Thursday, December 29

Considering Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge"

The final lines of the final story of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge suggest that the work is about love. Remembering the stories of husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, mistresses and men, it does not seem inappropriate as the central theme, but it came as a surprise to me. I had thought Olive Kitteridge was about misery. A young widow learns of her husband's infidelity the day he is buried. An old lover returns to a woman only to tell her that he slept with her mother. A daughter runs away from home to be with a man who only told her he preferred that they live together but not as a married couple on their wedding day. The titular character, who appears in all the stories if only as a cameo, is dismissive of her meek husband and is told by her son that she ruined his young life through her mercurial moods. For something so widely celebrated in contemporary American life, what little love there is in Crosby, Maine, setting of all the stories, brings little happiness to the people. Even when it is found and recognized, as Mrs. Kitteridge seems to do at the very end, almost two years after her husband dies, it is not very appealing. She does not like the man particularly. She merely finds in him someone who has undergone the same pains she has and makes her feel needed and less interested in leaving the world.

It's childish, ironic considering that Olive Kitteridge is retired by the time the stories begin and seventy-two by the time they end. If there were a motto for Olive Kitteridge it would be, "Life is loneliness and pain. Should you be lucky enough to find someone to make it a little more tolerable, you will probably neither recognize nor appreciate them." The only people who could find such a statement profound and true is a snot teenager whose first intimate relationship does not go as planned and who finds their parents fools. There are good things in life. There are things to smile and laugh about and enjoy, but there is no humor to be found in this collection.

Wednesday, December 21

"Childhood's Cost"

Nicholas Kristos knocked at the front door, the door used by Boy Scouts selling popcorn and Jehovah's Witnesses offering salvation, and waited.

“Oh, Nicky!” Maria Kristos shrieked in joy when she answered. He tried to step past and out of the snow, and she wrapped him a tight embrace. “You should have told us you were coming. I would have cooked you something special.”

Nicholas made an effort to return the gesture, but he carried a briefcase.

“It's alright. I just need to see my father.”

Maria released Nicholas and stepped back to look him over.

“Oh, please, it's never any trouble. Anything you want, I'll make. You look too skinny.”

“Don't worry about it. I just need to speak with my father, and I'll be on my way.”

“Well, if you want to see George, he's reading in the living room, but just let me know if you change your mind. I feel like celebrating. I'll cook anything you want.”

Maria walked toward the kitchen, and Nicholas was alone for the moment. The temperature was the same as when he lived in the house, set ten degrees higher than where any reasonable person would keep it. It was cloying and stifling, and Nicholas had to concentrate to avoid feeling slow and stupid. He drew a breath and walked into the living room.

“Hello, Nick,” George said. He rose from his chair and opened his arms to embrace his son. Nicholas extended a hand, and George shook it after a pause. “How have you been?”

“I have come to settle my accounts.” Nicholas said it as though he had rehearsed it, careful to speak at just the right tempo and with enough bass to achieve an affect of determined authority.

“What do you mean? Are you in trouble? Do you need a loan?”

“No. I want to settle my accounts with you.”

“But you don't owe us anything.”

“Yes, I do.”

“I don't understand, Nick. We've never loaned you anything.”

“You have. I'm in incredible debt to you, and I want to pay you back for everything. I lived rent-free under your roof for eighteen years. I want to pay you for that. For every day of those eighteen years my breakfast, lunch and dinner were bought and prepared for me through yours and my mother's labor. I want to pay you for that. I want to pay you for every piece of clothing you ever bought for me, for every school fee you ever paid, for every toy. I want to balance the books.”

George gave a gentle chuckle.

“Really, son, we don't expect anything from you. It was a gift. Forget about it. Sit down, and we'll talk.”

“Then I have no reason to stay here. I have a long drive back to Seattle.” Nicholas turned to leave.

“Wait, Nick,” George sighed. “Stay. We'll talk about it.”

Nicholas placed his briefcase on the coffee table, opened the clasps and passed the papers to George.

“I've organized your expenses and my debt into seven categories: food, lodging, clothes, transportation, education, medical and entertainment. These, in turn, are organized by year. The two columns on the far right reflect the expenses for the year and their current value adjusted for inflation. Please feel free to review my estimates and revise them if you think they are wrong or if I missed anything significant, but I hope you will find the sum to your liking.” Nicholas tapped a number, bold and several sizes larger than anything else, on the top page.

“You could pay this right now?”

“I have the check ready. You just need to confirm my estimates.”

George nodded, took his bifocals from atop the magazine where he had left them and began reading. After a little while, he said, “If you really want to go through with this, we should do it right.” George left and returned with two decades worth of files on taxes balanced atop a cardboard box. Inside were tens of notebooks, bound with rubber bands. “Your mother's journals,” George explained. “Every day she listed everything that happened. Tax records are fine, but these will fill in any gaps. You should make yourself comfortable. This may take awhile.”

George leaned back in his chair. Nicholas sat down straight on the sofa and didn't take off his coat. Maria stepped in briefly to put down two cups of tea and a tray of cookies and sweets before she bustled out.

After awhile, his eyes still on the records and estimates, George asked, “How are you doing?”

“I'm doing well. I spent the summer looking at potential sites for Gyro Place franchises in Phoenix, Denver and San Francisco.”

“I'm glad to hear that. Your restaurant deserves to do well. Your mother and I went down to the one on King a few months ago. I was impressed. The food and service were much better than McDonald's or KFC.”

“Thank you.”

“San Francisco, though. That's exciting. How did you like the City by the Bay? Did you catch a Giants game? I've always been interested in visiting, but the opportunity never came up.”

“It was fine.”

The silence returned. George kept a pen between his fingers but had not written a single note. When he finished comparing Nicholas' estimates and the tax record, he picked through the journals until he found the oldest.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Of course. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, remember?”

Nicholas collapsed back in the sofa and drummed his fingers on the end table.

George stopped on one page and chuckled.

“I didn't remember this.”

Nicholas let his tea continue to grow cold.

“Don't you want to know what it is?”George asked.


A few minutes later George said. “Do you remember when you went to that summer acting camp? Do you remember speaking with that terrible British accent for weeks afterward? I was only glad that you stopped before school started again.”

“That was a long time ago. I included it in my estimates.”

There was silence again, and George continued to go through the journals. When he was through the last of them, failing several times more to draw Nicholas out, he left for a moment and brought back a laptop.

“What's that for?” Nicholas asked, finally allowing his irritation to distort his voice.

“I just want to check your numbers for inflation. I want to make sure they're right.”

“They're right. You don't have to do that.”

“Just the same, I'd like to check them myself. It'd be an easy mistake to make when you're concentrating on getting everything else right.”

“No, really, they're right.

“We'll see.”

George tapped at the keys and looked from the screen to the estimates, double checking every number.

“It looks like you were right.”

“I told you I was.”

“It never hurts to double check. Better the few seconds for a second look than embarrassing yourself with a stupid mistake.”
George gathered the papers and squared them.

“There were a few little things, I think, but everything looks good. I don't think I need to change anything. This was an impressive job you did. Very professional. You should be proud.”

“Of course.”

Nicholas took the papers back, leaving only the contract for his father to sign, and rose to leave.

“Actually,” George set, a look of fear crossing his face, “I've just thought of something. All of these papers calculate just the financial aspect of raising you. What about your values? Doesn't that count for something? What if I hadn't pushed you on your homework, to always strive to do your best and get an 'A' and not just coast to the 'B'? Would you own a fast-food chain then or would you have settled for something easier?”

“Maybe not, but I think that's balanced out by the bills I'm paying my therapist now.”

“I didn't know you were seeing a therapist.”

“I never told you.”

“Is something wrong? Can I help?”

“You could sign and let me leave.”

“I just thought of something else. What about our opportunity costs? It's not just what we paid to raise you. You didn't calculate at all what we gave up to raise you. You know your mother forced me to turn down a job offer that would have made me the regional manager in Seattle because she didn't want to take you away from your cousins and friends. What about all that? Sit down and stay awhile, and we'll figure it out.”

“How about this?”

Nicholas scribbled a new number, twice the original estimate, and pushed it toward George.

“This will make you richer than you ever dreamed. You physically won't be able to spend all of that money in how ever many years you have left.”

“I would like to check the numbers one last time.”

“You already have.”

“Would you like to know what we'll do with the money?”

“It doesn't matter to me.”

“I think I'd like to buy a house outside the city, some place small where there isn't so much traffic. Your mother will probably want to send some of it to her cousin in Athens. You probably don't know, but she's working with immigrants there and could use the funding.”

Nicholas didn't say anything, and George sighed, defeated.

“Where do I sign?”

Nicholas tapped the line.

As George wrote his signature and the date, he said “This is silly, you know. You've already paid me back. You're happy and successful. That's all I ever wanted for you. Your mother would like it if you got married and raised a family, but she just wants you to be happy, too. That's better than anything you could pay us.”

Nicholas took the signed contract. He scribbled a new check and put it on the coffee table in front of George.

George said, “If I disappointed you or somehow hurt you to make you want to do this, I'm sorry.”

“You haven't done anything wrong. I just wanted to settle my accounts.”

Maria walked into the room.

“I know you said you didn't want anything, but it's already getting dark, and I didn't want you to leave hungry. I set a place for you, and the eggplant's almost done in the oven,” she said.

“You could pay us for it, if it'd make you feel better,” George said quietly. “I think fifteen dollars would be fair for your mother's labor and the ingredients.”

“George,” Maria said, shocked. “There's no need for that.”

Nick didn't pause.

“No, I really have to go.”

His parents didn't protest and followed Nicholas to the entrance. When Nick opened the door to let himself out, Maria asked, “Do you think you'll come back for Easter this year?”

Nicholas said, “I don't think so,” and walked out into the snow and night.

Tuesday, December 20

Considering David Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

It's funny how film releases go. There can be months of waiting where maybe one or two releases has me thinking that if I were bored on the weekend I might take the time to visit the theater and watch them, and then comes a two week stretch where there are at least four movies out that I'm actively interested in seeing. I'm trying to figure out how I can justify paying for all the tickets and how I can make time, and then I get a pair of free tickets to an advance screening of David Fincher's remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. When fortune smiles on me like this, I cannot help but to share my thoughts.

Adapting Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an interesting choice for Fincher. On the one hand, it's a crime procedural like Seven and Zodiac and Lisbeth Salander is an outsider not so different from The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg and Fight Club's Tyler Durden. You can see what Fincher could find attractive about the novel, and he does some excellent work with what he has. There are some beautiful scenes. The use of ambient sound of the subway when a man grabs Salander's bag and runs and the floor buffer when Salander first asks Bjurman for money are brilliant. The editing makes a guy looking flipping through pictures on his computer engaging. Fincher gets a surprisingly effective turn from Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, as the tired and broken Mikael Blomkvist. Rooney Mara does a fine job as Salander but doesn't match Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original, but who could?

But what's it all for? The source material is a generic thriller that most stands out for the intensity of the sexual violence and its Swedish setting. Fincher's faithful to it and creates some beautiful scenes and imagery, but that's all there is. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I had hoped for something more from the man who has directed three of my favorite films of all time.

A question regarding the sexual violence. Salander is handcuffed and anally raped by her government payee and guardian early in the film. She returns to the man to do the same and more to him. Both scenes are brutal. If you found them titillating in the least, you need to ask yourself serious questions about your proclivities, but people laughed when Salander had Bjurman at her mercy. I don't understand that. It wasn't meant to be funny. I even think that Fincher edited the two scenes that they resembled each other, that there were more parallels than simply what they did to one another. Why did people laugh? Why was it funny when the woman kicked a dildo into the man's anus and not when the man straddled the woman? Cheering at the second scene, as loathsome as it would be, I could understand. The woman outsmarted the man legally and physically superior to her. Evil was answered and vengeance was taken, but the audience's laughter unsettled me. Why did they laugh?

Wednesday, December 14

"Camera Obscura"

His cellphone sang. “One love, one blood, one life. You got to do what you should.”

It was Kate, the photo editor. She didn't say hello.

“I can't use your pictures,” she said.

“What?” Toby's voice was higher pitched than he had intended. He took a breath. “I'm sorry, but I thought they were good. Why can't you use them?”

“The Saturday package is about homelessness and what the city government and everyday citizens are doing to fight it. Our job is to put a face to that enemy, a face that captures all the suffering and deprivation it causes. Your pictures don't do that. No one is even going to believe these men live on the streets. Washed faces? Collared shirts? Clean shaves? My stepson doesn't dress this nice, and they're supposed to be the bums.”

“They said they wanted to look good if they're going to be in the paper. I thought the homeless deserved that little dignity at least.” Toby stressed “the homeless” instead of “bums” and hoped Kate would notice.

“You don't understand. We want to touch people's hearts. We want them to demand change. No one will care if the face of homelessness is healthy, clean and well-fed. This is a daily newspaper, not some high school yearbook. You fought for this assignment. Now go out, and do it right,” Kate hung up.

Toby gave a full sigh that the others at the bar noticed.

“I need to go and take more pictures,” Toby explained when Jason turned. “Apparently the men at the YMCA aren't 'homeless' enough for the Herald.”

“That sucks,” Jason said. “Happy hour ends in twenty minutes.”

“I'll make it quick. I just wish they'd told me when I turned in my pictures. No one deserves a new assignment on Friday night. God, it's been such a long week, too” Toby sighed again even though he had their attention. “Do any of you have any idea where I can find the 'real homeless?'”

“Highman Park,” Anna said without hesitation. “If you drive by too slow, guys will rush your window asking for change. Be careful, though. I hear a lot of gangs and drug dealers hang out there, too.”

Toby had never been to Highman before, and Anna gave him directions. No wonder he didn't know the way. It was on the west side. He preferred to avoid that part of the city.

He finished the rest of his micro-brew in two long gulps before leaving the bar. What Kate had said was true. He had fought for the story. When Toby picked up the photography assignments that morning and read that Rachel Emans had the front-page homelessness package while he was left with the profile of the local driftwood artist, tentative headline “One man's garbage...,” he went straight to Kate's office. If she had been surprised when he walked in without knocking, she didn't show it. She glanced up only briefly from the pictures and papers on her desk before returning her full attention to them. Toby, however, was impressed by the audacity of his entrance. He understood it as evidence of his zeal for the assignment. While waiting for Kate, he considered his argument.

“This may be presumptuous of me,” he carefully began when the editor finally looked at him and held her gaze, “especially since I've only been here a couple of months, but I think I deserve the homelessness assignment. I don't think anyone else on staff cares more about the homeless or can show the same compassion for them in their photographs.”

Kate made no reply but to take a sip of coffee and lean back in her chair, but Toby felt himself getting into a rhythm and his voice gained strength.

“You know how some people take up environmental causes and plant trees or run across the country to raise cancer awareness? Well, my issue is homelessness. My senior year at State I was president of the Homelessness Action Front and led some of our biggest campus awareness campaigns. We chalked facts about homelessness on all the sidewalks and collected signatures to force the city council to increase funding for social services. I wrote editorials for the student paper about the incredible rates of mental illness among the homeless and their drastically shorter life expectancies. I wanted everyone to know that homelessness matters. This isn't just another assignment for me. This is my passion.”

Kate took another sip of coffee. Then she picked up her phone.

“I need you in my office now, Rachel,” she said. Waiting for the senior photographer, Toby could hardly stand to stay still. He knew the story was his. He just needed one final push.

Rachel knocked before walking in, and Kate told her, “The rookie wants your assignment today because he thinks he could do a better job than you.”

Turning back to Toby, Kate said, “Tell her why.”

Rachel gave a wry grin as Toby began, but he didn't notice. He was concentrating on everything he had learned in his Advanced Public Speaking class.

“With all due respect, Rachel,” he said, “do you know what it's like to be homeless and spend the nights outside and carry all your possessions with you everywhere? I do. I spent a week in solidarity with the homeless when my club slept in front of the school library last spring. We only had coffee and day-old doughnuts for breakfast every morning and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for every other meal. We couldn't go into our dorms because we were homeless, so we had to shower in the gym locker rooms. I understand the homeless at a personal level, and I think that's imperative to doing this assignment right. Don't you?”

“What do you think?” Kate asked Rachel after the briefest possible pause.

Rachel shrugged.

“If he wants it that badly, he can have it. I'm waiting on a call from Thomas to finish that story on illegal dumping by Agrochemical. If he calls, I need to be there immediately. The suits have been such a pain in the ass with scheduling an interview and tour of the plant that I won't get a second chance at them.”

Toby let a smile break across his face. His first front-page assignment. And for a major weekend package. That was something to celebrate. After giving them both the most gracious thanks possible, he had rushed from the office to get started. Toby checked first with Ericsson, writer of the package's lead story, and he sent Toby to the YMCA. Ericsson had met a few sources there and thought it would be an easy start and safe since it employed security. He told Toby that if he hurried, there still might be a few people at the free breakfast.

When Toby arrived, there were no more than ten men sitting at long tables in the poorly lit cafeteria. The guard sitting casually at the doors told him they were free to stay as long as they wanted so long as they didn't make any trouble for each other or the staff.

“Just give a shout if they start causing a commotion or you see them with any alcohol or drugs or weapons,” he told Toby with a smile and patted his billy club.

Toby assured the guard there would be no trouble and no need for the help but thanked him.

Toby walked over to a slight man, sitting silently against the wall and staring toward the distant windows, first.

“Hello. I'm Toby with the Herald,” he said as he put his hand out. “You mind if I sit with you for a little while? Ask some questions?”

The man didn't look up, and the guard shouted from across the room, “I wouldn't bother with him. George's pretty retarded. Hardly ever speaks, and when he does, it doesn't make any sense.”

Toby glared and made sure the guard was looking before he very deliberately sat down next to George. Toby tried to introduce himself again. George didn't even turn his head. Toby asked what the YMCA had served that morning and tried to joke about how stale the doughnuts were, but George only leaned forward to watch birds flying outside the windows. Frustrated after several more minutes of silence, Toby walked to the man sitting at the nearest table.

“Couldn't get anything out of George, could you?” the man said with a grin that made Toby's fists clench. “I wouldn't feel too bad about it. He doesn't talk to anyone.”

“That doesn't mean he's any less of a person,” Toby said without hesitation.

“Oh, I never said that. He may not be as interesting as some here, but he's a lot better than most. At least he's never been to prison.”

“Yeah? Have you?” Toby had never met a convict before and felt excited.

“I've made some mistakes, but the Lord knows that I've taken my punishment like a man. Now, I'm just trying to do right by Him and get back on my feet.”

“Like how?”

The man looked hard at Toby. “Who are you asking all these questions anyway?”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Toby. “I should have introduced myself. My name's Toby. I work for the Herald, and I'm on assignment.”

“Oh yeah?” the man said, the large smile returning and showing off missing teeth. “You here to write a story about me or something?

“Almost. I'm a photographer. You mind if I take your picture? The article's going to be on the front page tomorrow.”

“That sounds great.” He was positively gleaming now. “Of course you can take my picture. Come on, let's move over there by the window. I always look better in the sunlight. How do you want me? How about sitting? I look kind of funny when I'm standing. I got shot in the leg in 'Nam, and I've kind of leaned to the right since then. Maybe if I had my hand on a chair or something, like that portrait of Washington, no one would notice.”

“Hey, Dennis,” another man shouted as they passed. “What are you doing with him?”

“I'm getting my picture taken. I'm going to be in the Herald tomorrow. Front page,” Dennis shouted back.

“In that jacket? You'll be the city's most famous bum,” the other man laughed. Toby flinched.

“You're right!” Dennis said when he looked down. Grabbing Toby's arm, he said, “Give me a minute. I need to wash and put on something nice. Maybe that shirt I wear for job interviews. Do you think that would look good?”

Dennis came back fifteen minutes later. Every line of dirt on his face was gone, and his hair was combed neatly to the side. Toby felt as though he were at an advertising shoot instead of a homeless shelter. Dennis eagerly followed Toby's every suggestion to turn his head to better catch the light or to rest his chin in his hand, but he could never look serious for more than two seconds.

“I just can't,” Dennis laughed after failing for the fifth time. “This is too great. I'm having too much fun.”

Toby nodded with good humor and bit his frustration back. He was supposed to look somber and aged beyond his years but was acting like a child.

Soon enough the other men in the cafeteria drifted toward Toby and Dennis and started asking questions. Then they were all clambering for portraits of their own and hurrying to change and shave. Toby only barely left the YMCA before lunchtime and the newcomers started to ask what he was doing with the camera.

By the time Toby parked outside Highman Park, the sun was just above the horizon. A chill pierced Toby the moment he stepped out of the car. It was colder than he had expected for an early October evening. Colder even than the week of solidarity. Still, not enough to make him shiver. He had forgotten gloves, though. It hurt when he kept his hands out of his pockets too long, and his fingers were stiff and clumsy as he handled the camera, checking the body and lenses. To warm himself, Toby stomped his feet and breathed into his cupped hands. Jason had ordered a pound of french fries before Toby had left. He hoped he would be back before they finished them, even if the last few were lukewarm.

He could see how Highman might be nice for a walk or picnic in the afternoon for those who lived in the area, but it was ill tended. The grass hadn't been mown in weeks. There were tracks of bare dirt where people worn down their own paths between the designated gravel trails. He could see, too, how drug dealers would appreciate the thick bushes. There was plenty of privacy in Highman.

A quick look through the park and he would be done, Toby promised himself. He was losing daylight, and the temperature was dropping. It wouldn't matter if Toby found someone, and it was too dark to take his picture. Then Kate would just have to settle for one of those he had turned in earlier. And they were fine. They may live in shelters now, but those men had lived on the streets. They knew the suffering and indignity of being homeless. They deserved to be on the front page as much as anyone Toby might find tonight.

Toby started jogging to ward off the cold. The special had been Irish Coffee. He should have ordered it. With no certain destination he took turns indiscriminately. There were no fountains or statues or tennis courts or any landmarks whatsoever to mark Toby's way. Every few minutes he would pause to make a quick check of the area for homeless, but he always found that it looked entirely like the last part of the park he had stopped. He doubted he could easily retrace his steps and find his way back. Toby pushed on.

Coming around a turn much like the last, Toby skidded on the gravel, barely stopping. Standing in the middle of the trail, not more than ten feet ahead, were two African-American men. They were tall and wore dark, down-filled coats that disguised whether they were thin or fat or even carrying guns.

Don't think like that, Toby told himself. That's racist.

He opened his mouth to say good evening, but it caught in his throat as both men slid their hands into the breasts of their coats at the same time, their faces hard. Toby tried to smile, but it felt wrong.

The one with a scar running from the base of his jaw to the corner of his lips spit and took a step forward.

Toby turned and hurried back the way he came, faster than before. He thought he could hear a bitter laugh and the second man begin to walk. Toby ran.

Another turn. Another. Nothing looked familiar. Toby thought he passed that tree minutes ago.

Then the obnoxious odor of cheap alcohol and vomit. Toby remembered his assignment. He stopped and turned in every direction, looking for the source. Getting down on hands and knees, Toby found the drunk deep underneath one of the few shrubs whose leaves still clung to the branches. It was impossible to estimate an age. Toby would have guessed 45 but would not have been surprised if the answer were 30 or 60. A fraying wool cap covered the hair, but an unruly beard was streaked with white, gray and a pale brown. The coat had once been a rich brown but was sun-bleached from years of use and stained dark by drinks spilled that night. The soles of the shoes were only kept on with duct tape.

Even with the full force of his creativity, Toby could not have imagined a more appropriate scene. Here was Kate's “real homeless.” There could be no better demonstration of the urgency of their situation or the need for action now to save them.

There was a twitch. Toby jumped back, but that was the only movement. The sun was sinking. Toby had little time before it was completely dark. He set to work. He stepped back for a few wide-angle shots. He doubted Kate could use them. It was nearly impossible to distinguish anything, but they set the tone, how easy it is to miss the homeless among us. They're invisible to the rest of the community. Toby thought it would be funny if Kate saw the pictures and asked why he had taken them. He would relish the chance to point her blindness out to her. It would be politically incorrect, but if only they could print the pictures with the caption “Can you find the homeless person in this photograph?” to show the community its own blindness.

There was a sound. Faint, some distance away. Toby lowered the camera to his chest and listened. Two voices farther up the path? He switched lenses quickly and laid down for a better angle and close-up. He was relieved that the first shots were crisp. Despite the failing light, the details were clear. Long shadows cast by the low sun turned the broken nose into something of mythic proportions. Every scar, no matter the size, no matter the depth, was clear. The thick lines around the eyes and across the forehead had a gravity earned by years of rejection. It was a face that had known suffering intimately and endured.

The leaves of the shrub rustled when Toby got up after the final shot. The subject's eyelids drooped open.

“Hey,” he slurred. A line of drool of began to run from his mouth. “Could you give me a little help?”

“Sorry,” Toby said. “I don't have any change.”

“You don't have nothing for a cold vet?”

The voices were growing more distinct, and Toby's voice grew more rapid. “Sorry, I really don't have anything. Maybe the YMCA could help you out. They might have a bed or blanket or something for you.”

“I don't need their rules. I'm free here.” He grunted. “Didn't I see you there earlier? Weren't you the one with the camera?”

Toby was stuffing the camera back into its case and only glanced down briefly before looking up the trail again. There might have been something familiar in that profile, but he wasn't sure.

“You're wrong. I don't remember you.”

“Huh.” The man gave a wet belch and rolled to face the other way. Toby could make out individual words and took off at a sprint.

His breathing came in gasps, and the backs of Toby's legs burned. The camera bag was bouncing wildly, bruising his hip. He didn't dare look back.

Another turn but the gravel was loose. Toby's feet slid out from under him. His hand was just fast enough to cover his face before he hit the ground and rolled. No time to concentrate on the bright pain in his ankle or searing on his palms. Toby scrambled forward on hands and knees until he was running upright again.

The trees and bushes were thinning. Toby could see the parking lot, not more than a hundred meters ahead. A final surge and Toby was leaning, panting, against the hood of his car.

“Hey, boy.” The smooth bass voice came from behind Toby. “Why'd you run off like that? That was rude.”
Toby rolled onto his back like a defeated dog. It was them.

“We just wanted to make your acquaintance,” the one with the scar said. He bit out every syllable in “acquaintance” to prove there was nothing kind in the suggestion. “My name's Michael. This shit's Damon.” The smaller one smiled, and Toby saw gold teeth. “What's yours?”

“My what?” Toby's voice squeaked.

“Your name, dumb ass.”

“Toby.” It squeaked again.

“Toby, huh? Well, now that we know each other's names, that makes us friends, don't it?”

“I guess so.”

“And friends share. Right?” They were within arm's reach now.

“I guess so.”

“So why don't you share whatever that's in your bag with us?”

Toby tried to step back but only pressed himself flatter against his car.

“That's a fine car you have. What about sharing your keys with us, too?” The shorter one spoke for the first time. His voice was coarse, malicious, like it was used to telling jokes which ended with a kitten being flayed. Toby opened his mouth. To reply, to scream for help, he didn't know. No sound came from it. It just hung loose.

Another car pulled into the parking lot, and a uniformed officer sauntered out. The two stepped back.

“How you boys doing tonight? Have any trouble?” he asked, swinging his flashlight between Toby, still tight against his car, and the two blacks.

“No trouble,” the taller one sneered.

“And you, sir?” the officer asked holding the light steady on Toby. “Any trouble?”

“No.” Toby's voice still squeaked.

“Good.” There was a note of finality in his voice. “How about you all keep it that way and move along.”

The blacks slouched back into the park, and Toby's hands shook as he tried to key in the door code. He only managed it on the fourth try.

“Be careful,” the officer said just before Toby closed the door. “There are some bad people out here. It's no place for a man like you.”

Toby nodded quickly and sped away without looking back.

* * *

Kate called too early the next morning.

“Last night's pictures are brilliant. They were everything I hoped for.”

“Thanks,” he managed, still fuzzy from the night before. Anna had taken his keys just after ten, and he hadn't stopped drinking. She had driven him home around midnight.

“I think they could really make a difference. Good job.”

Monday, December 12

The Justice Society of America film genre

Sean O'Neal's first sentence in his description of the trailer for The Avengers is long and is a piece of comic brilliance.

Sneaking in under the radar next year is The Avengers, an ensemble piece featuring indie-film favorites Robert Downey Jr. (Two Girls And A Guy), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Samuel L. Jackson (Coach Carter), Scarlett Johansson (Match Point), Chris Hemsworth (A Perfect Getaway), Jeremy Renner (The Town), and Chris Evans (Puncture) teaming with cult television director Joss Whedon (several episodes of Dollhouse) for an intimate story about the fragile bonds forged between headstrong individualists under difficult circumstances.

He prefers to imagine the film as something small and contemplative until he admits in the very last line of the piece that it's "a kick-ass comic-book blockbuster juggernaut that’s going to make tons of money." For those members of the cast whose reputations weren't already forged and faces recognized by films like Sherlock Holmes, Pulp Fiction, The Hurt Locker and Fantastic Four, they were through films that gave their heroes their origins. It's a large investment to gather an ensemble of actors and actresses, any of whom could lead their own film, but it's not a bad way to guarantee that your film will make handfuls of money. It's worked with the sheer star power the three Ocean's films, it's worked with the overwhelming masculinity of The Expendables, it's worked with the mixed bag of Valentine's Day, and it'll work again with New Year's Eve and What To Expect When You're Expecting.

But I don't want to talk about those films. I want to talk about those that some remarkable mixture of prescience and fortune assemble an ensemble that has amazing things in store for the future.

Consider The Fugitive. It cannot honestly be described as an ensemble piece, starring Harrison Ford who started coasting on a reputation built on Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Blade Runner about this time and Tommy Lee Jones, but it still gave managed supporting roles for Julianne Moore before her four Oscar nominations, Jane Lynch before her Golden Globe and Joe Pantoliano before his productive career.

Consider The Faculty. It had Salma Hayek before Frida and Desperado, Elijah Wood before The Lord of the Rings, Josh Hartnett before Pearl Harbor, Jon Stewart before anyone cared about The Daily Show and Usher before he discovered Justin Bieber.

Consider 10 Things I Hate About You. It had Joseph Gordon-Levitt before Inception and 50/50, Julia Stiles before the Bourne franchise and Dexter, and Allison Janney before The West Wing. It not only had Heath Ledger long before his Oscar roles in The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain, but it is the only American film I know of that had him speaking in his native Australian accent. It also had David Krumholtz before Numb3rs and Gabrielle Union before Bring It On for those who happen to care about those.

I would like to propose a name for these films, justice society. The Justice Society of America preceded the Justice League of America and its various iterations, and the biggest names in superheroes could not be members. Superman and Batman were only honorary members and the Green Lantern and Flash left once they gained their own series.

I would like to propose rules to this retroactive genre. First, and most obviously, more than a few of the actors and actresses must go on to stardom or win major awards or lead their own films or television series. Second, the film cannot be a smash. Its own success cannot be directly responsible the success of its actors. The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek may not have the biggest names in their casts, but you can be sure Orlando Bloom wouldn't have had the career he did without Legolas and that it wasn't The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagment that led to a role opposite Denzel Washington for Chris Pine. Third, it has to be an ensemble piece. It cannot be a star vehicle for a single lead character. It doesn't count when some uncredited background character goes on to bigger things, though it is impressive that Bruce Lee beat up both Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in Enter the Dragon.

I would like to propose love for this genre. It's like five before-they-were-stars segments only interesting.

I would like to thank IMDB for making me appear a lot more informed with regard to film than I am.


Tuesday, December 6

"The Boy Who Very Much Wanted To Be A Writer"

The summer before Edgar began the fifth grade, an uncle asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Edgar answered with no hesitation, “A writer. I want to be a teller of stories, to weave narratives fantastic, to craft characters with depths unplumbed.”

Toward this end he attended writing workshops and read manuals of style. Some emphasized unique descriptions and many of them. Others celebrated the terse. Some wrote that one must speak truth to power. Others replied that such was not literature but editorial.

Edgar found only one rule consistent throughout: show, don't tell.

It became his law.

“I love you,” Laura, dear Laura, told Edgar years later as they sat outside the park duck pond one Thursday evening.

Every attempt prior, she had breathed in deeply to quiet her heartbeat and steady her hands, prepared to say it. Then she would hold it a beat too long. The moment would pass, and she could only release a sigh of disappointment.

As soon as the declaration left her lips, Laura lowered her eyes, turned her face away and raised her hand to hide her profile, but Edgar could see the smile in her cheek.

Edgar could want nothing more. Already this was more than he believed he deserved. She loved him. She was his muse. Every hero, every good character he wrote partook of Laura's perfection. The china shoulders of Alexis. Aunt Cameron's casual recitation of Whitman. They would not exist without Laura.

He kissed her on the ear. Her hand fell from her face, and Laura turned. Edgar kissed her mouth. She kissed his. They remained so enjoined for some time.

When they disengaged, Laura held herself close against Edgar's chest and looked up at him with expectation.

Edgar took a breath to quiet his heartbeat and steady his hands. And paused. He released the held air in a steady stream.

Sitting together in the theater through the credits until they were the last to leave. A home-made dinner of polenta and spinach frittata and red wine for two on New Year's Eve. How could she begin to think he could mean anything less?

Edgar held her close, too, and they waited. Laura continued to hold him, but it was not so tight, so earnest, as it had been.

Time passed, and they went their separate ways home.

Monday, November 28

Considering Arthur Phillips' "The Tragedy of Arthur"

There is a relatively simple idea at the core of The Tragedy of Arthur: a forger discovers a lost play of William Shakespeare and gives it to his author son to publish, a son whose relationship with his father is strained at best and whose faith in the play's authenticity is understandably suspect. This simple idea is then wrapped in a massive conceit as the published work begins with an understated preface from the editors of Random House/Modern Library on the momentousness of the discovery, is followed by the highly personal and long introduction that veers into memoir territory and develops the aforementioned simple idea, and ends with the play itself and annotations on possible puns and archaic terms by both Mr. Philips and a Roland Verre, Shakespearean professor. The dedication to the conceit is pushed even further as William Shakespeare is given a little author biography along with Mr. Philips on the back page, their list of published works are together on the front inside pages and Dr. Verre's comments have their own copyright notice.

It's clever, I admit, and about as well done as one could hope. The many voices in this novel, those of Mr. Phillips and Shakespeare, Dr. Verre and the editors and lawyers of Random House/Modern Library, are distinct and reasonable facsimiles, at least to this one who is unfamiliar with the originals. One would think that by effort of this massive, multifaceted effort, it should be no problem at all to suspend disbelief that there is a fortieth Shakespeare play and this is it, but unfortunately, I could not. I find that fascinating. I have no trouble believing that Jason Statham can beatdown ten men at once or that the Joker could steal a firetruck and light it up at just the right spot to divert Harvey Dent's motorcade, but I cannot accept the authenticity of this new Shakespeare play, though a play is offered and it would appear that every single detail is accounted for. I wonder if perhaps it is just this ponderous detail to the fact otherwise that keeps my disbelief close and active. Would it not have been simpler to just be told that the play exists and to cut everything else out and not make the evidence perfect? Isn't that how real cons work, by glossing the details and allowing the mark to provide the answers? Were it just the introduction, I think I could believe it, but I can't the way it is. As it is, it becomes a game to find the errors. Those more familiar with Shakespeare's work than I will read the play close to find the false lines and words and be distracted from what should be a fairly enjoyable read.

It would be great if I could believe because the story's emotional arc is based on the late-arising conflict between Mr. Phillips and his twin sister as they battle over the play's authenticity in the face of their father's crimes and a single piece of contradictory evidence when every Shakespeare scholar and dating test suggests the manuscript is real. Without the suspension of disbelief, every character but for Mr. Philips appears a willing and active dupe and everything they do in relation to the play, which would appear reasonable if the document might be real, appears mean-spirited and cruel. This is especially damaging for Mr. Philips' twin sister. Early on he writes that she is perhaps the only character to come out of the story clean and good, but that is not my impression when she humiliates Mr. Philips and forces him to grovel, choose a Shakespearean punishment for himself and publish the play. That ending retroactively damaged everything that preceded it, leaving only a sour taste from what I had already enjoyed. The debates on the play's authenticity also distract from the much more interesting storyline where Mr. Phillips considers whether this play is some sort of twisted apology to him from his father who disappointed him throughout his life.

In the same way that Mr. Phillips cannot help but to construct this intricate artifice to justify the play's authenticity, he cannot help but to make this work a primer to contemporary thought on Shakespeare. When Mr. Phillips as a character is not musing on the politics of Scottish royalty in the plays or questioning whether the preponderance of surviving plays by Shakespeare against those of all other Elizabethan playwrights is the reason for his exalted place in the canon, other characters do it for him. A Scottish actor has his own ideas on the presence of bawdy jokes, and Dana covers the basics of anti-Stratfordian scholarship and offers her own idea of dual authorship by a Jew and earl. It's enough to make one appear pretty educated at their next cocktail party or water cooler or wherever it is that adults discuss Shakespeare.

For what it's worth, I found Arthur in a used book shop and bought it on a whim. I had heard mention of it somewhere on the Internet at some point and had thought the concept interesting, but the final decision was pushed by the fact that this edition was the advance reader's edition. In the place of blurbs of praise there are warnings that contained are uncorrected proofs and that any quotes should be compared against the sold edition before publication. I was kind of giddy at the discovery. I had always assumed early editions would have to be burned or something, but now I own something that only a select few could have, even if several editions more have been published since then.

Saturday, November 26

Considering J.M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello"

I'm curious what it would be like to be J.M. Coetzee. The man has won the Booker Prize twice and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He has won literary prizes worthy of note in his one-paragraph biography from South Africa, Israel, Ireland and France. A disparate and not inconsiderable part of the world has named him a great and important writer, and he's only 71 and sounds to be in good health. What's left for the man?

Experimentation and personal challenges would seem to be the answer considering Elizabeth Costello. I like to imagine Coetzee saying to himself, "J.M.? You're objectively an excellent writer if all these awards mean anything. But can you write a compelling story about an aging woman where she is only revealed through a series of lectures delivered by her and those she knows?"

Yes, he can. Though the novel is named for its protagonist, it seems to me that it's not really about the traditional characters, the professors and students, the Africans and Australians, the believers and atheists, the humans. It's about their beliefs and ideas. Beside Ms. Costello and her son, no character appears, is even referenced, in more than one chapter, and the lives they demonstrate in that little space have little depth outside of the ideas immediately presented on orality in African literature, on the relation of the Greek and Roman classics to Africa, on the ethics of imagining a Nazi execution, on animal rights, on Kafka.

But these ideas have life. The discussions are not simply whether they are right or wrong. That matters, yes, but there is so much more. Ms. Costello contends with her past relationship with the man speaking on a cruise ship to Antarctica. She systematically destroys her relationship with her daughter-in-law over her belief in the ethics of eating meat. She considers how she can speak the truth to evil when the man who wrote the passage she to which she is replying is in her audience. Elizabeth Costello takes the debates and ideas from the pages of specialty journals and gives them vitality, shows how they matter, not just for themselves but to the people who support and defy them.

And then it is all drawn together in the two final, amazing chapters as Ms. Costello tries and fails and tries again to deliver her final statement on all that matters. It's heady stuff. I haven't read enough of Coetzee to say if this is a step off his game which lead to all the awards, but if it is, I can't imagine what his work in its prime was like.

Monday, November 21

Shelter nights: Images of the homeless

Just as those seeking to alleviate African famines push the image of the children whose bellies are bloated by kwashiorkor and limbs are skin wrapped around bone and eyes are touched by flies, the opponents of homelessness have their dominant images. The first, and kinder, is of someone, generally younger, of college age or so, and clean, bending or crouching toward someone sitting and obviously homeless in layers of filthy shirts and coats. The younger offers the elder a tray of food or some clothes or just a smile. It demonstrates the work the organization does, offering both something concrete to and acknowledgment of the homeless people. The second image is of the homeless asleep outside, lying atop cardboard boxes, under a torn sleeping bag or too thin military surplus blanket. The face is always covered. The feet might be visible. These images show the material poverty of the homeless and their great need. They also seek to shame the viewer. Hidden underneath whatever they have to keep warm, the lumpy, sleeping bodies appear like bags of garbage. Do the homeless deserve to be treated like garbage is the underlying question.

Neither are the images I hold of the homeless. My image is of someone waiting, someone bored. Perhaps they are just sitting on a bench crowded on both sides by either people and blankly staring ahead for hours, or maybe they are someone who is woken from bed in the morning only to go directly to the day room, rest their head in their arms and go straight back to sleep. The most fortunate are actually waiting for something, for their housing application to go through and to be placed on a sixteen-month waiting list or to hear back from a temporary employer. The rest are just waiting because they are discouraged from being in and around many places, because their families are scattered or no longer see them, because they receive disability and can't work. The overwhelming boredom of homelessness is my first image of it.

My perception is skewed, of course. I have so far only worked in shelters, the provider of the most basic services and entry point for housing and other opportunities. I have never been a case manager, actively working with clients to file paperwork to move on, and have never spent time with outreach services, meeting people on the streets, but it is a facet of homelessness I am not likely to forget.

Thursday, November 17

A first novel: Return

Remember back at the end of August when I wrote that I needed to take some time for research before I could begin writing again? That has not been so successful as I had hoped. I did do some more research but that amounted to copying down the links to a few more references. I have failed to read The Ontology of Photography and The Gutenberg Galaxy, and I have failed to watch Hard Target and The Delta Force. Pretty disappointing.

I realized the research wasn't going so well by the end of September, once I had a job and we had settled into Seattle and the most high priority distractions were taken care of. I decided then that I couldn't wait to begin and finish my research. The important thing was to keep writing. My writer's block on this first novel continued, though, and I thought maybe working on another novel would help. It didn't. I wrote out a whole stack of notes. I had an even better conception of that novel's development and direction. I was excited about it. Then I wrote a few paragraphs, maybe a quarter of a page, and realized that the tone was way too somber and self serious and generally pretentious. I had to rethink my approach entirely.

Then I learned that a local bookstore was holding a contest in conjunction with NaNoWriMo: best novel written according to the game's rules would be published on the store's press and stocked for at least three months. That, I thought, could not fail to inspire me to write. No time to think or revise or edit. Just pure inspiration and sweat. It did not. Again, I crashed out after a few paragraphs. At least this time I completed more than a full page.

And so I return to my first novel again. I still have doubts about, that it will not be good enough, that it will not be smart enough, that I will make some stupid factual, cultural mistake and that the people who understand the material better than I will laugh at it, but I am doing my best to push these doubts to the side. I'm still going to do the research, too, but it's going to be concurrent with the writing. No more excuses and delays. I'm going to finish this. It'll take longer than I had first hoped, but I will do it.

Monday, November 14


I began this blog in the May of 2005. For most of the time since then I actively avoided checking my blog stats. Once or twice I did manage to accidentally click my way to that information, but I promptly forgot how to repeat it. I didn't want to know how many people were visiting it, much less which articles were the most popular. At my most optimistic it was because I didn't want to settle and prefer writing posts on only the most popular subjects and topics. This blog has always been meant to be free form, to be whatever I need it to be, a place to think more about what I've read and seen and share some pictures and stories. At my most pessimistic it was to avoid recognizing that no one beside a few bored members of my family and a couple of friends ever visited it. I've never expected the blog to be popular, but it would be nice if other people thought my thoughts were interesting.

A month or two ago, though, Google made a major upgrade to the Blogger system. If you use Gmail, you have some idea of what it looks like, much more open and with easier to access and more intuitive buttons. Personally, I love it, but the up-to-the-moment accurate count of site hits is now right on the welcome screen. No way to avoid it anymore. Now it's only a click away to see which countries most of my audience is from (almost entirely American with a few from Canada, Germany and Russia) and what sites (Middle of the Pack and Pete Magete Blog) and searches ("intelligent movies," "harry potter paraphernalia," and "skateboarders") refer them to my blog.

What really fascinates me though are my most popular posts. Three of the all-time most popular top ten posts ("Harry Potter paraphernalia (mostly of interest to fellow Gonzaga students," "Posting to 'Spice of Life,'" and "Blogger vs. LiveJournal (a fight for the aeon!)") I have to assume are the result of bots. These three account for almost all of the comments this blog has ever received, and they are all spam. The most popular all time, "Intelligent movies" with 468 hits, and sixth most popular, "Skateboarders at Under The Freeway Skatepark" with 98 hits, I guess are fortunate accidents due to common search strings.

What about the remaining five most popular? I'll give you the post titles and see if you can spot the similarities: "Considering Meja Mwangi's 'The Cockroach Dance,'" "Considering 'An Anthology of East African Short Stories,'" "Considering Ngugi wa Thiong'o's 'Petals of Blood,'" "A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Cafe Guava," and "'An Africa For The New Millennium.'"

The answer is obvious. If wanted this to be a popular blog, I would have to return to Africa and read only its novels. "Popular" is a subjective term here as the the range in hits for these posts is between 107 and 43, but it would be something from which to build a small audience, maybe even large enough to make some money through AdSense. Hits on posts made in the past few months and that haven't had the time to build comparable numbers, bear this information out. Posts on Africa, foreign authors and progress on my own novel have easily been the most popular.

The data isn't the most accurate, counts were only kept beginning in November 2009, ignoring the blog's first four years, and even then the data is spotty as there are posts with comments but without hits, but it is fascinating, for me at least, to consider what I do have.

Saturday, November 12


A spray of red dust, the color of congealed blood, rose on the horizon. A motorbike raced down the dirt road from Chemeril, swerving around the rocks it could avoid and slowing for the potholes it could not. Dr. Berg watched it. Behind the driver sat a man and woman. The man held the woman across his lap. One of her arms had escaped his hold and dangled at her side. It flew without restraint at every bounce of the motorbike. The man leaned close to the driver and shouted in his ear. Berg considered possible diagnoses and calculated the medicine that remained to him and when the next shipment should arrive. It would be a near thing.

It was not until the motorbike braked to a hard stop just before the doctor that Berg could tell the woman was pregnant. It was only the slightest of bumps. When the woman’s eyes were open, they stared at nothing. She only stood with her husband’s support. Berg had to discount the most optimistic of his diagnoses. It would be a much nearer thing, if it were a thing at all.

Berg immediately led them into the tent that served as his operating theater as the driver reclined in the shade cast by the motorbike. People died all of the time in Pokot. There was nothing for him to get excited about. The husband was talking, but he spoke so fast and his voice was so twisted with emotion that Berg barely understood even the little of the tribal language that he understood.

“My wife didn’t wake this morning. She slept even when I touched her shoulder. When I pulled off her wrap, there was blood all over. Please, doctor, help her.”

“And she was well last night?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“And she has not been in any accidents recently?”

“No, doctor.”

“And has she eaten anything unusual?”

“No, doctor. Please, doctor, tell me what is wrong. Save my wife.”

“I do not know, but I will discover her illness and cure it,” Berg said with confidence he did not feel but wanted the man to feel.

Together they laid the woman on the wooden operating table, and Berg blotted the blood that streamed down her leg.

The husband held his wife’s hand, and Berg moved to a discrete corner of the tent. The machine was there, hidden behind his operating tools. Berg tore a piece from the bloody rag and dropped it into the machine. He sanitized his hands while waiting for the analysis. He needed to know whether she would survive, whether he could keep the medicines for someone else.

The machine ejected a card, and Berg took it. “Airplane.” He smiled.

“Please, sir, step outside of the tent,” Berg ordered. “Your wife will be fine, but I need space to work.”

The man hurried out after squeezing his unresponsive wife’s hand once more, and Berg gathered the precious medicines that would save the woman's life. He worked with confidence. Every time the bleeding began again, he staunched it and administered another medicine. When the time came, Berg did not hesitate to draw his own blood and transfuse it with hers to buy more time for the medicines to take effect. He would survive. She would survive.

By the end of the hour, the woman was dead and her body cooling. Unsettled by the stillness inside the tent, the man looked through its opening. Berg had not called him in for a final moment with his wife. He hadn’t expected there to be a need for it. He motioned for the man to come in, and Berg withdrew.

He paced. Patients died under his care, he accepted that, but not patients whose fate was death by airplane. How did it happen? Where was the twist? Where was the airplane? Could the machine have been wrong? Berg slowed, and hope began to flicker in him. If the machine were wrong, if weren’t infallible, he could return to Germany. He could see his father and mother and Sabine again.

“Doctor,” the man called from inside the tent.

Berg returned to the man and the body.

“My child,” the man said, his hand on his wife’s abdomen. “Please.”

Berg wanted to tell him no. The woman could not have been more than six months pregnant. It would be a struggle to save such a pre-mature infant in Europe’s finest hospitals. It would be nothing less than a miracle to save the child here. Berg wanted to tell him no and save the man the sight of a dead fetus and preserve the woman’s body from further desecration, but the man was in anguish. Berg would try.

He directed the man outside again and began the operation. He cut across her abdomen with a scalpel. Through the viscera he could just make out the body of the fetus. He moved carefully, never cutting too deep and taking the time to clear away organs to keep a clear view. Finally he opened the womb and removed the fetus. It was small and still. Berg would break it if he tried to slap it and make it breathe. Berg pricked its foot with another scalpel. The child screamed, long and healthy, and his father cried outside.

Amazed, Berg took the child to the corner of the tent to clean him when a thought struck the doctor. He wiped off the scalpel’s blade, the one that had pricked the infant’s foot, with a swab and dropped it into the machine. When the analysis was complete, Berg dropped in a second swab with a new sample of blood taken from the mother. Dr. Berg read the cards. The first, the child’s, said “Airplane.” The second, the mother’s, said “Hemorrhage.” The machine was right, again, and Berg felt his earlier elation deflate. He would remain in Pokot.

Berg brought the child to his father. Berg silently watched them together, the father rocking his son in his arms until the infant fell asleep. The husband looked toward the motorbike and the driver who still reclined against it. Berg nodded. There was nothing more he could do for the boy here, but he would survive.

It was only when the father mounted the motorbike that Berg thought to give him the card. The man looked at it and shook his head. He passed the card to the driver, but he also shook his head.

“Me no English,” he said in broken English. “My wife know, but no me.”

Berg could not think of the tribal word, if there even was one, for airplane. He looked to the sky but could not see or hear any airplanes there either. He tried to mime the vehicle, but Berg could see that the man and driver did not understand. He gave up. They left.

Days passed. The man returned for his wife’s body after Berg cleaned it to the best of his abilities. A man died. He had contracted rabies from the goats he herded. A man lived. A minor cut on his foot had become infected. He had ignored it, and the flesh became necrotic. Berg amputated the foot to save his life.

Weeks passed. Berg delivered five infants and four stillbirths. Only one mother died in labor. A new supply of medicines finally arrived.

Months passed. The rains did not return when they should have. There was a cholera outbreak in one of the distant villages. Over one hundred died because the government could not afford the medicine and supplies from the World Health Organization arrived late.

Years passed. The rains returned. They disappeared. Cattle rustling against neighboring tribes escalated into war. Few died, but many were maimed. The tribes made peace again.

Berg treated those he could heal. He eased the passing of those he could not. He made sporadic attempts to train the tribal doctors in modern medical techniques and to petition international pharmaceutical companies for further donations of medicines but always gave up in futility.

A puff of dust, vermillion against the setting sun, rose on the horizon. A lone figure made its way down the dirt road from Chemeril. Dr. Berg watched him. It was a young man, no more than twenty years old. He stood tall. He did not limp. He swung both arms easily. His gait was neither slow nor hurried. He carried only a long, thin walking stick. The danger, if there was any, was not immediate, and Berg waited patiently.

When the young man was near enough, he shook Berg’s hand and put his free hand across the other arm in a sign of respect.

“I am honored to meet you, doctor,” the young man said in carefully rehearsed English. “My father tells me that you delivered me, that you saved my life. My father tells me that it was a miracle. You took me from my mother’s womb after she had already died. You are a great man, indeed, to manage such a feat.”

Berg still remembered the day he thought the machine had made a mistake and waved his hand to dismiss the compliment.

“If I were truly a great man, I would have saved your mother as well. Moreover, if I were only an average man but with an adequate supply of medicines, I would have saved her.”

Unprepared for this response, the young man said in less certain English, “But you did it. That is great.”

Uninterested in continuing this conversation which Berg knew the young man would not give up, the doctor invited him to share the ugali and cabbage he had just cooked. The rains had returned early that year, and Berg enjoyed the fresh vegetables from his small farm.

They sat across from each other and ate with their hands. They did not talk until they each cleared their plates of every remaining crumb and took a glass of goat’s milk.

“What is your name?” Berg finally asked.

“Michael Krop Kamais,” the young man answered, still in English. “I am named after my mother. They say that you come from Europe. Is that true?”

“Yes, from Munich, Germany. My family still lives there.”

“That is near the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea?”


“Could you tell me about them? I have read about them in my textbooks and seen pictures, but I have never spoken with someone who actually visited them or even traveled beyond Nairobi or Kampala. What are they like?”

Berg stretched his memory.

“Well, the Alps are very nice. There are trails, and you can walk up them to the very top and see cities and nations that are very far away. The sides are covered in forests, and they are always cool. The Mediterranean Sea is very nice, as well. When I was young, my family would visit its shores once a year for holiday. The water was warm like a bath. No matter how far I would swim out, I could never see the opposite shore.”

Krop smiled.

“That does sound very nice, not like here at all.”

Berg waited for Krop to continue, but the young man was quiet. He did not look at Berg, and the doctor was patient. When Krop was ready, he would talk. Krop finally took a sheet of lined paper from his pocket, unfolded it and began to read without lifting his eyes to Berg.

“Sir, you have already done more for me than any man has by giving me life. I could never adequately or fully express all of the gratitude I have toward you for this, and I regret that I am only beginning to share it with you now because I have a request.”

Krop paused again.

“This year I completed the fourth form of secondary school, and took the KCSE. I had the top marks in my class and I will qualify for any college or university in Kenya to which I apply. I am the first in my family to have this opportunity. I could enter the University of Nairobi and study law, but I have only one desire, to become a pilot. As I said earlier, my marks will qualify me for any aviation school that I apply to, but unfortunately they are not high enough to qualify for government support. The entire burden of tuition and board falls upon my family, and we cannot bear it. Even if my father and uncle sell their entire goat herd and received the best price, it would only pay for a single term, so I come to you to ask for assistance. If you will support me and pay these fees, you will honor me and my family. I will defend your name against any who would speak ill of you. I will name my first-born son after you.”

Berg shook his head.

“Before you were born, I tested your blood. It told me that your death would be caused by an airplane.”

Berg saw Krop shake his head and twist his speech in his hands, but the doctor continued.

“It is true, and it is unavoidable. The test has never been wrong. I am sympathetic to your dreams, of course, and am very sorry, but I could never hasten your death by supporting your choice to become a pilot.”

It was brutal Berg knew, but he would not lie to the young man. If Krop did not know the truth, he would only find some other way to attend aviation school. Berg had to kill the dream entirely to protect him. Krop struggled with the words in English. When they would not come, he spoke in his tribal language.

“But, sir, I know this. I have always known this.” Krop took a scrap of paper from his pocket and passed it to Dr. Berg. It was stained and creased many times over, but the faded letters still read “Airplane.”

“My father showed the card to the district chief, and he explained what it meant. As soon as I could understand, my father told me how I would die, and he gave me the card when I was old enough to be responsible for it.”

“Then why do you want to rush toward your death? You are very fortunate. It did not read “Cholera” or “Thirst” or “Knife.” It read “Airplane.” You can live a long, full life here. I have never once seen an airplane pass over head. Years from now, perhaps, they will build an airstrip here, and then you will meet your death by an airplane, but that will not be for a long time.”

“But then how would I ever see Europe and the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea or the great cities?”

“You can drive, you can find another way.”

“And what of the Americas and Japan and Australia? I can’t drive over oceans.”

“Then you can take a ship. You can find a way.”

“No, I can’t. It would take me years. I could never see them all. I have to fly. It’s the only way. The prediction does not give a time. Maybe it will not come until after years of flying and visiting these lands.”

“And if it does not? What if it comes after only a year of flying?”

“Then it will be worth it to see just one new place.”

“And if it comes even earlier than that, when you are training on the ground?”

Both men stopped talking. They were breathing heavily. Berg spoke next.

“I was not tested at birth like you, Krop. The machine was not invented until I had completed my medical training. Like everyone I knew, I took the test. I did not keep and cherish my card like you because I was embarrassed by it. I threw it away immediately, but I still remember it. It predicted ‘Bratwurst.’ Do you know what that is?”

Krop shook his head.

“It’s a type of sausage. It’s made from the meat of pigs. My homeland is famous for them. I do not think that there is anything that tastes better, but to die from one, to choke on a bite or trip on a slice or to any other perverse method by bratwurst, would be ridiculous. It would be embarrassing. Immediately I searched for a place where they never ate pigs, a place so remote that it had never heard of sausage and that even Germans would not visit it. Pokot was that place, and I have not once feared for my life here.

“I have saved the lives of hundreds of your tribe. I have read the complete works of Goethe, Schiller, Novalis and the other masters. I have lived a good life. One day, when I am old and tired, I will return to Munich and accept my fate but not until then. I know what I am saying when I say that a life, any life, is better than death.”

Krop shook his head and spoke again.

“No matter when it comes, whether after years of traveling the world and seeing all of its wonders or before I have even left the ground, it will be a good death. What is there to die from here except for disease and wars with the Turkana and Samburu? They are common. There is no honor in those. My father is proud of me. He knows that I will be more than a goat herder, not like his father or his father before him so far as anyone can remember. My death will be remembered. I will be remembered. It will be good.”

It was dark now. Berg looked up to the sky. The moon was new, and the stars were brilliant.

“No where else will you see stars like this,” he said after some moments of contemplation. “There are too many cities, and they are too bright from electric lights. They hide the stars.”

“Then I will look everywhere but the sky,” Krop said.

Because it was late, Berg invited Krop to sleep in his tent that night.

The next morning, after Berg and Krop drank their goat milk, he told the young man he would support him at aviation school.

Later that year Krop’s father came to Berg with two letters from the aviation school. They were in English, and he asked the doctor to translate and read them to him. The first said that Michael Krop Kamais was dead. There had been an accident. While learning the airplane’s controls on the runway, the plane had started on fire, and Krop did not escape. The letter expressed its deepest sympathies that Krop’s remains could not be returned to his family because they were disfigured beyond recognition. It was signed by the headmaster.

The second letter was written by one of the instructors. He had taken the first-year students on a short flight through the Highlands and over the Great Rift Valley and only turned when they reached Mombassa and the Indian Ocean. The instructor wrote that he had made that flight many times over the years, but he had never seen a student in such ecstasy during it as Krop. The instructor wrote that, had he lived, Krop would have been an excellent pilot.

Reading the letters to Krop’s father, Berg felt old and tired for the first time. That same day, after Krop’s father had left to share the news with his family, Berg left Pokot for Nairobi and made arrangements for his return to Munich.

Thursday, November 10

Considering Moses Isegawa's "Abyssinian Chronicles"

There was a bad stretch earlier this year where I wasn't terribly excited about anything I read, but I didn't outright hate of it in the same way I hate Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles. There were a number of boring and underwhelming books (cough, The Imperfectionists, cough, A Visit from the Goon Squad) but none of them were detestable. And now, with a month and a half remaining before 2012, Chronicles is the worst novel I've read this year.

There are some technical problems in the writing. The perspective is confused. Ostensibly it's told from the point of view of Mugezi, a boy who comes of age alongside the independent Uganda, but chapters are spent with his parents, Serenity, his withdrawn father, and Padlock, his harsh Catholic mother, and offer information on them that Mugezi could not possibly know. The timeline is confused for the first couple of chapters as Mugezi stops the action to explain the current relationships between characters and has to slide back again to explain how that earlier state of relationships came into being. There is no rising action or climax of which to speak, either. Chronicles also touches a personal gripe of mine as a novel by an author from the developing world who writes first for a developed world audience. Isegawa, born in Uganda but now a Dutch citizen, includes a brief list of "African words" that are hardly even used in the text but immediately defined where they appear and makes sure to always explain Uganda's cultural and political history.

But these are minor things, matters of techniques and personal gripes. They don't make this a terrible novel. The cast of entirely unpleasant characters does. The problem begins with the narrator, Mugezi. Mugezi is filled with hate. He hates his mother for beating him and giving him chores. He hates his father for allowing his mother to treat him as such. He hates the priests at the seminary for keeping the best food for themselves and keeping in budget by feeding the students corn mash. Mugezi takes clandestine vengeance on them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there is a rich history of literature and film of precocious children and teens playing pranks on their hypocritical elders, but Mugezi's unadulterated and unmoderated hatred poisons it all. He cannot refer to his parents without calling them "despots." He never forgets the colonizing history of the Church and never forgets to mention it in increasingly florid language.

It's like going through a sandblaster of hate, it wears you down, and Mugezi comes out the worse for it. His acts of vengeance include writing a love letter to his mother from an admirer and allowing his father to find it, destroying the headboard to his parents' bed, throwing a bag of human waste at one priest and gouging the boat of another priest. Mugezi's delight in these acts is disturbing, and his lack of self reflection with regard to his own failings including arranging a paid trip to the Netherlands by blackmailing an NGO accused of child pornography and sleeping with girls fleeing civil violence is disgusting. He can't even be bothered to name one of his younger brothers or sisters whom he refers to only as "the shitters."

And yet I read the whole thing, all 462 pages of small type. Part of it is my will to finish everything I start. The greater part of it was the language itself. The grandiosity is staggering. You can literally flip to any page and find a gem like "It made cities retch with the talons of unassuageable pain, and the villages writhe with the stench of green-black diarrhea." or "Loverboy received these morsels of her past with an ironical air, sticking disdainful needles of criticism into the parts which did not appeal to him and rewarding the bits that he liked with loud laughter and corroborating remarks." Chronicles is translated from Dutch, but Isegawa still manages to do one thing right and capture some of the lyricism of East Africa in these lines. Not enough for me to come near liking the novel, but at least something to enjoy and remind me of Kenya in the slog that is the rest of the novel.

Tuesday, November 8

City life

Our move to Seattle intimidated me. There was some excitement, yes, for a larger job market offering employment in fields I was trained in and for the possibilities of visiting art house movie theaters and attending concerts I was interested in, but mostly there was intimidation. It was a city, not even among the top twenty largest in the United States, but a city none the less. Contemplating it was overwhelming. To get most anywhere, you would have to enter the freeway. There would be stop lights on every road. There would two major professional sports teams, four if you count men's soccer and women's basketball. Not more than five miles away there would be a university with lecture halls that could hold my entire hometown and have seats to spare for the people of Williams.

And then we moved here, and it wasn't so bad. Where I live, a largely residential neighborhood, traffic is well confined to just a few, peripheral roads and leave everything else fairly quiet. There is plenty of green space, so the urbanity doesn't press in and subsume you. It's been surprisingly slow and peaceful.

For these reasons friends have called Seattle a "small city," which I can see the truth of, but the easy pace, I believe, is more due to the small life I live here than anything small about the city. I wake up. I might run the same route I have since the day I arrived. I return to the apartment and wash. I check my email and the Internet. I cook dinner. I read and write. I take the bus to work downtown five days a week. I come back and sleep. I buy my groceries at Safeway and QFC when an ingredient is missing. I might visit a Barnes & Noble, but I prefer two independent bookstores on the same block. That's pretty much it. That is my schedule, my life. My night shifts bear some blame for the smallness of it all as I'm awake when everything else is closed and everyone else is asleep, but it is a small life. Perhaps it will change when I can transfer to a day shift, but for now I don't go to either the theatre or the theater, I don't catch concerts, I don't stroll downtown, I don't visit parks except the one opposite my apartment building. Is there much more frustrating than to have all of this opportunity available, browsing the culture listings of the weekly newspapers and seeing all of the restaurants and galleries and museums and everything else that there is to do, and not doing them because the timing is too difficult and it's too much trouble to figure the bus routes and times and it's just easier to do the same few things that I have figured out?

Monday, November 7

Considering Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red"

My Name is Red was a disappointment. Perhaps I am unfair to it as I came to it in a rush from Snow, a novel which I read just because I needed something, anything in Mangochi, but when Snow seriously challenges for one of the best things I have read since leaving university, I think it is fair to have some expectations.

Unsurprisingly, Red suffers in comparison. It's an odd thing to write because the two novels are so much similar. A young man, driven by memories of the woman he loves, returns to his home city after years abroad. The beloved, who had married but is now separated from her husband, lives with her father and at first rebuffs the protagonist. There are deaths in the community which the protagonist must investigate. In the course of the investigations, the protagonist meets with those more interested in discussing religion and art in the abstract and the European influence on Turkey. Stylistic techniques such as the doubling of characters, narration by pictures and authorial insertion abound. Really, Snow and Red are the same book for the first half, switching Snow's modern setting and interest in Islam for Red's classic setting and interest in art.

The difference is that things happen in Snow. A night at the theatre falls into terror when the rifles are not loaded with blanks but live bullets. The town is isolated by a blizzard and military coup takes control of it. It all builds to a second night at the theatre. The monologues remain, and the speed of the action can only be described as plodding, but there is always a sense that it is building to something, that something is going to happen.

Red touches that same live wire at its best such as the chapters where plans are made for a wedding that must be conducted at all speed and navigate any number of legal and cultural obstacles, but in between there is a visit to the sultan's archives where chapters are spent describing each and every illuminated page the protagonist sees. Even when the suspects begin to arm themselves to confront the still-unknown murderer, scenes where the suspense and tension should be at their highest, seem perfunctory and the author ultimately uninterested in them as so little time is spent on them in comparison to those ceaseless descriptions of masterful illustrations.

Where Snow seemed to be exactly the right length, Red feels that it would lose nothing by being half the size, hacking away at the redundant descriptions that crop up in every chapter.

Saturday, November 5


My thanks go out to Zach and Spencer for their efforts to make this piece the best it could be. It unfortunately was not selected for inclusion into the coming volume of Machine of Death, but I still hope that you will enjoy it. I'll post my second, rejected submission sometime next week.

The evening call to prayer rose across Paris from ten thousand mosques and swallowed the city. All conversations paused in respect and deference to the superior sound. Before the last call faded, the city’s rich and powerful began to make their way to La Grand Mosquée.

Opposite its entrance Dismas knelt among the Christian beggars who hoped that the penitent would remember another pillar of their faith when they completed their prayers. Like them Dismas wore layers of ragged clothes that offered too little protection from the autumn chill and let his hair and beard grow long and tangled, but where they averted their eyes and lifted only their outstretched hands, Dismas stared and searched the swarm of Muslims. They wore silk robes whose fields of white were embroidered with gold thread and not marred by a single mote of dust. At another time, on another night, Dismas would have felt jealousy. They could still worship. They could still pray.

There he was. There was Abdul Rahman, already having completed his prayers and walking away from the mosque. He had come directly from the security offices and still wore his uniform and the violet sash of an officer first class. That was good. It would be difficult to lose him in such distinctive clothing. Rahman left the mosque in the company of two other men, admirers who wanted to hear the officer’s stories of killing Zealots. Rahman was polite, but he did not oblige them. Outside a café, the two tried to entice him to join them for tea and a water pipe, but Rahman refused.

Rahman left alone in the direction of the 16eme arrondissement. Dismas rose and followed him. They walked past halaal butcheries where stripped cow carcasses hung in display. There were posters for a coming action film in which a former football player starred. Some newspapers still reported on Rahman’s seizure of a small arsenal of explosives and rifles, a security action during which fifteen Christians were killed, but most were not interested in dwelling on the continuing troubles and reported political and celebrity scandals instead. The Muslims they passed paid no particular attention to either of them except to give Dismas a wide berth. They passed no Christians. In all this time Rahman never looked behind him and noticed Dismas following him.

The officer finally entered an apartment building too modest for a man of his rank and reputation. There would be no security. Dismas continued past the building to the end of the street; counted to one hundred, enough time for Rahman to enter his rooms; returned; opened the front door; and walked in. Dismas found Rahman’s name on the door farthest from the stairs on the third floor. He rested his hand lightly against the door, knocked and called out in perfect Arabic, without the trace of a Christian accent, “Delivery for Abdul Rahman.”

When he heard Rahman approach, Dismas tensed his body. When he felt the door begin to move back under his hand, the Christian kicked it in. The door struck Rahman full in the face, and he fell backward. Dismas pounced on top of him and pressed against Rahman’s throat with his forearm until the officer became unconscious. Taken so completely by surprise, the Muslim only offered token resistance.

Dismas stripped Rahman naked, bound his hands and feet behind him, threw his mobile and pistol out of reach, and went into the kitchen. Dismas had not eaten since midday when he took his position across from the mosque and was ravenous. There was a pot of couscous, already spiced, cooking. There were slivered almonds and golden raisins on the table. Dismas threw them into the pot and ate it all before he heard Rahman's first groan of pain.

Dismas drew a knife from deep within his clothing, its blade kept to a perfect edge, dulled only by the throats of security officers and government officials, and knelt in front of Rahman.

“Do you believe that you will die here tonight?” Dismas asked when Rahman's eyes were able to focus on him. “Do you believe that you will die by the blade of this knife?”

This was important. If a knife was not Rahman’s death, if he was too confident and showed no fear of Dismas, something was wrong. The bindings were loose, or there would be a visitor. Dismas would have to leave immediately.

Rahman looked away. He did not struggle. Acceptance.

Dismas waited for Rahman to say something. When the officer did speak, his voice was firm.

“You will not escape. Security will not permit my murder to go unpunished. There will be an investigation. You will be caught and executed.”

Dismas shook his head and answered in an equally firm voice.

“No, I will not. For the many, many men I have killed, the only punishment is death, but my death is by crucifix, and your government will never crucify me.”
“Then that is why you were sent to kill me? Because your superiors do not believe that you will ever be caught?”

Dismas nodded, and they were silent.

“Would you like to pray?” Dismas asked. “I know that you have already recited the evening prayers, but perhaps you would like to pray something different knowing that you will never again have the opportunity.”

Rahman looked at Dismas hard.

“I do this only as a courtesy for you. It is not something I am able to enjoy for myself since I cannot enter a church without approaching a crucifix and risking my life and mission.”

Rahman nodded.

“Would you bring me my prayer mat? It is in my bedroom.”

Dismas found it beside the bed and brought it back. When Rahman struggled against his bounds to assume a reverent position, Dismas helped him into it, careful to avoid stepping on the mat. When Rahman finished, Dismas helped him off of the mat.

“What did you pray for?” Dismas asked after he returned the prayer mat to the bedroom where it would not be stained by Rahman’s blood.

“I prayed that my soul be prepared for the next life and that my sister-in-law and her children be provided for.”

“Did you pray for forgiveness?”

Rahman nodded.

“Did you ask forgiveness for the Zealot lives you took in the raid last week?”

“Yes, and for other things as well.”

“Did you, as is rumored, plant the weapons to justify killing Zealots meeting peacefully to discuss nonviolent protests against the Christian curfew?”


“I believe you. Maybe five years ago, I would have believed the rumors. I would have sworn to avenge the death of every Christian brother with ten Muslim heads and every Christian sister with twenty Muslim heads. I would have been the first to volunteer to carry explosives into the heart of the security offices and detonated them myself, but I do not feel that way anymore. This is only my mission.”

“I did not plant weapons then, but I have. I asked forgiveness for those times. It was my mission, as well. I had no choice.”

The two waited in silence. Dismas was in no hurry.

“How do you think you will die?” Rahman finally asked. It was the first time anyone had ever asked Dismas that.

“I have never imagined it.”

“Perhaps the Zealots will succeed. The Christian zones will be eliminated, the churches will be returned to you and the laws against public Christian displays will be repealed. It will be impossible to avoid a crucifix if you step outside, and one will fall upon your head.”

Dismas smiled at the image.

“How do you think that will happen?”

“Perhaps my government and people will grow weary of this constant war and give in to your demands, or moderates will come to power, and our people can live as equals.”

“Perhaps your death will hasten that future.”

“Then it would be worth it.”

“If that day does come and my mission is finally completed, I only wish that I will be able to visit confession again and be told that I did right and all is forgiven. I want to know, like the Good Thief, that I will enter Paradise.”

They were both quiet, not entirely unlike two old friends who understood the thoughts of the other despite the silence.

“Is there anything else?” Dismas asked.


Dismas walked behind Rahman. He put one hand on top of the man's head to pull it back and expose his throat. Rahman did not resist.

“Do you forgive me for what I am about to do?” Dismas whispered in Rahman’s ear.


Dismas nodded and slid the knife across Rahman’s throat in an easy, familiar move.

The man died without any sound but for the blood pouring from his neck.