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Catherine Fischer

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Catching Up [Jan. 10th, 2004|01:18 am]
Catherine Fischer
16th December. I’m still in the quiet phase of my break, absorbing the life around me that I’ve missed so hungrily like the sea draws the colors of the sky into itself. Having swept the cobwebs and dead insects from the porch, I’ve decided to watch the light fade from Mattingley Heights, drinking rum and pondering.

Before me, a lemon yellow cloud trails her skirts and veils of rain carelessly across the face of the endless Caribbean, snagging a few fishing boats caught late upon the water; as the sun settles beyond the ridge across the ghut, the lush greens of the trees (fed so generously by the rains this year) fall darkling and secretive, and the golden faces of the familiar houses in my neighborhood fall mute and unsmiling plain once more. Only the cloud spires catch the pink of the falling light, now; the rest fades grey and melancholy with the doves’ evening cadence, mournfully uttered over and over: the dying breath of another day. Even the kingbirds trill their hunting song less and less, and the chorus of the piper frogs is warming. The brisk bright tradewinds, running their fingers flauntingly through the canefields all day, now only rustle occasionally, settling in and nesting for the night.

It is lovely, that which is all around me; it is the garden of gems that Aladdin was forbidden to touch in his quest for the lamp. This morning I dove magnificent reefs and mysterious wrecks, with barracuda catching the light on their wicked smiles, protruding from the darkness of the long-silenced ship’s wheelhouse; below the blue, fingerling garden eels withdrew into their sandy homes as I approached, a hundred devout bowing in a wave to Mecca. Above, the wind ran recklessly across the water, kicking up its heels – a bright, wild thing, heedless of the march of time and the fading of all beauty.

I feel like I’m vacationing in someone else’s life. My own life placed its bookmark last Friday, when I received my grades, made sure the December issue of the paper was out for all to read over the break, finished my course evaluations, gave my professors cookies in gratitude for their forbearance. I’m wrapping up, now, preparing to visit my past life nostalgically (that which is different is always appealing – cold familiar fogs cloaking the cypress-shrouded coast), and suddenly wanting more time to try to fathom the secrets of the life I have no time for here. Every now and again, I catch glimpses of the history of this place, and how it once must have felt, but they’re fleeting, and my life draws me inexorably back to its books, its same four walls, its small circular track, obeying as I must. I want the fantasy of the sailing age, with the mute shores slipping past in the evening, wind and stars my companions, untethered to the unchanging; know I cannot have it, have not chosen it, and watch the city-ships, like bright baubles, slip gaily across the crest of the night and out of view. When Saturday came, I could not rest, but worked tirelessly all day on tasks that had niggled and irked, because they could not be completed, being always out-prioritized; this break I do not quiver with fatigue and melting emotional stability, but plunge ahead as I am trained and accustomed, juggernaut of my own creation. Which is better?

The lights have come on in my neighbors’ houses, filled with evening rituals, food, family; the dogs have started their nightly choir (barking at god knows what – it’s always the same); the streetlamps are lit, the colors faded from the world, and everything no doubt as it should be (or at least, always is and has been). Like the tomatoes I tried to grow, the other aspects of my life, neglected, have withered and failed, and now I am empty, letting the life that does not belong to me wash over, trying to fill myself up.

17th December. Having read Ursula LeGuin all afternoon (decadent luxury, guiltily indulged, like a treasure that does not belong to me unshelved and dusty and hidden from the view of others), I am grey and melancholy, longing for my muttering and moody Pacific – I am mute with wonder at the rusty horror of my writing against the backdrop of her simple, brilliant, windswept words. Lost, lost… that which I cherished and nurtured, swept out with the tide of my new calling, with the conviction and urgency I must pursue it with; I feel like crying into the wind at the retreating back of another year. How I hate giving up ground that was once mine!

And so I begin the break, as I begin every break, with the process of reacquainting myself with myself, of assessing who I am. This break feels different, however; I have more of a sense of stability, solidity within – none of that trembling, watery, drowning desperation. Now I look from within the fortress of myself and wonder at who the others around me might be, where they live within themselves, if they can come to know me, if they want to. Having fallen continuously for a year and a third, I have finally caught myself, and look around from a new vantage point.

This break began with a difference: instead of immediately flying off-island, we spent the first week in St. Kitts, getting our diver certification. I’d forgotten how much fun diving is! I love breathing underwater – the slow rhythm of the sea, uninterrupted by eel-like dashes to the surface for air. I dream that I will take those weekend trips to Saba, island of pristine reefs and healthy reef communities; I do not know how often I’ll be able to make this a reality. Still, it seems foolish, surrounded by gorgeous blue water, not to take advantage of the opportunity – before I am landlocked for at least a year. While part of me thrills at the idea of living in snow, part of me – with its feet still warm in the water, digging into the sand – quails at what I will miss. Don’t we always want what we cannot have?

9th January, 2004. Happy New Year, everyone! How to dump my memory on paper? I suppose a play-by-play is not necessary; facts are there for anyone, but how events affect my internal landscape are probably more important. So, while dreaming big over the break, I ended up doing as I often do, and choosing small: rather that run around Santa Cruz for First Night, listening to and watching the extremely varied artists perform and sampling the myriad delights of an extremely rich, eclectic culture, I spent the evening in quiet company of friends. Never mind that I was sick; I do so love comforts small and dear. Besides, every time I return to Santa Cruz, it feels like a visit to my past self, my past life – I almost (but not quite) fit myself right back into who I was (but it still feels a bit like wearing a false skin). After spending most of New Year’s Day doing the pajama thing, I was ready to slough the costume and return to myself, ready to return to reality.

And what a reality it was! Weather was heavy in Chicago, my first connection – so I sat on the San Francisco tarmac for almost 4 hours. Arriving at last in Chicago, the fog was still pretty thick, and flights were backed up hours – so I arrived in San Juan very, very late. And then chose the least competent person at the American Airlines customer service counter… a full hour to get replacement tickets to St. Kitts, taxi vouchers, hotel voucher, meal vouchers. Was rerouted to Antigua, and from there needed to pick up my luggage and check into a different airline – Liat (which an acquaintance of mine says stands for “Leave Island at Any Time”. Was supposed to arrive in St. Kitts in time for an early supper. Stood in a wall-to-wall, packed-like-sardines overcrowded airport in Antigua, waiting to hear if the St. Kitts airport was going to open again. (Was given my ticket AFTER news had arrived that the St. Kitts airport was closed, due to strike-created traffic backup. Was not informed.) Got home (on a flight they really weren’t sure was going to happen) after 11 pm. 48 hours of travel. I will NEVER travel in the Caribbean after the holidays again!

So, with no time to adjust from icy rain in San Francisco and Pacific Daylight Savings Time, I was back, dazed and tired (and still sick) in the Tradewinds, the sugar cane sweetly green, the water the same dream-colored blue. And with all of half a day to prepare for the upcoming semester. Vet school and Caribbean idyll worlds and worlds apart.

Still, I’m starting this semester with peace and equanimity – thank you, thank you to all of you who uncomplainingly made the effort to see me in the limited time I had back in the States; it was wonderful to feel so loved. David, my dear, time to pick up the long continuity of our endless thread of conversation was the best gift you could have given me; thank you for sharing your first glimpse of Harbin with me – I love it there in winter, and was delighted to be able to share it with you. Thank you always for your patience, wisdom, and generosity, and your essential friendship, which has filled so many incompletenesses in me. Thank you for believing in me, and helping me to believe in and think more highly of myself. You’re good medicine. Kara, bright star, thank you so much for uncomplainingly making the trek to Berkeley in the awful weather – only to get stuck in the icy rain, soaked and miserably uncomfortable. Timing! You’re one of my role models, and I love any opportunity to lay my admiration on your altar. Mary – how many months has it been since I laughed in my soup like that? (I think the last time I visited with you.) You’ve always been able to bring that out in me – thanks for the lovely tea, and for a too-short afternoon. Dad – thank you so much for making your plans conform to mine; I’ve really, really missed you, and it was wonderful to reconnect. Josh & Nikki – thanks so much for hanging out! Getting to see you was a totally unlooked-for gift – it meant a lot to me to feel like I had a family again. Pradeep and Jeanette – you were, as always, the perfect hosts, and likewise, as always, terrific company. You’ve been so helpful and willing this whole hard year … I don’t know what I’d have done without you. I had a lovely, low-key, comfortable New Year’s with you and JohnnyB and Stephanie – thank you to you all for taking me in. And Kevin … thanks for taking the time to give the future some thought, despite the fact that that’s not the path of least resistance (“the examined life is no picnic”, someone once said). Thanks for considering it, and for your honesty. As always, I had a great time adventuring with you.

End of the first week. Already, best intentions notwithstanding, I am probably 400 pages of material behind. It never ends. Went out to dinner with Denise this evening, and had a wonderful time catching up – she’s so gracious and generous, so giving of herself, and so much fun to be a girl with; I swear I cling to her as to a liferaft in a sea of uncertainty, exhaustion, low self-esteem and self-confidence, and depression. Simply that she believes in me, understands what I’m going through and feeling, and is always willing to listen, never seeming to get tired or impatient with my same old habits and sayings and stories … I’m always at ease with her, with no pretenses, nothing to try to force myself to be, no pattern to attempt to conform to. I can just talk about what’s on my mind, and she’ll always listen, and hear me, and tell me what’s on her mind. Communication seems easy with her – it’s a Herculean task so many other times. It’s her particular genius, I think.

Driving home (following a convoy from the Annual International Convention of the Sacred Order of the Slow Driver), the moon was that flawless Caribbean silver – untarnished by age, like the bright dreams of sunken treasure in Caribbean waters – limning the towering, sailing clouds. This, this more than anything else, I think, I will miss. The finest currency minted anywhere. Ah, St. Kitts – if only you knew what you had; perhaps you would guard your precious treasure more vigilantly, and stop trying to bilk strangers of their far meaner coin. I suppose that is the biggest grudge I hold against the island – and it is perhaps not unique to St. Kitts – that I am and forever will be a stranger here, in a culture that does not understand me, does not value what I value, does not want to get to know me or welcome me, wants only what I have, ripped asunder from the foundations on which it was built. Life is a package deal, people. To acquire the trappings of a life, one must live the life; no thing, taken by force, by theft, by connivance, will have the same value as that thing won by one’s own work. And how cheaply you sell what you could have, making yourselves a race regarded as untrustworthy, by and large, as grasping, as not valuing intelligence, education, wisdom. I know there are exceptions – I have met some of them – but can you police your own, teach them? We all want to believe in the dream; can you not see that the more disillusionment created in the world, makes the world that much farther from the dream? I remain a stranger, in my necessarily small world, everything familiar, everything new and different.

Random notes I jotted down about stuff I wanted to write about, when I got the time…

Nabisco. Every single Nabisco product that one may purchase on this island is invariably stale. And I do mean STALE. Stale as those internet jokes that get recirculated a million times, invariably ending with “don’t forget to send this to 10 of your friends.” As if I’d have 10 friends if I sent them that crap. So my dear friend Kristen, hard-working, motivated soul that she is, looks up the phone number on the box where it says “if you are unhappy with this product…” and calls. And reads the UPC number off the box to the helpful customer service woman on the other end of the line. Who begins laughing. “Those were donated to Goodwill, for use in soup kitchens,” she explains, “because they were STALE. They weren’t supposed to be resold.” Neither Kris nor I were surprised. Amazed that our expectations were carried out so thoroughly, but still not surprised. So, yes, they’re cheaper. But cheaper is relative – those products are still twice the price that I’d pay in the States. And here’s my question, O Kittitian businessman: can’t you taste the difference? Doesn’t it matter to you?

Along the same vein: tropical fruit. It grows in the ghuts, here. Free for anyone who cares to go collect it. It grows wherever people plant it. But restaurants, bars, hotels – all establishments on this island – use canned tropical fruit juices from the States to make “local” tropical drinks. If I want fresh, I needs must make it myself. Do you not understand the difference? Why, at an enormous, overblown, desperately overpriced hotel resort restaurant, do I get moldy fruit imported from the United States (which had actually had it imported from somewhere warmer), picked when it was so green it was flavorless, then trundled down to the Caribbean by slow boat, and not thrown away when it became hairy and grey-white? (I’m sure they took my fruit back when I complained bitterly, and stuck it back in the fridge, with the same saran wrap over it that they brought it to me under.) Generally, folks, people vacationing in the tropics would like TROPICAL fruit – fresh, local fruit – not wizened, hairy grapes, cardboard melon chunks, mushy brown apple pieces (like one finds under high chairs in Denny’s). Please learn this. It isn’t difficult. The little old lady who sells fresh fruit downtown every day, I’m sure, would happily sell you some of her excellent papayas, mangos, bananas, golden apples, and guinups; the coconut guys are on the street corner every day; pineapple farmers do actually exist on the island, and our neighboring island of Antigua is famous for its pineapples, year-round.

Charities. Despite being the singlemost preyed-upon group on the island, Ross students are also the greatest contributors and benefactors – labor, trained skills, materials and personal belongings, even money to good causes. There’s a big box in the Student Union labeled “Children’s Home”, where students can deposit old clothes, household goods, other items which might benefit the local orphanage. Some surprisingly nice things have turned up in that box. But every afternoon, the cleaning staff shows up (well-paid, by local standards), and paws through the donations, selecting the best stuff for themselves. I asked one woman, once. “I thought that was for the benefit of the orphans,” I said as politely as I could, although I’m sure my irritation showed (I’m not that good a dissembler). “Ah okay … I only tekkin’ the GOOD stuff,” she replied. As if that explained it. Did she not understand that students were not donating toward the personal enrichment of the CLEANING STAFF? That we wished to benefit other, more helpless beings? That sense of entitlement without regard, prevalent in St. Kitts, galls me. A few years ago, during a music festival in the ruins of the old military fortress of Brimstone Hill, there was a music festival, with the usual tightly-packed crowds dancing to loud music. During a brief tropical shower, about a dozen people – many of them children – were crushed to death, as everyone crowded into the buildings. Stomping on children for what – to keep from getting wet? People are killed every Carnival. Packed together like mice in a harvest frenzy, in swarms – this year someone was run over and crushed by one of the tractors pulling the giant towers of speakers, blaring music at insane decibel levels. By a tractor. Going no more than 3 miles per hour. Some unfortunate soul fell off one of the towers of speakers – drunk – all of them drunk. Someone, driving drunk or stupid or both, hit and killed a cyclist, then knocked over a power pole, which fell and killed a gawping bystander. The islanders take a few deaths each celebration as normal. I cannot accept this as tolerable, as permissible. They shrug their shoulders. Why? Because you can’t be bothered to change things that are disastrous, so you look the other way, fall back on the overused excuse that “that’s how things are”? I work to change what I do not like about my culture, my government, myself! I will never understand this everyone for himself, without regard for the consequences mentality.

The “sugar train”. Someone tells the government of St. Kitts that there’s money to be made in tourism. They’re off! Into the next Great Scam! (At least, that’s how they seem to have approached it.) Shining up some of the ancient, dilapidated engines from the narrow gauge railway that transported sugar cane around the island, serving St. Kitts’ dysfunctional sugar industry (hemorrhaging millions of borrowed dollars every year), and building some fancy new railway cars (designed so that tourists could see OVER the sugar cane – and thus not miss a single view of the improvisational garbage dumps the locals have made all over the island – but not designed according to any safety principles, or even to conform to the laws of physics), voila! The Sugar Train! Which derails about every other time it goes out. Very Kittitian – they want the results, without putting any thought into how to reasonably achieve them. Now, I hear, despite the appalling fee of US$120 for the privilege of seeing ALL of the garbage dumps, they actually don’t go all the way around the island anymore – but take you about halfway (to Sandy Point town, a tin shantytown of dirty narrow streets, half-starved dogs, garbage, roadside rumshops – no one stops at just one for the road – burnt out walls filled with refuse where children play, and drunken men catcalling at passersby), at which point they send you back by BUS. As in Greyhound, but older and not as nice. They didn’t lower their price when they made this decision. They did it because they figured they could now run THREE trips per day, when the cruise ship people were in town. The naïve con artists shoot themselves in the foot again. Never planning for the future, or for word of mouth, this new enterprise will doubtless join hundreds of others, rusting and rotting in the canefields, in a few years – just so much more garbage.

Misguided entrepreneurial spirit. I really need to stop in town and get a photo. A photo would say it all. “Guest House Pest Control Fumigation” the sign proclaims, on a run-down, moth-eaten shack on the main street in town, with bars on the windows, wood structure probably from the 1800s leaning crazily over 1700s stone walls (left over from the quake and fire), garbage and hungry stray dogs below in the gutters, “bed and breakfast. US$60 a night.” Ah, dreams. In St. Kitts, every pickup truck equals a trucking company. Regardless of manufacturer statement of maximum load capacity. Regardless of how much can safely be stacked on top, or reasonable height limit. Regardless of the absolute limits of axles, tires, struts, leaf springs. Regardless of how much the driver has had to drink (and hits a cyclist and a power pole, killing two innocent bystanders). If half as much energy as was applied to fleecing Ross students was applied to actual WORK, I tell people, this place would truly be paradise. The locals aren’t the only ones getting in on the pirate action, though. “On the island of St. Kitts, there is a law that no building can be taller than the surrounding palm trees,” gushes the ad for the then-uncompleted Marriott resort. Which is now the largest thing on the island. And at least 6 stories tall. It dwarfs cruise ships. What were they trying to say, here? They could have continued with the ad “but we’re here to show you that with the right bribes, any law on St. Kitts can be conveniently ignored – and we’ve done so for your benefit.” Laws really do not mean much, here. There are laws and laws and laws, and no one enforces them. The people of this island, like children, do not feel obliged to be good if no one wields the cane. Last frontier of the pirate. One of the first, certainly. Blackbeard used to overwinter here. His spirit lingers. I’m sure he’d be proud of his legacy. Except that he was a pretty good pirate. There is no quest for excellence, here. The man who used to run the cafeteria on campus sold some of the least sanitary, least appetizing carbonaceous sustenance (I cannot bring myself to call it ‘food’) I have ever seen, at prices I thought were pretty ridiculous. I stopped even entering the place when I asked for chicken salad, and the slack-jawed server behind the counter took the ice she was sucking out of her mouth … then reached her hands into the chicken salad and grabbed a glop, which she dumped on my plate. At the end of last semester, with no warning, the school administration (no doubt thoroughly sick of the complaints of food poisoning) told him to clear out, and awarded the right to administer the cafeteria to a local restaurateur. Who, while serving the glop in a more sanitary manner, has kept the same terrible menu, and the same staff. His restaurant in town is not like that. I guess he just carefully figured out what we’d put up with, and aimed for that level. My classmates and I, wishing to honor a teacher retiring after a long and noble career, pitched in $15 apiece for a big fancy cake. (There are over 100 of us – or were then. You do the math.) The cake arrived – it was beautiful. It was a model of St. Kitts, showing the Marriott resort (which is where the chef was, who made the cake), Ross University, the names of beaches, the town of Basseterre. It was on a large piece of plywood. It tasted about like the plywood might have, but greasier. There was a lot left over. All superficial appearance. No substance. No pride. No quest for excellence. No trying for repeat customers. Except where else can you go? One contractor, running over estimated project time on the building of a house by 3 years, said “you fire us, you get someone just like us.” Perhaps that is where the pride is – in being miraculously poor performers. Misguided pride.

House of Horrors. Gone, gone are the days and nights of gross anatomy, gone the fainting spells from the overwhelming stench of formalin and decay. My semester had a particularly memorable experience. The air conditioner/ventilation/hood system, manufactured and installed by a Trinidadian company, turned out not to have been installed correctly – and was missing parts. So it never really worked as it should have. And during the last three weeks of second semester, in a blistering drought, it conked out entirely. The donkeys, not well preserved to begin with, rotted. Disintegrated nastily in our hands. I will never forget, as long as I live, reaching into buckets of cold slimy formalin (the small freezers had backup generators), and teaching my classmates the tiny, delicate muscles and cartilages of the larynx by the light of my headlamp, trying to point out structures that were only barely suggested on the hacked and chewed specimens. Gone is the smell of second semester (after 3 weeks of long showers, after breathing seawater to try to reclaim my olfactory sense), but its legacy lingers: I will fear no haunted house, ever again. “Great green gobs of greasy gross anatomy, hacked up sheep and chicken meat, macerated donkey feet…”

I’m tired, and have written enough for now.