Thursday, April 26, 2018

Comrades Against the Void

Alone or no?
So humanity frets
When gazing at stars.

"If not, are we wise,"
Some wonder, "to seek them out?
Space is deep water."

Worse for me to think
We are alone in this soup:
God's only eyes.

Even conquerors are comrades against the Void.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Things work out

Of late, I've come into the habit of believing that everything is going to be okay.

Somehow. In spite of everything.

It happens that way for people like me. Peace just pops up out of nowhere, overwhelming one's worries. Revealing them as absurd. Like laughter in the face of bigotry.

In mirror of more agitated states, I'm overcome with emotion quite suddenly. As I walk through Creswell Park, tossing peanuts to the crows. As I lay at night beside my wife, watching her shoulder rise and fall with her breathing. In thoughtful moments at the office, watching the nesting mother honker from my window as she sits her eggs next the parking lot.

But nowadays the emotion is joy. Is relief. Is gratitude. Rather than panic or despair.

Life is easier this way. And I know how lucky I am. The world is full of people who will never in all their lives know this kind of peace. Many people. All the way from here to Kabul, Afghanistan. And that breaks my heart.

But things work out. Things work out.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fearful days

Oh, these fearful days!

I'm a lathered, wide-eyed steed ridden cruelly by Anxiety, the demon jockey.  His strength waxes and wanes, but at the moment he is firmly in the saddle, and does not spare the lash.


At my place of employment, my boss has told me I'm doing good work, as have my coworkers. So, why am I fearful for my job?

Although my health is good, and she is a strong and capable woman, I am visited by dreadful thoughts of the day when my wife, beloved Maty, will be without me. After all, I am seventeen years her senior. Rationally, I know she will never be alone. Her family extends across two continents and she is much loved by all who know her. And yet I ache at the thought of her: bereft, grieving, after I am gone. (That she might pass before me is unthinkable.)

The ascendancy of the new "normal," where racists and Nazis demonstrate openly in the streets and their views are given credence by a confused and angry people weighs heavily on me. I fear for my family. I fear for my people.

Anxiety is indeed a thief. I resent that it is robbing me of my life.

My shrink gave me breathing exercises and a mantra to recite, in these situations: "All is well." At times, it works.

But not now. Not today, nor for the past several weeks. I don't know why. There is no "why" to it. We are, all of us, dragging our crosses up Calvary Hill.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Book review: Paradise Lost: A Graphic Novel

Undertaking to reinterpret a classic is always an ambitious and perilous endeavor. To do it right requires herculean effort. The artist must re-imagine, but at the same time, remain faithful to the original work. More often than not, the effort falls short somewhere. The new work either fails to attain the peaks set for it by the original, or the artist, enchanted with his own vision, loses sight of what made the original profound and significant. Examples are too many to count.

(And we do note the significance of this latter propensity in the context of the title here being discussed!)

Not so Pablo Auladell's graphical representation of John Milton's classic epic poem, Paradise Lost. Auladell's imagery, at times stark, at times deliberately vague, adds severity and depth to the abridged verse that captions the story-line. In particular, Auladell has a gift for depicting facial expressions: Satan's horror and glee, Adam's innocence and corruption, Beelzebub's unfathomable non-expression.

When first I read the original work, decades ago, I was intrigued by the romantic vision of the ultimate anti-hero, just as Milton intended. (Judge Holden, Captain Ahab, meet the original!) Now, with the temperance of middle age and with Auladell's illustrations as a study guide, I more readily saw past the seduction of Satan's seemingly valiant defiance, clear through to the perversity and depredation behind it.

I savored this book, poring over each illustration, parsing carefully the verse, comparing it to the haunting expressions of the characters.

Paradise Lost is a disturbing tale --check that --it is the disturbing tale. In addition, it is the literary prototype for the anti-hero motif. Auladell treats the original work with the reverence it deserves and offers his own convincing interpretation.

The unease that crowds my awareness at this moment, several days after reading it, attest to the power of the story itself.

Friday, August 25, 2017

It is time

Flex, ye once-dexterous fingers! Reawaken faith in your granted puissance!

Are ye not those same that once skipped o'er keyboard? Articulating? Expounding? Positing? Did ye not, in your lent glory, give form to weeping angels, rioting demons?

There was a time when ye were not afraid; when, together, we would give voice to it all and damn the snarled lip, the pinched brow.

What, now? Has the madness of the time rendered mute our passion? Doth suffocating dread now rule our heart?

We have known, we do know, the solution. Which is to write. To write every day.

Arduous? Yes. Frightening? Yes.

But also vital. To write is to live. With humility. With sincerity. With peace.

Bring it.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Portland vents, luxuriously

Big crowd. High tension.
The Big Event went down yesterday in downtown Portland. 

You're aware I'm sure. It's been all over the news. In the wake of the horrific attack that occurred on May 26, in which Jeremy Christian, a Portland man murdered two persons and wounded a third as they tried to restrain him from verbally assaulting two teenage girls, tensions in the city were high.

A pro-Trump rally, scheduled (before the murders) by a group called "Patriot Prayer," was set to take place and many in the Portland community objected. Tensions were heightened when James Buchal, the chairman of the Multnomah County GOP (normally a low-profile job) suggested he might hire private security (read right-wing militia) to patrol the event in case Portland counter-demonstrators tried to cause trouble.

Like many indignant Portland progressives, I was determined to counter-demonstrate. Most especially in light of James Buchal's inadvisable suggestion. ("No one is going to intimidate me in my city!") So I set out from my home at about 10 am, to walk downtown, where events were scheduled to begin around noon.

It was a strange day. Lots of drama. Lots of cheap emotion.

When I arrived, just around noon, the place was already hopping. The crowd was divided into 3 factions. 

"Antifa:" Mostly skinny punks, hooked on drama
The "Antifa" folks were there, with their black bandanas. They were isolated to Lownsdale Park (the site of the "Occupy Portland" demonstrations in 2011). There weren't very many of them and the few that were there looked like kids to me. Kids with bad attitudes. 

Trump folks across the street at Schrunk Plaza
Then, there were the pro-Trump, "Patriot Prayer" folks. Not very many of them, truth be told. Their rally point was Terry Schrunk plaza, which is a federally-maintained property. The perimeter of the plaza was surrounded by very serious federal cops. James Buchal's crazy idea of hiring militias for security didn't go anywhere. Those cops weren't letting anybody cause any trouble.

When I tried to enter the plaza, to have a look at the Trump folks, an armored, helmeted, federal officer with a rifle stopped me and said he must see the content of my backpack. While I fumbled to open my various pockets, he asked if I had anything that might be used as a weapon. I showed him my leather-man tool. "You can't take that in there," he said. Flatly. " Thank you officer," I said. I zipped up my backpack, turned and walked away. Never have I felt so willing to comply with an order.

A faux-militia guy in army fatigues. He was one of the Trump ralliers and he was not happy when I took his picture.
I briefly glanced within the federal perimeter and saw 4 or 5 guys in racist costumes (Kaiser Wilhelm helmets, white capes with racist symbols on them). But they were clowns. They weren't serious. There were a few loudmouths and a couple guys with MAGA hats. And some guys with their Don't Tread on Me flags. There was also a middle-aged woman sitting by herself with her hands folded in her lap. She had an honest face and she looked upset. And there was a decent-looking fellow, maybe a bit older than me, in jeans, cowboy boots, and a clean, western shirt standing off to one side. He looked to me like an Eastern Oregon rancher. I admired those two. It seemed to me that they were sincere, well-intended. I felt for them.

The biggest faction was the Portland Progressive group
By far, the biggest faction were what I'll call the "mainstream" Portland progressives, who had gathered across 4th Street at City Hall. These were the folks with whom I identified. This faction spilled out onto 4th Street and extended across several blocks. Most of them were sincere, it seemed. But there were plenty of people who were angry and just looking for someone to scream at. 

I met a bald man with a white tee-shirt and an Old Glory cape who wanted to debate politics. We were in the thick of the crowd, and there was movement all around. "Buddy," says I, "I really don't think this is the place." (Ignore the irony.) He appeared stymied for a moment and then disappeared into the swirl.

Heat was on.
Tension was high. And in highly emotional situations, I detach. It's a defense mechanism from my youth. The dispassion that comes with detachment reveals things.

I saw that there were people there who were on the prowl. They had come because they hoped something would happen and were on the lookout to find it. They lurked around, waiting and wanting to be offended. That they might beat their breasts and wail for justice. That they might then be validated and anointed by the sympathies of their fellows. Who knows? Maybe they could even get on teevee.

I saw too that there were people who were out looking to be scared. People who wanted to be scared so they could then tell themselves they were being brave. But they couldn't be brave unless they were afraid. So they moved through the crowd looking for something to be afraid of.

Perhaps fortuitously, my cell phone battery ran low and then died completely. I'd been so busy running around taking photos and absorbing the vibe that I hadn't really assessed the moment. But when I paused amid the drums and the chants and the insults and outrage being hurled back and forth I felt an old familiar feeling. I felt sheepish. Sheepish and foolish and duped yet again. 

I'd had enough. So I went to catch the 4 bus back toward home. 

Ready for action.
We're all just strutting and fretting about we-don't-even-know-what. Just like Macbeth said. 

The thing downtown yesterday was nothing more than another tax-payer subsidized extravagance: a big stage where everyone --every teary-eyed, soap opera queen, every ardent, self-important lead man --might have his righteous moment. His time in the spotlight. His indignant soliloquy.

Foolish. That's how it all seemed to me.

I torched up at the bus stop. Some vestigial paranoia from a different time tugged at my mind as I did so. Police were everywhere.

Up the street, the drums thundered and the crowd roared.

"Relax, baby," came the thought. "Today they got other things to worry about."  Thin snakes of smoke slithered past my lenses, delighting  my eyes.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Senegal and back again

Pre-boarding Maty. Near midnight, Halloween night. Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport
Just back, last night. Sixty-two hundred miles and change. Between the tearful parting on Rue de Impasse, Senghor City, Thiés, and our determined stumble up the stairs back home, 35 hours.

Myself, contemporaneously
A grueling passage, with layovers in Paris and Salt Lake City, and, in our case, an incident with an aggressive Senegali during the exhausted shuffle from the plane to gate in pre-dawn Charles de Gaulle. The f-bomb was involved. But my woman is a strong woman and our teamwork in the moment proved itself admirably. Even if I do say so myself. It gets better all the time.

What have I learned?

Maty and Mor, admiring the monkey-bread fruit, under the baobob tree, the day we went to Gorée.
Senegalese are a courteous and respectful people. An extended hand is always taken. An as-salamu alaikum is always returned. Guests are always met with an offer of food or a glass of minty sweet, strong ataaya.

We met some North American college women in the restaurant on Gorée. Mama Nene's is an open-air venue, with a thatched roof, blessed by the breezes that come up off the water. Skinny cats prowl under the tables, alert for morsels.

The women were curious about Maty and me. How had we met? One of them said she hoped to marry a Senegalese man. I understood. Egalitarian Americans are swept away by Senegalese respect and courtesy.

It comes from their religion.  

The Great Mosque in Touba. (Construction continues, evidenced by the scaffolding.)
We went to Touba, where they're building the Great Mosque. Italian and Portuguese marble. Five minarets. Three domes. In the Moroccan style.

Within the Mosque
As we drove to Touba, Senegal revealed herself. Heat-soaked countryside. Cattle. Baobob trees. Trash.

On the road to Touba
Thiés street scene
 Thiés is where we spent most time.

Thiés is a cacophony of noise and activity. Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and horse-drawn carts clog the streets. Engines roar, people shout and laugh, livestock bleats, cocks crow, and at intervals throughout the day, the local mosques broadcast the haunting call to prayer over public address systems. The ululating voice serves as reminder that order encompasses chaos.

Thiés grafitti
Every third or fourth car that rambled down the street was a taxi: a dilapidated economy sedan with a cracked windshield, dented fenders and windows that, as often as not, would not roll up or down. A ride downtown cost 500 CFA or about 80 cents.

Thiés, from the taxi
For dinner, Khoumba prepared chicken or fish with yams and eggplants and carrots, which she served on beds of rice or couscous. We sat cross-legged on the carpet around the platter and ate with our right hands. 

My welcoming meal on Mama Diop's patio in Sanghor City. Sengalese-spiced chicken, yassa onion sauce, and french fries.
Some afternoons, a boy appeared at the entry to Mama's courtyard with an empty coffee can. Maty or Khoumba would give him food. Whatever we had eaten or were going to eat. A drumstick. Yassa and couscous. Rice and fish curry.

One day I stepped outside Mama's gate and stood watching the people go by. Suddenly, a voice in English boomed out: "You! Come here!" I looked. Khadim was sat on a plastic chair in the street, in front of his wife's coiffure shop. "You! Come here!" He jabbed both fingers into the ground in front of him.

I called to Maty, in the courtyard behind me. "Honey, someone is yelling at me." She came to the gate and looked. "Ah, it's Khadim. He wants you to come talk to him."

Which I did. Our talk was very limited due to the language barrier. But he shook my hand and taught me some Wolof words and introduced me to the neighbors. His wife served me tea. We were friends instantly.

Some of Mama Diop's neighbors
Senegal. An immense experience. Made all the more momentous because of the love I have developed for my Senegalese family.

I had not seen Mama nor Mor since 2007, when I visited Ouagadougou in the year after Maty and I were married. Since that time, Papa Diop has passed. And my brother-in-law Pape.

Mama, plucking a chicken for dinner
Mama's limp has become more pronounced over time. Arthritis is not kind. Mor is now married to Khoumba, and they have a daughter, Khoudia, whom I loved in the first moment I saw her. My nephews, Omar and Abo, complete the household.

Mor and Khoumbah, with Khoudia
I'm humbled at the graciousness and hospitality I received while a guest in their home. And, sitting here now, in my living room in southeast Portland, I'm missing Mama's kindness and wisdom, and Mor's friendliness, and Khoumba's shy smile, and little Khoudia's sweetness and her face when she smiled. And I loved to carry her in my arms, when Maty and I went to the bodega for water or juice.

We're home. But I'm thinking about Senegal. And I'm missing my family.

My family in Senegal. Omar, Khoumba, Maty, Mama, Khoudia (on my lap), and Tonton Modou
Some more photos...

Roadside cattle.
Rolling down the highway.
Baobob tree.
On the Gorée beach
Garbage pickup service in Dakar.

Mama's courtyard
Fishermen off Gorée.
Rue de Impasse in Sanghor City

Roadside fruit stand

Neighborhood kids
Holy man

Maty, Khoudia, and Mor on the road to Touba

Inside the Grand Mosque


Swimming not advised, in Bandia reserve
Maty and Khoudia
Au revoir, Senegal!