Saturday, December 27, 2008

Travelogue 256, December 27
Spinning Wheel, Part Four

Winter wears a different face every day.
Yesterday temperatures rose to 37 and then dropped back below freezing at night, so now the sidewalks are a mess. I must get out for a morning walk, but it’s not a walk. It’s a shuffle, slide, slide, shuffle.

The sky is overcast, but aside from having to negotiate the frozen soup, it’s a pleasant day. The city has come back to life. We have returned from the abyss of miraculous birth, and we hold steady our course toward salvation.

I very slowly wend my way to Lake Street. I’ve been hanging out at the Midtown Global Market at the corner of Lake and Chicago. It’s the perfect distance for a winter walk, and the market is colorful. It inhabits the old Sears building, which has dominated this stretch of Lake Street since 1928, a brown brick monolith of Chicago art deco that was abandoned by the Sears company in 1994. A local group of community organizations was allowed to redevelop the site, and the Global Market opened in 2006.

Inside, you walk among the stalls. You’ve got your coffee and sweets shops. You’ve got your restaurants of every flavor. You’ve got your African and Latin and Asian goods. You’ve got Mexican groceries. It’s divertido for the whole family.

Renan has followed Jesus to the River Jordan, where he meets up with John the Baptist. Followers of each gather on coffee breaks, and exchange tips on pleasing God. John and Jesus are roughly the same age, but John has the edge in fire, following, and history. Jesus studies his friend; there’s much to learn. Jesus has created a buzz among the religious communities in northern Israel, and the Jordan becomes his Rubicon. Is it time to step into the hot spotlight, or shall he return to the peaceful Sea of Galilee where he can grow old as the friendly local rabbi and guru? It’s an unforgiving business, though. How long can one pooh-pooh the national circuit as a preacher before the locals begin to wonder about you? It isn’t long before Salome has her way with the young Baptiste, and Jesus is the obvious heir. From there, events accelerate.

Christ is born, and I’m already thinking about Easter. I’m wondering about those three heady, feverish years, the years of his ministry. We’re probably not supposed to speculate what Jesus might have felt, but I can’t help feeling some compassion.

I’m thinking about this movie, ‘Milk’. If comparing Jesus’s life with that of a gay activist doesn’t get me shot, I’m not sure what will, but really: if it helps me to understand or feel compassion, then what’s the sin? Sean Penn, of course, does a marvelous job portraying the big-hearted man whose eyes are open to suffering, and whose every action in the interest of others leads him toward his destruction. Eventually, his path leads him into the spotlight of public life. Once you’re in that arena, it seems like your life is less and less your own. Your story belongs to a dozen others, and then a hundred, and then a thousand. You are borne forward on the feet of a mob, and there is barely time for a sigh.

This is where I say, as Voltaire might have done were he sitting at this laptop, ‘If there were no heaven, it would be necessary to invent one.’ I would wish for a place of rest and reflection for people like this. Isn’t that what lies behind our yearnings for a heaven? Isn’t it just the chance for a breath and a glance back over what we’ve done? Life eternal, our just reward, etc., fine, but I’d say the heart of the matter is simply reflection.

I’d like to summon that tunnel of light, and I’d like to be there when Jesus checks in. Now, I know a lot of people would say the same thing with malicious intent: ‘I want Jesus to see what he hath wrought, all the wars in his name, etc.’ But that’s not my intention. Time takes hold of him; events tumble one after another with dizzying speed. He stands firm, staying true to his teachings, and staying true to his disciples. The end comes quickly. Tears and applause. He gives them an encore. The house empties; all is silent. The rest is up to the disciples. That’s a scary thought, but it’s how it has to be. Okay, we turn toward the light. The dust settles. The mind quiets down. It’s Jesus’s turn in the screening room. What does he say? Is he happy with how everything went down, seen now in the light of heaven? Are there regrets – the picnics he missed, the noli me tangere thing, some hasty sermons, hasty resurrections, whatever? Would he wish he had had more time to think things through?

Oh well, it’s a private moment. Let’s leave him to his reflections. As the Muslims say, peace be upon him. There are some tasty enchiladas here at the Global Market to distract us. Bon appetit!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Travelogue 255, December 24
Spinning Wheel, Part Three

Winter wears a different face every day.
I have to venture out on Christmas Eve, if only to dilute the intense joy of the season. The forecasts had suggested clear skies and warming. The sky says something different, though by noon, there is some blue peeking through. I have no car, so today will be the test of our trusty bus system.

There’s a crowd waiting at the station at Lake and Chicago. We wait while our bus is lowered and a ramp unfolded for a woman in her little four-wheeler. There’s a problem with the ramp. It gets stuck at ninety degrees, blocking the bus door.

The driver works the ramp loose. That’s three minutes. She boards, and the bus driver straps her in. There’s another three minutes. We finally board. Two men sit behind me. This is their opening dialogue: ‘I’m eighty and I live alone.’ ‘I just got kicked out of my halfway house, and I’m homeless.’ We cruise along, one happy family of deprivation inside our bubble of conveyance, suspended inside a moment of warmth.

Six blocks later, it’s the four-wheeler’s stop. The ramp works fine, but the bus won’t go back into gear. The driver has to repeatedly lower and raise the right side of the bus. He looks into the mirror and says, ‘This is what we pay for.’ The homeless guy shouts, ‘Can you turn up the heat?’ He was hoping for a cozy nap on the bus.

‘So, America, poverty,’ he says in his monologue. I’m reaching back to that foreign film again, the one that showcases the dried up martial arts star. He gets a monologue in the middle of the movie. The story halts, he’s elevated into the set lighting, and he fills the screen. He feels he owes his audience an explanation. Where did he come from? How does he explain his success? ‘…stealing to eat,’ he’s saying, ‘stalking producers, actors, movie stars, going to clubs hoping to see a star with my pictures, karate magazines. It’s all I had. I didn’t speak English, but I did twenty years of karate. I used to be small and scrawny.’ These are his first steps toward Golgotha.

After the monologue he must be lowered back into the story, where the pitch of the movie plot carries him away immediately and effectively; the innocent led to sacrifice. The beast of narrative must be fed.

‘So, Galilee, poverty…’ Peeking in on the other JC, Renan sets a scene for us. ‘The North [of Israel] alone has made Christianity; Jerusalem, on the contrary, is the true home of … obstinate Judaism. … Galilee … was a very green, shady, smiling district, the true home of the Song of Songs…. The whole history of infant Christianity has become [thanks to the backdrop of Galilee] a delightful pastoral. A Messiah at the marriage festival – the courtezan and the good Zaccheus called to his feasts – the founders of the kingdom of heaven like a bridal procession ….’ Enter the star: ‘As often happens in very elevated natures, tenderness of the heart was transformed in him into an infinite sweetness, a vague poetry, and a universal charm. … Jesus had no visions; God did not speak to him as to one outside himself; God was in him; he felt himself with God.’

And we’re on our way to Golgotha. He sets out to preach. He sets out for the hills, the Sea, the River, leaving what was home. So what is shelter to those born under the symbol of JC? Maybe that’s what it’s all about: where you where you lay your head. Ambition comes home at the end of the day. JC never clocks out.

Our homeless guy on the bus is in for a disappointment. The bus route ends at Hennepin. There’s no time for a nap. He grumbles as he disembarks, and I’m a little disconcerted to see that he’s better dressed than I am. I shouldn’t complain. I mean, if anyone should have quality clothing, it’s the homeless person. But stylish, too? He starts pacing the station platform, waiting for the next state of suspense, and I’m on my way to browse a few warm spaces before everything closes. Fa la la.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Travelogue 254, December 20
Spinning Wheel, Part Two

Winter wears a different face every day.
Today it’s snowing all day long, piling up quickly in its quiet, pristine way. The average temperature for the day is six above. And on the day before the solstice, we have less than nine hours of daylight.

A certain friend and I – a friend who has requested anonymity, so let’s call her Rosanne – Rosanne and I have agreed to meet at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the afternoon. I decide to walk, so I put on my long underwear and my sturdy old Red Wing boots, and I launch out into the blizzard. It’s fun. The shredded sky is right on top of us. The roads are reduced to dirty ruts in the snow. For twenty minutes I am the king of snow. I am winter. But the wind is in my face, and I make it to the museum just in time. My chin and cheeks are bright red and numb.

The exhibit is a small one – prints and engravings by a variety of old-timers, Rembrandt, Matisse, and others from a smattering of eras, from the Renaissance to the 19th century. We’re ready to go to dinner before my body has completely warmed up. That’s all right; we’re driving. At least, that’s what I think.

Rosanne is directionally challenged. Fortunately, she has memorized the intersection where she has parked. Unfortunately, she hasn’t memorized her car yet. I direct us to the intersection. ‘There it is!’ she cries, and we stand at the driver’s door, jiggling the key in the lock. It won’t open.

It’s common enough that locks freeze in these temperatures and, since I believe her when she declares this is her car, we make a quick call to AAA. They say it will take them an hour, so we start walking. The nearest decent restaurant is about six blocks away. The snow is diminishing and the temperatures are dropping quickly. I’m suffering. By the time we reach the restaurant, my face is raw and my body aches. I have been overthrown as king of winter.

We sit in the restaurant for a good long time before I’m willing to move, so we miss the early show time for our movie. (The AAA called and said the lock was fine. Of course it was!)

Wait. Before I review tonight’s movie, I have to recommend another one that is still on my mind. (Yes, I’ve been seeing a lot of movies. It’s Christmas time.) In this one, a famous martial arts movie star plays himself in a kind of fictional biopic that is both funny and sorrowful, and well worth seeing.

There’s a monologue in the middle of the movie that’s winning acclaim for the ageing athlete. Who knew he could act? It’s a bit mawkish in the style of a middle-aged alcoholic, but it’s heart-felt and dispatched in one cut that segues seamlessly into the next. He’s a pro. He was born to it. Is it because he was baptized with the initials J.C. that he is born to rule – though he was born a Libra like myself, and not a solstice Capricorn? Is it the season that makes the man, or the initials in his name? ‘When you’re thirteen,’ he says in the monologue, though more elegantly in his native tongue, ‘you believe in your dream. It’s not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it, really believed in it. It came true for me.’ ‘I’m a citizen of the world,’ he says.

I’m led to think of the real J.C., J.C. the First, or J.C. fils, as we must always know him – son of Man and God alike. It’s his season, Son of Winter, so I’ve been reading The Life of Jesus by the nineteenth-century philologist, Ernest Renan. Renan’s book was published in France with great controversy in the year 1863. His humble goal was to write a ‘history’, rather than a work of devotion, so he analyzes and compares texts, and he edits out miracles because he wishes ‘to make the observations of facts our groundwork.’ His technique made him notorious. It also made him the hero of a generation of scholars.

Renan writes beautifully; his prose is strong even in translation. He has this to say about Jesus: ‘God, conceived simply as Father, was all the theology of Jesus. … He did not preach his opinions; he preached himself. … This exaltation of self is not egotism; for such men, possessed by their idea, give their lives freely, in order to seal their work; it is the identification of self with the object it has embraced, carried to its utmost limit. It is regarded as vain-glory by those who see in the new teaching only the personal phantasy of the founder; but it is the finger of God to those who see the result. The fool stands side by side here with the inspired man; only the fool never succeeds.’

Be the winter, I tell myself, as we trek back to the car. Be the winter. But the winter is being me, instead. I’m a hollow shell by the time we get there, burning on the outside, unconscious on the inside. ‘There’s my car!’ Rosanne, you realize that’s not the car we tried to open earlier. ‘It is so.’ Be the winter, be the winter.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Travelogue 253, December 19
Spinning Wheel, Part One

Winter wears a different face every day.
12.13 I’m out with my soul mate on a little promenade. The skies have relented and allowed us a thaw of 37 degrees. We’ve made our way down to the river. It’s a lovely day. The sun behind those permanent clouds radiates benignly, to such a degree that light meters are triggered and street lights switch off. It radiates from its noontime high, just above the treetops, its vague white glow finally topping that of Tycho Brahe’s famous supernova of 1572.

Arm in arm, metaphorically speaking, we step lightly across the university’s pedestrian bridge, gazing down at the friendly Mississippi. It’s as though we’re cruising at high altitude above Greenland, studying the effects of carbon emissions. Old Man Water’s stern complexion is crackling from the thaw. The ice is fracturing in jagged, baby-blue lines. The surface becomes complex, chunks of ice beginning to jostle in slow motion where angry blue-black water struggles for breath, while smooth snow sweats peacefully over the quieter waters of the river’s elbows.

We’re on our way to the doctor’s office in Dinkytown. We have taken a terrible spill together on the ice a few days previously, and now my mate’s gears are not working properly. The doctor works in a tiny, crowded shop in Dinkytown. He comes to the counter, wiping his greasy hands on a hand towel. ‘May I help you?’ It only takes a minute: a bit of fine work with a screwdriver, and we are coasting happily back across the bridge.

That night I see ‘The Day the Condor Stood Still’ by Keanu Reeves. It’s a forgettable movie, though I can still picture Keanu staring sternly-blankly-quizzically at me and the human race. But isn’t that simply because he has stared at us that way in so many movies? The film did leave me with one question. If he came to earth to save the planet from the human race, why would he change his mind when he sees a human mother embrace her son, or when he listens to human music? What does that prove? Humans take care of each other: he knows that. Maybe if Will Smith’s little boy (who needs a few more acting lessons, if you ask me) had saved Bambi from Dick Cheney that might logically call for revisiting the mission. Otherwise, hit ‘delete’!

More interesting is Keanu on Letterman, which I catch a few nights later. Does anyone recall seeing Keanu smile? There’s a reason for that: he has smoker’s teeth. And it comes to me: we have elected Keanu Reeves. Obama smokes. Obama is Hawaiian. Obama stares coldly and speaks woodenly sometimes. Yes, he does. He’ll never play an alien as well as Keanu, but he does. And they both speak in the same halting, resonant bass. It will be a most excellent eight years.

12.14 I’m in a café for exactly one hour just after midday. When I emerge, the sidewalk is icy. I look at the bank’s clock and thermometer. The temperature has dropped twelve degrees while I was indoors! You have to walk with sliding steps. Cars are sliding to and fro.

By nightfall, we’ve hit zero Farhenheit. In the morning, the final set of winter body memories are released: the way your nose hairs freeze when you breathe; the tension as you listen to the ignition whine; the way everything crackles; the panicky feeling after only a few hundred yards across the parking lot: your fingers are stinging, even inside the gloves. The sky looks metallic and unfriendly. Ah, yes: it all comes back to me.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Travelogue 252, December 9
Christmas Heroes

I do battle. Indoors, I face down the Christmas music. And if once in a while, the somber ones like Silent Night or Little Drummer Boy elicit a tear – it HAS been five years since I’ve been in America for Christmas, after all, – well, I swallow it back and I grit my teeth. I will not give in to the despair inherent in it all. I am bigger than that. March a hundred Santas by me; launch a thousand cartoon classics against me; sound a million tinkling chimes, I will not buckle.

Outdoors, I stand firm against the persistent dirty white: the blank clouds day after day, the slushy piles, the unrelenting temperatures in the teens. It takes about five minutes or more just to dress for going outside – more if I’ll be traveling by bike. I patiently spend the time necessary getting the car ready for motion: warming up, brushing snow off the windshield, chiseling through any ice, waiting for the defroster to clear the fog on the inside of the windows.

I enjoy complaining to Menna in Ethiopia about my cold weather travails. She’s never felt temperatures remotely Minnesotan, and never seen snow. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is in its finest season, with clear blue skies and mild temperatures.

However, my good news is: the temperatures and the snow do not stop the worthy progress of Education in America. We do not waver, pause, or whimper before the white tide of menace, (nor red and green one, either).We take tests.

I have a contribution to make to the study of group psychology, or of group thaumaturgy. It is a mystery. In a lapse of discipline, or in a fit of sentimental weakness, I stop and look over a lost one’s messy paper. I point my pen to the question, suggest a re-assessment, guide again to the appropriate passage in the reading. On my next round, she has the correct answer. And so does everyone else. I swear I’m watching them. I swear! This particular class is composed almost entirely of kids who knew each other in high school. There’s a bond of telepathic swindling among them.

It’s in this class that young Mr. B is submitted to an unusual rite of repentance. Young Mr. B has missed a test, and he soberly informs me he will miss another. Young Mr. B is a massive boy with pink cheeks and the blue-eyed stare of a Boy Scout listening to ghost stories. He studies criminal justice. Why did he miss the first test? ‘I slept in. … I swear I did!’

‘Do you hear that class?’ I say. ‘He slept in.’ There are catcalls. Why is he missing the next test? Because he’s having surgery on his overgrown knee. ‘Hm! What do you say, class? Shall we let him make up these tests?’ His classmates insist that he leave the room while they deliberate. Young Mr. B sits on a bench in the hallway, bent over clasped hands. We gather around the classroom door’s little window and laugh at him. He is absolved.

Brittany is in the same class. She’s excited because she got called for an informational interview at a Minneapolis music college. She wants to be a music agent. She looks as though she might once have been goth, and it takes a long time to purge. But she has wonderfully clear and innocent blue eyes. She also has a twitch, like a sudden, slight nod.

She tells me she’s scared. She has heard that Minneapolis is dangerous. ‘I’ve heard of this place called Broadway,’ slight pause with a teenage questioning tone, and a twitch of the head, ‘where people are always getting shot …’, another questioning note. Young Mr. B chimes in with tales of mayhem from his student rides with Minneapolis cops that sound to me like skits from the Simpsons: there’s a bus load of drunks that arrive at a bar at closing time, and they start a riot when they can’t buy drinks. There’s a cell phone left to recharge in a car that prompts a bomb scare. We’re well past reassuring Brittany.

The only real solution is the strategic use of funny sound effects. Several of the students in my evening class bring laptops instead of dictionaries – weren’t you asking me how today’s students differ from students five years ago? Incredible as it may seem, one of my students doesn’t know what a loon is – a loon! the Minnesota state bird!

Sidebar: as many of you already know, the Mansi, an indigenous people in Siberia, believe that it was a pair of loons who brought mud from the bottom of the primeval waters to create the earth’s land masses.

In order to bring that ancient, magical moment to life for the class, I insist that one of my laptop boys retrieve the cry of the loon. It was either that or listen to Cody continue to imitate it over and over again.

There’s one more occasion for the laptop’s services that evening, when we read an excerpt from a story that features characters dancing the waltz. In response to the frightening assertion by one student that the waltz is the same as the Texas two-step, I instructed my laptop pilot to bring up a Polish waltz. The entire class stares at the machine as though we are receiving Morse Code from the sinking Titanic.

‘It is NOT the Texas two-step,’ I declare and shut the book for the evening, satisfied that at least one significant lesson has been delivered on that day.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Travelogue 251, December 5
Pins and Needles

The day starts with news on the car radio. The car, by the way, is Alison’s very nice Honda Civic, which she has kindly lent me while she is in Europe. It’s a luxury, a car that runs so well, and poses besides a powerful and profound koan: is it green or is it blue? That is a most impressive feat of modern technology: an object that works but eludes naming at such a fundamental level.

The radio sure works. The first item of news today is that all ballots have been tallied in the recount in our Senate race – all except 133 ballots from one Minneapolis precinct. Mine. Out of 4,132 precincts in Minnesota, 133 ballots were lost at the University Lutheran Church of Hope in Dinkytown.

I know mine is among the shipwrecked ballots. It is out reading the stars, searching for true north, exploring the desert island. I feel it, my disembodied voice, its ardent Democratic song stilled.

The next item on the radio is a new high in unemployment. After that is looming budget cuts across the board in education. The journalist really wants to zoom in on higher education. Colleges like the one I’m teaching for are in for stormy weather, she insists. I think she even mentions my tenuous temporary position by name.

That’s all right. My job – extinct as my ballot, apparently – has been heavy lifting. Students are awakening to the semester’s end, and to the dire state of their grades. Finals are coming, and that leads to more complaining: ‘You didn’t’ and ‘I can’t’. I say, ‘Gee whiz,’ and ‘Oh by gosh, by golly,’ my morale chilled by the radio-prophet’s approaching abyss.

The day gets better, though. Margaret has given me the gift of an appointment with her acupuncturist. Her name is Jala. She is pretty, and she speaks very slowly. I’ve always wanted to try acupuncture. If I believe in any metaphysics of the body, it’s the idea that there are streams of energy running through the human apparatus, cascading smoothly or blocked up behind ugly beaver dams, according to each individual case.

The part about the needles I haven’t figured out yet, but I’m certainly open to any new concept that smacks so charmingly of the Absurd. I imagine myself with fine whisker-like needles standing from my skin, and I laugh.

Today, the vision is realized, and I do indeed laugh. It’s a good day when a healthy action is cause for a giggle. I’m not sure Jala shares in my amusement, or even notices it. Her serenity seems impenetrable. Maybe Serenity resides within the eye of the Absurd, and therefore all humor is invisible. Or maybe Serenity breathes humor like oxygen and needs no external show of enjoyment. Either way, I’m not being Serene when I laugh, and in fact it stings a little if I jiggle one of those needles.

I lie with needles in me, a kind of temporary cyborg, enhanced by chi. But I can only use my super powers in repose, which actually suits me quite well. Aside from a passing headache, I experience no effects from the needles, no buzz beyond the simple fun of it. I’m either too obtuse or too backed up with beaver dams for subtle, esoteric cures.

The day ends with another wade into Wes’s fan pool. He’s gigging as much as possible this winter in order to plug his CD. Tonight it’s Big V’s. That’s a seedy, old-time bar on University in the Midway, famous among Wes’s friends for a raucous gig some eight to ten years ago, when a guy with a fresh hatchet wound in the back of his head was trying to mack on our friend Therese.

There’s a quality to the nights in December, a kind of dream-like timelessness. It’s been darks for hours and hours by the time you go out for the night’s entertainment. You float along slushy streets, among your layers of clothing, as though you’ve set out for Russia and you’ll be traveling for months. Everything is the color of street lamps and neon.

The highlights of the evening are Wes’s performance, as strong as I’ve ever heard, and pounding Roxana in foosball. Okay, so that doesn’t require much. Okay, so Wes defeats me until he’s bored. My men have trouble tracking the ball, striking out in sychronized, swinging kicks long after the ball has sailed by, often after the clunk that signals the opponent’s score. But, hey, by the time we reach Russia, my moves will be smooth, smooth, smooth.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Travelogue 250, November 30
Elliott Park

I’m just a block or two away from my neighborhood, the one I want to live in. My address is on Elliott Avenue, so I had assumed I was in Elliott Park. If I’d only landed on the other side of the highway, I’d be there.

That’s Interstate 94 I’m speaking of, the muscle-bound silver river god separating me from downtown. Yes, the cold, white water 94 that conveys me to work every morning. When I get up, I glance out the window to measure the mood of the insomniac beast, watching the tops of trucks being swept along by the flood.

This morning, when I look, Nature’s pulled a prank. I’d been looking forward to a brisk Sunday morning cycle ride at first light through empty downtown streets. But snow has fallen. Everything’s white. My will fails me.

The streets are dry yesterday when I get my urban geography lesson. There’s a café just down Portland, across the great river bed, Father of Carbons, down Portland to Tenth Street. It has an inviting green awning among anonymous, barren blocks of proud new housing and stuttering old housing, all of them signs of the neighborhood’s fortunes.

Apparently, the café is a kind of hinge between old and new. Things were a lot better five years ago, says the café’s co-owner, who is working the counter. She classifies herself as a hippie. Five years ago, Elliott Park stood up to a hippie’s most stringent standards: diversity, arts, a history of neighborhood action, and a lot of potential for improvement.

She looks the part of a hippie, with untamed graying hair, frumpy sweater, and sleepy ways. The café features a tiny, ad hoc shop, partitioned off by its displays, where you can buy locally crafted, beaded and knitted gifts.

There are shelves of used books along the length of one wall. There’s a small stage with a piano in one corner by the window. On most days, the main feature onstage is a TV, usually tuned into permanent jazz. Today it features the concert to celebrate John Mayall’s seventieth birthday party five years ago. Mick Taylor makes a sullen appearance. Clapton shows up. On and on it goes.

So the hippie and friends open this café. They join the Elliott Park community organization. They are players in the heyday of Renaissance planning for this historic district, neglected for so many years, after it was stage-by-stage walled off from the rest of downtown – by General Hospital, which grew into the huge county medical center; by our glorious interstate; and finally by the Metrodome.

Integral to revitalization plans were a couple high-profile condo high-rises. Sadly, condos were everyone’s antidote for the neighborhood blues. So, while the first building has turned out very nicely, and adds a warm touch to a southern view of the skyline, sales in the second development, (right across the street from our café, coincidentally,) have slumped. These days, the café-owner has a dim view of the state of the neighborhood.

She has no plans to move out. In fact, she’s shopping a plan for a non-profit to be based in Elliott Park. This will be called ‘SOMA’, Sounds of Mid-America, and it will be ‘a non-profit museum founded to recognize, celebrate and preserve the diverse music community of Middle America’. It will be home to classes, events and archives.

Let’s wish her well. More power to our cities’ forgotten neighborhoods.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Travelogue 249, November 23
The Shade of Dharma at Dusk

It’s dark by five. The clouds are brooding in week-long fits. Temperatures hold at prime number 29. Flurries come and go. Snow stuck just once, yesterday. I wobbled through it on my bike, happy it was melting.

When darkness gathers and moods are plunging, head down Eleventh Avenue. A swarm of crows is swirling chaotically over the park in front of the restored Strutwear Building on 7th Street, pausing in the bare branches only to launch again. They’re calling to some unsanitary power.

Holidays are approaching while sunshine and warmth retreat. The winter star of stoic duty rises, and we hunker down into our fates. Our lives are grim shadows of the super-ego at our shoulders.

After one of my Tuesday classes, a clownish kid named Nicky lingers after the others dash out. He hunches forward with a shit-eating grin, hands in his pockets, and he issues giggling insults at me. He has no audience. I don’t understand. ‘Is there something on your mind?’ I ask him, sitting wearily on the edge of my desk. He giggles, looking at his shoes, and delivers another mumbled insult. ‘Right. I’ve got to get going now, Nicky.’ He finds that hilarious. I pat him on the back and turn out the lights as we depart.

Wednesdays start with the class lost in slack-jawed trance, moves into my Mardi Gras class in which the bright-eyed gay couple ask if it’s time to undress, tumbles into the roar of my pre-lunch Homecoming bunch, and rounds off with the too-dark-for-Goth young’uns and their frank confessions of talk-show-standard bathos.

Thursday, the one angry rash hanging on as a caution from Hell is changing colors from instant to instant like a TV during solar flares. I watch it with wonder and dread instead of working, while the crows call down the Furies outside.

While I’m counting the foundation’s dwindling pennies, contemplating my life in the afterglow of the dreary demiday, Menna is stranded in Bahir Dar waiting for father farmers who break appointments with our lawyer, stalling the process to create for them a non-profit entity for their own advocacy. We hope that NGO status will get them land, more schools, and work. When Menna first visits the school that we’ve funded, she’s shepherded off the premises by an unfamiliar ‘supervisor’. She waits.

And yes, I’m contemplating my life. I have space! That means a large subletted living space to myself, where I can pull together my possessions, condensed into boxes carrying five years of dust from several friends’ houses. It’s an odd experience to exhume the past this way. It seems like the first time my gaze back through time has broken through the barrier of Leeza’s passing. Feelings are released, as though from jars unsealed.

I think about Leeza. Ours was a romance born in November, now that I think of it. I’m finding notebooks from our time together, thoughts and daily events and dreams like notes from beyond my grave. I’m collecting and arranging them, and I’m haunted by a story: Leeza and I dream about Ethiopia. In the dream, children gather in a schoolyard, singing and clapping their hands. It seems so real. I’d like to record it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Travelogue 248, November 7
Vessels of Porcelain

Kayla is one of my students at the college. She’s telling us how she went to a strip club for her birthday. She has pictures of her lap dance. The boys are telling hunting stories. They have lots of absences this semester because of all the season openers. Kyle shows me photos of the carcasses. This is Kyle who writes in the margin of his test, ‘Hitler wanted change, too’. Pretty Samantha wants to tell us about scraping the poop out of a dead deer’s anus. I ask wide-eyed Katya is she’s happy she immigrated from Russia.

These are the suburban 18 and 19 year-olds of our time. Journal paragraphs are harrowing to read, not so much for their stories as for the consistency in the story elements: drug rehab, violence at home, a restless wheel of trivial employment and trivial passions. And there’s a strange innocence about what happens in a classroom, an almost charming void where once might have been reserve or dignity. Grades are too abstract, and the classroom is fundamentally no different than any other room: part of the revolving set for frivolous conversations.

But I have to admit that I do enjoy them, and it’s precisely because they are so innocent. They would like to include me in their rumpus room fun. Their smiles are warm and eager, and admit no resentment. When I scold, it rings false. There’s a note of indulgence. There’s recognition. In America, we’re all jokers. It’s why God loves us best.

Cassie stands unsteadily before us, and declares, “I’m twenty-one! Can you believe it?” No one in the bar can, to judge by their vocalizations. She sways before us, grinning silently for another ten seconds before a male friend leads her away to the other side of bar, where she doesn’t hear the band’s tribute to her, changing the name of the protagonist in their song, ‘Meg Likes the Weed.’

The band is Scottie’s. The night is Wes’s. Wes is releasing a CD and he’s lined up four bands, including his own, for the celebration. It’s Northeast Minneapolis on a gloomy night of icy rain. I’ve biked across town again. I’m happy. The crowd, the music, and the gin are cheering.

Scottie’s band is guitar, bass, drums, and … oboe. Scottie’s girlfriend is on guitar. She disappears during solos: the plug to her amp keeps falling out of the wall. She’s a good player when she’s plugged in. She was the nun in a band of local repute, the Sandwiches. My favorite song of this band’s is ‘Some people are dumb.’ The next band is a young trio with lots of energy. The bass player has an instrument crafted by a violin-maker. It has a pretty scrolling head at the top of its long, sleek neck. Wes’s band, the Middle States comes out of the gate at 12:30 rocking. They have a powerful and likeable sound. It’s Friday night, and Wes sings about Friday night. There’s a girl leaning against the pool table mouthing the words.

At that late hour, everything is a still life, especially the music, like a wave caught rolling through the bar’s dim light and the haze of everyone’s alcohol. Time is blessedly compromised. It could be any year, and nothing has ever happened in life. This is Stasiu’s, one of those working class bars in Northeast, small and cozy, where the drinks are strong and cheap. Everything looks like Christmas colors now. Maybe it’s the glimpses of snow outside.

Stasiu’s has two of the most impressive urinals in town, monoliths of porcelain, massive. Scottie says they’re from a train station. I make Todd take a photo of them for me on his iPhone. I tell everyone I want my ashes to be sent into space inside one of those urinals.

The sound is finished, and I find myself back on the bicycle, chill wind in my face. Icy pellets strike my cheeks. The sky is no color. It’s the void, gathering up all our breath in swirling blue vapors. But the new 35W bridge is lit brightly with turquoise. That’s a cheery sight just for me as I labor across the Stone Arch Bridge, the catastrophic sound of the waterfall on my right. On the other side of the river is the midnight blue of the sleek walls of the Guthrie. The playwrights are stern, their faces blown up into photographic walls. And next door, in the new park, the benches glow with cobalt lamps inside. I’m huffing and puffing home through a silent, capsized season. When I make it, my cheeks are damp and red. I look at the clock in my mirror.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Travelogue 247, October 31
Hallo, Eve

It’s Halloween, and winter has withdrawn under fire from summer’s rear guard. We gather at the graves of the martyrs in shirtsleeves, and we remark that terror has less bite among the mild breezes. But season of terror it is. Why did the Founding Fathers choose a time when the ghosts are walking for elections? It must be a message.

The martyrs we honor are benevolent Saints Humor and Humble. I’ve taken to telling people that I’m voting for Palin. It would be the act of an aesthete. She’s perfect. She defeats the imagination. She’s archetype and transcendent being, an incarnation of the Absurd. I’ve suggested to her campaign that we make her the centerpiece of a new American Existentialist Party, APE. The acronym doesn’t work, of course, and even if it did it might offend the governor’s religion, but it’s a good idea. In any case, none of my acquaintances are amused. When matters are this Important, little is amusing that doesn’t flatter the moment’s mission.

I’m on my way to the doctor’s. Old Ethiopian symptoms are resurfacing, and I’m hoping for the unlikely, that doctors here have answers that doctors in England don’t. I live next to the highway nerve center of Minnesota, dozens of sweeping lanes of asphalt, held aloft or dug into the earth, consuming miles of city real estate, generating a cyclone of heat. I’m cycling over an arching pedestrian overpass. There’s a collection of school children at the crest, rattling the chain link fence protecting them from the roaring abyss. Many are holding up signs that scream ‘Vote!’ in vibrant colors, and they’re shouting their message at the deaf winds below. A few vehicles honk encouragements, but otherwise it’s the eeriest Halloween display yet: blushing, gleeful and wide-eyed innocence – defenseless, armed with no vote of its own – standing on a ribbon of concrete above the world of power, laughing and pleading into the mad, crushing onslaught of the species.

The routine at the doctors is universal: fill in forms and wait. The best part is the magazines. I get to catch up on my gossip. This time it’s a story about a double suicide among darlings of the arts scene. Beck’s involved, as are Scientologists, so the tale is entertaining.

After I’m called, I spend hours in a gown in a whitewashed cube. There are no magazines. Doctors and nurses visit me. I’m recognized as the cipher – either irritating or refreshing, depending on the attendant – that I represent in doctor’s offices around the globe. The role is tiresome. When doctors are perplexed, they become apocalyptic. The diagnosis is quickly reduced to the blanket HIV virus, though I tell them I’ve been tested. This doesn’t deter them: there are apparently windows of viral invisibility. I promise to get tested again.

By the time I’m released, my first doctors have left for the day. The drugs and referrals they promised have evaporated. I mount the old bike as the daylight wanes. The children have abandoned the bridge, and I pedal slowly across alone. The perpetual onrush doesn’t slacken. The windshields are blank. Towers downtown recoil from the last sunlight, splashing it back into the unsettled air where it drifts toward yellow dissolution. Night is coming. Children are dressing as monsters.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Travelogue 246, October 28
A Close Call

Sunday morning, I take a spill. Urban cyclists are used to these petty disasters. If we’re a jittery sort, skittering along the margins of the road like water bugs, it’s because we’ve become too familiar with peril.

Minnesota autumns are capricious as Sunday drivers. This morning, it brings our first snow, and with it a powerful wind that throws stinging ice into my face. The snow melts on impact, streaming across the wet street, and within minutes my ass is soaked from the jet of icy water from my rear tire.

I’m meeting friends for breakfast downtown in a place called Hell’s Kitchen. It takes out-of-towners to re-acquaint us with our own towns: I’ve never heard of this place. It’s a basement-level orange novelty, furnished with gospel music – literally. Onstage a gospel duo belts it out for the brunch crowd. The combination makes for indigestion, I can tell you: the garish colors with eggs benedict with lounge gospel. Nevertheless, I’m present, wet behind seated on the chair and ice-blown hair standing on end.

Back on the bike, full and cold, I’m cruising along Ninth Street toward home. A van slows as he approaches an intersection, preparing for a turn. I’m past the corner where I assume he’s turning, but he has his eye on the driveway into a parking lot and suddenly swerves in front of me when I’m about five yards away. I grab the brakes, but calculate that I can’t stop in time. I can at least soften the impact, turning as I brake. He finally sees me and halts. I’m able to stop, but so hard that the bike starts to upend, and I execute a little bicycle pirouette on the front tire, managing to stay upright at last by planting one foot ankle-deep in an icy puddle.

The funny thing about this little episode is that the only other car on the road is being piloted by an old friend, Marc. Across the street, a guy is opening his driver’s side door, and I figure it’s just a Good Samaritan checking on us. But as the van driver emerges and begins a meek apology, I’m recognizing my friend. I cross over and we have a good little catch-up. All’s well that upends well.

A few days later, I visit Roxana at work. I want to see the ‘Day of the Dead’ exhibit. She works at Centro, a cultural center for Twin Cities Hispanics. It’s a beautiful exhibit – and even more beautiful for me because Roxana and one of her pre-school teachers has very thoughtfully constructed an altar for Hannah, the Ethiopian girl who died last summer.

The altar is stunning, not only beautiful as art, wonderful and awful to contemplate – fleeting as life, built for a day of memory, – but somehow it radiates compassion. It captures a love for this girl, whom no one here has met, so strongly that the woman standing next to me murmurs a question, ‘Who is that?’ and says she thinks she’s heard of Hannah. Is it cheesy in this day and age to wonder aloud whether love has this kind of power, some charge or blood to it that crosses over?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Travelogue 245, October 12
Fear and Trembling

So maybe Angst IS the unifying field that Einstein sought, the force that links the Big Bang to anti-matter and lucky charms.

We stagger about on our weekend break from one of the biggest free falls for Wall Street on record. Everyone has a look of panic about them. Who was ever secure in the current corporate climate? But now that it’s clear that jobs will be evaporating like dew on a summer morn, we’re all stricken by the shadows of monsters.

What looked and felt like an historic presidential election suddenly has a whiff of the Absurd about it. Clearly neither man has any clue what is going on or how to stop it. And even the comedy that is Sarah Palin palls. (At the mention of Palin, my students all chuckle cynically. Hmm.)

Last week, I experienced an odd little footnote to my apartment switch. I walk out the back door of my apartment building in the early morning. I’ve gotten used to heading to work while it’s still dark out. A part of my tired brain takes note of a figure leaning against the corner of a small garage structure in the alley, his back turned to me. I know what kind of neighborhood I’ve moved into; I write him off as a drunk slumped against a handy wall.

I approach the drunk. I sniff. The figure whirls around and it’s a cop with a handgun trained on me, two steady hands wrapped around the handle. The hole in the muzzle is set on my eye. The cop leans heavily into the wall. He’s a short man, sturdily built. His eyes are dilated with intensity. If I were to be shot, it would have happened before I saw the blacks of his eyes.

‘Where did you come from?’ he shouts. I live here. ‘Go the other way!’ He shouts that several times, his aim never wavering. I take his advice and back away.

The strange thing is, I’m unmoved by the episode. I don’t think my pulse even fluttered. Is it knowledge that death would have been instantaneous? By the time both of us had registered what was happening, danger had passed. I doubt that I could have been that astute. Is it my familiarity with guns in East Africa? Never was one drawn on me that suddenly in Africa. Or rather than that, maybe it’s the constant tension during the Ethiopian years, like a low-frequency current of danger. Or perhaps it was just too sudden at too early an hour for any normal reflex.

The knights of infinite resignation have taken over the movie theaters. Ridley Scott, master of Blade Runner, releases a film featuring Leonardo with brown contacts and supernatural resilience under torture. The message seems to be that the world is trapped in a Zoroastrian struggle between high-tech ignorance and intelligent but feral primitives. Somehow the moral high-ground is surrendered to the blood-thirsty dwellers among rocks and open-air markets.

Find at the same theaters a film starring a thin and doe-eyed boy named Shia, whom my female students find dreamy. He finds himself in a similarly perilous battle between forces, though in this case encased in one rather unappealing entity, which I won’t reveal to the reader. But again, we’re a curiously childish, high-tech race in the thrall of a ten year-old’s strident morality.

We people on the pavement look on, going without the petrol, and cursing the bread, working out our salvation, dodging bullets in our dread.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Travelogue 244, October 1
Half a Game Away

I found a place to live. Things were getting desperate at Luis’s. I was able to move into my new place two days after finding it, and it’s just on moving day that a fist-sized hole opens up in the ceiling of my room at Luis’s, dumping a bucket’s worth of rancid water on the floor.

I move into a neighborhood called Elliott Park downtown. It’s just across the 94 from downtown and, as you see in the photo, offers me a romantic view of city lights through my heavily-shuttered windows. They are heavily-shuttered because the neighborhood is not the most upscale. One day, coming home in mid-afternoon, I spot a very large black man mounting a very large white woman in quaint, prehistoric style in the grass just below my windows.

The place is roomy and pleasant. The truth is I’m paying too much, but after five years of couch-surfing (at least stateside), I feel comfortable choosing comfort. And still, the weather accommodates bicycling. Every chance I get, I jump on the old steed and race through downtown. I cross over the highway, I pass the Metrodome, I head for the Mississippi.

1987: It’s my second time in Minneapolis. The first time, I fled approaching winter, running off to Frisco. This time I’m determined to weather the long, cold months. I’m temping to survive. One of my first jobs stations me in the loading docks of the Star Tribune downtown, selling Homer Hankies. The Twins have won the pennant race, and are going on to the World Series. Excited locals are rushing out to buy up the little red and white hankies, despite the cold. I clearly remember flurries during those days. Twins fever was high; temperatures were low. Black Monday dropped its bomb and scurried off into history, leaving everyone to scratch their heads. The Twins won it all.

October, 1991: I move back to Minnesota, this time from New York City, just in time to see the Twins head back to the World Series. Spirits and hankies high, Minnesotans celebrate another historic victory, according to some the best World Series ever played. And a few days later, Minneapolis was smothered in the famous Halloween snowstorm. I was working overnights in the group home. I emerged at dawn into an eerie and silent city buried in white. Buses were buried; I walked home several miles through the snow, the town a ghostly wreck.

Just a week or so ago, I’ve claimed my bar stool at Grumpy’s on Washington Avenue. I’m grumpy myself tonight because they have an events menu, and my favorite tuna melt isn’t on it. The event that pre-empted my melt is unfolding just two blocks away in the Metrodome. The Twins have been closely trailing the White Sox all season in the contest for division title, and now with the season’s end in sight, we have a crack at the White Sox here at home. We’ve won two of the three games, and tonight could put us ahead. I’ve enjoyed this season. The team is young and spirited. I can’t help wishing them a shot at the playoffs.

The first pitch of the game has just taken flight when a noisy trio bursts into the bar. There’s a tall guy with sarcasm etched indelibly into his long face. There’s a heavy guy with a ghetto blaster on his shoulder. He can barely walk, but every few steps he lets out a whoop. There’s a blonde in a tight blue bikini and a fur cap. They take positions at the bar and issue random war cries. The large guy tries to balance the radio on his shoulder and almost pitches backward off his stool.

The game goes ten innings. The bar is crowded with excitables, though bikini girl has vanished. The air is dense with anticipation and blood-alcohol condensation. When the Twins claim the victory, the bar erupts in cheers. Within minutes, fans are streaming in the door from the Metrodome.

I mistakenly think the contest is decided that night: the Twins are going to the playoffs. But then I hear that the White Sox have an extra game to their season to even it up. Sure enough, over the next week, both teams lose two, win one, and the Sox win their last game. The two teams have to meet one more time, in Chicago. I’m teaching an evening class, and can’t get out until the seventh inning. Craig and I make it to Manning’s just in time to see the last pitches to the Twins in the ninth. The last one is a pop fly to center field, caught by a jubilant Soxer in a sliding dive, and it’s over. No one says a word at Manning’s, but turns back to table companions with a sad shrug. Half a game!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Travelogue 243, September 30
Evoluting Man

We’ve been around a while, and I have proof. Not proof in hand, held by opposable thumb, but proof in the brain – passing the reptiles in the left lane, gaining on mammalian and monkey – proof in the lobe of the brain that preserves pretty pictures in grey amber.

7.17 They stand silently and humbly in a green plain, a decaying circle suspended in Big Time, where the solstices ring like hours. We the creators can’t hear Big Time.

Mark and I have taken the train west out of London. We’re visiting a teacher in Salisbury. Her husband has the day off because of a strike, and he takes us for a drive, speeding down curving lanes that can barely accommodate two European-size cars. Whenever a car appears coming the other way, we have to swerve under the trees, half onto the shoulder. But it doesn’t mean Gareth slows down.

We arrive at the place suddenly. The old priests are not very tall. They don’t dominate the landscape – even a landscape as bare as this one. It’s an odd little site. Humans have built the road, a major thoroughfare, right next to it. And they have enclosed the old ones in chain link fences, encircling them with little footpaths. They charge visitors to enter. Gareth refuses for all of us. He’s correct in saying that we can see the stones almost as well from outside the compound and save ourselves some dosh. Gareth is tall, so he takes a few shots for me over the barrier. Then he demonstrates how to shoot through the diamond-shaped spaces of the fence.

It’s a holy site. We’ll never know why, except that some pious pagan families started burying their dead there. But there are no distinguishing characteristics to the spot. Is that the very logic that led our hirsute ancestors to haul massive stones across miles of western England – just to liven up this bland bit of green space? Or maybe the henge commemorates the unique degree of unremarkability. Either way, they did it, adding ditches and blocks of bluestone or sarsen for over a thousand years, the last touches put in place a good 1,500 years before Lord Caesar ever set foot in Britain.

Now we can stop in storefronts for God. No lights or shadows line up at the solstices but maybe that’s more comfortable anyway. Our gods don’t need to show off.

A quick poll of my Ethiopian staff reveals that most of them do not believe in evolution. ‘We come from God,’ they say, wrinkling their noses at the idea that we come from monkeys. How can Westerners buy that guff?

OK, but what about Lucy? Humans first stood on two legs in Ethiopia. Shouldn’t Ethiopians be the preeminent advocates for evolution? Lucy’s not a monkey, they’ll point out. She’s three foot tall and hairy, I retort. There’s more than a family resemblance here. Chimps are genetically 99% human. No, my staff says. They can be family, but not mom and dad.

Maybe the Ethiopes are closer to Big Time than Westerners. Shades of distinction don’t register. Life is a few major keys that resonate across the centuries. Before the big notes were sounded lurks a lot of matter that doesn’t matter.

Then again ... somehow Johnny Cash comes up in one of my Minnesota classes, and about half of my students said, ‘Who?’ and I was crushed. It’s one thing to dismiss a few bands of unusually smart apes in the Rift Valley some fifty thousand years ago, but the Man in Black?

I’m explaining fiction and stories. I want examples of movies that everyone can relate to. The movie shouted out almost universally is ‘Lion King’. (Big pause …) ‘Okay. Lion King. Who’s the protagonist?’ Simba. Right. And the setting? Picture yourself wandering the wild savanna….

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Travelogue 242, September 21
Notes for a Season

Those flighty calendar numbers trip along forward: it’s autumn. The sun was out all week; everyone was in shirtsleeves. The cicadas are still singing. I logged lots of miles on the bicycle, until I got a flat in back. It’s time to take my soul mate in for an overhaul, true the wheels, spice up the brakes. She’ll be ready for some sweet city sailing for the last few pleasant weekends.

Yesterday I got to fly over the new bridge. It opened up mid-week, and I’ve been eye-balling it from other bridges. It’s white and sleek, and the cars coast across it like marbles along a gentle, curving track. I’ve had occasion to bike over the highway that feeds it. Seeing the cars stream by was comforting in a life-goes-on kind of way. Rather a silly reaction to one more day’s mass commute and the restoration of concrete, but there you go. I drive over it smiling, recalling lots of other days compacted into one blurry picture: swing over toward the University exit while stealing glimpses of the Mississippi, the foliage of its banks, and the mute old structures of Academe.

9.13 I’m so tired it’s painful. The body and mind are aching. I must keep moving. This morning, I’m invited into special places. I’m going to the University Club in St. Paul. That’s the beautiful and historic building that commands the eastern end of Summit Avenue, an avenue that functions like a museum of St. Paul’s nineteenth-century aristocracy. It stands on a bluff that overlooks the cathedral and downtown.

At midnight the night before, the lights are on all over the house. Luis is working on the plumbing. I’ve been up late every night this week, and I want to be awake for the University Club brunch. But Luis is working on some ganglion of pipes located beneath my room. It takes nearly until two in the morning to bang something into place.

Some critical conduit has escaped its punishment. At 7am, there’s no hot water. There’s only a trickle of cold water in the tub. I’m alone in the house and disoriented. Am I in America? No matter: I revert to Ethiopian methods. I crouch down in the tub to gather water in my hands like early man in a porcelain jungle. I splash cold water over my head.

Outdoors is more watery refreshment in the form of a chilly rain. The streets of St. Paul are desolate. I stop at a health-foods chain and have healthy espresso with healthy yogurt. I cling to the waking state, so similar this morning to an ebbing state of shock.

The brunch at the University Club celebrates twenty years for Books for Africa, a large St. Paul charity. Standing in line for the buffet and sitting together at round tables in the beautiful gallery are about one hundred local worthies, donors and board members, representatives from partner agencies, and visitors from Botswana, Tanzania, Togo, and Senegal. At my table is the ambassador to the U.S. from Tanzania. An alarming number of people at my table have climbed Kilimanjaro. They compare figures in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they raised for charity by arranging junkets to the famous mountain. I don’t say a word.

I’m introduced to a group just back from Malawi. Much praise of Malawi is tossed among new acquaintances, and I can’t be sure but I think I’m witness to a school being born there during a two-minute exchange among strangers.

The mayor of St. Paul addresses us, a tall and amiable man, fresh from hosting the Republican Convention, and looking no worse for wear. He speaks simply, sincerely, and well, without notes. The founder of Books for Africa speaks, an ageing Brit with wild hair and a bow tie. He accepts a check for ninety thousand from a guy in sandals who was standing quietly among the Malawi crew earlier. He could be the bass man in a surfer band. Instead he raises thousands of dollars re-selling college textbooks for charity, and he travels the world. Next at the podium is the ambassador, speaking with gratitude and a gentle humility that is as refreshing as an evening on the savanna.

I survive the morning, and what’s more, I have enough residual consciousness to register pleasure. ‘What nice people’, I muse as I doze off on the highway home.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travelogue 241, September 17
For Hannah

A breach of blog conduct, I suppose, to publish a poem, but my students tell me that poetry is the language of emotion. They can’t cite a reason for that, no matter how I browbeat them. In the end, I just have to give in.

Here’s a poem for Hannah:

She’s seven when she dies.
At the school we are shocked to silence.
Her mother hadn’t told a soul

while the girl lay helpless
in the one room, on the one bed,
sweating out a life into the mattress,
sodden straw underneath the soiled sheet,

her last sight spent on mud
walls and floor one window
only dimly illuminates,
no moment’s eye allowed
for lasts, for friends, for farewells.

She features on the head of a penny
now, settling through one sleepy stratum
of water into another, sight bleeding
into the green of blindness.

And also tossed, mels spinning a copper
shade of fertile clay, she spies a barren crystal
distance, she spies with delighted eyes.
She drifts unseen, flown alone too far.

Imaye! Mother: the egg-white tenderness
of sight won’t see. It’s a furious blindness
That notes only the yellow hills.
Children are skipping ghosts,
late for the harvest.

Two hues converge in grey,
and sorry to have lost them both,
long as living we look and we look.

A child has died.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Travelogue 240, September 11

Happy Ethiopian New Year! Perhaps the relentless prattle about the Millennium will ebb in Ethiopia, like it eventually did here, … leaving what? A residue that chafes like Sarah Palin’s voice, like the nasal whinging of tall, unblinking birds tied to microphones? Is that the new millennium? Maybe the year 2000 wasn’t so bad.

Let’s call him Jim. He lingers after class today. This is my first session of the day for three days a week. The students are a good bunch, if a bit sleepy. My pedagogic strategy is simply to overwhelm them with good cheer. I know that’s not strictly fair, but what is fair in love and war is doubly so within the precincts of schoolhouses. The students blink at my bright smile painfully as if they share the same brown hangover. They glare at me with grim skepticism.

Jim lingers by my side, and he turns his face away from the few other students who are still packing up their backpacks as he murmurs, ‘Can you help me?’ Jim is a young white kid with close-cropped hair, a round ruddy face, and a big, sarcastic grin. He’s one of those guys who gather in twos in threes in class, issuing comments like breath, comments that are actually funny. They leave class and work on cars, watch violent movies, and plan the next kegger. They scare novice teachers, but a glance at their work shows they’re doing just fine. Banter is class participation.

It seems Jim isn’t too comfortable on computers yet. Can I show him how to use email? I sense his embarrassment: Minnesota boy, descendent of farmers, maybe very recently, born to an age in which it must be excruciatingly isolating to not understand the hum and sizzle of our type-and-talk boxes.

It’s a teacher’s moment, the time to turn squarely toward the student and drop the role. It’s human to human, and what teaching is all about. Of course I’ll help, but I have two more classes right after this one. We can meet after the last class or any day this week. He shyly says he’ll stop by my office. I hate to let him go. He’ll drift out and into the day of every day deferrals. People who can help say some day, and that’s the way of the world. That’s what his resigned steps say.

We’ve seen another movie. It’s a vehicle for Nicholas Cage, and that’s what it is. There’s a passable story. The production is attractive, if a bit blue. Blue like someone forgot to take off the ‘moonlight’ lens. Maybe it was just the print. Many shots are beautiful. The lead character, a moody assassin, is suitably haunted and solitary. Romance has been loaded into its chamber. But we slam into that ‘vehicle’ problem before the weapon is out of its holster. The actor’s posing is the preeminent motif, swallowing whole the character. The film swallows its own romance and dies heart-sick, much as the character is doomed to fail in an anticlimactic (no matter how explosive) way. Why do so many movies leave one with this taste? Good idea, good start….

There’s another boy’s face in my mind’s eye. That’s Abiyu. His features are teenage lopsided. He’s tall, and his feet and hands are outsized, as is his nose. His hair is untrimmed. He wears the same old flannel shirt against the cold of rainy season. His feet look to never have felt the embrace of shoes. He has a sunny, unpredictable smile. His deer’s eyes are deep and unflinching and friendly. But often they are turned away focused on nothing, sight abandoned in favor of long daydreams. I wonder what the dreams are.

8.5 Menna and I arrive in Bahir Dar on graduation day, and there are no hotel rooms available. We hire a bajaj to drive us from hotel to pension to hotel. At one stop, we are mobbed by boys, from small and scruffy to tall and unshaven. What they share is their calling to the noble occupation of hospitality. They hang off the sides of the bajaj as the driver yells at them and tries to pull away. That’s how badly they want to serve.

We ask Abiyu to come along and help us find a room. Eventually we do find one, and we hire Abiyu for more errands. Over the next few days, he proves to be a big help. We have a lot to get done. He comes with us out to Gobame.

‘What do you think of Gobame, Abiyu? What do you think of the school?’ He shrugs. He’s not a boy of many words. Only one time he’s chatty. He tells us Bahir Dar is tenth in Africa. Tenth what I don’t know. He says Bahir Dar’s famous Lake T’ana is 83,000 feet deep. He loves his region. He wants to know where I’m from, and he guesses England right away because I speak English. He never comes up with America because he doesn’t know what language Americans speak.

Abiyu is proud to be graduating high school next year. We want to help him. We offer to pay tuition if he wants to study in Bahir Dar, but he loves his little village of Debre Tabol. He says everyone there is so clever. Some farmers have tractors. We tell him we want him to work for us some day. He doesn’t even seem to hear. He’s daydreaming about Debre Tabol.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Travelogue 239, August 31
Off the Shoulder of Orion

8.29 Back on the home planet, midday is a descent into chaos. The week of arrival has accelerated to this point, where days are choked with detail and sleep is a weightless stone skipping along the surface of a shallow lake. Email has been a terror, visiting regular reversals on me from abroad, sudden knots in every thread, negotiations breaking down, feckless changes of heart, money appearing in the wrong accounts. Then I leave an expensive textbook and a surprisingly complete compendium of important papers in a lavatory at the college, hours before the holiday weekend begins.

This is my break from the break-down: I go for a bike ride. Cycling has always been my meditation, my peace. It’s one of two sure ways to shut off the mind.

The day’s going to end. It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does? Say that in the voice of Edward James Olmos and pedal for the river. Pedal as though time doesn’t matter. You recall that most of the Washington Avenue Bridge’s pedestrian level has been closed off – an effect of last year’s bridge collapse – so you veer off toward the university’s other pedestrian bridge. It’s a high and delicate structure, one of those leftovers from the railroad era. It’s painted maroon, one of the U’s colors, and its entrances are hidden away, accessible only off minor roads.

I coast along the span alone. I’m taken into the embrace of beauty, and I feel like I’m gliding. There’s a distinct and remarkable scent of lavender in the air. I can’t imagine how it wafts this high above the river. The several clouds in the west are lit in the hue of lavender. Their reflections hover vaguely on the peaceful waters of the river. Ripples on the surface capture last light in gold sparks. Windows downtown capture streams of the same light, but hold them more successfully, glowing with their heat.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, says Hauer in the murderer’s tenderest way. Suddenly, the world is a place made of beauty. It’s the purpose. The disasters melt away. The old cliché blossoms like a tiny margarita in the heart, saying all the irritations along the road are worth arrivals like this. (How many times have I rejected that homily? Pain pays for another moment? Pain, the thing that consumes all else? Mathematically, it must be impossible to defend that happy notion.)

The other sure route to sanity is through movies, and I’ve seen quite a few already since my arrival back on the home planet. We took in the latest Woody Allen, a piece much concerned with beauty, as most Allen bits are: the beauty of sex and love nurtured in hothouses of unexplained wealth. We go to Spain; we drift through garden-like Barcelona; we are witnesses to very good actors being pressed to elucidate Passion with every sultry and every fiery move in their repertoires. I come very close to inspiration.

Real inspiration has to wait.
8.31 Crises lose their momentum, borne down by their iron masks of gravity. Still, I can’t manage the Herculean task of sleep. The string of erratic minutes stretches on. I’m counting these rough and lumpy beads with calloused fingers, this rosary of tiredness – as ugly as my clashing string of metaphors.

A few vodkas at Andre’s and I’m soaring. But it’s the movie that does it. Inspiration takes flight. It’s the director’s cut, and it’s everything right about movies. The script is tight. The images, tinted by the haunting soundtrack, are revolutionary in their dark glamour. They’re revolutionary for the time, anyway, and still poignant, though some of the effects have aged in the wrong way, like Lucas wine.

All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. The movie, like the span of the elegant bridge, like the fire of vodka awakening tired nerves, finds its ending. Sean Young is hustled off to the best-not-mentioned rest of her fictional life, or the even-better-not-mentioned rest of her career. And still I can’t sleep. Instead I celebrate: abandoned to my dusty, silent room at the edges of twenty-first century Minneapolis, forgotten by beauty – I can still celebrate beauty. Maybe it will shine a beam in the direction of android dreams.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Travelogue 238, August 28
Oh Zion

8.8 The gari ride up to Giorgis is a bit rough. It’s on a hill, as churches often are, and the last quarter mile is a tough slog through mud and over dispiriting bumps and rocks. Gari horses in Mojo are underfed and scarred from the crude twine whips and the continual chafing labor, and ours looks especially mistreated. A few hundred meters short of the goal, he comes to a halt in a stew of mud and, tossing his head, he takes a few steps backward, resigning to the weight of the gari. Rather than submit the poor beast to more cruel snaps of the whip, Menna and I get out and walk the rest of the way, joining Malaku and Salam at the church gate.

The head priest is fasting and is confined to the church yard for sixteen days, so we have to go to him in order to continue negotiations. We’re ready to sign an extended lease for the property on which we operate our school, property owned by the church. Last week, I visited the school and saw huge potential where now there is a trampled dirt and grass field and a short row of shabby mud-walled rooms. There’s space. There’s need. All the project needs is time and work.

We start negotiations right away. The scene last week is a pleasant afternoon at the empty school, the sun straining through clouds. We’ve brought a table and chairs out onto the narrow, raised concrete platform in front of the classrooms. Malaku, Menna and I sit on one side of the table, and the church committee on the other. Two of them do most of the talking, sitting with their backs to the wall and gazing thoughtfully over the schoolyard. First is Ato Dagu, a shrewd old man with an amiable smile and a calculating eye. He used to be a school director himself, and he’s a lay member of the church committee. He mediates in this discussion, slipping into rudimentary English from time to time. He compensates for the head priest’s stubbornness and lack of business sense.

The head priest is also an old man, and he is a hard man, as most Orthodox priests are in this country where brimstone sells the most candles and where most priests are dirt poor. He’s lean, and his eyes are flinty. He wants to argue, persistently posing fiscal riddles that defy logic or sums. But he backs down under the influence of Ato Dagu’s gentle reason.

The old men play weary, but as the strong Mojo sun descends into the top leaves of the eucalyptus behind their little schoolhouse, it’s clear that they could debate until midnight.

Today, we enter the square churchyard, square church at its center and squat family mausoleums lining the interior walls, turning their lugubrious faces toward God’s house. The head priest emerges from a dark doorway. His dark eyes focus on no one. He holds up his large, flat bronze cross and everyone but me kisses three corners of it in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. We sit on an unanchored concrete bench under a small eucalyptus. The bench rocks if you lean forward, and when I get bored I distract everyone by rocking forward.

The talk goes on for a while, as Malaku and Menna guide the priest through the contract – consisting only of ideas we’ve already discussed – and chase after the priest’s every fly ball into far left field. They dispute and the priest listens impassively.

I take a walk around the church. I pause before the fresco on one wall of St George slaying the dragon. I try to read the inscriptions in Geez or Amharic around the central figure. I can decipher some of it. I find ‘Tsion Tserah’, the name of our school, written above. A diminutive Satan rides the dragon’s tail. ‘Satan’ is written next to him in Geez script, in case the red skin, fangs, and horns aren’t tip-off enough.

It’s mid-afternoon. Children are entering the schoolyard by twos and threes, staring at the faranj with their priest. They play for a while, running up and down the stairs of the bell tower. Then they settle in a circle not far away. Girls in the lead, they begin to sing traditional church songs, some of them in surprisingly strong and confident voices. They sway with their hands open in their laps in supplication. They often look toward us to make sure someone is watching.

The leading girls whisper. One runs off to a room across the churchyard. She emerges with a drum as tall as she is. Now the girls take turns slinging the massive drum over their shoulders and pounding in time to the church songs. Their frequent glances back at me make me laugh. I make sure to pay them my best and most appreciative attention.

Finally, the priest agrees with the barest of nods and barest of shrugs. We all rise, and trade gestures of respect and farewell. He ambles toward the girls, a suggestion of gentle affection in his spare and hard frame. For a moment I like him. The garis are waiting for us, and we bounce on back down the hill. The warm Mojo sun is hanging over the winter green hills that lie in the direction of Debre Zeit.

Events prove the visit to church to have been futile: Ato Dagu eventually backs out, just as signatures are due. He’s uncomfortable talking about anything as distant as five years away. God knows is what we all say when we find out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Travelogue 237, August 25
Mad Heroics, Part Two

6.10 So there I am in my guest’s couch bed in Brooklyn, my notebook in my lap, and my eyes are wide circles of surprise, pupils dilated in shock, while adrenaline flushes all peace from my delicate system. It’s nine o’clock, and I have just discovered that my much-anticipated and much cherished appointment at the New York UNICEF offices is one hour away, roughly 25 hours earlier than I’d expected when I opened the notebook. Consulting the notebook was supposed to be nothing more than a ritual to dispel shadows of anxiety, so that I could return to the uncompromised sunlight of my flying dream.

I leap out of bed and stand at its side, quickly outlining a strategy: make the bed, wash up, dress – ten minutes; run to Eastern Parkway – five minutes; hail a taxi – one minute; bite my nails in New York traffic – half an hour? I mobilize.

I’m at Eastern Parkway. I’m stalled. I do not see a taxi anywhere. I consult with the two cops guarding Yahweh. They smirk, and they say, ‘You’re out of luck, pal.’ What am I going to do? ‘Call and say you’re late.’ Right. I pace for two precious minutes at the head of the subway stairs, knowing that network coverage dies a few yards down. I craft my plan.

Down I go. I stand at the platform edge anxiously for ten minutes. I ride for ten more, counting the station stops. At Bowling Green, the first stop in Manhattan, I leap from my seat and bound up the stairs to daylight. Streetside, I dial the UN, holding up my hand to hail a taxi. ‘Just crossing the Brooklyn Bridge’, I say. ‘Traffic is awful.’ Ah, traffic, the handy bugaboo of modern life. It’s a worldwide excuse. It even works in Ethiopia. As a boss there, I hear it all the time. Fourteen dollars and eighteen minutes later, I’m stepping onto the curb in midtown, underneath my favorite green monolith, the one with that wonderful forties’ swoop to the roof of the lower front building. I breathe deeply of the wonderful, sooty city.

The meeting is forgettable, predictably. But hey, I had an appointment at UN HQ. I stood on hallowed ground, below the collected flags of our crazy race. For a split-second, I was gathered into the dizzying, delusional, and beautiful solution to a world’s strife and pain; and then I was released, cipher again, onto the dirty streets of Great Gotham. I wandered happily toward Central Park.

8.25 Where’s the cape? In which box did I pack that little item? I have to dust it off, and swing it over my shoulders, the cape of superhero solace and comfort. The cape that will cover some of the wrinkles in my clothing from a prior life, that will mask the musk of man without bathing.

Re-entry into my personal Gotham has not been smooth. I return from my apprenticeship abroad to find things have changed at Wayne Enterprises, I mean the college. There are new faces. There are new buildings. The syllabi are not familiar. There are new books, new campus programs, and lots of technology built into courses. Catching up will be a lot of work. In the meantime, I have seven classes to launch.

Roxana has located the bat cave for me. There’s a house in Columbia Heights. It stands above all the tract housing on a steep hill, lowering from behind thick brush, looking much like the Bates Hotel. It’s a recent purchase by a young Peruvian couple. The husband is very handy, and that’s fortunate. I rent a room among the sawdust. At night I rock myself to sleep on the unique futon-couch combination that Roxana has discovered. It doesn’t unfold all the way, so when you roll over you tip the bed six inches. When you roll back, you tip it back. It’s very soothing. Outside the undraped window is a tall, whispering poplar. It’s watching me with bemusement. So are the squirrels and the stars. How does this represent evolution, they wonder. It’s a dusty, dioramic koan.

I’m back in Minnesota for two days, and it’s the first day of classes. Early in the morning, I shuffle through the sawdust to the bathroom, where I wash in cold water. I have body memories of Ethiopia. I dress in clothes that have been in storage for years. They itch. I climb into Todd’s car and back down the steep drive. All the way to Brooklyn Park, I wonder what I’ll say to my students. I’m eager as a little boy to hear the first words I come up with. They’re sure to be amusing.

It’s a sunny day for our first day of classes, and there are a lot of smiles on campus. There’s nothing like the first day of fall semester. It would be difficult to find purer distillations of optimism, unless perhaps one were to collect the lightning flashes of Obama-frenzy occurring around the world, chasing furtive sparks among shy liberals. I’m immediately fortified for my mission. The students’ faces provide the light and the fresh air of hope. They are fuel and inspiration. The first words come, and they are every bit as absurd as I could have hoped. Life is good.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Travelogue 236, July 25
Mad Heroics, Part One

I’m back in Ethiopia for three days when this urgent matter arises. At the end of a late afternoon meeting, Menna makes the call. I look over her shoulder as she scribbles a name and a number. ‘What?’ She quietly nods confirmation. I can’t believe it. There’s no time to waste. We grab jackets and we’re out the door.

‘This can’t be,’ I’m mumbling. ‘It only opened in London a few days ago.’ I’m warning Menna that it’s got to be a Hong Kong bootleg. She disagrees, saying things have changed in Addis.

We have a half hour to make it across Bole, and we can’t find a taxi. We’re desperately debating whether the regular taxis will get us there on time. I’m in a cold sweat already. We spot a contract taxi going the other way and flag it down. The driver is a young Rasta guy and we urge him to hurry. It’s an emergency.

He swerves down the narrow lanes of a short cut, spraying the rainy season’s mud among pedestrians, and emerging on busy Bole Road; hunching over the wheel and pushing the tiny Lada to its limit, weaving among the tight and fleeting spaces between shuddering blue taxi vans. ‘Onward, onward!’ I shout.

We arrive. Crowds are buying tickets. Crowds emerge from the dark hall. The smells from concessions are right. The correct poster hangs on the wall beside other recent releases. We take our seats amid the usual mayhem, mayhem resisted by one beleaguered employee with a flashlight that seats us in our assigned places. She barks orders for tickets while laughing crowds stream around her. This blithe stream continues on through previews and ten minutes into the show.

The previews are in grainy digital format, and I become very tense. It’s going to be a bootleg, I’m sure. But then the wide screen blossoms in vivid and crisp blue clouds of destruction. It’s the real thing, Bale and Ledger in Nolan-vision, acting out violent morality plays against the backdrop of end-time Gotham: barbarians-at-the-gates, rotten-to-the-core Western Empire ready to fall, the Western Emperor a child governed by overweight and conniving eunuchs, the imperial currency reduced to status of wallpaper in the provinces – certainly in Ethiopia. (Okay, I’m editorializing.) These are times to try a superhero’s virtue. The first thing we see our warped hero do is bare-handedly bend the barrel of a shotgun leveled at an underworld sort by a hero-impostor. Three evils won’t make it straight again.

Now I’ll digress.
6.10 It’s my second night in Gotham. I see a movie. I meet two old friends at a theater on 14th Street in Manhattan, and we see Zohan together: Adam Sandler heroically attempting to juggle dick jokes and a message of world peace. We enjoy it, indulging a taste for ten year-old boy humor that we have preserved and even cultivated for thirty-odd years. Afterward, we eat New York Italian in a suitably intimate grotto. I’m back at Grace’s late.

In the morning there are five isolated, blurry minutes when Grace leaves for work. A couple hours later, my mobile wrenches me from a dream of flying. It’s Lisa calling. Lisa is a New York writer who has visited our schools and wants to author a story about them. We agree on a meeting.

I lie back to doze in the roomy couch bed in Grace’s living room. I’m completely relaxed and content. I try to draw back the dream. My mind lazily wanders to my schedule. Tomorrow will be the highlight of the trip, my visit to the UN. I have a 60s schoolboy crush on that crusty old symbol of postwar hope. How many times, when I lived in New York, did I gaze up at the aquarium green glass above the East River mid-town and feel the lump of sentimental internationalism rise in my throat? My time has come: I meet with UNICEFers in the compound. Not THE UN building, but across the street.

I reach for the notebook in my bag. This is the audit. I have to double-check my schedule and make sure I am free this morning. ... Yep, you guessed it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Travelogue 235 – July 12
Don’t Forget Don’t

6.8 Approaching Prospect Park in Brooklyn, memories awaken. Why are old places like this, like black holes at the edges of the psyche? In their silence, they preserve secrets. And why do we keep secrets from ourselves? Mr. Freud, any comment? Right: he’s retreated into his own gravity well.

Crossing the event horizon, visions unfold. There’s the Brooklyn Museum, in the sober style of Gilded Age monuments, planetarium-like dome on top, stolid building brightened a bit by the new windows in front that offer glimpses of the current exhibit, art that looks like Willie Wonka meets Hello Kitty. Pass the library, leaping ahead a few decades in architecture, (art-deco prepares for Sputnik), and then back in time to Grand Army Plaza, that Napoleonic celebration of Civil War victory, noble arch commanding an unkempt traffic circle.

All this comes back from earlier days in the mysterious way of memory, like dipping one’s head below the surface of water and opening one’s eyes. I enter the park, and I know where I am. I know I’ll discover Park Slope to the right of the park. I explore: in the next few days, I’ll spend a lot of time wandering those brownstone blocks. This was my neighbourhood for a while during my New York years, living with Hillary in two rooms near the F line.

Yesterday we held an event to remember Leeza. It’s been five years. What does that mean? I hold her close to me to keep her in the light. I fight against advancing night, my own and the world’s.

The evening before the event, I’m putting together a power point of photos. I want these photos to reflect the big trajectory of five years, from Leeza to Ethiopia and Somalia, from Leeza to the children. I’m stuck on one image. We’ve discovered a forgotten photo of Leeza from the Tesfa archives.

Not long after someone dies, you have your stock of her images burned into your mind. The image becomes so familiar that returning to the physical version of it becomes like looking in the mirror. But then a forgotten image of her surfaces, and it’s like the silence immediately after an earthquake. There’s a tender leaf tremor to the world. And then it rains.

I’m lost that day, listening to old CDs from the era before I left for Ethiopia and rustling among the loose papers of the mind. I think I’m taking a break when I turn to another task: looking over the texts for classes I’ll teach this fall. It’s been five years since I’ve taught these classes. I expect something fresh, but I’m staring at pages that are familiar in a dusty way. It’s like entering a two-dimensional picture, expecting a fairy-tale unfurling of space, but instead becoming two-dimensional yourself. It’s all right. I know teaching is not about the books but about the moment-to-moment among people. I was just looking for something else.

That evening I find out that someone has died in a motorcycle accident. He’s a character from my east coast days, someone less than a friend, more than an acquaintance, one of those people who pop up in your life from time to time. The last time I’d seen him, he had survived some medical disaster that I can’t quite remember now. I think it was a heart attack. He survived to re-marry. She has survived him, though just barely, serving time in a hospital. The work of memory goes on.

There is this challenge in ageing, a kind of vertigo that comes of being one of the survivors. You become a thing with wings, gliding too high, watching the wind currents below, layers of them, spiralling and gusting, vanishing, rising again, colliding in vapours and agonies. You’re poised in a precarious moment, at the mercy of all that movement.

The next day is the event. People come together. They want to hear about the children. This has become something else, something bigger than me or Leeza, and that’s how it should be, one kind twist among the tireless currents of the air.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Travelogue 234 – July 8
Apple Hard Core

6.7 It’s off to New York, kids. Pack up the tender but unvanquished Shirt, which has a few notches on its silky sleeve now, meetings to showcase its winning charisma. Crank the AC, and let’s make our way to the New Jersey turnpike. Our goal is Exit 13, from which we wend our merry way to the towering Verrazano Bridge that links Staten Island to Brooklyn. But not before that long trek through Jersey, during which I discover that Phillie has the best classic rock station in the east. And not before we indulge in some Popeye’s chicken at a Jersey rest stop. Step out of the car into the furnace blast of east coast summer. Stare with everyone else at one of the TV screens, each one featuring Hillary as she concedes to Barack. (My vote is held in the balance, by the way, by that ‘c’ in his name.)

Thank God we have AC, kids, because we will spend one hour of the journey on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in traffic. But arrive we do, because arriving is what we do. Grace lives in one of the fun neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Crown Heights. Here, Hasids have settled in for the first coming. Bearded men in black suits and broad-brimmed, black felt hats take to the streets with women in long skirts and kerchiefs over their hair, pushing squadrons of strollers. Posters proclaim ‘Welcome’ to the Mossiach, and they don’t mean that silly boy Yeshu. Their speculative pictures show a pudgy man with a grey beard – Santa in a fedora.

And on the streets of New York they mingle with people of all other races. They mingle with the denizens of that other Crown Heights, the one centered a few blocks east, the one that’s slightly darker, on the average, in skin color. I don’t detect much love among these communities. The vigilance of the Hasid community patrols and the presence of cops permanently stationed outside synagogues tell a story of tension. But they live side by side, as they have for decades. That’s the charm of New York, after all, this rancorous peace among tribes.

That’s the charm – that’s the Herculean labor of New Yorkers. There’s a sense in this town of a monumental work being chiselled from rough human matter, and I mean WORK, in all its sweaty visuals. We will live together, they say, with gritted teeth.

The heat wave is cresting, and I take a run up to Prospect Park. I foolishly undertake a full circuit of the park. By the end of my loop, I’m weak and dizzy, drenched in sweat. But it’s such a beautiful and spacious city park, I couldn’t stop. People are everywhere: strong New Yorkers, on bikes or jogging, uber-menschen of a glorious (if earnest) future, gritting their teeth and saying, we will live together.

Riding the subway is a joy, despite – no, BECAUSE – of the dank smell of New York’s tunnels. There’s no other metro system that smells the same. I revert to old habits: I look for mice running among the rails. People are everywhere, brushing against each other, pushing, pushing with their shoulders and their voices, strong citizens of the future, setting their jaws as they say we will live together.

Barack with a ‘c’ made his famous speech about ‘A More Perfect Union’. “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.…It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.” I picture muscular New York standing in Times Square in its multitudes, grimly nodding yes, clenching their fists in time, murmuring we will live together.

And what have I done recently to celebrate this nearly perfect union? I was back in Minnesota for July 4, and I’m happy to say I took advantage of all the noise to sleep soundly. I thoroughly enjoyed the city’s long weekend, as I do every year when the hordes of sun-crazed families hit the highways to crowd the quiet corners of the state.

Lazily coasting on my bike through Dinkytown, the college sub-town in southeast Minneapolis, I’m persecuted and perplexed by one sole mosquito. It never lands. It hovers in one spot, radiating a sinister hum. Yes, I recall, today is the day, isn’t it? Today the wunder-engineers will be rejoining the two banks of the Mississippi, uniting the two strands of the new Highway 35 bridge in the midsummer air over the nearby river. And that growling beast of the air is here to record our moment. The bridge that fell only last year will stand again. We grit our teeth, and we say, we will have it so.