Friday, September 25, 2009

Travelogue 298 – September 25

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.