I've read through most of the stories in Rebecca Curtis' debut collection twice, and I'm still not sure what I think of them.
There are some stories I absolutely hate, mostly those with political motives. That hasn't changed. “The Near-Son” and “The Wolf at the Door” are foremost among that lot. “The Near-Son” refers to an abortion committed in the very first line of the story. “The Wolf at the Door” is a heavy-handed metaphor for a man asking a woman for her phone number and, in likelihood, on a date. Both, I suppose, are attempts to show the woman's perspective in these more-or-less common situations, the sense of oppression from all sides, no support from family, no support from friends, but the stories are hamstrung by how ridiculously unlikable every character in them is and how totally unable they are able to generate any feelings of sympathy. The unemployed boyfriend of “Near-Son” who subsists entirely on the earnings of his girlfriend and incites a crowd at a wedding reception is the ostensible villain against the rational woman narrator who knows she cannot support both him and a baby and argues against his supernatural feelings at the time of the child's death. Yet she has no compassion for anyone in the story and comes off as entirely cold. The titular wolf is physically trying to force his way in the narrator's home in “The Wolf at the Door,” but the woman desperately asks for “a long knife” to fight him back.
Perhaps Curtis is trying to create some distance for audience by so elevating the stakes in these stories beyond anything they might personally have experienced, but in the process, the characters become clowns and entirely despicable and lose the ability to affect me in any way.
Contrast this with most every other story in the collection where the narrators, all women, have families and friends, jobs and hobbies. They are round and real. They may still not be likable or sympathetic, but they find themselves in more honest situations and react in ways I can understand. Take “Summer, with Twins,” one of my favorites. Like “The Wolf,” it too includes an attempted relationship that can only really be called exploitative, only this time it's the owner of the restaurant the narrator waitresses at instead of a wolf. Again, others look on, fully aware of what it happening but passive. In “Summer,” it's the Serrano twins and not the sister. Yet “Summer” is far better for developing its characters, the twins in particular. In just twenty-three pages, she crafts two characters in better detail than some novels manage in hundreds of pages.
“All I know is this, Jean said: Dina has no right to yell at us.
“She had a point though, I said, about us taking her dinners.
“I'm sorry, Jessica said, but I don't think getting your dinner late is a big deal. Whenever I have to wait for my food, it tastes more delicious!”
Consider another favorite in the collection, “The Witches.” It does more than a make a political point. It creates characters and situations specific and detailed. There is a stepfather whose only pride is his twenty-foot yacht. There is Dirk Drew, the boyfriend of a childhood friend. “...[E]very spring one beautiful girl fell in love with him before leaving him for someone else.” There is the senior prom at the yacht club. There are the Broads and Witches. And despite all of these details, Curtis creates a story with greater universality than either “Near-Son” or “Wolf” and their fairy-tale trappings.
More than any other author I am familiar, Curtis resembles Raymond Carver. Not in language, certainly. Where Carver is direct and simple, Curtis meanders and experiments with interruptions and asides and details. It's the themes they return to where the parallel really lies. Curtis' characters are working class, and like Carver, their first concerns are their relationships and jobs. Like the subtitle says, these are “tales of love and money.”
I think this comparison actually does a fair amount to reveal my problems with Curtis. Carver's stories may be as unrelentingly depressing in the how many of them come to divorce, death and other messy endings, but there is a sense of redemption in them as they try to figure out what it all means. In Curtis, it's a steady stream of girls wanting the wrong men, women rejecting men who deserve it, friends betraying friends, family disappointing family and so forth.
I don't intend to suggest that all stories need to have happy endings because they certainly don't. The trouble is when all thirteen stories in the collection leave you with an enduring disappointment in all humanity, if not outright hatred, it becomes a little much. Probably not best to read the collection straight through, to temper it with little breaks of most anything else.
She tries to be stoic in her pictures, but if you hold the camera on her for more than five seconds, Sheila does this.
We've been losing a lot of sponsors lately. I don't know why. It might be a problem with our computer system or maybe the recession is finally pushing hard enough on people that they have to give it up. In any case, please give serious thought to picking up a sponsorship.
I'm a journalist by training. Every semester of my four years at Gonzaga I was reminded of its highest aspects. I was told to “speak truth to power.” My professors urged my classmates and me to move beyond the traditional notion of totally objective reporting toward public-service journalism and looking after the interests of the greater populace.
That part of me cheered a little every time I saw a front-page article in The Daily Nation or The Standard that exposed another minister's corruption. I thought that if Kenya were to eject the thieves and bullies and nepotists from its halls of power, it would have to begin in the newspapers. The politicians had to know that their misdeeds would be uncovered and revealed to the entire nation. Those who followed them would have to know they had been given the public trust and that held them to a higher standard. They, and Kenya, would be better for that.
I lost that faith earlier this month. On March 13, a Saturday, to be precise. The headline was “Four More Raila Ministers Targeted.” It followed a week of revelations and accusations surrounding improper landsales for a cemetery and future technocity. The former was focused on a prominent member of the Orange Democratic Movement, the party of Raila Odinga, the prime minister. It was sourced on documents leaked from a pending investigation led by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission.
Macharia Gaitho, a columnist for The Daily Nation, believes these were passed on to journalists in retaliation for Odinga's presumption in ordering the immediate dismissals of William Ruto, Minister of Agriculture, and Sam Ongeri, Minister of Education, while investigations into their respective scandals continued. The order was reversed hours later by Mwai Kibaki, the president and member of the Party of National Unity. Kwendo Opanga, The Nation's editorial director, agrees.
Yes, the people have a right to know when their elected officials have not kept their promises and taken advantage of their positions. Yes, the guilty should be revealed and punished. But these past weeks makes a mockery of all that. It doesn't matter what is true and what is not, who is guilty and who is not. It only matters that the other party is a little weaker, that a few more incumbents will lose their seats in the next election.
In some ways, it's not that different in the States. Every Blagojevich is a little more lost faith in the Democratic Party. Every Sanford is another Senate election without a Republican incumbent. Revealed scandals and corruption are political opportunities for the opposing party. It's true everywhere.
The difference between the States and Kenya, in this regard, is that once all the evidence has come to light and the American politician found guilty, he has no friends. No one will come to his defense and risk being tarred by the same brush. In Kenya, there is nothing if not party unity. Odinga, who was so eager to take the high ground and claim Ruto and Waithera must vacate their offices while they were respectively investigated for the sale of emergency grain reserves during a drought and the theft of money intended for primary schools, would only protect his allies and their right to remain in power while the investigation remained ongoing. All that matters is power. Not what is right, not what the people deserve. It's disgusting.
A Tanzanian friends says that Kenya will be the next Nigeria in ten years. I see no reason to disagree with her.
For those interested in another voice on Kenyan life and travel in the capital, I invite you to read this excerpt from Carl Hoffman's upcoming The Lunatic Express and the accompanying interview.
They're not bad. When I first read the title, I was worried about some Western adrenaline junkie looking for real life-and-death thrills when roller coasters and their strict safety guidelines stopped being exciting. There is more than a dash of poverty porn, but they are honest and could have been so much worse in so many ways.
My one complaint: Hoffman only travels the Nairobi matatus. No doubt they have their own insanities, but he doesn't get to enjoy the flat madness of matatu travel between cities, hopping the narrow, gravel shoulders and passing three trucks in a single go.
The presence of advertising in major venues is as good a means as any of judging the strength of any particular business in Kenya. Equity Bank owns most of the billboards. The Daily Nation, the newspaper with the largest circulation, has its name on the welcome signs of all major and minor cities. The most popular outdoor medium by far, though, are buildings themselves. Entire blocks of buildings ranging from closet-sized kiosks to three-story hotels on the highways are dedicated to Bic pens and Omo laundry detergent, and among these, the telecom companies dominate. Nothing is more present than the ripe lime green of Safaricom or the eye-achingly brilliant fuschia of Zain. Even Yu's Christmas pairing of red and green and Orange's orange are more common than the classic red of Coca-Cola, third member of the Holy Trinity of Globalization alongside McDonald's and Nike.
Kenya is totally mobile mad. Everyone has one, and they respect them. I can count the number of Kenyans who have ignored their ringing mobile during a conversation with me on one finger. Maybe I'm just that boring and annoying, but some of them have to be looking for an opportunity to show theirs off. Even a number of the kids at the center have mobiles, about the same quality as classmates were playing Snake on back in sixth grade. They may not have the money to buy call credit, but they can still receive text messages.
It's counter intuitive, certainly. Kenya isn't be Chad, but it's still a Third World nation. The cheapest computer can still cost two-years worth of salary, and those who do have them struggle to be as efficient as an American middle school student. Public lighting is suspect. Universal indoor plumbing is a pipe dream. Among all these technological failures in Kenya, why should the mobile succeed? Mostly because they're bleeding useful. It's a trend throughout the developing world.
Like the Western world, mobiles are so much more than a means of portable and immediate communication here. They may not be iPhones yet, but even the cheapest models are feature full. Whenever a calculation is necessary, out comes the mobile. Flashlights are installed on the tops, far superior for lighting purposes than the screen's backlight. Plug in headphones and the mobile is now a radio.
Utterly fascinating to Demetra, and me the more I think about it, are Safaricom's M-Pesa and Zain's Zap programs. They're banks in miniature. At any kiosk which sells credit (you don't buy calling plans here; you credit an account which is automatically withdrawn from for every text sent and every minute of conversation), you can deposit any amount of money for free. You can then withdraw that money from any other kiosk. Awfully convenient as I think it's literally impossible to throw a rock and not hit someone selling credit. The programs have grown, and it's now possible to transfer funds between accounts, pay utility bills and even buy tickets on Kenya Airways through them. Of course there are fees for most all of these features, and the money never accrues interest, but they're a far sight more cost effective than the real banks. Standard Chartered charges us 1,000 shillings monthly to keep an account with them. To put this in perspective, monthly rent in Githima runs around 1,600 shillings.
It's not just on the personal level that mobiles make a difference. As a friend noted in Charter two years back, mobiles are making a difference in national economies. They reduce inefficiencies. In a nation where the trucks are prone to tipping over and the roads wash out fifteen minutes after the rain starts to fall, it allows arrival times to be calculated on the fly. Within a single city supplies can be found and demands met instantly though it would have been impossible at the turn of the millennium even.
I don't know who invented the mobile, but I'm fairly certain they weren't thinking of improving the economies of the developing world. More likely it was the size of their military contract or the challenge of doing something no one else had. Similarly, I doubt the executives of Safaricom and Zain were thinking of giving the poor a place to save their money in a digital form rather than hard currency. They saw the banks failing to meet the needs of an untapped market and swooped in to take advantage.
The thing is, at no point were any of these people ever thinking “I bet this will make so many lives better” yet mobiles and M-Pesa have arguably done more good for the poorest than decades of aid programs. Mobiles may not be as classy or immediate as handing out scholarships to the brightest students or buying food for the hungry, but they haven't created systemic corruption and national dependency. Not as annoying as Bono, either. Mobiles allow the people to take greater advantage of what they already have rather than demanding what they don't.
The kids will do most anything to attract my attention for a picture. They'll stuff their mouth full of mango and pose with pencils and calculators. In Bei's case, the funny hat worked.
In the case of Bei, I can personally account for the excitement a new sponsor can bring one of the children. For the first few months, he had none, but when Demetra called his name late last year to write a letter, he was as excited as anything. More excited even than for Christmas I would venture to say. Please give sponsorship more than a passing thought.
Three-day breaks from the center and the work and the kids are special things. At best, they come only once a month. At worst, maybe every other month. They require a delicate balance between the need for peace and the urge to explore and experience as much of Kenya as possible. They require planning.
Sometimes all that planning goes to pieces.
Our three-day venture earlier this week started well enough. We may have gone out three hundred shilling when we decided to drop our first matatu for a second when it was only a third full after two hours, but that was minor. We made it to Nyahururu on roughly the schedule we hoped for and dropped to spend some time at Thomson's Falls, the city's raison d'etre. On our first matatu, the conductor tried to convince us to pay him another three hundred to drop us right at the falls. We ignored him, and we were right. They're only a fifteen minute walk from the general drop. They may not have been Niagra impressive, but they were nice. You could follow a path down the valley to the very base of the falls to feel the spray and smell the rot.
Lunch was milk and cake from the supermarket, and we were back on the matatu, this time heading for Nyeri. I have mentioned the general sense of traffic safety in Kenya before. Turns out, I was underestimating a bit. It's one thing to hop onto shoulders to pass hauling trucks and swerve all the way across the road to avoid potholes on relatively clear and well-maintained roads. It's another completely to do that where there's construction roughly every twenty minutes. Drivers didn't much appreciate the men waving red flags at them. The first time it happened, our driver didn't put his foot on the brake until the man on the road had to jump out of the way. Then he threw his hands up as if to ask "What did you mean with all that waving?" Kind of made me appreciate all the police checkpoints, about five in the eighty kilometers between Nyahururu and Nyeri. Kind of made me have a better appreciation for the sticker inside the matatu exhorting passengers to report "overspeeding." Forced me to take a break from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It's hard enough to read between jolts and jumps on shock-impaired matatus. Reading through sudden accelerations, decelerations and turns is impossible. Call it a character flaw, but I have to see if certain death is coming or another near miss. Did allow me to enjoy more of the landscape., though. Kenya's highlands may lack the majesty and grandeur of the Rift Valley, but they have their lush, rolling green hills and valleys, and those aren't so bad.
And so we arrived in Nyeri, late in the afternoon. And things started to fall apart. The plan was to find a tour agency before dinner that day to arrange a full-day tour of Aberdare National Park, Kenya's second "premium" park after Lake Nakuru. Turns out, there are no tour agencies in Nyeri. We only found out about the tours arranged through Outspan Hotel when we found the Ministry of Tourism, closed, and the woman walking past outside asked us what we were looking for. Outspan Hotel was over a mile out of town, and it was raining. We walked. I grew an inch from mud sticking to my shoes. We learned that Outspan only arranged two-hour afternoon game tours for sixty dollars American. Neither an ideal time nor an ideal price. We then learned that, as residents, we qualified for the much-reduced resident rate of two thousand. We just had to arrange our own tickets which could only be bought from the park headquarters thirty kilometers outside of town.
The next day, we didn't walk. We took a matatu. We walked through the headquarter's gates. We were told we weren't actually residents. She took print-out off the wall and everything to prove it to us. Apparently, four letters on the back of our alien cards mean we are only on an extended visitor's pass and totally responsible for the full sixty dollar American non-resident entrance fee to Aberdare. Again, not money that we had. So we left. Instead of seeing elephants, water buffalo, black rhinos, bongo antelopes, bush pigs, giant forest hogs, black leopards and black servals, we had a picnic alongside the highway outside the park headquarters and then visited the grave of Lord Robert Baden-Powell and watched The Hurt Locker, House and The Matrix: Reloaded with Rifftrax. Not a total waste but not seeing elephants, water buffalo, black rhinos, bongo antelopes, bush pigs, giant forest hogs, black leopards and black servals either.
We hurried to Nairobi the next day. Finally started buying souvenirs for my family and finally visited Westlands. I guess it's supposed to be the more posh part of town, the part where the whites and Indians live and hang out, since it has two American-style malls, but really, there are suburbs classier than it. Not that I'm complaining. I got to see Alice in Wonderland and hang out in a bookstore that had a selection beyond those required for school.
And that's how the adventure ended. Two out of three goals accomplished. Not bad. Could have been a lot worse. We'll see what happens next month. I'm hoping for a visit to Mt. Elgon via Kisumu but have no idea how many other people will realize we're not actually residents and how that will impact the financial situation.
“That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.”
“I'll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was Dummy, that Dummy died. The first thing was Pearl Harbor. And the second thing was moving to my grandfather's farm near Wenatchee. That's where my father finished out his days, except that they were probably finished before that.”
“My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.”
I only wish that I could write opening lines like these. They're unique. They're striking. They have more voice and character in these sentences than bottles in Happy Harry's. I wish this talent even more so since I have received to date, not including the first book of the ill-considered Rocko and Rockie trilogy during the elementary years, six rejection letters, set to become eight by the end of the month, for my short stories. It's all the crueler when “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the title story, is everything that my “The Third Place” wants to be done better.
These opening lines are fairly good representations of the Raymond Carver's language as a whole. His sentences are simple and direct: subject, verb, object and an absolute minimum of adjectives, adverbs, clauses and metaphors to get in the way.
It's appropriate. His themes are similarly direct and brutal. Make no mistake. It may say “love” on the cover, but these stories are not romances. Demetra's mom made that mistake. I had my books delivered to her house, so Demetra could bring them back with her, and her mother may have waggled her eyebrows while handing this one over.
More often than not, Carver's stories are about the ends of relationships. Sometimes it's death, mostly it's infidelity. The men don't understand why they do it. They still care for their wives and girlfriends. They don't want them to get hurt. Like the father says in “Sacks,” “A man can go along obeying all the rules and then it don't matter a damn anymore. His luck just goes, you know?” Carver's characters are caught in situations beyond their control, subjects fully to their impulses and obsessions.
And everyone gets wasted in the meantime. Whiskey, gin, vodka, beer, they drink it all. Of the seventeen stories in this volume, only four make no mention whatsoever of getting blasted or starting on the way. One of those is about a man having a picture taken of his house. The next is about a retired couple at bingo night. Another is about a family friend raising trout in his ponds. The fourth is about a couple fighting over who gets the baby.
Carver's genius, I believe, lies in that despite how miserable the vast majority of his characters are, how big of jerks they are, he is still able to inspire more than a fleeting moment of pity for his characters. Sympathy might be a better word to describe it. It has a connotation of understanding, rather than simply feeling sad for them. They are remembering, they are living some of the oddest and the worst times in their life. The bleakness make not make sense, and it still may not all the years later, but there is a certain dignity in trying to understand it, to make sense of it and make it matter, even if they get smashed along the way and make things worse for it.
Take “Why Don't You Dance?” one of my favorites. A man, widowed, is selling his furniture. It's all crummy, and the only ones to stop for the whole day are a young couple. He shares his beer and whiskey with them and lets them take the bed and TV and everything else for whatever price they offer without a fight. The boy passes out on the bed in the yard, and the man and girl dance to an old record he lays down. The days and weeks after “She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”
So she got into the chalk dust and made herself up like a ghost. I think it's cute.
We're more than halfway through at this point, but it finally occurs to me that Lent is a time of alms giving. Should you be of the Christian persuasion and would like to make a little something more of the season, please consider sponsoring one of more our children's education or medical needs. Thanks
It may have taken eight months,but I finally saw Kenyans running competitively. I have already written on this, but it bears repeating. Kenyans in Kenya don't run. Send them to Beijing or Berlin or Spokane on Bloomsday, and they'll run all over the place and not stop until someone gives them a medal. Not in the Rift Valley, though.
Coming in to Nakuru, I was expecting marathons every weekend. I was expecting kids to be cutting school to log more a few more kilometers on the backroads. I was expecting world-class runners to be absolute superstars, with fanatics fighting over their tossed water station cups. Nope. I had to wait until Friday for one of our oldest boys to advance to the provincial tournament in cross-country to see a race of any distance.
I've been in Kenya long enough that the general level of poverty shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it does. Race organizers handwrote the runners' numbers and stapled them to their shirts. Shirts, mind you. Forget school jerseys,they ran in whatever they had. I saw a girl in capris. I saw another boy in jean capris. Our boy ran in a knock-off English national team jersey.
Forget running spikes, too. If you had sneakers of any type, you were in the minority. Not that it seemed to hamper them much. None of the real top four finishing girls wore shoes. Third and fourth even ran in skirts.
The poverty wasn't confined to the runners either. It extended just as well to the organizers. The course was nothing like the landscaped golf courses that I ran in high school. It was three laps around the hosting school's others sports fields for the girls, four laps for the boys. The race rabbit was a motorcycle, and I'm pretty sure the timers all used their cell phones.
These things are understandable, even acceptable. I've been spoiled by team jerseys and water stations and running shoes and giant finishing clocks and timing chips and participation T-shirts at minor meets at the beginning of the cross country season and community-organized 5K's throughout America, but these things are hardly necessary to enjoy a good race.
Absolutely intolerable, on the other hand, was the outright corruption. On the second lap of the girls' race, when the motorcycle stopped rabbiting, the top four girls cut across the jag down and back between the field hockey and rugby fields meant to fill out the distance, and no effort was made to correct them. In all honesty, these girls had already built up such a lead that they could have been turned back after going two hundred meters off course, and they still would have won with ease. Instead, they were allowed to go on their merry way and were immediately disqualified at the finish. The fifth and sixth girls, coming in a good thirty, forty seconds later and students of one of the organizing coaches, advanced to the national race.
I can see why Kenyans wait to run until they get out of Kenya.
Should static images of children at play and in class not be enough for you, you can now enjoy video of them trying their hardest to knock me to the ground and learning the difference between capital and lowercase letters. They are, if I may say so, rockin'.
Props go out to Demetra's brother for gifting her with a Flip Video this past Christmas and making it all possible.
I engaged in a minor experiment on Saturday. I wanted to see if it were possible to enjoy a sport despite knowing nothing about it. Nothing of the positions, nothing of the jargon and, least of all, nothing of the rules. I went to a rugby match. I didn't even know the name of the other team. I had to look it up afterward. They were the Nondies.
Rugby is kind of a big deal in Kenya. Maybe not so much as soccer, but there is an awful lot more local love for the sport. Kenyan preference for soccer lies mostly in England, but asked who their favorite rugby team is, they may actually say Quins or Impala or Nakuru. Kenya has even found some success on the international stage in rugby. Mid-way through the IRB Sevens World Series, Kenya has put up more than creditable performances against England and New Zealand and currently stand above Argentina, South Africa, Wales and Canada in the aggregate rankings.
When Demetra and I arrived at the Nakuru Athletic Club, it would have been an understatement to say I was dismayed. It was half-time, and the men I saw sitting in circles on the field, sucking down water, were not the solid bricks I was expecting. More like boys who never got through the awkward stages of puberty. There were big bellies and pooched-out bottoms. There was even a gawky white kid who could have been Will Foster's younger, small brother. I felt pretty good about my chances of taking any two of them in a fight. Except sumo wrestling. They'd have a distinct advantage there.
It was up to the crowds to carry my interest then. They were noticeably better heeled than those at the soccer matches. They had more designer clothes, they had softer bodies, they had cigarettes, and they had more alcohol. At least half of the people had a Tusker in hand, and a more than minor percentage brought in vodka, passing shots poured in caps between friends. Their favorite call, after questioning the referees' calls, singing something about “mnyore” and calling the white guys “cavemen,” was saying, “This is very natural terrain. It was formed by volcanic activity.” Might have lost something in the translation.
Forty-five minutes later the final whistle was blown. The guys on the field tottered and waddled off as best they could. The real rugby players ran on. These guys were big, but they were not fat. I doubt any of them weighed less than two-hundred pounds, but they were solid. Maybe not freight trains, but I would give them even odds on meeting a Subaru Outback headlong on the freeway.
So, is it possible to enjoy a sport without knowing the difference between a scrum and offsides? Most assuredly. There were lightning shovel passes along the Nakuru line before a burst and broken tackle through the Nondies and on to the endzone, or whatever, that would make me blink and ask if that had really just happened. There were stops and steals that could only be called beautiful. There was an artistry to the kicks made on the run and lifts on inbounds, or whatever, passes made from the sideline, or whatever. Sure, I may not have understood why they sometimes punted the ball straight through the uprights or from the ground on the far right side or with a single man rushing them from five meters out, but then we could make fun of just how ignorant we were.
There's another match Saturday after this coming, and a two-day tournament at the beginning of April. Should be fun.
It's all in the pipe cleaner glasses, courtesy of three volunteers who visited the center Sunday afternoon and held an art class. To play with water paints and crayons and glue and popsicle sticks and colored cotton balls and all the rest is an opportunity the kids haven't had in my time here. They took to it with relish, and we've started hanging the results on the walls.
If you were to have the extra money to sponsor one of the children, you would be more than welcome to make a little extra donation every once and a while to make something like this possible. Give it a thought.
Demetra's return to Nakuru after a month-long break in the States to attend med school interviews was a cause of celebration. Someone to share the load and the experience with were among the top, but close behind them was the delivery of a new supply of books. In the first six months I devoured most of the nine I had brought with twice. Throughout January, I sated my book lust with offerings of Austen and Doyle and Wodehouse through Project Gutenberg. I was just touch a desperate for some new blood. I finished Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles on the drive back from Nairobi.
Everyone in Chronicles is growing up. Everyone is searching for that maturity that will allow them to call themselves an adult and find some peace and place in the world but none have yet to find it. Not Ms. Hempel's seventh-grade class, not her kid sister and certainly not the titular Ms. Hempel. The seventh graders hardly understand their new bodies. Maggie Hempel is writing an essay for college that she doesn't particularly care for. Ms. Hempel has no idea what she wants, only some vague ideas of what should be avoided. The trades are an inappropriate profession for the middle-class. Affairs are wrong.
It's an difficult time. Growing up means taking responsibility. It means making decisions that will impact the rest of your life, decisions that have real consequences. It's an understandably self-indulgent and navel-gazing time, which is the difficulty with this fiction. The characters are irrpepressible whiners who cannot see beyond their own exaggerated issues to the real afflictions facing others. Caulfield couldn't stand the rest of society, and Ms. Hempel is so desperate for the affections of any that she isn't willing to stand up to her own students, allowing them to ask her about her sex life. "He grinned at her when he saw that she had pulled his crumpled paper from the pile. Whose the best lover you've ever had? ... But she found herself mysteriously touched, felt herself blushing in a pleasurable way."
In a novel, I feel, this sort of story is easier. There is a sustained narrative that allows one to trace the character's progression. They aren't always such self-absorbed punks. There are opportunities for growth. In Chronicles, though, where Ms. Hempel's path is carried through eight self-contained stories, she always starts in the same place, except for "Bump," set years after the others, and "Creep," set in her childhood. She is no different from the beginning of "Talent" to the beginning of "Satellite." She is still a hypocrite who demands her students explain the importance of history while remaining wholly oblivious to her own heritage. "Hunan? Szechuan? Were those provinces or just restaraunts?" She is still too lazy to write individual comments, "anecdotals," about her students. "'Is it okay for us to be reading this?' said Simon Grosse, who neede to ask permission for everything. Ms. Hempel would write Conscientious."
At its best, Chronicles finds the moments of transcendence available even to the weak. Rather than writing her students' anecdotals, Ms. Hempel assigns them to write their own in "Accomplice," in the tradition of Toby in This Boy's Life. It's a chance for the children to explain how they see themselves, worth far more than any SAT-level word Ms. Hempel might assign to them. In "Talent," the young magician pulls the mark's card from his back pocket after pulling the wrong card from the top of the pile. Failure is not the end. There is always that second try.
Chronicles is part of a long tradition of teaching novels and films. More often than not, it is a tradition which extols the dedicate, patient teachers who draw out the best in their students and allow them to succeed where others only expect failure. The stories of Jaime Escalante and Erin Gruwell make for some sentimental stuff, and Chronicles runs in absolutely the opposite direction. Early on, Ms. Hempel admits that she never wanted to be a teacher, and it's very clear that the profession has not grown on her in the least since becoming a part of it. This may be shocking to some. Teachers are supposed to love children. They are supposed to be developing with passion the young minds of the now and the leaders of tomorrow. It's a job that means something, that makes a real difference. Instead, Ms. Hempel imagines that slipping on a patch of ice on the way to school may put her into a body cast and keep her out of the classroom for a year, at least. "There was a way out, an honorable and dignified way out. All she had to do was undergo a terrible accident..."
I can sympathize with this. I may have only taught classes for the first month or two before we hired teachers for the center, but I have honestly dreamt of having malaria. At the very least, it would mean an iron-clad excuse not to work and avoid the kids, maybe some time to write or watch bootlegs in bed. At the very best, it would be that "honorable and dignified way out" from corrupt bureaucrats who will cut your electricity without looking for the paperwork you submitte, from chiefs who demand compensation before food can be shared with their people, from kids who refuse to eat the lunch you pay for at school because the portions are too small.
I'm past that now, it only took eight months, but I can understand the disgust Ms. Hempel feels when you only want out of something that everyone else will tell you is so necessary, so selfless, so good.
I took the Pathways class my freshman year. I realized it was a mistake maybe the second week in. It was like extending orientation weekend through an entire semester. An hour a week we would devote to learning the history of the university, the details of class registration, Spokane's public bus system. Anyone who had been led on a tour by an ambassador or bothered to read the student handbook or had the minimal spirit of adventure necessary to go beyond the campus confines and into downtown didn't need the class.
And somehow it ended up being one of the most important classes I took at Gonzaga. Funny how that works. It's where I met Sima Thorpe, my thesis adviser and source of more than a few articles for The Bulletin, and Bob Bartlett, then director of Unity House. It was home to the Black Student Union, Filipino American Student Union, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Club, La Raza, Helping Educate Regarding Orientation and all the other groups that brought together those who didn't totally match with the typical Gonzaga student profile of white, straight, Christian, upper-middle class.
Once a month or so I would visit Mr. Bartlett, and we'd talk. He was absolutely fascinated that I came from the Midwest. He told me about his one visit to Green Bay and how his car doors froze shut during the night and how everyone else plugged their cars in to keep them warm. Mostly, though, we talked about race. It sounds crass. He was black, and we spent most our time talking about the difference between white and black and yellow and brown and red and every other color people come in. I have no excuse. Baudette was really white. When I left there were one and a half Filipino families, maybe one black family and some people with American Indian blood. It was so white that the people with Italian blood stuck out. He was the first person I can recall meeting who thought race mattered. It interested me.
Now I live those conversations, have some greater understanding of what he was talking about. You could say I already had a taste in Jakarta, but I don't. I was there for a month. I was a tourist as much as anything else. Racial differences felt more quaint to me because I only knew them for such a short time. I've been in Kenya nearly eight months now. It's different.
So far as I can tell, whites fall into two categories for the vast majority of Kenyans: curiosities and marks. This country is replete with curio shops. They stock the sorts of things like carved soapstone hippos and checkered Maasai blankets that visitors find charmingly exotic. For a fair portion of the population and most all of the children, it's the white visitors that are the charmingly exotic. Kids will jump up and down and spin around and shout "Mzungu! Mzungu!" I've never understood why they think we understand and will look. Honestly it was a good month before I began to notice people shouted after me when I past. For those with a year or two of school, they'll practice their English and shout "How are you?" Those whose teachers have not been as dedicated pronounce it "Ow r ooh?" Those who are excited and whose teachers have not been as dedicated run it all into one word. "Owrooh?" I sometimes wonder how the Germans and French and Italians feel about that. Calling back and waving does nothing. They don't know enough English to reply and are too wound up to stop.
The really intrepid will run forward to try to shake my hand or even touch my arm. My arms are especially fascinating to them. Turns out that East Africans have a terrible time growing hair anywhere that is not on the top of their head. Even the kids at the center who have known and lived with whites for years can spend a good ten minutes just stroking my arms. Some of the staff even asked permission once. A minute later, they said I was like a pig with hair all over my body but softer.
This all mostly happens in the streets of Githima, the poorer neighborhood on Nakuru's western outskirts. It's quieter, at least, in the city proper. Then the kids only stare. A fellow director tried to tell us that the same thing would happen if he were to visit America. I laughed in his face. I told him any white mother who caught her white child staring at a black man would slap her kid around straight away and tell them to stop being racist. Doesn't happen in Kenya. Here the mothers tell their kids to ask the wazungu "How are you?"
After Kenyans have seen their fair share of wazungu, visitors almost invariably become marks. To be white here is the equivalent of walking the streets of an American city in an Armani suit, an Omega watch and gold-rimmed glasses. You are someone with a lot of money who should be encouraged in every manner possible to part with it. There are the more malignant forms of this where street children will follow me, asking for five shillings, asking for bread, for well over a block, or where parents and guardians look to unload their children on me. Then there are the softer versions. At the courthouse last month, a woman pulled me into a backroom to tell me someone had a message for me. He wanted my support for his NGO assisting disabled children. At a school meeting last fall the teacher told all the students that they should work hard and be good students so they would find a white sponsor like our child had. I'm not counting the more general cheating of kicking up the prices for whites on everything from leather shoes to roof renovations. They're businessmen. I figure they do the same to their fellow Kenyans as often as possible.
So many of them assume that we have money and power and are overflowing with the urge to help. The thing is, they're right. We do have them, at least the first two. My monthly stipend here is 160 American dollars, hardly enough to even eat in the States, much less rent a room or pay for utilities. In Githima it's more than enough to keep a place and eat well and still have a little extra. Could probably keep a whole family happy on that money. The exchange rate is strong. A dollar is enough for a complete meal. Twenty dollars is enough to keep the landlord happy. Our money goes a long way, but it's more than that. On no less than three occasions Kenyans whom I had never before met walked up to me on the street and asked me to sponsor their visa to America. Even where we come from has power if we don't think we have the money to spare.
Individually, we can do a lot to help. If we choose to. And I choose not to. I'm here to manage an orphanage for over one hundred children. I'm already doing my part and more. I won't say it's thankless. People from the States often tell that they're impressed by what I'm doing, how meaningful it is and how good. Here, people just keep asking for more. Give me money. Buy me food. Give me a job. Take my kid. It's exhausting. Walking through Githima, I just want to keep my middle fingers up and yell "Hey, darky!" when they shout "Mzungu!" It's not even a slur. Kenyans I'm friends with call me mzungu. It just means white, but it's certainly annoying when I hear it shouted every two minutes. I'm not asking them to be nice. They just need to stop paying attention to me and treat me like anyone else.
Not that there aren't advantages to being white. We're treated better generally. Our former security company very nearly cursed out a black director when the twenty-four thousand shillings for their services wasn't immediately ready. When Demetra and I spoke with them, they had no problem with our monthly payment being a little late. We can go everywhere, too. Security doesn't stop me when I walk into Nakuru's nicest hotels in flip-flops, shorts and dirty T-shirt. I'm white. I dress like most every other tourist. They assume I belong.
Mr. Bartlett once told me, probably in response to some stupid question along the lines of "Why do blacks stay in their own groups and not integrate?" that I would do the same thing if I were the minority. He told me about a friend who did service alone in Mexico for a month or so. A week or two in, he was playing pick-up basketball and felt relieved to find another white and immediately struck up a conversation. Mr. Bartlett explained that it was natural to gravitate toward your own kind. It meant you had something in common. It's not natural for me. As a major stop on most safaris, it's common enough to see whites in town. I don't even make eye contact with them, let alone say "Hello." It's a very conscious decision. I'm not that friendly of a person in the first place, but I actively remind myself not to look when passing whites in Kenya. I'm already enough of an outsider. I don't need to be associating myself with visitors to mark myself out any further.
After all this, my thoughts on race remain mostly the same. It shouldn't matter. Skin color only suggests things about our backgrounds and cultures and is leagues away from definitive. An American Indian kid can be raised by Mormon parents and not know whether he's Apache or Algonquin but know Smith's book back and forth. Some Latino kid could just as easily be from a suburb as the inner city. I may very well have more in common with a middle-class Hmong than a white with a trust fund. In entire populations, intelligence and physical abilities and the like differ, but they're only averages and disappear in the individuals. Race only means as much as we allow it to. It can mean everything. It doesn't have to mean anything. It's just a color. The United States is a special case. Those blacks who come from the history of slavery don't know their tribe or nation. Their heritage is largely based on the color of their skin.
In the meantime, race still does matter, and all we can do is our best to muddle through and not be jerks to each other.
I met people at Gonzaga with honest dreams of being farmers. Three by my count. Before scholarships and grants and whatnot, they were paying $120,000 for a four-year degree, and all they wanted to do was toss some seeds into the ground, rake loads of manure for the majority of the year, worry about when the next rain would come and spend a week or two harvesting in the fall before starting the whole process over again. It may not be so surprising seeing as how the organic food movement has elevated farming into an exemplary profession, a way of fighting big agribusiness and communing with nature through gentler means of production, but it still boggles me. Perhaps, they would have reconsidered had they spent eight months at an IHF center with an attached farm in Nakuru.
In lieu of such experiences I offer to them my own observations.
Cows are morons. They're huge. They have a mass several times greater than even the fatties who hang out at IHOP. When they bother to, they can build up a good momentum. I know. One of the girls hid behind me when a cow was charging her. And with all of these natural advantages on the unarmed child, they will still run the other way when said child throws very small stones at them. If they really wanted to, the cows could have a revolution and do some damage. Humanity's advantage by way of firearms would be insurmountable, but they could certainly take a few of us down with them. But they don't. Because they're morons.
Also,fresh milk steams. I have yet to massage the udders myself and probably never will, but I've seen the children and farmhands do it. It's kind of frightening, a far cry from the cool, pasteurized stuff that comes out of my refrigerator.
Chickens are mean. Rather than focusing on their more immediate enemies, namely the ones who take their eggs at the end of everyday, they peck each other. We have completely bald chickens running around because some other chickens thought they looked weak.
Also, chickens with their heads cut off can really move. I saw one do about three backflips before it settled for two minutes of twitching in place. Then our cook started stepping on their wings to keep them in place.
Goats are morons and mean. On my first trip into Pokot, our driver bought two goats for himself. Every ten minutes of the three-hour drive back, they would butt heads. It wasn't that impressive. There was no lightning charge and thunder crash of skulls. They would just kind of set their hooves and push against each other's head. Then they'd stop. Then they'd do it again. It wouldn't have been so annoying if they hadn't done it around my legs and worried me about the possibility of getting a foot caught.
Also, whoever thought Satan's lower half should be a goat had the right idea but was looking at the wrong end. He should have given the Great Deceiver goat eyes. The pupils are freaking rectangles. That's evil.
It all seems to suggest in rather strong terms that I should not be the coordinator of the Peace Farm and Gardens teams. To my immense relief, it doesn't actually require any work on the farm. So far, it's just searching for seed and equipment sponsors and starting a manual of all the details of produce and livestock care to keep future Western directors from being taken for a ride by lazy farmhands. My work on the team, despite this, can only generously be called spotty. In the spirit of alleviating that, if any reader should know people or organizations potentially interested in donating seeds or equipment to a modestly-sized farm that provides for orphans and one of Kenya's poorest tribes, please let me know. Or, if you'd just like to make a donation yourself, you can do so through our website.