Sunday, December 26

Night driving

Coming off my shift at McDonald's Christmas Eve in the late afternoon, I left straight for Butte, no stops at the apartment to shower or change out of my grease infused uniform. I wanted to cross the pass before nightfall. I wanted to get my holiday started. I wanted to see Demetra again since she had left a few days early to help her parents with gift wrapping and cookie baking.

The sun was already just a few degrees from the horizon when I left. Passing Belgrade, it was already dipping below. The wisps and trails of cirrus clouds that hung it around burned peach and apricot and lavender as the sun fell further. The clear skies before, above and behind me passed from the pale, milky blue in the west through to the muted sapphire of dusk in the east. The silhouettes of the summits of the mountains on the horizons appeared above low-hanging clouds. Frost and snow gilded the trees I passed. It was the kind of drive where I had to force myself to pay attention to the roads when I wanted to turn my head every attention and see it all.

And yet for all that drive's majesty, it could only hope to compare equally with the drive back, begun after the sunset and under a sheet of clouds that hid the waning moon. There's something about driving at night. The day is done. There is neither appointment nor meal to rush to at the destination. It is easy. Your attention turns inward when the landscape is in the dark, offering no distraction, and there is no horizon to look toward and yearn for. It all happens in turn. It all just passes.

I am no great, eager driver. I willingly cede the right to drive to anyone I ride with, but on the road at night, singing along to a CD to stay at attention and seeing only the road in front of me, it's a comfortable sort of thing.

Wednesday, December 22

Happy holidays

I liked to think that I was over the whole "happy holidays" and "winter break" things. If you want to call Christmas by another name in order to be more inclusive or whatever, that's fine. It takes nothing away from the Christian holiday I celebrate. But then I heard a manager at McDonald's today tell one of the front desk workers that corporate rules do not allow them to wish our customers a "Merry Christmas," only "happy holidays" even when the restaurant will be closed on Christmas day. I wanted to throw the plastic spatula at her head, followed in short order by the metal spatula and the rest of the grill tools. I guess I'm not over it.

It's one thing to be politically correct and recognize that not everyone has the same beliefs and holidays as you. It's another to be twit. Hanukkah ended over a week ago. Diwali celebrations ended early last month. Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan with Eid ul-Fitr in September.

Seriously, what are all the holidays we're wishing people happiness in beside Christmas at this point? "Happy holidays" isn't even about hedging your bets anymore, taking the middle path when not sure whether someone's a Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu or whatever. The States don't celebrate Boxing Day or Bank Holiday. No one celebrates Kwanzaa. Near as I can tell, all that's left is New Year's Eve and equating that with Christmas, in either its secular or Christian incarnations, is just silly.

Don't be a twit. Wishing someone "happy holidays" now is just lazy and shows that you really have no idea whatsoever regarding the faiths you're trying to be respectful of.

Saturday, December 18

Considering Kevin Murphy's "A Year at the Movies"

Passion is a beautiful thing to behold. There are major instances of the players in the finals of the World Cup or in the NCAA basketball championship, but there have no less power behind them some guy sounding off on his latest night of pub trivia or someone biologist on the evolutionary path of the artichoke, every sort of thing that people can devote their work and free time and lives to. In the right groove and at the right time they can make you want the same thing.

A Year at the Movies is a book of passion, Kevin Murphy's passion for film and the cinema. Every day for a year, he watches a movie at a theater. He watches film in Hollywood, New York City, London, Mexico, Australia, Finland and the South Pacific. He attends Cannes (is discouraged that so many are left on the fringes and that he only is able to attend through a press pass), Sundance (dismisses it as a tradeshow), the Midnight Sun Festival (enjoys it most of all), the Get Real Festival and the Jewish Film Festival. By the end, you want to do the same. That is the power of the passionate.

It is important to note that passion does not equate to shill. The passionate care and want the best. They dig at the worst and celebrate the best and always push for more. Murphy does this. A Year at the Movies is a series of essays, each chapter covering a week and focusing on a single aspect of his experiences. There is a sense of the stunt in some of these chapters like the one where Murphy watches from the front row or the other one where he subsists for a week on theater snacks, something more akin to the work of A.J. Jacob or Morgan Spurlock, but Murphy cares about the theater experience. There are good years, and there are bad years in film. Not much can help that, but the theaters we watch them in are here to stay, and Murphy wants us all to demand the best from them. Murphy spends a lot of time searching for alternative venues to franchise multiplexes staffed by minimum-wage workers and projectionists who destroy film reels, and he writes with love for the movies he watches at Grumpy's Bar, at the Walker Art Center and at New Mexico's Giant Travel Center, preferred by passing truckers, because the audience is engaged with them. Film should not be an idle entertainment, a distraction for a few hours on a weekend evening or an air-conditioned break from the summer heat. It should be something that excites us and makes us cheer the heroes, hiss the villains and cry from the seats. The role of the theater in this process, in making us comfortable and developing an educated audience, cannot be ignored.

The films themselves are secondary concerns. Only on occasion does Murphy give comment to what he spent the week watching. There are some good lines. He dismisses Original Sin as a film so boring that its naked Angelina Jolie couldn't hold the attention of twelve-year-old boys. He calls Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a movie clone with all the appearances of a piece of entertainment without carrying the burden to entertain. He celebrates a performance of Javier Bardem years before No Country for Old Men and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He declares the transformation of Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries fascist. On Rarotonga in the Cook Islands he watches Waking Ned Devine following the September 11 attacks and remembers enjoying it with his wife a year earlier.

Murphy is right. We deserve better than to be herded into every remaining space in the theater and given foodstuffs we would rightly throw back at our parents if they tried to serve it at our house. Though skipping between Atonement and Juno, No Country for Old Men and Jumper at the AMC in River Park Square were my first dates of sorts with Demetra and I asked her out after we saw Die Fälscher together, the best time I ever had at the movies was seeing Fix with the director Tao Ruspoli in attendance during the Spokane International Film Festival at the Magic Lantern Theater. I couldn't stop talking about it the entire walk back, not the director's talk after, not the theater itself, not the film itself. I hope that my children won't have to spend years searching for the same sorts of experiences. If more people read Murphy and A Year at the Movies and felt that passion, they won't have to.

Friday, December 17

McDonald's Adventures: Sounds

Entirely befitting a vegetarian, I was trained to work the grill on my first day at McDonald's. I watched a twenty-minute slideshow and was entirely prepared for it. There has been only a single difficulty: warning tones. A reasonable approximation of the Jaws theme counts down the final five seconds before meat can be pulled from the grill. There is a bass line when the oven timer has found zero. There is a beep when a new order arrives on the monitor. There is drone when the timer is complete for McDonald's proprietary microwave, the Q-oven. When meat has been in the heating cabinet longer than thirty minutes, there is another tone. The most annoying and high-pitched tweets are reserved for fried products ready to be pulled, one for fried meats and one for fried potatoes.

Several times these sounds have terrified me into believing the fire alarm had activated. Yesterday a fellow crew member assured me this would never happen. There is no fire alarm. They once set an English muffin on fire in the toaster and filled the kitchen with smoke and there was no alarm. I am a mote concerned.

Tuesday, December 14

Considering Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita"

I took a series of correspondence courses during high school. The second was in philosophy, and I remember reading Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Pursuing Hume's assertion that one must carry a skeptical attitude in all things by withholding immediate judgment and carefully examining one's reactions, my teacher asked me to concern my next essay with what category of experiences this skeptical philosophy would not be appropriate. I resisted him for some time on this point, convinced that there was no such category.

About a week later and preparing to write an essay on why this skeptical attitude would be proper in all matters, I realized that Hume's philosophy does not work with aesthetic experiences. Yes, one can refrain from comment after watching Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and consider why they feel the way they feel about it being one of 2010's greatest films. Perhaps on later viewings their opinion will change as the performances of Brandon Routh and Ellen Wong rise in their estimation. Maybe upon closer inspection they will realize things they did not realize before like how the snow melts around the feet of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as she skates down the road. Or it could go the other way entirely. Whatever.

The point is that there is a certain value to one's initial reaction to art that is entirely different from one's first reaction to a news report. A tight reading of art can change one's opinion of the piece, but it doesn't invalidate that first response which may have come from a different place but has an essential honesty to it. On the other hand, the late revelation that there was no evidence whatsoever that the Duke lacrosse players raped the stripper, forces a complete re-evaluation of one's reaction to the whole affair.

This is a long way of coming to the point that I think it is this initial reaction to art which separates the great from the good, decent and inferior. Capital Art can, to some extent, be quantified through their execution and interpretation of the basic elements. Literature has character, plot, setting, perspective. Music has rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, scale. Visual art has depth, color, form, line, texture. They all have themes and tones. These elements can be analyzed and dissected, compared to other works. In a very real way, one can argue that Tobias Wolff's characters are superior to those of J.K. Rowling or that Josh Ritter's lyrics are better than those of the Black Eyed Peas.

Not so with that initial reaction. It cannot be controlled and any attempt to quantify or explain it will be incomplete. Not that we shouldn't make the attempt, but that is a matter for another place. That initial reaction comes from a place of honest and true connection and understanding with the piece, a place created from personal history and universal human desires. That reaction is what separates the art that we remember and cherish for our lives from that which we merely respect.

I lacked that initial reaction with Lolita. The book is well understood to be a masterpiece. The edition I read is part of Random House's Everyman's Library series, a series that includes Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, and has an introduction by Martin Amis, a man probably as honored to write as the publishers were to have him write it. Modern Library named it one of the greatest novels of the past century, as did Le Monde.

I can understand why. The character Humbert Humbert is magnificently well drawn, and Nabokov is totally committed to him. Humbert is not deep, entirely consumed by his obsession, his disease, and never deviates far from it, but the three hundred pages of the book paint a fascinating picture of a terrible, terrible person with a man's fondness for word play and allusion, the emotions of a teenager and the responsibilities of a child. That pervasive voice is mesmerizing. Great, too, are the details of America gleaned from hours on the highway in cross country road trips and months spent in motels. And there is real comedy in this otherwise tragic story of a man's relationship with a girl. Being funny is hard, but Nabokov achieves it.

Absolutely I respect Lolita, but I neither love nor particularly care about it. I have no idea how much of it I will remember in a decade or two when I'm pushing What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and On The Night In Question or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and American Gods on my children and their friends. I think it is that Lolita feels like an experiment. It feels to me that Nabokov wrote it as a challenge to himself, to see if he could inhabit and recreate the mind of an unrepentant child molester and to do so with a minimum of self flagellation and pathos, which he achieves with aplomb.

There is nothing more to Lolita than this case study, which may be part of why it is esteemed so widely so highly. One can point to Nabokov's originality and fluency with language and observations as marks of excellence, as indeed they are. However, these marks of excellence can become shields for Lolita's proponents as they are not forced to found their opinions on their initial reactions but on Nabokov's considerable literary skill. Perhaps, more than likely, this is me throwing too far my own experience of the novel upon others, but who can admit to being personally moved by this story of a child molester and murderer and the very many detestable people he meets? Is Lolita really that great, or is it merely the one most widely respected?

Saturday, December 11

"An Africa For The New Millennium"

At dawn, when the air was still cool and the dry-season sun had yet to broach the horizon and blast the land, the elephant fell. Kiptoo Kiplanat, who protected the sleeping, emaciated goats from tribal raids, had seen it passing in the distance and called the men to the hunt. The elephant had run when the first arrows pierced its skin that evening, and the hunters needed all of their cunning and speed to keep pace. The young men chased it over the uneven rocks of the parched riverbed while the others attacked it from both banks. On open land the bravest sprinted ahead to slash the beast's flank with their panga knives.

With time the blood ran free from a thousand wounds, and the elephant slowed. The hunters slowed too and kept a distance, wary of a final struggle. The elephant no longer stepped but dragged its feet forward, and it stumbled. It only found its balance when it stopped, and three hunters threw and stuck their spears into the beast's backside. The elephant made to surge, but its strength had drained down its legs and soaked into the earth and dust. One of its great tusks broke when it fell. When the elephant rolled, its sides heaving, a cry of celebration went up amongst the band of hunters.

A boy climbed atop the elephant. Lomurion Kakwa, who had traveled as far as Nairobi, had advised against the chase. He had not believed they could bring the creature down, the first to cross onto their tribal lands in a lifetime. He had said only men from the cities with enormous guns and trucks could kill an elephant. He had said the men would only waste their energy and lose their arrows. Now the boy danced wild steps in pride and in anticipation of his first meat in weeks.

“Kopus,” his father called him. “Bring your mother and sisters and all the women. There is work to do.”

Kopus Lomada jumped down. He had carried neither panga knife nor spear nor bow during the hunt. He was young and only ran to learn to kill. Some had worried he was too young and would tire, but Kopus had not fallen behind. Now he had an important task while the hunters prepared for the butchery.

“The elephant has fallen,” he sang when he ran through the village. “Bring sufuria pots. There is work to do.”

Kopus had only time for a single swallow of gritty water before all the women were prepared. With the entire village following, he ran again. It was still early. The sun had not yet been in the sky more than two hours, but the heat was already punishing. Kopus' legs burned from the chase that night and the run that morning, but he did not stop or slow. There was work to do.

An hour from the kill Kopus' foot slid against a loose stone. He threw up his arms to protect his face as he skidded against the rough ground. When he finally stopped, Kopus had to breathe deeply before he could stand and wipe the blood from his eyes.

“Just tell us the way,” Kopus' mother said when his first steps were made delicately. “We will run ahead.”

There was a road nearby, two weaving gouges in the infertile soil from the rare truck. They could follow it. It was longer than cross country but passed near the kill, and they would see the elephant's bulk.

“No.” Kopus spit the dirt from his mouth. “Follow me.”

It hurt, but he sprinted ahead until only the strongest and fastest women could stay with him. The others followed by the clouds of dust the leaders left behind.

When Kopus and the first women arrived, the sides of the elephant still rose and fell but only in trembles, no longer great heaves. Slabs of meat drawn from the legs lay in careful piles. The women ululated in joy and offered water to the thirsty butchers. The women built fires as Kopus brought branches broken from the scattered, dead scrub. Kopus worried as the elephant's blood pooled on to the ground, wasted and not collected to mix with ugali, but his mother assured Kopus he would not be hungry for it when all the meat was cooked. With this meat he would not be hungry again until the rains returned, she said.

When the sun was at its peak, Kopus' father called a break in the butchery. Women made covers from their kangas and sat underneath them with their husbands and sons. The girls collected the finished meat and offered it first to the men who had brought the elephant down and then to the women who cooked it before coming to the children.

Waiting for his piece, fat and juices dripping from cracks in the charred flesh, Kopus heard the distant sound of a low rumble. He climbed on top of the elephant and saw the brilliant glare off metal and glass approaching on the road. A truck. He rushed off and to the side of the road to see it close when it passed. It was not long before the others heard and joined him.

The truck stopped before the crowd, and a woman came out, followed by the government-appointed district chief. Kopus never saw the district chief more than twice a year as he rarely left his stone home in the market town, but Kopus' attention was only for the woman. She was the first mzungu woman that Kopus had ever seen. Against the pale of her skin, he could have seen the slightest mote of dirt if there had been any to see. There were no scars on her arms and no sores on her legs. She wore bright, clean clothes that no one had worn before her. She was like something from a story sung around the night fire.

Kopus' father tried to greet her, but she passed him without noticing his outstretched hand. The others pulled away to form a passage, and she walked through, straight to the elephant. She put her hands and forehead against an unbloodied patch. At her pressure the elephant gave a long, low moan, and a final tremor passed from its head through to its back. Its ears which had flapped weakly throughout the morning collapsed against the skull.

A tremor ran through the mzungu woman's body too. She woman spun and yelled words Kopus did not understand. She pulled free a panga knife left in the elephant's side and threw it into the ground so that it broke. The crack was not so loud as the heaving sobs that made her face ugly. The district chief rushed to her side, and Kopus heard him apologize again and again. The district chief guided her inside the truck and gave her a bottle of the clearest water Kopus had ever seen. Kopus' father came forward again, and the district chief shoved him away.
When the district chief carefully closed the truck door behind the woman he turned to face and yell at the people.

“Why did you kill this animal, you fools? This woman wanted to build us a new school, but now she is upset that you are eating this animal that she loves. Now she thinks you're savages! She thinks we don't deserve a school!”

The district chief grabbed the meat that Kopus' father still held and threw it to the dusty ground, kicked it.

“Get rid of this meat. Get rid of this animal. Bury it, and maybe the woman will forgive you. We will come back this evening, and I don't want to find any trace of it, or I'll hold you all responsible for this loss.”

The district chief stormed back into the truck and slammed the door so that everyone flinched. The truck moved away faster than even the elephant. Behind him Kopus heard the men and women scrape the sufuria pots against the ground to make a shallow grave for their meal.

His father called him to help, and Kopus ran. He ran between the truck's track, the dust still settling from when it passed, and cried the loudest curses he knew. Kopus ran until he collapsed and then threw stones, wishing the mzungu woman and district chief had turned back.


The People's Party of Kenya, the ruling party, called the contested election and its aftermath spontaneous riots, a matter best managed by local police forces. The Kenyan Democratic Union, the opposition party, called it a civil war though they could identify no armies. The international press, unwilling to take a side, called it post-election violence and civil strife.

Kopus watched the international reports from a pub in Oxford.

“What's wrong with your country, John? How many times has this happened now? Four?” asked Natalie. She was a Jew from America and was studying for just the year at Oxford. She and his other friends in England called him John because he had never told them his given name. When his parents gave him to the Catholic sister so that there would be one less child to feed, she took him to the boarding school in Nairobi and gave him his new name. She said it would prevent conflict with the children from other tribes if their heritage was obscured. Kopus performed well at that school, and his teachers conspired to find him this scholarship. Kopus told them he would prefer the University of Nairobi, but they insisted Oxford provided the best outlet for his intelligence.

Kopus was taking a sip from his pint when Natalie posed the question, and he couldn't answer, but Bernard said, “These conflicts are the natural consequence of a colonial history. The British built no infrastructure and did not adequately prepare the people for independence because they were afraid Kenya could become a competitor. They wanted Kenya to be weak and hobbled it for generations.” Bernard was Kopus' friend from France, but he was black, not white, and an atheist.

“Of course I make no apologies for what my government did to the colonies, but we're making up for it now,” said James, Kopus' white friend from England. “I don't know any nation on this planet that is more generous in aid or that operates more NGO's in developing nations. You can't blame us now. We're doing everything we can, and things aren't getting better.”

“Then what would make it better?” asked Natalie. “If there's been these decades of aid and civil strife is still the result, what will work?”

She looked toward Kopus, but he remained silent. He had no idea. The reporter announced that there were mass migrations away from contested cities to tribal homelands. The people traveled cross country on foot because militias beheaded families that stopped at their highway checkpoints.

“Perhaps,” James said, “more extreme measures are necessary. If Kenya can't govern itself then someone else should.”

“That's so racist,” Natalie said and laughed.

“I'm completely serious,” James said. “The Kenyans don't trust a different tribe to rule the nation and treat them fairly, and why should they? The country is riddled with corruption. The powerful do whatever they want and fear no reprisal. Ordinary Kenyans deserve a leader who cannot be bribed and whom everyone trusts. They should officially ask a foreigner to act as prime minister. Just look at Hong Kong. It was governed by the English, not the Chinese, for over a century, and it prospered when mainland China struggled. It could be the same for Kenya”

“I don't believe you,” Natalie said and laughed again.

The conversation turned to sustainable development or gender issues or something. Kopus wasn't sure. The blood rushed in his ears, and he could hear nothing else. He liked them, Kopus told himself. He appreciated that James, Natalie and Bernard were willing to spend time with him. James had bought Kopus his first bourbon and Bernard introduced him to the films of Werner Herzog, things he would never have known in Kenya. Kopus held his pint glass tightly to keep his hands from shaking and didn't trust himself to speak until well after the report on Kenya was finished.

A month later, when a delegation from the United Nations brokered a power-sharing deal between the People's Party of Kenya and the Kenyan Democratic Union and regular commercial flights returned between his homeland and England, Kopus took a sabbatical from his studies and flew home.


“Kopus!” the Chinese mine director cried, running into his office. “There is a mob outside. They have knives and bows and arrows, and our workers are preparing to meet them in kind.”

“Of course they are,” Kopus cursed. “They can never let a good thing happen.”

He threw the stack of production reports he had been studying against the table and strode out of the office, the manager hurrying to keep pace. In negotiating the rights to mine the gold vein on his tribal lands, Kopus had made his position as assistant manager contingent to the deal. The Chinese had willingly agreed when the riots at their Zambian mines had received international attention. They had intended to only keep Kopus available for the press, but the mine director had come to rely on him in handling all communications with the local workers until the mine became one of the most productive in Africa.

At the entrance to the office building, two Chinese guards had their shotguns drawn but aimed only at the ground in front of them, wary of the crowd of workers who stood between them and the approaching mob. The mine workers and Kopus' tribesmen were armed with hammers and any mining tool with an edge that could be carried by hand, and they pushed against the fence, jeering at the tribe outside.

The blood was rushing in Kopus' ears. It drowned out the insults called by his people and returned by those outside. Kopus jerked away the shotgun from the nearest Chinese guard and pushed his the crowd until he reached the fence. The Chinese mine director and guards stayed near the office building and kept the door open.

Kopus shot a shell into the air. Hammers and spears were turned toward him.

“Sit down,” Kopus yelled in their language. He shot again, and they sat.

“What are you doing, you fools?” His blood pounded. Kopus felt it in his arms and legs. It made him feel strong. “Do you know what they say about us in the West? They say we are savages, that we are not fit to govern ourselves. They call us goats and imagine themselves as our goatherds. I didn't believe them. I came here to show them that we need no one, that we need no one. This mine was the beginning. Now we have paved roads and jobs. We dug sinkholes and have water. We have electricity and stone homes. We are growing stronger, but you want to prove the West right.” Kopus glared at the tribe outside the fence. “You cannot stand the possibility that we could profit and better our condition because we once stole your goats. You decide that it is better that none of us have anything. You hold our nation and our people back, not the West. Let something good happen to us. Leave.”

Kopus spit and walked back to the offices. The Chinese manager directed the workers back to the mine. Much of the intruding tribe remained, and the men on the edges drifted away.

The next day the Chinese mine manager brought with a man some years younger than Kopus, little more than a boy, in a stained and torn shirt to Kopus' office.

“This boy has sat outside our gate since yesterday. He refuses to leave until he has spoken with you,” the Chinese mine manager said.

Kopus remained in his seat and only looked at the man. He said nothing. The man looked to the Chinese mine manager who did not look back at him.

“My name is Joseph, sir,” the man finally said to Kopus.

“What do you want?” Kopus asked when Joseph paused.

“Forgive me, sir, for saying this, sir, but you do not understand us. Sir, we are glad the mine is here. We travel on the roads and use the electricity as well as you, sir, and our lives are better for them, but it is not all better, sir. We have no sinkholes for water, and the mine takes all the water in the river since the rains returned. Our goats have nothing to drink, and they are dying. The smoke from your refinery settles on our maize fields, and kills them dead, sir. Without our goats and crops, we have nothing. Sir, we need your help.”

Kopus looked toward the Chinese mine manager and asked him, “This mine is the greatest in Africa, yes? In the coming months we will dig new shafts and will need new men for them, yes?”

The Chinese mine manager nodded.

“Then I would like all of those new men to come from this tribe. If their goats and maize die then they will have jobs with us and buy their food. They will work in crews alongside our workers now, and they will be foremen as well. Together they will be the foundation for the new Kenya and the new Africa.”

“Yes, sir,” the Chinese mine manager said.


Kopus stood before another crowd. They were armed with cameras and recording devices. He carried a pair of gold-plated scissors.

“When I cut this ribbon, it will signal the opening of our newest high-energy coal plant. It is the last needed to power Salama, Kenya's own technocity. Salama is the future of Kenya, East Africa and the entirety of Africa. Kenyan innovations will reach a fever pitch here where all the latest technologies for research and testing are brought together. It will create a community of developers and inventors that will only mean the best for our nation. It will rival Silicon Valley of the United States and Bangalore in India and allow Kenya to take its rightful place among the great nations of the international community. But what good are words? Let us show the world what we Kenyans are capable of.”

The assembled audience broke into wild applause and cheers. A team of engineers and technicians walked into the plant. It began to hum, and thick, black smoke poured from its towers. The cameras of the international press flashed. Video was captured from every conceivable angle, by official sources and by those who wanted evidence that they were there at the beginning of the new Africa.

Making his way through the crowd, Kopus was congratulated and thanked in every possible language. One accent caught his attention, and Kopus recognized James from Oxford. The crowd pressed tight against them, but in that brief time James elicited from Kopus a promise to see him that evening.

James was waiting in the lobby of the Grand Salama Hotel when Kopus arrived late from his interviews, and they went together to the hotel bar.

“Try this,” Kopus said and pushed a drink toward his old friend. “It is chang'aa.”

James took a careful sip. He immediately began to cough.

“Potent, yes?”

“Very,” James said with a chuckle and took a smaller sip.

“Not long ago you could only buy it from the gangs. A few years ago, though, entrepreneurs began to open chang'aa distilleries, and our people invested in them. Now Kenyan distilleries are famous throughout East Africa. It will not be long before you find chang'aa in Oxford and all quality European pubs.”

“I'm impressed,” James said, his eyes fixed on Kopus. “I've been in this country for nearly a decade now, and I've seen so much change in just this little time. Of course I heard the name Kopus Lomada and that he was behind much of it, but I never imagined it was you. I saw your picture in The Daily Nation this morning and still wouldn't believe it until I heard your voice today. Why did you always tell us your name was John?”

“What have you been doing here these last ten years?” Kopus asked.

“Working with non-profit organizations. I started with ClearEyes, which provided free eye exams and donated eyeglasses to children in Kibera, Mathare and the other slums, but that ended when you started to open those clinics and hospitals. There was the chance to move to a new ClearEyes center in Nicaragua, but I didn't want to leave. I just fell in love with Kenya. I cannot remember ever feeling so wanted or needed before in my life. I honestly have no idea why you ever wanted to leave to study in Oxford. Since ClearEyes left I've done some fundraising work with a few different environmental groups in the Central Highlands.” James took another sip of chang'aa and didn't cough.

“Kenya is a good country full of good people, yes,” Kopus agreed.

“I was in Nakuru before I came here. I was making much better time than I thought I would, so I passed through Kibera for old time's sake. I couldn't recognize the place. I had to ask someone to make sure it really was the same Kibera I worked in. It was clean. There were no dirt tracks anymore. It was all tarmac. The children all wore fresh, clean school uniforms. I felt completely safe. If I had my way, I would award you the Nobel Peace Prize for that alone. I didn't think anything could ever change it.”

“Thank you,” Kopus said. “It has been a long road, but we have done it. The transformation of Kibera began very simply. An American company opened a call center, the people had money and stability, the local economy grew with local entrepreneurs, and it just grew from there to the city you saw.”

James turned his glass of chang'aa a few times on its bottom edge against the bar.

“I'm sorry to tell you this, but this isn't entirely a personal visit,” he said. “The environmental non-profits I've been with asked me to speak to you in an official capacity. First, we want to extend our gracious congratulations to you in turning this nation around. We were afraid for the worst after the post-election violence, but it has been nothing but good news since then. Many of us were prepared to offer assistance when those storms tore apart the ports in Mombasa, but you managed the emergency response and rebuilding entirely yourselves, better even, perhaps, than we could have done.”

“Thank you,” Kopus said again.

“We have only a small request. Be careful with your growth. That coal plant you opened today was the twentieth already this year after eighty-three last year. We don't think you fully understand the impact they can have upon the environment and air quality. Along with all the mines and personal automobiles, you could be doing irreversible damage to the environment. Just look at the Trans-East African Highway. It cuts twice through the migration routes of wildebeests and zebras between Kenya and Tanzania, and your drivers have killed thousands of animals. They can't be replaced when they're gone. We don't want this to become another China.”

“You cannot be serious, my friend,” Kopus said. “That highway has been the source of so much good, not just here in Kenya but all East Africa. Safe, efficient roads have transformed our economies and allowed us to share our growth with our neighbors. I do not disagree with you that animals have died, but is it not worth it when measured against the increased quality of life for the millions of East Africans?”

“Please listen to me, Kopus. I'm not asking for just Kenya and East Africa. Other nations have seen your growth and want the same. You and Kenya are role models, and we want other countries to grow in a conscientious, sustainable way. Use sustainable technologies. Practice moderate, safe growth. If you do it, they will follow.”

Kopus carefully set his chang'aa glass down and stared full at James.

“Let us be plain with one another. What do you want from me? Want do you want from Kenya? Do you want us to close all of our coal plants and rely entirely on hydro and wind power? Do you want us to walk to Uganda and Tanzania?”
James didn't look away.

“Yes. Close down every plant that depends on non-renewable resources. Encourage public and foot transportation. Start from the beginning to assure a better life or any life at all for your children and grandchildren.”

Kopus did not look away either.

“I cannot do that. I will not do that. You would put us back decades and return Kenyans to the slums. Alternative power is not enough. We tapped all of them to the fullest decades ago, and they did not even our basic needs then. Coal power and the Trans-East-African Highway are our right. We Kenyans now enjoy basic luxuries like universal indoor plumbing and consistent electrical lighting, the same luxuries you have enjoyed for over a century. This is what we have spent the past years working for. We deserve meat at every meal. We deserve air conditioning and heating. We deserve our own cars. We have dreamed of them for decades, but now that we have them, you are telling me that we cannot keep them. We have the industry to compete with Europe, and you would still tell us what we can do, but we will not listen.”

Kopus walked away from the bar before James could say anything more.


“Kopus Lomada, also known as John Lomada?” the white man asked. There were six of them. There was the white man and another man just behind him on his left side, one man standing guard on either side of the room's only door, and another two men who had taken positions behind Kopus when he rose to greet them. They were all colors, but the white man had confirmed Kopus' identity. He had an English accent. It could only be deliberate. Kopus wanted to laugh, but he had only one part to play now, and he wanted to play it with dignity.

“Yes,” Kopus said.

“The International Criminal Court in The Hague has charged you with crimes against humanity for your continuing construction of coal-burning power plants and other acts of unsustainable growth in direct violation of the Shanghai Treaty. The Security Council of the United Nations has commissioned us to assure that you appear before the court, and we ask that you come with us peacefully.”

And that was it. Kopus had heard reports from Brussels and New York City intimating this action nearly a year ago, and he immediately had gone underground, no longer publicizing his upcoming appearances. He never doubted the reports' veracity. Since Kenya had entered the G-20 and forced out Italy, the casual talk in the West of a Nobel Peace Prize for Kopus had ended and serious talk of the Ascendant Africa and its attendant economic and environmental threats began. When the definition of crimes against humanity were expanded to include environmental destruction as the extermination of future generations, Kopus knew he had little time remaining. He began meeting in secret with elected and military leaders throughout Africa. Kopus had spent the last months in close talks with the prime minister of Morocco and president of Egypt to lay the last pieces. When the African Union announced Kopus as the unanimous choice for President of the Pan-African Parliament, the plan was well in motion. The only action remaining was to fly to South Africa and await his fate. Kopus' location would be publicly known. The West would arrest him, but it was done. There was nothing the West could do now.

“Of course,” Kopus said. “If the Security Council wills it, I am their servant.” Before he left with his captors, he said to his single assistant, “Please give my apologies to the parliament. I am sure they will understand my absence.”

Walking in the center of the team of six men through the halls, Kopus imagined his assistant speaking before the assembly and explaining his arrest. The leaders would inform the appropriate people, and the next step would be made. The African Union military forces sent to quell the manufactured riots in Morocco and Egypt would turn against Europe. By the end of the week, bombing runs against the continent's major military centers would be complete and the invading armies would have established bases of operations in Spain and Italy. Kopus could not imagine a credible European response to the organized African force.

He was not sure of his own fate. Perhaps his captors would execute him when the invasion began. Perhaps they would hold him as a bargaining chip for peace negotiations. Maybe bombs from African fighters would destroy wherever he was held. It didn't matter to Kopus. Europe would know that Africa was for Africans, that they had the same right to meat and clean water as them.

Outside and pushed into a massive, black sport-utility vehicle, Kopus thought he could hear applause from inside the parliament. He wanted to dance with all the pride he had atop the elephant all those years ago but contented himself with a smile.

Monday, December 6

Considering Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair"

Michael Gorra discusses the one key plot point in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair during his introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, and I was prepared for that. I stopped reading them first when the introduction to my school library copy of Crime and Punishment pretty well revealed every major resolution but for Raskolnikov's final choice. That Anna Karenina throws herself beneath the train and that Snape kills Dumbledore are near unavoidable knowledge, but I do enjoy not knowing what will happen as much as possible.

What I was not prepared for was the revelation that Sarah Miles, the ender of the titular affair, was likely modeled on Greene's own mistress, a Catherine Walston, potentially the 'C.' to whom the novel is dedicated. Maurice Bendrix, the narrator, was an unpleasant enough character already in his selfishness, lies, obstinacy, self-centeredness, arrogance and all the rest. When it becomes possible that Bendrix is modeled on Greene himself, the novel begins to seem like so much wankery. Sarah continues to love Bendrix after she ends their affair? She tries but cannot find solace in the body of another man? Her cuckolded husband forgives Bendrix and invites him to take their spare room after Sarah's death? Sounds like a super awesome guy, that Bendrix.

No mistake, the writing in these sections is beautiful and fluent. The opening lines "A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccuarte pride of a professional writer who-when he has been seriously considered at al-has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?" are classic. Bendrix discovers, too, a brilliantly drawn ensemble of characters, especially the investigator Albert Parkis who is at pain when writing a list of expenses for Bendrix and the street atheist Richard Smythe, but it all only seems to lead to so much self pleasure and satisfaction.

Yet the narration of Bendrix bookends the diary of Sarah Miles, one of the greatest accounts of faith I have seen in fiction outside of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. For his personal faith and for Sarah's baptism into the Roman church, The End of the Affair is called a Catholic novel, but beyond these particulars I find nothing especially Catholic about it unless the theology is too subtle for me. In the transformation of Sarah's arguments with and hatred of God to a grudging acceptance and willing belief in Him, I see nothing that would be so foreign to a Lutheran or Pentecostal or even a Jew or Muslim as nothing would seriously change if the church Sarah runs to became a mosque or the father who baptizes her a rabbi. Sarah's prayer to a God she does not understand, much less believes in, is answered. She defies God. When she finds the miracle unbearable, she rages against Him and is prepared to break her promise to Him but finds her efforts and ploys thwarted. She comes to accept that she cannot hate Him without believing in Him. The path from there is still tenuous but it only leads in one direction.

That Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennet and all the rest straw man faith is no surprise. Their works on religion are polemics and leave no room for subtlety, but I do wish they would read just Sarah's passage and realize that faith is so much more complex than they imagine. It is not some simple salve for a fear of the dark and a rustling in the bushes. It can be very unpleasant for the believer and means sacrifice but must be pursued because it is true.

Sunday, December 5

McDonald's Adventures

I remember the last time I ate at McDonald's. It was after a high-school cross-country meet, my junior year I think. I had a hunger and ordered five cheeseburgers. It seemed like a good deal for five dollars. I remember because I paced myself in eating them, and by the time I got to those on the bottom of the bag, a half hour after beginning, there were dark stains that covered near half of the wrapping. I ate them anyway. I still had that hunger. Considering later, I figured the stains were the grease draining and pooling out from the meat.

I'm sure I've eaten at McDonald's in the years since, maybe some french fries or a McFlurry, but I don't remember. Certainly haven't had any meals there, and my interest in eating a Value Meal has only decreased since embarking on the whole vegetarian thing.

Funny to think that I would sooner work at McDonald's than eat there again. It was slow season at the hotel, and they only needed me once in the past four weeks to clean rooms. There was rent to pay and groceries to buy, and I needed to find a job with better hours, any hours. I worked my first shift on Saturday. I start my second shift at five tomorrow morning. There will be thoughts when I spend forty hours a week pressing meat and steaming prepared eggs. Something for you all to look forward to as the short stories have slowed this past month.


If one were to ask, I would say that my favorite active music acts today were Rodrigo y Gabriela and Josh Ritter. Bloc Party would be among them if they hadn't broken up last year, Flogging Molly is nipping at the edges and Brandi Carlile would make a strong run at that distinction if I listened through more than one of her albums. Astor Piazzolla would certainly be there, if he weren't dead.

I sit at my computer with some regularity and play one of their albums. If I catch a groove in writing or find a fascinating article, it can be a full thirty minutes of silence before I realize nothing is playing and I have to wonder whether I had even hit the play button. I know their music. I like their music, but I can't recall hearing any of it just then. It was just white noise and blocked the sound of the neighbors upstairs or cars pulling in and out of the parking lot. The music became the background, and I didn't even notice anymore.

And that's the music I like and want to hear. Then there's the music on the car radio that keeps me from nodding off, and the music in the supermarket and restaurants that keeps me moving through the establishment in a suitably brisk manner and make way for incoming customers. There are film and television soundtracks that track the emotional beats and cues.

I do not think it is such an exaggeration to say that we don't so often really listen to music anymore. It's like a color. It adds a certain shading to the daily proceedings. We expect it to be there. It's nothing special or spectacular.

To actually hear music again and be taken up by it and lose track of everything else while it plays, to be reminded forcefully that music is not just a tempo to my life but full of textures and brilliance, that is something incredible. This song and video did it for me. Maybe you saw it already. It has over seventeen million hits on YouTube already, but that's several billion who haven't yet seen it and need to.

Monday, November 29

Favorite characters

I am inspired. By a meme. After near two weeks of aborted attempts at posts I find inspiration in providing reasoning behind my selections for the 15 Favorite Characters meme, already on Facebook. Enjoy.

Rachel, K.A. Applegate's Animorphs

Tobias was trapped in the body of a red-tailed hawk. Marco was prepared to kill his mother. Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthil betrayed his people. Jake ordered the murder of his brother. Cassie was morally inconvenienced. The war against the Yeerks damaged all of the Animorphs, but none so much as Rachel. She was so subsumed by the fight that she wouldn't have been able to exist without it had she not carried out Jake's last order. Her essential conflict was repeated in each of her books after the David trilogy, but hers was the most powerful. And she was the only one to regularly zing Marco.

Screwtape, C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters

The banality of evil is a not uncommon phrase. Screwtape is the methodology and bureaucracy of evil. His machinations toward all other demons, including his own nephew and suggestions on the small, gradual capture of a soul make him as terrifying as the Joker. And somehow, even though Lewis didn't exactly enjoy writing the character, he still created something that was, if not sympathetic, at least lamentable.

Tyler Durden, David Fincher's Fight Club

The passing perfection of the hand on the beach withstanding, my preference is for the film Tyler Durden whose overwhelming charisma could make you believe all the things that came out of his mouth. He had style to burn and beat a man without touching him. And we all know that he was really the grown Hobbes to Edward Norton's grown Calvin.

Jin, Shinichiro Watanabe's Samurai Champloo

Shinichiro Watanabe is fascinated by characters betrayed many times over and still beholden to their pasts no matter how long or far they go to escape them. They are the heroes of his premier series Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. When these characters begin to shed their pasts and emotional shells to look forward to a future with their new friends, the series reach their emotional climaxes. None of the climaxes reach as high as Jin's return. He had been left for dead by Kariya Kagetoki. He could have escaped with his life but returns and accepts a killing blow to save Fuu. And he totally would have beaten Mugen given a fair chance.

The father, Tobias Wolff's "Powder"

Because even forty-eight year-old, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor men have their moments.

Calvin, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes

When I was younger Hobbes was my clear favorite. He pounced and won the fights. Calvin transmogrified into a tiger. Hobbes just always seemed to have the better of Calvin. My appreciation for the boy who was Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man and Tracer Bullet; the boy who invented the Duplicator and Ethicator; and the boy who led GROSS as dictator-for life has only grown. He was irrepressible, and that counts for a lot.

Jim Gordon, Frank Miller's Batman: Year Zero

Jim Gordon can beat a drunk, baseball-bat-wielding former Green Beret alone, but Batman can defeat an entire SWAT team. Gordon can't even stop an out-of-control truck from running down an old woman, and she is only saved by the appearance of Batman, but Gordon is the braver and better of the two. He fights crime and the corruption of the Gotham police department without a mask. If Batman wanted security for the rest of his life, he would only have to burn the cape and cowl and live forever as Bruce Wayne. Gordon can never escape his enemies, and he has more to lose. He has a wife and children. Even if his identity were revealed, Batman has a near infinite fortune that can replace any material loss and keeps every person at arm's length. Batman wishes he could be as good as Gordon.

Lancelot, T.H. White's The Once and Future King

In the many, many retellings of the Arthurian legends, Lancelot is a beautiful playboy, but White's man with a face as ugly as a gorilla's is definitive. He knows himself to be a bad man but is desperate to be a good man and great knight in service of his king's dreams. When he is allowed to perform a miracle and heal Sir Urre, it's heartbreaking.

O.E. Parker, Flannery O'Connor's "Parker's Back"

Parker is unique among O'Connor's characters, mostly in that he is neither a jaded university student or jaded land owner. Like them, a person whom he has no interest in enters his life and becomes its focal point. Unlike them, he does not spend all of his time rejecting this person. He doesn't always understand why or enjoy doing so, but he pursues the woman who hates his tattoos, and somehow finds himself a new man at the end of it.

Morgan Grimes, Chuck

Morgan has no Intersect and has no expertise, but his loyalty to his friends has saved any number of missions and kept Chuck sane. When the CIA couldn't handle the Buy More properly, he became the manager. And the Morgan stance has defeated more than its share of villains.

Marge Simpson, The Simpsons

The only Simpson that doesn't overshadow Marge is Maggie, and that's only because she can't talk. Marge lacks the rampaging id of Homer and Bart and the unrelenting idealism of Lisa, but her sense of responsibility and unflagging love keeps the family together. When she was allowed to take center stage in episodes like "A Streetcar Named Marge" and "Marge vs. the Monorail," The Simpsons was at its best.

Woody, Toy Story

Through the de facto leader of Andy's toys the crises of becoming obsolete, finding a sort of immortality and being discarded find their focal point. Woody is not perfect. He is jealous of Buzz to the point of knocking him out a window and is tempted to join the Tokyo toy museum, but his loyalty to his friends and Andy carries him through against all challenges.

Cole Richards, Scott Kurtz's PvP

Cole Richards is the Marge Simpson of PvP, the only responsible adult amidst a company of children who would rather be playing than doing their jobs. He has his pathos in seeing the world move on from the pop culture that sustained him as a child that make his small victories, seeing Superman Returns and finally beating Max Powers, as ridiculous as his rivalry with him may be, all the sweeter.

Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad

While Breaking Bad is undeniably the domain of Walter White, Jesse has become the nearest thing to a moral center the drama has as the teacher has clung to his new identity as the meth supplier of Albuquerque. Jesse takes beatings from every side and still strives for human connections and relationships that White has forsaken. If the drama has any hope, it lies in Jesse. That being said, I've only seen the first two seasons. Maybe things get considerably cheerier in the third.

Inigo Montoya, William Goldman's The Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya is the best at what he does, swordplay, just as Fezzik is the strongest, Vizzini the craftiest, Buttercup the most beautiful and Humperdinck the greatest hunter, but it comes from a place of misery. Mandy Patinkin's "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." is legendary, but Goldman's literary Montoya edges him out for having a deeper past that is not entirely driven by revenge and the same intensity.

The following are the near misses. Maybe another character from the same work or the same creator is included proper, and this character was overlooked in the name of diversity. Perhaps I don't want to admit to liking them that much. Possibly the boundary between their reality and their fiction is disputed. In any case, if the meme expanded to thirty favorite characters, they would there.

Chewbacca, Star Wars; Elwin Ransom, C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy; Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons; Turanga Leela, Futurama; Nightcrawler, X-Men; Troy Barnes, Community; Agatha Heterodyne, Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius; Satchel, Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy, Mark Zuckerberg, David Fincher's The Social Network; Budd, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2; Hobbes, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes; James Wilson, House, M.D.; Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII; Naota Nandaba, FLCL; Spike Spiegel, Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop

Sunday, November 28

Considering "Machine of Death"

I read an article in the Boston Review earlier this month, an article unfortunately unavailable online, that discussed the impact of Amazon upon book publishing and sales. It argued that Amazon is not a force for good in the book world as it has removed the 'buy' option for books from publishers who have refused to give the online distributor deep discounts on bulk purchases and has attempted to create an early artificial ceiling on e-book prices for its Kindle, a price that would be untenable for publishers once Amazon required a larger cut of the sales.

I do not refute any of it, but I do give Amazon credit for providing a platform where it was possible for a short story collection, already not the most popular writing, written by a bunch of nobodies and illustrated by people only slightly better known to be the best selling book in America for a day. Seriously, look at the contributor biographies in the back. The most accomplished of them have webcomics. The rest offer jokes along the lines of those found in university arts and literary journals. What's more impressive about this feat is that it topped Amazon sales the same day that Keith Richards' memoir Life and Glenn Beck's latest provocation Broke were released, the sorts of books that end up in Costco because their assumed market is so large. This took some planning as the editors asked people to wait to buy Machine of Death until a certain day to pump up its sales ranking, but it is impressive nonetheless.

I'm fairly well tempted to leave this post at that. A collection of bloggers and webcomic artists independently published were more popular for a day than a member of one of the biggest bands of the twentieth century and a man whose rally in Washington D.C. attracted at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. That's pretty sweet.

But what about the stories?

As you might expect in any short story collection, even one by Tobias Wolff or Raymond Carver, they are a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some are less so. They are all bound in including the titular machine of death, a device that is able to predict absolutely the means of someone's death. Any attempts to avoid or circumvent the prediction fail or just lead to it in a Death in Baghdad sort of way. Unfortunately, the predictions are not always clear. They are often vague and more frequently ironic and unexpected. CRACK can be cocaine or a break in a sidewalk. ALMOND can be choking, an allergic reaction or being buried under the tasty nuts.

The writers cover every possibility. They create origins of the machine, they consider the greater social implications of the machines, they imagine the individual struggles against and acceptances of predictions. In fact, these cover about every possible scenario, and it feels as though thirty-four stories is too long for the collection as I began to dread another overly serious story about someone refusing to accept their predicted death. For a collection inspired by a webcomic, I expected more laughs and have a preference for Brian Quinlan's "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle," Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's "Exhaustion From Having Sex With A Minor" and Shaenon K. Garrity's "Prison Knife Fight." Though not without their flaws, Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow" has a wonderful voice in imagining the reformation of high school cliques in the face of the death predictions, and Jeff Stautz's "Loss of Blood" creates the best dystopian response to the predictions. Bartholomew von Klick has a great exploration of accepting death in "Shot by Sniper" while Erin McKean and William Grallo contribute some poetic pieces with "Not Waving But Drowning" and "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face" respectively.

And what about the illustrations?

Those are pretty sweet, too. Some of the biggest names in webcomics contributed, and my favorites included Christopher Hastings, Brandon Bolt, Carly Monardo, Aaron Diaz, John Allison, Roger Langridge, Rene Engström and Ramón Pérez.

Buy Machine of Death. You'll laugh, you'll think, you'll appreciate some art, you'll stick it to a man who is a sneeze away from collapsing into a pile of cocaine and another man who is a pinprick away from popping like a balloon filled with rage

Monday, November 8

Honorable runner-up in The Global Citizen Photo Art Contest

Even if they didn't select my picture to appear on the cover of the fifth volume of The Global Citizen, I do appreciate that the Krista Foundation selected it as an honorable runner-up and posted it to their website. I don't so much appreciate that they didn't tell me about this. A friend who had been informed by a friend of hers had to tell me.

I did know about its appearance as a header piece within the journal, not that you could easily recognize it. The picture was cropped to about a fifth of its original size so that you could only see the horizon line. You couldn't even see the third girl with the open kanga in it. There was a certain irony in the pairing with Dr. Moses Pulei's article as he is of the Maasai tribe, and the Pokot in East Pokot kind of freak him out.

But, anyway, it's still cool to be recognized by someone else and gives me the warm fuzzies inside.

Friday, November 5

Personal statement for the Rhodes

Take this as a negative example. If you really want a Rhodes Scholarship, don't write a personal statement like this one.

I studied journalism at Gonzaga University because I believe it can change the world for the good. Quality reporting reveals injustices and informs complex issues. It makes our communities and nations better places. I enjoyed my work with the student newspaper, but I became frustrated as I realized the gap between advocacy and action. On the one hand, there are the journalists and other observers who identify problems and draw attention to them. Then there are those who do something about those problems. The ability of reporters to change the world is real, but it is a passive ability. It depends on others reading their article and acting, devising solutions, organizing support, finding funding. It is the difference between Nicholas Kristof writing about human trafficking and Carol Sasaki founding the International Humanity Foundation (IHF) to protect children from a future in prostitution. The work men and women like Mr. Kristof do is valuable and necessary, but I no longer wanted to be just the inspiration for change. I wanted to be the change itself.

To learn and to make a difference I joined IHF after graduating from Gonzaga and served as a director at its orphanage in Kenya and education center in Bali, Indonesia. That year was the most physically and emotionally challenging of my life. I was responsible for the children's health, education and happiness. I organized and attended monthly famine feeds to drought-stricken East Pokot. I managed a staff of twenty and served on the online Directors Executive Committee. I adapted to a radically different culture. The work required all my attention all day, and at times it bordered on overwhelming when there were power outages and when new children arrived at the center. I was forced to dig deeper inside myself than I ever had before to find the energy to meet it all. I was proud of what I accomplished in Africa and Asia, but I found myself frustrated again. More could have been done for the children, more needed to be done for them, but even at the extent of my abilities, I could only do so much. More people needed to be involved and contribute in different ways if a substantial difference at the orphanage, in Nakuru, in Kenya, in Africa, in the world were to happen. I could not be the change alone.

Some months into my service (and perhaps tardily), I asked myself how I had arrived in Kenya and become responsible for over one hundred children. Though I had been active in service from a young age through the Boy Scouts and my church, my high school self would have had a hard time imagining directing an orphanage on a different continent a mere five years in the future. This change was not some instantaneous transformation. It was a gradual evolution that began with a twenty-hour service placement required by my freshman colloquium and developed through a spring-break service trip to San Antonio and the student club Program for International Education and Relief where I led projects to welcome refugee immigrants to Spokane. As a junior and senior, service became a practice when I took a front-desk position at the House of Charity, a homeless shelter. As soon as I became comfortable with one position and one group, I moved on to the next, pushing further to face new challenges and to take greater leadership. By the end of my senior year, joining IHF as a center director was simply the next logical step in this progression.

In researching my undergraduate honors thesis and through conversations with the director of Gonzaga's community action department, I learned this development was designed under the theory of service-learning. It was an education that did not treat students as mere vessels to be taught skills and concepts. It was an education to make us morally better people. The concept fascinated me. This went well beyond teaching a survey of ethics and asking students to consider abstractly the categorical imperative in relation to the greatest good for the greatest number. Service-learning asked us to consider how best to apply our unique skills, passions, positions and resources for others. It encouraged us not to be content with just filling a bowl of soup at a homeless shelter or mentoring a child in need but to form relationships with the served and be available for them emotionally and socially. Service-learning demanded constant self reflection to avoid complacency and to discover where the need was greatest and where we could best serve.

Now, my year of service abroad complete, I am impelled to gather myself before taking the next step, the largest step. With the Rhodes Scholarship I will read for Higher Education and Comparative International Education, two one-year Msc degrees. Professor Ingrid Lunt, director of graduate studies for the department of education, has already indicated I would qualify for these programs.

Prepared by these studies and degrees I will educate the educated about the poor. I will design and implement study-abroad programs in developing nations and communities. Through these programs I will teach students the realities of poverty's origins and persistence. They will discover the differences between urban and rural poverty and the different challenges facing the impoverished in nations as different as Thailand and El Salvador and Guinea-Bissau. These programs will be a synthesis of advocacy and action. The students will learn first hand about some of the world's most intractable problems. They will know what needs to change, how they can change. Then, through these direct, personal experiences they will discover how they are best suited to act and to make the world better. I will teach them, and we will be the change.

Thursday, November 4

The Rhodes

I got an email from the selection committee of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust for District 14 earlier this week. That would be the group that chooses two students from Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana to study at Oxford University for two years, all tuition and living and everything expenses covered, the same award that brought Bill Clinton, Nicholas Kristof and other American luminaries to England.

I tried to avoid talking about the fact that I had applied. I thought it was pretentious to even admit that I thought I had a chance. Not that I wasn't pretentious or arrogant or any of that. I thought I had an even shot at the scholarship. I looked at the biographies of Rhodes Scholars selected in the past few years and thought I measure up. I have a shot. At least with the ones whose most prominent achievements were in service. Not the ones who had an internship with the World Bank and wrote a thesis on economies of the developing world or had their research and names published in leading scientific journals. I am an Eagle Scout. I wrote an full thesis on service-learning. I graduated summa cum laude. I studied abroad and am marginally bilingual. I spent a bleeding year directing orphanages on other continents. That seemed to pretty well cover the three criteria of literary and scholarly attainments; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; and moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings. As far as I was concerned, the only criteria I missed was the demonstration of an energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports.

But I guess that was enough of an omission because that email earlier this week was to inform me that I was not selected to attend a personal interview mid-way through the month. I think it would be appropriate to say that devastated me. Sure, whenever someone mentioned the possibility of life in England after I submitted my application, I would say I needed to have the interview first, but I didn't really mean that. As much as possible, I thought I was a shoo-in for an interview and was preparing for that, which is a surprising lot like filling out a Facebook profile in being able to identify a favorite novelist, nonfiction writer, poet, painter and so on as well as demonstrating a familiarity with current events and having an opinion on them. I was trying to figure out the best way to get to the interview and who I could bum a bed or couch off of for a night.

The email sent me into a tailspin. The day after, for the fourth time in a row I was told not to come in for work since not enough rooms had been rented the night before. Without the chance for distraction through scrubbing bathrooms and making beds, I spent the day watching streaming Netflix. I watched the entire first season of Archer, got through the first few episodes of Samurai 7 and finally saw the fruits of Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage's collaboration Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans.

I'm better now, I guess. If I think about it, it bothers me, as in What more could I have done?, but I'm not actively seeking distraction from that line of thought anymore. I'm trying to remind myself that the odds were always against me. I'm trying to focus on the positive, in that I get to spend next year with Demetra and not be separated from her by an ocean and continent.

It's weird. It was my last real opportunity to be officially told that my performance and achievements were greater than those of others. I am no athlete, obviously, so there are no Rookie of the Year or Most Valuable Player awards to compete for. I have little interest in going on to graduate school otherwise, so there are no more scholarships or fellowships to apply for or academic honors nights to attend. All part of being an adult, I hope, admitting I'm not that great and no longer being told that I am great, having to find the motivation and whatnot in myself.

Tuesday, October 26

Winter encroaches

It's late October now, and Bozeman's Indian summer has finally passed. First frost appeared last week, the temperature hasn't broken seventy for a while and snow is forecast any day. It's all I hear people talking about. Most are not excited for this. I am.

I like winter and the snow and the long nights and the stillness imposed by the cold. I missed it in Kenya when our Christmas was very much green.

I have not, however, very often enjoyed the run up to the season. In Baudette it was rainy and wet, and the only color the leaves turned were brown. Fall was a season to muddle through before winter's wonder. Spokane was better. There was a clear fall and crispness in the air. For a couple of months it was jacket weather and the leaves went gold and orange and purple and all the rest. It was a season I could actually look forward to.

Bozeman's fall tends more toward Baudette's, but it may boast the best indicator of the coming season yet as the snow falls first on the mountains, capping them in white. The clouds pass them, and I know what will soon be coming here. It is quite excellent.

Wednesday, October 20

Calls to Kenya and Jakarta

I like to think that I know a little something of the philosophy underlying service, having written a thesis on the subject and whatnot. Reflection is one of its core tenets. There is the reflection in the midst of service, identifying where one is doing good, how one could be doing more good, what one is learning and so on and so forth. Then, perhaps even more importantly, there is the reflection that follows service that asks all of these same questions as before but tries to integrate them into the rest of our lives and not merely allow the service to exist in that one time in the past.

I haven't been doing so well with the latter. I have excuses. Preparations for weddings, weddings, weekend trips to other states and cities, settling into a new city and finding a new job have all required my attention, but I am starting to get back into it a little, staying in touch and staying involved. This week I am writing an article about my experiences in Kenya and Indonesia for a travel magazine. Last week Demetra and I hosted a fundraising dinner for IHF. I cooked rice complemented with Indian spiced beans and lentil and potato curry. She invited her friends and professors. We called the centers on Skype, so our guests could see the children, and the children could have a performance. You'd expect something culturally relevant, something traditionally Javan from the Jakarta kids. Nope. They did a dance entirely appropriate for an American talent show to Shakira's "Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)." If nothing else, I guess it was a prime demonstration of globalisation as Indonesian children danced to a Colombian's song for South Africa.

There were some problems, and we didn't manage to call Nakuru until two hours after our guests had left and dinner was cleaned up. Surprisingly, they did go for a Pokot song and dance replete with a leader and ululations and shuffle steps and everything. Afterward we talked for a while with the old director as some eight children huddled around her, watching us and their reflection in the camera.

Things continue on in Nakuru. There is bad and there is good. That was unexpected. What was less expected was how much I missed it. Life in Nakuru was some of the toughest I have known. I had about an hour of privacy a day after the kids were locked into their dorms. There was an emergency once a week. I never felt completely comfortable in Kenya. I was always exhausted, but I have been gone only a little more than half a year and can already see the children growing, becoming less round and more lanky. For almost a year Nakuru and the children were my life, and now I couldn't feel more apart from them. It shouldn't be like that. I will not go so far as to say I want to leave right now and be a director again, but I want to see the kids again and make sure they are doing well, are happy and safe.

Anyway, if you would like to help make more good than bad in Nakuru and at the rest of our centers, please consider sponsoring a child. Thanks.

Sunday, October 17

Minnesotans abroad

I consider myself Minnesotan but only marginally. My driver's license is now from Washington, and I'll be living in Montana for three of the next four years. My parents are both transplants to the state. Canada was nearer than any other Minnesotan city. All of our television stations broadcast from North Dakota, and the largest local daily newspaper was printed there as well. I prefer the Packers to the Vikings and do cheer for the Twins but not to the extent of actually watching them lose every playoff series to the Yankees.

This is rather unfortunate. If I were more involved with my homestate, I would have an instant point of conversation throughout the world. Minnesotans are everywhere. When I spent five months in Germany and was taking to regular weekend trips to other countries, the only nation I didn't find a Minnesotan in was England. Paris, Istanbul, Cork, Munich, yes but none in Oxford or London. I hear that Ithaca College has a Minnesotan student club that screens Fargo every year, and I knew plenty of Minnesotans at Gonzaga. I never met any Minnesotans while in Nakuru, but my mom tells me that some members of our parish went on safari there the same time I was abroad. In Bozeman now Minnesotan license plates are second most common to Montanan. Minimal exaggeration, I see at least one new Minnesotan car every day.

Yes, it is very possible that this is confirmation bias and that Minnesotans stick in my mind for our tribal relationship, but let's pretend that's not the case. What drives Minnesotans out and into the world? To resort to a bifurcation, the only choice appears to be whether they are escaping state fairs and Scandinavian accents or are born adventurers, gluttons for adrenaline.

I prefer the second.


Monday, October 11

Mammoth Hot Springs

Know what I like about Yellowstone National Park?  That it may be one of a handful of places on this earth where there is a higher per capita of cameras than people and not just little point-and-click jobs a few steps above being disposable but SLR's with exchangeable lenses and tripods.  Whether the people just have too much disposable income and know how to properly use these or not is another matter.  I guess the challenge then for anyone shooting pictures in Yellowstone is not to find something beautiful, because there is plenty of that, but to find something that no one else has yet captured or to capture it in a new and different way.  I'm not going to pretend that I managed that in my one-day whirlwind visit to America's first national park, but I would like to discuss taking pictures of Mammoth Hot Springs, our first stop.
In family trips to the Canadian Rockies near a decade ago I first saw hot springs.  They were little things, a spot of bubbling water or a stained line on a wall of rock.  Mammoth Hot Springs is nothing like this.  They are, in a word, mammoth.  They rise up and extend longer than most houses.  A section of the boardwalk had to be removed recently because the hot springs were still growing.  The trick in this case becomes how to best capture this immense feature.  This first picture tries to catch it all.

The pool at the bottom and the very lowest levels that have begun to dry out.  The tables, the bubbles, the steam and the everything.  I am generally of the opinion that it fails.  In trying to contain everything, it gives it all short shrift.  Nothing is emphasized, and some of the wonder is lost.

This second picture is slightly tighter, removing the pool at the bottom to focus on the rest, and emphasizes color, which is a good choice when the fine detail is lost, but again fails.  There is too much and no particular emphasis to really draw our attention.

So I tried to focus on some individual elements of the hot springs.

Steam is in emphasis here.  It seems like a safe choice.  There is a certain drama to not being able to totally see everything.  This picture is hobbled, though, by poor framing and composition.  Steam seems to lose a great deal of mystery, too, when it is pictured on a clear, sunny day.

These two pictures examine some of the other unique physical growths of the hot springs.  I'm sure they have a proper geological name somewhere, but I am content to call them tables and bubbles.  They're not bad pictures.  They are close enough to reveal details, and the composition is decent, especially with the tables in how they grow, but I must admit a preference for this final picture.

This is a microsm for the whole of the hot springs.  There is the steam.  There is the table on top.  There are the bubbles.  The wide range of colors are represented.  It captures everything that makes the hot springs so fascinating but brings it all in close enough that the detail can be seen and appreciated.

Monday, October 4


I have a job. Someday I will write the wonders of working with one's hands as a part-time hotel housekeeper and no longer being the Man, but that day is not today.

When I had my interview with the manager, she told me the hotel was around two-and-a-half stars. This fall and winter they are making the push for the third star. This entails replacing the porcelain sinks with granite, painting new accent walls and hanging more nature watercolors. Apparently hotel stars are more about ticking items off a checklist than symbols of excellence like Michelin stars.

I can live with that. Some rooms have been finished, and I admit that they look better than the rest. What continues to bug me is that we keep the same glowing red alarm clock radios and gray plastic garbage cans, exact same that every other hotel I've ever stayed in use.

I guess these just scream "cheap" to me. Granted, these are fairly minor concerns in relation to how bright a room is or how nice the sink top is, but why not use an analog clocks or something? That would be unique. I would remember that. Why not a little something to distinguish the hotel a little bit from the competition, something a far sight cheaper than about forty pounds of imported rock?

Sunday, October 3

Considering "The Social Network"

I didn't very much like Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Part of this was the fault of its historical fiction genre where Chabon gleefully inserted his characters into scenes with Stan Lee and Salvador Dalí and their luminous ilk. This tic reached its most egregious when the title characters attended the premiere of Citizen Kane, immediately recognized its greatness and were inspired to write the greatest adventures of the Escapist. I hated that scene and would have quit reading then if I hadn't been in Kenya and without many other novels in waiting, but I found myself in something of a real life parallel when I saw the opening of David Fincher's The Social Network this Friday past.

The movie is brilliant. Beginning with the acting and moving on through to the script and score and cinematography, there is nothing less than excellent. Some forty critics on Metacritic and another one hundred and sixty-three on Rotten Tomatoes celebrate all of these.

But a work's impact isn't always about its particular brilliance. No Country for Old Men and Das Leben der Anderen and Toy Story 3 are all equally brilliant movies, but they never captured my imagination in the same was The Social Network has. I saw it at the right time. It's a movie for me and my generation.

The Social Network is about a man who did things his own way. Inspired by arrogance, spite, challenge, Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, a website no one asked for but now is valued in the billions of dollars. It may not have been done the best way or for the best reasons, but Zuckerberg did it without kowtowing to the elite, the privileged, the powerful, the entrenched, his seniors. As much as anything else, it was an enormous middle finger to them. He did something they couldn't and did it better. Even when he paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits, he won.

Sean Parker tells Zuckerberg late in the film "This is our time." It is. The Baby Boomers are retiring. The Internet has created something new. The opportunity to do something, to be something important is there if we reach for it.

Thursday, September 30


I remember the first time I allowed my dad to critique a story of mine. It ended with me in tears, but it was better for his suggestions. It may have taken me a few months to get over that particular savaging, but then I regularly asked him to look at my homework and articles and whatnot to find sentences in need of improvement and underdeveloped themes. I was a perfectionist. I didn't just want to hand in 'A' papers. I wanted them to be the best my teachers had read. His suggestions made me a better writer. By the last years of high school he had pointed my mistakes weaknesses out often enough that I could find them myself. At Gonzaga, I never asked anyone to read my essays. I was confident in them, and that confidence was more or less rewarded. My grades at university were not significantly lower than those in high school.

I managed little writing outside of this blog while abroad, but I began work on a number of half-finished and half-started stories from my time at Gonzaga. Now, with a great deal more time, I put more effort into them. I send them off to a few friends for comment. Their comments are helpful. They point out weak characters and thematic problems. I do my best to meet these criticisms and submit the stories to contests. I don't win the contests. I begin to wonder whether my best is good enough, whether writing is even worth my time if no one else likes it very much.

This past week I spent near three hours on the phone with a Gonzaga professor discussing the thousand words of my personal statement for a scholarship. He called my first draft, and I quote, underwhelming. There was a lack of passion in the final paragraph. There were split infinitives. There were ambiguous antecedents and awkward phrases. It was, quite possibly, the best thing anyone has said about my writing in a year or two. When he pointed out that I was denigrating a former recipient of the scholarship, I laughed.

I had thought the essay was pretty decent. I was wrong. I didn't have any idea what 'pretty decent' was, much less 'good.' This wasn't my best work, and I doubt my writing before was much better. I haven't peaked. I don't even know where the summit is, but I know I can do a lot better. I can win some contests and be published. I just need a little savaging every once and a while.

Friday, September 24

Considering Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's "Half of a Yellow Sun"

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gave a fine TEDTalk last year. The essential message, to write what you know, is nothing special, but she illustrated it well with personal experiences of first writing stories about white-skinned, blue-eyed children eating apples when she was born in Nigeria and had only ever ate mangoes. Then she went that extra step and drew the theme out with the need to search for a diversity of voices and not let a single narrative come to dominate any single person, culture, nation, event.

You can see how this idea is present in her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. There are a diversity of voices. Three characters, a boy from the bush serving as houseboy to a mathematics professor, a daughter of privilege and the professor's lover, and a British expatriate live through the years preceding and during the separation of Biafra from Nigeria and the ensuing war to bring it and its oil fields back into the fold. Just in writing about this time from the Biafran perspective, Adiche is creating another voice to challenge and correct the existing narrative. It reveals little to say now that Nigeria wins the war as Biafra is unable to find any international support, and as tends to go for the winners, their story tends to be the better known.

Thematically this is all very nice and good, but in this novel it frustrates me to no end. Borges once said something along the lines that he knew a series of stories were authentically Arabian because they never once mentioned camels. They were a given and needed no exceptional recognition. If someone traveled from Medina to Mecca, it would have been redundant to write "by camel." Reading Yellow Sun you will never forget it takes place in West Africa. Igbo words are frequently dropped in conversation. They eat a lot of jollof rice and garri. It's not as egregious or as blatant as Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao where footnotes are generously employed to bring foreign readers up to speed on just how terrible Rafael Trujillo was, but it's still heavy enough to jar me from the narrative when there is another reminder that this is a different place where they eat different things and mourn differently. It really bothers me then when these novels become so celebrated in America. I get the feeling that Americans read Yellow Sun and Oscar Wao as much to educate themselves as for the story itself. Now they know Biafra once existed and can drop a few good facts on the lead up to the war and the leaders should the opportunity come up in conversation.

Compare this to Sherman Alexie and Jhumpa Lahiri, two foreign-born writers whom I respect. Both write about their unique cultural experiences. Alexie's stories are set on reservations and Lahiri writes about educated Bengali immigrants in America, but there is never a sense that one is receiving a lecture on their lives and cultures. Alexie's stories are really about fathers and sons and Lahiri's are about founding one's place in a new land. That they include reservations and Bengalis is incidental. They are just the best ways they know how to express these themes.

Perhaps it's inevitable when Adiche sets her story in a time of war, when characters are caught up in events so much larger than themselves, that the larger facts of the situation come to bear, so I would like to see Adichie write something small next time, something much less epic. Maybe just the relationship between two sisters, which is by far the best aspect of Yellow Sun. It would be another voice for Adichie to share.

Tuesday, September 21

Considering Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"

It is time to add another name to the pantheon of major and minor literary deities who have disappointed me. Be it an honor or otherwise, Sherwood Anderson now stands in my mind alongside Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro and Henry James as those writers who have been built up and then failed to earn my esteem. It's not that I couldn't respect their works and themes and ways with words, but they failed to strike that deeply resonant cord within me and remain a splinter in my mind. Perhaps it is too much to expect, but after hearing so much, anything less than a life-altering work from these writers would have to be considered a failure. Maybe, probably, my response would be different if I had read more than a single work of Anderson, but Winesburg, Ohio is held up as his greatest and sometimes used as evidence for how the Noble prize for literature has missed the actual great works of Jorges Luis Borges and Marcel Proust while passing ten million kronor to Sully Prudhomme, Frédéric Mistral and Verner von Heidenstam.

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of vignettes about the residents of this small town. In the prologue, Anderson sets the stage for the series by writing:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.


And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some were quite strong and snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
It's a pretty sentiment, though I am prone to disagree with and believe it to be nonsense, more or less. In that it's like Joel McHale in Community's season finale as he considers whether Slater, who is like him on New Year's Day with a list of resolutions, or Britta, whose is like him four weeks later when he's hitting the snooze button and screening his mother's calls, would be better for him, whether it would be better for him to strive to be a better person or to know himself. It's nicely put and thematically interesting but requires ignoring the episode just past where he gave Shirley his priority registration because of Britta's influence.

And so Anderson explores the truths and falsehoods held dearly by the residents of Winesburg, Ohio. There's the teacher who was run out of town on accusations of touching his students. There's the artist who prefer imaginary friends to the real. There's the landowner who desires a male heir to defend their property from Philistines. There's the reverend who peeks at a woman as she reads in bed. There's the man who hates women. The only two truths necessary to exist in this town are that life and marriage are miserable things and that sharing your defining story with the town's youngest reporter is a good thing.

There are a wide variety of characters present. For that and for making them each distinctive, I give Anderson credit. In that he does right in forming the backbone of the work, but then Anderson goes and does them a disservice by forcing their stories into just a few pages. Twenty-two characters are identified and explored in the 231 pages in this volume. That's just more than ten pages for each, and the typeset is not exactly compressed. It's enough room to describe each character's background and leaves little room for much else. Few characters face conflicts, but those that happened and were decided long ago. When Anderson prefers to give each character such short shrift, though, the entire book begins to fill more like a collection of character sketches and preparations for a much better, longer work. It should be no surprise that the most compelling stories in the book come from "Godliness, a Tale in Four Parts," where the three lead characters have four times the time and space to develop.