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Farewell, Prof Kenny

I began my UWI experience knowing a little more about the place than the average undergrad. My sister, two years into her time there, saw to it that I knew the general layout of the place, such that I was able to easily win the Orientation Week treasure hunt (and the $50 prize, which was more than a little money back in 1989).

In addition to campus geography, I was also aware fo the basics layout of the chemistry, plant science and zoology departments. And more than anyone else, I had heard of Professor Kenny, the professor of zoology who would lock the door to the lecture room at 8 o’clock, so if you were late you were out of luck. So it was with a great deal of interest that I attended my first zoology lecture as an undergraduate. I don’t recall an awful lot about first year zoology. Prof Kenny taught the first few months of the class before Mary Alkins-Koo took over (in January, I think) with Graham White rounding out the year with vertebrates. Kenny, having decided to mellow in his ‘old age’ took to leaving the doors to the lecture hall unlocked, but his comments to late-comers were enough to ensure that I was in class by 8 am (or, failing that, skip class). If I made it, his lectures were an experience worth getting out of bed for. His long, lanky frame would move across the front of the lecture hall, sitting on the front table like a large bird of prey, now standing with one foot up on the front table. He had an energy in the classroom, full of movement, full of a slightly jerk energy.

Having done A Level zoology, I didn’t feel too great a need to make it to lecture. Until Graham White’s bit at the end of the year, there was very little that was entirely new to me. The lab, on the other hand, was a very different experience, and one that I would not consider missing. Labs allowed for direct interaction with faculty, a chance to talk, to get to know people. Even after his section was done, Kenny had a habit of dropping in on the first year labs and talking to students. While his entry usually attracted a large group of admirers, there were still opportunities to talk to him, tap into his wealth of knowledge.

Kenny always struck me as an unlikely environmentalist. His contribution to th environmental movement in Trinidad and Tobago is huge, and he inspired many people to work for conservation. As I understand it, he was a major inspiration for the foundation of the UWI Biological Society around 1987, a movement that not only launched many a career among environmental professionals in Trinidad and Tobago, but which also helped transform conservation from a ‘French creole’ hobby into a serious national concern. It’s an unusual legacy for someone who was not only born to the ‘local white’ elite, but also someone who seemed profoundly skeptical about whether there was any point whatsoever in trying to conserve anything at all. Still, he taught people to value nature, to love it. And even if he had little faith in their ability to stem the tide of destruction, the love of nature he instilled in his students made them care enough to try.

While I only took first year Zoology from him, so I don’t really know if I count among “Prof’s” students (after all, I never called him “Prof”), he certainly had a major impact on me. At the end of first year, he said to me “sure, you topped the class, but you should have done better” (I only got a B+). And that backhanded compliment was really one of the most important things anyone ever said to me.

Loss…

When Karl and Floyd were still missing, before we knew the horrible truth, I found myself trying to make deals with fate.  “Maybe one, but not both, no, it can’t be both of them”.  Somehow it didn’t seem possible.  Especially on top of all the losses the last few years have brought.  It just couldn’t be true.  This past week reminded me that, as these things go, it could have been much worse.  Ted Kennedy’s death at 77 is a terrible loss, but he lived, as people kept mentioning, “to comb grey hair”.  He lived through the untimely death of three brothers, a sister, and three nephews.  Against that backdrop, things like his son loss of a leg to cancer at the age of 12 are just minor tragedies.

In the months after January, I sometimes found myself angry at the fact that so many people were able to live lives untouched by tragedy, while we have had to deal with so much loss.  But there is something to be learned as well.  It made a big difference when my old friends, Ishaq and Nisa, showed up after Karl died and said “we understand”.  They lost their brother just a few years ago.  Like so many others, they said “the pain doesn’t go away, but it becomes easier to deal with”.  And that made a difference.

There are good days, and there are bad days.  The hardest part of Michael Jackson’s death was to see Jermaine come out and speak of his loss as a brother.  This week has also been very tough, but not so much so much because of the loss of Ted Kennedy.  Instead, it was the focus on his losses that hit home, that shook me loose, once again, from the tentative moorings I have built.  And yet in his story there is inspiration.  He took his losses and turned them into compassion for people, for all people.  He stood up and was the responsible one.  In his example, there is much to learn.

Boats…

Some things hit too close to home.

On Monday night I heard mention that two NFL players, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, together with a third man, William Bleakley, were missing off the Florida coast after their boat overturned.  The fourth occupant of the boat, Nick Schuyler, was found clinging to the boat.  I immediately found myself compartmentalising, almost stepping outside of myself as I watched the brief news story.  Last night I heard that the Coast Guard had called off the search.

This morning I had to dig deeper, learn something about what had happened.  CNN reported that the boat overturned while they were trying to lift anchor.  The story goes on to say that they were not wearing life jackets at the time, but that they were able to dive under the boat and retrieve them.  It also says that “all four men clung to the boat for a time, but then became separated”.  Schuyler, when rescued, was reportedly suffering from hypothermia and dehydration.  He was rescued at 1.25 pm on Monday, probably two days after the boat capsized.

It’s been less than two months since we lost Karl and Floyd in an accident that was disturbingly similar.  Having spent hours trying to imagine the scene, what happened is very vivid in my mind.  Some things are terribly similar, others different.  One thing that really jumped out at me was the phrase but then became separated.  Rough seas, dehydration, hypothermia…it’s not a shock.  Unless, of course, you know to tie yourself to the boat like Adolphus, the captain of the boat Karl, Floyd and Ryan had rented, knew to do.  If these guys had known to do that, things might have turned out differently.  But so they teach you than in basic water safety courses?

This recent tragedy also reminds you that things could always be worse.  Only one person was rescued, instead of two.  And the families of Cooper, Smith and Bleakley are left not knowing.  In my opinion, it’s better to know than to hope against hope.  My heart goes out to all the families, and to Schuyler, who’s left to try to make sense of his experience…

Tomorrow…

Tomorrow is Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s (and Abraham Lincoln’s) birth.  It’s Fern’s fifth birthday.  It should be so exciting, it should be such a big deal.  But I can only think of it as the one-month anniversary of The Day Hope Died.

I’m getting back into the rhythm of things.  I’m starting to feel less adrift in class (although I still feel like an interloper in “their” class, rather than a participant).  I’ve gotten through a busy first half of the week.  And yet…this.  I tell myself that it’s getting better, but I think the reality is that I’m just further away from it all.  There’s nothing odd in not running into Floyd or Karl in my daily life.  So it’s easy to pretend that they’re just not there right now.  As long as I can distract myself, I’m fine.  But I can’t always distract myself.

I gave the first exam in my class today.  Between handing out the exams and getting the first one back was an eternity – an block of time with nothing to distract me.  No one to talk to.  No buzz of conversation.  No one moving around.  Just sitting there with nothing to distract me.  Why are you so petrified of silence? Because once the distractions fade, you start to think.

Tragedy. I never really knew the meaning of that word before.

I was lucky enough to have one brother by birth, Karl. In Floyd I was lucky enough to get a second brother. This morning came the news that I had lost both of them, and my niece had lost not only her father, but also her favourite uncle.

When I learned on Sunday that they were missing at sea, I was horror-struck.  But I hoped for the best – they were wearing life jackets, there were searchers out.  I woke up this morning after a night of fitful dreaming, feeling confident that some good news would come today.  At the worst, we could not lose both of them.  Not at once.  But the world doesn’t work that way.  Now there are only memories and a huge hole in my heart.

I am so thankful for the outpouring of support.  I always felt that those simple words – “I’m sorry”, or “my condolences” meant so little, were so utterly inadequate.  I was wrong.  While even the smallest wish might bring me to tears again, they were tears that made me feel a little less hollow.  I was always ashamed of my tears, but today I shed them with pride in memory of two people I loved, and the only shame I can feel is shame at my hesitation to shed tears for others, to shed tears in the past.

Karl, Floyd, I love you both.  I will miss you both.  Always.

Bad news, no news

Yell. Yell from the hilltops. It would be just about as useful.

My brother and brother-in-law are missing at sea. Boat capsized. That doesn’t even seem like a real modern concept. Something out of history.

Thousands of miles away, I can’t do a fucking thing. Not that there’s anything I could do if I were there either, I know.

Stunned, I suppose. Need to do something to help, but there’s nothing I can do. Need for the world to stop doing what it’s doing and sit up and pay attention.

Details: Trinidad Guardian; Trinidad Express; neither can spell Karl’s name right, of course.

Updated story from the GuardianExpress.

Fatal plane crash in Oklahoma

MIAMI, OK — One person was killed in a fiery plane crash that shook buildings here earlier this afternoon when a single-engine propeller-plane nosedived into the Will Rogers Turnpike.

From NewsOK.com

On our way home today, we started seeing signs in southern Missouri announcing that the highway was closed in Oklahoma and we would have to get off at Exit 313. But as we approached Exist 313 (the Miami exist), the highway had been re-opened, albeit only a single lane. From the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, it was obvious that there had been an accident. As we approached the crash site, I was first stuck by how little wreckage there was (especially since the entire road was blackened). The second thing I noticed was the size of the engine block – it seemed much too big for a car, which made the small pile of burnt wreckage even more striking. Then I noticed the propeller. It was only at that point that I realised that we were passing the remains of a plane.

It was quite a shock. First there was the realisation that there was no way anyone could have survived that crash. Then there was the disturbing sense of planes falling out of the sky onto the highway. Suddenly I felt very exposed, out there on the road.

My condolences to the family and friends of the pilot. So far, he hasn’t been named.