October 31, 2009

National Work Day

Today's a national work day in Rwanda. They have it on the last day of every month. For a couple of hours in the morning, everyone does community work, cleaning the streets and so forth. This helps explain why the streets are so clean!

Meanwhile, I, the muzungu (white person), am sitting in the living room drinking excellent Rwandan mountain tea and eating chappatis and typing. Eveywhere I go, children call out, "Muzungu!" and say things like "Hello" or "How are you?" and shake my hand. The other day we walked past a long line of prisoners in orange jumpsuits -- these are men who have admited their role in the genocide and are being rehabilitated -- and a couple called out "muzungu" and I gave them the peace sign and they cheered. Have had experiences similar in the big open-air market and on the streets.

Last night I attended a charismatic church service at my hosts' chuch. I'd seen them often on TV but never in person, and I found that in person they're just like on TV! A portly, sweaty guest preacher bounced from one end of the stage to another proclaiming that nothing had given him satisfaction like God, telling us that in order to reach Canaan land you have to go through pain (the Bible text was a passage from Joshua about how God commanded the children of Israel to be circumcized again before they could enter the Promised Land). Mic'd, it was as loud as a rock concert in the 300-person room. There was singing and dancing afterward to a drum and organ accompaniment, and I was shocked to find that the Africans clapped on one and three instead of two and four! Neither was the dancing marked by any particularly magical looseness of limb, imaginative improvisation, or the like.

Yesterday was spent pleasantly sitting in a bare undecorated restaurant in the town of Muhunga, where I ate cooked cassava root and brochettes of goat meat and goat liver and, not least, some very good french fries. (There's a good beer here, BTW, called Primus, light and tangy with a slight sweetness, made from sorghum. There's also banana-based beer, which I hope to try later.)It rained briefly and hard and we went inside from the cafe terrace to watch, with a couple of new friends with whom we practiced three different languages. One was a geography teacher in secondary school, who teaches in English, a language of which he could trade only a very few phrases with me. I drew him a map of the US -- assuring hiim beforehand in French that I was the world's greatest artist -- and it was all new to him.

The schoolkids have just gotten thrugh a national exam that lasts, I think, two days. They all dress in clean outfits and wait tensely for the results. Acccording to Costa, private schools in Rwanda are good but expensive and the free public schools are overcrowded and not good. Oddly, Protestant schools here have a good reputation but Catholic schools do not.

There's much more ethnology around, much more than can fit here. Just wanted to tell you that everything's going well. Next week should be more serious for us -- doing The Work of Byron Katie with prisoners and other traumatized people. We've done a little of that so far, and it honestly seemed to have led some shut-off genocide survivors to open up. I've seen people smile who, according to my host, have not done so in years, and cry at confronting things that they had hid from for even longer.

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October 28, 2009

Fourth Morning in Rwanda

I'm getting used to a pleasant routine. Five-year-old Gentil is counting teabags in English before he gets ready for school; Costa is bouncing baby Queen on his lap and humming to her while his wife Bernadette takes a well-deserved break; Grace the servant (who was rescued by Costa from post-genocide abuses a couple of years ago) hands him Queen's bottle. Queen returned from the hospital yesterday afternoon, a couple of days after we'd expected. It turned out she had an intestinal infection, possibly caused by eating something off the floor while crawling. She took antibiotics IV for a couple of days, then they released her with an oral form of the medicine, and now she's looking perfectly content, although she looks at me with a puzzled expression at times.

The floors have been mopped and the front and back patios dusted, as on every morning. Yesterday my clothes were not only wash by hand but ironed, an experience most of them had never had before. Breakfast will be fresh, thick, soft Senegalese-style chappatis, sweet rolls, and Rwandan coffee or tea. Today Costa, our German friend Christina, and I will be taking a bus to the southern region of the country, about an hour away, to meet Costa's mom, who wants to give Costa her expert instructions on how to take care of Queen's convalescence.

Over the past couple of days we've been to two different genocide memorials, one, on the outskirts of town, a very suitably gruesome setup in a church where 5,000 Tutsis were rounded up and killed in one day. On a platform, hundreds of skulls are displayed; on the platform below it, countless leg bones; across the room, a collection of rusted machetes and clubs.

The other memorial, in town, was erected by the Belgian government in honor of ten Belgian soldiers who were killed trying to protect the opposition party leader on the day the genocide began. Ten simple memorial columns in the yard; educational posters in the now-empty rooms where the soldiers took their stand; grenade fragments and bloodstains on the interior walls; fist-size bullet holes all over the exterior walls.

It's hard to imagine a nation that is more constructively aware of its problems or facing them more honestly and progressively. And not just the genocide: a nationwide anti-litter campaign has been very successful, HIV awareness is all over the media (there's one TV station, government-owned, and seven radio stations, some of them foreign), and Rwanda, with the highest population density in sub-Saharan Africa, has the second lowest malaria rate, largely due to educational programs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation's work in promulgating mosquito netting. In addition, Rwanda's parliament is 55% female, the electorate having recoiled from the violent governments that produced periodic genocides and massacres from 1959 to 1995. Rwanda has received a fair amount of international aid in the past fifteen years and has used it well. To me it appears that if the average American were as aware of our nation's problems, and as committed to solving them, as the average Rwandan is for Rwanda, in a decade and a half our inner-city schools would be graduating masses of literate, ambitious, responsible adolescents, the problems of gang violence and drugs would disappear, our health care system would care for all Americans equally, and our government would mobilize a nationwide environmental cleanup and infrastructural upgrade. In other words, we would be the nation we ought to be. A much, much poorer nation than ours is accomplishing equivalent goals. We could even do it without the need for genocide memorials.

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October 25, 2009

Where Am I?

Using a German keyboard in an unpaved neighborhood outside the center of Kigali. Just gettting the machine ready with a Sim card transferred from a cell phone was a triumph, and I don't know how many minutes' credit I have. I recently awoke from 45 straight hours of travel, Austin-Minneapolis-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Kigali, which included an afternoon walking around Amsterdam. There's so much to report already that I don't know where to start, but the people are lovely, the setting is one of Third World low-rise urbanization familiar to those who know Morocco, Greece, Costa Rica, etc.

I've even now heard stories which are too chilling, sobering, to tell here in a rush. They require books.

Two more weeks -- how will I be different at the end? This afternoon I'm going to church, an English-language service, with Costa. I thnk I'm also scheduled to accompany him to talk to a woman who has HIV as a result of the genocide.If I can't describe such things fully yet, I hope that time will allow me to.

Costa's year-old daughter went to the hospital last night, a problem with digesting breast milk. She's okay now.

Amid all this, things like not shaving and showering,and wake-sleep shedules, and brushing teeth from a half-glass of boiled water, seem of minimal import.

The completely ordinary, and the worldwide problems of economics, coexist here with the unimaginable. Will I be able imagine it after I've heard it? If so, there's the danger of it becoming ordinary: "Oh yes, you told me that story before." A defense mechanism to keep it at safe distance.

Meanwhile, there's fun! Meeting delightful individuals, immediate friends; talking a mix of English and French, and building affection through the effort; drinking East African coffee and tea, among the world's best. Watching TV, which is just like all TV but in a different language. Saw a good Congolese movie last night, though, a somwhat realistic romance-melodrama featuring famous regional musicians and actors.

Fifteen more nights under a moquito net, in a shared hot room where no mosquitoes are seen. Playing with 5-year-old Gentil, who can count to 1,000 in English and taught me how to fold a paper boat and blow bubbles.

See you later! Forgive me if I don't answer comments while I'm here. Later there will be photos and more time to write at length.

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October 22, 2009

Ready to Go

I'm starting off toward Africa today and I'll return on Nov. 12.

Today it's the Minneapolis airport for five hours, which may be the most boring part of the trip. I chose a long layover rather than a 45-minute one, thinking that the latter was too risky for an international flight. Overnight to Amsterdam where my layover is long enough so that I hope to get out into the city for a walk and lunch. Then on to Kigali, Rwanda, via the Nairobi airport, which I've read is neither as bad nor as good as it could be.

I'm not bringing my computer, but there are internet cafes in Kigali so I hope to drop a few posts in here during my stay. I might save the photos for after I return -- there's a learning curve involved, I just bought a camera last night.

Stop by once in a while and see what's happening!


October 20, 2009

Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment 7

Left rear bumper: "Consumption Will Not Fill the Void."

Right rear bumper: "Black Star Pub Brewery"

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Attack from the Distaff Side

Returning for a moment to the milieu of the previous post, when we look back at the dawn of time we find book and movie titles such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Man in the White Suit, The Boy with Green Hair. Males baffled by circumstance, yearning for nothing more than a modicum of peace and security. And when we look for similar titles on what used to be called the distaff side, what do we find? Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman! These men are just sitting quietly, humbly, merely hoping to be allowed to watch a football game, and...they're ATTACKED! By fifty-foot women!

It's the story of my life.

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October 17, 2009

What Are They Reading in 1960?

The contents of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books for Winter 1961, when Eisenhower gave way to Kennedy:

A. The Light in the Piazza, by Elizabeth Spencer (1921- ), a literary bestseller by a genteel Southern quarterly doyenne, author of 38 books, five-time O. Henry Award recipient.

The Reader's Digest intro says, “This is a story of how the sensual beauty and warm summer sun of Florence worked their strange alchemy in the life of a lovely American girl – a story to which each reader will imagine his own sequel.”

I love the “his own sequel.” Ninety percent of the audience must have been female.

The opening sentence:

“On a June afternoon at sunset, an American woman and her daughter fended their way along a crowded street in Florence and entered with relief the spacious Piazza del Signoria.”

In other words, the nth dilution of Henry James’ Daisy Miller.

“This little book is a gem…one of the four best novels of 1960.” Orville Prescott, New York Time

But scoffers beware! This book was made into a 1962 movie (Olivia de Havilland-Rossano Brazzi-Yvette Mimieux-George Hamilton) and a well-received, innovative 2005 musical that ran for 504 performances at Lincoln Center and is regularly performed around the world, sometimes in opera houses.

B. Half Angel, by Barbara Jefferis. Lonely young Australian boy finds a mysterious cat with a jeweled collar. Problems arise! I never heard of it, though this was the height of my passion for the New York Times Book Review: I was eight.

C. A Sense of Values, by Sloan Wilson, author of the iconic 1950's executive-suite novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (reprinted in 2002 with a foreword by Jonathan Franzen)and A Summer Place, both hit movies (Gregory Peck-Jennifer Jones, Ricard Egan-Dorothy McGuire), the latter the provenance of the great song "Theme from A Summer Place." A well-known cartoonist (good choice!) grapples with the problems of success, a cold wife, a troubled son, inherited “melancholia” (a much better word for it than what we use now), and alcoholism. Flashbacks to noncombat WWII. Readably written in an intelligent middlebrow style that appeals to Connecticut residents who wish Salinger were more prolific, and which, lamentably, isn’t seen much anymore on the bestseller lists. Contains a lecture by the protagonist’s wise mentor on the dangers of success -– not original but a knowledgeable summary. Undoubtedly Wilson needed to write this after his big bestseller.

Random sentence: “Before going to New Haven that fall, I stopped at the sanitarium and visited my mother.”

D. "Warpath" “A crucial episode from Kenneth Roberts' monumental novel of Colonial history, Northwest Passage….Kenneth Roberts brings alive a little-known incident from the American past in a manner that makes it vital and exciting reading for today.”

This was an oldie even then, first published 1937, source for the 1940 movie with Spencer Tracy and for...yes, the 1958-1959 Buddy Ebsen NBC series (the latter must be why they republished it in 1960). During his lifetime Roberts (“for some time after graduating from Cornell in 1903…not until 1928 did he begin to write the great historical novels which won him a lasting fame…”) received five honorary doctorates and a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee “for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”

Sample sentence: “’I’ve often seen you,’ the man said, swallowing.”

C. Marnie, by Winston Graham: source for the 1964 Hitchcock movie, by the author of forty novels including the Poldark series, which was made into a hit BBC series. When you’ve got the touch, you’ve got the touch.

From the intro:

“What were the compelling forces that drove twenty-three-year-old Marnie Elmer from job to job, changing her identity each time….From the first moment his saw this strange and beautiful girl, Mark Rutland was intrigued. When her secret burst upon him with the impact of a thunderbolt, he could not follow the dictates of reason…. How Mark leads Marnie to find the key to the inner prison in which she has locked herself makes a taut, exciting story, full of suspense and sharp compassion.”

Sorry, you’re still not hitting the male audience. But to your credit, you don’t use “impact” as a verb. Today they’d write, “When her secret impacted him like a thunderbolt…” And that’s the sum total of the development of American literacy in forty-nine years.

This volume of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, one of ten on the café shelves, contains by far the most enduring novels in the group.

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October 16, 2009

It feels utterly cool...

...to go into Radio Shack and ask for a foreign travel electrical adapter, and when he asks what country I'm going to, say, "Rwanda."

Six more days.


October 15, 2009

By the way, this is why human beings sing.

October 12, 2009

A Lifetime's Reading

I'm entering the time of life when you want to spend more time with your loved ones. And so I want to reread Resurrection, Crime and Punishment, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, Orlando, Emma, Tom Jones, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Dombey and Son...and I'll get to Shakespeare's histories and Bartholomew Fair, and I'll go further in Chaucer...and when I reread A Moveable Feast I'll kiss the pages, and then I'll read Chekhov's "The Peasants" and "In the Ravine" continually, as we're told to pray continually.

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October 11, 2009

No, Not Yet

A twelve-year-old is singing along with "Title and Registration" by Death Cab for Cutie:

...where disappointment and regret collide
Lying awake at night...

"Do you have regrets, Agent 97?"



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Nice Description

Someone once called my work "beautiful but not important." What a perfect description of this world!

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Your Mom

“Agent 97, I believe I’ll need the computer in a moment.”

“I believe your mom will need the computer in a moment. Dissage!”

His late grandmother!

He and his brother give each other “your mom” lines frequently.

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Nameless Mass

I like the title Missa Sine Nomine, by Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521).

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Heard Around the House, So I'll Steal It

“An empty muffin case of a man.” Old, empty, used up, disposable, and crummy, its only value being as a momentary reminder of past sweetness.

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October 10, 2009

What Are You Looking At?

Ten a.m. Agent 97 wakes up, drags himself to the living room to read the latest volume in whatever fantasy adventure series it is this month. I take a ninja stance, arms up, wrists cocked, wagging my fingers menacingly with a “Come on, what have you got?” look.

“Shut uppa you mouth,” he says. “Go to the store right now and get cookies.”

“Ha! I mock you” I say.

“Go get cookies!”

Cool gray Saturday morning, the second chilly day of the season. I love this weather, it makes me imagine I’m in New York or the Bay Area. It lets me wear my new favorite sweater. I’m sitting near the open window, sipping my second half-decaf au lait from a ceramic mug that Agent 83 doesn’t remember giving me when he was a child. I may take a walk to the library, or I may just imagine it. I watch a squirrel with twin nuts in its mouth run the length of a telephone wire, its back undulating. It speeds up when a little bird flies near it, though the bird can’t do it any harm.

I can see what the wire looks like through the squirrel’s eyes. The wire moving under him, and the tops of the green and tan bamboo under that, and the gray cloud-light in his peripheral vision. Pure sensation of movement, no words, pure sight and motion. Life, absolute life.

I can see what the world looks like for this Richard, too. A wide dark space with thoughts zinging across it like meteor showers that make him go, “Ah.” A space infinite but bounded; within its borders everything fits: cities, hosts of people, entire literatures, out to the galaxies. And him little in the center of it, taking in all the messages and sending ones back. Absolute life.

“Get some cookies! There’s nothing to eat around here, what’s a person to eat? What are you looking at?”

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October 08, 2009


"No one in our family can ever say anything obvious."
--John Althouse Cohen, age 8, c. 1989

Is it obvious to lay off blogging for a little while? It hasn't been planned, it's just way the days have unfolded for the past couple of weeks.

I can assure you, though, that beginning about October 22 I'll have some interesting experiences to report. On that day I fly to Rwanda for a two-week mission of peace and reconciliation.They have internet cafes there, so I hope to do some posting.

In the meantime, something every once in a while.

UPDATE: A writer friend once told me I have "a genius for the obvious." I don't know how it was intended, but I took it as a compliment.

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October 03, 2009

That's What the Simple Folk Do

This rain reminds me of the Northeast, an old-fashioned all-day soak with no lightning-and-thunder drama, no floods, no power outages. I’m letting cars pass me –- this is new –- and somehow through ignorance I end up in the thick traffic to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But I smile, it’s a Saturday of no plans. Wet couples and small groups, mostly in their twenties and thirties, walk straggly-haired across the bridge over the Colorado, and it surprises me how many of the young women are wearing skirts or dresses; it reminds me of when we went back to Ann Arbor in 1976 and found that, during the three-year interval since graduation, coeds had started putting on makeup and wearing skirts again.

I’m going shopping –- strange. So this is how people spend their Saturdays! I’m buying gifts for my hosts for my forthcoming foreign stay: two children’s Texas Longhorns T-shirts in burnt orange, and two gospel CDs, one of black music and one of white. (That’s America.) Do they have a CD player at their home? I’m betting yes; after all, they’re not in the bush. Then I drive from bookstore to bookstore looking for a copy of the Constance Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment -– the Roman Polanski uproar has made me want to reread it, but I doubt if Roman’s going to find redemption in the arms of a saintly whore in the end –- and the third store I try has one used copy, with decent-size print no less.

Four o’clock and I haven’t eaten since breakfast -– this is new too -- so I swing by the Cajun saloon-restaurant, imagining fried oysters. The small parking lot is full as always but a space opens right at the front door, and I start toward it, but by the time I begin guiding my slow turn there’s a big beer-bellied man standing in the way, slurping from a 32-ounce Styrofoam of soda pop. I wait for him to see me -– he doesn’t move –- he’s standing smack between the white lines -- I extend my arm to show I want to get through -- he slurps, doesn’t move. He’s wearing a purple LSU T-shirt: this bar’s the Louisiana sports headquarters of Austin and today’s game day, the place is packed with his type. I wait, he slurps. Shaking my head, I go into reverse and, before pulling away, draw up beside him and roll down my window and say with a smile, “Thanks, you’re a prince.” How I’ve mellowed! As I’m driving away it dawns on me he’s not absolutely being a prick, he’s saving the space for a friend. I can identify, which makes it -- does it? -- all right.

To the fancy supermarket in the heavy rain -– plastic bags today, not paper! –- and I nosh on free samples to tide me over till home. I skip the pears and the avocados, they’re hard as rocks despite the loyal service workers slicing them into quarter-moons and the customers accepting them without a qualm -– I pick up a container of the house gumbo which is really good, and German bread to dip in it. And a large coconut macaroon half-draped in chocolate: “I think this is the best thing in the store!” the cashier says to me. One must remember they’re not flirting, they’re just being friendly.

After the gumbo I have coffee and take a nap, the perfect wakeup routine because when the nap’s over the coffee’s just taking effect, and start Philip K. Dick’s In Milton Lumky Territory -– how is it I’ve been reading him for thirty-five years and haven’t gotten to all his books yet? I’ve got two rental movies for this evening, and best of all, I’ve had time to write something of my own, even if it’s only this.

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