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.