Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travelogue 311 – December 31
Last of the Oh's


It's the last day of the year and my second day in Ethiopia. Yesterday I adhered to a mild schedule, keeping appointments I could handle on very little sleep. I had arrived at Addis Ababa's Bole airport at 4 am.

Yesterday's joy was visiting our newest school, the one in the Mercato district of the city. This has been a project long in the dreaming and longer in the manifestation. Mercato, you might be surprised to find out, is the market district of the capital city, supposedly home to the biggest market in Africa. But what is fact is the pervasive poverty and squalor. It's a neighborhood that is hard on its children, crowded and dangerous, and lacking in resources to support the needs of the young. It's an old district, densely packed with mud shacks and market stalls. Finding space for a school was a laborious process.

The school is tucked away among a tight concentration of dirt roads and alleys. On Mondays, you have to squeeze and cough your way among throngs of trucks bringing wares to the markets. Inside the school compound, the courtyard is a peaceful well of brick and concrete. The children are arranged in rows of tiny chairs in the sun. The small building's porch is festooned with ribbons. Once we have arrived the program begins. That includes songs and dancing. The guests get to pass out candy to the children. The children are shy, quiet, almost sullen. Part of that is the culture; tradition dictates that children are respectful. Poor families are strongly traditional. The other part of their subdued behavior I surmise is malnutrition. Many are lethargic from being underfed.

Ethiopia has already asserted its farcical nature. Just today, the hot water and my stove have died. Staff that is supposed to escort me on my first run is late, and I leave without some of them. The taxi driver is pulled over for talking on his mobile, and we sit for twenty minutes while he confers with the cop. And Selam doesn't show up with the money I needed changed from dollars to birr, so I'm broke.

But the day moves forward and I'm smiling. We do make it up Entoto mountain at dawn, and I get a grueling run up above the city. We can see much of Addis Ababa from up there. Fog is creeping along the valleys, obscuring some neighborhoods, but most of the town stands peacefully exposed to our view, hardly seeming to add up to a major city.

We all stand on a mountain of sorts today. It's the last day of the year, and if it's not the end of a decade, it's the last of the oh's. It's been an exciting set of zeros. The world will never be the same, after our servitude to Bush and/or Bin Laden. And I've spent a majority of the aughts in thrall to my own strange mission, Leeza's mission. Here I am again in Ethiopia, even as the aughts dissolve.

It's on to the teens. Or back to the teens. One never escapes them, does one? Well, maybe I'll live long enough to see the Roaring 20s.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Travelogue 310 – December 28
Footie


There are two things I wanted from England right away: football and bitter. I arrive in England on Boxing Day. That's an ambiguous holiday. Boxing Day: what does it signify? Since it's the day after Christmas, I have half-thought it was the day when Brits put their gifts back in the boxes they came in. It would be properly British to set aside a day for putting their gifts in order. But in fact it seems to have been a day set aside for the servants. Send them home to their families, give them gifts and wish them well. Good for morale and all that.

I've arrived in Bath in late afternoon. Pey and her family have plans to visit Giles's parents, so I think I will be arriving to an empty house. I decide to stop by the old Ram for a taste of Britain. The only bitter they have is called 'Rolicking Rudolph' or something like that, unsuitably fey-sounding, but a bitter is a bitter. And it just so happens that a football match is just starting up: Liverpool meets Wolverhampton. Groups of middle-aged men start streaming in at game-time. Also entering, a young couple with an amusing bull terrier that enjoys stretching out in extravagant sleeping poses and uttering great sighs. Also entering, an old man with a mop top who continues talking to the bartender even when the bartender has moved on.

It might be a sign of my advancing age, but I watch more sports now than I could ever have imagined as a youth. I have entertained myself with American football all autumn, though really I have serious reservations about the sport. Half of the draw is the Favre factor, Brett having joined the Vikings and boosted them into high ratings and high hopes.

Now that I'm in transition, becoming an eastern hemisphere man for half a year, my attention swings back toward European football. My level of knowledge about the sport has really decayed, even though it was never much. Giles is appalled. I can't name one player on Tottenham's team.

It turns out everyone has been worried because of the terrorist who popped up in Detroit on Christmas Day, the same day I traveled. He wasn't the most impressive terrorist, it would seem, managing only to seriously burn himself. But Pey and family came home early, and I had a number of nervous emails to answer.

One travel corner rounded, today has turned out to be the most relaxing day in months. It started with a shock, when I saw the clock as I awoke. It was 1pm! And this wasn't a matter of lazy half-wakings and rolling over. I was out cold all night. I had a leisurely breakfast, and a few hours later I was out for a long run.

You can't stroll around the lovely town of Bath without stumbling upon the Avon River. Some two hundred meters away from the back of the train station, you'll see the old Kennet and Avon Canal breaking away from the river, turning off under a small stone archway. Beside the canal runs a dirt towpath, which is perfect for long walks and long runs. I'm restless after all the sleep, so I'm eager to log some real distance.

While the canal travels through Bath, you pass a few locks; you pass under cute little bridges; you dodge winter puddles and nettles, and still your legs are a mess before long, Passing under large roads, the path cleaves to a narrow ledge between the wall of the overhanging arch and the water. It gets quite dark in there, and you must take care for your ankles.

On the left, across the valley, you'll see Salisbury Hill. Eventually, you leave Bath proper and the canal veers toward the south. You enter a narrow, rural valley. The sky, already winter-contracted, seems to dim and concentrate even further. There's only the train track, the river, and you. The puddles become icy. The sun weakens. It's four o'clock, and the long solstice sunset begins. You should turn around, but the air is damp and fresh and invigorating. And there is the anticipation about what may lie around the next bend in the canal underneath the stoic hills.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Travelogue 309 – December 17
Stranded


I've had a run of bad luck this week. If I were to describe my bad luck with a color and with a scent, I would say color it like the glacier in my sinuses. I wish them all well in Copenhagen, but climate change has had zero impact on this particular glacier. It congeals at night until my head is about as dense as a bowling ball. In the morning, there's a spring thaw and I'm toppling china and books and bottles looking for tissue paper. The head cold is long gone; I'm working at full capacity at school, computer, and gym. But the sinus passages are completely blocked. Waking in the morning is like coming to consciousness after a night in a sulfurous marsh.

Color it white, but not the white of mucus. Make it crystalline white and odorless as a puff of breath on a winter morning. There's no sound to it. The block is hushed in the Arctic suspense. There is only a click. I turn the key again, but there's only a click. Let a big, vaporless sigh and admit you're stranded.

Color it white as the bars at the bottom of my computer screen that indicate connection. They should be green. I've devoted the day to my final push at grading. It sounds like someone's climbing up the side of the house. I don't see anything out the window. Nothing except a white car parked in front, its tailpipe steaming. There's a flicker inside one of the car windows. I walk around the house, checking windows. The car is in motion. Now it's in back. An arm swings out a partially lowered window, and in the hand is a camera. Click. He moves on. Next door, there's a cable guy fooling with black clusters of cable hanging from the roof. He says 'sir' with an oily smile. Things have gotten too weird at home, and I can't get my work done. I pack up and walk for the bus.

Life at the gym is good. Leg and lung are strong. I'm happy cultivating my new crush on Rachael Ray. I try to imagine her voice. The TVs are on mute, and I've never heard of her before I started at the gym. I log my hour on the elliptical. Rachael Ray says, “Let's consider the ellipse, Nature's circle. It took humankind to invent the circle. Nature is satisfied with the ellipse. Consider honorable Johannes Kepler, natural philosopher with a mind in Nature's imprint. Kepler understood that, as much as man wants constants, Nature abhors them. The grooves of planets will be stretched into gentle curves, and then wrapped around tight, accelerated turns, all dictated by the weakest but most unforgiving of the four forces governing this peculiar universe.”

Hallelujah, Rachael! I know imperfect shapes. I confront them every day – in the mirror, at work, and in my dreams. Can you see me now, describing seven-thousand of them with my feet? The body won't make circles, no matter what DaVinci or the whirling dervishes might imagine. At its most precise, it might make ellipses, just like the heavenly bodies from which we sprung. The term ellipse comes to us from Greek, from a word that means 'falling short'. That's what we do, Rachael, we fall short.

So today I sit stranded at a Caribou Coffee downtown, working my day into an imperfect shape. Determined to be cheerful, I take the bus downtown to do errands. I walk up and down Nicollet Mall, stopping here and there, carrying heavy bags. I go to the gym, and count off thousands of ellipses. Now, here I am. I sit near the window of the skyway, watching buses pass. Up above the buildings shine lights at each other in their windows, and display glowing reflections of each other. The sun is sinking quickly. I'm thinking the buildings want to tell us something with their straight lines and pure colors, but it will be night before we figure it out.

I have to be downtown again in the evening. I should go home first, but I don't think I can move again. I think I'll have to surrender peacefully to the fall of night right here. I'm discovering some virtue to sitting quietly while the world travels its elliptical course.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Travelogue 308 – December 6
Inside


Life retreats inside. I'm even running inside now, on most days of the week. I've traded the winding trail along the Mississippi River for the static view of Nicollet Mall outside the Y's big picture windows. I've traded the feel of the road under my feet for the unvarying support of the elliptical. Sad: it's a concession to age. 'Low-impact' was not in my vocabulary even five years ago. So I sweat and I watch the people walk by in heavy coats.

About a week ago, temperatures fell below freezing, and they haven't approached the thaw mark since. Just that quickly, the lungs and sinuses are robbed of moisture. The world is crackling dry.

So I run in one place, partaking of a single view. I breathe the uniformly humid air. My thoughts resolve into similarly static patterns. The word 'thoughts' falsely implies thinking. It's not really thinking. These 'thoughts' are default subjects and images. One entertains them with the same diffuse intensity as television. At most, they evoke nostalgia or the kind of momentary sadness that poses as profound feeling. Or one chews on notions that are like old gum, previously chewed and flavorless.

I have a slight cold, and the closed, stuffy air in my head seems to mirror the claustrophobic environment of the gym. There's a piquancy to the first winter head cold, like a seasonal aroma that awakens a fond memory, a feeling that feeds the sense that I'm having deep thoughts while I'm working on the elliptical. What mysterious brain chemical corresponds to nostalgia? One stands on a Minnesota hillock and feels as though one has surmounted Everest.

My banal thoughts carry on a dialogue with the three TVs mounted above the picture windows of the gym. The sad truth is, I can't resist watching. The only thing more powerful than my contempt for TV is my powerlessness to turn away from one. I always seem to come to the gym when Dr. Oz is on. Everyone applauds formerly obese people as they appear from the wings and stand next to images of themselves at full weight. Meanwhile, the mind stops at a few favorite stations in my childhood. It flits among them, and among heartaches. It flows along well-worn grooves toward aspirations once vital, now desiccated. The pain on the exercise machine suggests all sorts of past aches, while the mind strives after dreams of glory to compensate. On another TV screen, talking heads conduct one more discussion about Afghanistan – a place that seems to serve as a stand-in for all that is frightening in the unconscious among a variety of conquering nations in history. “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.” (Written about the Crimea, I realize, which exists in no one's unconscious, except maybe some retired apparatchiks.)

And as I enter the chilly shadow of another approaching departure, my mind darkens with anxiety and mourning. There are sudden panics about what I've forgotten. Involuntarily I ponder death. I'm haunted by endings, thinking of apologies I should make, thanks I should offer, and other sorts of last wishes. I'm missing things before they're gone.

'You're going to miss us, aren't you?' my students ask, not with an interrogative rise at the end, but with a falling syllable of certainty. They brandish sweet smiles, conspicuous for their absence through most of the semester. They ask what classes I'm teaching next semester. I tell them none, and they seem sad. “Ethiopia?” they ask, almost with horror.

Yeah, there could be nowhere farther from the downtown gym than Ethiopia. I'm trying to conjure up images of it while I clock 150 steps per minute on the elliptical. The images are slow to upload. I've said good-bye to the place under my feet, and can't even imagine the destination. It's like being suspended above the earth on pedals that simulate a running motion. Maybe if I pedal faster.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Travelogue 307 – November 24
Blue Fog


It's feeling like autumn today. There's a chilly fog suspended over the Twin Cities. I'm driving home from one of my colleges. I'm driving south on 94. The car is turned toward downtown, but there is nothing to see but a heavy grey sky, pushing the boundaries of the vacuous heavens down, trespassing into the realm of soil. There's no city today.

Fall wants to claim a title to sadness. 'I am the blue season. I approach close to the skin. I cloak the light and make humans turn on lights.' The highway is a trail of red bulbs one way and white the other. Autumn is a sallow, middle-aged man. His eyes are sometimes mocking, sometimes shot with elusive wisdom.

My mood resonates with Autumn's. I'm fresh out of an afternoon class in which I chewed out a student that didn't deserve it. The true cause of my ire was some bad news in the morning, mixing dangerously with late-semester fatigue. The student is actually one of my favorites – isn't that always the way? But he's a smart aleck and his timing of an innocent comment was unconsciously bad. I overreacted.

There are no excuses for a teacher. Responsibility descends toward the center with a kind of moral centripetal force. One person stands up front; many sit in the seats. Don't be fooled by an errant sense of fair fights. They will band together, and that's their right. Saying that is not succumbing to the trend of academic consumerism – the mindless bromide that is current: 'I pay your tuition'. No, it's a bow to the oldest of traditions: responsibility devolves upon on the one capable of bearing it. That thought is loosely akin to, 'Responsibility devolves upon the one appointed to bear it,' though there is not always a strict correspondence.

I can say, 'there are no excuses for a teacher,' in several languages and in a variety of tones. The tone depends on the season. Spring is sensitive, easily bruised. Things should be different, that season says. Summer is rebellious. Summer feels cornered by statements like 'there are no excuses'. The season of hot tempers lashes out, thrusting away the feeling of guilt. Extenuating circumstances, and all that. Actions are just the final, inscrutable signs of a long string of irritants, the ultimate knots among endless threads. In high temperatures, moral absolutes relax and seem to melt away.

But fall is the season of the harvest. It's the time we reap what we sow. The sap in the trees is in retreat. Ice is on the march, lining everything with its sharp edges. Doors and windows are shut; one's world closes in. It's the season of resignation.

So I drive on through the fog, feeling miserable. Responsibility and misery are close cousins. When one lives with responsibility, one lives with misery. You can't keep one and push the other away. You have to sit together in silence in the same small Honda together, all the way home.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Travelogue 306 – November 19
The Sky is Falling


I had the opportunity to watch the end of the world the other night. This was the famous Mayan prophecy made good by CGI and friends. It was good fun while it lasted – watching skyscrapers being tossed about like so many beans, monitoring the slaughter of billions while bad guys plotted and good guys wrung their hands. Volcanoes blew and oceans swelled. All quite grand.

Before I even get home, my mood had begun to sink. The adrenaline high of unrelenting action gives way to the grim subtext of the plot. On the ride home, the city seems very fragile. I seem blessed with special sight: I foresee the lifespan of the city's buildings, from their concrete-dust beginnings to the wrecking ball – either the city's or Mother Nature's. And my supernatural gift extends beyond man's creations. Crossing the river, I see the mighty Mississipp's growth pains. I see the messy St. Anthony falls before it was shaped. Every boulder has arrived in its current resting place in a fit of violence, in a spray of pulverized stone.

Now I have trouble getting to sleep. I'm suspended in a solution three parts grief and five parts anxiety. The mind is racing. It's the perfect prelim to nightmares. So I turn to George Eliot as a tonic. She lives and writes safely on this side of Armageddon and far across the ocean from the Mayans. The lives of all her characters and contemporaries run their course without one tectonic shift or catastrophic meteor collision or polar shift.

And why does it come as a kind of revelation that entire generations have lived in peace? These days, most of us have severe doubts that we or our families will pass quietly into old age and the soul's timely oblivion. No, there will be brimstone. There will be tsunamis higher than Mt Everest. There will be unconditional war with sentient machines, or with aliens. Or perhaps something less dramatic, like the seven angels' trumpets and Jesus returned.

I doubt there's been a generation that didn't delight in stories of the end. But maybe the generations alive now have an edge in the proliferation of apocalyptic nightmares. Speaking of my own education, I was raised in a time when it was taken for granted that humankind had the power to obliterate civilization with its weapons. And I've had the privilege to live into the age when the sane among us admit that we have undermined the very climate of the planet that sustains us.

My generation has grown up being educated that the universe was born from a Big Bang, and will eventually fall back into that furnace again. There is no eternity. We've been educated in the violence of planetary origins, tectonic theory, and the rather gory origins of life – rising out of slime, proceeding through bloody Jurassic Park, and on into Darwin's fierce world of struggling species. Maybe this is the root of Christian resistance to science: with every layer of violence, with every degree of impersonal magnitude, the throne of a loving God becomes more remote.

But doesn't this litany of violence reveal a large fairly large gap – or series of gaps – in our education? We learn history only by its tumults: its wars, famines, and disasters are the signposts. But how do we illuminate with some proportion the millions of long lives lived without tumult? We teach about the cataclysms of geological time, but how do we make real and relevant and interesting the nearly inconceivable spans of years between cataclysms? How do we learn to appreciate the tedious, boring lives of countless Tyrannosaurus Rex who died from the weight of their years, and never encountered aliens, Mayans, or flaming comets? How do we teach peace?

Friday, November 13, 2009


Travelogue 305 – November 13
Far Sight and Mad Dogs


I won't tell you how the novel ends. But the climax sort of rhymes with this little passage: 'Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence, I heard them crack.'

The climax of the story happens on Halloween. It's a day like today, I imagine. It's just about warm enough to be an Alabama winter. It's gloomy out. A fine mist is falling. The bare trees stand patiently against the season, without solace.

It's the trees that put the lie to the stretch of strange weather. Most branches are bare. The leaves left are an anemic yellow. It makes for an odd effect. Suddenly, there is new depth to the landscape. One sees through the walls of trees and sees space. The weather lulls the perceiving mind into expecting the same sights and sounds. It feels like September … but there's Christmas music at the Caribou Coffee. But the sun is setting at five. But when I take this corner I see across the river, when I didn't used to. I am disoriented by sudden sight.

In the news today: “The alleged 9/11 mastermind and four other suspects will go on trial close to where the Twin Towers fell.”

I have to copy a quiz for class today, and I've left no time to do it at school. I'm in no mood for work. After a nine-mile run on Wednesday, a sniffle and a cough have crept into my sinuses. I'm sleepy and lethargic.

Down on Fourth Street, you'll find one of the only remaining small businesses in Dinkytown, a printing and copy house. The owner is almost always there, a greying man with a diffident smile. We engage in a lazy small-town conversation while he is copying my quizzes. A lazy and personable conversation is very welcome in the barren psychological space that is this University of Minnesota college town.

He asks about the weekend. He says his Saturday will be the Gophers game and a nap. The U's football team has a new stadium. I ask him if that has inspired the team to great heights. No, they're just hanging on to slim hopes for a bowl game. And what with all the legal issues…. Legal issues?

In the local news
: ““Football player accused in assault of female student”, and “Gophers football staff member jailed on DWI charges.” Kids and their pranks.

So there's a mad dog approaching down the small town street. Everyone has retreated indoors, except Atticus. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent.' Atticus stands alone with a rifle.

In an interesting twist, it seems that the Republicans would rather that the masterminds of the 9/11 attack did not stand trial. They're not even tempted by the prospect of a line of Arabs at the entrance to the gas chamber. Why? Because a certain bogeyman made a promise to shut Guantanamo. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says bringing the suspects from Guantanamo into the US puts Americans "unnecessarily at risk"!

Mad dogs always trot straight forward, unconscious as zombies. Imagine two dogs who were enemies in life, trotting forward along the instinctual, invisible line, side by side, content in the righteousness of rabies, comforted by rage. Most of us rush indoors, and watch the dramas through the fog of our windows.

Sunday, November 08, 2009


Travelogue 304 – November 8
Our Wonderful American Amateurs


Harper Lee published one book in her lifetime. It won a Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller, and was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a 1999 poll by the Library Journal. It happens that I'm having one of my classes read the book this semester. The bookstore had extra copies, I had to assign some fiction, and I was familiar with it; so I assigned it.

This class is at the downtown college, and I am one of a small minority of white people in the classroom on any given night. It didn't take long for me to develop concerns as I prepped for lessons around this novel. The language is 50s American South. I deliberated; I considered dropping the book. But it's in the syllabus by now.

Instead I initiate one of those class discussions the thought of which makes me cringe. Group discussions of racism: an idea so revolutionary it was trite within weeks of its first enactment. What can I do? The surprise of this detour is the authenticity of the discussion. There is little discomfort. And no, there is nothing new said under the sun, but it's a subject everyone in the room can relate to. Willis in the back is middle-aged. He can say with a smile, without rage, that racism is something he experiences everyday. He describes the lady in the elevator who lays a protective hand over her purse when he enters. Oddly, the only one with no stories is the Native American, Mike, who advertises with eagle feather tattoos.

'Hey, guys, Scout grew up in a different time. It wasn't Obama's America. People said negro and colored, and they didn't know any better.' They nod blandly. 'I think we can handle it,' says the 18 year-old with the perfect Afro. He says it with a wink and a sardonic smile. Nice: we did that without professional facilitation. Sing an ode to native wisdom.

Harper Lee had a few advantages in life. She grew up next to Truman Capote. Me, I grew up next to a chubby Argentinian boy who liked to push me around. And now that I'm thinking about it, he stole my basketball. Harper probably would have picked on me, as well. They say she was a tom-boy. And she was an avid reader. I love that combination. Those are the only two things I want to know about her childhood.

It wasn't until her late 20s that she decided to become a writer, volunteering for an all-American dose of deprivation in New York City. She published a few stories, and more importantly she forged a friendship with musician Michael Brown, who offered her a year's salary to produce a novel. Whatever lucky breaks she had had up to that moment, now she had to produce. And she hit her home run.

Apparently one best novel of the century was enough. Her only subsequent appearance in the limelight was to become Catherine Keener for a junket into Kansas with her friend Truman. 'Quadruple murder, Harper; it'll be a lark.'

Yesterday was the Tesfa 5K at Fort Snelling State Park. The gods smiled upon us. They did more than smile. They showered us with sunny blessings: sunny and 60°. I leapt on my bike in the morning, eager for the race. Everyone who showed up was in fine spirits. It's the fourth year we have staged this race, but we're still beginners in the road-run business. It's happy chaos for an hour, but somehow we get everyone registered and to the starting line on time. I recognize a number of faces among the runners from previous years and from previous Tesfa events. We exchange encouraging words. The race begins, and the so does the pain. Fellowship and pain; are these the incentives for sacrificing a beautiful Saturday morning?

What about the those over-sized clocks at the finishing line? They seem to move us. How can it matter? This isn't London 2012. Let's face it: I'm struggling to beat the first-place dog in the race. The guy in front of me has a good seventy pounds on me. His pace is a roll. If any effort can produce a greater ratio of suffering to insignificance on Destiny's sonar screen, I am hard-pressed to come up with it. Yet, all our eyes are locked onto those digital numbers as we approach the finish line. There's little more important in those final instants.

I cross the line, another of America's glorious amateurs. I note my time, slower than last year's time. We head back to the park's pavilion to collect our awards.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Travelogue 303 – November 5
Noise in the Machine


Machines make noises. We shouldn't take offense. My bike is making a clicking noise now, since I took it into the shop last week. I have new gears and a new chain, so it clicks when I pedal. I take that as a healthy noise, like the hum of a tuned-up auto.

My car is another story. Things have happened underneath that I don't dare investigate too closely. The muffler has checked out long ago. Everybody in the neighborhood knows that. In addition, a pipe down there seems to have seceded from the union and hangs on a thread, lodged between a few other mysterious greasy parts down there – between the distributor cap and the rear bearing support bushing, I would say if you asked. I would say that because the names are melodious. And besides all that, the rear brake is making a scraping sound, too, especially on a cold day.

But the old Honda put-puts with extraordinary vigor and confidence, considering that her entrails are hanging down between her tires. She must last me another six weeks. The car is actually Margaret's. I 'bought' it from her for a low sum, so that I have something to carry me to work this autumn. After Christmas, when I have boarded a plane for Ethiopia, the car will revert to family ownership.

She is white and compact, my Honda. Her rear bumper is sinking with time toward the road, proudly tilting the Obama bumper sticker toward the sky. My addition to the look is a faint set of red streaks on the front bumper, lifted from the side of a van that was occupying my parking space. The van belonged to a recalcitrant college daddy using Craig's lot behind his house. With a few little nudges, the Honda and I thought we just might fit, but the daddy changed his mind and ran out with his hand in the air. 'Are you blind?' he asked with sudden irritability. I said I was busy reading the 'No Parking' sign.

The radio in the car makes it own noises. There was a show on public radio yesterday about what it means to be conservative these days. One happy caller from Virginia says the new Republican governor has promised to do whatever is necessary to create jobs, including cutting taxes and improving transportation. Hmmm. Sounds like my good intentions to fix the muffler by adjusting the rear bearing support bushing and polishing the distributor cap. Our Republican governor in Minnesota will be moving on to his presidential bid next year. As far as I can tell, he seems to think budget caps will cure H1N1 and take us to Mars. There's something appealing about this brave new world, in which cause and effect are divorced. It was never a satisfying match.

Another caller was enraged. Wall Street is running rampant. Nothing is being done. Nothing! Rage is all the rage these days. Is the question being answered: what does it mean to be conservative? Does it relate to volume of protest, to abstract rage, or to the efficacy of tax cuts in the fight against the Taliban? Or is it a kind of four-year revel in the incidental setbacks of Obama's presidency? I'm not entirely sure.

Well, this is the life of itinerancy. Every fall I sleep in a different bed in a different room. I drive a different car to work, and harangue a new cohort of kids. Today, it's tailpipes; tomorrow, it's tax cuts. Yesterday, it's a new president; today it's rage in the parking lot. I don't know. You just have to lean over the engine and take your best guess.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Travelogue 302 – October 31
Tricks


I have a headache today. The day is partly cloudy and chilly. 'Partly cloudy' is enough to make one sing: October has been incredibly gloomy. It makes a person without a headache want to sing. A man with a headache takes a break from grading papers to try a coffee cure.

This is a headache of storms. Or is it a headache of arts? Last night I went to a film. The verdict was, great cast, skimpy story. It's 1961. An English teenager, unusually bright, is seduced by a romantic older man who takes her to Paris. Yes, that's about it. The actors give unlikely life to this scarecrow plot, so it is a pleasure to watch, but I can't help wanting more. My friend Rosanne (real name protected in deep code) disagrees. We have to discuss this over drinks.

Outside, the rain has returned. In the light from a street lamp, the shower is driven sideways by a strong wind. I'm on my bicycle tonight. I order another drink, hoping to wait out the shower. This is Uptown on a Friday night: the bar is getting crowded. They're a young set, and fashionable. Tonight fashion is diverted into costumes. Ladies in tin-foiled boxes are dancing. A clown in a boa is laughing too loudly. The bartender has a carnival strongman beard and wears red devil's horns.

Roseanne and I eventually reach a compromise on how to fix the film. She resists giving the seducer any more scenes. But we agree that the teenager needs to present a more compelling case for going back to school. I'm a teacher, and the character has me convinced by the movie's midway point that college is a waste of time. So finding out your lover is a schmuck doesn't lead me to think, 'time for a degree in English literature.'

Sheets of water glow in the street lamp's halo, shifting in waves near a horizontal plane, waves suggesting bedsheets in a gale. The sheets have to sparkle, like shards of water flying through light. Then those bedsheets will look just like rain in a street lamp. The party is gaining the momentum of a storm. By and large, these are university kids, and they have me no more convinced in the efficacy of higher education than the sullen maiden in the British film. Neither the storm inside nor the storm outside will slacken soon. I dress for the ride.

I've ridden only a block when a van darts from the curb into the road and right into the side of a passing taxi. It's so sudden and pointless, it could be comic. But the crunch of impact is drowned in the weather, and the event is dwarfed by a wet, black night. Another few seconds and I would have been sandwiched between the two. I pass by silently. A stunned college boy emerges from the offending vehicle. His van is full of stunned college students. He is directing his vacant stare toward the bashed-in side of the taxi.

The rain has turned into a wet snow, and that adds a random, swirling element to the motion of the bedsheets. The bedsheets are unraveling. By the fourth block or so, I'm soaked. The stream off my back tire has coated my backside with muddy grit. It's a cold sensation. I resign to it. The storm and the night merge and deepen. There is space and dimension, where earlier – before I got on my bike – there were only two dimensions of bad weather, a black and white pixillated screen. Now there is movement and stillness together, silence and muffled city sounds. I cross the river, suspended in the dense autumnal atmosphere over the water. There's no urgency; the season is generous.

The coffee cure isn't working today. Outside the streets are dry. I can cycle home among mild breezes and nurse my headache. I won't have to throw my drenched clothes into the bath tub. I'll be asleep before tonight's wild revelry gets going in my neighborhood: college kids being brilliant.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Travelogue 301 – October 17
Mazes


Monika has a bright little girl of nine years. Ask her, 'What does one do for fun in Montreal?' Ask a nine year-old who is excited about Halloween, and your answer is the old town. But old town is a code for the Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is a warehouse in the old port that has been converted into a maze for family amusement. And now that it's Halloween season, pirates have taken it over. One bored pirate with decaying teeth and an ill-fitting fright wig takes our money. When there are enough of us enclosed in the first room, another bored pirate with caked black make-up around her eyes gives us the orientation.

I'm ahead of the little girl. I know about the Labyrinth already. I've run by it on my second morning. Across the street from it is the funhouse church, dating back to nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth century colonial days. It was founded in 1655 by the city's first teacher, Marguerite Bourgeoys, in later days a saint. The current chapel is largely a nineteenth century creation, with a spire topped by a bronze of the Virgin overlooking the old port, and angels flanking her. The church became a popular repository for the prayers of anxious sailors.

Running further south along the river, you'll pass the domed public market, the Bonsecours Market, that looks more like a city hall than a market. In fact, is was city hall between 1852 and 1878. It also housed the Parliament of United Canada in 1849. Further on is the Montreal Science Center, a massive complex with lots of glass, and featuring a red model of a molecule in front that is great fun to climb on.

On my third day, I run even farther south. I left old town behind and found myself alongside a canal that reminded me of Bath in England. The canal charts a peaceful course underneath huge silos and then red-brick warehouse buildings from another time. There are parks and bike paths.

This canal is the famous Lachine Canal, named after China, the alluring phantom haunting every French captain's dreams in the early days of the Canadian colony. Quebec had been blessed with one of the few major east-west river arteries on the continent. There must be a way here to reach the riches of China and India! First the stubborn river itself had to be conquered. One little hurdle was the series of rapids near Montreal, called the Lachine Rapids. France applied itself to this problem as early as 1689, but could not get a canal built. It took nearly 150 years until the Lachine Canal could be successfully dug and opened for navigation, cutting across the southern corner of Montreal's island. The canal opened for business in 1825. By then, the French were long gone, and locals had succumbed to the sinking feeling that Shanghai was not going to be a destination for their river boats. I ran up the canal as far as the St Gabriel Lock.

The Labyrinth takes up the entire wharfside warehouse, its interior alleyways twisting and turning underneath blank metal walls and ceiling of ancient utility, consuming the vast rectangular floor. The maze is defined by hanging tarps and barrels, playground tunnels and slides, dry ice, ropes, nets and simple ramps. The slides are fun, but I think their primary purpose is to provoke teenage girls to scream and thereby add to the atmosphere.

For Halloween, there are four clues left by ghostly pirates to guide us through the labyrinth, four large rooms with puzzles on the wall. Put the clues together and the kids get prizes at the end of the maze. The fifty or so people in our cohort set off, and it's reminiscent of the Twin Cities Marathon three weeks earlier, in which the runners are herded along streets too narrow for the harrowing mass of them and given barely room to stride. I made the mistake of bringing my backpack. As we crawl through tunnels and thread our bodies through tight bungee cord spider webs, I am the weak link. I'm an even weaker link in the clue rooms, where my sharp-witted companions run all the bases before I take a swing.

At one point, there's a mathematical puzzle that was printed with an error in it that makes it insolvable. Monika and I are dead determined to force a solution, sacrificing the little girl to excruciating, eye-rolling boredom while we go back and forth: 'No, I keep telling you, a and b and c can't add up to nine because then c and d have to be the same number which is impossible.' 'And I keep telling you, a and b and c have to be consecutive, which means they have to be ….' 'Mo-o-o-om,' the girl moans plaintively.

We do emerge eventually into daylight again. The hillbilly teenage pirate behind the final counter graciously allows us the prize for our frustrated efforts in the algebra room, a reflector bear. Monika's girl wears it around her neck as she climbs on the red molecule, while Monika and I recover at the science museum cafe. The late afternoon sun is hanging just above the buildings of downtown, keeping us warm. We're too tired to do old town now.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Travelogue 300 – October 16
Mount Royal


The clouds break just before we reach this little town, and we come in low over rolling hills clothed in vivid fall colors. We glide in over Lake Champlain and swing in an arc below the town of Burlington in order to reach the airport on the east side of town. In the distance are Vermont mountains capped with an early layer of snow.

I have had two layovers, and every town on the way was the same. From Minneapolis to Milwaukee to New York, the country is awash in rain. But the long lake that divides two states and ventures into Canada stands strong against the continental cloud mass. In Burlington, the sun peaks through the shattered gloom.

Monika is waiting for me at the small airport. She has business in town. Monika has business in a lot of crazy places. She works in fair trade coffee. She has the delicate job of balancing needs, supply, and standards among a broad group of very different people: growers in Latin America and Africa and importers / roasters all over North America. Today the business is in Vermont. She packs me in the car among boxes of coffee paraphernalia, and we get on the highway heading north. Jean Francois's is driving. He's a young cafe owner getting some training in Vermont.

The 45th parallel merits a sign on this highway. We're halfway to the North Pole. Soon after, I'm pulling out my passport. It's odd for me to encounter an international border on a highway. I'm usually pulling out the beat document in airports. The last time I crossed this particular border – many years ago – passports weren't necessary. We conduct the bilingual interview of mistrust, get scrutinized, have our papers scrutinized, and we're on our way.

About an hour later, we clear the crest of a gentle hill and enter the broad valley of eastern Canada's great waterway, the Saint Lawrence River. We catch sight the towers of Canada's second city, Montreal. It's dusk by now, and the buildings are indistinct shadows against the backdrop of the mountain which gave the city its name, Mount Royal. It looks like a square-topped pile of rock carpeted with autumn's trees. When I mention to my Canadian hosts that, even on vacation, I have to run long miles every day, Jean Francois suggests I run up the mountain.

We cross a crowded bridge, peeking into Le Ronde from the air. Le Ronde is the city's amusement park, situated on its own little river island. We descend into the city – itself a massive river island, – and scuttle from block to block around inexplicable jams in traffic, into the borough of 'Le Plateau', and come to a halt finally in front of Monika's flat, as night comes on.

We stroll. We eat. We stroll. We drink. 'Le Plateau' reminds me of Park Slope in New York City. In the morning, I get up and test the caliber of the a.m. air, breathing into it and looking for vapors. I bolster my resolve. I suit up, lace my Sauconies, and while the city is still innocent with awakening, I launch into its streets. Launch might be an exaggeration. Let's say 'lurch'. It's chilly, and my joints are stiff.

Crossing the first intersection, I see the early sunlight bathing Mount Royal; the distance seems within my grasp. Jean Francois's words come back to me among the sounds of traffic, and I make a right turn toward the mountain. Now I have a potent goal, and I race along narrow sidewalks lined with signs in French, sidewalks that become increasingly busy. As I engage with the first slope of the mountain, crossing the last streets before park land, I fancy I'm in Montmartre.

There's not another runner in sight. Pedestrians are bundled up and staring at me. I didn't pack any sweat pants, so the long-suffering knees are bare again. The higher I go, the more chill the wind becomes, but now I can't turn back. I must reach something like the top, and indeed I don't turn back until the road crests this spur of the mountain and starts downhill again.

So my first real sightseeing stop in Montreal is a panoramic observation point on the side of the winding road that climbs up the gentle peak. I spot Monika's neighborhood, given away by the green-domed church two blocks from her flat. My gaze sweeps over the skyscrapers, and the flashes of morning light in the river. It takes in the geodesic dome built for the 1967 World Fair Expo. Yes, a regal prospect.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Travelogue 299 – October 11
Unwelcome Guests


Time is always the first to arrive. Time arrives at the birthday party before the host is dressed. Time is the unwelcome guest.

Yesterday morning, we awoke to snow on the ground outside. What? That's more reality than any of us was ready for. I go ahead and dress for running – a few more layers on top, but I have no sweat pants yet – and out the door I go. It's been an ugly month so far. Fall has entered with wind and rain. I've had to toughen up. But snow? 32 degrees?

By the fourth mile, the exposed skin – over the knees, the calves, the thighs – is protesting. By the fifth mile, I'm afraid to stop. The joints might not start again. I'm imagining my odds hitchhiking: sweaty guy with abnormally red face and legs and a dazed expression.

It's fall; it's flu season. The joke and the alarum at college is H1N1, also known by its daintier name, 'the swine flu'. Scarcely a day goes by without emails to faculty about the flu: policy, warnings, advice, and health tips. And admonishments of compassion: some students might take advantage, but be forgiving. Prepare lots of make-up work.

I think I need some make-up work in running. If it's winter already, it's time for Plan B in logging the long miles. I've signed up for a gym, but haven't had time to go more than once. How do people make time for gyms? I had one hour the day that I went. I visited a series of machines randomly. I had no time to shower. What good did that do me?

While teachers are being sent to slaughter in their incubator-classrooms, locked in windowless rooms with rows of sweating microbe factories, the rest of the population is washing their hands and heading for the bars. Minnesota is enjoying a bubble of sports nirvana. The acquisition of Brett Favre yielded exquisite returns as the Vikings trounced the Packers in the most-watched regular-season game in history. And the Twins, after fighting back from a seven-game deficit, meet the Tigers in a one-game tie-breaker that becomes a twelve-inning spectacle. I catch the first six innings at the doomed Metrodome, and the next six innings at the bar, where I join the spectacle, standing and hollering when my favorite rookie, Carlos Gomez, slides across home plate for the final run.

Then I wash my hands.

All that the victory bought the Twins was a charter flight to New York, where less than twenty-four hours later they have to face the well-rested Bronx Bombers. They get blitzed. But in the next game, the Twins push their persecutors into the eleventh inning. (Another late night for teachers with weakened immune systems.)

Tonight we wash our hands, and we watch our boys host the Pinstripers here at home. It's an onerous task. Who doesn't want to smack A-Rod in the supercilious grin sometimes? Who doesn't want to see the big city money machine bog down in a Minnesota marsh? And yet, who isn’t proud to be meeting the Yankees in the playoffs?

Who doesn't root for Joe Mauer with the honest face – the man who was famously cheated out of a double by the foul-line ump? Watch Joe Mauer: ask yourself, how does someone become a catcher? Nine innings in a crouch, making signs in your crotch. How does someone become a teacher? Nine hours on your feet, making indecipherable signs on the blackboard, and saying, ‘Shh’. Such is the inscrutability of life. Wash your hands and it might all come out all right.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Travelogue 298 – September 25
Doused


The leaves are starting to turn along the Mississippi River. The sumac is holding up flags of cardinal. The youthful green of the maples is spotted with yellow. The squirrels are making a lot of noise, scampering among the fallen leaves. Weather men have been threatening a dip in temperatures, but we haven't seen it. It's been very pleasant, though today there are dark clouds in the south. And that's the direction I'm headed in.

I'm having a hard time waking up this week. My work schedule is getting the better of me. The semester began almost six weeks ago. I'm planning lessons and grading papers for six college courses at two colleges. I'm training. I'm part-time jefe for the foundation. More part than time. Waking up and arising are separated by expanding intervals now. Sleep is bewitching. Dreams are overpowering.

At eight in the morning on weekdays, the walkways along the river are quiet. They belong almost exclusively to the runners. The runners are solitary and somehow arrange for half a mile of buffer between themselves. The water is still. The water is conspiratorially still. Nature keeps too many secrets. The end of summer feels like the Cold War: secrets are dangerous.

Friday mornings I go out and log long miles. I'm training for the half marathon in March. That's a long way off, but I have to build up a strong base before I go back to Ethiopia. I'll be there for two months before the race. I'm making great progress. This morning, I feel strong. Before I know it, I'm past Lake Street. I'm nearly to 40th Street.

That's when the rain starts. It has exquisite timing I've just stopped for the half-time stretch. I'm at the furthest point from home. The rain comes with a gust of wind. It sprinkles for one minute. Then it pours for ten. I'm soaked. I've been experimenting with new running gear. My shirt is dry wick fabric, designed to wick the sweat away. It doesn't do so well with rain. After the first soak, it has adhered to my skin with frightening suction power. I pull at it like I'm pulling leeches off me.

After a mile or two, the shower has diminished to a light drizzle. I'm able to ease the grip of my shirt, and I spend a few miles wringing the wicking shirt dry. To the fabric's credit, it does dry faster than cotton would have. By my last mile, I'm comfortable again.

I'm arguing with yesterday's freshman class. How many other runners do this, I wonder, translating the fatigue and the low-level pain of long-distance running into an internal rant? This classroom of eighteen-somethings have gotten on my nerves. They talk back. They don't just talk back, but they compulsively talk back, questioning the lecture, questioning the assignment, answering back to the command to be silent, talking back to the talking back, talking back to teacher, textbook, college, and the Creator that bore them into a world of work. An hour with them is like an hour jailed in the mind of Raskolnikov on Red Bull.

By the end of my nine-mile rant, I have to admit that classes like this one are usually the ones I end up liking. Our battles come early in the semester. I find ways to work with them. By the end of the semester, I'm thinking that I'll miss them. The key is divining the tricky pathways from whining to constructive critical thought. They like to argue; ergo, they like to critique. Okay, let's channel that. (I say with an evil chuckle.)

The run is over. The high grass in Craig's backyard is drenched. My shoes soak in new moisture. It's not too late in the season for mosquitoes. They rise from the grass around my ankles and calves while I stretch. I climb the old wooden stairway to the back door of the second floor. It's time for another shower.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Travelogue 297 – September 22
I Met a Couple Girls ...


There's a blogger at the New York Times who wants to hear about my experience with girls. To be precise, this columnist wants experiences with disadvantaged girls and women abroad. There are a few prizes at stake. I might win a copy of his latest book!

Suddenly, even my considerable powers of irony are stretched. I think of Meseret and Amsal, and I weigh their suffering against the frivolous impetus to write. It's undeserving,. But the hint leads inexorably on. I miss them. Even here and now, as I steep in comfort on an afternoon off, enjoying a coffee among the young and the culpable, my double life stalks me. It pulls off surprise attacks, unannounced hauntings. Suddenly, I'm a ghost in Ethiopia, and this place is transparent. The scene ruffles in the breeze. The truth of that other place aches inside me.

So here's my little story, (publishing it is probably against the rules of the NYT game, alas,) embellished with a taste of more than 500-word facts.

“When I met Meseret and Amsal, they were sixteen. They were working in a bar and living together in a room built of corrugated iron, about 25 square feet in size. I had been volunteering in Ethiopia for a few years on behalf of the Tesfa Foundation, which supports local communities in providing early childhood education for disadvantaged children.”

They're shy. They look down at their hands in their laps; they look at the ceiling. They smile sweetly, and answer in whispers. Diffidence is the Ethiopian way. We have to piece together the facts about their lives from several interviews. When we tell Amsal she will start school now, she can't stop crying.

“I've been a long-distance runner all my life. When I found myself in Ethiopia, I was drawn to learn more about the famous running community. It's a huge and very dedicated community, very informal in their routines and associations. Many see each other training in the mountains above Addis Ababa, the capital city.”

They pass you like deer, dashing single-file along tracks in the woods. There's no show of effort. Their work is focused and natural.

“I had struck up a friendship with a marathoner named Ijigu, (a name which means the Best). He introduced me to Meseret and Amsal. Like many teenage girls raised in the countryside, they had a lot of incentives to get out of their villages. They might be escaping arranged marriages; they might be escaping households with too many mouths to feed. They might simply want a chance at education. They might be sent to work in the city as house servants. In any case, many find themselves in Addis Ababa, either on the street or virtual slaves for extended family.”

Asqual is not allowed to eat with her extended family. On whims, she is forbidden to train and forced to do household chores instead. If we give her spending money, the family demands it, but still won't feed her.

“Some come to Addis Ababa with a dream to make it as long-distance runners. In Ethiopia, runners are heroes. The elite athletes are famous and successful. These girls have a talent, and they think they will be able to break free from the desperation of their lives.”

They run with intensity and purpose. Sometimes it seems like you can read their dreams in their eyes when you watch them run.


“In reality, they find themselves vulnerable in ways hard to imagine. They are friendless and unprotected. Survival will mean some sort of menial labor that will prohibit any training or school. Many will become victims of sexual violence, working or living in environments in which they have no real rights.”

One sixteen year-old we interviewed was repeatedly raped at her workplace, at an injera factory. She would be called in for night shifts. She couldn't quit.


“Meseret and Amsal were among the lucky ones: they had jobs. But shifts were twelve hours long, often keeping them until midnight or so. Drunken men would follow them home. Several times they were assaulted. They made about $10 per month, just enough to eat and to rent the room they shared – a structure originally intended as shelter for the security guard of the compound owned by their landlord.”

Because it was built for a security guard, one wall of the room is the wall of the compound, and there is a window that doesn't close securely. Men try to break in. There is little floor space that is not covered by a terribly old mattress. Standing, you need to stoop. Your face is hidden in shadow.

“I was so moved by their plight that we immediately took them under our wing, providing housing and funds for school. As we realized the extent of the problem, the Tesfa Foundation considered funding a program for these vulnerable girls. The result has been 'Team Tesfa', a team registered with the Addis Ababa Athletics Federation, and a venue for teenage girl athletes at risk to receive help with safe housing and education, while they get an opportunity to train and compete at a professional level. The team's latest project is a cooperative cafe that will teach girls business skills and provide nutrition. Meseret and Amsal are now eighteen and team leaders. They are in fifth grade."

The three girls lean in to read the page of the book. I'm quizzing them in English. Their heads almost touch as they read, moving their lips. They pull back and smile with embarrassment. I ask them to read aloud, and they giggle, looking at each other helplessly. Worke is always the bravest with English and she sounds out the words in a voice that's just a breath. The other two watch me apprehensively, with big eyes. All I can think is, 'they're safe. They're happy.' All I can say is, 'Very good!'

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Travelogue 296 – September 11
The Anatomy of a Bad Day


It starts in the back and it ends in the rear.

I'm up early, and that's a story unto itself. This fall, seven runners are competing in the Twin Cities Marathon and raising money for the foundation. It has been really fun, especially for the guy on the sidelines-- me. But then, in a feverish moment of enthusiasm and caffeine overdose I decided I would commit to running the Bath Half Marathon with our regular fundraisers there in March. So I started training. Only a month ago, I was asserting myself in the company of some of the Twin Cities team: 'I am NOT a morning runner.' But somehow it happened. I ran once at dawn because I was awake. It was a beautiful morning. In the next week, I did it again. I do it twice in a row, then I'm sleepy and going to bed early. And so on. It's an awful addiction.

I'm up early. On some of these mornings I'm out before the sun rises, and by the end of the run I can't even remember waking up or dressing. It's like a nightmare that has vanished but that took over my limbs and muscles and propelled me out onto the street. Yesterday, I awake and I'm really awake because there's a kink in my back. The running clothes slither across the floor and climb up my legs and entwine themselves around my body. Before the glimmer of a thought has dawned, I'm stumbling down the back stairs of Craig's house.

I should take this chance to remind my kindly readers that the last week of August began with my first classes at the college and ended with another grueling move. I'm going to blame the stress of the move, and the change from mattress to futon for my back ache.

In any case, I find myself AGAIN stomping along the silent sidewalks of Dinktown at an ungodly hour, heading toward the river, when suddenly, somehow I wrench that complaining muscle. The minor morning complaint turns into the sensation of a baseball bat across the back. My breath is taken away, and I'm paralyzed in an awkward half-running position.

'Okay,' I groan to myself and the neighbors, 'Breathe!' And I do that, slowly inhaling the burn and exhaling the frozen posture. I pace a little, and then I know the decision has to be made. Do I continue on for five miles, or do I accept this wonderful excuse to turn back? I know it's the strange truth in this world, this world fabricated from cinder blocks of pain, that hurt can only be deferred, and there's usually accruing interest. There's a chance that I can run the ache out. If I don't try, I'll be the bent and hobbling man for a day. I run. I find a position for my back, ramrod straight, that works. There's the occasional pang, but after a mile, I'm relaxed.

From the knot in my back, the bad day migrates into the old blood pump. I sit down to some work at my computer, but today is update day, and I stare at the screen for long minutes in between every jab at the 'Enter' key. I get nothing done. My blood pressure simmers. I run off to work, stopping for coffee on the way. There I discover I have no money. My blood pressure rockets. My students dither and make a half-class out of a full curriculum. My blood pressure boils.

But a truly bad day rises above 'annoying' only when the gods bestow it with a touch of the sublime. The day rises to the status of art in the evening. A few of us go to see 'The Baader-Meinhof Complex' at the Oak Street Cinema. It's an appropriate film for the eve of 9-11, chronicling vividly the progress of the Red Army Faction in Germany along their bloody path through the late 60s and 70s. It's well-done, but it will not lift one from the floor of a bad day.

What it does well is portray rage, the rage of idealistic youth. When that rage finds sanction in ideology, watch out! The logic is irrefutable: violence is necessary. Worth seeing – but take your Xanax and attend in a neighborhood in which your chances of crossing the path of policemen are near nil.

Obama is coming to town. There are police everywhere. Democrat or Republican, populist or fascist, it all looks the same when a president comes to town. We the people must be cowed.

Craig and I are cycling home from the film when we're pulled over by the University police! We have run a red light … on our bikes … crossing an empty intersection. Each and every bombing in the film flashes across my mind's eye, highlighted in crimson, as the cop checks our IDs and lectures us about bicycle safety. I perform admirably, I believe, tamping down all violent impulses neatly into a section of psychological steel pipe and filed away for distillation into epic poetry or opera in my old age.

And finally I, with a red-striped $100 ticket in my pocket, can call it a day. While outside, Dinkytown erupts into its swirling ritual dance to the idiots, I crawl into bed.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Travelogue 295 – September 4
Half a Million Strong


When is culture just a party? When does a party become an 'event'? When does that event enter history? What IS cultural history? And where's the line between culture and business?

It was movie-night last night, and the obvious choice was to wade into the stream of nostalgia, tributary to the deeper tide of dubious history. Is the young man named Tiber worth more than a footnote? Does the story in which he figures merit telling in 2009? If so, why were there exactly four people in the theater last night?

Elliot Tiber was the young man who connected entrepreneurs to Max Yasgur, owner of the famous farm in White Lake, New York, now a monument. If the film is an accurate chronicle of events, young Tiber never made it to the 'Woodstock' concert itself, distracted by what may be described as the larger cultural event: free youth, free love, free drugs, free mud, etc. We, the movie audience, therefore, never hear from the artists. Has Woodstock, the cultural event, transcended its music? Is that what the film implies? Or should we deduce that the music has become a liability, being so dated? How would the hippies have felt about being portrayed in a world devoid of their music, in which their antics take place in a kind of silent pantomime?

Then again, music is business. Maybe the filmmakers were blocked from getting rights to the 'soundtrack'. Let's not forget Woodstock's humble beginnings as a business venture, born of an ad in the New York Times: 'Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.' The beginnings of any enterprise are forever encoded into its realization.

I moved on the first of this month. I'm renting Craig's upstairs apartment, deep in Dinkytown, the university's student slum. I've moved in just as the students have converged for fall semester. Last night, cycling home after the film, round about midnight, I'm passing through the streets of Dinkytown, alive with aimless couples and clusters of youth looking for parties. It happens that the biggest party is right next door to Craig's. Bodies dark as shadows mill restlessly about the lawn of the party house, streaming up the steps to the porch and the front door, streaming back out. All bodies feature one bent elbow, an unvarying gesture to honor the Bacchus of hops. The crowd buzzes, roars, and lets out random whoops.

Craig has owned this house for years, and it's fascinating to me how little this little scene changes, in kind, in detail, in substance. One would find it impossible to judge, visiting this corner year after year, that universities were centers of fashion, experimentation, or unorthodoxy. The vignette is constant: buff boys in T-shirts or sweat-jackets, bent elbows, random whoops, occasional brawls, and circles of characterless but buxom females smoking cigarettes and issuing brassy laughter. Nothing of the moment, political or cultural, seems to touch them. What music escapes the house attaches itself to an anonymous rap beat.

In an interesting twist, the owners of the party don't seem happy with the guests. One senior bruiser with a baseball bat is shooing people away. There's a ripple in the crowd, somewhat belligerent in tone. Then a cop car appears and parks at the curb. The cops send an announcement over their broadcast system, something lost in radio noise. The bodies swirl, and the bubble is burst. Lines of bodies grudgingly stream away. Individual movements within the streams seem confused and sluggish. The cops stay for a half hour to discourage the lost ones from doubling back. The event dies on the vine.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Travelogue 294 – August 29
Wake and Shine


I've got about an hour and a half to spare, so I stop in at my new favorite pub, Merlin's Rest. See my earlier entry about this delightful spot on Lake Street. My ultimate destination is all the way down Lake Street the other way – from the river-end of Lake Street here to the lake-end Lake Street to the west.

I'm on my bike, and the skies are ominous. We barely broke sixty degrees today, and it's been cloudy. In Minnesota, one pays close attention to the skies, especially in late August. Is this it, one asks. Is this the end of summer?

With time to spare, it's an easy enough detour, a left instead of a right. I need a place to grade papers. This pleasant British/Irish pub leaps to mind: quiet and comfortable. It's not as quiet as usual this afternoon. The reason, as it turns out: there's a wake.

'That's how I would want it,' says a man at the bar. “Bring some beer, some herb, laugh and tell stories.' Makes sense. 'Just don't invite this guy,' he cracks, jerking a thumb at the bartender. 'I'll be working,' says the bartender.

Oddly, it was just this morning that I was catching some clips of Teddy's funeral on YouTube. There's an odd silent segment from BBC, following celebs as they enter the church. Schwarzenegger is slapping people on the back. I catch a sound bite from Barack. I read up on some stories about Teddy's high spirits and his sense of humor. I surprise myself by choking up a bit. I think there's something about the fighters and the dreamers of the world. One truly feels their loss.

So I find an innocuous table across the pub from the wake, and I set about grading my first papers of the term. Every, and I mean every, minute is about work these days. The semester has started with a bang. Enrollments are 10% up. But a load of drudgery doesn't mean I can't at least enjoy the setting. Who says I can't grade papers at a wake?

Here's what it's like being an adjunct instructor at a community college: my specific classes weren't ironed out until the Friday before term. I have no office; they're still constructing it. Some of my classes are still not available to me online. Attendance goes like this: 'Bill, please tear a page from your notebook. Good man. Now write the date, sign your name, and pass along.' My texts are not available in the bookstore yet. Confused students trickle in late.

And yet, we're all in good spirits. Monday was still summer, glaring and humid, but even without the autumnal chill and that autumnal scent to the air, the start of the school year triggers a gut response of pleasure and excitement.

And so many young innocents! There's the skinny boy with shaggy hair who says he'll be studying law enforcement, though he hates cops. There are the twins, two wide-eyed beauties with brilliant smiles and ghetto names, who answer questions in unison. There is the street-smart and smirking boy of color who is also going into law enforcement, though he has gathered a few certificates in cooking. There's the Latino boy who wants to go into business to make money. He argues with the girl from the alternative high school who says happiness is not about money. 'Who's going to pay your bills, girl? Who's going to take you out to dinner?' She doesn't have a very satisfying answer to that, though I'm rooting for her. She says she wants to be a social worker.

And so, life and work continues, in the lee of wakes, in the shadow of our losses, as cold winter approaches. Chin up, we fight and we dream, God love us.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Travelogue 293 – August 22
It Ain't Pink


Route 131 runs north and south in Western Michigan. It connects Grand Rapids with Petoskey, and other points up and down the map.

But that's the thing about Western Michigan: what exactly are those points in the connection? All one sees are road signs announcing McDonald's and petrol stations, but peering up those dark exits, into the wooded hills, one shudders and wonders what might lay along these mysterious roads.

There's something about Michigan. I'm approaching the same latitudes as Minnesota, but there's something more ominous about the upper reaches of this state. North of Grand Rapids, this highway slices through unceasing woods. It slices through shallow hills and dales that put one in mind, after a few hours of driving, of Druidic magic circles. Down one of those intersecting roads might just be a stand of monolithic stones arranged to mark the gloomy northern solstice.

One passes occasional fields and beat barns, but otherwise, there are only forests. The woods are made of short trees that seem to lean into the next squall. They project a darker, meaner shade of green. The sky is overflowing with huge, low clouds like granite boulders rolling over us. Light rains come and go from minute to minute. I might even have overshot the time of the Druids. I'm charting primeval wilderness. Mammals have only just begun their long march toward sentience.

And then I reach my destination. I have to swallow my terror of Druidic sacrifice and catch one of those anonymous exits. After a few miles there does indeed appear a town. It's a small one. The main drag is an unremarkable hybrid of modern convenience stops and early twentieth century brick that makes it to within a hair's breadth of 'cute'. But this town has its name: Cadillac. That is worth miles of quaint storefronts, in my book.

The town of Cadillac is set on the shores of Lake Cadillac. As much as we might wish it were so, neither lake nor town is named after the model of automobile, nor is either the inspiration for the car's name. No, the name is bequeathed by a French explorer from the eighteenth century – so many names in this part of the world were gifts of those intrepid souls, (and they were not Druids) – Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, who settled Mo-town in 1701. In fact, the original names of both town and body of water were 'Clam Lake'. Thank God for the revision.

While on the subject of automobiles, I think it fitting to mention that I was in Grand Rapids for the grand entrance of Marc's 1956 Jaguar XK 140. I should say reunion rather than entrance, since the car was Marc's father's, and Marc himself spent some glorious hours in the convertible as a youth. Along with the car came Mark Lambert, a college friend of Marc's, and currently famous restorer of classic autos in Nashville. As we all admired the beautiful, cream-colored convertible, designed from gentle curves like you might find among the Druid hills of Michigan, Mark delivered a brief history of the classic automobile company.

Jaguar was the brainchild of Sir William Lyons, who founded a company to produce motorcycle sidecars, though it wasn't long before he expanded into automobiles. The company was called Swallow Sidecar Company, which was shortened to SS with time. As the Nazis rose to power and then terror in nearby Germany, Sir William thought twice about producing SS cars. He added Jaguar to the name.

It seems that during the Second World War, Sir William was called upon to do his duty by patria, but he managed to have members of his research team assigned with him. During the war years, they worked on design after design on paper, coming up with what would be the fundamentals of the X-type model engine that would power Jaguar cars for decades to come – according to Mark a creation years ahead of its time.

In any case, it sure is pretty. And it looks right at home among the verdure of the Motor State.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Travelogue 292 – August 20
Real Gore


Few things can make one feel older than a bad film. Bad is often bad in a bid for currency. I didn't grow up with video games. The last time I played a video game it was standing in front of a big box in a pizza parlor. It would have been 'Centipede' or 'PacMan'. If I had logged hundreds of hours at home destroying civilizations like modern boys do, I might have been able to make more sense of 'GI Joe'. Odd that I would have to admit to being out of date with GI Joe, since I played with him as a boy, when he was a little, green plastic man, (manufactured by Hasbro, partner in this dismal movie. It should be pointed out that Hasbro is also behind the Transformer phenomenon. Beware plastic creatures converted into film, quite possibly destroying civilizations without real explosives.)

I don't regret the occasional bad movie. There's always something to learn from bad art. Whether it is good or bad, I ask myself why it was so. In this movie's case – if it IS bad, – then it's an astounding feat of sloppiness. But maybe, after all, it's too early to declare it bad. Truthfully I was stumped by this show. I can't make heads or tails of the intentions of the film makers. I have no means of guessing the goals of the writers or director. It might actually be a work of genius.

Perhaps the attempt here is analogous to a painter's preference for abstraction. It's a way to explore the pure essences of the medium. So an 'action movie' should be pure action: a mad blur of motion and violence. There should be none of the resting points that we conventionally call 'plot'. Emotion can be denoted by abbreviated tags: capture a few stills of recognizable facial expressions, ejaculate phrases that sum up human relationships. Avoid specific reference to dates or location. If you need the Great Pyramids for atmosphere (a popular tag lately) plant them in a featureless desert, utterly divorced from Cairo, Egypt, or the nasty Middle East.

If we go for the genius argument, then the state of the special effects must be key evidence. Conventional action movies rely on CGI polish. What happened here? It must be that the sensations of motion and violence take precedence. Good special effects become distraction. So in GI Joe, whether we're looking at ships, weapons, slaughter, or monsters, all dissolves into smears of color. Well, bravo, Hasbro: if abstraction can speak to the reptilian brain, then this is a formidable creation.

The old-fashioned among us – those looking for conventional pleasures at the cinema, luxuries like plot and special effects, character and actors that haven't transcended our four dimensions – will find a lot more enjoyment out of 'District 9'. The special effects are amazing: far better than in 'GI Joe'. The writing is mature and thoughtful. The acting, particularly that of the lead, is masterful, leading you forward with deceptive simplicity. The writers have the courage for a specific setting. And there's plenty of gore. If dozens of humans are released from the mortal coil in bright haloes of blood, the effect isn't so admirably 'bloodless' as in GI Joe, but they persist in the story's short-term memory as disturbing shadows. Pshaw: so conventional!

But good writing and acting doesn't make violence real. Apparently I feel compelled to prove that point when I get home from GI Joe. It's very late at night. I'm packing for a trip to Michigan. I'm trying to cut through the thick plastic cover of a new flash drive. I drive one blade of my scissors completely through my finger. And I mean through: I'm talking about separate entry and exit wounds. Instantly, there's blood all over my kitchen. Running water only seems to encourage the blood flow. Paper towels, soaking red through multiple layers. A trip to the emergency room, hours in the green flickering light of the county hospital, hideous stitches by an intern from India before the anesthetic has taken effect.

No, real gore is more than a splash of bright color. It's not thrilling. It's tedious. One endures it. I get home at 4:30am, bandaged, drugged, and dazed. I have to be on a plane in a few hours. Ah, the romantic life of a soldier!

Monday, August 17, 2009


Travelogue 291 – August 17
La Baie Verte


Jean Nicolet discovered Green Bay for the French and established a trading post there in 1634, making this little town the 13th oldest permanent settlement in America. Lucky 13: little did Fr. Nicolet know what he was setting in motion.

It was only 285 years later that a young shipping clerk at the Indian Packing Company named Curly Lambeau, who was taking a semester off from Notre Dame (where he was halfback for a young Knut Rockne), co-founded a professional football team. He solicited $500 from his employer for uniforms and equipment. In the following year, the 'Packers' joined the newly-formed NFL, and destiny sparkled above the cold Wisconsin bay, to which the team would bring home twelve national titles.

The sun has set, and I'm standing beneath a massive statue of Curly Lambeau. I'm shaken. Was it a dream, or was I truly just sitting inside the stadium that Curly built, watching the Green Bay Packers? I thought that those seats were reserved for mythical beings. What beer-drinking goddess has taken me under her wing? That was me, drinking Leinies on the 40-yard line, twenty-five rows up from the hallowed field, while the Packers give the Browns a drubbing. The fans fill seats to the top rings of the sacred bowl, above which shines a perfect summer sky. They deck the stands in green and yellow, and they shake lemon pom-poms, rising out of their seats in countless rounds of 'the Wave'.

I pay homage now to the twin gods outside the stadium, Vince and Curly. Vince doesn't look too happy about standing in bronze for decades. Curly has greater matters on his mind. But always show gratitude, I say, to the higher powers.

In a brilliant move, the founders of Wisconsin's great franchise added a clause in their articles of incorporation that forbid profit from the sale of the team. After expenses were paid, money made from sale were to donated to the American Legion. Ninety years later, the Pack still resides in Nicolet's small outpost, a town of 100,000 or so. And Fr. Nicolet's humble town is owner of the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in this young, English-speaking nation.

Mike has his stocks in the team in a frame on the wall of his basement, alongside lots of Packer memorabilia. He's one of 112,015 owners of the team. Shareholder meetings are held on the field. I would love to see one of those meetings – but, in actual fact, I was already sitting among the inebriated stockholders. And never did shareholders cheer for their company like these did. This spunky little enterprise put their Cleveland competitor to shame, 17-0!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Travelogue 290 – August 11
Old Time Entertainment


I need a place to sit in front of my computer with a beer. It's late on a Tuesday night, and options are limited. I don't know the neighborhood very well. I'm on my bike at the very end of Lake Street, right where it leaps off the high bank of the Mississippi and tranforms into Marshall Street on the St. Paul side. The cafe is closing. The restaurant is closing. Each guides me to another place.

The final stop is Merlin's Rest on Lake Street at 36th. 'Oh, they'll let you sit there all night,' the waitress down the street had said. I think they just might. I'm at a table in the back, by the kitchen, happily tapping away at tonight's project. It turns out that tonight's project is more work on Chapter Three: Perugia. I'm reliving my home town in Italia. I'm reliving the night I listened to Chicago Blues, the blues strummed and belted out with gusto and funny accents by springtime's friends.

It's 'Folk Tuesday' at Merlin's Rest, ('a pub from the Isles', they call it). So while I write about Chicago blues in Italia, I'm serenaded by over a dozen musicians sitting in a circle with their guitars and fiddles, playing American folk in a British pub. And I'm quite enjoying it, I must say. The musicians are not bad. The English beer is outstanding. The fries hit the spot. The cushion on my stool is blunting the pain of long sitting. And I'm so cheered that I don't mind the greying locals singing in chorus and swaying together.

This afternoon, I found myself in a nutritional funk, led by long, successive meetings into a caffeine overdose. The heat of the day has made me sleepy, and yet the jitters won't let me focus. Solution: break out the bike. I knock off sunny miles in succession, the laptop in my backpack. I stop and work; I ride; I work again.

The early film at the Riverview Theater is 'Star Trek'. It's a perfect match. Though I've seen the movie, I've got to see it at the Riverview. This theater in a quiet southern neighborhood of Minneapolis has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1948. And between its first show ('June Bride' with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery) and 'Star Trek' (with Spock and Bones), the venue hasn't changed much. The spacious lobby features 50s furnishings, period tile and terrazzo, and a color scheme that will make your cavities ache. The place is an echo from the era of neighborhood theaters, and the neighborhood cherishes it.

It's the film audience makes the experience complete, paying their two bucks and packing the auditorium, middle-aged homeowners the most of them, old enough to be fond of the original series. They break into general applause at every triumph, and at every stock phrase from the Trek repertoire. A quartet of teens sits behind us and snickers throughout at the foolish sentimentality of their elders. Hopefully the profusion of explosions provided sufficient entertainment value for them.

I'm inspired by the miraculous convergence of the 50s, 60s and aughts, the meeting of James Tiberius and Bette Davis, the fusion of summer and caffeine. So I set off in pursuit of the right table and the right cushioned stool. And I'm blessed with more. I find voices in song again. It's kind of like they never stop.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Travelogue 289 – August 8
The Medieval Modernist Romantics


Apropos to my trip to the Thames – I mean the proper Thames, in New London, Connecticut – I must make mention of the arts. We have visited the menacing submarines of Groton. Now make a visit to the mellower, artsy precincts of New London, across the estuary. In a town of 20,000 we have dozens of art studios, but the kingpen is the Hygienic Arts Coop and Gallery. Inside this hallowed complex is where I have the honor to lay my head for four nights, my friend Troy being one of the resident artists.

A block from the river on lively Bank Street, this building stands like a spot of good cheer and genius, a building that dates to the mid-nineteenth century. The Hygienic spent most of the twentieth century as a 24-hour eatery. The gallery inhabits an old restaurant space. In darker times of urban blight, during those dastardly 60s in particular, the building became a center if unwholesome and illicit activities – which history is really a feather in any arts community's cap. In 1979, local artists made the Hygienic Restaurant the locale for its first community show. By the 90s, the artists were organized and ready to take over the failed restaurant and renovate the building. The resident artists are a diverse group. Troy paints and designs beautiful block prints. Kevin is a glass-blower. Downstairs is a busty blonde metal-worker who calls herself the Madagascar.

Rosanne (a pseudonym: she prohibits the use of her real name, which is very, very different than Rosanne) has bought me a ticket for the featured exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 'Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision'. William Holman Hunt is one of the founders of this quirky and influential movement. Three young men meet in the house of one of their moms. Three young men with grudges meet at mom's house. They mock the establishment. No, this is not Edina, circa 2008. It's Gower Street, London in 1848. The enemy is the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they call 'Sir Sloshua'. Boys, boys...

Seduced by the Romantic movement in literature, these boys have a vision. In the same way that the Romantics challenged the excessive rationalism, formality, and elegance of the eighteenth century, these boys would challenge the prevailing conventions in painting. Raphael, wunderkind of the Renaissance, introduced corruption into the visual arts, they say: his elegant classicism inspired centuries of fuzzy, formulaic composition. So, back to the days … PRE-Raphael. They revive, each in his own way, the vivid colors, detail, and complex composition of the Quattrocento.

The three boys are Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (who should win awards just for his name). They're debut as a movement would be the exhibition of Millais's painting, 'Christ in the House of His Parents' in 1850, a work raked over the coals by none other than Charles Dickens. 'Blasphemous,' he cries. Why? Because Mary is ugly. Come to the rescue, young John Ruskin.

What emerges over the next few decades is a body of work, vivid and quickly recognized, romantic in subject and tone. The mood is perhaps best captured in Hunt's 'The Lady of Shalott', a web of myth and symbol, a swirl of glowing color, a central figure captured in awkward motion.

And emerges a mythology of the movement, a collection of eccentric characters: the morbid poet-painter Rossetti and his prolific siblings; the hyper-creative William Morris; the adventurous Hunt, who makes four trips to the Levant and eventually builds a house in Jerusalem. Biography was their art as much as poetry or painting. But such is the tradition, Mannerist or Pre-Raphaelite.

From Tems to Thames, the torch is borne. Artists, unite, throw off your chains! See you at Mom's!