An oldie but goodie: Kei deconstructs dichotomies

Reading round the web in search of wisdom on/by Kei Miller (for this review that Nicholas has surely contracted hitmen to squeeze out of me), I found this,

A description of the successful “page” or “sit-down” poet is, perhaps, someone who has typically published poems in a few major journals, who has a couple books published by a well-respected press, who preferably knows how to hob-nob with the best of them, and is invited to give readings by the National Poetry Society of America. In all likelihood he is, like most sit-down poets, a bitch, and probably, as a day job, holds a faculty position at some stuffy 500 year-old university. In other words – me.The “stage” or “stand-up” poet, on the other hand, has probably won a couple slams and is invited to give performances on BET. He is youngish—not yet thirty—and has funky hair. He would ideally like hip-hop and reggae and fit into that strange demographic America has invented to describe all things non-middle-class and non-white: in other words, he would be “urban.” He is completely social – gregarious even. If he went to university at all, he didn’t finish; he dropped out at the same time the university asked him to leave, and decided then he would become a poet, ranting against the system and all kinds of oppression. In other words – me.That these two descriptions should inhabit one body is perhaps the source of my schizophrenia, because typically I’ve learnt only to embrace the first. So consider this: although I almost never need to look at a book or a printed page to recite any of my poems, I have begun to take blank sheets of paper up with me to podiums, to shuffle through and glance down occasionally at their emptiness, all to give the illusion that I am reading – to remind the audience that I am not performing, or slamming, and that literature is coming, only inconveniently at that moment, from where I stand. Really, at my essence (I’m trying to declare) I am a sit-down poet.via Kei Miller: 91st Meridian V6 #2 International Writing Program, The University of Iowa.

Yeah. One day when I've dented my to-do list satisfactorily, I'll say something about it. But if not, or till then, this is worth some thought, if not a real hard read.

Too damn much to do

Still catching up on deadlines from the beginning of the year.Here's the thing. Walking a tightrope of obligations has this difficulty: if something should throw you off, it's really hard to get back up again.Among other things, I'm working on:

  • A long, long overdue review for the Caribbean Review of Books (Nicholas will finally get this out of the way)
  • Another review for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (will I make it?)
  • Shakespeare in Paradise search for sponsors
  • Directing Dis We Tings for Shakespeare in Paradise
  • finishing off this issue of tongues of the ocean and preparing for issue 9
  • thinking about courses for next semester, which starts in *gulp* three weeks or so
  • thinking about the next set of Essays on Life I want to write, on democracy
  • putting together poems for publication
  • A whole bunch of other stuff that people keep inviting me to do. Moral of this story: don't. I may not exactly say "no" but you won't get what you want from me. Give me another six months or so to get caught up!

People who live in glass offices

So last night I was watching TV—a British show called Hustle which is a very well-made, complex-charactered, witty cousin of the TNT show LeverageHustle came first, and I can see no acknowledgement in the official record of the connection between the two, but come on now—and at one point (not for the first time) the characters disappear into an office somewhere. I turned to Philip and said: "What is it with these glass offices that you see on TV these days? When did people start working in fishbowls?" (I don't think fishbowls was actually what I said—in fact, I know it wasn't—but it was in my head, so I'll put it out there.) He turned back to me and asked: "Why are you obsessed with offices? This is the fifth time you've asked me that question."And you know, he's right. I am obsessed with offices. And I have asked the question often. I ask it every time I see a new TV show with a new set of offices.People in the USA in particular seem to have taken to working in, yes, fishbowls.OK. My husband might be perplexed by my "obsession", but savvy anthropologists will know just where I'm going with this. Or at least where I'm coming from. Other people may not be familiar with Edward T. Hall and his studies on the cultural use of space (otherwise known as proxemics), but Hall theorized that different cultures approach space in different ways. He illustrated by conducting a study of the organization of offices and office space in three cultures—Japan, Germany and the USA—and demonstrated that different office practices—office layouts, office conduct, office habits—obtained in each nation.This becomes relevant when we begin to realize that as Bahamians we are in the business of serving the world. From tourism to banking, we interact on a regular basis with people from all over, and without understanding that there are fundamental cultural differences which are often subconsciously/unconsciously held, we will judge one another based on cultural variations that a little understanding of basic things such as the use of space would eliminate.For instance. Five years ago when I started working in the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, when my ship had finally come in and the government had finally actually hired me (16 months after the initial interview), I moved into a corner office at the new Ministry of Education Building on Thompson Boulevard. Mine was an unusual office. Because it was in the corner, it had windows on two sides, floor-to-ceiling panels set in the two outside walls. The interior partitions, though, were walls.I was privileged. I was, after all, a Director, which explained the privilege. In some ways, by my personal standards, I was even more privileged than administrative officers who were more senior than me—than the Finance Officer, the Deputy Permanent Secretaries, and one of the Under Secretaries. In that office, only Directors, the Permanent Secretary, and the Minister himself were honoured with offices that others couldn't see into.What was interesting was that the officers listed above—the Senior Officers in the Ministry, as determined by their salary grouping (not their salaries)—were given blinds for their offices. If they wanted to, they could create a barrier between themselves and the world beyond by closing their blinds and creating walls from the glass that was provided for them. The one Director who could not get a corner office (the building was clearly not designed for a Ministry with three of them, as it only provided two corner offices of the kind that could accommodate Directors (for those of you who are not following me, the Department of Public Personnel has a list of the sizes of offices that should be provided for senior officers, and I can tell you, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture posed a problem for the HR department in that regard)) was also equipped with blinds. Not one other technical officer was given such a luxury.So what follows next begins to explain my obsession, as Philip calls it, with the glass offices I see on TV today. As I recall it, a whole lot of my tenure at the Ministry in my new capacity was filled with meetings. Tuesday mornings at 11 AM was the time we held Senior Officers' Meetings, which was convened by the Permanent Secretary and which required the Ministry's senior officers—the two Under Secretaries, the two Deputy Permanent Secretaries (Under Secretary trumps DPS, in case you were wondering), the First Assistant Secretaries (right under DPSs), the Senior Assistant Secretaries (next step down from FASs), the Finance Officer, the Directors (of which there were several, and of various kinds), and the Directors' seconds-in-command (for Youth and Sports, the Deputy Directors, for Culture the two Assistant Directors). (pace Rick, I can feel you spinning in your non-grave!). Sixteen people most of the time, sometimes more, all squeezed into the second-best conference room (called, for reasons those of us in Youth and Culture didn't quite get, the Sports Conference Room). These were meetings in which the PS briefed the senior staff on matters pertinent to the running of the Ministry—on the status of papers to go to Cabinet for example, on programmes that the Minister wanted to see implemented, on programmes that were already under way, especially those that involved the whole Ministry (such as Junkanoo, or National Youth Month, or some such event), and where heads of different sections (Directors, mainly) gave updates on the progress of their programmes (like JA activities for Youth, national sporting events for Sports, and national cultural events for Culture). We might be updated on the progress of our installation in these new quarters; we might be briefed on general staff matters, like how we were expected to implement General orders; we might be advised what was left in the budget for the half-year, and how we were to (not) spend it; we might be asked to seek solutions for various issues that had hit the press, like an increase in gang violence, trouble in a sporting association, or the complaints of musicians about the lack of jobs in the marketplace for them.My first months in office dealt with the status of the move. We were a newly reconstituted Ministry, having been reinstated by the PLP in 2002 after the FNM had dissolved the previous Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture in its second term, and that in itself brought a number of issues. We were also a Ministry that had very recently moved into new quarters. And these quarters were significantly different from the old ones. We were occupying a building that had been purpose-built for government activity at the turn of the millennium, while previous offices had occupied the seventh floor of the Post Office Building, an office from the turn of the third quarter of the 20th century, and reflecting office culture of a previous era. The largest difference was the open floor plan of the office, and this was causing considerable consternation among the officers and staff. Three things were causing this. The first was the fact that the new Minister had ordered that all of the Divisions of the Ministry—and all of the staff—were to be relocated to the new office, which meant bringing them in from the various field offices—from the Sports Centre, from the Youth Centre, and from Morro Castle (Culture's field office). The second was that there were only enough offices for Senior Officers and up; the rest of the staff and officers were to be housed in the large open office that constituted most of the south-western wing of the Ministry. And the third was that those offices that did exist were fronted with glass. In other words, if you stood in the open office and looked around, you could see into every office, except those that (as I have said) were assigned to the Director of Culture and the Director of Sports.And the Ministry was beginning by refusing to buy us blinds.I can't say why that was the case. We were never given a good reason why; we were simply told it was not the Ministry's policy to provide blinds for non-senior officers. Needless to say, this caused much discussion; as I have already noted, no one liked the idea of working in a fishbowl. There were many good reasons put forward as to why. For our regular officers, the idea that they were being expected to do their work from desks in the open office plans, when they would be moving with files of potentially sensitive information, and perhaps, for Youth Officers, might be expected to counsel young people in the open, was scandalous. For the senior officers who qualified for offices, the idea of working from glassed-in offices was a major breach of trust.The long and the short of it was the Permanent Secretary was faced with a mini-revolution. Work was not going to get done until all the offices received their blinds. We were not alone in the problem; the Ministry of Education was going through the same difficulties. The solution? To order blinds for every glassed-in office. Today, if you walk around those Ministries, you will notice that every glass wall is opaque; there is not one office in which the inhabitants work with the blinds up or open at all.I knew that something cultural was at work there. I knew that the problem wasn't going to be simply solved. But it wasn't until I reread Hall's proxemics in full that it clicked. We'd come to a point where the importation of someone else's office culture was not going to work for us; the floor plan that was designed for an American office was not translating to The Bahamas. Because we don't practice anthropology here in any wide format, we often miss the point; we think that Bahamians are unproductive for all kinds of reasons (some of them quite valid), among them the idea that we are genetically ill-prepared to work. But perhaps we miss the complete point, because we don't imagine that The Bahamas is worth studying for itself. The place where we work best, the place where phenomenal work gets done, is the Junkanoo shack—a supremely private, secretive place. We work best in secret. I know myself I don't perform well if I think people are looking over my shoulder, and I don't think that the answer should lie in our trying to fit into someone else's mould.So yes, I am obsessed with offices. I am obsessed with the question of glass. I don't think it's a frivolous obsession. I think it's an opportunity. We need to know who we are before we can begin to function at our best.

On Blogs, Blogging, and Various Related Tribulations

So the first thing I want to say is I own/manage three main blogs (there are others, but I'm too ashamed to draw attention to them because they're sadly neglected):BlogworldScavella's (currently down for maintenance)It's hard.It's hard because (a) I don't really have the time to do any of them justice, especially as I've been on an extended vacation from Essays on Life and have therefore become an irregular contributor to Blogworld; (b) with poetry these days, I have to make a choice between writing the poem or writing the blog post, and one or the other has to give; and (c) I'm not technically supposed to be maintaining the Ringplay blog because, by virtue of my position as Director of Culture, I'm trying to minimize any conflict of interest that might occur.It's also hard because I'm in my forties and I have navigated several shifts in written communication and the writing process, and learning new techniques and languages takes more and more time as time passes. I moved from longhand to manual typewriters to electric typewriters to computer terminals of various kinds. I've worked in DOS, in Unix, in html, and in BBS, and shifting to php and css is taking time. And time is what I don't really have a whole lot of. And so -- stopgaps and temporary measures that stretch into semi-permanence.Take this blog, for instance.When I established it I knew next to nothing about WordPress, the platform I'm running it on. I set it up on Blogger with some vague idea of archiving Essays on Life, because people were asking for copies of old essays and I thought a blog might do the trick. Later, I moved it over from Blogger back in the days when WordPress was just a code to place on your own server, mainly because Philip had got us our own servers, and I thought I should probably make use of them. I'd had some success with the Ringplay blog, which was my first WordPress installation, and found the flexibility of the platform -- and especially the categories and pages features -- attractive. You can tell how old the installation was; it was back in the days when the programme called itself WordPress, capital P in the middle.With the advent of, I got hooked. I moved my other blog, the anonymous poetry blog, from Blogger to to take advantage of the pages features as well, and because I was happy with the software. And for some time -- some two years at least, going for three -- I was satisfied with the whole caboodle.The trouble started when I wanted to change the address of Blogworld. The original installation was called "testblog" because that was what it was -- a place to test my baby skills in wordpressing. Forget php and css; I was just learning how to install and play with themes. When I felt comfortable, then I wanted to start blogging, and once I'd imported the Blogger posts over to this site, things just took off. But I didn't like the "testblog" in the url, and so I worked to change it.Here's how I did it. (coders, don't laugh!!)I created a duplicate of my testblog installation on my server, and then I changed the folder to "blogworld".I followed the directions in the WordPress codex for creating new url addresses, or thought I did.Ta-da! Things seemed to work OK for a while. At least, a reader of the blog couldn't see any issues. I had a small problem, though, a problem that grew bigger and bigger as wordpress upgraded and began offering more and more features, and as I sought to upgrade my themes. I found that the blog would break if I didn't do exactly the same thing with both directories, because the "blogworld" installation continued to redirect my administrative activities to the "testblog" folder. And all sorts of things wouldn't work. Take the plugin Event Calendar, which I've been using to good effect on the Ringplay blog for a year or more. Wouldn't run on Blogworld. Take the complex matter of upgrading themes. The theme would reference the installation in "blogworld" but be directed there by "testblog" -- a headache and a half, especially as plugins referenced "testblog" at the same time. I could go on, but I was never able to have the luxury of making a complete diagnosis of the problem.When it came time to upgrade to Wordpress 2.5, and the features that were growing better and better were not working for Blogworld, the problems grew so cumbersome that I decided to fix the problem.It was a pretty simple fix, especially as I didn't care whether "testblog" worked or not. I simply redirected the software to the "blogworld" folder, and as long as I never went to "testblog" again, all was hunky. The software references the same database, so I haven't lost any posts. And the fun thing was when I tried to go to "testblog" admin screen, I got caught in an endless loop that provided me with some amusement after I discovered that "blogworld" was working well.Problem no. 1 solved.Problem no. 2: Ringplay got hacked. I neglected to upgrade the software for a while, because I was very partial to the theme and wasn't sure that the theme and the software upgrades would play nicely together. It was a mere matter of a morning's work, but I never seemed to have a morning to devote to it. In the meantime, persons unknown exploited the holes in the old installations and placed some nasty code on the server. I've had to refer to the techies at vDeck, my host, to get them cleaned, which is why Ringplay is offline as we speak; I've taken it offline to stop any potential of infection. I trust the problem will be isolated and addressed soon.Problem no. 3: I want to blog more, not less! But I just don't have the time. The minutiae of bureaucracy are fiddly, time-consuming, tedious, philosophically unnecessary, but crucial to getting anything done. Some people are good at it, relish the game, love mastering the silly little details of our antiquated system, glory in the power that that mastery gives them. And I get it, and have learned, in theory, what has now to be done. But I don't see why it should. Why should I have to "walk" my documents "through" (from under secretary to permanent secretary to accountant to the ministry of finance, and back) to get routine activities approved? Why isn't the system set up to serve the needs of the citizens, rather than the power-greed of public servants? I just don't have the patience anymore.And there you have it. The trials of blogging. And the power, too.Cheers.

Does this country really need another bureaucrat?

You know you're in trouble when your job interferes with your calling.

The thing is, I'm a writer. Writers write. Writers write about stuff that inspires them. Writers write in part to inform those who read, and in part becase they just can't do anything else.

The other thing is, I'm a civil servant. I am one of the faceless scores of thousands of Bahamians who are bound to serve the government and people of The Bahamas, who are apprenticed to a hierarchy that grows ever more remote from the reality of life in the nation, and who are governed by a set of rules called General Orders which were drafted, by the tone of them, by English colonial bureaucrats, the ultimate purpose of whose administration was to return revenue to the Crown.

Oh, the folly. Oh, the fodder. Over the short course of my public service career I have collected enough inspiration for three seasons of a hit television series. Count two major elections twenty years apart (you do the math), and you will see the possibilities bloom. I even have the best of all possible titles in mind.

And yet. General Orders interferes.

So I ask you. Does this country really need another bureaucrat? Surely it would do better with some good social comment instead?

Life, in its madness

rears its head again.Last week I was in Cat Island for the Rake 'n' Scrape Festival. No, there is no web site for it. The weekend was good stuff -- more from the point of view of Cat Island than of the Festival, which was a let-down for all concerned. The Festival Committee recognizes the need for assistance, and now that the responsibility for heritage festivals has landed in our Ministry's portfolio it's our job to offer that assistance.What Ministry, you ask? Well if you haven't been following the post-election updates and if you aren't in The Bahamas, there's a new Ministry of Education, Youth, Sports and Culture and there's a Minister of Education, a Minister of State for Youth and Sports, and a Minister of State for Culture. An interesting turn of events, potentially very exciting. Normally people who work in culture the region around consider the placement of the department responsible for culture in a ministry like Education the kiss of death -- education is so big and unwieldy that it sucks the life of everything else out of it. We have received several condolences. But with a Minister of State it may not be bad; and there are rumours that this is a preparatory move towards the establishment of a full Ministry. That would be good -- as long as it's not one of those ephemeral Ministries that appear and disappear with administrations. Barbados had one of those for a while, but now Culture is under the Office of the Prime Minister. What is good is that all the related agencies are for the first time under the same umbrella, and that my section is now being called a Department, not a Division. That is a real step forward.This weekend I'm travelling again, this time to Cuba for a meeting and a conference. My first time in Cuba, peeps. I'm mildly excited, though I have been feeling the challenges of working in a Ministry again (rather than under the Office of the Prime Minister) -- the speed of official business has slowed down once more. Not sure how much more I can say; blogging about one's work is a risky business at the best of times, and when I'm working under General Orders it may be riskier than many. But it should be interesting for people to know what working for the Bahamas Government is like -- too many people have the misconception that when politicians change, things in general will change. There's a saying in the Civil Service: Politicians come and go, but civil servants remain in place -- even civil servants like me who do not want to retire from the government after decades of service. Often things are blamed on the elected representatives that should be blamed on the civil servants -- and vice versa, and so to know a little about the Service might be enlightening.Anyway, I started this post to say I'll be in Cuba over the weekend, and running around like a madwoman while I'm there, so if (when) the look of the blog changes, you'll know it'll be fixed next week.One more note. If you post a comment to this blog in my absence, know that it'll be held in moderation till I get a chance to get online and the time to deal with it. This blog's been getting too much spam lately, and the spam's been getting through, so I'm moderating all comments. Please be patient, and don't post the comment more than once! I'll see it eventually.Have a good weekend. I intend to do the same.