Friday, December 19, 2008

A Walk Along the Coast

On the northern coast of New Orleans sits a massive lake. In the absence of a great storm, it is a peaceful thing that blends into the sky along the horizon. It keeps the air humid, and in the night its vapors condense over the city, forming the thickest fog I have ever seen. It is a cloud that refuses to dream for the sky. It slithers over the land and stifles the 9th Ward in an opaque muggy blanket. It takes away all that was visible from the dark. Cars are simply two lights until they emerge from the haze 20 feet away. If telephone poles extended further into the sky than the light bulbs that burned upon them, we would not know. The fog shrinks the world to simply that which is immediately before us, an external manifestation of my worst moments of narrow-mindedness.

We walked this landscape, me and the Howellhouse.

We walked along the northernmost road that bordered the coastline. North of it were simply the train yards and the water itself. On this road I saw remnants of The Storm as well as the simple quirks of a given city. Houses with boarded windows. The spray-painted Xs that indicate the results of a Guard search. On a fence, two wooden planks and some crudely hammered nails formed a cross. A pink plastic horse sat upon a pike erected on a street corner. I quietly marveled at this topographical status. But the distinctions of the terrain quickly fell from significance when I saw the dish.

It had its back to me. I saw first the metal latticework that held the large parabola in place. It was perhaps 15 feet across and sat atop a thick post of complicated hinges and steel hydraulic tubes. It sat in the midst of other dishes of various sizes on a seriously overgrown grass lot. I don’t really know why the site of it didn’t fade into the invisibility of the commonplace. But when I saw it, I was struck by how desperate it looked. The fog made it such that there were no stars, no moon and no sky above it. But it reached into that unknown. Like it hoped for contact with something it could not see or feel. Like an unknowing widow waiting for her husband to step off the last ship to come back from the war. Like the ghost of that soldier, wondering why his wife does not see him, but believing that she will if only he holds out his arms for a bit longer. I sighed, not know if it was possible for me to be as patient or as hopeful as a metal antennae listening to a closed sky.

All walks come to an end, and soon enough we were making our way back. Close to home, a figure emerged on the desolate street, leaned up against a house and quietly took a pull from a cigarette.

We mumbled a halfhearted greeting as we passed. His drunken voice came forth with a senseless question that communicated only the madness of deep inebriation. We kept walking and did not look back. But he spoke on and his tone became angry. After some moments we noticed that the volume of his voice was not fading as things do when they pass further into the distance. He was following us, taunting us as we walked. We sped our walking pace. Then his taunts became threats. Now she, like all of the women I know, does not need defending or saving. But I could feel a desire to protect as I prepared myself for violence. The preparation is more of an act of acceptance. Like the suspension of disbelief when walking into a movie theatre. I acknowledged the possibility of a change, that things were going to go differently than I would like them to in a rational and peaceful world. I sighed and thought, okay, I am as ready for this as I can be of anything that I do not want. Then, without interrupting my stroll, I picked up a large stick. I felt its weight and adjusted its position in my hand. A dead branch that could soon become a bludgeon. Seeing my preparation, his threats reached a crescendo. We walked faster. Somewhere between Desire and Piety- the streets, that is- my reluctance for conflict became a serious case of I wish this motherfucker would. Then the voice went silent. I looked behind and there was only the barely visible street. We were alone again.

Back at the crib we ate homemade vegan soy ice cream sandwiches.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Christmas Tale

Rudolph the reindeer was grazing late at night in the North Pole Green house. Christmas was less than a month away and the elves had switched his feed to a hybrid high protein and carb wheatgrass. He had to put on as much weight as he could, since he would need all the energy reserves he could get to make it through C-Day. Outside, the almost-dawn of the northern night cast soft glow on the horizon, backlighting the elf village, the toy factory and the Red House. Every roof was covered with a thick layer of snow. Rudolph looked up for a moment and sighed. “Same shit, different year,” he said. Reluctantly, he leaned back down to the grassy floor and continued to feed. Then he heard the rustling of the insulating flaps that hang above the green house door.
“There you are,” said a slurred voice from behind him. “You weren’t with the others, so I thought I find my main-deer and see how he’s doing!”
“I’m cool, Santa,” said Rudolph through a mouthful of grass. “I’ll be over at the stable in a little bit.” But the Man in Red wasn’t listening. Instead, he was looking out at the horizon while fumbling with the cap of a flask he had pulled from his inside pocket. St. Nick was a bit tipsy. And when he drank, he got all… happy.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Rudy?” asked Santa with eyes that glimmered with nostalgia and inebriation. “Soon we will be crossing the world, racing against time on a an eternal quest to bring joy to little boys and girls.” He took another sip of his flask. Rudolph’s animal olfactory picked up the scent of Schnapps from across the room. “Just think,” Santa continued, “on Christmas morning millions of nice children will look under their trees and find exactly the gifts they’ve been wanting all season. And all because of us.”
“They won’t find any Nintendo Wiis,” Rudolph mumbled between bites of wheatgrass. The comment briefly stifled the Yule tide of glee that was a drunken Santa Clause.
“Yes, you’re right. The Backorder from Nintendo probably won’t get here in time. But there are many other presents that have made it here and with any luck the Elves in the Tech Division will be able to fully reverse engineer the new ipods. Christmas will still be magical for all the world’s children.” Santa was still looking through the greenhouse’s wall of glass, so he did not notice Rudolph’s ears perk up. Nor did he see the annoyed grimace on the head reindeer’s fuzzy face.
“Why do you always say that,” asked Rudolph.
“Say what?”
“Say that we deliver to all the world’s children when you know we don’t?”
“Well … they, um… those other children, they…”
“They what?”
“Well, they don’t … believe in me. I can’t deliver presents to kids who don’t believe in me.” Rudolph, hearing this, became more upset.
“Don’t give me that. I’ve been through the Naughty/Nice List archive. We’ve delivered to George Carlin’s kids. We brought Elian Gonzales a damn Monopoly Board game. As if the irony wasn’t enough. Those kids don’t believe in you. But they get presents. Penn and Teller had to put “Do not enter” signs on their chimneys just to get you to stop stealing their cookies and disrupting the belief systems of their families. So come off it. The whole time I’ve been doing C-Day with you, we haven’t once delivered anywhere in Africa that wasn’t South Africa. We’ve never seen India. We’ve never seen China. And we order half our presents from those places. Just come out and say it, Santa: you don’t think those kids matter.”
Santa was flustered. “That’s not true, Rudy. You know me, I love all children. We just don’t have the resources to deliver to everybody. The world population has gotten a lot bigger than it used to be. A lot of elves have been leaving because of the melting going on here at the Pole. We have to make some tough decisions.”
“So you just decide to deliver presents to the children of the most wealthy nations in the world? Yeah, that does seem like a hard choice.”
“Now that’s not fair, Rudy. Europe is where I got my start. I have to stay faithful to my roots. I can’t desert the places that got me started. The best I can do is try to deliver to more and more places. You know I’ve been trying to get Mrs. Clause to put on a Magic Suit and deliver on C-Day as well. That way we can cover more ground.”
“Whatever Santa,” said the now pissed off reindeer. “Everybody knows Mrs. Clause just got tired of being your housewife and servant. We all know she’s been reading up on feminism. You’re just trying to give her something to do so she doesn’t leave ...” Rudolph trailed off as he saw sadness creep into Santa’s reddish face. After a pause he said, “Santa, I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to …”
“No,” said the defeated Joy-bringer. “It’s okay. I guess it’s no secret that Mrs. Clause and I are having problems. And I haven’t really had to face up to it for anyone. All the elves and the other reindeer just look the other way. I’m the king of this world, after all. What made you want to call me out?”
Rudolph breathed a long sigh. He wondered if he should reveal the secret of his insight to this, the man who he resented the most here on the top of the world. Fuck it, he thought.
“You remember the times before I ran C-Day? When I was just a no-name reindeer with a funny nose. Those were hard days for me. All the reindeer in the stable called me ‘tampon face.’ When I was sleeping, they would tie my horns to a stable post and I would miss breakfast trying to get myself untangled. They hated me because I was different. For no other reason than a funny colored, bio-luminescant nose. It sucked. But then C-day came and it was too foggy for them to see. So you put me in the reigns. Everything changed for me that day. Overnight, I was loved and venerated. My difference was celebrated and it was everything that I ever wanted. Until I realized I never actually got it.”
“But the reindeer shouted out with glee!” Santa interjected.
“I know what the damn song says. But it’s all lies. They suddenly ‘loved’ me because of your favor. That was a show that they put on and you and the elves were convinced by it. Even I was for a time. But eventually I came to see that they resented me. They were jealous. Suddenly the quality in me that spawned ill will was the most valuable. Enough to put me at the head of the sleigh. They hated it. But they know that the North Pole is a place of joy. They saw what went down between you and Jack Frost. So they praised me in public and simply ignored me in the stables. You can barely hear praise that faint. You cared about me because I could light the darkness and they cared about me because your kingdom demands nothing less. That’s why I don’t eat with them to this day. None of them can look me in the eyes.”
A long silence followed, as Santa considered Rudolph’s story. Having poured out his heart, the reindeer held his head downward and closed his eyes. Almost everything had been revealed.
“Rudolph. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry. I had no idea. Maybe I should talk to the reindeer, maybe I can…”
“No, don’t,” Rudolph interrupted. There is no need. I think it just might be time for me to move on. Maybe leave in the next elf migration.”
“No, I need you here, C-Day…”
“It’s not about what you need anymore. I… I’m done.”
Santa turned back to the horizon and looked long into the sky. Finally, he said, “I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you. I just hope you know that I’ll always care about you.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Rudolph as he walked toward the greenhouse door.
At the threshold, he paused. Slowly, he turned back toward the Man in Red. “Hey, Santa. Why do all those people in the Netherlands think that you bring presents with the help of 8 black men?”
“Yeah,” said Santa. “I knew somebody would ask me about that sooner or later.”

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Road Reflection 5: Images and Ghosts

I was playing a video game one night. It is a motorcycle video game. My avatar looked much like myself, riding the same bike that I ride in the real world, though the track on which the digital rider was lapping is the pixelated reflection of a place I will most likely never visit. I ran the track and at the beginning of the second lap, a transparent image of myself joined me the moment i crossed the finish line. It was a "ghost," a recording of the previous lap, replayed alongside my current one. From this point on, I would race against the ghost of my fastest lap. And this I did for the first few laps of the session. A new ghost alongside for a new lap. And after a point, the same ghost, for I could not beat my time. I would run wide. Or crash. And I would recover only to see myself ride off into the next corner. I was leaving myself in the dust. I have heard it said that small events can lead to big break downs. What could be smaller than some polygons on a TV screen? But that rendered landscape is desolate and my room mates slept soundly. I was alone in front of the TV and alone on that track, apart from my ghost. Just the three of us. And it's not a ghost because it is transparent. It is a ghost because it is the past. I was in conflict with myself on an old leather couch, or on some racetrack in Japan, or nowhere and this depressed me to the core of styles. The virtual scolded my reality: I'm afraid my history will be better than me. These crashes and missed brake markers are just reifying my fear. Video games are supposed to be more fun than this.

Away from the video games, I brought up an image on my computer. There is a new rider on a new bike on my favorite team for next year. This was a photo of him testing the new machine. It is a shell of thing, without paint or even a powder coat on its frame. Just metal, carbon fiber and gasoline. Rawness. The rider's leathers look old and worn. He is so sure of his path, and is traveling down it so fast, he can barely look directly at it, much less keep the front wheel of the bike on the ground. Add just one more number to his plate and I would be sure that he was the Devil on a desperate escape from hell. I stared long into this picture, feeling its truth. A rider at the top of his game on a machine that will soon be at the top of its class. But I wanted in the first person what this image was in the third: the hard rocking of an exit. But it is impossible to be something without going through a process of becoming. I can’t be that anymore than the rider in the picture is himself. Those exits that I want to rock don’t really exist. And there I was, seduced by the lie of all pictures that steal moments from motion. These simple moto-related pleasures are getting more complicated, I thought.

But finally, something like reality, with my bike, my body and the streets that I guess belong to everyone. Far from a video game console and a computer screen. Only the “present instant of flight.” My shadow is cast behind, then around, then in front of me by each passing streetlight. Like I am the central axis in a clockwork of shadows. The pipes grumble. The engine buzzes and vibrates. The forks compress and rebound. The wind shakes my helmeted head. I am only here. The ride peels back worry. But the undercurrent comes back to claim me. There is music in the mental recess, faint strands of melody and lyric that grow so strong that sometimes I want to check my ears for wires. The jams play softly and the tug of their message pushes into the plane of my conscious action. I twist the throttle, for the first time perhaps, out of blind emotion. It lasts for only a moment but the action shocks me into calm. I let myself slow to an almost legal speed. After all, there is no speed I can reach that will rock an unreal exit, that will perfectly frame my escape. The night chill finally drifts through the leather into my bones and I shiver. I get back to the crib in need of heat. I wrap myself on blanket on a couch in the dark. My room mates sleep soundly. I look at the game console and remember that I saved my fastest lap on that track in Japan. I think that, yes, this is why it is said only of ghosts and pasts that they haunt. Then I grab a controller and hit the power button.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ink, Essence, Proximity.

The other day I was in Atlanta, in a restaurant, waiting for some snacks to arrive. A waiter caught my attention and kept it long after she had retreated to the kitchen. She had a tattoo around her arm, just below the elbow. A simple band, thick and black. Just like the one etched just below my knee. I felt a gravity toward this woman. As though the container that holds the depth of her status must be the same mold as mine. As though a conversation between us would last past dawn. The spot was mad busy though. And I suppose that I knew that the revelation of her skin might not match the truth of her style. So I made no effort to get her attention. Still, I looked for her as I rocked the exit. I couldn’t tell you what she looked like, though. I remember only the ink and the hallowed essence I seem to have embedded within it.

I wonder if placing someone above is still a reduction. The haters, the racists or sexists or whoever, remove reality from the objects of their hatred. They replace this reality with something simple and vicious and bind it, perhaps, to an accident of birth. An incident of choice turned my attention to a stranger waiting tables. She put the ink on her arm and its possible meaning broadcast on just the spectrums that my eyes could see. Perhaps I essentialized all the same, though I attributed more reality than I took away. Still, it could be the same sin: a refusal to let a person be. Which, for me, is a refusal to be a friend.

Sometimes the gulf that lies between us is just the right distance. And sometimes a naked embrace does not bring us close enough. Life is the balancing of proximities. Yet I can never quite figure what it is that I need near me the most. Maybe it is the band around my leg, or the bike in the shed, or music in my ears, or a friend who will walk with me in the dark, though I don’t know where the path will lead.

You know, the woman at the restaurant had another tattoo. It was complicated, full of colors, and clearly unique to her style. And it wasn’t sayin’ nothing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Heritage and Sickness: A Letter to My Man Nic


I checked your blog about the Song of Lawino and I am really happy that you read it. I never really completed my own text about the effect that this book had on me when I read it in Uganda. Probably because that time was so depressing for me that I have been reluctant to share it or put it into words that carry the significance. But your writing about the book woke me up a bit, so I want to address your experience with my own.

Yeah, so I got sick in Uganda. Silly sick. Doctors could not quite diagnose the style and there is some speculation that medical tests inadvertently caused my ailment to intensify. It sucked. I spent a lot of time in bed, as I was unable to stand or walk for long periods. There was a while that I couldn’t even read, as I was plagued with massive headaches. From beneath the bug net, my mind was in a permanent state of replay.

I thought of Sister Rosemary, who jokingly asked me one day what I thought about my skin color. I guess nuns can read minds, since I had been soaking the thought that I am comparatively light-skinned when measured against the Gulu populace. I told her that I wished I was darker, which is strange, since I usually endorse the plurality of colors. Me and my family are all different shades and it is this diversity of hue that I thought I held dear. What was happening to make me think such a thing? “Your color is perfect,” she said. Why wasn’t that my answer? I now thought to myself in bed as I waited for the codeine to affect my style.

I thought of my name. Most of the cats that I introduced myself to here had trouble pronouncing it. This was, of course, East Africa. My name is from West Africa, which is other tribes, other languages, other worlds. Still, I felt some underlying surprise along with the disappointment that everyone I met had a European name. It was my first glimpse into the nature of my own unacknowledged expectations about being on the Continent, expectations that ran against what I knew to be true. I knew better. But my knowledge could not overpower my experience, or my desire for particular experiences. I was hopeful for something. But hope is a sin.

And, of course, I thought of religion. There was a moment when I and a friend were sitting with a nun who spoke with great reverence for the indigenous religious practices of the Acholi. But she did not know exactly what these practices were. She only had echoes of the tradition and a desire to investigate. While in Atiak, I asked a man about old school practices. He said that he didn’t know much about them, as “the missionaries who came thought our culture was Satanic.” The leader of the rebel group that plunged Northern Uganda into war claims that he wants to build a society based on the Ten Commandments. At night, the victims of the war who reside at the school danced and sang songs to Jesus. They were the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. And yet the images of Jesus in Gulu offended me. This is the image of the man who will save them, the man to whom they pray. The white man who is also God.

I say that I was thinking about these things. They were really just indistinct formations that ran across my pained mind like poorly mixed watercolor. Drugs do that. Eventually, the haze lifted enough for me to think clearly. Kind of. So I picked up Lawino.

What I read in those pages were the tragic renderings of a perspective that had already been faded by history. To me, it wasn’t a song or even a poem. It was a death knell. It was the echo that, for some reason, I was listening for in the people of the town that this book is supposed to be about. So yeah, it was a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. Reading that book in Gulu, my emotions and secret desires finally aligned with my knowledge: I would never observe this idillic style for which I hoped. I should not have been trying to see it in the first place, for it was not ideal at all. It was just free of the West. And how could I have expected to be free of Europe? It is where I am from. In fact, my desire to see it, my hope for a glimpse of the original, for the untouched, for culture, was a vulgar European construction in the first place. My own personal Safari. Finally and fortunately, my hope was extinguished. Lawino’s song saved me, kind of, even as it made me feel hopeless.

Many miles away, you went through something similar, it seems. You felt the force of the text as I did. But it seems that we drew different conclusions. You said that you felt pretty bad after reading the text, until finally you were able to cast it aside as an attack on your identity. I wonder if I could persuade you to continue feeling bad.

You have said a couple times on your blog that you worry about enforcing your perspective on people. I had much the same worry when I rolled up to Uganda. I am the West. In Africa, I represent affluence and influence. People ask me for money and guidance knowing nothing about me other than that I am from America. And I am not even a missionary. The temptation is great, I learned, to want to just tell people what they should be doing, or take the lead in developing a project. A project that I have the luxury of leaving at any time, since my being here is optional.

I met a lot of cats here who were all about helping. The place was, after all, in dire need of help. Infant mortality was ridiculous. Unemployment sucked because the economy sucked, nobody has money for school or health care. The situation is straight bollocks. But you know what else is bollocks? People’s ideas of what it means to help.

The history of Europe and Africa reflects badly on everybody involved. On governments and religions. On men, women and children. On missionaries and anthropologists. But most of all, these historical spectacles and horrors set up a pattern of interaction between the empowered and the powerless. It is a pattern that we, the helpers are all to excited to continue: My knowledge is superior to yours. I will come and transform your culture, your nation. And when I leave you will be more like me than any african drummer in a church could ever deny. So yeah, keep practicing my religion, because it is more true than anything you have ever known. And please practice medicine and government like I do, because your old school styles are senseless according to my standards, which are, of course, the only real standards. I don’t care that the Savior doesn’t look like you. Because he looks like me, which is fitting, because it is in his Name that I save you. And you will thank me for it just as hard as you fought my ancestors to leave you alone.

My homegirl says that most of the cats who roll up to Africa to try to help are much more focused on themselves than they would ever admit. The missionary tour or the peace corps campaign is more about their “white identity development” than it is about helping cats, she says. Perhaps this is why so many people have asked me about how my trip to Uganda changed me personally instead of asking me what Uganda was like. Like my going to Uganda is some badge of honor that solidifies my good will and humanity. I know of straight up racists who have gone to “minister to all nations”, I think to myself. How can we arise from this milieu and conclude with certainty that we have helped anything at all?

And my answer to this question, after looking at the pure bullshit that went down with so-called helpers in Uganda, is that we can’t. We need a new way to go about this, if we are going to go about it at all. And casting off serious criticisms as works of fiction that dissuade one from the unconditionally good task of “helping” is not that way. That is the old way.

I hope that you feel the sense in my words instead of just their anger. Lawino is a serious glimpse, not into old school Acholi style, but into our assumptions about the perspectives we manifest when we invade other spots with our plans for action. In Uganda, I worked with some people who not only did not want to repeat the colonial cycle, but may have found a good way not to. I think that you can do the same thing. But I don’t think you’re in the clear yet. And I certainly haven’t worked out my own troubles.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why We Should Protect Marriage

Looks like most of us are going to the polls in a few days. Thought I might share some thoughts on one of the things on which we (in Florida, anyway) will vote.

Amendment 2 is known as the Defense of Marriage Amendment. Specifically, it writes into the state Constitution a denial of the possibility of marriage between individuals of the same sex. There are already laws prohibiting same-sex marriages in Florida. But so long as these laws are not in the Constitution, it is possible that a judge, perhaps, can rule them unconstitutional and allow gay people to marry. As such, it is our decision as to whether we want the law to be written into the constitution. I've been thinking that maybe we shouldn't.

The first thought that I have about why this should not be the case is the immediate similarity between the notion of prohibiting gays to marry and the old school laws that prohibited intermarriage between people of different races. That is, the law just seems like a reflection of well-worn prejudice that comes down to us from history. I tend not to like racism. Racism is nothing other than the dislike and exclusion of a person on the grounds of race alone. So, it looks to me that the opposition to gay marriage is a result of the irrational dislike of gay people for no other reason than that they are gay. My grandma came up before there were laws based in equality between races. Which means that she was forced to live a life without certain possibilities that are open to me. I would hate to think of myself as a person that deprives others of possibilities that I have. It seems like that would make me a jerk. I would be the 21st century equivalent of the cat who screamed at my grandma to go around back in order to get some snacks from the diner. There are, however, responses to the problem that I raise. It comes from the F.A.Q. At According to the site,

"Bans on interracial marriage were about keeping two races apart so that one race could oppress the other. Marriage is about bringing two sexes together, so that children get the unique love and nurture of both a mom and a dad. Having a parent of two different races is just not the same as being deprived of your mother—or your father. Race and ethnicity are not inherent properties of marriage. Gender on the other hand is an inherent property of marriage."

Other material on the site supplements this claim. It seems to indicate that, since there is something "natural" about the joining of two different sexes in marriage, and since nature is the ultimate guide to the moral order, we should not act against nature to allow the possibility of gay marriage.

This argument is perplexing on many levels. First, it is unclear to me that marriage is only about providing children love. I mean, I have been married. I don't really remember my wife and I talk about having kids. I don't even remember talk about having kids before we got married. But hey, maybe that is why we got divorced. Second, while it is the case that laws against interracial marriage had its basis in the oppression of a race in particular, it is far from clear that this is not the underlying function of laws against gay marriage. To oppress is to deprive one of options, especially when those options are freely enjoyed by others. I suppose that some are tempted to defend the view that it is not oppression because there is something natural about members of different sexes marrying. But this claim is also a bad one. To say that "man and woman" are "inherent" in marriage is to make a simple mistake in reasoning. Marriage is a social practice. That is, it is the kind of thing that we legitimate with our own actions. Sometimes those actions are traditional and sometimes we break with tradition and form new practices. Because of the whole civil rights status with my grandma and mother, I am by no means an unconditional defender of tradition. And I don't think any good person can be. I also know that if a thing was necessarily inherent in something, there would be nothing that we could do to change that. Three angles are necessarily inherent in a triangle. Gender is only inherent in marriage if we all agree that it is. So, at best, it is contingently inherent. Which is why we have to vote on this thing in the first place. And it is just the lack of inherence, it seems to me, that makes it possible for me to vote to oppress, some more, the people who want the kinds of things that I have already had. And which weren't even that great.

The Yes2Marriage site also seems to assume that every gay person who gets married will immediately go out and adopt some children. I guess this is possible. But I have met gay cats with children. And these kids are some of the best kids I know. Valedictorians. PhD students. All around cats who are smarter than me on any day of the week. In addition, I recently read a book by a gay guy who along with his boyfriend adopted a son. I am hard-pressed to say that his account of how he raises his child is any measure of bad. This is just my experience, but it only takes one counter-example to falsify a claim about impossibility of something.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that people are against gay marriage for traditional religious reasons. They just believe that God has somehow commanded them to not allow gay people to marry. Maybe marriage itself is a religious thing, after all. But if all of this is true, I don't see how marriage has anything to do with the State Constitution. I don't see how I could have been an atheist and still have been married. I also don't see why people would go to the trouble to produce such bad reasons why we should prohibit gay marriage. Just say "God told me so" and I won't have to look all through your site in search of a good argument.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that my commitment to equality entails that I want gay people to have the option of marrying. And in this lies the notion of protection. If marriages, that is, contractual monogamous relationships that are set to never end, are worth getting into, then every competent adult person should have the option. To deny people this option is to demean marriage, to make it a tool of oppression rather than a legitimate way to express love or get benefits or be miserable. If we want to "protect marriage," as the claim goes, we should probably strive to let everybody in on it, regardless of sexual preference.

So, homies, Vote no on 2.

Oh, the book is called The Commitment. It is written by Dan Savage.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Road Reflection 4: The Dark

Had a bad dream the other day. I lost track of a friend in an old hotel. The place was completely unlit, having no power and no occupants other than myself and, hopefully, my friend. I dashed feverishly from floor to floor and room to room in an effort to find her. Believing that I saw her silhouette in a doorway, i ran up to discover the nothingness that only an empty hotel room can offer. When I turned to leave, the deep, black shadows strewn about the hallway moved toward me, springing against all sense into extension, grabbing me and holding me at bay until a knife appeared from the blackness and plunged deep into my stomach. The darkness betrayed me.

The images of the dream simmered, until tonight I was finally overtaken by the feeling of falling that accompanies mystery, sexual infatuation, despair and games of billiards. I slid my jacket over my flesh and rolled out onto the streets in an attempt to make peace with something.

The person who rides without destination discovers that which lies hidden on the road. From an empty road that runs alongside the local interstate, I turned to a street that ran under the overpass to another road that dead ends just a hundred yards later than a sane person is willing to travel at night. I stopped in the middle of the parallel overpasses and shut off the bike. Even through the earplugs under my helmet I could hear cars pass overhead, transitioning from the airy whoosh of the solid highway to the hollow moan of elevated concrete support beams. A few powerful lamps over the interstate brightened the clouded sky; if not for the decisive darkness behind the last stop sign before the dead end, I would not know if it was dawn or midnight. aside from the jagged asphalt, overgrown bushes and trees marked the valley between. This place was uncared for. And I was alone.

The solitude was brutish. The cars passing overhead knew nothing of the man beneath them. They were moving along and my joy or distress would not turn them from their paths. For some reason I felt like I was back in Atiak when i thought this. Maybe because the IDP camp had no electricity and, being unlit, it existed unseen from above.

I stood for a while. Until references to Kundera and Frost left me. Until i could no longer conjure that damn Bacon painting. Until the Bon Iver song playing in my head finally came to an end like only memories can. And there, for the shortest moment, I closed my eyes and waited for the dark to keep the promise of the nightmare. When I opened them, I saw only my machine, dormant and warm. ... Its engine echoed across the bottom of the overpass. Perhaps somewhere in a nearby neighborhood a person who was trying to sleep quietly cursed as I shifted to second gear. But I was soon gone from that earshot. And the dark did not follow.

When I was in college, i would go on long walks across Tallahassee. My favorite place to stop and chill was an old grave yard close to downtown. No matter how much the city was celebrating, no matter how loud the songs of Homecoming, that place was as still as the storm after it woke jesus from his sleep. Maybe the gaping graveyard calm resented my absence. I don't know if the feeling is mutual.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Road Reflections 3

A while back, on a bright day, it became clear to me that the serious relationship I was in would come to an end. Distressed, I commiserated briefly with a friend over the phone. Then I grabbed my helmet and gear. Before I could mount up and rock exit, he called back and told me quite simply: Right now, the motorcycle is the best and worst thing for you. I said, yeah, I know, then I put foot to trail. I rode for a long time that day. Without much in the way of skills, on roads I didn’t know, with nobody. Solus Ipse. If I needed to escape, to literally flee at great speed, this trip to nowhere was just what I needed. If I needed to think about things and take action, well. I would run out of gas sooner or later. Since then, the inner toddler in me has seen fit to name my bike. But all of my machines have had the same name: Pharmacon. A medicine. Also, a poison. Something one might need to be healthy. To which one can get addicted.

There are some times when the need arises. Since there is no such thing as silence, the curdling quiet of the night simply amplifies the chain-rattling ghosts of my flaws and failures. Why should one listen to voices that pull downward? They must be drowned by an engine, or perhaps some wind. From here, the world looks quite different from my experience of it usually. On an empty county road bordered only by tall trees, the dark would eat me if it could. It would just stamp me out until I was all shadows. The light from my headlamp fends it off. The road resents the noise of my exhaust, it’s tired of me laying my problems across it. It already has enough road kill. Sometimes, when it is really late, so late that I am the only thing on the road, I just stop. I turn off the engine and just sit on the side of the road, listening. Trying to hear for the voices that put me on this journey in the first place. They are dull. But they are not extinguished. I can’t slide those faders any further down. So I just bring some other tracks up until it is time to shut the whole console down. Thus, I ride until exhaustion, so that I can do nothing but sleep when I get home. Or I just ride until daylight, when I am safe in the noise of a turning world. It is an effort that gets me through for a time. But we all know what a bright day can bring.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Road Reflections 2

Corners are all serious. It is here that we concentrate heavily, that we challenge ourselves and each other, that we expand our skills through the management of risk. A careful use of attention in these circumstances reveals a world of road seldom noticed by the the regular four wheeled motorist. Small swaths of sand. Small potholes. Changes in the texture and composition of the asphalt- all of these things are endlessly scrutinized by the rider. They affect our decisions about where to start the turn, what path through the turn we will take, how quickly we will complete it. The scope of this calculative review is matched only by its brevity, for one cannot complete a turn looking downward. One must look where one needs to go. WIth the corner style complete, we transition to cruising. And cruising is Cruising. The mind wanders. One is immersed in the scenery. Don’t be confused, the way is clear, as the song goes. This is how we ride the long straight stretches of road. We prefer chillful openness to a drag strippy madness. Most of the time, anyway.

On the stretch, I looked down to the tachometer. For some reason, I didn’t immediately see the dial. Instead, I was presented with an image. Six white letters. “ahamaY.” It took me a second to realize that it was the reflection of my chest. I was looking into a mirror. What a strange gestalt, I thought. Behind the glass is the rpm status. But for a moment, I denied myself its truth. Then we passed a woman who was pulling a little girl in a radio flyer on the side of the road. They both looked at me. Then I felt it. I was reminded.

Once me and the moto homies were talking about the visors through which we peer from our helmets. I’m a better rider when I wear the dark visor, I said. Not just because the necessity of the dark visor means that visibility is high. Because my face is obscured, replaced by a mirror, essentially. It is existentially masochistic. The revelation of the face is prevented. From the third, people only see the rider as object on bike. They can draw no conclusions about race or political leanings. There can be no first impression. That which is faceless is a thing. And that thing is precisely what I want to be. So I become the object, with its calculations, its purpose. I deny my own freedom to be otherwise. But the Green Ninja responded to my style, like, yo, we are better because the dark visor precludes the judgments of others. It gives us the opportunity to better express our freedom. It is like being alone in a dark corridor. When can look through whichever keyhole we wish. This absence of existential restriction leaves us free to put all being points into the task at hand; so, really, we escape the masochist tendency to be what the other demands that we be.

As the next turn approached, I wondered whether me and my homie really disagreed. Then I let the clutch in, downshifted two gears, and let it out. The tension between the engine and the back tire made me wonder what it would be like to have a slipper clutch. Up ahead, the Red Ducati leaned over and began to disappeared around the corner. Long and thick dreads danced from beneath his helmet, like snakes who could not decide whether they loved or hated. I followed, with a mind to wheelie out of the corner. Couldn’t quite hack it though. Couldn't bring myself to apply that much gas. Though the front end did dance a bit.

Back in chill mode, we passed other bikes on the road. Cats without helmets, whose passengers had no helmets. Do they think that little of their companions? Or that highly of their skills? I wondered what they thought of the leather that covered me from head to toe as I passed them. Maybe I look like a squid to them. At a stop light, I read a sticker on the helmet of some other rider: “This bike eats Hondas and shits Yamahas.” It’s just that kind of divisive arrogance that makes the motorcycle lobby in this state so ineffective, I thought. Maybe if we were more concerned about helping each other out instead of asserting some stupid ideals of brand or type superiority we wouldn’t have to worry about the anti-biker bill that became law last week. Besides, his bike is slow and stupid looking.

The ride ended and I rolled up to the crib. I was a mess. A dirty helmet made dirtier by sweat and two hours of heat caused my face to break out. I was sore all over and my back hurt in all the usual places. My leathers were splattered with all manner of dead bug. I smelled like gasoline. As I looked at the bike, I had the feeling that I had arrived from a long and adventurous journey, like I had been somewhere for a long time and was just rolling up to sight that soothes sore retinas. I’ve never understood why that is. But the feeling is kind of nice.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Road Reflections

The movements of the day have been accented by a slow soreness in the few muscles that drape over my bones. This morning, I got out of bed slowly, stretching my back and neck before I leaving the futon. (Springing out of bed on some “what a loving morning, yay!” is for suckers anyway.) These are the echoes of the moderate beating my body has taken on two wheels this past week. Last Saturday I pre-empted my usual book reading, npr-listening, audio editing style for a right proper adventure on two wheels. I met a squad of riders off the highway and off we went, destined for 150 miles of awesomeness. The ride began awkwardly, what with the boy scouts, cops, and fog. But once we hit those little traveled county roads, things began to settle into the asphalt ridden beauty that is the crotch rocket’s birthright.

Nietzsche tells us that at times it is necessary to philosophize with a hammer. Break a thing to find out what it is. Or strike it to check for an echo, semblance of depth. On a downshift the engine screamed, as if it was surprised that I was headed to this corner at this speed. The vibration from the engine and the feel of the road travelled through the tires, to the frame, to my hands which braced my body against the downward force of braking. Yeah, I thought. This is how you philosophize with a tuning fork.

We take in the world from a body. If I were to talk about organs and motor-neurons it would only miss the point. For then I would be casting those parts into the world that we take in. The body simply is the place from which we move, from which we perceive, from which we act. So, on this day, my body was simply a few hundred pounds heavier, full of coolant, gasoline and oil, a vibrating mass moving down a series of winding roads that, really, were also me.

Concentration was the meaning of the style. Accelerate. Downshift. Break. Look. Lean. Maintain the line. Scan for road imperfections and cops. Try not to miss the next turn. Try not to get left by the homies up ahead with off brand bikes and more experience of these roads. But always, without warning, from the frenetic mix of road, wind, and traction, there emerged a clearing. A slight hill would finally descend, revealing acres of farmland, lush green fields symmetrically cut into the countryside. Cows lied down in the shade. Horses would not even look up from their graze. (They started this horsepower thing, after all. No need to revere their passing imitators.)

In the vast expanse. I saw all expanses. The farmland of my home in Alabama. The coastal greenery of Devon. The tips of the pine trees in the mountains outside Las Vegas. The tropical bush of the West Nile Valley. I wondered about my friends and wished that they could all soak in the world from this side of the double yellow lines. Then a long straightaway unfolded before us. The low groan of an Italian machine intensified in front of me. I figured there is no way in hell I would let it get away. And this is why my shoulders are sore, even now.

The moto homies meet again tomorrow morning. I will be heavier again and the unreal peace of a county road will wash over me. Well, at least until I see "McCain" on a bumper sticker.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Heritage and Hate Redux

... A difference, i think, between the sight of that swastika and the confederate style is that the swastika, from here, sits fully in its historical significance. People know exactly what it means and who it represented. Especially the Europeans, the Jewish homies, the Gypsies, the Poles. If they see it on a street corner today, they can rest assured that the cats waving it are on that racist bullshit. But a new form emerges with the so called battle flag. Those who wave it reject any racist connotation, in public at least. And this is annoying because all brown people in the south know that the bumper sticker means "unfriendly to negroes." They know it. And the cats with the stickers know that they know it.

Yet cats are brought up in places that are imbued with world meanings long before they even get the gift of language. So a white kid that has no investment in racism, no resentment for non-white people, nevertheless comes up in the world of the dukes of hazzard, shotguns and hee haw. But this is the thing: I did too. Exactly the same place, just one neighborhood over. So these signs are part of my landscape and i move from baby to kid to teen just taking it all in. But then I get to high school where I finally learn a bit about the civil war. And I am like, whaaat? Those guys did what? And the totality of the war means nothing, i am rapt with just one detail. The fate of the brown people. Suddenly I look around and realize that I am attending Robert E. Lee High School. My homeboy goes to Nathan Forrest High. My other homie goes to Andrew Jackson. And then I feel the resentment, because my whole world is littered with icons of cats who hated me. Or didn't think enough of me to hate me. Not that the whole history of America is any different, but it is the veneration that I can't stand. They love these people as heroes. And I am like, heroes? You want the heroes here with you if possible. I don't want Nathan Forrest here with me. I don't want that name on my diploma.

So my world shifts. This knowledge sours the icons of my environment. And a neighborhood over, none of this means anything to my white counterpart. He learns about southern hospitality and the might of the confederacy. And these cats are his heroes. Then he gets all mad when I push the reminder. But I am all mad at his mode of existence. Which is pretty much the history of race relations in america anyway. Both of us are selective about the legacy. He picks out a lush forrest. But I don't see the beauty because there are hunters among the trees whose muskets are trained on me. And they are all I can see. Why can't he see them? Why can't he ... oh no, he just put the decal on his bumper.

Thus, I grow up suspicious of all grand claims to honor, goodness and fairness in the men of history. a neighborhood over, he grows up suspicious of me. The feeling is mutual. Across town, there are black kids playing in front of a statue of robert e lee. Little versions of me who will soon awaken to the hot mess that is the american racial landscape. The landscape is a bit like the statue itself: it may tarnish but it ain't moving. Lucky for us, we can check it from many different angles. Stand with me and look at it from here. I'll do the same for you.

Note: Thanks to the gangster Lea for pulling these thoughts out me.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Heritage and Hate

The Confederate Flag. The one above now flies proudly near tampa, fl. well, it would fly if it were not so heavy. Or limp. Maybe limp is the word.

I love to question cats about it. I mean, I am a philosopher and everything, questions are what I do. But I find that cats are quite resistant when it comes to the flag and would just as soon accuse me of some fanciful reverse discrimination as engage at the level of questions. So I have taken to pointing out a few facts of history.

The so called confederate flag was never flown to represent the CSA, nor was it the most popular flag of the confederacy. It actually isn't even the confederate battle flag (for the battle flag was was square and not rectangular, and anyway there were at least 180 other flags flown by confederate soldiers during battle). No, what they think is the battle flag is really the second confederate navy jack, a flag flown on a few measly ships, which made no appearance in any land battle.

The clown who claims "heritage, not hate" tends not to know any of this. They are then at a brief loss for words. That is when I get all ideological.

You say it is about heritage, but you don't know the full extent of this heritage, i say. I wonder if you can ever pick out any of the official flags of the CSA? It is cool to be down for states rights, i know. But one of the principle rights you wanted to protect was slave ownership. And by you, I mean the rich, landowning greedy people who swayed you into the war. But whatever, you lost the war, and it was so decisive that your enemy doesnt even exist anymore. People in the north, today, have no idea what a yankee is other than a member of a baseball team. I have students from the north who come down here and don't even understand what that flag means. But you clowns are over here talkin bout "the south will rise again." Rise against what? No, all that your belligerent flag display is about is the mourning of some imaginary lost glory. It is resentment over defeat. It is that same resentment that led your claimed ancestors to draft jim crow legislation. Which brings us to the issue of "not hate." Fact is, the defining marker of 'negroes ain't welcome' in any establishment is the presence of that flag. Put it on the signpost at a bar and magically it becomes a "whites only" bar. The one time in my life where i was attacked unprovoked by a a group of white men (well, other than every minute of my life), confederate flags graced the vehicles on which my instant enemies were chillin'. Now why do you think that is? Maybe my skin color was its own provocation.

But whatever, i know that you personally don't hate non-white southern people. You watch football after all. That's probably why you added "not hate" to the slogan in the first place. No, you just want to remind people who couldn't care less that you're still mad about a war that, had you won, would have allowed those of you that owned slaves to keep them. Oh, and it looks pretty sweet on top of an orange dodge charger. I feel you.

The south is my heritage too, by the way. I was born in a southern city where a massive bus boycott went down. A city where cats were beat down with water hoses and dogs in the streets. A city where a cat who now has a holiday named for him was arrested for parading without a permit when really, he was protesting the idea that people should be forced to drink the same water out of different fountains. When you think about it, these events were part of a kind of intra-southern civil war. Maybe I would fly a flag for this if there was one. But in absence of that, I just hold fast to the ideas that such a flag would represent. If you do the same for your flag, that might mean that you wish that boycott and related protests went differently than they did. In that case, I'm worried about our future together. But it's cool. At the end of days, my flag is just a fictional as yours.

Addendum: Hope i didn't straw man anybody. Just trying to get you to feel my status. Cause when I see that flag off I-75 I certainly feel yours.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Missionary Tale

A central theme in Okot p’Bitek’s African Religions in Western Scholarship is the imposition of Western categories and conceptual schemes on African life and thought. For instance, p’Bitek tells the story of the missionary efforts of Catholic priests on the Acholi people of Uganda in 1911. The priests asked the elders of the Acholi who it was that created them. Now, the Acholi language is called Luo and, on this account, it does not contain a word for create or creation. Nevertheless, the priests wanted an answer, and the question was eventually rendered “who is it that molded you?” The practical Acholi simply responded that this was a strange question, since human beings are born of their mothers. The priests were unsatisfied with this answer and pressed on. Apparently, an Acholi elder thought of what it must mean to be molded, and realized that one’s spine seems to be molded when he or she is afflicted with the ailment that we know as scoliosis. Now, the Acholi believed in forces known as the jogi. These forces or powers are seen to be the reasons for particular things that happen in Acholi life. It is a Jok (for this is the singular of jogi) called rubanga that is responsible for the affliction that we know as hunchback. The elder told the Catholics that it is rubanga who molds the Acholi people. The Priests, finally satisfied, went on to preach that “Rubanga was the Holy Father who created the Acholi.”[1]

Suppose someone told you this story and said, “But things are better now.” The content and tone of your follow up questions would reveal the angles of your status and the divisions between us would be set.

[1] Okot P’Bitek, African Religions in Western Scholarship (East African Literature Bureau, 1970) 62

Monday, August 18, 2008

Prelude to Heritage and Sickness

The most famous work of Ugandan literature is probably the late Okot p'Bitek's poem, The Song for Lawino. In this work, Lawino addresses her husband Ocol with regard to his unconditional love of European culture. She is not too happy about this affinity, which has caused him to convert to Christianity, learn vulgar european dances like the Waltz and take on a second wife who has a European name and affect. Fed up with his conduct, Lawino says to her husband:

Stop despismg us, my man, don't look down on us,
Africans have traditions that are good
Don't fool yourself that your ways are bad
African cultures are solid, not hollow,
Neither thin, nor weak, nor light.
But Ocol, although you have read up to university
You are big for nothing, you have no weight
You cannot guide us, addicted as you are
To copying foreign ways
As if your people have none of their own
We have lost trust in you.
Your loose tongue deserves silencing with a beating.
The cultures of other people I do not despise
Don't you look down upon your own
Occasional treats you can never depend upon
Don't uproot the cultures of your land.

Perhaps it was fitting in some poetic way that I first read this poem in p'Bitek's hometown of Gulu. But I kind of wish I hadn't read it before I fell ill.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Going to Africa? Read this.

Because, really, there is enough ass writing and ignorance about Africa.

One. This will tell you how to write.

Two. This will introduce you to a way of thinking. It is not a quick read, so make an evening out of it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

On Women's Health

I knew that I would learn a great deal about women’s health on this trip. I mean, yo, I am a journalist covering the work of midwives. But despite knowing vaguely the style of which I was going to be a part, I have been really surprised by much of what I have learned. This information is worth sharing.

On several outings as a boyfriend or general homie to girls, I have been to the “feminine” aisle at drug stores and super markets to purchase tampons or pads. I have always been amazed at the breadth and specificity of the varieties of products, but general man-aversion-to-girlie-things has seriously limited any passing interest. I mean, I don't know how double dutch works either. But now the midwives have hipped me to the game. (The tampon game. Double dutch is still a mystery.)

“Feminine products” present two problems. The first is the issue of their construction. The vast majority of tampons available for purchase are bright white, crispy white tee white. They can only be such a color as a result of being bleached with chlorine. But there is trouble. The residue left from this bleaching process still contains chlorine. Chlorine, when heated against the body releases dioxin gas, which is toxic. This gas absorbs into the body and ironically produces just those things that a menstruating cat wants less of; heavier flow and cramping. “Studies now show that exposure to dioxin gas leads to increased risk of cervical cancer and infertility,” says Rachel “Imagine that you spend one week out of every month placing this gas directly into the vaginal walls which have very absorbent mucous membranes, and you can see the issue. Tampon companies have tried to cover these statistics up for years. Heavier flow means heavier consumption of the product- so it’s no big surprise that the only counter studies to the fact that dioxin gas is extremely harmful to women’s reproductive health have been funded by the tampon companies themselves.” This problem is true for pads pretty much and tampons full throttle. The answer to this problem, then is to use unbleached products ("you can buy unbleached or chlorine free tampons at any health food store and with growing popularity at many drug stores"), which are a bit more expensive. I am assured however, that they are worth it. Pretty much all of my knowledge is second hand on this matter.

The next issue arises in terms of the cost of this style. In Uganda, for instance, the average income of a woman is massively low, so much so that many women are put in a position of having to choose between food and western menstrual products. It is a bad situation, but it underlines the basic truth that pads and such take income away from women. Along this line, the disposability of these products and the kind of sanitized way that they are advertised seem to perpetuate the highly suspect notion that menstruation is something dirty. (At least that is how it looks from Chaz’s-man-land.) Perhaps it is this sense of uncleanness that prevents women from considering reusable pads. The midwives began a venture with the child mothers of st. Monicas school for girls called the moon project. Since pads are so expensive to order for 300 girls, and since their disposal clogs the plumbing at the school (Rachel says: “most trash is burned as a means of disposal, but due to the belief that burning menstrual blood makes one infertile, most women won’t burn their pads, thereby creating a large sanitary issue in a country that has no landfills.”), Olivia proposed a solution that consisted of cloth pads of her own design. The girls of the school, who are all studying to be tailors, sewed their own pads out of gangster african fabric and terry-cloth. The pads are slim and sleek and button underneath the underwear to form ‘wings’. They also gathered “moon-buckets,” which can contain the water that the pads will soak and be washed in during moon time. These pads last for two years. The girls of the school will also sell the moon pads to women in northern Uganda. Such a move creates work for the girls and presents any moon project patron with stupid savings on pads. Like two months worth of income. Seriously. But while women tend to hold more scrill points in the states, I do wonder why I never see commercials for reusable pads, or why I have only heard just now about The Keeper, a reusable tampon-ish cup that rests against the cervix during menstruation.

Yeah, so it seems to me that the tampon game has question marks all over it. Though not nearly as many as the phenomenon of birth in western obstetrics. I will have audio on this issue produced soon, but if you hit up a bookshop check out Birth as an American Right of Passage, by Robbie Davis Floyd. Also Misconceptions by Naomi Wolfe. Also Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christine Northrop.

Yeah. So the next time you ask me to hit the shop and get you tampons, I might come back with the unbleached style. Don’t be mad at me.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Reflections on Awareness

Saw a tour bus headed to an idp camp the other day. Got mad and wrote this.

There is an activity that caring, conscience but sometimes ignorant cats have been known to engage in. It is called “raising awareness.” Raising awareness, insofar as ignorance is always bad, is a good thing. But it is not unconditionally good. There are many difficulties with the pop phenomenon of awareness. The first is the commodification of awareness, which strikes me as the unfortunate failure that comes with success. Then there is the periphery of horror; the gap in indispensable knowledge that many campaigns for raising awareness unwittingly create. It is a horror because these crucial dark spaces often damage the thing that people are out to help. This particular problem encompasses even the methods by which people try to raise awareness. Like going on a bus tour of an IDP Camp.

I know it is cool to let cats know that you Live Strong! or to rock pink ribbons that show your love of healthy boobs. But some breast cancer officials say that breast cancer researchers don’t need pink ribbons. People know about breast cancer. They know more about it than they do lung cancer, which kills more women per year. They don’t need walks for breast cancer, much of the proceeds of which underwrite the walking event itself. What breast cancer researchers need is checks. But cats who rock lab research are a special case of cool, since the methodology is (mostly) laid out. They know what they need to do. The rules of the natural sciences keep them safe, more or less. But in the case of cats who are on the struggle for skills or snacks it is not as easy as you rolling up with supplies and passing those shits out. The number of complications are unfathomable. And it is ignorance of just this fact, the naive belief that care and cash will make everything better that just royally fucks shit up. Tell you a story. Let’s see if you can tell how it ends.

A while back, cats figured that HIV infected mothers in Africa (because Africa is just one big mysterious place and not a bunch of countries that were crudely and aggressively thrown together by Europeans with no consideration to tribal location, migration, or rivalry) were passing on HIV through breast feeding. So then people were like, mobilize! Save Africa! And started passing out substitute breast juice. But cats in the major affected area didn’t really have clean drinking water to mix this new baby drink into. So then their babies just started dying straight up. The aid program made shit worse because it missed a crucial detail about the environment in which it was trying to spread love. You see what I mean about that lacuna, about that gap in awareness? That’s the periphery of horror. These cats were just aware enough to accelerate a process of death in the name of their care.

Already I can hear a self righteously dissonant voice say: “At least they’re trying to help!” This refrain is as familiar as it is ridiculous. I suppose that implicit in this locution is the moral condemnation of a populace that is very often not moved to caring action. In this manner, it is often uttered as a self reprimand that deifies the seemingly awesome actions of others as it defends against critical attacks upon them. Thing is, this criticism, properly applied, is also a way of helping. People who want to “help” need to know above all how easily they can fuck things up. In addition, it may in fact be the case that those ethereal aid workers you love so much aren’t helping at all and it is just your ‘they can do no wrong’ defense that keeps the planet blind to the style. The bottom line here is that we should be critical of everything. Of efforts to help, of our own need to defend, of our own motivations, everything. If we are going to criticize senate bills that claim to help Americans, then we should criticize the fuck out of Westerners who want to roll up into foreign lands bearing gifts. We should criticize the fuck out of natives in foreign lands who welcome this help with uncritically open arms. And they should listen intently.

And please give up this notion that you are good on your helping mission because your guide or fellow missionary is one of the natives. This beef I am describing is not about race or ethnicity; it is about ideology. When a woman told me one day that her ex-boyfriend, “who is darker than you, Chioke,” didn’t have a major problem with cats flying the Confederate battle flag, it struck me that she thought his claim had equal or greater weight than my own stance for no other reason than his being black like me. Yeah. It doesn’t work like that. Anybody can hold a damaging or ignorant interpretation. Anybody can fail to establish context or locate their place in the grand scheme. And above all, anybody can be made to sell out. Remember what Kunta Kinte said…

So yeah. Don’t roll up in Africa with no knowledge of colonialism. Don’t think that the fact that all of these African natives have European or straight up American names is cool. Because that shit is problematic. Don’t act like the genocide in Rwanda was in no way exacerbated by colonial and missionary power moves that arbitrarily divided ethnic groups according to property ownership. Because that would be a misattribution of historical causes. Don’t neglect the mountain of anthropological literature on the problems of representation and cultural contact in favor of a late night infomercial about naked starving kids. Because that would be letting your suspect emotional response win out over your rationality. You, like everybody else in the world, are attached to a historical style that conditions your actions even when you are ignorant of it. Come on. Google that shit.

Don’t raise awareness without raising history and its problems. That sediment is deep and it is covered over by good intentions and the dirty, fly-covered faces of children.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Chaz Maddoc: Killer of Sheep.

As the day progressed, a headache slowly pulled down the halo of restfulness that came with the morning. Over breakfast, I talked with the midwives about their projects for the day and speculated once again about a group of visitors that arrived the day before. Yesterday when I met them, They referred to themselves as being on a pilgrimage to Uganda. I thought about what this term meant for a bus full of Americans with cameras. I decided that I would ask personally, and went out to the gathered group with my microphone. I walked up to the only African-American male in the group and asked to take his audio. He was a really nice guy. Mad chill. Easy to talk to. I asked him about the nature of is trip, about his experience traveling through Uganda, about the intersection of religion and colonialism. His answers were honest, thoughtful and frustrating. They made me think about bell hook’s claim that black americans need to tap their "killing rage." Often, it seems, we don’t appear to be very pissed at various racial and colonial injustices, though deep down many of us are. This pisstivity, properly channeled, might allow more productive action instead of placing a lot of us squarely in the non-reflective, materialistic herd. These thoughts stayed with me as I hit the market with Rachel, took pictures for Olivia, and yapped with the nuns in the kitchen. Eventually, I found myself on the couch in the computer room, clutching my aching dome. Then Rachel rolled up like, yo, its time, they are looking for you. I followed her to the area behind the cauldron-filled semi-outdoor kitchen. There, two men were skinning a goat that they had hung in a tree. They took it down and grabbed a live goat. They suppressed its screaming protests and held it down on the ground with its neck over a metal bowl. I gripped a dull knife in my hand. My heartbeat began to race a bit, just like when I am on the starting line at the race track. Do it, they said, and I sawed away at the goat’s neck, watching as the blade broke the skin and then the throat. Blood rushed into the bowl and splattered a bit upon my legs and hand. The goat was now half decapitated and dead. The men lifted it up onto the tree for skinning. In just a little while, it would be dinner.

During the slaughter, I said no prayer and gave no thanks to the spirits for its life. I did not think to cast my sins or problems into this animal before offering it as a sacrifice. Its just as well, I thought. I don’t want my snacks to take the rap for my problems. For better or worse, I want the rage to stay right here with me.

Note: Today’s blog title (Killer of Sheep) is taken from an old school film that you should watch. I haven’t been able to find it yet, so let me know if any of you cats get it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

True Experiences and Impressions in the Fictional Space of a Day

Gulu. It is a city that feels the echoes of modernization, of European architecture and style. Boda bodas, small 125cc motorcycles, dominate sometimes dirt, sometimes paved streets as they weave between a few cars and pedestrians on their way to their destinations. 500 shillings will get you a ride to nearly anywhere in the city, but you ladies must ride side saddle so as not to upset the moral order or the curves of your dress. If the base color of New York City is gray, Gulu’s color is the almost-red of the dirt that tracks everywhere on the bottoms of vehicle tires and feet. There is a market at the center of the city. Here, you will find fine African fabrics sold by women who sit diligently by foot driven sewing machines, ready to fashion any yard of cloth into a tailored article of clothing. Travel further into the market, over its crudely constructed rooftops, and you will find all the grains and vegetables that are the staples of northern Uganda. The meat for sale belonged to a living creature earlier in the morning. Inspect it; perhaps we will eat beef stew tonight.

Out on the street, check the demographic. Mostly slender, dark-skinned figures make their way chillfully around the town. Most men shave their hair close and many women keep very small afros (when they are not done up in braided extensions). Styles such as this cut down on the cost of hair products and overheating when the sun is at its height in the summer. Perhaps the first covered head you will see will belong to a nun making her way to a nearby church or a Catholic school for young children. Most likely, she will be able to talk to you in fluent Italian as well as her native Acholi, among other languages. Gulu, like much of Norther Uganda, is mostly Catholic. Priests from Italy were among its first missionaries and many of its religious officials studied in Italy. Missionaries and religious people from Europe and America walk around through the market, into popular muzungo hangouts, into churches, into the offices of aid organizations. You will probably think Gulu is all Christian until you hear the call for prayer from the loudspeaker of a nearby Mosque. Maybe if you search hard you will find explicit Acholi religious practices. Let me know if you find any.

On the streets and at the school I am a bit of an aberration. An American, but black. And with hair. I have been asked if I am a musical artist, a Rasta, the son of Bob Marley, a Catholic. But I am none of these things. I am just a guy with a microphone, really. Not even that sometimes. Natives and foreigners are surprised to hear that I do not smoke weed. Nuns are surprised to hear that I do not drink. I am surprised at the prevalence of images of White Jesus. In the morning, I slip on some shorts and a shirt that I had made. My white tees have turned orange with dust, so I am rocking a different color and design over my chest piece. At breakfast I eat Chapati and mango marmalade. I sip tea. I record some audio of the midwives conducting a story circle. Then I jet. In a bar I hear American R&B and hip hop. I wonder about message of crass materialism in places that are low on materials as I shoot pool and sip Fanta with some newfound friends.

At lunch, a kid introduced to me as a former child soldier asks me if I have heard of Bolo Yeung. I think about classifications, and how this kid’s past status is so much larger than student, or Acholi, or human being, for he seems to be all of these things currently. I wonder if he would ever introduce himself as others have. Like, yo, stranger, identify me first and foremost by the trauma I have suffered and the killing I was forced to do. Somehow, I think he would rather be known, at least by me, as a cat who digs kung fu movies. Out on the street, I see a cluster of missionaries. Since I am not white, they look past me and for once in my life I am thankful for my invisibility. Then I think harder about what this invisibility, this “condition of the inner eye”, as Ellison writes, might mean for the cats those missionaries may be headed for and feel bad for ever giving thanks for such a thing. Back at the school, in a makeshift office set up next door to my sleeping spot, I cut audio, listen to Killah Priest, and read A Song for Lawino. I swat at mosquitoes.

At dinner, I eat cassava, salad, rice and beans. The nuns inform me that I and another American will be killing a goat in a few days. Afterward I watch addictive Nigerian soap operas on tv in the main house. As the credits roll, I look for my name, as it too is Nigerian. I do not see it. As night has fallen, I go outside and stare at the sky. Once again, for some reason, I think about that damn line from Pascal: The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. I get on the net in the nuns’ office but the net is not up. When I lay down to sleep I think of my friends back home and wonder how they are doing. I think of my projects. I think also of my bike and how 250ccs is considered a large displacement here. The power, of the whole city perhaps, goes out. Then the darkness takes me. The dreams I can remember have not been pleasant. But the sleep is restful.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Great North Road

The midwives were to return to Atiak to begin their training with the birth attendants there. We no longer had a guide, so we took one of the sisters' trucks. It is European style; the steering wheel was on the right side of the cabin. We are in a country that keeps left on the road. It was a stick shift, but the stick was not on he floor where it really, really should have been. Instead there was a lever sticking out of the steering column. If not for the clutch down below, I would have mistaken this car for an automatic. But there are no automatics in Uganda, save for the Hummers that the financially unrealistic drive down in Kampala. So I had much to learn on this, my first voyage onto the African roads in the drivers seat. The clutch lever made no sense. It had no readout indicating its gear and I had gotten no briefing about its fearing. I simply had to figure it out. Which was awesome, cause I couldn't find reverse and the maiden movement of the vehicle was on the need to get moving and the strength of Rachel and Olivia, who pushed the truck onto the driveway.
It had rained the night before and the trenches in the road were to a great extent filled with water, which meant that loose dirt was mud and puddles were hiding deceptively deep potholes. More like cauldron holes. I remember thinking that, if it were raining, we would not even attempt this journey. Which meant that these were in fact as bad as conditions could possibly be for the trip. Great. We got gas and tapped the road.
During the war, this particular stretch was as unsafe as a road could be. Cars unprotected by military escort would be ambushed, its occupants robbed, abducted or killed. As night began to fall thousands of children, who came to be called night walkers, would travel the road from various villages and the bush into downtown Gulu where they would find places to sleep. They did this in order to avoid abduction. Many were not so lucky. Girls who were taken were raped. Those girls and their children now make up much of the resident student body at St. Monica’s. Boys were quite involuntarily drafted, forced, as Talib Kweli says, to fight a war they can’t outrun.
Since I have been here, I have met and spoken with both child mothers and former child soldiers. From the cabin of the truck, it was difficult if not impossible to imagine such a status, mainly because I was trying desperately not to hit the people walking on the side of the road. While I managed this alright, I did not exactly leave them untouched. On occasion, I would inadvertently steer the car into a puddle and splash a passerby. I could hear my scolding over even the roar of the engine. In Uganda, there is a fine for vehicles that splash pedestrians. Too bad my getting away with it is not the condition for a clear conscience.
As the morning wore on, I got a bit better at working the gears of the truck. Most notably I became skilled at downshifting, as slowing to a near crawl was very often necessary to navigate a particularly uneven and treacherous section of road. But my skills all fell to nothing shortly after I was waved down by soldiers.
As a point of fact, I was not actually waved down. The soldiers were merely requesting that I stop and speak to them, a request that I did not have to heed. But we were too slow on the buttons to realize this and soon found ourselves asked by these soldiers for a ride to the next village. Rachel explained that we were in a hurry to get to Atiak and could not take on passengers. The commanding soldier asked if perhaps we could just carry some women and children and their supplies. This question was followed by the deepest collective sigh that one can imagine. My total number of passengers then increased by 15. Babies. Pregnant women. My driving skills. The Great North Road. This was some bullshit charles.
When we reached the next village, I was at the height of my general stress index. So when the women got out of the truck and removed their things, I was thankful. And when soldiers then put their supplies and guns in the back of the truck, I was once again at the limit break. Rachel tried to explain that we would not be taking on any more passengers. The soldiers ignored and hopped right on.
As I caught a glimpse of an RPG leaned up against the back window, I thought about my step father. He was in the army during WWII and, as was the general style for black men in the army at that time, he was a driver, a cat who transported arms and sometimes troops in the back of a truck. But to have it happen to my own neck, I thought, is ridiculous.
Finally, we reached Atiak. The midwives conducted an awesome training session. I realized how much of an honor it was that I could even be around to witness this stuff. Rachel and Olivia are doing good work, conscious work that is sensitive to and encouraging of the styles of the people here. They are the future mixed with that Sankofa style in a time when other outsiders are rocking garbage conversions and western ultimatums.
Fortunately, we were not hailed down on the way back, though we did carry a few traditional birth attendants with us. This, however, is the only fortune that we had. The Great North Road is quite narrow in some sections, such that one vehicle cannot pass without another pulling to the side a bit and waiting. This is especially true for massive vehicles, like the supply truck headed toward me. In neutral with my foot on the break, a massive vehicle slowly passed by. From the back, Olivia suggested that I pull up a bit more. From the passenger seat, Rachel said that this may not be a good move since there was a muddy trench to the left that it would just suck to get stuck in. Perhaps it was the sound of their voices that convinced the road beneath us to give way, sinking the truck into that trench where we got stuck.
Eventually, with a little help from the drivers of another truck and my on the spot discovery of reverse, we got out and back onto the road. The girls were muddy and I was quite tired. There was still quite a long way to go. I wonder how much worse this trip could get, I thought. I wonder what other horrible style could go down and make me feel even worse than I do now. Then one of the Acholi midwives in the back of the truck leaned over the side and began to vomit.
By the time we got back to St. Monica’s, I had the worst headache of my life. I wanted nothing to do with the world and couldn’t even hear Rachel and Olivia’s expressions of appreciation for driving that suck road. I simply went to my room and laid down. The road had beaten me. I answered the call and was punished for it.
This road might just not be the kind of thing that one can conquer. It is fraught with pitfalls and winds its way through deep sorrow and struggle. Its travelers have the strength to endure it, but sometimes not the ability or knowledge to extract themselves from its historical and practical meaning. Yeah, I thought. This road is like colonialism itself. Perhaps it was this thought that brought me to tears under the drooping bug net in my room. Or maybe it was the headache.
Back at the main house, Rachel and Olivia told the nuns of our journey. “That truck is hopeless,” one of the nuns said. “By far the worst vehicle for traveling.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Prelude to the Great North Road

I first learned about the call half way through a forest in Ocala a couple years back. I was on a mountain bike, following my homie through some of the worst terrain I could imagine at the time. Around every turn I would fall. I lacked the strength to ride up most of its hills. And I was overcome with fear when it came time to descend. I left the bicycle course bruised and upset. It wasn’t even fun. But when it came time to decide if I would ride it again, for real this time, I chose to do so. I rode that hellish course again, more than once even. Yeah, I pedaled this madness because of the call. There are many times in life when one feels the call of a path. It is most often figurative, like a particular choice in life or some such. But for me and many others, the call to the path is more literal. I experience a deep need to travel this road. For I do not want to do it. There is something in this. The vulgar masculinity that drives me to want to conquer. The humanity that drives me to endure. The thirst for adventure, perhaps. But believe that it is a need. When I was out there on the mountain bike course, the path taunted me. When I am out on the R1, the road invites me. And here in Africa… Well, I cannot tell which. Perhaps it is something much deeper.

The Great North Road to Atiak made quite an impression o n me when I first traveled it as a passenger. I remembered thinking that, if not for the dedication of the people with whom I was traveling, I would not be here, on this trip, prepared to document what was coming. . This thought was a quiet expression of frustration with the road itself. Fifty miles of dirt road, traveled in two hours. And this dirt is not packed. Rainwater had long ago carried off many parts of the road, leaving massive ridges and craters all over. They do not let up. There are no moments of peace; at every moment you are jarred within the cabin of your vehicle. There is no significant stretch in which you are in a high gear exclusively. No, the Great North Road is great only because of its overall length, for it stretches from Cape Town to Cairo. But this stretch is no fun at all. Not even a little bit. On this journey one passes many people. Women returning from the fields. Children returning from school. Workers and nurses headed to Sudan. The mud huts that comprise IDP camp. There are hitchhikers. There are cars and Boda Bodas honking from behind trying to get by. And along the side of the road are just a few cars that did not have the power to complete their journeys. Some lay on their sides, wrecked. Others simply sit on the side of the road broken down. This road, I thought, was the roughest I had ever seen. So when I had the chance to drive it myself, I took it without hesitation. Looking back, perhaps this was a bad idea.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Visit to Atiak

22 years ago, Atiak was a chill Acholi Village. The last town you would pass on your way to Sudan, the southern border of which lies just 22 miles north. Because of this location, however, it was the first place that the Lord’s Resistance Army descended upon during the war. One day in 1995, the LRA stormed the village. The separated the pregnant women and children from everyone else, the prelude to massacre. They killed 250 men and women and set the town ablaze. The town was devastated. Over the course of the war, Atiak was unsafe. Which meant that aid organizations like the world food program could not deliver supplies. Those who remained in the town, much like any who lived along the Great North Road between Kampala and Gulu, were constantly subject to fresh raids and abductions.
In 2006, the war finally subsided. In an effort to curb defection, the LRA moved further out into the bush, into the Congo. Finally, the great north road became safe to travel without police or military escort. The world food program has been there for the last six months.
But Atiak is no longer a village, really. It is an IDP camp, a place for those who were displaced from their homes by the war. Women work hard at raising children and working in the fields, gathering what food they can to supplement the WFP. Most of the men are deadbeats who just hang out all day. This is not the traditional Acholi way, I am told.
One day, I accompanied the midwives to Atiak. We were taken by Lam, an Atiak native with links to St. Monica’s. We arrived for a night meeting with the town officials and retired to the Safari Hotel, which is made up of two mud huts covered by bamboo roofs. Atiak is dark. There is no electricity. There is not even light on the horizon from some other city. At the meeting with the elders I could not see the faces of people who were sitting right next to me. Such darkness on land made the perfect settings for light in the sky. Which was so full of stars I had trouble believing that it was the same sky into which I gaze back in Tampa. So I told Lam that I might like to go on a walk from the hotel and check out the sky. He said that this would be inadvisable. There may be people who wish me harm, he said, and the only way it would be safe to travel is if he accompanied me, since he knew the language and was well known in the town.
I heard this and thought about that song that comes on the radio back home incessantly, the one about the dude who wants to take a girl on the tour of the slums, like yo, “as long is you’re with me, baby, you’ll be alright.” Like there is some underlying romance in this idea. Then I thought about the people of Atiak and the crap they have gone through. I thought of Lam, who has dedicated his life to improving this place, to giving his people a future, and finally, of Sean Kingston whose highest ambition is to impress girls by taking them on a tour of places like Atiak. What a stupid song.