Friday, December 22, 2017

First Day of Winter

First Day of Winter

Daylight has peeled pale bracelets
into the bark of the dogwood tree.

My daughter boards a flight to Buffalo
taking her children to their roots for the holidays.

Congress has just passed a bill giving tax cuts
to those who already hold the country’s wealth.

Squirrels scrounge for black walnuts
buried in the corpses of the daylilies.

Outside my window a woman waiting for a bus
paces the sidewalk talking to the sky.

On a highway in rural Mexico
a school bus somersaults killing ten children.

I stare into space after  words
that disappeared from sentence I was about to speak.

In Norwich 600 years ago Juliana held a hazelnut
containing  everything that has been made.

I will never make sense of this life.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Our Connection to The Wizard of Oz

      Anyone who knows anything about our family knows that my mother was born in South Dakota.  Mom’s great-grandfather, Michael Ryman came to Dakota Territory in the early 1880’s and settled near the town of Warner just a few miles south of Aberdeen in Brown  County.  When the Ryman’s arrived, Aberdeen was little more than a train stop.
     I am reading a book by David Laskin called The Children’s Blizzard that tells the true story of one of the most unexpected blizzards in American history.  It took place in 1888 and hit the Dakotas especially hard.  Laskin tells that the family of L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz, moved to a farm just a few miles above Aberdeen and Baum lived there in the early 1800s when the Rymans arrived.  For a while Baum tried his hand at a variety of stores in Aberdeen and failed miserably before eventually moving to Chicago where he wrote his famous book.
     Everyone who has ever seen the movie of The Wizard of Oz remembers the line where Dorothy says, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”  The funny thing is that Baum himself had never ever been to Kansas.  The descriptions that he made of Kansas in the book actually were memories that he had written about Brown County in the summer of 1888, “Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the log blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.”  What he was describing wasn’t Kansas but the neighborhood of our Ryman ancestors.   That is something to think about the next time I watch The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Help Me With This Story

I've been trying to work on this story for a while and it just doesn't seem to want to go anywhere...though it seems like it should.  So in the tradition of crowd sourcing, I am family sourcing. If you have time to read through what I've started (which, granted, isn't much) here is what I'd like help with. (1) Do you think it is worth working on further or do you think I should just cut my losses and try something else. (2) What are your thoughts about the direction the story should take? In other words, what do you think comes next. I'd like your ideas.  I'm also open for any editorial suggestions about what is already here.


John woke, opened his eyes and wondered who he was going to be today.  Light creeping in around the shades revealed that the old wooden clock on the wall was still there and as his eyes created shape from the darkness he recognized everything in the place where it had been when he’d closed his eyes.  The open closet with his clothes on hangers below the wall clock and the book shelves that his son had built for him years ago in the indented space beside it where his eyes rested as he lay in bed were still there.  So, when he turned his head, were the dresser and the dilapidated plant shelf that he brought in for the winter.
The difference was rarely anything he could spot immediately, though for a series of days, he had woken to realize that he was living in a foreign country and, for another stretch of time, that the president of the United States was also the Grandmaster of the KKK. Most of the time, though, it took him awhile to figure out what was different.  One day, he had the constant memory of having taught at a school where records of his employment revealed that he had actually never worked.  Another time in conversation with his wife, he was referring to an episode from his childhood where his parents had taken him to Yosemite, only to have his wife remind him that this memory was from a story he had written and had not actually ever occurred.  Today, was more like that. At first light, there was no crack in the cosmos.

John went into the kitchen and grabbed a mug off of the rack of cups on the counter.  It was glossy and black with white letters saying, DRINK ME,” a joke gift from his daughter who’d picked it up in the airport on one of their excursions, Dubai or Florence maybe.
            “This is for you – for first thing in the morning,” she’d said.  It wasn’t because of a reputation for being an early morning grouch. In fact, John was more of an early riser, but at one point he had tried explaining to her his sensations of never waking up the same person. The cup was her faux solution.  “Strong black coffee, first thing, will bring you back to reality.”
            John liked to think of the cup in another way.  He imagined all of the images and ideas in his head swirling around, the rush that seemed to change from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment even on those days when everything seemed outwardly banal.  Despite the amount of writing that his work required of him he could never make the ideas come out in any rational form on the printed page in ways that were not stiff and clichéd. Attempts to verbally explain what he was trying to sort out were even more hopeless.  He felt as though the words pouring out of his mouth were those of a ten-year old.  The command of the bold white letters on the cup’s black background made him fantasize that the swirling black liquid he drank were all those thoughts, and when he took in their deep caffeine there would be not only that easing of the muscles and loosening of mental clouds, but a kind of clarification distilled in his mind by the hot liquid. 
            When John turned back towards the table from filling his coffee cup, a man was sitting at the kitchen table. His hair was gray and straggly, his face nearly round.  The aura he gave off was of a man out of his time.  He was dressed as though ready to play a part in a nineteenth century biopic of the American mid-west, but what he wore was clearly not costume. It was his everyday clothing. John was used to slight shifts in the fabric of his world, but this was unusual.  He knew instantly, though, that this was someone to whom he was related.
            “You got more of that coffee?” the man asked.
            John reached over and grabbed a mug off of the tree.  He opened the top of the Keurig and popped in an innocuous morning blend and pressed the button.  When the brown liquid finished pouring out, he turned back around and handed it to his visitor. “I guess I’m supposed to know who you are.”
            “Henry,” the man said. “Your grandfather. That’s a fast cup of coffee.”
            “My grandfather was Frederick.”
            “Not that one. Three generations back. Henry Mueller.”
            “Oh.” John said, recognizing the name. “Why –“
            “The same reason as you’re here.  I woke up this morning and here I am.  This is the furthest, though.”  Henry’s speech carried with it the definite accent of her person whose first language was German.
            “What are you talking about,” John hedged.
            “You know…it’s never the same.”


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Second Time Around

As most of you know my daughter Maya is getting married in September - September 9 to be specific. In the spirit of George Santayana admonition, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" she has been thinking about thinking ahead about how going into this marriage will be different different from the first and posted the following blog in her Lilies and Elephants forum.

Learning From My Past, As I Head Into My Future

Yesterday, July 10th, was my former wedding anniversary. Thirteen years ago I walked down the aisle in a ballgown dress with six bridesmaids, seven groomsman, and approximately 200 guests. The wedding was fabulous. Basically my entire family on both sides flew in from out of town, some for whom I know it was a stretch time wise and financially. It meant the world to me, truly. The room was filled with people we'd each known over the past 24 years, many that we hadn't seen in years. It was a grand scale event that I became so wrapped up in planning that, in hindsight, I realized I was more focused on the wedding itself than the next 50 or so years of married life ahead.  But at 24 years old and one of the first of my friends to get married, that's what I did.

I think I knew, or at least had a nagging feeling, walking down the aisle that I was making a mistake. But I'm a dreamer, with my head often in the stars, and I thought I was being unrealistic wanting more than I had - a good-hearted, steady, reliable man who loved me and wanted to spend his life with me. I thought it should be enough. As it turns out, it was not. We were not, as a couple. Had it, no doubt my life would be drastically different than it is today. There are moments when I think about how my life changed course on January 24, 2007, the day we decided to split. But I have no regrets. It was the best decision for us both. I believed it then, and I haven't doubted it a day since.

In part, I think I simply wasn't ready for any of it. Some people know exactly who they are and what they want at 24 years old. I was not one of those people. I didn't realize that at the time, of course - I took the route I always expected I would. College, full time job, grad school, marriage, house, plan for a family. It wasn't until the "plan for a family" part began that I realized how unready for this life I was. It's funny how one day you can wake up and discover "this is really going to be the rest of my life if I do nothing about it right now." You'd think vows such as "for as long as we both shall live" said in front of 200 people including a priest would do that. But for whatever reasons, it didn't. It was the startling realization that I could be someone's mother, that if we had a child he would always be their father, and that we'd be inextricably tied forever in that way, no matter what else happened in our lives, individually and as a couple.  It occurred to me then how little we'd talked about the details, the actual realities instead of the "one day"s. It felt almost like a reverse Truman Show  - like a story that I played a part in, and suddenly it became clear that it was my life. We had moved along the path in front of us. We had never questioned if it was the path we should be following.

Today, I'm just under two months from my wedding (it's two months from this past Sunday, but who's counting). I am almost 38 years old and have lived a lot of life since my last wedding. I know it's given me experience. I believe, or at least hope, it's given me wisdom. Now, my fiance and I talk about the little details, plan for the actualities of the future. Things as minor as interrupting our (very food motivated) dog while she's eating, playfully tugging at her ears and tail to make sure she doesn't mind, in case a future child did the same. We discuss the larger aspects of life and the minutia, having a plan, yet being able to go with the flow (OK the go with the flow is just him, I practically plan out my underwear a week in advance). We thing of the what ifs, even the unlikely ones. We have the difficult discussions now, so that we don't have to confront startling differences we never realized were there when a situation arises. We may not always agree, but we have learned where each other stands, and how to compromise where we must. We dream together, but also confront the facts. I certainly am no expert in relationships. Less so in marriage. But I'd like to think I've learned a bit along the long and especially topsy turvy road to where I am now.

If I could give advice to anyone getting married, or thinking about it, it would be this:

1. Don't ever, ever, ever assume. I don't care if you have to ask 10 different times in 10 different ways to make sure you understand each other - not that you always agree, but that you know where each other stands.

2. Every answer to the above doesn't have to be a yes or no. If you don't know, say it. There are some questions I can answer with much more certainty at 37 than I could have at 27.  It's better for someone to know you haven't made up your mind than to be surprised when you change it - especially about something major.

3. Compromise is incredibly important and it's not always 50/50 in every individual situation. In the end, it should about even out, but don't keep exact score.

4. Sometimes, a topic may be so crucial that you don't feel you can compromise. Pick your battles, but stand your ground when it matters most. Otherwise, there's a high chance of bitterness and resentment down the road.

5. Don't count on anything outside of the two of you to make your marriage happy. If your marriage will only be happy if your life together goes exactly as planned - ideal home, family exactly as you imagined, jobs on the current course, etc - you need to reconsider. Your partner should be enough for the marriage in and of themselves - not as part of a larger plan that comes along with them. Because we know what happens to the best laid plans.

6. Don't count on either of you changing, but understand that everyone does in some ways. Meaning this: love and marry the person for who they are in this moment, not for who you think they could be or who they used to be. At the same time, everyone evolves and grows, or so you hope. Shifts in each of you, with age and experience, are almost inevitable. Allow each other some leeway, especially as the years progress. I personally wouldn't want my spouse at 64 to be acting like they did at 24.

7. Sh*t is going to happen. This basically an absolute given. To you as a person, to you as a couple. The things you never expected to bother you will. Things you expected to worry about for years to come, you'll get used to.  When these things happen, know that you're in good company, and try not to let it discourage you.

As I start dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the details for my next wedding, I can feel a glaring difference between my first wedding and this one. We have a total of two people in our bridal party, one on each side. We're having a 15-ish minute ceremony at the same site as our reception. There will be about 65 guests instead of 200, a good number of whom are between the ages of 1 and 14. We're not doing a shower (bridal, I am showering) or a registry. I personally don't care if everyone - that's not in the actual wedding - shows up in their PJs. What I do care about is that half of the time our discussions about wedding plans dissolve into laughter. that we enjoy cooking dinner together as we discuss our plans, that what we can't wait for most is the opportunity to spend our lives together, whatever that may bring.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Old Fogey's College Advice

Last month, my great-niece Haidyn graduated from high school and will be heading on to college.  She will be the first of her generation in our family to do so.  I know that my parents (her great-grandparents) would be very proud of her.  They were never able to attend college and, in my mother’s case even finish high school.  I know something about how Haidyn must feel because, though it seems common place – even compulsory – now, I was the first person on either side of my family to attend college. It is a bridge that, once you cross over it, you can never go back. The best analogy is that it is something like it must be for men and women who go away to war.  No description of it to others is going to convey what it is like to those who have not been there.  You leave not being the same person who entered.  It changes your world view; you can no longer see things in the same way you once did. 

While advice from a 71 year-old man is about as welcome as dandelions in a suburban lawn, I’d like to offer a bit of it for any family members of Haidyn’s generation that are planning to go college.  The first is: go away to school.  Education is more than only books.  Learning first hand that there are people who see the world differently than you do – who talk a little differently, dress differently, have a different background of experiences, have value systems different from yours – is a part of the education itself.  Simply living in an environment that is different from what you are used to broadens you,  teaches you something.  Seattle doesn’t feel the same as Phoenix.  There is a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Anecdote in A Jar” in which he places a jar on a hill in Tennessee and instantly that jar becomes the central reference point for everything we do. While our house, our home town, our family may always be the emotional center of our universe, it is not the physical center.  Moving that glass to another hill gives you perspective and that is not something that you get by staying home or going to Florida for spring break.

When the time for college came, I urged all of my children to pick a place that was not in their geographic backyard.  Pat was the first one and, in all candor, he would have been very comfortable staying in Buffalo and going to UB.  Instead, he went spent his first year at Syracuse University because at the time he was interested in going into journalism and the school had a good reputation.  It was not the best experience. He had gone to high City Honors in Buffalo where the students were highly motivated. His friends went off to Harvard, Stanford, etc.  They were kids who were bright but worked hard for what they got. What he learned at Syracuse was that the rest of the world was not like this.  They were interested in partying, joining frats and drinking (some things haven’t changed). Having to go to class was a minor annoyance for them.  Their parents paid for their education, so they didn’t care. Despite good classes, Pat learned that Syracuse wasn’t for him.  He also learned that he was more interested in political science and ended up transferring to Buffalo.  Nevertheless, he learned something valuable.

In a somewhat different vein, Maya went to the University of Indiana and, her first reaction was an incredulous “Everyone there is white!”  On the up side, she added that despite their counterparts in New Jersey, school officials and employees at IU were actually friendly.  While she learned that she could probably never live in Indiana, she loved the school, and her education and made long time friendships.

A second piece of advice that I would give is to take some courses that you enjoy.  You may not get the chance again to try out some of the things that colleges and universities give you a chance to do.  I know. For some people that sounds frivolous, like a luxury.  I’ve worked with enough students over my life time that have come from backgrounds where they thought they would never be able to make it to college.  They are seeking an education to get a good job, to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. They feel the imperative to stick to the game plan and pick up skills and a certificate that can be cashed in for a better standard of living.   I respect that.  Not everyone has a choice. But in that case, what people are looking for is training, not education – and that is a whole different ballgame.   Education is expansive, not one directional.  My model here is my son Eli.  Eli was admitted to the architecture program at the University of Maryland. It is extremely competitive and famous for the fact that during the junior and senior years students basically sleep all night in the architecture studio.  Nevertheless, his first couple of years he experimented with classes that appealed to him like calligraphy and Italian.  It’s made him a more interesting and empathetic person and over a decade later, he is doing just fine as an architect with his own firm.   You have your whole life to work, often in ways that give you little time to pursue things that really interest you.  Haidyn, I have no idea what you are  planning to study or what your career plans are, but I say, take advantage of it while you can. Let yourself grow. 

My final wish for each of those of the next generation is that if at all possible, you take a semester abroad – or spend some time living in a foreign country.  It combines both of the first two experiences that I mentioned and adds a deeper third dimension. Each of my children was lucky enough to be able to live for a while in another country prior to having to get out and dive into their job or career:  Pat (Germany), Maura (England), Melissa (Guatemala), Maya (Australia), and Eli (Turkey). Again, it is a fact of life that this is not possible for everyone.  If you are already married and supporting a family, it probably is not a possibility. On the other hand, when Maya took a semester in Australia with IU, aside from plane fare, it cost her no more than she would otherwise have been paying.  She got all of her college credits and even ended up finishing college a semester early. While going away to school is a big step towards allowing your perspective to broaden, you are still to a large extent playing on home field - more or less the same language, same laws, same religious and cultural values.  Staying for some time in another country allows you to be able to shift your prejudicial lenses some. We all have them and, particularly in this era of Trump nativism, it is crucial to be able to get outside and see what the world looks like from another vantage point.  There is no better educator than travel.

Last week my grandson Connor graduated from middle school, Maggie and Owen had their kindergarten graduation, and Daisie, the youngest of all my grandchildren Face Timed with me and said Grandpa for the first time.  Chances are that by the time Daisie is ready for college, I won’t be around any more. Those of us who have been through college have frequently heard that in its origin the word educate means to draw out.  It is not about cramming stuff in, but about bringing yourself out to a larger understanding of the world. I am fortunate that all of my children value education – in the broadest sense of the word, so I know that Connor, Maggie, Owen, Daisie and all of the others will do fine without my advice.  It is comforting to know that. Still, one of the prerogatives of getting older is the freedom to stick your nose in and say it anyway. Education transforms.  I can’t imagine who I would be now, if I’d never had the opportunity for college.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Barn Burning

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I am glad that I keep a journal.  One of my projects over the past few years has been to go back to the entries that I began keeping in the early 1980’s and read forward.  It keeps me honest and prevents me from rewriting my personal history in a way that makes me out to be the hero. (It is amazing what you forget.)

There are some nice surprises, too, and I came across one of those when I was reading in my 1994 journal earlier this week.  I discovered a poem that I had written and forgotten for some reason. Perhaps my sensibilities were different at the time and I thought it was incomplete, but on reading it again I really liked it and decided to resurrect it.

The immediate impetus was that Maya had to do a report on Wiliam Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” and I had read the story to be able to help her if she had any problems. 

Barn Burning

After years of moving from place to place,
Of constant boils and pinworms from shared beds
Of welfare saying “college is not for you,” “wash dishes”
I understood Abner’s need to put the match to the hay.
Now I live in the white house
Am become one of the columns that is part and support.
It is difficult not to keep glancing out the window to see
If the barn is still standing
Or if perhaps sleep walking I have reverted
And handed it over,
To the flames it deserves.

From an aesthetic point of view, what I like about the poem is that it achieves a sort of simplicity while at the same time, it seems to me, still being to be able to speak to a reader in on terms that s/he can relate to in relationship to their own lives.  It is a middle ground between merely reporting and trying to cram in unneeded material, as I am prone to do. 

More to the point, however, it serves to keep me honest.  After writing the blog about Dad and the military the other day, I’m particularly mindful that, in Faulkner’s famous words, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”  More than ever, I’m convinced that is true.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dad and Memorial Day

            This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and, as I out walking Grace, my thoughts turned to Dad.  Though I have never thought of him as a traditional military man, nevertheless, in the past few years I have thought about his relationship to the military when this holiday has rolled around.  This morning, however, something struck me that had never occurred to me before.  Perhaps it is because I am now looking at him from the vantage point of someone who is 71 years old.  I have always known that Dad was in the Navy for twenty years.  As a child, twenty years sounded like an incredibly long time – a lifetime, really.  The thing that struck me this morning, though, was how terribly young Dad was when he got out of the Navy after serving 20 years.  He was only 38, Maya’s age!
            Realizing how young he was when he came out of the service was a jolt to me.  Essentially, he had his whole life ahead of him.  It also put his life in a different light for me.  He was only 21 when he was at Pearl Harbor and when he saw all of the fighting from the ships.  His tales of being up in the Aleutian Islands (the foggiest place he had ever been) and in Australia were really a young man’s tales. He was, in effect, much like those young men who went away to Vietnam or, how, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and return, damaged, having witnessed the atrocities of war.
            I bring this up because it is commonplace now to hear of men (and now women) who return to society and just cannot fit in and I wonder just how much psychological damage was done to him.  My first impulse is to want to blame war and the military.  I want to ask the question, what kind of person would he have been, what would he have made of himself, if the war had not come along.
            There is a list put out by Wicomico High School honoring all of its attendees who served in the military.  On that list are Dad and four of his five brothers – John, Robert, Peyton, and Colvin. (Byers could not join because he was legally blind.)  I’d always assumed that because Dad was the second youngest of the boys in his family, he had joined the military because it was a family tradition, but over the past few years in doing family research, I’ve discovered that was the first in his immediate family to join and, for me, that puts a different perspective on things. 
            I ask myself, what kind of life Dad would have had if he had not joined the Navy and, before I put too much blame on the military, I have to look at the context.  Dad was orphaned by the time he was eleven.  He grew up with unofficial foster parents.  The town that he lived in was a backwater town of small time fishermen and farmers who were trying to make a living in the wake of changes wrought by the Civil War. None of his brothers seems to have prospered. Alcoholism was a family curse, several of his brothers were childless or had unhappy marriages. One committed suicide. Given those circumstances, would Dad have turned out any differently?
            Still, Dad’s foster father seems to have been involved in education. Dad graduated valedictorian from his class and, according to what he told me when I was young, got a year’s scholarship to attend William and Mary – something unheard of in his family. I distantly recall Dad’s saying that he did not attend college because even with the scholarship he could not have afforded it. Was Dad really joining the Navy simply as an act of patriotism or was it because he saw it as his way out of a life that the rest of his family seemed consigned to?  We’ll never know the answer.

            What I do realize now is how terribly young he was even after serving twenty years in the Navy.  I can only repeat the cliché, “He had his whole life ahead of him.”  But really, did he?  Given the background that he had, the damage done to him by the war and military culture, and the fact that he now had five children to support, what real choices did he have?  Free will is basically a fiction.  Once the machinery of life is in motion, it has a force of its own.  I doubt any of us now are where, at eighteen, we thought we would be. Paths lead to other paths and where our footsteps finally end is anyone’s guess.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Trip to Kenya and Tanzania

I know that many of you  have all heard about the recent trip to Africa that Lora, Maya, Brian and I took in bits and pieces, and perhaps seen a few of the pictures on FB or in other places but after having been back for over a for a few weeks now, I thought I’d attempt to describe trip as a whole since it does not make total sense out of context.  

The trip began because Maya’s travel conference for ASTA this year was in Nairobi and Lora, Brian (Maya’s fiancée) and I all decided to take advantage of it.  The plan that we came up with was to visit two places each in Kenya and Tanzania.  As exotic as Africa sounds, there was no way this crew was going to rough it.  In Kenya, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi and the Savona Camp in Masai Mara. In Tanzania, we stayed at the Mbuze Mawe camp in the Serengetti and the Sopa Lodge at the Ngorongoro Crater. While the everyday language of people in Kenya is Swahili, many people (especially those in the service areas that deal with tourists like us) people speak English since Kenya was under British rule for so long, so communication was pretty easy for us there. Tanzania was a bit tougher in terms of language.  Swahili is the main language and even though some people speak English, even for most of those in the tourism industry, it is clearly a foreign language.  In preparing for the trip, we had to think about what money we would use.  I was able to Kenyan shillings through our bank, but the Tanzanian shilling is pretty unstable and not available out side of Tanzania, so we ended up just using Kenyan and American money there.

We left from Newark airport at 6:30 PM on the Feb. 23 and arrived in Nairobi, the next evening at 9:50 PM.  This included about a 4 hour layover in Amsterdam and was actually a longer trip than it appears since there is an 8 hour time difference between NJ and Kenya.  When we arrived at the airport, we ran into our first (and really only unexpected obstacle) of the trip. The driver that was supposed to be there to pick us up at the airport to take us to the hotel never showed up.  After going back and forth with the company who was supposed to have sent him, we ended up taking a cab, but it worked out well.

When Maya originally made inquiries about Nairobi, she got the response that it was just a big, dirty city, but we found out otherwise.  To begin with, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel, the oldest hotel in Nairobi and a throwback to the British Colonial days. It was absolutely beautiful and the staff could not have been better. We’d come in a day early so we had hired a driver to take us around.  His name was Martin and her was terrific. (In fact, all of the drivers/guides we had in Africa were excellent.)  One of the main points that we wanted to hit was the Sheldrake elephant rescue.  A few years back, Maya had given Lora the gift of an elephant adoption. Her elephant, Kamu, had been at this shelter, but had since been moved out.  It was an interesting experience to see how they rescued and cared for the elephants.

In addition to the Sheldrake, we visited the Train Museum, the National Museum of Kenya (which was a historical and cultural museum), a marketplace and Uhuru Park, which celebrated the birth of Kenya as a nation. Martin also took us off the beaten track a bit to show us the residential areas where the Kenyan people themselves lived.  The driving in Kenya was among the craziest that I have even seen. As Martin said, red lights mean nothing and if you decided to stop at one, you are likely to be rear-ended. It was kind of a free for all, but, unlike Philly, there was not a lot of horn-honking or shouting. The conference itself was fraught with technical difficulties, but that did not dampen our spirits.
            To get to our next location we had to take off from the small Wilson airport in Nairobi.  The waiting room was probably about the size of the floor area in our house.  In fact, when they called us out on the tarmac to get on the flight, there were 10 people.  The pilot discovered that two more people were going to be coming on board, so they sent us all back in to wait so that they could lessen the amount of fuel they were carrying and redistribute some of the luggage weight on the plane.  Unfortunately, because it was flying at such a low level, Maya and I both got motion sickness.
As our plane descended, we saw zebras by the side of the air strip. When our plane landed, we were met there by our driver and guide, Edward (who was terrific) who had a an open air all-terrain vehicle to take us to the next camp.  Edward met us with a lunch (though Maya was not feeling much like eating at that point). 
The area that we had landed is called the Masai Mara.  It is a huge game park in Kenya.  The land had all belonged to the Masai people (who were semi-nomadic) at one point in time, and hence, the name.  Edward drove us to the place we were going to stay, the Sarova Mara Camp.  On the way there, we immediately knew that we were in the heart of Africa. We saw zebra, water buck, impalas, wildebeest and even Masai herding their cattle on our journey to the lodge.  The day was warm and the sun shining, even Edward told us that we had exceptionally good luck in the amount of animals that we were seeing.
Although the Sarova Mara is called a camp and we slept in “tents,” they were tents with all the features of a hotel room.  There was a dining hall with buffet style dining containing some of the best food we have ever eaten, dishes coming from all over the world.  In fact, the camp kept an organic garden where it raised and experimented with new vegetables.  We met the head gardener there, James, who wanted me to try spider plant.  A green-leafed plant that he was trying to get onto the kitchen buffet. He asked if I wanted to try it for dinner – and I did – so he had it cooked up for me specially. 
Before I left, he gave me seeds from some of his medicinal herbs.
            The morning of the next day, we got rose when it was still dark and drove out to where we were going have a sunrise hot air balloon ride. The basket for the balloons were larger than the one I had been in with my son Pat the previous year.  They were divided into four sections, each holding two people and one additional crew member.  Lora, who hates heights, braved the trip and actually began enjoying it after the first ten minutes or so.  The balloon took us up over the Mara where we saw elephants, lions, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, and a variety of antelope.  At one point, the captain lowered the balloon so we came right down to the top  tree where a lion family was resting. The balloon landed in an area that was set up for us to have a picnic lunch.  A baboon was sitting watching us, waiting for the scraps when we left.  A herd of zebras was also near us.
            That afternoon and most of the next day were spent on safari. During that time we saw the animals I have mentioned above as well as hyenas, jackals, hippopotamuses, mongooses, elands, dik diks, vultures, ostriches, hartebeest and cape buffalo. One special treat was the spotting of African hunting dogs, which are extremely rare and which are driver himself had not seen in several years.  I neglected to mention that all of the roads were dirt, most of them a red clay and our driver, Edward, frequently just cut paths across the terrain.  It rained almost every day. The most dramatic was the first night that we were there.  We were quite a ways from the camp when the sky darkened and it began to rain.  As it got dark and lighting was flashing, Edward, rolled down the sides of the car. Because of flooding roads the previous day, the roads were covered with water in some places and deeply rutted in others, so that the swerving and bouncing was literally like something out of an action move.  Edward was not allowed to turn on his lights because it would cause some of the animals to freeze and get hit by the vehicles, so when the lightning flashed we see zebra or Thompson’s gazelles crossing the roads right  in front of us. At several points we found ourselves in the midst of a herd of Masai cattle who had been herded (illegally) into the park to graze at night.  When the ride ended all of us applauded.  It was definitely exciting – the best piece of driving I have ever seen.
            On the second day there, between safari outings, we visited a Masai Cultural Village.  In a sense, it was a tourist trap, but in another sense, it was the real deal. The Masai traditionally follow the growth of the grasses with their cattle. They make temporary houses out of mud and cattle dung that are arranged inside of a circle surrounded by a fence made of brush. Though I say that they take advantage of tourists, I mean they charge you for everything they show you – though we were the only ones there, so it was a personal tour including dancing, going into their houses, a small market where they sell souvenirs, traditional fire starting, and the bleeding of the cattle where they use the blood for food. They are incredibly poor, their houses like smoky caves, so we did not mind having to give up the money.
            After three days at Masai Mara, we left for our next destination. Edward drove us to the landing strip that we had first come in on and the plane took us out.  We landed at the Migori airport (smaller even than Wilson) where a driver and guide picked us up and drove us the rest of the way to the Tanzanian border.  There they helped us to get our visas for Tanzania and get through the border, and then we drove over the border to Tanzania and headed for the Tarime air strip.  The air strip is just what it sounds like a field where planes landed the only structure on the field was a restroom.
            The next plane was even smaller. We were the second of two stops and by the time we arrived in the Serengetti, we were the only three people on the plane.  When we landed at the air strip in the Serengeti, we were met by our Tanzanian driver/guide, Basili who picked us up in his jeep.  He was young, gregarious and – as we found out – extremely knowledgeable. Unfortunately, for Basili, he faced the double issue of our being exhausted from the extensive travel and our having seen a huge variety of animals on the Masai Mara, so we were a bit hard to impress. Two animals that Edward had been unable to find were the leopards and rhinos.  On the way to our lodging at Mbuzi Mawe Camp, Basili was able to spot two leopards in trees – though from our vantage point, they were basically shadows.
            The Mbuzi Mawe camp was located in the northeast part of the Serengeti. Basili explained to us that one of the reasons we were not seeing the big herds of animals that people coming to the Serengetti expected to see is that the migration took a huge circular path through Kenya and Tanzania, and that currently all of the herds were down in the southern part of Serengeti.  The Mbuzi Mawe camp was perched high atop an outcropping of rocks with a view of the valley below. As with the Sarova camp, our tents were tents in name only. There were, however, some differences. The first was that if we were to go outside of our tents in the dark, we had to call for someone from the staff to guide us because the ground was open to all of the animals. In fact, the second evening that we were there, Maya and Brian were guided back to their tent, only to see two cape buffalo and a water buck next to it.  The place also had small rock hyraxes running all over, they are small guinea pig size animals that, incredibly, are related to elephants.  Water was shut off periodically as well, as Brian found out once when he was showering with his hair full of shampoo.  Here the food was served in courses, where you picked the selection that you wanted from each course. Because this was Tanzania, communication was a bit more difficult.
            We were only at Mbuzi Mawe for one full day. In the morning Basili picked us up early. We saw a stream full of hippos and witnessed some of the social interaction among them. We saw crocodiles as well. Basili was very knowledge about the birds in the area, so in addition to the ostriches, we saw other large birds like secretary birds, Kori bustards, and a number of eagles and vultures as well as a lot of the colorful ones that lived in the thorn acacia trees that the giraffes ate.  In the Serengeti, we had to stick to the main (dirt) roads so could not always get as close as we wanted, but the streams that went through gave us a chance to see more animals that hung around the water. That afternoon it poured.  We barely made it back to camp before the storms became almost violent.
            The next morning it was time to head off to our final lodging destination at the Nogorongoro Crater with plans to stop along the way at Olduvai Gorge. Basili suggested that we take a detour via a more southerly route to see if we could see animals in the great migration.  And indeed we did.  At one point, as far as you could see wildebeests and zebra stretched from one horizon to the other.  Usually, the wildebeest charged across the road in front of us but on one occasion, one was blocking the road.  The reason was that she was protecting a young calf, which Basili said could only have been a few minutes old and was still trying to learn to stay on its legs.  We ate lunch at a place designated “Lion Rock” because it was the spot where producers of the lion king had drawn their inspiration from for the rock in the movie.
            One of the most remarkable things on our way to Oldevai Gorge once we left the Serengeti was the incredible changes in landscape, they range from deserty scrub land to lusher areas covered with trees.  In the dry areas we saw many Masai herders, but here they were herding sheep and goats.  Oldevai Gorge, of course, is the area where Louis and Mary Leaky discovered some of the first remains of our human-like ancestors (notably Zinjanthropus and Homo Habilis).  We through the museum there and heard a short talk, but simply standing staring out over the Great Rift Valley where all excavations had been done was really memorable.
            Our final lodging was at the Sopa Lodge on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. It was without question a luxury resort, created in a very throwback African inspired style. The crater itself is a caldera, an extinct volcano that provides an environment for almost all of the African animals that we had previously seen, but these animals did not migrate. On our only full day there, we drove down into the crater. The crater was rimmed and overhung with clouds. It had a misty, other worldly appearance.  We saw a lake full of flamingos and – at long last – the endangered black rhinoceros which survives in few other places in the world.  We saw many of the animals we had seen before, but a few new ones like a black-eared fox.  Basili also pointed out some of the wild plants that the people living in the area used for food.  He helped me collect seeds for some wild spinach.

            Our final day was a long one.  We drove for several hours through the various towns and villages of Tanzania to the city of Arusha. There we caught a plane that flew us to Dar Es Salaam. We had an eight hour wait at the Dar Es Salaam airport, which we had to exit because of changing to an international flight, and were not allowed back in the airport until three hours before the flight which took place at midnight. We bought a pack of cards and hung out in the only available venue – a Burger King type restaurant called Tasty Life. We bought a pack of cards and played cards to pass the time. Once we were able to board our flight, it was another four hour stop in Amsterdam, and then home.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Twenty Years

On February 23, Dad will have been dead for twenty years. Twenty years.
Before 9/11.
Before the genocide in the Middle East.
Long before the current Islamophobia.
At the brink of a new century when the future still looked wide-open, it may have been a good time to die.
But it was also before he saw his grandchildren married.
It was before his great-grandchildren ever got the chance to know him.
It was before m first book was published, the first edition of my journal appeared and many of the events that constitute a large part of my identity today had even taken place.
It was another world.

On the very few times occasions Dad’s sons and daughters have had the chance to get together, our memories of him are all from  different vantage points. Rather like looking at a cubist painting, we all see different sides.  We all draw different portraits with the materials we have.  I can remember him in his Navy uniform, khaki for everyday and dress blues for special occasion. Ed can recall times when Dad took him fishing – something I never experienced.  We all have our pieces of the mosaic.

I’d like to hear from all of you who knew him.  Is there a memory that you have of him that you think the rest of us might not have?  Is there some particular recollection that is special to you for some reason.  If we can put some of the pieces together, perhaps we can get a better picture of him, even if it does look a bit Picasso-ish. I’m just going to record a fragment of a memory I have that I don’t think the rest of you do. So I will start off. If you can leave yours in the comments section, I think all of us will find them interesting.

My earliest memory of doing anything with Dad was when we lived in El Sobrante.  I was four years old.  At the time, we had a dog named Toughy – a mongrel, I think. It was not a big dog, but it was aggressive.  It pulled at the clothes on the line when Mom hung them up and chased me around our yard.  I was terrified of it.  Dad was a generally kind person, but he had no room for complainers – whether about there own situation or other people. (One of his favorite expressions was, if you don’t have something good to say about somebody, don’t say anything.)  I reacted like a typical four year old.  Eventually my whining got the best of him, so he told me to get in the car and he took the dog with us.  El Sobrante was in a rural area and we drove down a road along a field until Dad stopped the car and opened the door.  The last I ever saw of Toughy was when he disappeared into the tall grass.

There is one more bit to my memory of Dad and living in El Sobrante, but it is even more fragmentary, so I’ll stop now.

Add yours.