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Thursday, November 29, 2012

crushes 1: miss smith

These were the first words I ever heard her say. I mean I knew about her from before, I had heard whispers of her, she was on my radar. People whose opinion I trusted spoke about her. They said glowing things and I was aware of her. How exactly I can’t say but I knew about her white teeth and how admirable they were, so when I finally got the chance to meet her how could I say no.

“How long is a generation these days?”

She began. And with that Zadie Smith wrote an essay that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time. She begins this review  of the movie the social network by recalling her time in Harvard. Thinking that she must be in Mark Zuckerberg’s generation since they are only 9 years apart but feeling different from him somehow experiencing the yawning of a  generation gap in less than a decade, prompting the above query. The review ,or essay I would say, is my favourite kind, it moves from musings on a movie, ,”it’s a talkie for god’s sake” jumps into the writings of Jaron Lanier(who with a name like that could only ever have one career of choice, a techie philosopher) which concern themselves with how much we allow technology to take away a part of our humanness. The way we contort ourselves to fit computers instead of expanding them(the computers) to match us because life cannot be plotted on data points or represented in their bases. It’s why having 2,000 Facebook friends is not the same as having 200 actual friends or even 20. And as relates to the technology directly we allow ourselves to think some forms of software are as good as it gets because we are used to them, because they have become too big to fail. A non-digital example of this is the typewriter. There’s a story that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to impede typing skills because typewriters would get too heated if people typed too fast. But by the time we got typewriters that would not get heated it was too late. The format was too big to fail. She turns this logic on Facebook itself. The reason it’s blue and white? “ Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green colour-blind. “Blue is the richest colour for me—I can see all of blue.” The ubiquitousness of the relationship status? Because that’s what college sophomores think about. Using Facebook she says is being “forced to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg.”  Near the end she writes “Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?” and you know what by then she has earned those words. A movie review became a discussion of the way technology reduces us to less than we can be restricting contact and access, taking away tone and body language and by the time you realise what you were reading its finished and she has won you over, or at least me. Read the essay, go on.

With such a powerful first meeting it was obvious we would get along, it was obvious I would like her and like her a lot. As time went by I kept seeing glimpses of her. No full body shots. No long dates or retreats, just short texts. The essence of her after she had left a room, a shadow whose form I knew but whose substance I could hardly grasp. But this was enough. I began clicking on interviews of her online  because  I was curious. I was attracted. In one  interview  she was asked if it was difficult to describe a character who had closed themselves off to change and she said.

Not at all! That’s what a novelist is: someone who does the same thing every day while things decay around them. In their pyjamas. With dirty plates and fag ends and piles of dirty clothes and hair that is dreadlocking itself through neglect. It was very easy to write those scenes!

Not everyone likes this kind of girl. No, not everyone. But I do, or at least I am drawn to this kind of girl maybe an actual relationship would be unworkable because there has to someone who sorts the dirty piles of clothes and it makes no matter if it’s the guy or the girl as long as this person exists. But then we are always attracted to the unworkable because in those rare times when the unworkable works it takes off and flies.

You know that thing when someone is on your mind all the time and somehow you make them materialise in front of you. You make them call by thinking about calling or text by holding the phone in your hand with intent.  Well that happened. I was walking through town when I saw her just waiting for the right guy. I picked her up without a second thought because I knew it was meant to be and when it is it just happens. I spirited her off to shags and spent hours by the lakeside with her. I spent time naked and bathed, or fully clothed and making myself hot enough that I could take my clothes off and skinny dip. Late at night and early in the morning she was a constant companion. You see I found the book white teeth on the street in that way you can often find beautiful second hand books on the streets of Nairobi.

The book starts off with an attempted suicide, only attempted because
No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It's for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:
Pebble : Beach
Raindrop : Ocean
Needle : Haystack”

And we are off to the races. The suicide is bungled by a man who is spending time killing pigeons. They have been shitting all over his butchery, a man who  knows that ; “The shit is *not* the shit (this was Mo's mantra,) the *pigeon* is the shit.”

White teeth then introduces us to a whole slew of characters. And their families. And their histories. And their famlies' histories. And even their history's familys. The title in the story referring both to the propensity for brown skinned people to have very, very white teeth(this may either be a work of contrast or genetics-) and also (because double entendre is just amazing) to the roots that teeth have. You can see just the surface but if you go into the gum  you can see that they are planted firm in there. Melanin in soft tissue, tissue so soft it feels more fragile than rotting meat and nerves all over the place connected to the brain and the nose and more tender when struck than the relationship you have with a puppy. It looks all surface but there is something buried underneath, there is a history, “the past is always tense, the future perfect.

Since a lot of the book is about recent immigrants to London it captures a lot of their fears and troubles. I have really come to like reading books about immigrants, they are people like us and the fears they have are the same ones we face except ours are more abstract. Theirs are tangible. Theirs are real. We all worry that we won’t fit in but imagine the immigrant, he really does not. His skin is a different colour, his accent is wrong, his religion is foreign, and everything about him screams other. This is a fear we all have this lack of belonging except for the immigrant it is played out in sound and colour.

“ ...it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears - dissolution, disappearance” 

This is a fear she tackles incredibly well; the reason immigrant parents want their children to marry within their own race. She’s writing about London and one of the parents imagines his genetic imprint being lost in a sea of blondeness. As first his children then grandchildren get assimilated not just into the culture(because this is a battle unavoidably lost if only because these children will make a culture of their own different from either their parents’ or their adoptive country’s) but genetically as well. This made sense to me. Children is how we achieve immortality, an evolutionary imperative to further our own. Recently I have read a lot about Israel/Palestine(because for some reason that has nothing to do with my current religious state the fate of the holy lands are important to me to the point I still call them the holy lands.) I read this article , it’s about xenophobia in Israel. A xenophobia that has been directed against so many groups in its history and shows no signs of dying down. The European Jews did not like the Middle Eastern Jews, neither of them liked the Arabs and then the Africans moved in and there was a new place to direct the hate. Some of the men who are more tolerant than others have no problem with the Africans but they shouldn't date their girls. “Women are weak and can be easily persuaded.” One of them says. But he qualifies his statement, ‘This isn’t just hate for the sake of it — there is good reason, we are thinking of the future.’ How, he wanted to know, ‘will we stay Jewish if we intermarry?”

And that’s the Israeli question. Well one of them. How to stay Jewish. How to have a Jewish state. They see themselves poised on the brink of something, annihilation, extinction. And can we really blame them? Their neighbours hate them. They went through the holocaust not 70 years past, the history of anti-Semitism goes back further than the history of European interference on African soil and they are trying to build a Jewish state to keep themselves safe. The thing about a Jewish state is that it must be primarily, demographically Jewish. Their dissolution is something they are scared about. It’s not America that will slip on a new identity in 2050 when white people are the minority  this is a country that has no idea what to do. They fear disappearing and everyone reacts to what they fear by hating it, by having emotional reactions to it.

White teeth also has a lot of truth in it. Some simple pithy statements that ring as true maybe because they are sad, “this is what divorce is, taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.” Am not sure if this is what divorce but it seems to capture the essence. The loss of love and the things you used to value. The feeling of failure and the fact that it’s not a gracious loss. It’s not happiness at having finished the race, its frustration at not being able to. Its lashing out at someone you used to love by taking something you used to want. Something that perhaps you only wanted because of the way that person made you feel. Some things are only precious because of the shared history they have, they don’t matter at all when you are alone and that’s the worst thing maybe. At the end of it when a divorce has happened it feels like the marriage didn’t matter at all. It’s just something you don’t want taken from someone you don’t love.

However she has a sense of humour. I was laughing all through the book. There is an introduction of an Islamic fundamentalist group some ways through the novel,

“I am from the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation," said Hifan proudly. 

Irie inhaled. 

Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation," repeated Millat, impressed. "That's a wicked name. It's got a wicked kung-fu arse sound to it." 

Irie frowned. "KEVIN?"

We are aware," said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, "that we have an acronym problem.” 

Scenes like that abound, for some reason I remember the sad things all too well though.

“It's a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, "Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn't love me. He just couldn't deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me." Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll---then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

There is if we let ourselves see it a lot of truth in that paragraph. The world tells us that we should be intellectually stimulated, sexually satisfied, creatively challenged, physically healthy, spiritually at ease.  In other words happy in all the facets of our lives when this is not really possible. And the thing is a lot of people believe they deserve it like a spoiled brat pissed off at the world for not giving us what we want. The dark stuff is there(as it is in life) and it’s a part of the book but it’s been a while since I laughed so much as I read.  A while since I stood in public and read through the glare of the sun because I could not bear to tear myself away from the impending climax. So if you can read this book.

After the book I read more about her. She reads all the time and reading is like work though it’s the only way she relaxes so she has to find a way of disconnecting from the world.

I love to be drunk – that helps. That's why a lot of writers drink – you don't have to be engaged

I don’t think she made a mistake in the word choice here. You see there is a world of difference between the phrases I love drinking and  I love to be drunk. One of them is a love of the process. The savouring of a fine wine or an  expensive scotch. The feeling of fire in your stomach as alcohol makes it way down. The atmosphere, the conversations. The slow build up just before the release. One is a love of the result. The sitting back with your cares far, far away. The world spinning and you not being on it. Not analysing, not thinking just being.  you can never have the result without the process but when you hear someone say something like this you feel like they wish they could. And for those many, many reasons I have a huge, huge crush on Zadie Smith.

Monday, November 26, 2012

a glass, a glass, my kingdom for a glass

I have always been a drinker.

Some people don’t understand this; they aren’t as in love with fluidity as I am. But for as long as I can remember I have been addicted to one substance above all others. When I have it near me I am quenched but if I think that I need a little of it and I look around and can’t find it there is a clawing in my throat. Emergency lights go off and I need to find a stock of it. I get home after a long day and all I can think about is how to get some of it. I wake up in the morning and before any other waking thoughts reach my mind I am thirsting for the next swallow of it. I can never have enough. Even when my body tells me to slow down, when it pains and throbs I still want more because am scared of needing it and not having it.

I have always been a drinker.

I love my water. For as long as I can remember I have slept with a glass or a bottle of water by my bedside. When I wake up in the middle of the night my hand reaches for it. The glass could be under my bed confined to the darkest of dark recesses that place where not a dot of moonlight can reach. The spot that to quote Rescue Me is darker than an asshole’s asshole. Yet despite my tendency to knock everything else in life over my hand reaches this glass without so much as a hesitation. I find it, I bring it to my lips, I sip it. And everything is ok with the world. In the morning I reach for it and gulp it down greedily. My throat welcomes it, muscles contracting to push it down, ball after glorious ball of water formed in my throat and exploding in my stomach.

I have another glass, I have breakfast, I have another glass. And then I feel sated for now.

There is almost no better feeling than that that comes after walking around in a hot day. You know those days when beads of sweat begin to poke out of your forehead. When they begin to stream down your face. Those days when the sun burns everything off you, when it licks clean the moisture your body needs. And you get home and until then you didn’t even know you needed it or wanted it. Then you grab it. A glass of water. You pour it down your throat and gulp greedily. The balls explode as soon as they pass your chest and you can feel the water spread its cool, inky goodness through your stomach. I love that feeling. I love to track the water without even knowing it. I could never explain it but I see this fluid as black. Like a black mist that spreads through your abdomen. It touches all the parts that were warmed by the sun. The parts of your body that are steaming red like coal or steel straight out of the kiln and then it assuages them. The black spreads over the red and conquers it like a night sky taking back the view from the sunset. Then your body is cool. It is at peace. The war of wants that comes over you with thirst recedes and all you have is a twinkle of stars.
When I am off it for a while withdrawal sneaks in. I crave it, I need it. It covers all my thoughts all I want is a little taste and if I go for longer without it a weakness creeps in. My strength fails me. Soon I begin to faint and soon I begin to die(I guess this is what happens with water withdrawal though I can’t really say). I am addicted to this mix totally and unreservedly.

Am given to understand some people don’t like water that they don’t even drink it. I get that you can get all the moisture your body needs from food, soup and juice but how can you willingly give up this most glorious of feelings? After a night of drinking when your body is dehydrated and demands water what do you do? Cook up some soup, mix some juice? No you grab as much as you can and shove litre after litre down your throat until what comes out the other side is more transparent than not.

And I finally understand why water is served in a glass instead of a cup. (Incidentally the full name of a glass is actually a glass cup because that’s what it is, everyone just shortens the double name, found this out this year.) It’s the double transparency. There is nothing more, nothing less than that. You can see through water and you can see through glass. You put water in a glass and you can still see through both. Does this phenomenon repeat itself anywhere else in nature? It might but I have no idea of when. The thing is you can still see whether or not the glass is full. You can see the water shimmer and shake in there. It has a ghostly presence like a spirit. It’s there but not quite it occupies the glass but doesn’t conquer it. You don’t get this in nature at all.

Also water is H2O. 2 parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. By some magic this mixture just works. Its stable it can be used to dissolve anything and it has 10 protons. We are all drawn to numbers like this. Things that don’t look like they occurred by mistake. The number 10 and its multiples. The number 100 and its progeny. The number 1000 and its ascendants. Anything with a zero attached wakes something in us. We strive for it. Try to get 10 1 shilling coins and you have fare. We are psychologically drawn and repelled by it; consider all the electronics being sold for 299,999 because that added 1 begets 5 0’s and scares the weak of heart away. And water just magically falls at 10. It was made for us or we were made for it.
 So this is my ode to water because how many things feel just as good going in as they do coming out? 

Thursday, November 22, 2012


The relevant section of the video is at...2 minutes 10 seconds

Though I would like to think the whole trailer is relevant. You see I haven’t enjoyed seeing a movie this year as much as I enjoyed watching Skyfall. It was really a combination of things as every favourite usually is, first I have loved James Bond all my life, who doesn’t want to be him? He’s suave, charming, dangerous, witty and all those Bond girls… and then I like Daniel Craig. As soon as he was announced as James Bond I knew I would, anyone with a name that sounds like mine gets a fair shake. Add to this  the whole tone of the movie. As has become fashionable now there is a lot of destruction of heroes, a lot of pushing them past the point where they are deitifically heroic, instead a human face is put on all of them. A trend that promises to continue stretching from Batman Begins all the way to the Man of Steel making a stop here with James who is at his most manly in this movie. Not macho but human, full of flaws and foibles, all those vodka martinis he drinks? Not a sign of sophistication but a symptom of dependency. Fourth I watched this movie at an I-max theatre. How did we watch movies before? Those screens are huge. 20 feet tall (well am horrible with size estimations so maybe more, maybe less) but still giant. You sit in the centre and you take in the whole tableau the sound knocks your hat off if it wasn’t already knocked off by the guy sitting behind you who was pissed that you were blocking his view. Fifth and last, hash brownies. I had taken some of these wonderful movie aides, needless to say by the time the opening  song played I was hanging fast onto reality. This wasn’t aided by the gothic cemetery like credits that showed nothing but the death of Bond in various surreal nightmare-like symbols. I remember a skull’s head and the camera zooming in on the skull’s head, zooming in until we saw the teeth and the teeth were gravestones, on the gravestones the name James Bond was printed over and over. For 5 minutes this played on and on, me reminding myself this was a movie and not a nightmare. Anyway for all these reasons this was the best movie going experience I have had this year. The best.

Anyway on to the relevant section of the video. In those 2 seconds what we see is, to me at least, a section of the sexiest scene in the whole movie, maybe in the whole of movie history. Eve, the girl in the scene is giving 007 a shave. She scrapes the hair and lather off his face, slowly, seductively, the camera angles and shows her eyes closed as she pulls back and then she open them and looks at him, still shaving. This is all they show in the trailer but as usual this is just a tease for the scene itself. This will of course be a minority opinion but let me lay out my case.

First some background on the scene. Bond has been fucking up; he can’t do anything straight until the time comes when he has to(and this is definitely not meant as entendre he really is messing up). Movies been the fans that they are of visual symbolism decide to show his re-emergence by cutting off his beard. This happens with every spy who goes soft, as soon as he gets a proper shave he’s back on top which has me thinking that what all the spy agencies need is a good barber so that when they pull someone in from the cold there is no pesky training in between. Anyway Bond stands there shaving his beard and he’s not using any old razor either, he’s using the oldest, a cutthroat razor.

Take a look at that thing if you will. Look at the sharp edge it holds, the way it would glint in any kind of light. Look how keen the edge. I doubt any of us has a knife they keep that sharp in their houses. This razor is danger. It’s the reason we have barbers or at least the first reason. You see back in the day who would be expected to have the time to keep sharpening their blade, who but someone who does it for a living. And make no mistake you need this sharp. So sharp that just the wrong amount of pressure draws blood. Barbers had to be pros back in the day too. With an instrument like that a nick will leave you dead. You have to trace the contours of the person exactly because there is a fine line between baby smooth and corpse pallid and that line is held onto the edge of that razor.

The reason they went out of fashion?, well according to Wikipedia, “shaving became less intimidating and men began to shave themselves more,” and for this they used safety razors. Consider the men who were intimidated by shaving. This is nowhere near the time of the effeminization of man. These were hard men who did hard jobs. They logged and they built. They hunted and they killed. They mined and they farmed. They didn’t talk about their feelings and were not allowed to show sorrow or fear. Yet shaving intimidated them. It’s not that they were intimidated that’s surprising, fear stalks each of us after all; it’s that they were willing to admit it.

Who wouldn’t though? Look at that thing. You know why it’s called a cutthroat razor? As you shave you have to shave both the neck and the area just above the throat. To do this a tricky manoeuvre must be pulled off. As you glide the razor over the skin, close enough that not a hair remains standing you have to negotiate an almost 90 degree angle, an angle that’s different for everyone at a place in the body where the up and down of breath produces significant results. If he breathes out at the wrong time, and you’re pressing too close ohe razor slices right through his throat. Letting him gurgle and choke on his own warm blood. A painful death. A cut throat.

Having painted that background let’s get back to the movie scene. In it Bond is rebirthing himself. He stands in front of a mirror and lathers himself up with what must be soap. It would after all be too large a contradiction to find a man who both uses a cutthroat razor and likes the willowy pillow softness of shaving cream. He begins to shave himself. Steady hands.

Eve then walks in, she considers him shaving and says, “Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.” Something that is a running theme in this movie. She takes the razor off his hands asking him, “are you willing to put your life in my hands again.” We must remember at this point that it was this same woman who shoots him in the chest both in the beginning of the movie and at the beginning of the trailer which I posted up there. He agrees and she continues shaving.

It’s a moment of unspeakable intimacy, the quiet that comes over all movies just before the two kiss, the feeling that there is nothing else in the world at a particular moment than you, another person and the thing you are doing. That feeling that can make the most mundane act soar with significance. But this isn’t a mundane act. This is a deadly act. This razor kills. Forget all the sexy smoking scenes we have seen in the past. Forget all the times got a light and the subsequent lighting acquired sex. This doesn’t kill you slow the way cigarettes do; it slits you and lives you dead. Danger is seductive. It makes your heart beat faster all on its own. Being close to death makes you more alive. Quite simply more alive. More willing to risk.

Bond overcome by this moves to put his hand on her just as she gets to the adam's apple. “Uh uh” she says pushing him away, “this is the tricky part.”

Even if you forget the aspect of danger, and consider instead the intimacy and the tenderness. The willingness to put your life in the hands of someone else. The trust you would have to have in that person. Consider her. How gentle yet firm she would have to be. She has to be completely, in fact supremely confident in what her hands can do.

So in that one scene we have a combination of danger, intimacy, tenderness, trust, confidence and banter. What other movie scene has ever been so sexy?

Monday, November 19, 2012


Last week Friday I was hangover. I have a simple hangover protocol I follow especially if I have nowhere to go. I get up when am too hungry to sleep anymore. I make breakfast; I eat it in front of a short comedy. Twenty minutes maybe less. As soon as am done with this sleep drags my eyelids down. Then I get back in bed and try to sleep. Usually to music. It takes a while to fall asleep, and even if I do it’s that weird, ne’er really there sleep. You know the one where you’ve been trying and trying and suddenly its hours later but you’re not sure if you slept or not.

Then I wake up and watch TV. It’s not time to read, not time to surf, just to sit back and be passively entertained. Last week KPLC got in the way of that. By midmorning there was no electricity in the house. After 30 minutes you know, you just know that it’s not coming back anytime soon. Living in Kenya teaches you the rhythms of the country till they are part of your blood. 15 minutes or less or 3 hours and more. This is all electricity knows, no middle grounds except the flashes of lighting. That moment, that quick moment when the light blinks and then goes off. That moment that fries more computer adapters than most households do eggs.

This was frustrating since I couldn’t sleep and it was so hard to read. Electricity came back at about 8.30 p.m. Come Saturday,(and why does this happen on that Saturday when you aren’t leaving the house for anything) and the electricity leaves in the middle of the afternoon. I had no illusions of 15 minutes or less. A pattern had begun to develop. It came back a few hours later just to leave at night for another few hours. The rest of the week has been characterised by patches of darkness and periods of illumination. Facebook lets me know this frustration is not my own.

When you are used to electricity you can hardly move without it. It becomes the life’s blood of almost everything you use. Your phone, your computer, your light. All powered by electricity and when it leaves it, like a really tried for metaphor, leaves you powerless. People call KPLC now and it gets something done or at the very least gives the illusion of getting something done.

But have you noticed how quickly we get used to the state of affairs in Kenya?

People complained the first few times but as long as they confine their power outages to the day and keep them to about 3 a week everyone will get used to it. This comes on the back of ever increasing electricity bills and the hardest rains I have seen for a while. I don’t believe that as soon as it rains there should be a corresponding decrease in the price of electricity, nothing is ever immediate and am not sure how many businesses survive that react immediately to a decrease in the price of raw material when they have no control or assurance that conditions will stay the same. But at the very least supply should be more constant.

And why in the world do we have power outages anyway? Here’s the thing we complain about the duration of power outages but if we only had the 5 minute variety no one would mention it. Why does electricity disappear with such alarming regularity? Most places it happens because of natural disasters and if it’s not happening because of rationing why is it happening at all. Is there someone somewhere just switching supply on and off on a whim? Is there faulty equipment spluttering and swaying in the wind and water? How in Nairobi do we still have this, the equipment has been up for a while it should surely be something people know about. But this is not even a question I see being asked, everyone seems ok with the state of affairs.

How do we get so used to a state of affairs so fast. Things that used to seem unbearable all of a sudden aren’t. I mean think about the worst pain you ever felt, think about the worst physical pain you ever felt. For me it was when I broke my hand, the bone came jutting over the wrist and all they could give me in school was an aspirin and a quickly put together sling. Being driven to the hospital we went over potholes and this shook my hand. The bones scraped against each other and it was so jarring I started to cry. I can remember this but not really. I can remember it was bad but I can’t really conjure up how it felt. I remember the crying but not what got me there. The body heals. What about the other things that we felt we could never, ever get used to? Remember the feeling after a particularly meaningful break-up when the whole world and the way you have been living stops making sense? Or how it feels immediately someone dies, everything numbs down and you can’t imagine anything tasting the same or feeling as good or sounding even close to what it used to? Or even the good things that start off with such a bang. The first moments of a new hobby or when you turn your life around and all you see is hope and rainbows and clouds and then all of a sudden it shifts. On mad men after a turn for the better when Roger Sterling has reached epiphany and it’s all promises of happiness he’s soon back to his smoking, drinking, womanising ways(actually he never left any of this behind he was just more hopeful with it.) “What happened to your enlightenment?” “It wore off.” In the idiot Dostoevsky talks about a man who was sentenced to death, he begins to measure out the rest of his life, he thinks about the short time he has left and divides an hour into minutes and minutes into seconds. And in each of those second almost a lifetime passes and he asks himself, “what should I do if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days  and all mine! How should I grudge and count up every single minute of it so as not to waste a single instant.” Well he gets a reprieve and a while later asked if he stuck to his vow, “no I waste my days just as before.”

And that happens to everything. Righteous indignation, hopeful optimism, hateful rage, eternal love, unbearable pain, powerlessness. All the peaks and valleys of human life don’t last too long. Soon we are back to normal. Everyone’s normal is different of course for some people normal is a flood of light washing away almost every disappointment, for others it’s a KPLC blackout, a darkness that lifts but we know not why it’s come on us or whither and when it will leave. We seem to be calibrated not to shake too much and when we do we shake out of it as soon as we can.

So what’s the new normal now? Am not pissed off when electricity disappears, it’s just something that happens now. I work around it, I watch something on my comp until the battery dies then I read a book. I go for a walk, I have a long think. I work around my indignation and if Facebook is a reliable indicator of people’s moods so does everyone else. Gone are the updates about anger at KPLC. An anger that was pretty impotent to begin with because almost all of us remember power rationing, 3 times a week for hours and hours. And that was normal too so why can’t this be?

By the time I posted this there hadn’t been a blackout in days. And I couldn’t access the store of anger at there ever having been one or remember how bored I was back then. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

the lake

The bus leaves you a distance from the actual shags. From there you take a motorcycle . Along the way there is a road tax levied, you know one of those things where every vehicle using a particular road has to pay something to the council which will, in an ideal world use this levy to make the roads. The roads here are horrible, they are a collection of dust, rock and stone. The place is hilly so every time you crest you expect a movie stunt to happen though it really never does. The tax is levied quite simply showing both the ingenuity of taxmen all over the world and this ability we have in Kenya to create employment out of everything(before the machines take over.) someone simply sits by the side of the road the whole day, there’s a rope stretched across the road and it’s this person’s job to take down the rope when someone who has paid comes to pass. They all know each other population not being Indian so it works though it seems to work by query, “have you paid?” ”yes I have.” There’s another informal tax that goes on a little further down. A policeman will stop every bike and talk to them about this and that when all they want is the brown handshake(am not sure what colour a 50 bob note is right now and it’s that time of my life when there’s none handy to check-should have been a policeman this one worry would not have been.)

I wish I had carried a camera. Because bar none this is the most beautiful place in Kenya I have ever been to. It may be the most beautiful natural landscape I have ever seen. Of course it may be home ground advantage, maybe the fact that so many of my ancestors come from there prejudices me, the ground around that place is after all a repository of so many of the chances that had to come to pass before the right man to father me was born, specks of my dna roll in those soils and in the water and the air, there is something of me in that place, a me not fully formed but something nonetheless.

You see it’s quite close to the lake. Every single homestead  is hugged by the lake. Its presence is everywhere, in the fresh fish, in the rain water that comes down every day without fail, in the clouds that hang so low you feel like you can pick them, in a sunset that takes so long you believe Atlantis is still enjoying some of the sun’s favours.

It’s a hilly place so soon we were on a vantage point, I had gotten over the sting of rushing air pricking my eyes and the watery tears this brushed down my cheeks and I looked over to the left. It was mid-afternoon and the wind was playing with the lake. Brushing its fingers over it, blowing it’s breathe down her neck, just enough to tease her, to excite her without bringing her over to climax. Little wavelets played in the sun, blue and white and sparkling. The reflection catching a million little solars as they played back and forth and back again. It seemed endless this lake, the horizon a function of failing eyesight more than anything else. It could go on forever if I could see forever. Water has always had this strange effect on me. Large bodies of water still me, they make me think or not have to. I can sit by them for hours and read or gaze off in the distance not noticing anything else happen. Not that I like to get in them unless am on a boat.

The next day I got on a boat. There’s a small island near Gwassi called Kiwa. Its maybe the size of 2 CBD’s in Nairobi. Am not sure how big this is in hectares because I have always been singularly hopeless in estimating sizes. They call the engine-boat that you use to get over there a motor. And we waited for our motor. It fits maybe 20 people in and its sturdy, you can’t imagine it tipping over, they make many, many trips there and back, trips that take maybe 20 minutes each. In addition everyone who grew up here is a strong swimmer. The lake is the beginning and the end of everything. If not for Christianity we would be worshipping some version of Poseidon. From the lake comes food in the form of fish, from the lake comes water(I don’t think anyone really needs scientists to see the correlation between terrestrial water and that falling from the sky.), in the lake you wash, in the lake you shit. In the lake you play and there is that sound it makes. That eternal sound like an old man who doesn’t want to impose but whose smooth silky voice you stop to listen to as soon as it starts.

Gwassi is after all far, far away from all modern amenities. There is no electricity, no piped water, pit latrines are only now making a blushing entry into the place as if shy to take away so many natural nutrients from the plants. By the lake while I waited for the boat there were dozens of children with all their household utensils efficiently scrubbing them down. They stood naked or in underwear because it’s one of those places where nakedness is only shaming if you are an adult and are in the presence of adults of the opposite sex. Here they washed their dishes and then they washed their siblings. With such a store of water so close by who the hell is going to trudge back and forth to take it back home?

We got on the boat and the old man of the lake began to talk and everyone fell silent. Me most of all. For almost everyone else this was as unremarkable as a matatu ride, I hadn’t been on a boat since February and that wasn’t even a real boat. The lake rocked back and forth on those little wavelets, the wind not being one for whipping up a frenzy in these parts. I kept my eye on the horizon and I saw a bird, it was just standing on the lake. A black bird just standing on the lake. Then it got up and began to fly away. It never went too far up just gliding as if the sprays from the water would keep it afloat in the air. I followed it until it was a speck in the horizon and then it stretched the horizon. As long as I kept my eye on this bird my definition of the horizon changed, it went further and further and my eyes stretched further and further. Then it dropped off the edge of the world.

Did I mention it rains every day here? Every single day. The clouds hang low impregnated by lake water, too fat too float far in the air. This causes two things. The first is that you can see the bottom of the clouds as well as their tops. You just look straight and you can see the head of the clouds and you realise that they don’t hang on anything these clouds, they just float there levitating on air. I could see the different kinds of clouds I was taught about, the cumulus and nimbus(though the nimbus were too high up to see their heads.) their whole hierarchy was laid out and stacked up  like a messy god’s room. Because they were so close they began to form tableaus. You squint just right and you  see a table or a car or people in discussion. Between the head of this cloud and the tail of the other you could see the sky. It was never exactly blue, just less white. Every single spot in the sky was spotted with clouds of some kind. Just too light to completely obscure the view.

The second effect was the shadows. From the island you can see the effect of shadows hanging so low, it’s a hilly mainland so some mountains are set off in sunlight. It breaks through the dark of the clouds shining down a spotlight of gold and green, of dust and dreams. The weird thing about this sunlight was that it looked anaemic, weak. You would think that the contrast would make it look stronger but it looked more white than yellow. No matter that it had escaped some of the clouds it was still affected by them.

I walked around the island for a little, and well was it average. Nothing different, everyone looked the same, sounded the same, talked the same. At least here I could indulge in some local brew without being sure my grandmother would hear about it. I got a cup of changaa for 50 bob from some ladies selling out of a hut(it’s always the ladies who sell It.) it tasted like Uganda to be honest(my stay in Uganda being the only time I really indulged in changaa). Strong and survivable if you sipped a little of it a time. A too quick gulp, or even worse a shot would shoot through your nerves, setting them afire and your throat would be coughing up phlegm. When I got on my boat to leave there was a man standing nearby. He looked like he had been dropped out of Jamaica or a raga video into these parts. You know how raga men always have this face that you don’t really want to meet in the middle of the night? A craggy face with lines that speak of hardness and a complexion that talks of long hours of battle with the sun. His demeanour was pure reggae though. He had dreadlocks that weren’t too long and they were all tied up neatly in a Marvin. He stood by one of the boats watching us go, his daughter(I assume) was playing below it. In his hands was the biggest doobie I had seen in ages. It was classically rolled. None of this one width like a cigarette shit, no it was tapered like a cone. He stood there in the middle of this beach taking puff after puff. He was not a man who smoked to get stoned. At least not the way some city dwellers do. He wasn’t going to go off into the giggles was this was done, or be unable to watch a movie. No he just smoked to relax, like the way some smoked a cigarette or had a beer. It wasn’t some exciting ritual for him just what he did every day by the beach as he waited for the sun to set. Dropped from Jamaica this guy.

I got back to mainland as the sun was beginning to set. Got on the most dangerous boda boda ride of my life. This guy nearly dropped me twice off that bike. I could tell when I got on that he would ride fast. I don’t know if it was the brash confidence of his youth or the fact that all this bluster existed in the one guy who actually had a helmet, knowing his faith in his prowess couldn’t protect him by itself.

Large bodies of water retain heat much better than land. The heat has a chance to penetrate the lake which is a much more willing lover than land,  pure wind though all he does is get her ready with all his soft caresses as the sun plunges in deeper and deeper into her. The light and heat find a home here and they aren’t as ready to leave when the time comes. This results in land breezes at night(secondary geography that may be wrong but am way too lazy to Google that.) as the sun set all around us it got dark pretty fast. There is a certain inky darkness that prevails in places without electricity. Its squid like and complete. As this was happening I looked over to the lake again and I saw something strange. Towards the edge of the horizon it wasn’t dark at all. A crown of gold was being lowered over the lake as the sun set. Over there it looked like it had 2 hours ago. The sun took its time leaving its lake and it set off a contrast as severe as day and night, as magical as a rainbow. A chance to see two things that usually don’t roam the earth walking it hand in hand. I kept watching it wondering if like the bird from before it would go on forever until it finally dropped off the edge of the world. Wondering if it was possible, on a really fast boat to follow the sun forever and never see it go down for a year. Wondering what stories about our lake god we would associate with this false place of forever sun if Christianity had not come barging in. Wondering, just wondering until everything went black.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Last Monday I went to my father’s shags. Shags (for all those who may not be familiar with this Kenyan term) is a word of longing. It’s a name for a home that is no longer a home. It’s what comes about because of rural urban migration and this feeling our parents had that no city is home. They believe that home is where you grew up, where your parents grew up, where your family has a place of deepest connections. That place of memory, of childhood is called ushago or shags. I think this means home because to hear them tell it, “Nairobi is noone’s home.” I call it my father’s shags because it doesn’t feel like home to me, I grew up right here in Nairobi and a place of fresh air, plenty of milk and no traffic jam lives as much in my dreams as in my memories.

My father’s shags is in Nyanza. In the southern tip of the province at the western end of the country. It’s a district called Suba after the tribe of people found there. You see we aren’t really Luo there’s some Bantu blood flowing in our veins but we were so thoroughly assimilated and conquered by them that there is almost nothing left of our original culture. The shags itself is close to the lake, its hugged by it on every border, you wake up to it, the sun sets behind it, the main economic activity is fishing and Migingo of a now bygone fame can be seen from almost anywhere near there. Anyone from here needing an i.d. is treated like an immigrant with requests for at least 3 other sets of corroborating evidence of your kenyannes.

Nyanza is much bigger than Nairobi but then again almost anything is. Nairobi is the province of the small man syndrome, smaller in size than all its counterparts it overcompensates in aggression and speed, in wit and low blows because we could never land them any higher. As a result of this not every bus from Nairobi to Nyanza gets you where you want to go as opposed to a bus from anywhere to Nairobi which would leave you at the steroid affected apex of our city centre. To go to Suba you have to take a special bus, and you have to take it from Machakos.

Machakos is the other bus station in Nairobi. The first one is called bus station(I told you we city dwellers overcompensate with wit.) the other one is called Machakos, it’s found near gikomba where all your clothing dreams can come true and going there at night is an adventure all its own. It has been raining in Nairobi recently and when it rains it muds near Machakos. Add to this the fact that all the light provided is from the bus headlights, torches and various smokers in different stages of lung inhalation and it becomes surreal. At night everything is cast in reds and yellows and the slick browns of slippery mud. You get in with a bag and you are accosted by people who are ready to drag it away from you, people who yell, yo! whenever they see somebody on a trip. (Ok they don’t actually say yo!) What is true is that they see you, they spot you and they know almost immediately what part of Kenya you are going to, of course this may be because all buses leaving at that time are on their way to Nyanza but how am I to know such things?

The buses are splayed haphazardly. It looks like a child’s playground right after  they are called away, toys parked in no order just here, just lounging there, diagonal or almost, horizontal or not at all. A supreme attitude of not-give-a-fuckery about order. And just because someone may use this stage once upon a time, a public service announcement is that they have the worst run council toilets I have ever paid to use. They are dirty, they smell, you almost don’t want to put your foot down and maybe that’s why they are in this mess, no one ever did. You still get some tissue for your ten bob though.

One bus company holds the monopoly for travel to Suba, its called Otange. This name for some reason sounds old in my mind. Am not sure what it means but it feels rustic or just rusty and was it. The seats are too tiny you sit hunched over and the only reason you can fall asleep is because the bus left Nairobi at 11 am. They have the most amazing method of booking seats, a guy ties a rope between one seat and the next so that nobody can go in. when the reserved-for’s come in the rope is simply taken off. And they have this smell. The smell of old sweat. For some reason I recently read books where people were forced to eat their horses because they had run out of food(ok because those books were great, seriously read A Song of Ice and Fire) there is a description of the horse meat itself, the way sweat had worked itself into the muscles of the horses. Because if you think of it war horses are bred for endurance. They have no fat just muscle and they run and run the whole day until they are eaten. The sweat on their skin begins to soak in and the meat is smelly, tough and salty. This is how the bus smelled. It hadn’t been cleaned for a while obviously and there was the smell of stale sweat in the air. Sweat that had not been wiped away for a long time. The sweat that leaks off our pores when we sleep at night or boil in the day and then gets trapped in a hot box of even more sweat. The kind of smell that sticks right up our nostrils and seems to burrow in making a home there, a home we are sure cannot be undone but soon is because we get used to everything. My verdict, fuck monopolies.

While almost there, in Kisii actually a commotion arose in the bus and the driver stopped it. Apparently a man and a woman had been having sex in the bus. While public copulation is something we have all aspired to at one time or another, I just don’t understand, I had barely enough room to sit. My knees were hunched over, my back bent. How the hell did they do it? Missionary is out of the question, too much commotion. The only thing that makes sense with a chair is girl on boy, but there’s no space. Alternatively they could have been getting some sideways action but everything seems to require a little stretching out and there was no space for it! Any ideas?

Anyway they wanted to throw them out of the bus and the man obliged, he just ran out of there. Like one of those dogs caught shagging in the playground when you were a child. Remember the way the dog would just begin to run from the bitch and then get stuck and be pulled back. This was his first instinct. Fuck this, am out. Except where the hell too? Kisii isn’t really a place you want to get caught in the dark of the night. I just say this because this wasn’t his final destination and no one wants to get caught out in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.

Cooler heads prevailed, cooler than those two though they got a thorough tongue lashing(it strikes me that a tongue lashing could have worked as a  form of sexual intercourse but there was a condom or so someone shouted.) and for a while they were treated to such delicious entendres like,

“She was just shifting the gear for the driver.”
“He was just filling the pothole in the road.”
And on and on and on.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

just a line 2

this follows on from another post found here http://waywardfoe.blogspot.com/2012/11/just-line-1.html

The more we know, it seems, the more we regret it. The new James Bond movie begins with an exhilarating chase across streets with guns, motorcycles and trains. The opening sequence comes to a head with Bond and the villain fighting atop a train. One of Bond’s colleagues is stationed nearby with a sniper fixed on the warring couple, the shot is hazy and uncertain, a bullet could hit either one. As the sequence draws to a close the shot becomes more certain. She reports back to headquarters that she has a clear shot and if she should fire now she would hit Bond. Her orders come back, “take the bloody shot!” She does hitting Bond square in the chest and sending him down into the icy embrace of a cold pool at the bottom. When next we see him he is a mess. Living in a tropical island somewhere, waking up to a bottle of beer and dragging himself through days whose main promise is barroom bets. He drinks with a purpose. He believed in his superiors and always suspected that when the time came he would be sacrificed in the stead of what was good for his country but he didn’t know. He couldn’t know until then. Suspicions are illusions, like the people in the cover of Some Monday for Sure they are always half formed. They hide behind masks and take shapes that we can’t quite see. They are as familiar as true knowledge but they shimmer and shake and freeze us in inaction. The clear certainty of knowledge, the crystallized, unsatinized world view that comes of intelligence too sharp to begin fooling itself results in this; an intelligence whose only recourse is to numb itself.

The true curse of excessive intelligence may be the need to have things as either completely fair or completely random. To either believe that the universe must be intelligent enough that things are happening for a reason or that nothing is and subsequently nothing matters. Some are able to mitigate these circumstances but some like Ivan and the character from the Nadine Godimer story are tormented by their intelligence. Tortured night and day like a ghost that refuses to die, shifty and not quite there but always in the background, a song you can’t get out of your head, a taste your tongue will not forget. It bring up memories and feelings, the whole world is coated with the pain of all those around you. Your empathy is your  cross and the intelligence needed to figure out just how much empathy the world really needs is the reason you can’t  bear it.
Christianity tells us that on his way to Calgary Jesus bore all the sins of mankind. There can be few things worse than carrying around the guilt for all the actions of more than one human being. Carrying our own load tires us out, it makes us spiteful and mean and suspicious. It leads us to believe that because we did evil others can do it too. Carrying another’s load would be doubly as hard. And if there is anything that flows in more abundance than guilt it is grief. If I could imagine the depth of grief that is borne in the world today by all the people in it, I would see an abyss too huge to void, too dark to light and what is required to see it for what it is an intelligence that would be too difficult to bear. After all even Jesus at the end of his road asked for some wine to ease the way.

What else do we know about this man from this most descriptively efficient sentence?

He must brood. I can see him as being a great time at a party (as opposed to having one), being crack whip with the jokes but soon he sits there and gets drunker and drunker and when he gets to the end of the bottle he realises what we all do; the answer is never at the end of the bottle and the hope that we will get to the answer this time is what drives us to drink in the first place. Then he will get home and sleep in the only way he can. Too drunk to dream, too tired to think, too exhausted to empathize. In the morning the sun will check in on him and he will wake up bleary and tired. Even this feeling of being only half alive he will prefer to the anguish he knows awaits him when his mind is clear. A man like this would be a study in wasted potential, he will be the guy who everyone says was, “so smart but I don’t know what happened, he could have done great things.” Instead he will wake up and expend the bare minimum of energy necessary to take him to his next bout with alcohol. At this point it isn’t a friend the alcohol and he knows this. No friend would lie to him so consistently; no friend would trick him time and time again with promises of oblivion just to return him to the world where that other curse is awaiting him. By now he considers alcohol an enemy but one he is comfortable with. In the middle of their grapples, when they have a hold of each other, nothing else matters and he prefers having that moment to all the others. This is not a solution he knows but it can’t matter. It is, to quote an episode of Mad Men a temporary bandage over a permanent wound. His intelligence betrayed him and now he would rather kill himself than give in to the pain of letting it win, letting it show him over and over what the world is really like. And for our man, this particular character in these particular circumstances, an extremely intelligent black man born in the midst of apartheid South Africa.  Born in a place where his natural talents added only more frustration to his already hard life. Born in a place where he would see people less capable than him given things that were rightfully his, knowing this wasn’t right and maybe even trying to fight it before the overwhelming weight everything finally crushed him. It would be too much

With that one sentence, “he drinks to deaden the pain of his intelligence,” a whole man sprang Athena-like to my mind mythic and mystic. Words and books have a tag-team effort with the person reading them. A mirror only looks how we want it to look, how we have taught ourselves to make it look, it only sees the things already there. My description of the man and my sense of deep empathy towards him are a result of my life experiences and the deep, dark fears that I can confront in print. We can be any of the characters in a great book but we know who we do not want to be and we know who we are most scared of becoming. By reading it we are looking for ourselves because being alone in the world may be the hardest thing. Loneliness walks hand in hand with fear and the greatest disappointment we have may be that we didn’t share anything with anyone.

It does not have to be material goods that we share. It can be the things a lot of people feel are even more important. A fear, a dream, a secret, a great love. To know that we didn’t have to share it in order for someone else to know how it felt can be a great relief. The angst of teenage-hood with the often derided, “you people don’t understand me,” is great for a while. For a lot of our lives we are defined by other things and we are so-and-so’s son or sister. And at the point when we want to define who we really are it may be important for us to think that the people we were defined in comparison to have absolutely nothing to do with us. They don’t know what it’s like being us, how could they? Later we realise that it’s not that simple and smile wryly when the next generation does the same. We understand that they think we don’t get them because were them. As you get older and have more control of your identity and life it’s easier to see the similarities that arise out of all these things. And that teenage angst gets assuaged by realising that a lot of people are a lot like us.

For a long time we find purpose in supposing we are different. Our emotions aren’t like those that came before, our relationships are made of different building blocks, our paths and ideals will not be corrupted by all that happens in the world. But as we grow older we realise how much of a farce all this is. The world can be changed and we can be unique but someone else felt the things we felt, our emotions are not all ours, we can find the thoughts we have been thinking, thoughts still so abstract we couldn’t put words to them in the speech of a character in a Russian novel from the 19th century. We can hear our deepest desire described eloquently by a person on the other side of the world and we can realise that we no longer have to feel alone. Everyone has a cross to bear but bearing it alone; believing that you have to because your intelligence is completely unlike that of anyone around you is the thing that will make you drink to deaden its pain.

And that’s the last thing we learn about the man, he was lonely. He believed himself different from all those around him. He felt the pain of the world but was not brave enough to let the world feel his. And despite the vast intelligence he had the only solution he could think of was to drink and drink until he couldn’t feel his pain either. No man is an island and those who believe they are soon sink.

Monday, November 5, 2012

just a line 1

There is a book that I grew up with. Its jacket is green with four people splashed on it. The people aren’t photo people, by this I mean they don’t look how human beings look but rather they are an approximation of humanity. They are made of shapes, perfect geometric shapes, with curves that look like an architect’s drawing. They have masks instead of faces, theatre masks which they use to cover themselves from sight, hiding something as surely as we all do. The figures are black and white and they put me in mind of chicken steaks.

As a child I read a lot but I could never pick this one up. I was always too shallow, knowing the proverb about books and their covers but not heeding it even when deciding what to read. One thing brought me back to it again and again making me promise myself I would read it. That thing was the legend printed at the top of the book, “winner of the 1991 Nobel prize” it said. This was enough for me to want to read Nadine Gordimer and I promised myself that I would read Some Monday For Sure. Finally I was old enough and I did. Am glad I picked it up after some time in this world, glad I read it when I had realised that, at least for me, emotional depth played just as big a part if not bigger than narrative urgency in the beauty of a book. A book, by the time I read this one, was not something about detectives solving a case or a wizard learning his magic but a tome on life and a good book no matter what its subject was always about life. I had passed through that teenage belief that the problems I had were all my own and that no one, no matter what they said had gone through the kind of things I had. I was getting firmly on the path of believing that everyone had and that the only reason I didn’t believe them was that I just didn’t listen well enough. I was seeing myself in books everywhere, people with my problems and my insecurities, people who had the same hopes as I did and harboured the same fears. I was meeting myself everywhere I went. In moments of honesty when I admitted to feelings that I normally wouldn’t someone else would pipe up and let me know they had been there, I would do this for others too and pretty soon I realised that I could understand myself through them. Reading had become as much about making sense of myself as it had about making sense of the world and this was the gift  a really good writer could give.

It was having reached this point that I finally picked up the book. I was blown away. There was so much emotion in each page, such  an understanding of the complex art of being human and being sad and realising that these were the things we got in life and that all we could do was try to make ourselves happy with them. The places she, Nadine Gordimer, set her book in were sad places, places full of heartbreak and a longing for something better. She once wrote that a writer "is 'selected' by his subject -- his subject being the consciousness of his own era." And the consciousness of her era was pre-apartheid South Africa with racial relations so tense and so entrenched that they provided fodder for such rich literature and in that literature such protest that one of her books was banned by the apartheid government. Fiction can be used to make an emotional argument and the argument she made and made well was that this was not the right state of affairs, something had to give and it would on some Monday for sure.

Like a lot of the things I had growing up, here’s looking at you innocence, I lost the book. This was occasioned by a moving of house and a generally careless character that I have carefully cultivated since childhood. However I remember some phrases from the book. One in particular may stay with me forever. It was the description of a black intellectual and he was, “a man who drank to deaden the pain of his intelligence.” It was not just the rhythmic cadence of the phrase that struck, not its mere memorability as a bunch of words strung together as beautifully as the world’s best tapestries but the descriptive efficiency of the phrase. It told me so much about this man drawing with one sentence a portrait of him that almost walked out of the page and into the bar.

He was of course a smart man. Razor sharp, the kind who had school go so easy for him that we were all jealous. He understood string theory and the writings of Socrates. He could have been a surgeon or a lawyer, a professor in any field he damn well pleased if only he hadn’t had too much faith in his mind. Because he believed in his mind more than the rest of us did, he put it to work. He looked up and around him and objectively surveyed the world. In everything he saw there was sadness, every single shadow was sans sun and this pattern repeated itself everywhere.

What kind of intelligence drives a man to drink? The very kind that drove Ivan from the Brothers Karamazov to begin cutting up stories of little children being tortured by life and their loved ones. This was a man who believed in the right of his argument. Of all the arguments he, Ivan, made in that book there was one against the culture of torture of children. He and life convinced me that parents do not have a right to beat children. One argument basically being that we all, no matter how good at parenting, will hurt our children. Our failings as human beings will bring us up short of the happiness that they deserve, we will give them scars and pain, disappointment and resentment and we will do it by mistake, in spite of our best intentions. So how can we live in a world that allows us to do it on purpose? One that allows us to visit violence on them? Allows us to visit that kind of harm that is physical in its manifestations, emotional in its results and psychological in its scars. A triumvirate of pains that results from the need to “discipline”. This is the just and fair world we live in and this is allowed in it. Well not so much anymore in many countries but a lot more of the world’s population is situated in places where no one would bat an eyelid if you batted your child. Many smart people see a little of Ivan in themselves, though it is probably true that everyone who reads that book sees a little of each of the characters in themselves. However Ivan in the quality of argument he makes is completely empirical. He does not as Sherlock Holmes would criticize twist facts to fit theories. He gives the facts and when the overwhelming horror of what is going on in the world is apparent he lets Alyosha ask himself if this is justice. He even rejects the whole concept of higher harmony because, “ It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'!”

In The Brothers Karamazov though Ivan was presented as incomplete, he suffered a spiritual emptiness that can be crippling. He saw the world for what it was and would turn it away for he did not see justice in it. Yet the thing that had brought him to this conclusion was his intelligence. You can’t just shut off intelligence and that is what the character in Nadine Gordimer’s story knew. Perhaps he too had gone through a period of spiritual crisis ending in loss, perhaps he too had read Ivan’s treatise on the nature of the world and found too much truth there for the overarching moral of that novel to deny it. What remains true however  is that what he saw gave him pain. And if we look around us isn’t that the state of the world. In our saddest moments we question it all. At the moments when I feel the most empathy for anyone else in the world, when I think of people who through no fault of their own get stuck in a life they cannot get out of, when I think about the unfairness of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, at those moments it is almost too much pain to bear Let’s consider just that aspect of the world for a while. About 18,904(according to the World Health Organisation) infants died every day for the year 2011. 18,904 children under the age of 5 lost their lives each day. This means about 18,904 fathers and mothers had to see their children die, not in a month or even a week but every day for a year. 18,904 tiny coffins and cremation urns. When you consider that this happens in the world how can you be happy? How can it be fair that you in such a place are happy or content? Ralph Ellison’s invisible man asks himself towards the end of that book, “how does it feel to live without illusion?” the only answer he can give is, “painful and empty.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

the fountain of youth

Give me a second   I, I need to get my story straight /my friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the empire state

There is a story of an old man who had lazy sons and fertile lands. He was worried that when he died his sons would not make use of their inheritance and  let the soil go to rot. He knew that the preparing of land for planting and harvest was a hard thing. He remembered getting up at the crack of dawn to dig and dig and dig. He would begin on one corner of his farm and dig hard to stay ahead of the rain, he would dig across the farm and along its boundaries, he would dig deep so that the mulch that had long settled in the bottom of the soil would be churned up and come to the surface, he would dig wide so that his efforts covered the whole farm. For months he would dig and then he would let God bring down the rain and in this way he kept his family in food.

He was a cunning old man so when he died he wrote his sons a story of the family treasure buried somewhere in their lands. A treasure of gold and gems, of silver and diamonds, precious stones and rare metals all they would have to do is find it. The sons heard this and resolved to do just that, they began to dig. They began at one corner of the farm and dug hard to find the treasure, they dug across the farm and along its boundaries, they dug deep looking for the treasure and mulch that had long settled in the bottom of the soil was churned up and came to the surface, they dug wide so that their efforts covered the whole farm. For months they dug and then God brought down the rain. And come harvest time they looked up and saw what treasure their father was talking about. The trees were laden with fruits and vegetables, corn and maize and at their feet carrots and potatoes  had sprouted across their land. Bags and bags of food and fruit found their to the market place and the sons were never lazy again.

my lover she is waiting for me just across the bar/ My seat's been taken by some sunglasses asking 'bout a scar

This article is supposed to be about the fountain of youth and before I began writing it I thought I would read up on how this legend began to circulate the world. One version is spread by Herodotus; he was a Greek traveller back in the days when we owed Greece a debt, democracy is a good thing after all. He claimed that it was found in Ethiopia and that this accounted for why the Ethiopians lived for so long. Most stories concerning the fountain of youth have in them an element of travel and hardship. It’s far away everyone claims, it’s hard to get there and are you sure you want to risk it all on a dream? The truth about most people who went out in search of the fountain of youth is that they spent all their youth looking for it and came home old and tired with no location of the fountain to report just stories of the places they have been and the things they have seen.

No one believes in the fountain of youth anymore. Ok it would be wrong of me to say no one after all scientology is a thing and faith is not an aspect of reason. But most people who talk about a fountain of youth mean hanging on to this mix of emotions and ideas that we have we are young. This belief that we can do anything, have anyone, go anywhere. The endless array of possibilities and our faith in our strength to achieve them. The feeling of immortality that carries us from one really stupid decision to another. The ability to see the world as a young person does, not as a child who sees it through rules and the eyes of whoever holds their hands but as a freely reasoning adult.

 That moment when you can see the world can be changed, that happiness can be achieved. That perfect moment when you are surrounded by friends and laughter when our problems and stresses are so far away we can’t even remember how they feel. To capture this moment and make it last is the fountain of youth we all look for. Not a life of just this moments but a life when such moments are always possible when the promise of youth is not just a memory but always a possibility.

Tonight/ We are young

Two things struck me about the fountain of youth stories; you had to go far away to find it and by the time you didn’t you had already lost your youth. The stories reminded me of the story about the old man and his sons. He told them that to find treasure they had to dig and dig and though they didn’t find treasure they found something just as precious. All the stories about the fountain of youth tell us to go far away. Far away from ourselves and all the things we thought we couldn’t do. Ethiopia is just next door to Kenya but it’s still so hard to get to, how much harder would it have been for a Greek living thousands of years ago? He would have to hide away his fears about life, he would be told by people that what he was doing was stupid and would end in disaster. That nothing good would come of it and still he would have had to believe in himself. He would set aside his fears and go about organising his life because it was his. He would set off not knowing when he would return or what he would find in front of him. He would leap into the dark with no net and no compass.

so if by the time the bar closes /and you feel like falling down / I'll carry you home

While on his way there he would find adventures and stories. He would make friends and make sacrifices, he would live life and in the end he wouldn’t find the fountain and would come back tired and old but he would be young. He would have known he lived life on his own terms for a little. That he believed in himself enough to do what he thought was right. In his memories, in his trials he would be forever young. David Foster Wallace once wrote that “our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home.”

So let’s set the world on fire/ we can burn brighter the sun

That may have been the real secret about the fountain of youth. That it is not located in a place but it is found in an attempt. Nobody  who is successful had 100% of the people believing in him. They were told they couldn’t do what they wanted to. And there is no formula for happiness. To each his own path, but the stories about digging for the fountain of youth may have been trying to tell us that the digging is its own reward. The courage to try what you really want to try. To be who you want to be. Take a risk and dig and dig and before you know it soft fruit and food will fall from the heavens. Maybe we can’t be forever young but we won’t know if we don’t at least try.

So what are your thoughts on what keeps us feeling young?