chinese, but to those he befriended in his Jamaican homeland. Pao is written with humour and insight into the characters of these entrepreneurs who were unfettered by the constraints of religion, race or Western traditions. The code that he lived by came from Sun Tzu's "Art of War" which he interpreted to suit particular situations.

Read Pao and you'll discover many similarities across the Chinese immigrants of that generation who fled China at the time of her civil war and invasion by Japan.

Cecil Wong Chong as a businessman

And in America, Amy Tan reflects on her life as a Chinese girl raised in the west. She has reconnected with her sisters in Shanghai:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Amen Amen Amen

What would you do to survive, to be found, to be home again? To what lengths would you go to be saved? If you stood to lose everything in your last act, in the hope that you might be saved, what would you do?

The story of the film All is Lost, is undramatic. Alone on the Indian Ocean, his sailboat damaged, the man (Robert Redford) survives. He hardly talks to himself. The only actions are those taken to go from one day to the next, small movements. The only violence is the weather, the harshness of the sun, the scarcity of salt-less water, the turbulence of his thoughts. And Alex Ebert's haunting piano and lyrics the only accompaniment to the flat ocean above which a container - remnant of some human accident? - drifts.

There are no words for loss. The day by day paring away of possessions, of dreams and thinking, leaves a body empty of all but itself and the thinnest of hopes. Living is involuntary: deep under water we struggle to the surface. Adrift on a flat ocean, we scan the horizon, we search the depths for food, we do not give up, we live until we can't live any more. And if the body is not to survive, we will that some small part of our souls live on.

The final words for every human life that ever lived must be these, scrawled on a page stuffed in a bottle: "I am sorry. All is lost here... except for soul and body... that is, what's left of them... and a half-day's ration. It's inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I'm not sure... but it did. I fought 'til the end - I'm not sure what this is worth - but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all... I will miss you. I'm sorry."

Sorry for what exactly? Surely, we are sorry not to have lived another day, only sorry not to have survived.

Robert Redford is Our Man on board the Virginia Jean

All is Lost, directed by JC Chandor, is a solo performance by Robert Redford at 75, spare as Beckett's Waiting for Godot. One director, one actor, the film has 17 producers, and credits 103 companies. And three sailboats.  According to the film's credits: " three boats generously gave themselves up for art: Tahoe, Tenacious, and Orion. They took their final sails in the Pacific Ocean and performed beautifully in the film as Our Man's boat, the Virginia Jean. Rest in peace."

Writer and director for All is Lost, JC Chandor, and Robert Redford

For 106 minutes, you are held in the thrall of a life.  The end may be anti-climax; but it is perfect as Pi adrift on his ark with the tiger, as Rose on Titanic. The journey's the thing. What need is there for length of days? As Alex Ebert's award-winning song declares, "Amen. Amen. Amen." So be it.

Listen here to Ebert's "Amen" Best Original Score - Motion Picture by the Golden Globes USA in 2014:

(All information and photos from IMDb)

Monday, January 20, 2014

American dreams

American Hustle is supposed to be based on the events of what came to be called the Abscam Sting (1978 to 1980) in which several American politicians were nabbed by the FBI. It was thought to mark a watershed in how corruption was perceived. David O. Russell's 2013 film, however, is less a cautionary tale than a glamorisation of graft.

Hustle is the name of the game. The hustlers are good-looking. Their risk-taking is engaging, with the potential for profit. Everyone becomes a hustler. And in case there are still people who don't know what a hustle is, and who is a hustler, the opening scene might be considered a good enough non-verbal explanation. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is carefully arranging his coif, combing hair over his bald spots. He's a small ageing man with a potbelly and inconsequential manner, but his comb over and aviators bestow the self-image and self-confidence he thinks he needs. He's the kid who grew up hard, breaking store fronts to help his father's glass business. Now he owns a chain of dry cleaners, sells art and negotiates investments on behalf of those who would like to put in $5000 to get $50,000.

Together with the girl Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), they run a scam that features Sydney's British accent and her persona Lady Edith Greensly. Through their fake business, London Associates, they come to the attention of the FBI and the young agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). When they attempt to take his cheque for an investment in London, the G-man in jerry curls busts them, and they land in jail.  But in return for the use of their skills, they can get out. The saying, "set a thief to catch a thief" is personified in Richie.
The hustler as Everyman, the girlfriend, the G-man - Irving, Edith/Sydney and Richie - team up to flush out other hustlers.

The plot to snare "corrupt" or greedy government officials grows to include a fake sheik and demands more and more FBI funds. It reaches a sinister level when it intersects the Atlantic City underworld, personified by the Robert de Niro-played don. Richie - a youngster in his game - is high on his conquest of Edith/Sydney and the impending breakthrough of his elaborate trap.

Meanwhile, Irving is having his own troubles at home. Wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) lives the American dream: sun lamps, beauty treatments, clothes; and a husband who brings home the microwave. Irving would divorce her for Sydney. But Rosalyn says she will never have a divorce; and she threatens that she could take Danny and he would never see the child that he considers his own again. Then she seduces him. In the home, the con is not coin, but sex.

Rosalyn, American wife: "We fight and then we fuck, that's our thing."
American Hustle, where everyone is a hustler might be seen as an indictment on American values. But even in the hustle, there are heroes. And the hero is seen by what's in the heart. Richie catches his corrupt officials and is most likely to move up in the FBI; he's not hero material. Rosalyn takes a lover and lives the life of the kept woman. But it is Irving and Sydney who have earned their freedom and happiness with each other.

In the Middle Ages, morality plays were used to entertain and encourage people to be good according to the norms (religion and laws) of the day. The morality play featured an everyday hero who battled temptation and diabolic forces (personified) and was helped by angels or virtues. Today's morality plays all happen on the screen - tv or cinema - and the narrow path is even harder to discern. But we could always tell the act from the action, the player and the played; good from evil; and know the true value of our deeds.
(All photos from IMDb)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Zombie apocalypse

The thesis that the human animal could be overtaken by a virus or disease that turns us into zombies in twelve seconds may not be plausible, but it is believable. This is the underlying premise presented by the 2013 film World War Z. Fast travel and the multiple connections across a growing global population (seven billion at latest estimate) are the basis for the spread of contagious disease in our largest cities, and from continent to continent. The ferocious spread, the virulence of a condition that takes seconds to overpower a healthy host may be a tad far-fetched, but not impossible to imagine. Dramatise the scenario with the stuff of horror - the undead - and there's the recipe for a zombie apocalypse. At least, you'll have a very good cinematic yarn.  World War Z is a horror of the order of the 1968 Night of the Living Dead. It stopped short of the nihilistic conclusion of the latter film in which the hero Ben - having survived all assaults from the undead - is shot by the military who comes to liberate the farmhouse in which he is hiding.

Humans have been on the earth barely 100,000 years since we stepped out of Africa. In that time, we have re-arranged the face of the earth, with our cities, with transportation and commerce and energy transformations, with wars and our massive appetites, depleting land and ocean stocks, removing stored mineral resources, dealing extinction to many species, and spoiling landscapes with our waste. In this century, it is seriously feared that humankind may already have altered the balance of climate and the survivability of remaining species, not to mention the sustainability of the whole fabric, past the tipping point. It's not just the fate of the dinosaurs that awaits us. There is a fate worse than death that we have concocted for our many sins. This is to be the walking dead, the "undead."

It is thought that the word zombie entered the English language in the 1870s. It might be West African in origin, nzambi means ghost. From Haitian folklore, a zombi - in a state that may be drug-induced - is a person who died but whose body is revived for the use of a manipulator or sorcerer. The jumbie in West Indian dialect is a ghost. Zombies are the dead who would not rest, the  "undead" or the walking dead. The tradition of the undead or walking dead in films goes back to the Night of the Living Dead by George Romero, set in rural Pennsylvania where the dead rise out of a nearby cemetery to feed on - and infect - the living.

Leap forward almost 50 years, and mankind's great fear is not only that his species will be wiped off the face of the earth, but that "walking dead" might be punishment for all the ills that he has perpetrated. To sin against nature results in this perversion of the "last judgement," where the dead do not die, but plague the living.  The end is coming not by war, but by pestilence. This story/ film, however, does not envisage the ultimate end. There is hope, it offers, when there is time to change.

The film follows Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt) as a UN investigator who is sent in search of a cure for the aggressive zombification. From an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic where he hides his family, he sets off to South Korea where the condition first manifested itself. This mission is doomed when they need to make a fast getaway.  To Israel, where a high wall surrounds an area where there is yet no infection. But high walls do not keep out a virus so determined that the zombies scramble and climb over each other to reach their victims.

Zombie virus - undead humans swarm over the face of the earth. 

At the film's end, there is no cure, only a way to hide from the zombies. And the fatalistic words of the dead scientist, "Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one's better, more creative. Like all serial killers, she can't help the urge to want to get caught. What good are all those brilliant crimes if no one takes the credit? So she leaves crumbs. Now the hard part, for which you spent decades in school, is seeing the crumbs for the clues they are. Sometimes the thing you thought was the most brutal aspect of the virus, turns out to be the chink in its armor. And she loves disguising her weaknesses as strengths. She's a bitch."

And I remember being told once that terminal (cancer) patients rarely catch colds or any virus. Their bodies are too busy dealing with (not) dying. Hmmm

What fun the costumiers must have had creating masks and antics for the walking dead!
(Photo from IMDb)

The Heart of a Woman

Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, was first published in instalments. In this respect, it was an early soap, as vast as the Russian steppe though constrained within the norms and mores of life in St Petersberg and Moscow.  The central character is a person of comfortable means, a princess among her extended family and friends, but her story is not unique in either rural or urban Russia of the day. She is neither fickle nor flirtatious. Yet, Anna Karenina - safely and stolidly married, the mother of a son, champion of what's sensible and straight - comes to us as the immortal tale of the fallen woman. Nothing prepares her for the wild upwelling passion that is her desire for the young Vronsky. And this morality play seems to suggest that passion does not "go gentle into that good night."

Anna Karenina at the train station

What makes Joe Wright's 2012 film version worth viewing is a contemporary stylised approach. The frame is a formal theatre, sometimes with the proscenium sometimes in the round, sometimes in the chamber. He sets the viewer firmly as spectator, outside the frame. Then with elaborate costume and characterisation, he recreates Russia before the revolution. It is a Russia still full of the contradictions of peasant and power centres, and seething with desires to break free. His characters are not caricatures but their actions are predetermined. It is a Stoppard trick, to inflate a small story within the limited sphere of a stage; creating tension that builds with the force of inevitability. Thus, Russia is evoked without ever stepping into her landscape.

Distanced by time, space, liberties in relationships, traditions and dress, the tragedy of Anna Karenina gathers the momentum of a runaway train.

The key to this century's interpretation of Tolstoy's epic romance owes as much to  playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, contemporizing Shakespeare) as to director Joe Wright. With earlier directorial credits for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Wright is reunited with Keira Knightley for the Karenina role. Wright also directed The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr; and Hanna with Saoirse Ronan. He professes to love the cinematic sweep of the films of David Lean (Dr Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia).

For Knightley, playing Anna offers the full range of woman's roles - social dowager, wife, mother, sister, besotted lover. Hers is not the saga of old Russia. It's about the compulsions of the human heart. To be ruled by environment or nature? Culture or craving? Here is crash-and-burn passion - emotions of epic proportion - delivered within a lifestyle that is duty-bound by the obligations of privilege. Consider and judge her at your leisure.

She first meets the young Vronsky who is at the train station to meet his mother. He is Dionysus to Alexei Karenin's Apollo. Karenin is upright, stoic, disciplined and routine; riven to his work. As his wife, Anna is his reflection: "Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond approach. She is, after all, my wife." To Anna, he says, " I consider jealousy to be insulting to you and degrading to me. I have no right to inquire into your feelings. They concern only your conscience."

Alexei Karenin played by Jude Law
Vronsky is bold, challenging. He consumes her with his eyes, to the point of rudeness; and stalks her at the balls and in public places. She receives his unspoken desire, she resists. But her heart has already responded, and beyond reason, she lets go of all the restraints of the life of a respectable married woman and mother. To her appeal, "If you have any thought for me you will give me back my peace!" he responds, "There can be no peace for us, only misery, and the greatest happiness."

Count Vronsky played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson
It's ironic that both men are named Alexei. But when Anna calls out "Alexei" at the horse race in which Vronsky falls and has to shoot his horse, and Karenin responds to console her, there's no doubt who her anguish is for.

So what's new? This is an old story today. One may even wonder what Tolstoy could have devoted over 600 pages to. But that's as if we were to look at a season-long television series in one go. This version of Tolstoy's classic is just over two hours long, filmed mainly on sets in Britain. Not quite 200 years since it was written, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has evolved into the quintessential story of the woman who has everything, but still falls. But hey, wasn't that the story of Eve?

(Photos from the IMDb site for Anna Karenina)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Market as teacher

How do people learn to want what's best for them? You would think that it's obvious, wouldn't you? That we should be able choose at the basic level what is wholesome, nourishing, enough, and sustainable. Instead you find that "what people want" is culture that starts from birth. It's coded in the symbols of communications technology, language and media, as much as in the means of the individual. Even the way to persuade a rational person of what's better can be an addicting process.

The challenge of the Green Market is to present healthy alternatives. It also wants people to think outside the box. This is much like the Anglican church, which is so liberal, so committed to self-thinking persons that the pews have become emptier. Maybe, like the church, the Market - fledgling effort for 52 Saturdays, and a few Sundays in 2013 -  can prosper for many years, and open a few minds before it's empty again; or changes its tactic.

Are we starting at the end of the lesson of choice? Are we attracting people who already know what's good and healthy in food. Perhaps that's all the market wants to do - to draw all the people across Trinidad (and Tobago) who are interested in homegrown, handmade and wholesome. Perhaps this audience is large enough; and can be estimated at what - say the graduates from primary schools across the country, a community of 20,000 a year.

Consumption patterns indicate that taste is developed by more than what we are taught academically. The culture of eating is learned in the home. It is learned on the street; it is an accretion of everyday circumstances, convenience, income and taste. Passing are the days of kids coming home from school  for lunch; or even having lunch kits with "cooked" food; or dining around a family table with mother's evening meal.

Remembrance of home: Deborah frying accras at the Green Market
When we were little and eating our parents' nutritious meals, we used to say that when we grew up, we would go to the movies every day, eat popcorn or salt prunes, and cotton candy and drink sweet drinks. This was an indicator of what was withheld and what was attractive to five-year-olds. We all went through phases of wanting to eat only fried chicken, only auntie's sponge cake, only store bought. More than a few have got stuck there; and the result is an epidemic of obesity.

The challenge for sources of food, especially when it has to be cultivated or collected for profit, are similar. When chicken rearing was industrialised in Trinidad, incentives and additives predominated. The industry was heavily subsidised. Fast grow out was guaranteed with a cocktail of vaccinations, vitamins and chemicals. Fast food over the counter was matched by fast turnover on the farms. It's the same for all cultivated meats - pork, beef, lamb - and green stuff, and fruits. Fortunately some foods - citrus fruit, goats, honey - are left to their natural growing cycles. In Trinidad and Tobago, these do include beef, goat and lamb.

New farmers: commercial aquaponic growers bring greens every week 

Wise consumers seek out what's wholesome from those producers who grow without (chemical) additives. Though they turned to fish for "wild" protein, the sea - which is the dumping ground from all continents - is now suspect as a source of food. Plus, it is estimated that we have eaten our way through 90% of the large sea species. What's left is either endangered or spoiled with toxic pollutants.

What is the future of a market that wants to sell what is natural, wholesome and sustainable? Producers are encouraged by demand. What will the natural, sustainable, wholesome food farm look like? Presumably, it will inter-crop: livestock such as chickens and ducks providing manure; composting nourishing healthy soils.

The market is set in a garden in Santa Cruz

It is the declared objective of the market to cultivate consumers who are inquisitive and aware of growing practices; discerning quality not in how vegetables look, but in smell and taste; respecting the seasonality of fruit, and appreciating diversity. The market takes on the role of teacher, for producers and consumers.

Fresh vegetables and fruit in season are available every Saturday: consumers and producers talk about what's coming up

We live in a complex world where new information is coming in all the time. Hopefully, we know what keeps us healthy; that we don't need plenty, just enough; that respect for soil and sun and rain is everything. And changing eating habits - like recycling - happens one person at a time. Follow on facebook here:

View of the market: comfortable path to what's wholesome

Friday, January 10, 2014

Do you shine?

So, the stay-at-homes have fixed dinner and are awaiting the return of the group that has gone to No Man's Land to see the bio-luminesence. They are taking longer than two hours. They must be having fun! Some standing - balancing on the rocking wave - or kneeling on paddle-boards. Two in a kayak. The night was dark enough - the moon still hidden in its first phase, called new moon but absolutely dark, even though it's at the perigee, closest to earth on its elliptical orbit.

We are waiting to hear from the adventurers about the sea at night.

Bio-luminesence is a phenomenon occurs through chemical reactions that produce light - in creatures that live in water, the sea mainly. If you saw the movie, Life of Pi, you would have seen the magical night scenes in the Pacific with the blue lights of sea creatures mirroring the stars of the sky.

An hour later they return. Bubbling over with amazement. No one fell in accidentally. At first it was windy, and the sea swells made it difficult to stand on the paddle-boards. But the wind went down shortly after the sun had disappeared. The rocking waves became a comfortable rhythm. They rounded Pigeon Point into sheltered No Man's Land where the bio-luminescence was indeed happening! Not content to merely see it, they wanted to be in it. Paddles trailed through the water glowed. Hands and feet dipped in the sea glowed with fairy lights. One or two went swimming.

Apparently, the sea creatures that can light up are always there. But like the stars they need the dark of night to be seen. Einstein taught us that energy is never wasted. And so today, the light of a million tiny unseen organisms shines through the excitement and experience of persons who heard about it, and went to see for themselves, bio-luminesence in a sheltered lagoon off Tobago.

Windsurfers off Pigeon Point, Tobago
The bio-luminesence experience coordinated by Duane Kenny starts at Pigeon Point at sunset. You paddle around the point to the lagoon at No Man's Land. Here, the nutrients in the mangrove and the fairly high density of organisms in the water cause a rich concentration and a spectacular display of "fairy lights" in the water.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Flying away

I am following the girl westward, flying away to Australia on a crisp winter's day. She had to wake up before dawn in Saddle Grove to meet the friend who would take her to the airport. It is not easy to assess the heft of the main suitcase, with the personal effects and gifts to sustain her for the next eight months. But she goes bravely into the dark pre-dawn, to the bustling early morning airport. Then the text messages begin, "through security", "waiting to board".

Four hours or so later, "landed in MIA," and the mind's eye sees her with backpack, the iphone in hand, amid the lights and signs of Miami's airport shopping mile. The backpack doesn't weigh her down so much as allow her to keep her most valuable possessions close - the precious computer in which lies access to all the under-ocean work which will build to the PhD to be conferred by the University of Queensland Oceanographic Institute - and so she carries it lightly like a tortoise the home of his heart.

She has enough time to get the flight to LA, as scheduled for her by efficient agents in Oz. There's time to send text messages across the Atlantic to keep up to date with the visit to the venue for the brother's wedding. "Location is nice, with areas for ceremony, then cocktails, then dinner and dancing;" the sea changing from transparent grey to inky on that future evening, backdrop to the nuptials. "Flight is delayed," she sends a message back. "One hour delay."

"Will you make the next flight?" Yeah, there's enough time. "Flight Brisbane leaves near midnight."
"We're boarding now should arrive by half 8." This last message is around 5pm Trinidad time, 4pm in Miami.

Does she see the expanse of the  winter storm, the vortex bringing Arctic chill across the USA below, as the plane chases the sun off the California coast. Maybe she dozes, watches the small screen, reads the kindle. Maybe she completes the book, Pao, Kerry Young's story of a Chinese immigrant and the family he begets in Jamaica.

At 12.37 am in Trinidad, the message comes, "I'm in LAX now." That's 8.37pm in California. It's the message that I see at six in the morning. Useless now to respond, she must be on the flight from LA to Brisbane, 14 hours and ten minutes above the vast Pacific. So around 4am this morning in Saddle Grove, she was over 4,000 miles away, boarding the Qantas plane for the last leg of the journey that will locate her 10,000 miles from Saddle Grove.

The mind boggles to calculate the time zone of an object moving so far west that it crosses the International Dateline at which point you lose a day. At this instant (8am in Saddle Grove), she is almost into tomorrow, four hours into the journey with another ten hours to go.

Perhaps she will eat - something appetising and special for a trans-Pacific voyage - and then sleep long and deep enough, to wake refreshed on the other side of the world. When she wakes, it will be morning in Brisbane, balmy and bright, a hot summer's day. It will already be Friday January 10. The sun will be setting in Saddle Grove, 6pm on Thursday, 14 hours behind.

The messages will resume, by computer with the facilities of email and skype. I will adjust again to the 14 hour difference - night time here morning there; midday here she's probably going to sleep there - and my Saddle Grove clock will run parallel to the Australia east coast.

A new day near the east coast of Australia

But for the moment, all the forces of the earth and stars, the sun and universe, suspend a silver tube soaring south west over the unfathomable waterworld that dominates this planet. Today in suspension, we will cook and clean, and scurry about the business of getting and giving, the minutiae that add up to a human life on planet earth.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bidder winner

 The night was still young. The card sharks had played a few rounds of all fours before graduating to Pedro. "Bidder winner!" was the cry as we egged each other on to raise the bids - and risk all - from two or pass, to as near nine as possible. Bid all on ace! Or stand with bare Pedro or jack.

Everyone knows "all fours" the card game in which Jack is king! And the purpose of the game - after trump has been selected - is to have the Jack slip home, or be hanged. It is a lively game, pitting two sides against each other. Bet you never knew such battles could be waged on a card table. This game - it refers to the basic four points, high, low, jack and game, that may be scored in one "trick" - is thought to have originated in 19th century England. It survives in the Caribbean, and particularly in Trinidad where "all fours" is taken to the level of art of war with strategies decided between partners before they reach the table. Keeping score with a box of matches was especially fascinating - a matchstick awarded for each point in all fours.

I grew up in a family of card peons. My father had regular weekly poker nights when he would spend hours with a few like-minded people. Winning some losing some, up and down, like life.

My mother's family - all her brothers, especially Uncle Whoonie - introduced us to Pedro, the game that wikipedia tells us was developed in Colorado in the 1880s, a variation of all fours.  It increased the winning points per trick from four to nine. Pedro (pronounced peedro) is the five of whatever is the trump suit,  a rather humble fellow whose only value is the five points bestowed whenever he is played.  The winning side would be whoever got to 32 first. (I used to wonder at the incongruity of the numbers - 5, 9, 32 - and speculate that technically, you could win in four tricks.)

Even my mother could be enticed to a game on occasion. As children, we learned all the games - go to pack, suck de well, fish - merely to have familiarity with the cards as a prelude to Pedro. Each adult player in a game might have an apprentice happily sitting at the elbow whispering and pointing to what we thought should be played. No amount of bouff or banishment detracted from magic of the cards. We couldn't wait to be invited to be a "lucky partner" when someone dropped out. Sack in sack out - the method of changing teams or partners to give everyone a game. The strategies of the game could only be learned by playing, by playing badly and hearing Grandad's long steups, or playing strategically and getting Uncle Whoonie's "good move" for marking and crossing.

A special colourful language grew up around these card games. "Yuh bumsie quaking?!" we would goad whoever we suspected held Pedro. And we would bluff - look me - to draw attention away if we thought the Pedro was in a partner's hand.

It's always a special pleasure to induct a new player - usually a new in-law - to the charms of Pedro. Don't mind if you get bouff; or if your partner berates a thoughtless card. This is serious play. You learn to take risks in a supportive environment. Bidder winner! And after all, it's just a game. The battle - the sharp words, the disapproving steups - is over when you leave the table. Winning is not only about the points. It's engaging the war, and coming out unbloodied. You can only win if you play. You are likely as not to win if you bid up.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cocobel and the saga of Cacao

Now five years old, Cocobel is more than the finest quality chocolate made from Trinidad cocoa beans. Cocobel is now a brand with a domestic following and a growing international reputation. Like all excellent business brands, Cocobel's story is a journey that began with one person whose passion ignited a movement.

Maybe it started five years ago, maybe it started centuries before. Maybe the discovery of the magical beans enclosed in pods hanging heavy off the trunks and branches of forest trees belongs to the MesoAmericans four millennia before today. The secret of fermenting and roasting the beans; winnowing and grinding to a thick liqueur, has been passed on so many times that the secret of Theobroma cacao - the beauty of the bean - is now an archival memory in mankind's genes.

The Cocobel story begins with a young girl wandering the rich rainforest of her dreams, in which so many paths criss-crossed that it was hard to choose. Each led to another mysterious domain of knowledge and investigation. She chose the path of art and architecture, and then stumbled - quite by chance - upon the alchemy of the cacao bean.

At first she thought the transformation of the bean, upon her grindstone, was magic itself. Mystical, wild and raw, the complex seed yielded itself in flavours of the forest, bitter, loamy, floral and dark. Then she ventured to the estate where the beans were growing on ancient gnarled trees and learned that it was the estate, Rancho Quemado (scorched land) in oil-rich south Trinidad that held the secrets of her beans. In the geology of the place, there exists the possibility of oil wealth deep from the earth, and the riches of cacao upon its fertile soil.

Upon this estate, Cocobel inspired the replanting of hundreds of new trees at Rancho Quemado. Now, the cocoa peons aspire to restore the glory days - when cocoa was king - of two hundred years ago. Old-time skills are remembered; and innovative improvements invented. Although Trinidad may no longer be among the top producers of cocoa in the world, the island's Trinitario cocoa - developed from the marriage of forastero and criollo - dominate the estates across Africa and Asia. So why not here on the island where these hardy well-travelled clones originated?

The story of Cocobel now includes the revival of an estate and a community, of age-old craft in the growing of trees, harvesting and fermenting the pods. In this process, she is healing the rift between country and town, revealing the riches to be gained in working alongside nature. In her workshop, the cocoa is transformed into a medium to carry more than the alchemy of chocolate, to transport the story of the island, its people, its diversity of flavours.

Cocobel maps the herbs and spices and fruits of the island. Basil, mint, thyme, ginger from the hill estates of Paramin.  Sorrel, pineapples, passionfruit, mango, oranges from groves and valleys and wayside gardens all over the island. Whatever flavours are pleasing, she incorporates to accent and enliven the chocolate, revalidating time-honoured industries - aged rum, peppers and spices, tonka and vanilla. All reflect the harmonious blend of the people.

And so, Cocobel is five years old. She carries a responsibility beyond her years, for the restoration of pride in handmade; an appreciation for the benediction of sunlight and breezes and soil on food; and the alchemy to be wrought with Theobroma cacao (food of the gods) on its consumers and its producers. The magic has been tapped. The wild is waiting to be tasted, to re-awaken the senses.

Join the journey of Cocobel, at

Saturday, January 4, 2014

To recycle or not

My neighbour wrote me this note yesterday, "I have decided to start recycling and need some guide lines to what can recycle. Tins? Are they recyclable?"

Yes, Gina, cans are recyclable. Plastics are recyclable. Newspapers are recyclable. Cardboard, styrofoam, wood, metal, even food scraps are recyclable. To recycle means "to convert to reusable material." Everything we use can be converted to be reused. Some things require a process of collection to have a mass in order to be recycled in human terms. But in simple terms, the average householder can recycle most things within their space. And in planetary terms, the earth is the great recycler: absorbing and storing, and through processes that involve what we call "nature" - chemical, animal or molecular reactions - converting everything for use or reuse.

The need to see all that's around us in these terms becomes more pressing the more people on the face of the earth. There are now seven billion of us; and growing. Unless we can limit our consumption, use less, re-use and recycle, the earth will surely find ways to limit us, re-use us and remove our excesses. These are the challenges that occupy scientists of climate change and global warming. But enough of why you should recycle. Fortunately, there are systems for "converting to reuse" many household items. And what we can't yet recycle or reuse, we need to think hard about reducing or refusing to use.

So look around your home (or office or shop) and start seeing everything in terms of recycling.

Plastics: Plastikeep, a local Trinidad NGO, collects all plastics. These include styrofoam - in large or pellet form, used to package small or large appliances, meat, vegetables and fresh food - plastic bottles and their caps, bags, egg cartons etc.

Cardboard and newspapers: these are collected to remake paper and cardboard containers. Bale them with string so that they are easy to transport.

Beverage and food cans: these containers are crushed to remake other cans.

Glass: Carib Glass has long been collecting used glass bottles. They reuse their own beer bottles. The ones with the crown are returnable. In periods of high demand - Christmas and Carnival - the company also produces non-returnable beer bottles, but these are recyclable, and should be collected for the recycling bins.

Tetrapaks: It's Up To MEnvironmental has installed bins to collect these containers which were created to keep juices and milk products fresh on the shelves.

In my own home, I have a space designated for recyclables. A bin for bottles, a bin for cardboard. A bag for cans. A bag for plastics. I stack up newspapers, and break down cardboard boxes into flats. And since this is a place inside my home, this corner has to be kept neat and tidy. This means that all containers are rinsed before storing. We are fortunate to have pick up of our sorted recyclables every two weeks, so our part in "saving the environment" is relatively simple.

Recycling becomes a way of living: of thinking about the others on the face of the earth. Soon, you do not pick up anything in a shop without thinking of its component parts. You reduce consumption. You reuse - I remember my parents using sheets and towels until they were almost threadbare, and then they became floor cloths, or dog cloths. In other cultures, they created quilts and beautiful rag rugs. And you recycle.

Your mantra becomes:
Refuse - resist the sales and consumerism, refuse to buy what you don't need.
Reduce waste.
Reuse what you already have; or find another use for it.
Recycle - clean, collect your waste to be pooled and converted into useful raw materials.

Remember, fruit, vegetable and food waste can be composted.

So, Gina, we are happy to welcome you to the happy band of recyclers.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Staying the course for 60 years

Therese Mills was the communications officer for the oil company Trinidad Tesoro in the mid-70s. Key Caribbean Publications was contracted to produce the company's annual report. After meeting with the executives at the headquarters in Santa Flora, we had lunch with Therese at her bungalow. This was my first meeting with the woman who would be known as the grande dame of newspapers, a motherly soft-spoken woman with nerves of steel.

So began a relationship that grew slowly to a friendship. Here was a professional old enough to be my mother who happily gave time to a wannabe editor and writer. By 1978, she took briefs for features in the struggling Homemaker magazine on Sunday afternoons at her home in Diamond Vale. Not brief at all, these discussions explored the changing Trinidad society especially as manifested in the youth. In 1979, in a feature called simply "Young Trinidad and Tobago," she wrote, "40 percent of the population is under 15 (60 percent under 25)" and wondered whether the education system was changing quickly enough to be adequate, balancing the needs of the child with the requirements and pressures of society.

That promised to be the first in a series, and was followed by Today's Teenager, published in the Homemaker later that year. In this feature, Therese wondered about the double standards that society presented to young people. "How to cope with teenagers, who are growing up more rapidly than ever, and who must be helped to reach adulthood in a healthy and normal fashion," she asked, "How to ensure that they are not overwhelmed by the powerful forces in competition with the values that have stood the test of time?" At the time, a single mother with three youngsters in her own household, Therese answered her own queries, "If we ourselves do not follow the correct route, (sticking to the straight and narrow is the way the old folk put it), our young people won't do so either and therein lies the challenge for us all, keeping to the path ourselves in order that our children may follow."

Early in 1979, Therese Mills had become a contributor to Key Caribbean's Carnival magazine (first published 1973). She remained on the masthead until 1987, the last issue of this annual documentary. A couple years before that time, Therese had returned to the Trinidad Publishing Company; she was appointed editor in chief in 1989.

I left the publishing company in 1987 to work on the family farm, and to devote time to my own young family. Our paths diverged. Only to collide again in 1991, when I was recruited by the then managing director of the Trinidad Publishing Company Alwin Chow. I was appointed as his executive assistant and inserted into the editorial department. Alwin had the task of modernising the newspaper, which he did by encouraging the editorial department to "embrace the technology" by which he meant the integrated computer systems for inputting stories, scanning photos, editing, layout and artwork. He participated in editorial meetings with the mandate that the company produce a newspaper that provided relevant "information for life" instead of just the news. And so was born a substantial features department with graphic designers, creative photographers and writers to fulfil the public need for information behind the news of the day.

What Alwin Chow was doing set up the "worm within the apple" within the newspaper's editorial department (which had always been a sacrosanct republic unto itself) that triggered his own expulsion from the business in 1996.

In 1993, however, the production of the newspaper's Carnival supplement was left to a small, not particularly radical, dedicated bunch of writers, photographers and designers who were recording and reflecting the Carnival of that year. That required a round the clock team at work on the Carnival weekend through Monday and Tuesday. The supplement went on the streets according to plan on Ash Wednesday. Before the end of that week, a few complaints from citizens who were offended by what was in the supplement, what had been recorded on the streets of that jouvay, resulted in the entire print run being recalled to be destroyed. There was no discussion to which the team was privy. Finally, the Carnival supplement team was called in to the editor in chief's office and dressed down as by a quiet Catholic traditional grandmother. "Didn't we know that this was a family newspaper?"

Cover of the 1993 Carnival supplement    

Throngs waving and wining, and protesting

Super Blue was on top!
Characters from the jouvay
More from jouvay

The body squad

We kept our heads low and weathered the disgrace. No one was fired. What shifts might have occurred at executive level about oversight and responsibility, we would never know. By the end of that year, Therese had moved on to found a third daily newspaper, the Newsday, supposedly with a "good news" mandate. She was replaced at the helm of the Guardian by Jones P. Madeira who was the point person in the explosion with the Prime Minister in April 1996. But that's another story.

As editor in chief at Newsday, Therese Mills had her longest unbroken run, 20 years. It is to her credit that from her first job at the Port of Spain Gazette as a journalist, she stayed true to her calling: writing and selecting the news that's fit to print, every day. That she survived in this competitive - self-destroying - industry for as long as she did, is a tribute to her discipline, grit, and the support of her family, her own mother who was a mainstay in her life, her three children and her grandchildren who were her inspiration.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

new year or new day

Fireworks across the valley, fireworks across the road. To the left and to the right, they burst skyward and shower stars and colour against the dark. This must be what a battlefield sounds like. The dogs are cowering in the laundry; maybe the shushing and whirring of the washing machine or dryer will soothe their trembling terror. Funny how sudden noise and flashes of fiery light have been adopted to signify celebration.

Fireworks over Saddle Grove: a war zone at midnight!

In the Santa Cruz bush - oh, a generation ago - we marked the advent of the new year by waiting up for midnight. We might hear a ship's blast in the distance, but the incoming year was stealthy and silent, clothed in the black of night. The old rituals included a meal of rice and peas, for plenty. Eat an orange and save the pips, for money. Go to the crossroads and make a wish. And at midnight, my father would fire a single shot from his licensed firearm. Then we would kiss and wish each other a happy new year before turning in to bed. All the chores of the old year would have been cleared away. The rubbish put out; the dishes washed. New sheets in the beds, everything tidy and neat because as we started the year, so the days would run.

Of course, we wanted to follow the fashion of dancing madly wearing crazy paper hats and blowing whistles. But those were few and disappointing occasions. I remember one year sitting at a table lit by tiny tealights with people we didn't know - that party didn't seem to want to start, so we left. Another year's end/ beginning was spent looking into the darkness beyond my mother's house and wondering - with more than a little self-pity - whether I would be alone for the rest of the year. Over the years, the best times were "at home" with family and close friends. And yes, we would have a sumptuous or simple meal and then do the mad things, dance around and shout and laugh, and watch other people's fireworks.

There is joy in having a wild moment to cavort, knowing that you could be silly and falling down with those you trust. The joy is in the trust.

When we woke up to the new year, uppermost in our thoughts would be "as you begin, so you will finish the year." This took on a literal meaning - about travel, about attitude, about obligation. On the bad side, if you have a quarrel or an accident on this day, it might recur or follow you through the year. On the plus side, spending the day doing what you enjoyed, with those you love, would ensure time for those pursuits for another year. And if you were travelling on this day, chances are you would be doing that a lot in the year to come.

What is a new year but a new day? A day to be who you are, or to be closer to who you might become. Every day is not a new year, but each dawn is a new day. As my friend Tony Hall says, "Jouvay! Celebrate the dawn!" This day is all to live your life.

another new year - over 20 years ago

For myself, I come back to the blog: to writing something - however small - that makes me think about this existence. Hopefully, I could do this every day of 2014.