Wednesday, September 30, 2009

To Diré

On my visit back to Tombouctou, at my mother's behest I traveled to Diré with my 6-year old to pay my respects to my grandfather. I use that phrase intentionally; he had been too remote during my childhood, and, on the few occasions I'd had contact with him, too authoritarian, for me to love him much. Diré is to the SW of Tombouctou, in the more populated part of Mali; very unlike the North which is so empty of people even Michael Fay hasn't overflown it yet – and he flew over all of Africa. Diré is at a bend in the river Niger upstream from Korioumé, where we had boarded the boat. If Naipaul hadn't set his book elsewhere, he could have set in Diré.

As we had boarded, the whole crowd had been subdued – the Ivory Coast had just eliminated us 3-0 in some run-up to the World Cup. Even the smelly goats seemed chastened. When we eventually squeezed in, I was discomfited by the closeness of the benches, one knee was scrunched up against the seat-back in front, my other knee was sticking out into the aisle and M was sitting on it. That leg was preventing me from falling into the aisle from my half-place, offered to me by my neighbor in spite of my not having made the slightest move to ask for it - I hadn't even seen it. She slid inwards, squeezing against her neighbor, who budged a bit and shrugged his shoulders apologetically. It brought to mind the airport shuttle in Chicago on my way here – more than 20 seats, but 5 large people and their duffels occupying two seats each left no place for us. You do the math.

"Smelly goats." 15 years ago, before I'd left, I would never have used that superfluous adjective; smell was the sea I swam in. Now I was drowning in it. I caught myself warily inspecting the surrounding people, suspicious of people ever after I had been ripped off by the Tuareg cabbie in my own hometown, who'd said only two words so derisively to me when I'd sat down with my luggage, “Green card?”. I was reminded of a saying my Indian friend at grad school would repeat on Friday evenings in Madison bars, “The washerman's dog belongs neither at the riverbank nor at home.”. I was envious of the Spanish photographer who seemed so obviously at ease, so delighted to be here: all smiles, clicking away, lending her digital SLR to a young boy who had shyly asked her questions. “Sonia Villegas”, her card read; her photographs hadn't sold yet but she had a following on the web.

Soon M was off my knee – the goat's knobby head between her knees had provided diversion for a good while. She went squeezing through the crowds with the goatherd's son to look at the light brown water, both of them dangling their heads and shoulders through the unprotected railings. She was excited, looking for hippos in the river though I had explained that if at all, they were likely only upstream, in the smaller tributaries. She insisted, “But I saw a photo in Panoramio, Daddy, I saw it, further towards the ocean.” “You mean back towards Tombouctou?” “No! The other way!” Futilely, I tried a last time, “Darling, there aren't any hippos in Mali anymore, maybe upriver in Guinea.” “But I saw them!” She had learned just before our departure from Madison that our country was named after the hippos, and once here, I had had to curtail, at a total of 10, her collection of 5-franc coins with the hippo on the back. In the week we had been here, she had picked up some words from her cousins and was now communicating happily with the goatherd's son. M, who had never learned a single word of Bambara in the US, who had rejected my fraught attempts to teach her, who had found complicity in the laughter of her mother - my ex, who never learned to say even my name right.

At Diré, as we pulled in to dock, the goatherd pulled out a cell-phone and began to haggle over the price of his goats.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dear Miss Manners

Dear Miss Manners, Some years ago, before an impending visit from my sister-in-law, I asked for your opinion on a most divisive and tendentious matter that would always ruin our family's Thanksgiving and Christmas reunions - namely, whether toilet paper rolls should be hung with the loose end against the wall or hanging free in front. I don't recall your answer, but I was proven right. Thank you for having brought peace to our family gatherings.

After all these years, the above-mentioned sis-in-law is finally again going to lend her presence to a family gathering and I fear another important and potentially contentious issue coming up: Should you serve yourself butter by scraping with the knife across the top of a stick in the butter-dish (my opinion) or slice a piece off the end (her unbelievable and unsupported opinion!)?

Lonely Cougar in Amherst, NY

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Behind The Lies - Political satire song

I haven't recorded this yet, but here is the get-up: Large, beefy, white midwestern male, wrap-around shades, camo/baseball hat, obscure insignia on black jacket - kind of the Blackwater mercenary or CIA contractor look. Looking for volunteers.

1) Notebook, to be prominently displayed in the middle of the second stanza, titled "Detainee # 4519 - Actionable Intelligence"
2) Plier, preferably bloody, ideally with fake nail in teeth
3) Salivated bandanna used as gag piece
4) Baton - policeman's, not cheerleader's

To be sung, ominously, to the tune of The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" :


No one knows what it's like
to be the bad cop
To be the sad cop
behind the lies.
No one knows what it's like
To be hated, to be fated to hearing only lies.

But your screams, they aren't as empty
As my notebook seems to be.
I have hours, Oh my lovely
Torture is vengeance
There’s never peace.

You don’t know what it's like
To have your nails pulled, like I’ll do to you
and I blame you!
You can bite as hard as you want
on your gag-piece
None of your blood and guts can fall through.

Father’s dreams, they weren't as empty
As Geneva Convention seems to be
We have hours not so lonely
Torture is freedom,
which is never free.

When your fist clenches, I’ll crack it open
Before I lose it and use my tool.
When I smile, you’ll know it's bad news
Because I’ll laugh and watch you drool.

And if you tell me anything actionable
I won’t put my finger down your throat.
And if you shiver, I’ll give you a blanket
Keep you warm, let you wear my coat.

You don’t know what its like
To be mistreated, subjugated.
Don’t be telling lies!
You don’t know how to say
That you're sorry, but don't worry
I’ll stop you telling lies.

And your screams, in a room as empty
As your future seems to be.
I’ll have had hours, Oh so lovely
Torture is terror
There’s never peace.

You don’t know what it's like to be the bad cop
To be the sad cop
behind the lies.