Thursday, December 30, 2010

Travelogue 376 – December 30
The Small Rain


The clouds have gathered in recent days, taking nothing away from the beautiful daylight hours, adding nothing more than spells of shadow and cool mornings. Suddenly last night, they piled up above the mountains, black and flashing with lightning, and they released torrents of rain. Fortunately we were down in Bole, the city's furthest district from the mountains. We watched the light show for an hour before the rain reached as far south as we were.

It's still raining this morning, mildly, steadily, like a mood almost spent. It's still raining when Derartu and Altaye arrive. They come by the house every other morning. Derartu and Altaye are athletes on my team, a young woman and young man with talent in the short-distances, the 800 and 1500. MWF they run speed drills written out by one of the U of M athletes, and TTS they do strength training with Cien. Sometimes it's weight training, and sometimes it's drills borrowed from a video that Cien brought with him, lunges and jumps and twists to driving music.

Kerempt, the rainy season, is a long way off. The autumn is usually all blue skies. The winter and spring months will see occasional 'small rains'. We're getting an early one. We are lulled during the night with the patter of the rain against our metal roofs.

I'm exiled to my bedroom during training. I have work to do. I set up the netbook on my bed and I type to the beat of Cien's southern rock. Occasionally I join the clan in the living room just for a laugh. Being top-notch athletes does not guarantee grace and poise. Many of the movements required are beyond them. This kind of thing is alien. They didn't grow up with PE classes, gymnastic, or ballet. One day they decided to run. That particular motion they've mastered. But the finer distinctions among forward and sideways lunges, bounces and sidesteps, wide arm movements while balancing, all escape them. It makes for comical workouts. When Ijigu is around, he tends to simply jump from side to side no matter what the video exercise.

This starts with Altaye. He's a boy blessed and cursed with talent. He grew up with a contemptuous father in tough country. Somehow he escaped to the city and has survived with virtually no skill, knowledge or talent beyond his running. He can't read. He needs his instructions delivered three times over. He cuts corners like a boy half his age. But he has a winning smile and raw talent as a runner. He requires strict supervision. He needs some muscle, and he needs some specialized training. There is no body fat on him, but he can't do ten push-ups. He can sprint around the track with the best in Ethiopia, but he's unfamiliar with spikes and blocks. Before we got hold of him, he had run on a real track a few times per year. Now he's prancing around the courtyard with Cien, a little mystified but in good spirits.

I'm inside staring at the computer again. For some reason, Januarys have been our most hectic months, even more so than Septembers, when the school year gets going. I can't say why, but it seems the prime month for visitors. Next month does more than prove the pattern; it pushes it further. We have far more going on than I have hours in my planning day, week, or month to take care of. Advances are made before there is the structure to support it. That's where I come in as trouble-shooter, and keep coming in, year after year. These are the growing pains; these are the small rains.

Derartu doesn't need much supervision. She is eighteen. She has run with our team since she was sixteen. But when it's time to train she is the adult in the room. While Altaye wears his goofy grin and cuddles up to Cien, Derartu attacks every movement with a creased brow, clean movement, and blunt muscle. When we take Derartu out for the occasional meal – a good dose of protein, she stares straight ahead silently. The rare smile is beautiful, but she is not here to smile. She is paying her dues.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Travelogue 375 – December 13
Amsterdam, Part Two


It's so hard to get up early in northern Europe. It's dark, and then it's dark some more. I eventually climb out of bed. Outside, the sunrise tints the clouds pink. It's 8:30.

I'm going to walk into the centrum. The canals have a film of ice on them. Seagulls stand on the ice as though they are dazed by the slow dawn.

The trams are humming by. Loads of people are cruising around on bikes. There's bustle, but there's never chaos in Amsterdam. It's the happiest town for A-type stoners. Bike paths accompany every street. Intersections are governed by intricate electronic choreography, and everyone obeys. Everything is tiny and cute. Only the detail and individuality of age saves the town from feeling like a model train set.

It's early enough, and I'm having little enough luck finding a place wide enough for a comfortable work session, so I commit to the walk into the centrum. I do make one stop before I make it there, a plush brasserie, where a diminutive machiatto costs three euro, where sheer white drapes hang beside ceiling-high mirrors. Some of the clientele could be TV stars. The men talk like producers. They wear bold ties. Their hair is Netherlands shag.

I continue my walk, along the Number Two tram line. I eventually arrive at the imposing Rijksmuseum. Passing that building and the Van Gogh Museum, I arrive in the centrum, crossing the first of the inner rings of canals. From here, everything just gets smaller, more squeezed, and more precious.

I stop at the Kandinsky Coffeehouse among the inner rings. It's Amsterdam cramped, all up and no width, off the beaten path, and exhibiting only a modicum of the charm of the classical facades around it. It has a counter downstairs and a few seats. Upstairs consists of four tables on poles set before a ragged L of a cushioned bench along the balcony, divan-style. The tables are barely big enough for my netbook. The music is made of bleeps and chants and hip-hop rhythms in water drops and bubble-gum pops. The downstairs has just enough space for several predictable murals featuring Oriental pleasures.

The barista is a tired-looking eighteen year-old blonde, who is eager to please, which means she is ready with a preemptive show of angry irony. 'Hello,' she drones, her tone saying she has my measure. 'Yes, you can sit upstairs but you have to order downstairs.' Oh? 'You can try to order upstairs ….' I think her English fails her here. Biting wit requires too much agility in a second language. I'd like to see the prices for coffee, but the menu only features hashish and 'Dutch Grass'. They have what seems like a nice variety of these items, several pages worth, anyway, and they're rated by 'stone'. Hmm. You know, I'd just like a coffee. She bucks her head dismissively. 'What kind?' I'm apologetic. I'm missing the tinsel celebs of the brasserie.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Travelogue 374 – December 12
Amsterdam, Part One


It's the truth. I find it odd to be back in this old city again, find it strange and stirring. I've had a pass-through or two in the time since the halcyon days when I lived here, but those isolated snapshots are yellowing themselves, in their way more perishable than the impossibly distant autumn of my residence.

It was the fall. I was a student. It was the season, by chance, that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event that I'm afraid rings as old these days as the moon shot, as Civil Rights, as the Civil War. But some of us walking the earth have held pieces of the Wall in their hands, gripping them like crystals, and wondering at the sensation of history, at the Right-Here-Right-Nowness of it.

That was my first extended trip to Europe. It was my first chance to experience the contrast between Europe the Romance and Europe the Reality. I was settled into student buildings stacked like blocks of cement among dozens of others of its kind in the outer rings of the city, reached by humming trams. The rooms were square and sterile, functional in a way that I found intriguing, appealing. The Dutch are indeed urban planners. They have centuries of practice squeezing dense populations into precious small space, all reclaimed from the North Sea. I remember feeling the sea, present though out of sight, grey and cold. Once you're outside the centrum, Holland asserts itself. One might think the high narrow houses, all with their hooks, characterize Holland, but instead I think of the flat, green fields, the narrowness of the land itself, the sprawl of flavorless buildings in neat blocks that halt abruptly along a line that the eternally thoughtful planners have scratched across a map.

I remember the light, Flemish skies expanding into expressive banks of cloud. Lying below those over-ripe impressions was the blunt fact of our latitude: the skies grew dim as the solstice approached. Frost gathered in the lengthening shadows and never melted. The omniscient concrete melded into the season's light.

I remember the Dutch, smart and sarcastic, the men with their stubborn blonde shags that were already dated. I remember their quiet domesticity. I remember the ruthlessly egalitarian spirit of the Dutch, tiring in its stridency. I remember being the only American in my language class. I fell for my teacher, young and fiercely intelligent, who not only didn't speak English – an oddity among the Dutch – but made a point of it. I remember American classmates from other classes, and drinking with them into the wee hours of the deep northern night. I amused them with ball-point portraits of their beer-numbed features. I remember Napoleon, my Colombian classmate, who entranced me with his uncanny salsa.

What I don't remember very well are red lights, canals, and 'coffee houses'. These pictures reside at the core of most modern tourists' impression. Amsterdam has become one of Europe's party cities. Book a short flight and commence drinking; make great shows of carousing; take photos with prostitutes; that sort of thing. I confess that, with the exception of Vegas in my teens, I've never conformed well to that mass mandate of travel. I've certainly 'partied', but I've never felt the need of a pack or a sanctioned city in order to do it.

Amsterdam in image is 'cool' in that mysteriously hypnotic way of our time. Age does much to strip away the mystique, and suddenly 'cool' evaporates and leaves something amazingly banal. What is more common, in fact, than intoxication and the jaded, self-aware merchandising of sex? Is this how it was in high school? Did we all swoon before mediocrity, just because we were entranced by its self-confidence? 'Cool' metastasizes into philosophy the way a drunk's ramblings on a bar napkin become art, in a sort of bold sleight-of-hand that consists of nothing but boldness. To the extent that the Dutch call their libertinism 'culture', the more they trivialize themselves. Fortunately, history preserves for them a better place.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Travelogue 373 – December 11
Christmas in Bath


The Kennet and Avon Canal has chunks of ice in it. The Bath area has emerged from a bitter cold spell just in time for my visit. I'm thankful. I need a long run, and I don't have cold weather gear. The towpath is very sloppy, offering either puddles or orange mud to the runner's careful foot. I choose the mud.

It isn't by any means warm out, nor is the afternoon terribly inviting for nature walks, glowering with clouds and already gloaming at 3pm. But there are still a good number of hardy Brits out still, unsteady on their old bikes or hunched inside their long jackets, their dogs by their sides.

The countryside still offers its charms, even in winter. The hillsides are green, lined in a very few fields with traces of snow. The trees are bare and brooding. Everything seems more damp than usual in the frustrated light of near-solstice. There are places slick with frost that never goes away. The sun rarely hits the ground in the northern shadow of tall hills.

The city offers a contrast to the vanquished silence of the hills. Today is Saturday, and Christmas is two weeks away. Bath is the shopping town for the region. The shopping streets downtown are jammed with milling people, and people remarkably cheery for what strikes me as a season of anxiety. Everyone is with family, window-shopping, gobbling sweets at cafes, carrying bags in every available hand. They're smiling, greeting, and chattering. Musicians are playing at corners. There's a group of high school girls standing before music stands and marching through carols with flutes and African drums.

I'm meeting a new friend at the Jika Jika cafe. It's a little restaurant and cafe at the top of the main shopping avenue. Word is it was opened by a rugby player who was drummed out of the sport because of his drug habit – and I'm not referencing steroid use here. The cafe is narrow and deep in layout, as to be expected in old Bath. The fare and service are that curious blend between hippie and posh, organic and refined, that caters to the conflicted appetites of modern urban types. The furniture seems rough-hewn, like sitting at picnic tables. Families loudly consume, while on the walls above them are displayed sophisticated photographic nudes.

I eat very little, and very simply. I have a plan to run soon after lunch. And I'm trying to be careful. Everyone in Pey's house has a cold at some stage of development. The smallest, Bea, has it the worst. She's been confined at home for several days, looking dejected and emitting hollow, regular little coughs. I'm being very careful to avoid the germ.

I limit the distance of my run because of the imminent, gathering dusk, settling down over the valley like the sad illness I'm trying to avoid. I know that stars will be out before five. But arriving home, I want a long warm-down. I pass the house and jog the extra several hundred meters to the top of their hill. There's a park there, and a little circuit around the hilltop that amounts to a third of a mile. I do some slow laps. From this vantage, you see a lot of the town, opening up below you, like scenes from a play, and then repeating. The scenery is very pleasant, but the action is far away and muted. The darkness deepens, and I realize I haven't learned much from the play. Scaling the heights doesn't give you the town.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Travelogue 372 – November 26
Palmer's and the Future of the Republic


I'm back at Palmer's. One never strays too far from Palmer's, once one has been to Palmer's. Palmer's is the quintessential dive bar. It stands -- or leans, more properly speaking -- on Cedar Avenue in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, a scrappy wedge of blocks abutting the university on one side, and the knot of highways I've mentioned in previous blogs, the spaghetti buffet of asphalt that chops up this side of the city. It's rather a seedy district, only flattered by the adjective 'ugly', somewhat more insulted by 'charming'.

There's a band crammed onto the high stage in the tiny nook fit into the prow of this oddly shaped building. The building has no definable shape. The angled walls that I'm describing as the 'prow' never quite meet in a point. There is a blunt wall on the outside, adorned with the locally famous wooden relief of a tall and attenuated gentleman in a derby leaning against an invisible bar. In the back of this building is a mosque.

The band is the Liquor Pigs. Craig and I catch a show or two of theirs every year -- for the last ten years or so. They used to play at the Vike, a West Bank bar now closed, a place with even a worse a reputation than Palmer's. The Liquor Pigs are a quartet of over-skilled, middle-aged musicians who swing whimsically through long sets of country and folk, with touches of bluegrass. Especially fun is the fiddle man stomping his foot and sawing through dizzy solos.

Look around Palmer's; peer through the dim light of it. Make an inventory of the faces. This place is the picture of American diversity. 'Diversity': the latest word to be eviscerated by rhetoricians.

Someone is shouting for their check. The old black gentleman in a beret replies that he's Russian, and actually gets a laugh. Among the crowded tables, Eritreans argue with Ethiopians, old drunks trade jokes with young drunks, each so padded with dirty winter gear that race is lost, and a pretty Hindu boy strums his guitar while he teases his blonde girlfriend. All of us are listening to old-time country. Civility reigns.

Why is it so easy in Palmer's, while right there on the tiny color screen suspended in the corner, our mixed-race president struggles awkwardly with his words and with his nation? You can almost see the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune surrounding him, the poison darts spit at him by right-wingers, left-wingers, wing-tippers, ultra-right-wingers, wing-nuts, tea-baggers, and neo-hate-wingers. The failure of Mr. Obama, to my mind, is the last chapter in a sad story, the painfully slow sinking of the ship we call American political discourse into the sea of babbling irrelevance. The rest of us wait on shore, expecting a very important message. But in fact, we will have to carry on without them somehow, nodding sadly as Ms. Palin shrieks that we must stand by our North Korean allies, and turning away, going back to work in our various retail outlets.

I'm reading 'Idiot America', by Charles P. Pierce, a light-hearted polemic about this very capsizing of intelligence and leadership in America. It's a fun read, but it does little beyond confirming the obvious. When we can't admit that not everyone's judgement is equal; when democracy becomes reality TV; when emotional stimulation trumps sober (and boring) thought; when shouting and insults are simply more fun than civility; when philosophy and religion are products, validated by marketing numbers; when values are fashions; then republics founder. That's it.

Turn away from the turbulent seas. Take a seat at Palmer's. Enjoy the show that is governed by reason. Some music still requires skill. Practice human virtues. Remind yourself how easy it is to get along with people. History is built of such things.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Travelogue 371 – November 25
Tea Time


They say there is no more evocative trigger for memory than aroma.

It's Thanksgiving, and I'm on strike. I've received a few kind invitations from friends to Thanksgiving dinner, but Thanksgiving is a holiday for families. I have no family. What's more, I just don't like the holiday. So I won't go through the motions.

This morning, temperatures in Minneapolis are in the single digits Fahrenheit. There is new snow on the ground from a storm yesterday, but the sun is shining brightly. I'm going to go for a walk. My route toward any cafe is west, into the wind. I have no scarf, and by the time I've covered six blocks or so, my face and neck are raw.

It's a fortunate coincidence that my favorite cafe is the closest one. I'm praying that it's open. My prayers are answered. I spend quite a lot of Thanksgiving morning thawing and watching the sun smite snow crystals among tree branches and on the roofs of houses in the neighborhood.

I've ordered a cup of the cafe's amazing coffee. I've finished it. I'm lazily poking around my email accounts, assessing the pileup of work without having any resolve to tackle it. A scent comes to me. It's familiar but also seems to come to me from a distant past. The scent is jasmine. I immediately go to the counter and place my order for green jasmine tea.

For one extended moment, there's nothing in the world but that aroma. Some happy scents, at the moment of their first impact, overrun all other sensory input. Myriad doors open, and the moment stands alone, gathering into its sphere a world of pleasurable evocation.

There was a time when I indulged in jasmine tea the way I do good coffee now. My memory flatters those days. This is what is summoned to mind by the tea: long, trash-talking bouts of chess in the cafe, sun brilliant in the windows; daily afternoon walks in Loring Park between shifts of work, with an hour to allow my mind to wander. Those were days when poetry was meaningful. I studied ancient Greek for fun. I ordered jasmine tea. I let it steep until it was dark and stinky. My life smelled of jasmine.

It was on one of those afternoons that I first set eyes on Leeza. Alas, I don't remember the exact occasion, but I know it happened in my regular cafe. Maybe I was conjugating Greek verbs. Maybe I was teasing a few lines of words into iambics. Maybe I was cornering Rob's king. It's a safe bet that she was meeting Eman.

She enters shyly, backpack over her shoulder, brown Ethiopian angel's eyes searching the cafe, her glorious, curly black hair captured in a loose bun. She spots Eman and heads for her table quickly, her characteristic smile opening in a laugh already. I watch her with a teacup in my hand, steam rising, scent of the day insistent. I take a taste.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Travelogue 370 – November 23
Fire and Ice


My only exposure to television is in bars. That comes with one distinct advantage: there is no sound. There is a break in the sports news, during which a distressed couple stands at a drug store counter, insipidly and earnestly asking the counter help about condoms, holding up a package with the brand name 'Fire and Ice'. This sad advertisement supplements its case with blue and red arrows spiraling like comforting cartoon breezes. Arguably something to the advertisers' credit is the lack of any note of eroticism whatsoever. If there was any message about sex at all, it was that coitus is an irksome task, probably not worth the anxiety it produces. 'Fire and Ice' might be a brand sponsored by the Vatican.

It's all ice and little fire in Minnesota now. There was a big snow weeks ago, and the white stuff has never completely melted away since. Yesterday, we awoke to ice. The skies were taken over by slate clouds and lines of sleet. I stepped out to test the viability of biking or even walking outside. I immediately lost my footing and fell down the stairs. I ducked back inside for the rest of the morning, nursing my shoulder, and staring outside at the glistening surface of everything -- the asphalt of the parking lot, the tree branches, the parked cars, the broken piles of frozen snow.

Today, the ice has abated just enough to allow us outdoors again. I take the bike out for a spin. Temperatures are below 20F, but temps like that in daylight are very different than the same at night. There's no science to that. It just feels warmer with the fire in the sky, no matter how attenuated. I'm fine for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time on the bike in these temps. The trick is being alert enough to all the winter hazards -- patches of ice, Somali drivers, streets narrowed by the snow plows, Somali drivers, sudden winds, slick bridges, Somali drivers, and such like.

There's a coffee shop inside the Freewheel bike shop on the Greenway in Minneapolis. It's not too far from home. It's a fun place to get some work done on wifi, watch the bike wonks, and browse the gear. There's a core of cyclists that will not stop for any weather. I enjoy their good-humored determination. There's a new bike on display in the shop, called the 'Pugsley'. It has huge hairy tires about four inches wide. The handlebars are outfitted with 'bar mitts

I simply can't sit indoors for very long. In the afternoon, I go for a run. I spend almost as much time dressing for the run as executing it. That's the biggest adjustment that winter demands, isn't it? Winter is time-consuming. Everything is slow. Dressing takes twice as long. Transit time slows down. And the running slows, too. You have to watch for ice, and you also don't want to strain muscles and joints that are already being tested by the cold.

Winter requires commitment. Winter is a child that you don't yell at. You just slow everything down. You take Winter's hand, and you look both ways before you cross the road. You don't step out until the way is entirely clear.

The winter run can be tricky to plan. You have to be careful about the route, never committing to a course that takes you too far away from home. You continually gauge the damage being done to skin and joints. The most vulnerable places are hands, face and ears, toes, and knees. A nice winter run is exhilarating, but the fun degenerates very quickly once the body ha had enough. Be as close to home when that transition happens as possible.

My farthest point today is the river. Ice is gathering already in the slow margins of the watercourse. But the chilled black water still surges south. There's another runner on the path ahead of me. She has that heavy winter tread going, slow and steady. Vaporous breath escapes from her. Her cheeks are bright red. We share a smile of something unique shared.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Travelogue 369 – November 15
Manassas


Sweet Lethe. It makes the onerous duties of humanity so much easier to bear.

In July, 1861, some 35,000 Union recruits marched out of Washington to great fanfare. Three months previously the Confederates had attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston. Armies were amassing to protect the two capitals, Washington and Richmond. And now it was time to discipline those unruly southern states.

'Old Fuss and Feathers', Winfield Scott, Lincoln's first commanding general, (already an officer in the War of 1812, nearly fifty years earlier!) a military genius weighing in at over 300 pounds, had had to bow to popular pressure. No matter how much his prodigious experience, supported by his prodigious physical presence, had argued against rash action, the northern states needed a battle. He sent off General McDowell to take Richmond.

In between the neighboring capitals, there was a critical railroad junction in Manassas, Virginia, near a little river called Bull Run. Here the boys met their first Confederate army, 22,000 boys guarding the fords of the river.

These young Union men had signed up as ninety-day volunteers. This was going to be a short campaign. So sure was the DC crowd that the native peoples of Richmond, Virginia would shower them with flowers, grateful for liberating them from the tyranny of slave-owning aristocrats, that a number of gentlemen and ladies packed lunches and followed in the wake of the army in order to watch the show. They ended up being hurdles for the retreating troops, who only survived because the Confederates boys were just as green, just as exhausted.

Doughboys and GIs whistling their way to the ships that would convey them to carnage; GW's liberators limbering up for the quick march to Baghdad; cheery young jihadists packing their underwear with explosives that will project them straight into the welcoming arms of their virgins in heaven: what is it about war that arouses an almost criminal naivete?

We've kicked off a few wars in my lifetime. The only time I remember a general impression of sobriety and caution about deployment was when we signed up for Gulf War Number One -- the one time that we achieved our dream conquest, a few months in and out. (Let's not talk about Iraqi casualties, shall we?) There was certainly lots of sober talk about Vietnam. But maybe I just missed the carnival.

Just over one year later, the boys were back at it in the same fields of Manassas. This time, they were battle-hardened. And this time, the battle raged three days, claiming three times as many casualties. Lincoln still hadn't found his winning generals. The South had been far more successful putting talent in place. It was at Manassas that Thomas Jackson earned his moniker 'Stonewall' -- by being unmovable, in case the metaphor escapes you. The Union was no more successful the second time, and the loss set up Robert E. Lee to make his first incursions into Northern territory.

The overlapping battlefields now comprise a national park, a large tract of fields and forests that feature a network of walking and horse paths. My hotel is close to the park, just across the DC commuter highway 66.

The fields are beautiful. When I left Minnesota, the first snow had just fallen and temperatures were plummeting. Here, it's autumn. The leaves have turned but haven't all fallen. The hills are afire with color, and among the red copses, the famous fields. I stand under Stonewall's equestrian statue looking out over pretty landscape. There is a line of cannons ahead of me, facing the northern horizon. Across rolling fields, across a shallow valley, in a corresponding high field near the horizon, you can just make out another line of cannons facing south. The scope of events suggested by the landscape boggles the mind: battles that raged across many square miles of hilly, wooded terrain. It's very difficult to picture. We've seen the movies: men in Union suits running, each with a gun, en masse among stands of trees, the ambient boom of cannon behind them. But how does one incorporate the whole of the action into one's imagination? How does one plot it against peaceful countryside?

In two days' running of the trails, I'm able to cover most of the territory of the two battlefields. I'm watching for melancholy ghosts who can explain. Instead I pass an intrepid doe, who stands firm though I pass within several yards of her. She twitches her nose at me. She tenses as though she might bolt. But she maintains her position, and I'm in retreat.

I survived the battle, though I nearly twisted an ankle running through fallen leaves. I've survived to see a country united and free of slavery, made free for peace and commerce. Back at Route 66, the heirs of Civil War veterans speed recklessly by in their automobiles (an invention of the Civil War generation, even if most of the work was German,) stopping for fast food or for their share of the quarter-of-a-trillion gallons of gasoline burned annually. I think the noise and adrenaline of the modern highway might have presented a challenge for even old Stonewall.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Travelogue 368 – November 6
Running the Old Creek


I'm in Colorado. I see the Rockies through my windshield, through the window of my new hotel, and through the gaps among the buildings of the avenues. It's an image that retrieves sentiments from far down the well of memory.

Both my parents were born and raised in Colorado. By the time I came along they had evolved to Los Angeles, but often we visited my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Colorado was an odd paradise, one furnished by real mountains for climbing, real forests for hiking, and real farms. The pleasures were tainted: I had to find out that real nature was kind of dirty, that there were bugs and poison ivy, and that mountain streams were way too cold. This paradise was populated by bullying small-town cousins, and also by virginal cousins who inspired the first mysterious movements of romance.

There's a bar in the Wash Park area of Denver called the Candlelight Tavern. It sounds like a place for delicate sensibilities, where sweet romance might bud among cousins. But in fact it's a bar for rougher sensibilities. Actually, let's just leave sensibilities out of it. It's a place to crowd in with other drinkers, order a Man Beer (it's a brand!) and a fist-sized burger with fries in a basket, watch football, and wait for the advent of the scrapper crowd after eleven.

Tonight, the Candlelight is calm. I'm there well ahead of the scrappers. I sit at the bar and hunch down, hoping my big city-liberal credentials don't show. I order my Man Beer, and I watch hockey – an incomprehensible game to me, but so important to men in Minnesota and Colorado. Should I be trying to follow the puck? Should I be watching for a fight? Should I be enjoying the footwork of big men on skates? I'm afraid I don't get it.

Scott has grown into a big boy. He is broad of shoulder and broad of girth. The buzz cut under his cap is grizzled. He has the laid back charm that makes for a good bartender. Everyone seems to know him. A pair of inordinately buxom college women are leaning over the bar to call him over with flirty smiles. I worry him by my staring. It's his fault, though. Why is he wearing a shirt with the name 'Matt' sewn into it?

I call him over, and ask him where he grew up. He shoots me a warning glance, but plays along. I lead him through our town, our high school, and still he doesn't recognize me. 'Did you play sports?' I asked. Yeah, cross country. I'm smiling. And it finally dawns on him. After all that, he tries to tell me I look exactly the same, and I just laugh. He's certainly changed a lot, but his smile is the same.

Scott has and had an infectious smile. It's the thing you would remember about him. He was always joking around in high school, always in an amiable way. It was rare then, and seems rare now, to see him troubled or anxious.

He and I traded off as Number One on our high school cross country team. He charted very steady progress during his years of training, roughly parallel to his startling physical growth in junior and senior years, and eventually became the more dependable athlete. When we first met, we were both skinny kids. By the time we graduated, I was the skinny kid. He was tall and broad-shouldered. He was strong and steady. I was more of the prodigy unrealized. I held the course records, but was unpredictable.

I'm the one still running, these many years later. Scott just laughs when I invite him to train with me. The weather in Denver couldn't be better: blue skies and approaching eighty degrees by afternoon. My second hotel is close to Cherry Creek, so that's the route I choose, northwest alongside the creek, toward downtown. Most of the way, the creek is buffered from the city by its own green park. The creek itself is a pleasure. Its rocky course and the red, sandy banks are everything Southwestern, triggering all kinds of fond memories of both California and Colorado. It's with a heavy heart that I give in to the heat and to the pains in my knees, and I finally turn back after about four miles up the creek. I'm wishing I could lope all the way to the mountains on the horizon.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Travelogue 367 – November 5
The Lone Prairie


Denver's airport is a circus tent in the lone prairie. It's a white, spiky circus tent pitched in the golden prairie grasses of Colorado. The landing strips are temporary strips of asphalt purchased from the elements. From a few miles away, the place seems preternaturally quiet. It makes one realize that zombie and end-of-the-world movies are a creation of the western mind, cultivated among landscapes that mocks the hubris of bipedals.

(Having just come from Ethiopia, this seems like an interesting riddle. Anthropos evolved among open grasslands in East Africa – in large part because of the exigencies of survival among the unconscious savanna. You'd think we would feel right at home in the prairie. But I think homo americanus is anxious in the plains, is much more comfortable among the trees of Minnesota.)

The rental car counter-person talks me out of more money than I had promised on Expedia. The penetrating sunshine persuades me that it's all right. Chris and I jump into my blue Focus and slip onto the broad boulevard that eventually feeds into I-70. It's a straight avenue among unvarying grassland. The sky is a bright field of blue. The line of mountains ahead might be twenty minutes away; they might be hours.

I'm reminded of manic cross-country trips in my youth, coast to coast. I've crossed the plains on the old I-70, straight ahead for hours among the tawny monotony, through the anomalies of prairie cities, through Limon, across more wind-blown, glaring tabletop land. And then there's the miracle of the Rockies.

Today, I've flown right over it all, from the prairie's eastern edges in Minnesota to the base of the Rockies. The sun has shown all the way, and I've watched the subtle changes in the landscape, checkerboard Midwestern farmland gradually disrupted by rough patches of dry land, by stubborn gullies. The checkerboard gives way to green circles among miles of dust and wiry grass. Finally, grass wins, bending like surf toward the west.

In the morning I awaken as the sun is rising over I-70. I'm on the fifth floor and my window looks east. The highway is a line of blurring headlights emerging from the incipient sunrise. The brown horizon is flat and featureless. It's an abstraction; it's an etude.

Since my return to the States, I've been rising before the sun, engaging with the last darkness of the night. I work; I watch the approach of light. It's strangely comfortable. Today the sun is unimpeded by trees. It rolls over the lip of Earth. It lights the grass on fire.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Travelogue 366 – October 28
Hounslow


For the duration of this stopover in England, I'm a resident of Hounslow. Hounslow is a township in southwestern Greater London. It gives its name to the borough, which is one of thirty-three that make up the same 'Greater London', a relatively recent creation. The town is linked in history with the heath of the same name. This town used to stand, quietly independent of the great capital, along the Great Western Road. The town is linked in contemporary blog history with the vast airport (roomy enough to swallow a few Houslows) to the west. Hounslow Central is three Tube stops from Terminal Four, which is where Delta patrons heading to America embark.

It's one of those London suburbs that has forged a unique relationship with the horizon. There might be a few multi-story business buildings in the center, but they are surrounded and suffocated by miles of streets of one- and two-story brick, tiled roofs, and square chimneys. Each dwelling looks to be a few strides wide. The cars in front seem rivals in comfort. The narrow streets go on and on, and the world seems a small place.

My time in Hounslow is a happy one. My guest house serves a good, free breakfast. And only a few blocks away, housed in one of the several high-rises, is a gym that charges a daily rate of only £5. A few blocks in the other direction is a spacious park, spacious enough for a run of a few miles in the morning, (a morning that comes appallingly late – I'm feeling very weird when it's still dark at seven a.m.). And nearby is a high street with lots of shops with cheap conveniences, and a Costa Coffee, too.

There are a lot of guys wearing turbans in Hounslow. To turn that around, it must be said that there are very few white faces in Hounslow. I didn't really notice or care on the first day. But it became clear to me that everyone else noticed. I acquired a foreboding sense that there are race problems round these parts.

The Asian faces are grim. I encounter them on my morning walk in the park. Most are middle-aged and set in disapproval when they pass me. The bodies accompanying the faces are garbed in middle class workout gear. The walks are brisk constitutionals that seem to become slightly martial in the presence of a white man. The old men in turbans sneer.

The gym is dominated by toned Indian and Pakistani youth. They glance at me with a mix of curiosity and hostility. The latter fades when I smile and when they hear my accent. They return to their workouts, workouts that have a disturbing intentionality to them. I'm sure that can be said of most men at the gym, including myself. It's probably the rare male that doesn't radiate a bit of I'll-show-him/her/them at the gym.

Lest I risk being unfair or insensitive, I should make mention of the Somalis. There they are, strolling the high street. The teenage Somalis sport distinctly British cuts. I'm not sure what's behind the prevalence of this faux-Mohawk that's so popular in Britain, the line of longer, greased hair along the center of the scalp. I'm certainly no one to speak about style, but the odd attachment of Europe to 80s hairstyles has long been a matter of concern for me. These are the people we would like to see as full partners in world governance, after all. That said, I confess that I have yet to see a true mullet in London.

And what is description of British life without reference to the ubiquitous Wetherspoon's chain? There is one in Hounslow center. I stop there for fish and chips one afternoon. I'll admit to one bitter. Maybe it's the taste of alcohol that moved me to ask about football. The friendly bartender gave me recommendations of venues to view the Arsenal match. There were two choices, the pub on the high street that will charge me. Or the pub that advertises both English and Indian food and is situated on the road that leads to my guest house. The bartender tells me that they have a beautiful big screen, but ruefully is moved to warn me that things often get contentious there, due to the crowd being of a split personality, 'a split reflected in the town population at large, I'm afraid.' Enough said, mate.

O Hounslow, must you succumb to the contentious spirit of the age, You, my idyllic town of gym and cheap electronics, of brick one-family bliss, of shaded park pathways beneath the above-ground Piccadilly line? Embrace those of turban and beard, make them your own, the boons of empire. Share together a Costa latte, put disputes to rest, and discover your bright future together, together in the shadows of the estimable airliners roaring above, O Hounslow, dear Hounslow.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Travelogue 365 – October 26
Scots, Teens, and Vamps


I fly Ethiopia Air back to London. My way in from the US was two night flights broken up by one dose of daylight in Britain. My way out is two daytime flights. I'm happy.

Menna and I arrive at the airport by seven. My flight is at ten. I'm driven to check in obsessively early because Ethiopia Air doesn't allow seat selection online. The prospect of nine hours on a flight brings out all manner of anxiety in me: I must do everything possible to secure a window seat.

Menna and I have coffee and cake in the vast airport lobby, and we go over some last-minute planning. There's a tottering, wide-eyed Scotsman wandering the lobby cafe, stinking of prodigious quantities of liquor. Though he's smiling with a kind of diffuse glee, he has the grey and crumpled look of exhaustion. He's a young man prematurely dry and creased. None of that matters to him now. He's discovered an American, and he circles me with merry fascination. He asks where we're from. 'O-o-o-oh,' he replies with impish delight. I ask where he's going. He's he was on his way home, but seems to have missed his flight. He tells me I have lovely eyes.

I ask if he'll be all right. Does he have a plan to get home? After a bright-eyed pause, he tells us what his mother said. ' “Martin,” me mum says to me, “Martin, when you're in the shit,” she says to me, “Martin, are you … Martin!” she says to me, “are you in the shit? Look at me, and tell me, are you in the shit?” '

I nod with a pretense of comprehension and with real compassion. I reiterate that I hope he'll be all right. It occurs to dear Martin that he needs a cigarette. He teeters off toward the counter.

It's time for me to go. We pay up, I pack up the notebook, and we're on our way to departures when Martin intercepts us. 'O-o-o-oh, you're off then?' He gives us each a lingering hug, and a withering breath in the face. 'Remember this,' he says. 'My grandmother once said, “Martin!” she says, “Remember what I tell ye! It's better for a man to stand one full day in the sun than, than … Martin!” she says, “than to (and here he demonstrates) spend a lifetime on his knees.” Ha!' He struggles to his feet as I contemplate this indecipherable aphorism. He grabs me again nd plants a bristling kiss on my cheek. He offers the same to Menna, who declines, giggling uncontrollably. 'Bye, bye, now.'

The flight is not quite full, allowing Will, the British geologist, and I to share a set of three seats. Will spends most of the flight bent over a fat thriller, spectacles a few inches from the page. Everyone within half a dozen rows either way shares the aural zone with a chubby Somali girl of three or so, one seat behind us but mercifully across the aisle. The girl has a mother and a brother, both of them playmates, neither of them a curb to the screeching. Fortunately, my earplugs muffle the noise just enough to bring it below adrenaline levels. I envy the geologist his intense engagement in what appears to be a substandard paperback. I'm reading some vintage Chandler, stories dating back to the 30s. They're fun, but I'm distracted, distracted by the lack of distraction. Ethiopia Air provides one film for the entire flight, on tiny screens every third row or so. I slip in and out of a light dozing, punctuated by the Somali girl's most penetrating screams.

The one movie today, which I've awaited with much anticipation, turns out to be 'Eclipse', one of the Twilight series about teenage vampires. It seems that our world is just a chessboard for warring packs of wistful, tan-eyed vampires and awkward wolfmen, embarrassingly fond of their physiques while human and unconvincingly digital as wolves.

While the prospect of a girl forever trapped in pre-pubescence in 'Let the Right One In', (the Swedish version, than you very much) is haunting and sublime, the spectacle of a circle of forever-eighteens is shockingly bathetic. Don't you all recall (with a blush) the days you could talk all night about relationships without a blush? Imagine eternity in that state! In a sense, the makers of these movies have reinvented horror as a genre. The next step would be inventing a society frozen in the 80s. Wait ….

I wonder what the teens in the section up front thought of all this. There's a pack of twenty or more British high-schoolers who seem to be returning from a field trip to … Ethiopia! They seem curiously unaffected by the experience, far more interested really in the airline meals and the vagaries of trans-time-zone travel than in the lessons of the developing world. Fortunately, their eyes come in a variety of colors. As self-consciously as a circle of vampires, they spend every moment of the flight together, gathering in the aisle, sitting on the armrests, smiling with brave irony as they tease each other.

The teens are accompanied by a smaller pack of teachers, all strangely uncommitted to being adults. One is a wide-shouldered man proud of his looks, flirting with the young females of the species, and mirroring those self-conscious smiles of youth. Another is a blowsy woman with admirable hips and admirable cleavage, who bestows fond gazes on the young males of the species. Another, more sexually neutral, still feels inclined to reveal a disturbing amount of chest hair. His sense of style is admirably modern, replete with tats and piercings and tight clothing.

The flight does reach its destination. Neither time nor ageing have been brought to a stop. We emerge from the plane nine hours older, though no wiser, and no one has needed a transfusion, not even the study little Somali, who has exercised her tiny lungs all day with nary a pause. My boon on this flight: nearly everyone on the plane was a UK citizen. I rush to the head of the 'All Others' passport control line at Heathrow. Every cloud has its silver bullet ….

Monday, October 18, 2010

Travelogue 364 – October 18
Lush


I've been back in Addis for six days, and I haven't had a shower since Ziway. The water has utterly evaporated from the Shiro Meda neighborhood, and several others in a swath across the northern districts of the city. Beti brings me buckets every day; from where I'm not even sure. From the neighbors while they still had some in their tank. Now from down the street. Early on, I would find that there was water at 3am, but was too sleepy to jump in the shower. After so many days now, I wouldn't take the time to shake off my clothes. But I'm stuck with washing out of buckets for now. I never quite feel clean. My technique in bucket baths is very undeveloped, though I've had lots of practice in Ethiopia. It doesn't come naturally.

Naive Westerner, slave to the Greeks, I see it all in terms of politics. How can thousands of households in the capital city be cut off from plumbing indefinitely without a word from the government? What's behind it? To the locals, it's a matter to be shrugged off, and I'm sure that goes for the officials 'behind' the problem. Services come; services go. Everyone adapts and carries on. The smiles don't falter.

Oh, Addis, capital city, where luxuries gather like beads of water spiraling down the walls of jungle leaves, toward the base, toward the roots, there is still so little comfort. You can find chocolate here, and you can find dental floss for afterward. There are ATMs! There are Time magazines. But, poor old one-legged city, you can't always find electricity or water. One breathes in burning plastic and diesel fumes while waiting for overcrowded transit. One wades through the trash and animal bones on the city's dirt roads, and leap over pools of oil. Oh, Addis.

Better the sticks. I'm already waxing nostalgic over Awasa and Yirgacheffe in the south, as though it were months since I was there. I never went without electricity or water there. Even in dusty Ziway on the way back.

No fan of rain, I even entertain fond memories of the southern showers, like the one that overtook us at the noon hour in lush Yirgacheffe. We had spent most of the morning covering the hundred kilometers or so from Awasa, and by the time we arrived, the clouds were accumulating. Yirgacheffe lies among mountains reminiscent of those above Addis, except they are closer and encircling. And the landscape is green and lush, palms and papaya crowding the alien eucalyptus. And underneath, everywhere, is the buna plant: coffee!

We disembark from the crowded bus at the first sight of a hotel – as it turns out the only faranji-friendly hotel in the small town. I want to taste the coffee. I don't really expected anything different than the usual, pungent Ethiopian brew but I want to be able to say I've sipped some java in Yirgacheffe. When the steaming, dark berry juice appears, and I've tasted it, I'm amazed. It really is phenomenal. The flavor is absolutely unique and wonderful. I don't know enough about coffee to explain, but it is delicious. I rush into the center of town, and make my entourage stop at a small, local place. Same thing! I'm a convert.

The town itself has little else to offer. We stroll the main strip, a bustling stretch of asphalt that could be anywhere in Ethiopia. We hide from the cloudburst and taste more buna. We stroll through the market.

Awasa is our base for the southern trip. It's the capital city for the southern nations, so there are city comforts and faranji-friendly services for all the NGOs based here. (Oddly enough, we rarely see any faranjis.) Unlike Addis, the terrain is flat and the air is clear. The city is situated on Lake Awasa, one of Ethiopia's southernmost Rift Valley lakes. And the surrounding hills are greener, more welcoming. Vegetation is dense. The squat false banana trees are everywhere. The area is famous for its bird life. We see parrots and big-billed bullies with frog voices. We see kingfishers, cormorants, colorful finches and, of course, the tall and hideous storks.

And there are the monkeys. You'll see two varieties: the playful, long-tailed vervets and the much larger gurezas. The latter are the long-haired, black and white monkeys that locals call the priest monkeys. I don't remember their Latin or English names. Gureza is Amharic, I think.

We see the birds and the monkeys on our breaks at the Wube Shebele hotel on the lake shore. We bring a cheap soccer ball and play volleyball in the high grass, out in the strong sun. We rest in chairs lined up lakeside and order Mirindas. The vervets run up and watch for chances to steal our soft drinks. Sometimes we let them. They are adept at turning the bottles over with their black-nailed hands so that they can lap up the pop from the puddles they create. The gurezas stay further away, leaping among branches of the massive warqa trees, and occasionally onto the roof of the hotel, making great thumps as they do. This lake is a calm one, the waters quiet and green. On the other side are the green hills separating Awasa from Shashemene.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Travelogue 363 – October 12
Ziway


The streets of Ziway are wide and dusty. Everything in Ziway has a coat of dust. It's like seeing the world through a tinted lens; everything is tawny and gritty. There's a steady wind from the lake, so nothing is still. The roads themselves squirm with it. The dust rises and turns. It gallops.

The lake is restless. The wind won't leave it alone. The water protests with wave after wave. They reach the shore with their complaints, growling and slapping the mud ceaselessly. It looks as thought the waters have risen sometime recently. Enormous trees stand on islands of grass, enduring the assault of the waters. High grass sways with each wave, describing a new, miniature bay with their green extent into the lake.

It's a large lake. You can't see the other side. There's a wooded island within easy reach of a rowing fisherman. Otherwise, it's the troubled aqua-white surface to the horizon. The wind has no impediment for miles. But it carries no weather. The skies are clear. The temperatures are perfect.

There's a resort of sorts beside the lake. It's a modest place for a modest town – nothing like the quasi-grand establishments on some of the other Rift Valley lakes. One of the lateral avenues finds its vague terminus in a clearing among grass. Beyond, one must choose between the private restaurant on the right, and the public mezananya, or park, on the left, both facing the lake.

We are dropped in the unassuming clearing by our bajaj. A bajaj is one of those three-wheeled covered buggies buzzing around on a motorcycle engine, its rounded carapace painted the baby blue that says 'taxi' in Ethiopia. On foot, we veer right and are immediately set upon by a barefoot fellow and his accomplice. Thy have a dogeared receipt book and want to charge fifteen birr to enter. Enter what isn't clear. We back away quickly and try the opposite direction.

The park has a well-marked gateway, where we are charged two birr each. Inside are small and simple gazebos with cement benches extending from the wall. Behind, there is a row of unfinished concrete bungalows for future honeymooners, currently suggesting Normandy before Nice. The grass descends into the anxious waters, rising quickly around the roots of the spreading warqa tree and then advancing somnolently into the rocking shallows of the lake. There's a fisherman astride his papyrus boat among the reeds, inspecting his white net, strand by strand, link by link.

For our part, we sit silently, all contemplating the line of the horizon. There isn't much happening out there. The line has remained very steady for a long, long time. We are not able to discern any change. And it's exactly that that requires long and sincere contemplation. We're wrapping up a week of hard work. The horizon performs its task admirably. It is still.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Travelogue 362 – October 4
The Den


It's 5am in Addis. It's dark out, of course, but there are signs of life. A few priests have begun their morning chants, broadcasting from the great bullhorn speakers attached to their bell towers. The sweet singsong seems to wax and wane with the early morning breezes.

There are dogs barking. If you have spent a night in Addis, that will come as no surprise. 'Who can sleep?' complains every visitor from abroad. Who can sleep, indeed.

It's 5am, and I'm wide awake. I've been awake since 3am. I've resigned myself to it and gotten up to do some work. My netbook blazes like a blue signal fire in the night.

Is it jet lag, or is it anxiety? I've observed that 3am is the witching hour for international travelers. It's common to find oneself awake at that hour, as little sense as that makes for the American traveler, who would normally be having dinner at about that time. Is any routine enough to ring alarms? 3am doesn't seem to register in Cien's dream life. He's in the next room, sleeping soundly, though he arrived a day later than I. Is it the slumber of the innocent?

Is it stress then? There is plenty to stress about. I'm reciting the exhaustive list of objectives for my one month in Ethiopia. One objective is a paradox: restoring order to staff and operations while mobilizing them for the rest of the objectives. I've been away for more than four months, and things here seem habitually to decay after three months. So when I do sleep, I'm bailing buckets of entropy from my slim, green yellow and red canoe.

One discovers one's age inside insomnia, I think. The consciousness is a complex of dim caves. Inside each chamber resound the songs of one's times. They collect with the years, of course. They ferment and sweeten. Their resonances become like hauntings. The music swells during the course of long insomnia, and one becomes a ghost in one's own time.

When a generation dies off, so does the music. For some reason, John Lennon comes to visit me singing, 'Oh Yoko'. What could that song possibly mean to someone who didn't hear it during Lennon's lifetime? My entire experience of Lennon is of a living artist – even after he died, he was someone who was alive to me. What does the music become to those who come after? What am I experiencing when I listen to Mozart? It must be a cold thing compared to what his contemporaries experienced. I don't know.

Eventually the soul emerges from its den, finding the 'real', either in dreams or in morning light. The shadows one has entertained dissipate. One collects a few more songs.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Travelogue 361 – October 3
The Summit


The sun has just risen as our airliner approaches Addis Ababa. I'm watching out the window as we clear the banks of clouds that seem to have western Ethiopia firmly in their grasp. The clouds are my amusement for nearly the full final hour of a flight that is desperately short of amusement. There was one movie, an acceptable piece, despite Demi Moore's unforgiving facial work. I've read off and on. I've shut my eyes in vain attempts at sleep. The best I'm able to manage on a plane is a vertiginous state just short of dozing, in which the mind disengages from its imagery and tiny, nonsensical narratives rise like sparks. Then it's done, and I'm delicately maneuvering from beneath the heavy elbow of the fat man next to me.

The drama of the clouds is complex and fascinating. The story of the clouds is in their variety and their mixture. There are the clouds like high fogs, contiguous and gloomy. There are the happier, billowing variety, the ones that reveal themselves in detailed relief in the dawning day's light. There are the clouds that drift lightly, like shredded cotton, and soak in the roseate glow of the rising sun. They all mix in the wide sky, seeming even to be driven by different winds. The light changes every minute, adding golds and slow stains of blue.

When the clouds break, the ground revealed is remarkably green and I'm reminded that I haven't been to Ethiopia during the fall for three years now. Fall, when the long rainy season finally ends. The land below is dark with lingering night. The gentle hills are broken into irregular, small shapes of family agriculture. We are not far from Addis Ababa, as it turns out. The clouds slowly dissipate, the fields capture the new sunlight among their emerald crops. Extensive ridges and river valleys unfurl themselves for us. Then the mountains become familiar. I watch them gather momentum, and then with a start I recognize them. I'm looking down on the dirt roads that I and my team habitually run, along the ridge just north of the capital city. The morning is now glorious and clear. The roads run east down below, and I'm following them and naming the places. Beyond are the hazy buildings of the city. It's a fun way to re-enter. The plane swings south just past Kotebe and begins to circle toward the airport.

Now it's a different day. The morning unfolds much like the morning of the flight. The sun detaches from the rugged eastern horizon and rises to cast slanted light among the woods. I'm running those trails I've sighted from the plane, running with Dirige, Alaye, Cien, and Derartu. The three Ethiopians are from my team, among the most talented. And for the moment, strictly confining their talent in order to run with the faranjis.

I'm feeling some trepidation as we ride in a taxi up to the summit of Entoto. The first run in Ethiopia is usually excruciating. Jet lag tugs like extra gravity at aching muscles. My sleep cycles haven't adjusted yet. The altitude grips your lungs and makes you a little dizzy.

But today, everything feels fine. I set off cautiously, but the steps follow one another fluidly. I'm mentally checking in on muscles and oxygen. Everything's functioning. I surrender to the rhythm of running. Soon we're hitting that summit behind Entoto and higher than Entoto, running uphill toward the radio tower at the top. The miniature terrain of the dirt road adds complication to the exertion of climbing. Jutting up from the earth is a soft, pale stone that wrinkles like brain matter. You have to watch every step. Running these roads takes full attention. Beyond the summit, the wide road eases into a gentle decline among dense woods, where the danger of hyenas is greatest. The brain stone has disappeared but in its place are legions of grey, sharp ankle-breakers. I enjoy the concentration that this type of running demands.

We round the final bend before we turn back on this initial run. We turn into the heat of the sun. The light that has been coyly playing among the eucalyptus leaves is now in our faces. It's a good day on the summit.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Travelogue 360 – September 30
It's Thursday in Feltham


It's Thursday in Feltham. It's noon, and the old men are at it already, a few pints into their day. I'm at Wetherspoon's in Feltham Centre. Wetherspoon's is a blessing and curse to 21st century England, a homegrown chain of pubs that has a tradition of taking over old banks or other large commercial spaces and transforming them into massive, high-ceilinged arcades of kitsch. They provide comfy dining and drinking according to very detailed blueprints and menus. The fare is affordable and bland.

I make it into the restaurant just before noon, just in time to order breakfast. My meal takes some time to find me, so I have plenty of time to look around. The middle tables are occupied by locals and their pints. Locals also stand at the bar, quietly ordering more. No one is playing the slots yet. I take a dark booth along the wall. It happens, as often happens among self-consciously unwieldy franchises, that the d├ęcor features historic photos of the township. The one in my booth depicts the town green in 1908, little more than muddy fields by a pond and rows of wooden houses some fifty meters back. Boys of various ages pose in their caps and coats, soberly, uncertainly. Morbidly, I reflect that only seven years later, some of these boys would be fighting in France.

Fortified with eggs and beans, I explore the town. The centre is now occupied by severely modern shopping and condominiums. Wetherspoon's is not the only chain to have discovered forlorn Feltham, once known for its peas, and later for providing the world with half of the band Queen. Only the older shops along rougher lanes stand in shabby opposition to the incursion of Lord Franchise. Among these is the charmingly dark and greasy 'Tennessee Fried Chicken'.

I discover the green, matured a deal since 1908. The pond is well-contained, the green itself circumscribed by sidewalks, and the whole surrounded by well-trafficked avenues, shopping, churches, and stolid mid-century homes. Moms meander with strollers while Canada geese squawk and waddle toward refuge. Men in suits take up one bench, teens in hoods another. There is a monument to the fallen of two world wars, standing tall and neglected beside the main avenue. There are about 150 names inscribed here, men lost in World War I. I can't help wondering if any of the boys in the restaurant photo are named here.

It's Thursday in Feltham. With only a day between night flights, I've chosen not to stray too far from Heathrow in the far western reaches of Greater London. Feltham is only a few miles south of the airport. Just follow Fagg's Road or Hounslow Road down from Houslow or from the eastern end of the airport, traveling south from the Piccadilly Line. Don't be distracted by the lack of distinguishing features out here, the banal repetition of block after block. There is life

And for today, there is no rain. I'm happy. I return to the mall and take a table at Costa Coffee, another self-conscious chain that covers itself with photos from Italy. I tap into the wireless from some local pub. I talk to Minnesotans before they've woken, tuning out the day's chatter of Feltham housewives.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Travelogue 359 – September 21
The Age of Big, Part Two


The view out my apartment window unfolds like a lesson in American history. Draw a line from my twenty-first-century computer, through the glass of the window, and across the late twentieth-century asphalt of the alley, buckling and cracked, through the links of the 70s chain link and into the parking lot of the Social Security office. This parking lot fills up by nine, and people are lined up outside every business morning, ready to enter. Here, people seem eager enough to participate in socialism, the welfare state, big government.

Before Ike, there was FDR, just as before the Second World War there was the Great Depression. There weren't too many boys marching in France who weren't followed by the gaunt specter of deprivation. Dad as inoffensive ghost is nodding again. He was man of the house at an early age, his father incapacitated by the previous war, made man of an impoverished Colorado household, within a family still tainted by not-so-recent immigration and their continuing status as laborers. Not even twenty, he shipped off for Europe.

And so, first must come Franklin Delano. Even Ike called him boss. In August, 1935, FDR signed into law the Social Security Act,, centerpiece to his New Deal, demon and savior to every American since. The New Deal might rank up there with the Civil War and the Revolution in impact upon the American identity and psyche.

The building is bland enough, brick without the charm of age or ornament. I've never been inside. If a Tea Partisan strayed into this neighborhood, would he or she sneer at this squat, flavorless structure and pronounce everyone inside enemies? Would he or she fantasize about McVeigh moments? Perhaps I exaggerate? I hope.

Glide on by the New Deal, advancing in time again into post-war America. Beyond more chain link, you slide into the trough of the interstate. As I've said, this is Ike's dream manifest, though it wasn't until the 60s that the great paving project reached Minneapolis. The first section of I-94 was laid between Jamestown and Valley City, North Dakota, 13 miles of road completed in 1958.

In the 60s and 70s, the Twin Cities came under siege. Neighborhoods were torn asunder. Swaths of concrete and asphalt were laid over the raw earth, all connected into unbroken miles of communication strung across the continent. The system boasts 46,876 miles, almost twice around the planet if laid in one line. But what fun would that be?

Why are highways on my mind? It's difficult to be man on a bicycle in this neighborhood without spending serious time contemplating the sweeping, unavoidable stretches of bone that slice across the landscape, ruthlessly X-cutting this town into hermetic quadrants. Gazing at downtown from my window means sending my attentions across one raging river of traffic. A few blocks to the west, I-35W feeds into into the mighty 94, only to depart for the north a mile or two to the east. A mile or so to the east, the 55 merges in from the south. Downtown is across the 94; Uptown is across the 35W; the university is across either the 94 or the 55, or across both. Effectively, I live on a narrow promontory, and any of my daily commutes involves a choice of bridges. And one of the grand ganglions of the state is just a mile or two away, a howling no-man's-land miles square.

At night, I listen to the highway. Its hum is almost comforting. Once in a while, a truck emits a scream as it passes, and I wonder if the driver is aware of the signature he leaves behind in city neighborhoods, the cold cry of commerce, the hyena's laugh of history, the dinosaur's love song?

Note: my place is at the bottom of the photo, a little left of center ...

Monday, September 20, 2010


Travelogue 358 – September 20
The Age of Big, Part One


A fog has settled in last night. It's so thick that I can't see downtown from my windows. There's only the indeterminate form of one high-rise, lines of grey windows dissolving in grey. The view from my place usually takes in all of downtown, Nicollet Avenue progressing north to the Mississippi like a narrow tributary among the walls of the valley it has carved, the stone pillars of Minneapolis, its luxury hotels, the IDS tower, the Foshay, Ameriprise and other bastions of finance.

My vantage is removed; I see it but I'm not part of it. My abode sits among the outcasts from downtown, among one of the many stands of brick-clad buildings wrenched from town center by the discerning hand of Eisenhower.

Eisenhower: #34, George Washington reborn as an apple carving, founding father, paterfamilias to DiMaggio, Presley, and Keruouac. Weren't the days of Eisenhower's presidency the best ones? The ghost of my father is nodding. But Dad didn't live to see the Reagan years. I think the 80s would have made him kick his heels. What do you make of Sarah Palin, Dad? Oops, I've lost him. One mustn't push a ghost too far past the logic of his time … though, really, as for that … the logic of Sarah … well, anyway ... the mists encroach.

Fog has wiped the slate clean, a grey silence overtaking time. The screen is black and white again. The post-war waves of real estate giddiness that shaped downtown have never happened. Dad, do you remember Minneapolis in 1954? Do you remember the Foshay, the tapering and tawny erection that defined the 'skyline' for decades in mid-century? He's nodding happily again. But there were no Twins, no Vikings. Did my parents have a little silver-screened box that gave them grainy shots of Joltin' Joe and the Yankees? News from the Kremlin, still reeling from the sudden death of Uncle Joe?

For my Dad's generation, everything proceeds from the war, everything rising smoke from that fire. Cities rose from the ashes. Nations, industries, philosophies, leaders, a generation of babies all were the progeny and reply to the war. What Dwight brought back from the war were vivid memories of his travels across Europe. Dwight was a finicky traveler. He required a large entourage, hundreds of thousands of armed men, to be specific, men in tanks and planes, men with guns and grenades.

Ah, those madcap mid-century years: it was a time defined by mass mobilization, mad for huge numbers of human bodies, whether it was Ford and his assembly lines, parties and movements, or war. These days war is a dozen demented and unshaven fools who hijack airliners. Obama's efforts in Afghanistan seem strained, quaint, messy. We've lost that epic feeling.

The thing about mass efforts, they demand Herculean accomplishments in organization. Ike was the consummate organization man. Logistics over bullets. He was impressed by the German autobahn. His civilization-bending romp across western Europe would have been impossible without the extensive infrastructure realized by mass-menschen hungry for war. Global war in the bag, he turned an analytical eye on our vast North American spaces.

And so it is we inherit the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, begun in the 50s. Any coincidence that the road emerges as a theme in literature and movies in the 50s and 60s? Can we in 2010 imagine this nation without its highways? I can't. I grew up within a few miles of one of the classic routes, Highway 10, California to Florida.

Now I live one block from another one of them, the 94, Michigan to Montana. In the fog, traffic is slow. I can see the tops of the semis creeping along beyond the chain link fence. It's always the westbound traffic that is backed up. We're still manifesting destiny, it would seem, with Daddy Dwight's blessing.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Travelogue 357 – September 12
Commemorate


Leeza lived long enough to experience Nine-Eleven. What does that mean? What part of us is made of the things we witness? The small rooms we call our life stories resound from time to time with the roar of passing trains or the shouts of passing mobs. History intrudes in its disturbing way, insisting that time – OUR time, we think – will now be marked in long memories by this capricious turn of events. Our stories have suddenly been hijacked by a dozen jihadists and a nasty Washington cabal of vigilantes. It's done.

Ethiopians don't see their lives as small, isolated rooms, I would dare say. Few of them could identify with a metaphor they haven't experienced: it's a rare man or woman over there who has had a room to him/herself. Life, rather, is the souk, the market, where all stories are wound together inextricably. The story is hijacked every day, they might shrug. Nine-Eleven? Do you think you're special?

In her last years, Leeza witnessed a few things that made her cry: Wellstone's death, Nine-Eleven, and variously cruelties up close and personal. She said she couldn't bring children into this world. Is that why she was exterminated?

Some freakish clergyman announces he's fit to judge the Quran. The press obliges him with a sustained blast of attention. Thousands of Afghanis march to protest the words of a freak. A midsummer night's circle of dancing fools link hands across the globe to perpetrate 'news'. They seek to define our day; they envision headlines becoming chapter subtitles in Kansas history books. Does progress mean that next year cable shows will broadcast a straight-jacketed mental patient shouting that the Chinese race was seeded by aliens? Will thousands of Chinese will take to the streets to condemn the West? Will it will be a fortune teller in Venice Beach declaring that Ahmadinejad is the Antichrist? Will advertisers unite to declare World War III?

Leeza's story is over. Is Leeza's story over? She takes her headlines to the grave. The rest of us carry them in our bags of banners. Nine-Eleven is one of the big ones. We drag it out once a year and scratch our heads over it. We ask, why is this a part of my story? Some of us are suspicious of the intrusion. It would make more sense if we could expand it into evil on a scale that would be worthy of a good shot of adrenaline. This is not the work of a few bizarre bands of over-excited frauds. It's the clash of empires, fighting to the death.

To those of us who need Star Wars to make sense of life, let me say this: you do not understand tragedy. You are afraid to feel it. Tragedy is almost always the result of trivial human stupidity. It makes the losses unbearable. The survivors of tragedy live on, crippled by it, trying to make sense of it. We wonder how the story could be taken so lightly by the gods.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Travelogue 356 – August 28
The State Fair


I'm sitting next to a grandfather on the bus. He doesn't look like a grandfather particularly, though he obviously has trouble turning his neck. He's got all his spiky hair. He's short and sturdy. The legs jutting out of his shorts are stout and healthy. But he introduces me to his grandson, sitting in the seat ahead of us with the boy's mother, the grandfather's daughter.

Grandpa comes from a town 150 miles to the west, a town of 400 people. He comes to the State Fair every year. He has since he was five, he says. He tells me about when they used to have tractor square dancing. He's slow with his words. He's a country gentleman. He offers his seat to a young lady, but she's too city too understand.

The Minnesota State Fair is one of the biggest in the country, bringing in millions of people. It's been going since the 1850s, offering summer-end entertainment for Minnesotans for as long as the state has existed. This year, I'm one of the featured livestock. I'm manning a table for the foundation, graciously offered a spot by Peace Coffee, a local fair trade roaster, who wants to show off its partners in coffee-growing countries.

In all my years in this fair state, I can't say I've made many visits to the Fair. My memory of previous visits feeds me blurred images of crowds and cheese curds and … more crowds. This time, I rather enjoy it. Seems like age has tempered my critical faculties. It's just for fun, Mr. Travels.

The table is set inside an old brick fairgrounds building devoted this year to the 'Eco Experience.' Outside there is a single blade from a wind turbine on display, rising higher than the building. There's a Tesla car on display inside. Peace is serving free coffee. Next to us is a cooking class, stressing the 'eat local' theme. I get to taste the results of their demonstrations.

On my break, I eat a brat. I watch some teens dancing hip-hop for the kiddies. I pass the John Deere display, wondering at all the machinery. I examine the inside of a tank at the Marines' stall. I watch a small parade that includes a high school marching band and a unicycle club. There are a couple teenage boys in the club who can do jumps and bounce around on the unicycles and twirl them underneath them. I walk down streets lined with fast food: pizza on a stick, foot-longs, taffy, cookies. I watch the toddlers on the little rides made just for them, a slow carousel, or bumblebees cars in the air. Some of the kids are mystified. Some know they should be having fun. I pass the big kid rides, and laugh at the chorus of girls' screams.

Back at the table, I continue to be amazed at the hardiness of the visitors, who shuffle by in lines, making sure to check out every display in this over-heated building, always in good spirits. Everyone is generous with feigned or genuine interest; everyone smiles and says hello. They call the State Fair the Great Minnesota Get-Together. A dated and unsophisticated slogan, but it seems to apply.

Biking back to Minneapolis, I relish the beautiful day, another in a long chain of them. I wonder how these meticulously scheduled and highly scripted events manage to lift some load from people's shoulders; how such events, hard-wired into the calendar, can create a moment of timelessness.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Travelogue 355 – August 24
Leo's Lament


There's a sudden, if subtle, change in the tempo and the light. I have to keep referring to a mental calendar. What's happening? For one thing, I honestly sense that the summer light has undergone a shift. Midday sunlight seems dimmer. Clouds have been cavorting overhead lately, dropping bits of rain, but generally maintaining a jovial tone. But when one of them crosses the sun, I shiver. Is it an eclipse? There's a degree of light gone missing. It's still warm; its still humid, but the light! I think this is when there is a new and unconscious bounce to the step of Minnesotans. They feel the slight shift toward darkness and cold. But me, a native Californian, I shiver.

Secondly, who are all these people? Oh yes, these new bodies in the coffee shops, these new yowls downtown at night, these new cars on the road, these are students! I consult the inward calendar. Yes, colleges are warming their engines. Whole villages within the metro re-populate.

The place is called the Segue Coffee Shop. It just opened. It has opened in the place once inhabited by a cafe I wrote about two years ago, when I was discovering Elliott Park. Back then this space was managed by community activists and hippies. The place was an eclectic match of tables and chairs. It had a stage for the rare performance of local talent. It had a TV exhibiting non-local talent.

The new Segue Cafe has little of the bohemian charms of its predecessor. There is lots of very clean hardwood floor. There are scarce and very tidy items of furniture, a cozy set of armchairs and a few shiny little tables. In the entire room, there are probably seats for a dozen.

I'm not comfortable with cafes that try too hard to be comfortable. I prefer big, drafty rooms packed with rows of small, scarred tables and solid wooden chairs. Tall windows, tall blank walls are great. Add some art if you must, but please apply some critical judgement.

In any case, the Segue Coffee Shop is staffed by, and largely serves, students from the nearby Bible college that is rapidly re-populating. They are a polite bunch. It must be one of those commandments I keep hearing about. Politeness while one shares caffeinated beverages was a virtue valued highly among nomadic peoples of the Formerly Fertile Crescent. They say Abraham was a man with highly polished manners, as much as his tortured son may have complained.

Bible students flood the streets of Elliott Park, saying, 'Thank you.' The sun sets earlier every day, drawing out the non-Biblical types, prowling Hennepin with impolite intentions.

O sad, embattled August! Proud month of lions, named for emperors; month that embarks like gilded warships on a summer campaign; month of strongest sun; lament! Lament that your final week should be yield to foreboding autumnal winds, shuddering indecision, and ill-mannered tribes that have eyes only for coy September. Lament that your days should end among such distractions! Look to next year for greater glory.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Travelogue 354 – August 21
Noir, Fade to Cream


I remember the Cold War. Why does it seem so long ago? Where's the nostalgia for Communism? Who wouldn't prefer crusty old Brezhnev to Bin Laden? Bin Laden has no stock of fine vodka and Cuban cigars in his cave, I assure you. He's got no Sputniks; he's got no grandstand Politboros, no May Day parades. Frankly, Osama is an unfortunate symbol of our times, all gleaming eyes and humorless mission. There's no clownish Yeltsin in the wings for Afghanistan. Such impoverished, such earnest times.

I've been reading spy novels again. It's an indulgence. The spy novel is a Cold War art form, and for greatest enjoyment, one must return to the Cold War authors. These days I'm revisiting an old favorite, Len Deighton. The book is one of his originals, written in '64 or so. It's set in occupied Berlin. We follow the chain-smoking, wise-cracking spy (is there any other kind?). This spy is British. He's a spy with no name, a true spook. By the way, it's an interesting fact that namlessness is a great devise for getting to know a character. Somehow it submerges one further inside the narrator's POV. No one hears his own name. 'Jarvis is leaving home. Jarvis is walking right out that door. Jarvis turns and puts the key in the lock. Jarvis is out.'

The novel's cast of characters is suitably dark, savvy, and indirect. 'Indirect' is understatement by several orders. It would seem that spies dialogues with one another in adolescent-style wink-and-a-smile dialects delivered with fair proportions of pose and bluff. And a good spy keeps a gun ready for the bizarrely sudden moments of violence – nothing like current movie violence, which washes against one like waves from a passing speedboat, along with the boat radio's blast of unsympathetic music. And above all, there must be a whiskey-soaked world-weariness about it.

The key descriptor is dark. That's the era of purest noir, isn't it? These days we play at noir, but our noir amounts to little more than the narcissistic perversity of spoiled rich kids. It's Holden Caufield kicking a can. The Cold War generation earned its noir, a few world wars and the Depression in their knapsacks. The midnight swagger, ciggie between the lips, sharp suits and demure glances, it's all a bit of a show, don't you think? A pantomime by the disillusioned who have staggered into peace and prosperity, their souls in shreds, and should be enjoying life a lot more. It's cool because it's a put-on. It's Vladimir and Estragon acting out War and Peace. These are matters of life and death, one intones, sprawled across the park bench. Wipe that bloody smirk off your face. Am I smirking really? In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Oh dear, wrong war.

I wander my own little post-war post-city, lost in my own time. I realize that guys only ten or fifteen years older than me did NOT fight in World War II. A part of me remains frozen in youth, when men who looked grizzled were WWII veterans. No, these are veterans of the 60s, (a totally different satchel of post-traumatic stress conditions that I'll unpack in another essay.) Some day a man will realize that the grizzled men lined up at the bar have NO memories of the 60s, like the elders of his childhood did. What will have been lost?

What would be the opposite of noir? It might just be Scott Pilgrim, a perky blanc that I swished and spat last night. What do we learn from Scott Pilgrim? Can it stand in as a glimpse into the soul of America, August, 2010? If so it will the most fleeting of glimpses, the revelation after a third shot of espresso. Pilgrim's world weariness goes only so far as impatience with what's on the radio. His poses are manifestly awkward, his rebuttals stubbornly dumb in the manner of pre-teens. His morality pokes about leisurely on a plane of rare and expansive airs. If Pilgrim's grand and great grandparents may not have understood the humor, they might have appreciated the flattering comfort behind it. Didn't they murmur to themselves through gritted teeth that they were fighting for their kids? Their kids would have it all. They would get to make flippant movies. Their kids would get to frown over guitar riffs. Their kids would get to argue over hairstyles. How wonderful.

Maybe there is after all an historical or genetic helix linking Bogart's sad eyes with the vacuous ones of young Cera. Maybe the links in that helix are strong and right. The young blank-eyed hero meanders in his own time toward the pillow-soft truths. It's a funny film. Why not?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Travelogue 353 – August 14
Ada Abides


A delicate dragonfly gets trapped inside Stephanie's water glass. It struggles against the circular walls of its confinement and then drops into the water. Such simple things confound the things that live and breathe on Planet Earth. Stephanie quickly pours the unfortunate out with her water into the garden. The dragonfly crawls away.

We sit high above the River Thornapple. Our piece of river gently curves below a steep decline populated by towering pines and low brush that, despite their green numbers, still don't seem to check the erosion. The water is peaceful and green. It doesn't appear so greedy as to feed on Stephanie and Marc's land, but it does year by year, centimeter by centimeter.

The hawks and herons still trust the high-wire pine branches. The hillside still supports visiting deer. Hummingbirds hover inquisitively over the back patio. The flowering brush entices butterflies and dragonflies, grasshoppers and crickets. At night they join forces to send forth a symphony of survival. Geology hardly intrudes, hardly seems violent today.

I'm in Michigan for my summer visit. Stephanie has put together another lovely event in her house, guests filling the spacious house, spilling out onto the dangerous patio, teetering on the precipice of Earth's hungry science. Little do they realize that they stand suspended high above the river's future expanded course. They drink Stephanie's wine and laugh; they view rows of art created by children in Africa.

The nearest town is Ada, a quaint little town founded in 1821 by a man named Rix. Fortunately, the sage town fathers saw fit to skip over that bit of history, and to name the town after the first postmaster's daughter. So forward she skips, cute little Ada in pigtails, hand in hand with the resident genial giant, Amway. The giant does well staying out of sight, out on hissing, multi-lane Fulton.Street, Route 21.

On my runs through Ada, I make sure to cross the historic covered bridge, constructed just after the Civil War. It's one of only nine still standing in Michigan. It's always cool inside and smells of old timber. There's a green baseball diamond adjacent to the bridge, and the vignette is enough to remind an urban tramp he's in America. Beyond the bridge, I run through the quiet blocks of tiny Ada, where none of the shops seem to open with any regularity.

One night, Marc and I convince Stephanie and friends to watch 'The Big Lebowski'. I haven't seen it in years, and the Dude has been on my mind. (I won't analyze that.) But it's a fine ride, despite the sober and baffled silence among the other guests. Just the 'arc' (popular word among script and screenplay writers) the arc of Mr. Bridges's facial expressions is enough to keep one delighted throughout. Plot has always been a secondary concern to our beloved Minnesotan brothers, the Coens. Old fans understand. Meaning lies among the slow creases of well-chosen actors' faces, among the ridiculous solipsisms in the dialogue, and among the lurid visions of camera and director. The characters here really shine. Yes, the dude abides.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Travelogue 352 – August 10
Flutes and Buckets


We're sitting in a hotel lobby sipping champagne when the rain comes. We are celebrating. The Hotel Ivy is only a few blocks from the Westminster Church downtown, where we staged the event. This hotel is where Miluska is staying.

Miluska quoted Emerson in her short speech, so I'm happy with her. I didn't quote anybody, and I had three times as much time in the program as Miluska did. I could have quoted Nelson Mandela or Haile Selasse or one of my brilliant children in Ethiopia, but the only one I quoted was myself. I think the highlight of my talk was when Richard's three year-old girl wanted my opinion on 'pooping her pants'. I was commendably broad-minded, remaining scrupulously neutral. It's been a while since I've had anything intelligent to saying about pooping one's pants.

Miluska also introduced us to the new Hotel Ivy, a spare but comfortable beauty downtown. The building is an historic structure, actually built to serve as a complex for the Church of Christ Scientist in the 20s. It was built in what is referred to as 'Ziggurat style', I suppose to appeal to the dramatic aesthetic of Christian Scientists. Perhaps they feel were hoping to channel those feeble healing energies from above. In any case, they never got a chance to try. By 1930, the church had given up on the project, an initiative that could not be healed by prayer.

Perhaps the funnest thing about the hotel is the diminutive, ancient tower that the developers of the hotel gobbled up as part of the package. It still stands whole, but connected to the hotel and converted into rooms and a restaurant. It's a funny little structure, looking like a clay model that was rolled in a box of sand and pebbles while still wet. Now its Flintstone windows look complacently out on Second Avenue with the dressings of style.

We can't open our bottle of champagne in the church, so we follow Miluska back to her hotel. We rearrange some tables in the lobby. Someone scares up some glasses, and we toast our success. Events for small non-profits are always successes. It's a matter of fragile morale.

If I need solace, I can find it in my dress. Roxana and her sister made sure I would not embarrass them with my traveling-guy's Target wardrobe. I'm all in tight black, looking like a mid-level narcotraficante. It might not fit the mold of earnest charity guy, but I'm enjoying myself.

We had rented a large and attractive room at the church, and we managed to keep it from appearing too empty. Roxana arranged for great Mexican food. The program was short and sweet: history of our work, Astrid's reverie about poopy pants, Richard showing off the new website, and the push for help and donations. Afterward, as the storm clouds gathered over Minneapolis, a good hour of chatter.

Roxana has boxes of stuff from the event in the back of her car. After our stop at the Ivy, we go to her workplace to unload. The storm is in full gale now. We back up to the door of the building, as close as we can get, but the eave still ends right above the back door. Every time I bend over to pull stuff from the car, streams of cold water pour onto my back. My class ensemble is soaked.

We retreat into a nearby bar. Running from the parking lot, we are soaked to the bone. The AC is on high, a common phenomenon in Minnesota, where people become anxious without a comforting sense of chill. We shiver and toast again a job well done.