Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Note to God Under Glass in the Sand on the Beach on the Land that is You

I get a lot of messages. Only once have I gotten one in a bottle. It came to me in the traditional and fabled way -- I found it on Limantour Beach, Point Reyes, California. I was able to fish out the soggy paper. The ink had run, but was still readable. When I got home I hung it on a bush in my yard and let it dry. I was apparently not the intended recipient. The note was addressed to God. It was something of a rant. The anonymous author was giving God a proper dressing down for making his or her life so miserable and fucked-up. The message went on at some length excoriating our poor deity for doing such a shit job of designing a life for the hapless author who, it seems, had nothing but bad luck almost since inception.

It was quite a screed, if memory serves -- I managed to lose it over the years -- a full-fledged take down of the big guy. It even quoted Oscar Wilde: "I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability," making me think that our author was a reasonably literate sort, if not a very happy one. I like that the author went right to the creator when it came time to lay blame -- parents, family, lovers, drugs, alcohol, none of those were singled out, only the Supreme Being. As it should be, I believe. If you're going to Lord it over billions of people you better be able to take the blowback when your product is deemed subpar. 

I wonder what happened to that sad, upset person. Was their note planned or did it just happen to come to them suddenly while they were at the beach? Had they grabbed towel and sunblock and gone down to catch some rays on a sunny day when the clouds moved in, or did they sit in a dark garret somewhere, write their indictment by candlelight while sipping cheap brandy, then, deciding against email or USPS, went to the beach to post their accusatory essay? 

Thinking back on that serendipitous find, I got thinking about who and what I blame for the incidences of bad fortune that have befallen me (I take full credit for the good fortune). As a non-believer, I can't blame Jesus' pops. In matters of finance I accept a tiny bit of the blame, but mostly try to shift it to rich people, bad luck, happenstance and tough breaks. In matters of health, I blame genetics, stress, and, again, bad luck. In matters of love gone wrong, I blame the other person, though long after the bust-up when it can't possibly do any good, I do feel a smidgen of remorse and accept 4 percent of the blame. 

The only time I have accepted full blame for a wee dram of nastiness with a loved one is when my Newfoundland Mauka and I were playing tug of war and he accidentally (I'm pretty sure) chomped down full force on my finger. He was a 210 pound canine so the pain was exquisite; I nearly passed out. I gave him a severe tongue-lashing but then immediately forgave him and treated him to a belly rub and four cookies. And all was rosy in our relationship once again.

I like to think that when our author friend meets the maker he can maybe give the Almighty a tummy rub and a few Oreos and let bygones be bygones.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

I Bless the Rains (and the Brass Bands) Down in Africa

The rain attacked fast, hard and loud this morning, so I got up early and went out on the front balcony to think about my problems. They're not so big in the scheme of things, but they're all mine. It always soothes my soul to write letters to distant friends, so I did some of that. People here face so much greater difficulties than I've ever had to, with such good humor, that it forces me to suck it up and not be a baby -- I leave that to Mukisa. Besides, he does it with much more charm.

I finished the letters and gazed out at the rain and the refrain from that Toto song came pounding into my head, damn it. I like the song alright, but do the radio stations have to play it 57 times a day? However, even that can't dampen my love of rain, and Uganda is really the place for rain lovers. It comes on hot and heavy, has its way with you, gives you a cigarette, shakes its ass, and skips out the door. "See you tonight, love," it says. "Get some rest so you're ready." Was rain always sexy or did we make it sexy with all our literary and cinema allusions? No matter. I like everything about it. In the words of Doc Watson, "Let it rain, let it pour, let it roll across the floor." I'd like to hear Doc Watson sing that Toto song. I think he'd kill it.

Rain or no, Africa doesn't stop. Just as I lapsed into feeling especially sorry for myself because of all my terrible problems, I heard a brass band approaching. We live on a secondary dirt road. Not exactly a parade route if you're looking for an audience, but there are scads of people everywhere here so audiences can quickly form just about anywhere. The band was knocking out some real John Philip Sousa stuff, heavy on the drums and tubas, very rousing. The rain intensified as the band approached; the band played louder. The band was good, good and loud, even drowned out the rain. It was from a nearby Muslim school, boys and girls, brightly dressed and in high spirits, playing their hearts out, importing a high-decibel load of fun into our very damp but beautiful neighborhood.

That was the second best part of the day. The first best part was when Sophie, our angelic nanny, showed up after being away for two days. I heard her knock and yelled to Mukisa and Ruth, "Sophie's here!" As I passed the room where they were lying down, I saw Muki go into a convulsive fit of ecstasy when he heard the name of his adored Sophie; it was like he was possessed, but in a good way. 

I could still hear the band as it circled the roundabout a couple blocks away, but I could not remember for the life of me what I'd been fretting about.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Water I Have Known

Over the last few days I've been gobbling up a remarkable biographical novel called Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère. In one passage toward the end of the book Carrère, who drifts in and out of the narrative, inventories all the bodies of water he's been in, on, next to or traveled over. This morning, still horizontal and under the mosquito net, Ruth and Muki passed out next to me, I thought: "Hey, I'd much rather start the day by remembering the bodies of water I've known and loved than by doing my tax return."

In the beginning it was creeks. We always lived near one and me and my young pals would spend endless hours damming them, tormenting frogs, pollywogs and salamanders, and generally disrupting nature as much as possible. That is the job of little boys. There was also a noisy community pool that filled several of my summers as a youngster. And I was lucky to live near the ocean, so regular family trips there were common during warm weather. Unfortunately, it was the frigid Pacific Ocean on the California coast so swimming was not an option, given that I'm not a masochist (I never surfed), but wading and tidepooling were a pleasure to be sure. Tidepools, with their spectacular micro-worlds, are still one of my favorite bodies of water.

I grew up around the San Francisco Bay and sailed on it once or twice, but the most transcendental (verging on psychedelic) bay experience came to me on Marin County's Tomales Bay while kayaking -- at night. During the bioluminescence. Bioluminescence occurs when tiny glow-in-the-dark beasts -- think underwater fireflies, but much smaller -- convene in the bay. You paddle your kayak out to the darkest water then look straight down, and there's the Aurora Borealis! It's a thrill, gloriously beautiful.

Other bays I've loved: Honaunau Bay on Hawaii, every morning a pod of gymnastic spinner dolphins shows up to feed and swim in circles. Back in the day, I'd go down, swim out among them, sometimes they'd rub right against me as they swam past or went rocketing and rotating ten feet above the surface; Kealakekua Bay, also on the Big Island, another great dolphin sighting spot, and the place where Captain Cook first stepped onto the Sandwich Islands, ushering in centuries of darkness in that sunwashed land. Mark Twain extolled the beauty of both these bays, which he reached on horseback, in his Sacramento Union newspaper pieces -- the life-change turning point that took him from being a literary lightweight to world fame.

Honaunau is where I first snorkeled, one of my true loves. Later I snorkeled along the Great Barrier Reef off Heron Island (20 foot manta-rays, 8 foot groupers), and the Indian Ocean off Zanzibar (best coral ever, giant clams, shipwrecks). I've flown over the Arctic Ocean, staring down from 30,000 feet at its dreamscape of turquoise water and blinding white icebergs, and walked on the powdery hot snow of the Caribbean beaches of the Yucatan. Also in Yucatan I gazed down into the jewel clear waters of the cenotes, the bottomless sinkholes where humans were sacrificed in the days when Kukulcan ruled heaven and earth.

Uganda is a treasure for water lovers. Not only do great buckets of h20 come dramatically splashing out of the sky most days, but the country is filled with freshwater and salt lakes (including Victoria, the second largest lake in the world), also crater lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and, of course, the Mama River --the Nile, literally a river of life-- which flows northward, more than 4000 miles, over Africa. But my favorite body of water in Uganda may be the Kazinga Channel, a natural 40km ribbon of water that connects Lake Edward and Lake George. Cruising its placid waters one virtually rubs shoulders with hippopotamus, elephants, crocodiles, giant Nile Perch, Cape buffalo, lions (we watched a cub chasing birds) and all manner of extraordinary looking birds.

On the other side of the world -- Big Sur, California to be precise -- and a half century earlier, I spent many a late, sensual night in the hot springs at Esalen Institute. The baths the springs flowed into were perched in a three-sided building on the cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. I'd lie in the shallow tub with a collection of fellow hippies and gaze out at the moonlit water far below, dozing, dreaming and conversing interchangeably until sunrise.

I've known many other bodies of water, and there are countless others I'd like to know, have the opportunity to fall in love with -- such as the oases of the Sahara and Australia's outback, myriad rivers: the Volga, the Congo, the Semliki (and its hot springs), the Thames, the Seine, the Ganges, the Mississippi, the Colorado and the Rogue, the list goes on. Also the great man-made water bodies: the canals of Venice, the Panama and Erie Canals. I'd like to swim the backstroke in the pool at Hearst Castle. And just one more time I want to slide across the broad, flat, caramel waters of the Mekong at sunset.

Once I've done all that, I'd turn back time more than a half-century, find the nameless creek that ran behind our house through a canyon of eucalyptus and bay trees, poison oak and wild berries, and walk along it looking for pollywogs and salamanders.

But now it's time to do my taxes...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mukisa Finds a Feather at the Temple

The last time I wrote a blog it exploded into a 9" x 12", 424 page book. I promise I won't do that again -- because I don't want to go through another bankruptcy. Okay, in truth, the bankruptcy was mostly due to medical expenses related to a heart attack, which I also promise I won't do again...I sincerely hope.

Anywho, as you can see, this new blog is called NowNow or Never. NowNow is a Ugandlish word meaning immediately if not sooner and Never means Never. The two words best describe my outlook on most everything these days from my vantage point here in a very pleasant, bright, breezy third floor apartment in the Kisaasi neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda. Kisaasi is a wooded village that got swallowed up by the East African megalopolis of Kampala but has managed to retain its village atmosphere, friendliness, lush foliage, monkeys and exotic birds. I live here with my wife, Ruth, My son, Mukisa, 9 months,  and our terrific nanny, Sophie.

About 20 minutes walk from our home is the Kampala Baha'i Temple, built in 1958. It's the only one in Africa and one of just eight such temples in the world. The grounds surrounding it are lush, heavily treed (lots of monkeys, birds, squirrels, butterflies) and lovingly cared for. Yesterday we went up there and hung out for an hour or so in the morning. At one point I was walking across the vast lawn with Muki in my arms and noticed he was staring hard at something on the ground. I followed his gaze to a small black feather with a white tip -- probably from one of the black and white crows that are ubiquitous here; they resemble small winged pandas.

I picked up the feather, handed it to him. He looked at it with the wonder and awe that babies seem to look at everything. He carried it with him for sometime before something else caught his attention -- a flower or a fly or a vervet monkey galloping up an acacia tree -- then let it float to the ground. 

As we walked home, I got thinking about babies and feathers. This was his first encounter with a feather. He'd never touched one before, never held one in his hand. He doesn't know the bird-feather connection, even though we see and hear birds everywhere we look (the Ibises are particularly shrill; their wings seem to be attached to their vocal cords).

So, feather by feather, leaf by leaf, stone by stone and so on -- That's how a human assembles the universe that surrounds them. Making connections over time as they progress from 9 months to 9 years to 49 to 89 and beyond, maybe. I'm not a religious person (though my wife is; she went into the temple and prayed while we were there), but Baha'i makes plenty of sense as religions go. It's only been around since the mid-1800s, founded by Baha'u'llah. He was later martyred, of course, as were 20,000 of his followers. Among the basic tenants of the religion, according to a brochure I picked up at the temple, are "Oneness of God, oneness of humanity, and of religion"; "Abolition of all forms of prejudice"; "Elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth"; "Independent investigation of truth." Sounds good.

Mukisa slept as I wrote much of this, and the rain came crashing through, stopped all work, stopped all birds and monkeys. Then it was gone as quickly as it arrived. The shimmering green Ibises and the Great Blue Turacos and the vervet monkeys got back to their noisy work. And so did Mukisa.