Friday, August 30, 2019

After Somehow
Douglas Cruickshank

“I have made the big decision
I'm gonna try to nullify my life”
--Lou Reed


Maybe the story should have ended at this point, not started here. In terms of narrative arc, maybe it would have been a better, tidier tale if the heart attack had killed me. But you work with what you’ve got, right? More on that later. First, come, we go back a ways. 

The time arrived — too soon, as it always does — when my star began fading. It wasn’t that bright a star to begin with, even at its peak, but I was making a living. Then I wasn’t.


Why I love Africa: 
When I can’t hear myself laughing, I can hear someone else laughing.

Coming into Africa was, for me, falling into a seduction. And I’m yet to stop falling. Indeed, the longer I’ve been here, the farther I fall. It’s been a decade now — living here. 

I first fell in love with the people, was seduced by their warmth, love of talk and laughing, gregariousness, charm, playfulness, creativity. 

I then was seduced by the natural world, the flora, the fauna, insects, birds (more species than in all of North America) in my adopted home of Uganda, now also home to my young son Mukisa, and always the home of Mukisa’s mother, Nattabi. The country has a population of more than 40 million — 48 percent below age 15; 50 percent between 15 and 65; a bit more than 2 percent 65 or older.

Nowadays I arrive around midday, not midnight. In 2009 when I first glided down to Entebbe in a jetliner after 20 hours in the air — my first time in Uganda, first time in Africa — the night had been buried long and deep in darkness. I’d done a lot of traveling for years before that, traveled extensively in several developing countries, so I was prepared, I thought. But one can’t really prepare for Africa. Because Africa cannot be adequately imagined, cannot be accurately conjured. The imagination is not immense enough. For one thing we have no clue how big Africa is. We can’t picture it. The pictures we do have are wrong. The maps we’ve seen don’t show it. You can take the continental colossus of Africa, pour in Japan, China, India, Eastern Europe, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, the UK, and the United States, and still have room left over. That’s good, because more than a billion people live here. 

That’s what initially hit me driving into Kampala that night: masses of people people people people. People everywhere. It would be true wherever I went, city, town or country, for the entire time I lived in Uganda, and it gets truer whenever I return. At roughly the size of the state of Oregon, Uganda has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. The average woman has six-plus kids. The country has a population of nearly 40 million. Population of Oregon? Just under 4 million.

Ugandans line the roads, cram into the markets and the taxi parks and the loud all-night worship services of the evangelical churches. Upcountry and in the towns, people line up at the water taps, the pumps, the streams and ponds to fill jerrycans and socialize. If there is a more sociable race than the Ugandans, I’ve yet to meet them. Before Uganda I thought Australians were the most gregarious, friendly people on the planet. The Ugandans make them seem shy and withdrawn. Before Uganda I thought the Vietnamese, whose country I’d visited in 1994, were the sweetest, most welcoming folks on earth, now they are in second place. Ugandans are the sweetest.

There is something oddly intoxicating about the ferment of modern Kampala — a madly active place, sweet, sour, hilarious, heartbreaking. (“Welcome to the future,” I tell visiting friends as we first drive into the frantic, potholed Bladerunner-esque megalopolis.) People have lived on this hilly landscape adjacent to the world’s second largest lake for centuries, probably millennia, but historians — being characteristically arbitrary — place the city’s founding in the 18th century.  They have a point: the name Kampala came into use about then, with the arrival of the British overlords who went on to rule the country as a protectorate until 1962. The “founding” of such a glorious amalgam, however, is a vague concept. What it really means is anyone’s guess in this place where so much history was and is made by the people whose origins are here, yet almost all of it has been recorded and interpreted by foreigners, many of whom never set foot here.

The name Kampala references the native impala that used to ramble and dance in abundance in this place, though no longer. But the people, the clan, who’ve lived here for dozens of centuries remain. They are the Buganda, the largest clan in Uganda, and have, over the years, been joined by many other people from many other clans and countries, so that the city you find now is a vital, surging human ocean of Africans from across and up and down the continent, Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners, Americans and you name it. In addition to the foreign languages that have floated into Uganda since the 1500s or so, there are 52 clan languages, plus Swahili and any number of strays from nearby countries that comprise the amazing sound casserole that is heard on the streets here everyday. 

After I left Kyarumba, the Rwenzori Mountain town in Western Uganda where I’d lived for nearly 3 years, I died — or came damn close. “You had about 45 minutes left,” my cardiologist told me. As it happened, I was visiting the USA at the time of the massive heart attack. If I’d been in Africa I would have had none minutes left. I’d be taking a dirt nap now. 

Here’s the essay I wrote afterward, called “My Excellent Heart Attack”:  


Interviewer: To what do you attribute your long life?
John Huston: Surgery.

Easter morning I woke up with an almost preternatural feeling of well being, a novel sensation. What a good sleep I'd had, I thought to myself. I dithered about the house for five or 10 minutes in that glowing cloud, then noticed a rapidly intensifying ache in my upper right arm. As its intensity and sharpness and meanness increased, it radiated across my chest, a great sunburst of agony. I then broke out in a lather, my hands were ice. The classic symptoms, I thought; I'm having a heart attack. I knew I had to stay conscious, get some clothes on, get down to Susie's house next door. The pain was, well, magnificent. I'd never felt anything like it. It was monumental.

I walked in the back door and kept walking, right out the front door. Susie was sleeping on the couch in the living-room. As I passed her I said, “Susie, I'm having a heart attack.” I walked across the driveway and got in her car. She threw on some clothes and came running out. We live in a remote location that emergency services might have a hard time finding, so she wisely drove me to the fire station two miles away. It felt like 200 miles. The two EMT's there – Matt and Will – put me on oxygen and called the ambulance that was at another firehouse. Dave and Rachel arrived in the ambulance. I was loaded in. I looked at Susie standing at the back as they began to close the doors, and I thought of doors, and then I thought of that line from “When the Music's Over,” the old Doors song: “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.”

We drove back country roads to the hospital – painfully swinging and swaying, tires screaming on the corners. In the towns, Dave flipped on the siren. Rachel gave me morphine and talked to me and was terrific in every way; she kept sending information to the hospital so they knew what was about to descend on them. Dave drove like Mario Andretti. When the crimson vehicle's back doors reopened at the hospital, there were 12 or 15 people waiting for me – the cardiac catheterization team. A young man who looked to be about 18 walked up to me: My cardiologist. He very clearly and concisely explained what was happening and what he planned to do. I was in the OR within five minutes of arriving at the hospital. I was given a sedative. They took my clothes off – cut the shirt off – put a gown on me. A long white mitten that stretched to my shoulder was slipped onto my right arm. A small hole was cut in the mitten near my palm. The doctor gave me a couple of injections of anesthetic in the right wrist. That was the most painful part of the procedure. And then he began running the angioplasty balloon and stents all the way up the arm and into the two arteries on either side of my heart – the left coronary artery and the right coronary artery. Four stents in all.

One artery had three blockages. Two spots had 99 percent blockage; another had 85 percent blockage. The other artery had about 85 percent blockage in one location. The procedure took about 90 minutes or two hours, the doctor later told me. I was awake the entire time, but the sedative spaced me out, helped me lose track of how long it was taking. Once I'd had the anesthetic in my arm, there was no further pain.

Now, nearly two weeks later, the doctor tells me that the damage to the heart was not too bad and that I'm making a good recovery. There were some complications from the drugs I must take, but they've rejiggered my cocktail and those problems seem to have been resolved. Indeed, if you must have a heart attack – and I strongly counsel you not to – I hope you have one like mine. It was a perfect storm of everyone who helped me doing the right things and doing them quickly, competently, coolly. I was lucky to be near one of the best cardiac catheterization clinics in the country, and also very fortunate to have a cardiologist who, youthful appearance notwithstanding, is enormously capable, kind and good humored.

Many people have said to me, “That must have been so scary.” Actually, no, it wasn't at all. It never occurred to me to be scared or that I might be moments from dying. The whole episode appeared before me like a great To Do list: Don't pass out; Get clothes on; Don't slip on steps exiting cottage; Tell Susie what's happening; Get in car; and so on.

I've always felt very lucky to have the life I'm living. And I still do.


***

I had to stay in the US longer than I’d planned after the heart surgery; doctor didn’t want me flying right away. And when I was finally able to return to Uganda, my desire for future visits to the US diminished considerably. I did go back a few times but my connection to the place faded and many friendships there also faded. Now, 6 years later, I’m in touch with only a very few US friends on a regular basis.

On the other hand, being back in Uganda was downright incandescent. It was authentically thrilling and, hyperbole aside, it as the beginning of the rest of my life, a very unexpected third act. Everything was heightened and sweeter — colors, tastes, smell, touch, sounds… Africa is dramatically beautiful to begin with. Now it was more so. The people are sweet and gregarious. Now they were more so. It was life tuned up to 11. My creative ambitions, always strong, became even stronger, more focused. 

As I write this in late 2019, I’ve been here a bit more than a decade. I’m married to a Ugandan woman and we have a 3 year old son, Mukisa. The name mns “blessing” in Luganda the language most widely spoken here, though there are 52 indignous languages — plus English, Swahili, and various Euopean, Chiese and Asian languages.

At 3, Mukia already speaks English, Luganda and Swahili. At 65 I still struggle with English and can understand smidgins of Luganda, Swahili and Lukonzo, the language spoken in the Rwenzori Mountains region where I first lived when I came to Uganda. 

Since leaving the Rwenzoris, I’ve lived in Kampala, a city of 1.6 million with 50 million potholes. Our home is in the Kisaasi neighborhood, which looks and feels like a small town. There are many large trees, often filled with monkeys and exotic looking birds. Mukisa is especially fond of the noisiest one, the iridescent green ibis. There are more species of birds in Uganda (a country the size of Oregon) than in all of North America — Canada, USA, Mexico. They are extravagantly beautiful and some are passing strange in behavior and appearance — such as the immense shoebill stork. Indeed, there is a very sociable shoebill at the Entebbe Zoo. Given half a chance he’ll be happy to jump onto your shoulder. He is the size of a large eagle and has the unlikely name of Sushi. 

The interaction of humans and fauna in Africa is problematic. There are the charismatic mega-fauna — elephants, hippos, gorillas, giraffes, etc. — with a clear tourism appeal; it costs $500 to spend an hour in the presence of a gorilla. Then there are the domestic animals — cattle, goats, sheep, which are treated poorly often brutally. Poverty drives both behaviors, and of course poaching is also a result of severe economic hardship. A single rhino horn fthes $75,000 n the black market. However, what few in the West understand is that there is a vast and growing middle class in much of Africa. And many African societies are significantly improving for many citizens. The changes are generational and substantial. Women, for example, are seen more and more in leadership roles in business and politics, and great emphasis is put on education for the “girl child.” Even up country women are beginning to get their due as there is a considerable push to put property in both the husband’s and wife's names.

According to Harper’s Index, African immigrants have the highest educational accomplishment of any foreigners relocating to the USA. This is good and bad. Good for a growing high quality workforce in the US; bad for Africa, which needs its skilled professionals to stay on the continent and contribute to its development. 

In Uganda, though there is much still to be done, infrastructure development in recent years has been extensive. Just in the decade I’ve lived here power outages have reduced dramatically, and major upcountry highways are the equal of those anywhere in the world, and tourism facilities are world class. What’s more even affordable hotels are clean, safe and comfortable.

The greatest, most dramatic change in my life in the last decade was not moving from urban California to a small village in Africa (though it certainly had its surprises), but having my first child, a son, at 62. Mukisa, “blessing” in the Luganda language is, all bias aside, the most charming, funny, handsome, intelligent boy I’ve ever known. He comes up with the most surprising remarks. Driving through town the other day he reassured me that “If there’s a fish in the road, I’ll push it out of the way.” What a comfort! And the other morning as I was leaving he advised my, “Daddy, if you're around crocodiles, be careful.” Noted. At 3, he speaks three languages — Luganda, English and Swahili — though I don’t believe he knows they are distinct languages.

He is the light of my life, His sweet voice calling me “Daddy” or “Papa” is intoxicating, and when he climbs into bed with me at night and says, “Snuggle me,” I’m transported.  He already knows he is special by virtue of being an African, or as we call him, “a Halfrican.” He deeply identifies with animals. When I tell him he’s a good boy, he says, “I’m not a bol I’m a crocodile, or a kangaroo, or a monkey. I love it. He recently informed me that lions eat snakes. He’s really into snakes. He has a very active imagination and is always telling us fantastic things. This morning he said tat cape buffalo use big pencils and when they run they hold the pencils in their mouths, which is dangerous. A school warning no doubt but with the addition of wildlife. Then, as we were walking outside today looking at the monks in the trees, he was worried that the monkeys were going to eat us. He said if they tried to ear us he’d save me. “Thanks,” I replied. “You're welcome,” he said.

I was never a stickler for manners, and I’m still not, but I do like that Mukisa regularly says please, thank you, and you’re welcome. And when he wants to get by and my chair is blocking him, he says, “Please, may I pass.” He’s a classy little guy. 

The other day a  muzungu guy walked by and Muki said, “There’s my father.” “Then who am I?” I said. “You’re my daddy,” he replied. Then he pointed to a Ugandan man and yelled, “Uncle!” and ran over and hugged him.  The man was totally charmed.

I have two meditation periods each day — the morning one accompanied by sweet tea; and the evening one with a generous helping of Bond 7 whisky, from Mumbai. I think about the past and the future; cogitate on what will become of Mukisa and the Africa he will inhabit in the decades to come, and what will become of me and his mother. I’m now 65 and wonder how much of Muki’s life I will get to see. It’s conceivable I could live another 30 years or so, though maybe not likely. Typically, my people live into their 80s at best. My father passed away at 84; my mother at the age of 69 after her second heart attack. I’ve already had one. Gulp. The answer is to savor every moment with Muki, spend as much time with him as possible — laugh, play, eat, ramble, go to the jungle and the savanna as often as we can.


***

Most mornings I wake up before the monkeys, struggle to find the opening in the mosquito net, wander out to the front balcony and read the news or reply to emails as the sky lights up. By 7:00, the sun is peeking through the palms and the mango trees, and Honesty and Bashirat are opening their small shops across the road. The packed matatus are bouncing down the road toward downtown, taking people to work; the boda-bodas are revving their engines and hustling suicidal rides through the rush hour traffic to everyone who walks by; some brave souls accept their offer, pay for the privilege even. Then Mukisa toddles out, settles in my lap, helps me eat my eggs, yells at the chickens three floors below us. And the monkeys show up to entertain their biggest fan.

We live in Kisaasi, a country-town-like neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda. It is lush with trees and domestic and wild animals. The bird life is especially rich and loud. The ibises, for example, don't seem to be able to fly without squawking loudly; they wait until they're cruising past about 5 feet away from us then let out an ear-splitting, guttural shriek that makes Muki jump about 6 inches and nearly gives me a second heart attack. Then there are the turacos which come in an elegant palette that ranges from warm grey to royal blue to deep black with red highlights. They are exquisite and have one of the odder calls, sort of a low gurgle that morphs into a deep bass coo.

Mukisa climbs on and off the stool next to me 5 or 6 times -- it's his most recently acquired talent -- falling only three or four times. I catch him most of those times, but he invariably knocks his curly-haired head at least once on the hard tile and we have a good cry. I hold him and comfort him and he then penguin walks back into the house to wake up mama. We try to tell him "No" as little as possible. He can touch most everything in the house, carry it around, try to make it work. The only restrictions are those things that might hurt him. Inconveniencing me is not his problem; he is not in my hurry; figuring out how and why the world works is his job. Mine is to make sure his discoveries happen in safety, and without destroying (or dropping from our third story balcony) expensive electronic devices that me and his mother must stare into throughout the day -- to service our addictions.

Once Mama Ruth wakes up, there is an hour or so of play and silliness. She can get Mukisa laughing harder than anyone can. He finds her to be very, very funny. So do I. They are still lounging in bed, Muki nursing, while I cook myself breakfast. There is some very good bread here -- whole wheat, crusty, and slathered with seeds. We eat a couple of loaves a week. I always cook breakfast for myself, Mama, Muki and nanny Sophie. First I melt a big chunk of margarine in the skillet, then I put in two slices of the luscious bread, which I've torn holes in. I break an egg into each hole, add pepper and salt.

I then shave, shower, put myself together and go off to Cafeserrie to work, drink coffee and observe the wildlife, especially the old white guys with the hot young black women, an abundant pairing here. As a member of that demographic -- the white geezer component -- I find those couples fascinating. There are a good number of them in Kampala (and in other African cities, no doubt), and most people's prevailing assumption is that the men are in it for sex and the young women are in it for money. That was my initial assumption too, but then I started closely observing these relationships, got to know some of the couples, and became involved in such a love affair myself. They are not what they seem. The initial attraction may be centered around sex and money, but as time passes and the two become real, fully dimensional people to each other -- vulnerable, fun, loving, lonely, giving, taking -- they connect on a sweet and deep level. They talk, get to know and appreciate one another. They fall in love, and in like (the more important of the two in my opinion). In many cases, after a time, you see them with children, babies. 

There is one guy, an American, I see at Cafeserrie regularly. He is maybe 10 years older than I am. He comes in with a mixed race boy of 5 or 6 years old. They have lunch, laugh, talk. Sometimes they are joined by the boy's mother. She's very dark-skinned, must be from Northern Uganda or Sudan. The three are happy together, relaxed, caring. The man -- who I've chatted with a little, showed him photos of my son -- is helping the young woman finish university and raise her son. He is a retired construction company owner. He told me he and his wife never had children. After she died 4 years ago, he decided to come to Africa. He'd never been here before and, like me, was immediately smitten with the place and the people. He returned home long enough to sell all his belongings. He came back here and has never returned to the U.S. It's is a plotline that you come across often here. I'm living it.

I feel fortunate that I'm at a point in life where I can spend so much time with my boy. And Nattabi is similarly fortunate: We spend many hours everyday with Mukisa, take him most everywhere with us (he's very social, at ease around people, charming, curious). He is especially fond of men and we have several friends who have had close friendships with him since he was an infant. One of our best friends, Rashid, comes by about once a week to take Muki out for 6-7 hours. He takes him to the mall, to antique car shows, out to eat with his friends. Muki adores him and Rashid dotes on Muki; it's a rich association for both of them.

We are so lucky that we all stumbled into each other -- Nattabi in the middle of her life, me in the final quarter (which is turning out to be the happiest) and Mukisa at the beginning of his. All three of us are healthy, happy and looking forward to the future. We have a nice place to live (no extra charge for monkeys), plenty to eat, we sleep well, we go for walks, our work and various projects are going well. Mukisa likes to laugh and thinks his mama is very very funny. He laughs politely at my jokes. He enjoys it when Nattabi and I dance and act like big fools, which is often. He is walking, running, jumping and climbing all over everything. Nattabi's most spoken and most ignored phrase, "Muki! You are going to fall!" He is very verbal but not quite speaking yet; soon. He brushes his 8 teeth about 45 minutes a day and likes having his lush locks combed. Luganda and English are spoken in equal measure around our house and most places we go. I imagine he sees them as a single language. He enjoys being read to and Nattabi (more often than me I'm ashamed to admit) reads at least one book a day to him. He loves his nanny, Sophie, and so do we. She is Muslim and when she prays Muki kneels beside her. He knows he must be quiet when she is praying, but he finds other ways to distract her. She also cooks, does laundry, cleans the house and often brings her sons over. They love playing with Muki; sometimes they all stay overnight. The boys are about 9 & 12. We sometimes take them swimming with us, always a fun day. Nattabi's tour company is picking up steam and threatening to start making real money. My work, including helping her build her travel business, is varied and satisfying, if not lucrative. We are busy in a good way. 

On balance, when looked at from a distance, it is, as always, the best of times and the worst of times. No matter how perfect things may seem momentarily, we are every moment reminded of the tentative, fragile nature of that perfection in our lives and the lives of all we know and don't know. Living here, where the extremes of poverty and wealth are everywhere in evidence, keeps us aware of that truth every moment of every day. We are within a day's travel of where homo sapiens began and before us we see how far humanity has come in its present form, since its inception 200,000 years ago. It's no joke unless God has a particularly bent sense of humor. Just in the last few weeks we've heard of loved ones dying, having severe illnesses, losing everything in a raging wildfire. So it goes, as Vonnegut would put it. Thank you then, or as they say in Luganda, Webale, for staying in touch. It's important to me. I believe in the art of communication; it's my religion, and my wife and son are its saints, angels. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Moving Money with Minimum Misery

Moving Money with Minimum Misery
By Douglas Cruickshank

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees
Now give me money
That's what I want...


In the days before the telegraph, the legendary Pony Express, during the 19 months it operated in the United States --April 1860 to October 1861 -- was the fastest way to get money, messages and other mail, from the West Coast to the East Coast: 10 days. Today, it can take my bank, Citibank, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, just a few days less to do the same thing; 3-5 business days is typical, and it can stretch to 7+. Citibank uses computers not horses, but, in my experience, its computers (it must have a jillion of them)  are not much faster than 19th century horses. In other words, a Citibank funds transfer can take just half as long as moving money did in the 1860s. Not to pick on Citibank, all the big (and little) banks are just as bad. However, I'm guessing that when it moves hundreds of millions in illicit drug money for Raul Salinas, the brother of the former president of Mexico and his fellow criminals, things go a bit more quickly. (According to TaxJustice.net, Citibank's parent company "Citigroup operates in 100 countries, with $1.2 trillion in known assets [largely loans] and over $100 billion in client assets in private bank accounts." It has been convicted 17 times of illegal money laundering, usually drug money.)

Back in the sphere of legal businesses, at the heart of many inventive new operations is a seemingly intractable story, overturned by a solution so simple that no one’s thought of it. Take international money transfer. It’s not a sexy venture, but it became thrilling indeed when TransferWise, an easy-to-use smartphone app, started offering peer-to-peer, worldwide money transfers at 90 percent less than conventional financial institutions.TransferWise was started by friends Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Käärmann. As their company history tells it, “Taavet worked for Skype in Estonia, so (he) was paid in euros, but lived in London. Kristo worked in London, but had a mortgage in euros back in Estonia.” Taavet needed pounds, Kristo needed Euros, but the exchange and transfer fees would take a big bite of their salaries. So each month Kristo deposited pounds into Taavet’s London bank account, and Taavet put euros into Kristo’s account. “Both got the currency they needed,”TransferWise explains, “and neither paid a cent in hidden bank fees.”

Hinrikus’s and Käärmann’s singular leap in thinking questioned how the market’s dominant players had for years been operating something as wham-bam basic as currency exchange and/or transfer, while charging exorbitantly for it. TransferWise’s success highlights a weakness that disruptive businesses frequently exploit: an historical lack of innovation by an industry’s leaders, such as Citibank. Indeed, the calcified, glacial money transfers the big banks offer has created fertile ground for the innovators, creators of smartphone apps that move money with zero fees in seconds, making their profits solely on their very favorable exchange rates. Names like TransferWise, SendWave (my personal favorite for USA to Africa transfers), AfroRemit, WorldRemit, SquareCash, Venmo, and a number of others are making the financial dinosaurs eat their (gold) dust. They are simple, fast, affordable, easy to use and convenient. Not traits of which one could accuse Citibank and the other old school banks.

Well, things are changing as another competitor dubbed Wave, has launched in the money transfer industry in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The service was launched in its beta form back in May, 2014, by two entrepreneurs Drew Durbin and Lincoln Quirk. They already have an app out for both Android and iOS devices.

As Durbin and Quirk described their proposed operation when starting: "Wave wants to offer users free and instant money transfer service directly to their mobile wallets. ...users on the platform will be able to send money as fast as they can send text messages from one mobile phone to another. Additionally the service also allows for fund transfer into East Africa’s most popular mobile money service, M-Pesa. The service will save users from having to spend as much as $10 on each transaction charged by Western Union and MoneyGram. (the appr now also uses MTN and Airtel mobile money for direct transfers.)

Durbin, the CEO of Wave, says he was inspired to start Wave after the difficulties he experienced when working for an NGO in East Africa. After leaving the NGO, he teamed up with Quirk and together they founded Wave. Christin PetersonWave currently enables users to send money only to three East African countries; Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Users have the option of receiving their money through their bank issued debit cards or on M-Pesa with no fees charge and the best available rates. This is literally expected to give Western Union and MoneyGram a run for their money as the two have been accused of levying high surcharge fees and have problems with delayed payments.

I've polled ex-pat friends here, mostly current Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs). Their experience with these apps has been more positive than negative. Here's what a few of them had to say:

Katharine Murphy, a PCV in Tororo, Uganda, tells me:  "I’ve used WorldRemit a few times in country to send myself American money. (Backstory: my debit card never worked here and I can’t withdraw cash on my credit card, but I’ve needed some extra cash a few times. I looked into wiring money but the fees are super high. WorldRemit seemed like my best bet fees-wise; and I already had mobile money set up). When I first signed on to WorldRemit I liked them immediately. There was a customer service person (based in US, I think) who called me to confirm my identity and all that jazz, so I felt it was a nice secure service with people on the other end to help me if anything went wrong. The few times I’ve had questions, they always email me back promptly. The fees are super low, I think the exchange rates are OK (haven’t checked in a while) and the app is a breeze to use. It even has fingerprint sign-in, so I don’t have to remember yet another password. I also noticed the app had some bugs in the beginning that they’ve since smoothed out. Overall cool service, I recommend."

Karen McMillan reports, "Wave [aka SendWave] has been quite good. It's easy to use once you get your account set up. Customer support was extremely responsive, when necessary (rarely).

Christa Preston, Executive Director at EmbraceKulture in Entebbe, which serves the disabled, told me: "I used WorldRemit - worked really great for sending money to individuals - but they do not allow you to send money to NGOs, which I believe is a huge market in Uganda
People are definitely skirting it by sending to NGO directors and calling it "individual support" but that can have significant ramifications for the organization and World Remit in the future. Really great for sending money to individuals - but they do not allow you to send money to NGOs, which I believe is a huge market in Uganda.

And Peace Corps volunteer, Danielle Parker, said: "I first started to look into these apps when I was home this past Xmas. I needed to send money to [her fiance] in Uganda. I downloaded both but tried SendWave first since sending money had no extra charge associated with it. They required me to submit a photo of a government issued ID, which I thought was weird, but after reading reviews it sounded like a reasonably normal thing to happen to people. I did it. And tried to send money. They basically told me my money would be sent as soon as my ID went through. Never happened.
So I started using World Remit, which I’ll talk about soon. Recently MTN Mobile Money went down for a day or two (due to something on the UG side of things). I tried SendWave again and they said I couldn’t send money until my ID was processed. I questioned why I submitted my ID in Jan and now in July(ish) my ID still had not gone through. I text customer service the problem, and they wrote back asking my email to look up the account. I sent it and no reply. I tried to inquire again and no reply. I was basically done by then because World Remit worked so well for me all the time prior. In terms of WR, I feel they are fast, reliable and have good customer service. Yes there is a fee, but I’ve only paid between 1 cent and 2 USD. If you send to MTN it goes in within a couple minutes, I always get confirmation. If I email them, they respond within a day. When money has had to be returned, it happens within 3 business days and the one time I forgot and they just credited my account anyway. My best friend loves WR. AfroRemit is also supposed to be good, as is TransferWise.If you call customer service that’s the only pitfall as you will wait about 20 minutes but when you do get through they are super helpful and nice. I know people who love SendWave too but it has always given me problems. So I go with who I trust even for the fee."

The consensus seems to be that these apps work very well with only a few hitches. A friend who recently tried to sign up for SendWave got flummoxed by all the requirements and  cancelled transactions and finally gave up. There is a lot of fraud with money transfers to Africa from USA and Europe, so it makes sense that these apps are guarding their reputations by being extremely cautions.

Perhaps the reason the big banks have been slow to come to this party is that few people in Africa have bank accounts, so the banks overlooked the need for such a service and how lucrative it could be. Mobile money accounts that go directly to people's telephone accounts are much more widely used here, and in other developing countries, consequently, these "disruptive" new apps are gobbling up the business that big banks initially didn't even acknowledge. That's how companies become obsolete.










Saturday, July 28, 2018

My 10 Favorite Books -- So Far





Any Human Heart, William Boyd

“It's true: lives do drift apart for no obvious reason. We're all busy people,we can't spend our time simply trying to stay in touch. The test of a friendship is if it can weather these inevitable gaps.” 
-- Any Human Heart

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” 
-- Henry James, Louisa Pallant

The protagonist of this magnificent, highly-readable novel, Logan Mountstuart (1906-1991), is a writer, a spy, the manager of an art gallery, and a teacher. The story follows him through much of his checkered, fascinating, intense and ultimately meaningless life, a life like many of us live, only we're usually not spies, accomplished writers, friends of Ian Fleming, thrice married, veterans of years in solitary confinement, and so on. What I admire about Boyd is that he gives us the whole man, lets us get to know him, decide for ourselves, add up his life next to our own. For Boyd (as Robbe-Grillet said of film) his works are always a multi-coded space. It's up to us to break the code; he helps by making signals through the glass.





God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I think it's terrible the way people don't share things in this country. I think it's a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies.” 
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

True and funny. Funny and true. And heartbreaking, of course, 'cause it's Kurt Vonnegut through and through.





One Hundred Years of Solitude, 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end."
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude

Seven generations of the Buendía family, creators and (conceptually) royal family of Macondo, a utopian city in Dreamland, South America traced from 1820 to 1920. It goes from high to far beneath and takes you with it because you cannot let go. Marquez never revealed how he pulled off this sustained dance of word-magic and we are better off not knowing. There are many books, and other things, you can skip in life. This is not one of them. Even most great writers could not match this tour de force.






Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

“The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again.” 
​-- ​Trout Fishing in America

​T​rout Fishing in America has no plot really, and its protagonist/narrator is never named. Some found this disconcerting when the book was first published, and still do. In my case, I was seduced, transported and became an evangelist for Brautigan's storytelling brilliance. And he was funny, very funny, Kurt Vonnegut funny (not sure if the two ever met; Google that for me, would you? I just did; They did not). We hear of the narrator's boyhood, his trout fishing experiences, some as a boy, and his adventures as a beatnik in San Francisco. He marries, procreates, but all along it is his voice and quirky sensibility that surrounds us, carries us along with him. We go willingly, of course. Brautigan was not hung up on chronology. Throughout this winding tale his values shine through -- love, nature, freedom, humor. Why, then, did he kill himself in 1984 with a rifle he borrowed from a bartender friend? Maybe because he could never get his life and his extraordinary narratives to quite merge.




Coming in to the Country, John McPhee

“In the society as a whole,” he writes “there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go. People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska.”
-- Coming into the Country

Coming into the Country examines what Alaska was like in the 1970s using the clean, clear documentary style that McPhee excelled at; he was one of the best non-fiction stylists of his generation or any generation. This was the book that hooked me on McPhee and I went on to read everything he wrote -- he was dauntingly prolific -- until he couldn't shut up about geology, then I had to cut him loose. His portraits of people and landscape, and people in landscapes (Encounters with the Archdruid) stand as the finest written depictions of their kind to see publication. I learned so much from him about writing, and thinking -- ideas and approaches I have drawn on ever since he immersed me in the vast wilderness of The Country, the outer space of Alaska.





One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

"Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler is an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn't it?”
― One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I knew a lot of people who knew Kesey, as I come from Merry Prankster Land, California's San Francisco Peninsula. Vik Lovell, to whom Kesey dedicated the novel ( “To Vik Lovell who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs ...” ) was my psychotherapist when I was a teenager. I met Kesey just once, when I spent a night on his Springfield, Oregon farm, a half-century ago when I was a wandering 16 year old. We walked down to the pond together and fed his geese. "Now in Thailand," he told me, " or maybe it's Malaysia, what they do to sort out the toughest babies from the not so tough ones is they throw them up on a roof. The tough ones hang on, and the not so tough ones they catch as they tumble off. Pretty good system." He was a prankster through and through, pranking his young visitor who was in awe of him (I still am). Kesey, a psychedelic redneck, high school wrestling champion, a "bull goose loony" to use his Cuckoo's Nest hero's McMurphy's term, was also a bull goose novelist. He was a man of great love, charisma, artfulness, fun and good humor. In his sphere as a teen ( I knew many of the Merry Pranksters; my sister's boyfriend in the late '60s was Roy Sebern who painted the famously misspelled "Furthur" on the front destination panel of the polychrome bus) I found him fascinating and compelling. That his novels still hold up as literature is testament to his vast talent. In Cuckoo's Nest he wrote, “But he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.” That was Kesey, talking about McMurphy and talking about himself.




Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing

“My sense of urgency is very simple,' said the professor, 'I've remembered that much. It's because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that's what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die— and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” 
― Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

From the time I was 8 until I was 30, my mother regularly tried to kill herself. Consequently, she spent many months in mental hospitals, was heavily dosed with antipsychotics, such as Thorazine, and antidepressants, such as Elavil. She had many series of electroshock treatments; I recall going to visit her once when her dark brunette hair had turned completely grey in a week. Madness has fascinated me from an early age. I've written about it, researched it, lived it and read about it. I had a Jungian therapist who once who told me that my motivation for the many LSD trips I took was to stay close to my mother even when she vanished into psychosis. "The LSD experience is a model psychosis, you know," the therapist told me. "You were doing everything you could to stay close to her emotionally and intellectually, maybe even spiritually. I think you learned a thing or two about the outer limits of inner space." "Yeah," I replied. Lessing's novel centers on a man experiencing a nervous breakdown. She takes you there. He's lost at sea, he believes. His hospital keepers say he is delirious. That may or may not be true, certainly he is adrift and Lessing allows us to swim out to him. One of the dangers of trying to save a swimmer in trouble is that you may drown yourself. You don't when you read Briefing for a Descent into Hell. But you come damn close.






Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

"I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."
-- Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is perhaps the definitive Didion book and the one that introduced me, and many others, to her razor sharp prose -- matched only by her razor sharp thoughts and ideas. A trenchant essayist and social observer, she, maybe better than any other writer of her era, limned how the counterculture was just as shallow as its nemesis, the Establishment; just as indifferent, self-centered, given to casual relationships, and flimsy rationales. “My only advantage as a reporter," she once wrote, "is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” She shared this trait of apparent harmlessness with Oriana Fallaci, who completely took apart Henry Kissinger in an interview and he didn't even realize it at the time; he was too busy trying to charm her (later he'd call granting Fallaci the interview the most the most disastrous decision of his career). Didion also took apart, dissected, people, places and situations, cultures and counter cultures. She did it with grace, insight and emotional penetration. And her writing matched her observational skills. She knew she had a gift, and she had the energy and skill to capitalize on it.





River of Shadows: 
Eadweard Muybridge 
and the Technological Wild West, 
Rebecca Solnit

"His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time — the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom."
-- River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Here, in River of Shadows, we have a writer whose poetic, elegant style is perfectly matched to her subject. As Brainpickings termed it: "The Annihilation of Space and Time: Rebecca Solnit on How Muybridge Froze the Flow of Existence, Shaped Visual Culture, and Changed Our Consciousness." Muybridge, an out of round genius if there ever was one, did experiments that prefigured motion pictures. By setting up a battery of still cameras with trip wires, he was able to prove that a race horse had all four feet off the ground at once -- and win Leland Stanford a bet. Later he used sequential photos to make "movies" of dancers, runners, and all manner of living creatures as part of his motion studies. The great impact that technology was then having on society was the compression and manipulation of time and space. The railroad, for example, compressed time. Suddenly a weeks long journey could shrink to hours. We are still feeling the impact, good and bad, of this single innovation. Muybridge, Solnit tells us, "In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California... also became a father, a murderer [he killed his wife's lover], and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects." But his greatest achievement was the capturing of time, the anticipation of motion pictures. Radically, irreversibly, the world was changing and Muybridge got it. Solnit explains it like so, “What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.” And now that we are here, what shall we do? If Solnit can't answer that question, her book does an astonishingly good job of explaining how we got here.




Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it.” 
-- Americanah

This novel will bite you and bite you hard, if you've got a soul, a lick of morality, of empathy, if you have experienced racism or know some who has or even just heard about it. Or if you've ever been in love. It's a story of race, love and immigration. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, is living in Princeton New Jersey. Following a breakup with her boyfriend, she moves back to her home, Nigeria. Through the lens of Ifemelu, we first see her new life in America, her love, her work and struggles. Then we experience her return. But the subject is race, race and race. Adichie writes (in Ifemelu's voice), “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.” Racism is as old as America and it's clearly not going away. This is as good an examination of why, how to cope, and the role(s) that love plays as has ever been put on paper. Required reading for anyone with a brain...and a heart.




Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, 
Douglas Cruickshank

Yes, this one's by me. Published in 2013, named Photography Book of the Year in 2014, and I still have a few for sale -- at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! You gotta get one, drop me a line for details -- dsc914@gmail.com

Here is what a few critics had to say about it:

"Somehow is decidedly not arty. It has a friendly sprawl, comes on much like a let's-take-a-beer visit with a man who not only knows how to set the visuals, but also can, in a paragraph or two, reveal the singularity of the countryside about him. He lets his pictures do the walking, lets them carry us over the hills and into the vistas and down in the valleys into the heart of the Kyarumba. Since Cruickshank is a friendly old sot, he's apparently willing to talk to anyone and set it down here ... the taxi-drivers, the hotel people, the villagers, the kids, the women washing their clothes outside, carrying things on their heads, the families who gather for the weddings, the people who invite him to dinner, the Bukonzos who can't get enough of staring at this big pale gringo with the camera around his neck. -- RALPH; full review here: http://www.ralphmag.org/HP/somehow.html

"[A] big, remarkable book... the opposite of so many Africa books I’ve seen, wry and weird and moving and startling, in ways I’d never associated with that kind of book before." -- The Rumpus; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/YN04A4

"He's a superb photographer and an equally evocative writer, with well defined wit and wisdom... I’ve viewed and read enough fine coffee table books to rank this one among the very best. My take away after viewing Uganda through Cruickshank’s lens is the distinct feeling now that I’ve been there, too. Peace Corps Worldwide; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/tEbqfz

"I was transported by this book. Partly it was the strength of the writing. It is often laugh-out-loud funny — and believe me when I tell you it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at something I read. It is also intelligent, affectionate, wry, perceptive, occasionally poignant and often beautiful...
-- The Chicago Tribune; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/LgXuas

"Although Cruickshank had traveled all over the world for pleasure and as a travel writer, he had never been to Africa let alone Uganda and barely knew anything about it except what he calls tragedy porn. "I didn't know anymore about it than what most Americans know and here's what most Americans know — gorillas, Idi Amin, ebola. And now it's the anti-gay law," says Cruickshank, who helped grow a coffee cooperative of mostly women-owned farms in Kyarumba, a village in the Rwenzori Mountains, from August 2009 to April 2012. Everything we know about Africa is wrong, he says. "All you get is the rapes, the murders, the wars. But what goes on most of the time is nothing — people getting their kids ready for school, they're getting some coffee or tea, they're working in the garden, they're fixing a roof. Their life is not a big tragedy and they don't see themselves as victims," he says. The Marin Independent Journal; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/21eECL

Buy a copy of Somehow: Living on Uganda Time at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! Drop me a line for details -- dsc914@gmail.com


The Entire List:
​1. Any Human Heart, William Boyd
2. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan
5. Coming in to the Country, John McPhee
6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
7. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing
8. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
9. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Rebecca Solnit
10.​ Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

10-1/2. Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, Douglas Cruickshank

My 10 Favorite Books -- So Far



Any Human Heart, William Boyd

“It's true: lives do drift apart for no obvious reason. We're all busy people,we can't spend our time simply trying to stay in touch. The test of a friendship is if it can weather these inevitable gaps.” 
-- Any Human Heart

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” 
-- Henry James, Louisa Pallant

The protagonist of this magnificent, highly-readable novel, Logan Mountstuart (1906-1991), is a writer, a spy, the manager of an art gallery, and a teacher. The story follows him through much of his checkered, fascinating, intense and ultimately meaningless life, a life like many of us live, only we're usually not spies, accomplished writers, friends of Ian Fleming, thrice married, veterans of years in solitary confinement, and so on. What I admire about Boyd is that he gives us the whole man, lets us get to know him, decide for ourselves, add up his life next to our own. For Boyd (as Robbe-Grillet said of film) his works are always a multi-coded space. It's up to us to break the code; he helps by making signals through the glass.



God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I think it's terrible the way people don't share things in this country. I think it's a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies.” 
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater


True and funny. Funny and true. And heartbreaking, of course, 'cause it's Kurt Vonnegut through and through.



One Hundred Years of Solitude, 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end."
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude


Seven generations of the Buendía family, creators and (conceptually) royal family of Macondo, a utopian city in Dreamland, South America traced from 1820 to 1920. It goes from high to far beneath and takes you with it because you cannot let go. Marquez never revealed how he pulled off this sustained dance of word-magic and we are better off not knowing. There are many books, and other things, you can skip in life. This is not one of them. Even most great writers could not match this tour de force.




Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

“The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again.” 
​-- ​Trout Fishing in America


​T​rout Fishing in America has no plot really, and its protagonist/narrator is never named. Some found this disconcerting when the book was first published, and still do. In my case, I was seduced, transported and became an evangelist for Brautigan's storytelling brilliance. And he was funny, very funny, Kurt Vonnegut funny (not sure if the two ever met; Google that for me, would you? I just did; They did not). We hear of the narrator's boyhood, his trout fishing experiences, some as a boy, and his adventures as a beatnik in San Francisco. He marries, procreates, but all along it is his voice and quirky sensibility that surrounds us, carries us along with him. We go willingly, of course. Brautigan was not hung up on chronology. Throughout this winding tale his values shine through -- love, nature, freedom, humor. Why, then, did he kill himself in 1984 with a rifle he borrowed from a bartender friend? Maybe because he could never get his life and his extraordinary narratives to quite merge.



Coming in to the Country, John McPhee

“In the society as a whole,” he writes “there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go. People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska.”
-- Coming into the Country


Coming into the Country examines what Alaska was like in the 1970s using the clean, clear documentary style that McPhee excelled at; he was one of the best non-fiction stylists of his generation or any generation. This was the book that hooked me on McPhee and I went on to read everything he wrote -- he was dauntingly prolific -- until he couldn't shut up about geology, then I had to cut him loose. His portraits of people and landscape, and people in landscapes (Encounters with the Archdruid) stand as the finest written depictions of their kind to see publication. I learned so much from him about writing, and thinking -- ideas and approaches I have drawn on ever since he immersed me in the vast wilderness of The Country, the outer space of Alaska.



One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

"Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler is an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn't it?”
― One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


I knew a lot of people who knew Kesey, as I come from Merry Prankster Land, California's San Francisco Peninsula. Vik Lovell, to whom Kesey dedicated the novel ( “To Vik Lovell who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs ...” ) was my psychotherapist when I was a teenager. I met Kesey just once, when I spent a night on his Springfield, Oregon farm, a half-century ago when I was a wandering 16 year old. We walked down to the pond together and fed his geese. "Now in Thailand," he told me, " or maybe it's Malaysia, what they do to sort out the toughest babies from the not so tough ones is they throw them up on a roof. The tough ones hang on, and the not so tough ones they catch as they tumble off. Pretty good system." He was a prankster through and through, pranking his young visitor who was in awe of him (I still am). Kesey, a psychedelic redneck, high school wrestling champion, a "bull goose loony" to use his Cuckoo's Nest hero's McMurphy's term, was also a bull goose novelist. He was a man of great love, charisma, artfulness, fun and good humor. In his sphere as a teen ( I knew many of the Merry Pranksters; my sister's boyfriend in the late '60s was Roy Sebern who painted the famously misspelled "Furthur" on the front destination panel of the polychrome bus) I found him fascinating and compelling. That his novels still hold up as literature is testament to his vast talent. In Cuckoo's Nest he wrote, “But he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.” That was Kesey, talking about McMurphy and talking about himself.




Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing

“My sense of urgency is very simple,' said the professor, 'I've remembered that much. It's because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that's what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die— and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” 
― Briefing for a Descent Into Hell


From the time I was 8 until I was 30, my mother regularly tried to kill herself. Consequently, she spent many months in mental hospitals, was heavily dosed with antipsychotics, such as Thorazine, and antidepressants, such as Elavil. She had many series of electroshock treatments; I recall going to visit her once when her dark brunette hair had turned completely grey in a week. Madness has fascinated me from an early age. I've written about it, researched it, lived it and read about it. I had a Jungian therapist who once who told me that my motivation for the many LSD trips I took was to stay close to my mother even when she vanished into psychosis. "The LSD experience is a model psychosis, you know," the therapist told me. "You were doing everything you could to stay close to her emotionally and intellectually, maybe even spiritually. I think you learned a thing or two about the outer limits of inner space." "Yeah," I replied. Lessing's novel centers on a man experiencing a nervous breakdown. She takes you there. He's lost at sea, he believes. His hospital keepers say he is delirious. That may or may not be true, certainly he is adrift and Lessing allows us to swim out to him. One of the dangers of trying to save a swimmer in trouble is that you may drown yourself. You don't when you read Briefing for a Descent into Hell. But you come damn close.



Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

"I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."
-- Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Slouching Towards Bethlehem is perhaps the definitive Didion book and the one that introduced me, and many others, to her razor sharp prose -- matched only by her razor sharp thoughts and ideas. A trenchant essayist and social observer, she, maybe better than any other writer of her era, limned how the counterculture was just as shallow as its nemesis, the Establishment; just as indifferent, self-centered, given to casual relationships, and flimsy rationales. “My only advantage as a reporter," she once wrote, "is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” She shared this trait of apparent harmlessness with Oriana Fallaci, who completely took apart Henry Kissinger in an interview and he didn't even realize it at the time; he was too busy trying to charm her (later he'd call granting Fallaci the interview the most the most disastrous decision of his career). Didion also took apart, dissected, people, places and situations, cultures and counter cultures. She did it with grace, insight and emotional penetration. And her writing matched her observational skills. She knew she had a gift, and she had the energy and skill to capitalize on it.



River of Shadows: 
Eadweard Muybridge 
and the Technological Wild West, 
Rebecca Solnit

"His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time — the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom."
-- River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West


Here, in River of Shadows, we have a writer whose poetic, elegant style is perfectly matched to her subject. As Brainpickings termed it: "The Annihilation of Space and Time: Rebecca Solnit on How Muybridge Froze the Flow of Existence, Shaped Visual Culture, and Changed Our Consciousness." Muybridge, an out of round genius if there ever was one, did experiments that prefigured motion pictures. By setting up a battery of still cameras with trip wires, he was able to prove that a race horse had all four feet off the ground at once -- and win Leland Stanford a bet. Later he used sequential photos to make "movies" of dancers, runners, and all manner of living creatures as part of his motion studies. The great impact that technology was then having on society was the compression and manipulation of time and space. The railroad, for example, compressed time. Suddenly a weeks long journey could shrink to hours. We are still feeling the impact, good and bad, of this single innovation. Muybridge, Solnit tells us, "In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California... also became a father, a murderer [he killed his wife's lover], and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects." But his greatest achievement was the capturing of time, the anticipation of motion pictures. Radically, irreversibly, the world was changing and Muybridge got it. Solnit explains it like so, “What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.” And now that we are here, what shall we do? If Solnit can't answer that question, her book does an astonishingly good job of explaining how we got here.




Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it.” 
-- Americanah


This novel will bite you and bite you hard, if you've got a soul, a lick of morality, of empathy, if you have experienced racism or know some who has or even just heard about it. Or if you've ever been in love. It's a story of race, love and immigration. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, is living in Princeton New Jersey. Following a breakup with her boyfriend, she moves back to her home, Nigeria. Through the lens of Ifemelu, we first see her new life in America, her love, her work and struggles. Then we experience her return. But the subject is race, race and race. Adichie writes (in Ifemelu's voice), “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.” Racism is as old as America and it's clearly not going away. This is as good an examination of why, how to cope, and the role(s) that love plays as has ever been put on paper. Required reading for anyone with a brain...and a heart.




Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, Douglas Cruickshank

Yes, this one's by me. Published in 2013, named Photography Book of the Year in 2014, and I still have a few for sale -- at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! You gotta get one, drop me a line for details -- dsc914@gmail.com

Here is what a few critics had to say about it:

"Somehow is decidedly not arty. It has a friendly sprawl, comes on much like a let's-take-a-beer visit with a man who not only knows how to set the visuals, but also can, in a paragraph or two, reveal the singularity of the countryside about him. He lets his pictures do the walking, lets them carry us over the hills and into the vistas and down in the valleys into the heart of the Kyarumba. Since Cruickshank is a friendly old sot, he's apparently willing to talk to anyone and set it down here ... the taxi-drivers, the hotel people, the villagers, the kids, the women washing their clothes outside, carrying things on their heads, the families who gather for the weddings, the people who invite him to dinner, the Bukonzos who can't get enough of staring at this big pale gringo with the camera around his neck. -- RALPH; full review here: http://www.ralphmag.org/HP/somehow.html

"[A] big, remarkable book... the opposite of so many Africa books I’ve seen, wry and weird and moving and startling, in ways I’d never associated with that kind of book before." -- The Rumpus; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/YN04A4

"He's a superb photographer and an equally evocative writer, with well defined wit and wisdom... I’ve viewed and read enough fine coffee table books to rank this one among the very best. My take away after viewing Uganda through Cruickshank’s lens is the distinct feeling now that I’ve been there, too. Peace Corps Worldwide; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/tEbqfz

"I was transported by this book. Partly it was the strength of the writing. It is often laugh-out-loud funny — and believe me when I tell you it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at something I read. It is also intelligent, affectionate, wry, perceptive, occasionally poignant and often beautiful...
-- The Chicago Tribune; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/LgXuas

"Although Cruickshank had traveled all over the world for pleasure and as a travel writer, he had never been to Africa let alone Uganda and barely knew anything about it except what he calls tragedy porn. "I didn't know anymore about it than what most Americans know and here's what most Americans know — gorillas, Idi Amin, ebola. And now it's the anti-gay law," says Cruickshank, who helped grow a coffee cooperative of mostly women-owned farms in Kyarumba, a village in the Rwenzori Mountains, from August 2009 to April 2012. Everything we know about Africa is wrong, he says. "All you get is the rapes, the murders, the wars. But what goes on most of the time is nothing — people getting their kids ready for school, they're getting some coffee or tea, they're working in the garden, they're fixing a roof. Their life is not a big tragedy and they don't see themselves as victims," he says. The Marin Independent Journal; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/21eECL

Buy a copy of Somehow: Living on Uganda Time at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! Drop me a line for details -- dsc914@gmail.com