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.