Saturday, July 29, 2017

Bella Africa: Yes, She Can

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that females can’t be safari guides, they certainly can’t be drivers of those big SUVs, the LandCruisers and the Range Rovers?”

“Ah, so many! Many, many people told me that,” says Bella Sylvia.

But she ignored them. All of them. And today she is the director and owner of Bella Africa, the first all-female safari driver-guide tour company in Uganda, maybe in all of Africa.

Much to her father’s dismay, Bella left home at 18 to pursue her dream of being a safari guide. She got off to a promising start as a dishwasher at a backpackers hostel run by an Australian fellow, then built on that success by getting promoted to potato slicer. Needless to say, the smart money, and her dad, were not betting on Bella’s success. Indeed, as her dad watched her depart for the big city of Kampala, he thought the very worst.

“He opposed city life,” Bella recalls. “He said, ‘You will become nasty, a prostitute.’”

“But that’s not what I was into,” she says.

When she told one date that her dream was to be a safari guide, he said, “If I have a wife with such ambitions, she will forget them fast. My wife will stay home where she belongs!”

“That’s exactly why I’ll never be your wife,” Bella quipped.

The life of women, and of everyone in Uganda, has improved markedly in the last 30 years or so, since the fall of Idi Amin. There are still many improvements needed, but things are much better than they were in the bad old days.

The lot of women is still a tough one, though they are the backbone, the heart, and the soul of the nation, as most men would agree. They are also genetically entrepreneurial as no one can deny. When people ask me to describe the Ugandan women I’ve known over the years (I’ve lived here since 2009), I tell them they have two abiding qualities: They are authentically sweet and genuinely tough. They are also gorgeous to a one; on the market days in the village where I lived the first 3 years I was here it was like being surrounded by Vogue models, as I walked the market, it was if I was swimming through a school of exquisitely dressed and coiffed tropical fish, albeit human ones.

Uganda itself is a land of staggering and singular beauty with landscapes and wild animals that are both majestic and dramatic. Its people, according to no less an expert source than the BBC, and seconded by me, are the friendliest on earth. They are also very funny. They also love to talk. They are also brave, kind and loyal. Otherwise, they have nothing to recommend them.

Because of Bella’s energy, her intellect, her high spirits and her determination, when meeting her one is reminded of her precursors, everyone from Mary Kingsley to Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. Women of courage who didn’t listen to those who didn’t believe in them. Wild and beautiful themselves, they, like Bella, went deep into wild and beautiful places. They were drawn to them, pulled by the magnetism of adventure, seduced by the landscape, the animals, the possibilities.

As tourism goes, Uganda is still something of a secret. Amin, Gorillas, Ebola is what most Americans and Europeans know about the land-locked, Oregon-size country that is surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo (which is in fact where the Ebola River is located), Rwanda, Kenya, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. There is one quote from decades ago by one famous person — Winston Churchill — that gets trotted out repeatedly (apparently no other westerner ever said anything complimentary about the country): “The kingdom of Uganda is a fairy-tale. You climb up … and at the end there is a wonderful new world. The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa ... I say: ‘Concentrate on Uganda’. For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life - bird, insect, reptile, beast - for vast scale -- Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”

Churchill was exactly right, of course. Over the years the British, and later the Ugandan government, had the good sense to establish national parks throughout this country, tens-of-thousands of acres of exquisite terrain and gorgeous animals, all set aside for looking at, camping in, photographing. And a knowledgeable local guide only enriches the experience.

The landscape varies significantly in altitude, flora and fauna. There are snow-capped peaks and glaciers (The Rwenzoris in the west are the second highest mountains in Africa; only Kilimanjaro is higher), desert, dry savannah with acacia trees and euphorbia candelabra, giant succulents and tree ferns just below the snowline, and knee-deep mosses. There are fish eagles everywhere you look (they closely resemble the American Eagle) giant otherworldly-looking marabou storks sulking on buildings throughout the cities, and jillions of other exotic birds (this small nation has more native bird species than all of North America, in excess of 1000). And there is no shortage of humans and other primates.

There are about 36 million people, 80 percent of which are 15 or younger; it’s a country of children, and children raising children. There are 52 tribes, or clans as they are usually called, with more than 50 languages. I speak a smattering of Luganda and Lhukonzo, the languages spoken by the Buganda and Bukonzo, and a few words of Swahili. The official language is English, though Swahili is also widely spoken and one also often comes across French, Dutch and German speakers, as well as Indians and Chinese speakers. Culture and tradition is a polychrome tapestry ranging from ancient rituals to hip hop and rap.

Bella and her sisters expertly navigate it all while finding leopards and lions, elephants, hippos and anything else that flies, walks, slithers or swims. They answer their clients many questions and concerns, and all but tuck them in for the night at the end of another lovely tropical day. A visit to the office of Bella Africa finds two of the women practicing their German by reading aloud to one another, and others formulating itineraries, checking with guides in the field, confirming reservations, overseeing car washing and doing the many other tasks large and small that are required to keep things running smoothly in the field and in the office. Meanwhile, Bella is stuck at the bank trying to arrange a short term loan because a couple clients failed to meet a payment deadline. It's a regimen that would do-in a lesser soul, but she juggles all the challenges with good humored resolve.

Bella’s first trip as a driver-guide was a 17 day drive through Murchison Falls National Park and the Congo’s Virunga National Park, one of the three places in the world to see Mountain Gorillas up close. The business was “getting real crazy,” she recalls. “I was doing everything, including raising a four year old boy (now 7).” She knew she needed “more girls who can drive and guide.” First, she turned to her sister-in-law. “Can you please come help; we will work together. I can’t pay you.” Who could down such an offer?

Bella’s sister-in-law, Juliet, unlike so many, believed in her and joined the company; she is still a key staff member. Girl safari guides were not well received at first, and they still get a lot of raised eyebrows, but Bella and her sister-in-law kept pushing, kept booking tours, kept doing what everyone said couldn't be done. “It was was really hard when I started, so hard, but giving up was not in my vocabulary. Still, in many parks, I’m the only female guide.”

Back when Bella was still slicing potatoes for a paycheck, she asked her boss, the Aussie bloke, to make her a safari guide. He laughed, said, “What can you do?”

“Anything,” Bella said.

“Go home and grow up,” he replied.

So she did. She went home the next weekend, then came back on Monday. “OK,” she told him. “I grew up.”

“OK, fine,” he laughed. And he started training her as a safari guide.

I guess one could use words like spunk and precocious to describe Bella, but that would be condescending and inaccurate. Sure, Bella had plenty of those two qualities, but what made the difference was her vision, stubbornness, hard work, and fearlessness. Not to mention a business sense that would be the envy of any Harvard MBA. Luck? Sure, she had that too. You can’t get along without it in business, definitely not if the business is in Africa.

“I worked for the Australian as a guide until 2009,” Bella tells me. “I learned all about guiding. Learning birds was the most difficult, because there are so many. Then I also learned about mammals, butterflies, moths, vegetation.”

Bella says she feels a responsibility to find animals when she takes out clients. On one recent trip she spent 14 days with a British photographer looking for a leopard. They saw 9 lions, but no leopard.  All the park personnel knew she was looking for a leopard so her client could get his photos. Finally she got the call from a ranger near one of the park gates. “I’m looking at a leopard in the tree!” the ranger said. Bella drove like the wind and they got there while the leopard was still lounging on the branch. The photographer took more than 300 photos.

“What does your dad think of all this?”

“I’m now his favorite! He includes me in all family meetings; I’m a role model for my siblings,” he tells me. “What I see in girls now,” Bella tells me, “is that they are waiting for a rich man instead of doing it themselves. That’s not right.”

While Bella Africa excels at delivering the classic safari experience, it also seeks to give clients unique trips that expose them to the culture, the indigenous clans, and the extraordinary and varied lives of Ugandan tribes-people. One of the most unique, and unfortunately disenfranchised, tribal groups is the Batwa pygmies who live in the southwest near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in the west near Semliki National Park. Bella tells me about her first visit with the Batwa elders when they sang her “a deep, sad song” about the star-crossed history of the tribe that’s been pushed out of its ancestral homelands and forced to take up farming instead of the hunter-gatherer life they've lived for centuries.

“They know the government and media have not treated them right,” Bella says, “but they are amazing people.”

The far north of the country is an area Bella wants to see more foreigners visiting. Its fiercely independent Karamoja tribe is gifted with a fascinating culture and she feels that acknowledging it will help the tribe survive. “I love love love them, my favorites.” Might she find something in their extremely independent spirit that resonate with her own? Might. She wouldn’t be so unoriginal as to suggest it, but I have no shame.

“I’m shocked how much people don’t know about Uganda,” she tells me. “There is so much good here and all the media reports on is the bad.”

“Yes, I call it tragedy porn,” I say. “You know there’s a tired old saying in the media business, the news. Unfortunately, it’s true: ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ The news folks have found that by sensationalizing sorrow and tragedy they can sell more papers or ads on their web sites, TV and radio. I agree with you. There is so much good going on here and in most of Africa, but you’d never know it from western media.”

“That’s why we call the company Bella Africa, Beautiful Africa. That’s the place you see when we plan your trip,” says Bella.

“Speaking of sensationalism, tell me the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a guide.”

“It still scares me when I remember it,” she says. “We were in a boat near Murchison Falls. We’d gone over near the bank to see a particularly large female Nile crocodile. She was maybe 6-7 feet.” (Males can be as much as 14 feet and 1200 pounds, but 7 feet is indeed large for a female.) The bank was steep, the croc was uphill from us, it’s mouth open, gazing down at us. She could easily have run and jumped in the boat. The guy driving the boat got too close. The croc just stared at us; some of the clients were crying in fear. I told the boatman to get us out of there. Then the croc started moving closer, increased its speed, jumped in the water and swam right under our boat. It could have flipped the boat, but I guess it had already had lunch. That was my scariest experience. I love animals, but you must keep your distance.”

If you’ve seen a croc in action on one of the nature TV shows, you can imagine what a sobering experience it was. They are killing machines, fast, efficient. Their M.O. is to grab their prey and pull them under water, then spin with them in a deadly and disorienting move that cannot be resisted. They pull people from boats with regularity.

“And your dream trip,” I ask, “what would that be — if time and money were not an issue, and who would you take along?”

“I want to visit every country,” Bella tells me. “Mostly, I want to get completely out of my comfort zone. I hate the cold, so a very cold place would really challenge me: Antarctica! I want to see penguins swimming. And I’d like to take a loved one with me. That way, when it gets cold, I’ll have arms to wrap myself in.”

Yes, Bella clearly sees travel, whether in her own country, which she loves fiercely, or elsewhere, as a sensual pursuit, like falling in love. Beautiful places and warm people attract her. “And I want to go to places where people look beyond my skin color,” she tells me. “Ugandans are very friendly, and I want to visit places where I’m seen for who I am.”

“And what of the future? Where do you see Bella Africa in 5 years?”

“We are bound by culture here, but when I started the company, I said, ‘Why can’t I do this? What’s being a girl have to do with it? And now the clients of other companies see us in the field and say, ‘Why can’t we have a woman guide?’ This work gives me a special feeling. The work itself, but also to be able to help other women move up in this non-traditional career.”

“Five years? We want to grow the company, bring more women into this field. We will expand with more trips outside Uganda — Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo; there’s no limit. We want to reach every Asian household. There are many foreigners living in and visiting this country, also Europeans, Americans, everyone. We want them to see all of this amazing country. I believe we will excel, and we will do so while maintaining a personal touch. I think that women have a different perspective, a different way of guiding, they see differently.”

“Is it better?” I ask.

“It’s different, more inclusive.” She looks up at the map of Africa on her wall, pauses, thinks. “You know,” she tells me, at the start male guides would see me in the field and say, ‘You are bound to fail. This is a man’s world.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, really?’”

Bella Africa Tours  online:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Addendum No. Five: Loss, Joy & The Other

Erfert, the ever joyous, suggested I write on these topics and I always do as she tells me to. We all experience loss from our very beginnings, but one of the things that gives me joy now is to see the reaction of my infant son when his mother returns home after being away for several hours. It almost makes the anguish he seems to feel when she departs worth it. As she walks in, or when he see her coming across the courtyard from our balcony, he glows, giggles, then hugs her as she enters the apartment, screams. He is unrestrained in expressing his happiness at seeing this person he is so powerfully connected to, and always will be. Not long ago I lost everything, partly through my own doing, partly through no fault of my own. All gone. Everything. I came within 45 mins of death. I also lost about 95% of my US friends. I now possess nothing and everything simultaneously. At nearly 65, I have no savings whatsoever, no regular income, no health insurance, no property except my clothing and shoes (I wear sandals most days, even in the rain; it's Africa). The everythingness of joy I possess is derived from my wife and son. They are a fire that burns with love. After about 9 years of living in Africa, I have lost most correspondents. Commonalities fall away; Richard Dowden mentions this in his fine book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles -- the difference of daily life in Africa and Europe or the US is so great that friends just can't relate and, over time, lose interest, associations fade. You lose each other. I rarely hear from friends or family any longer, and when I do it's a missive of 3-4 sentences. The era of the long form letter has been blown away by the digital breeze. I like social media. I text, use WhatsApp, Facebook, but they are not the same as real correspondence. My other loss since moving to Africa is my anonymity. Eyes follow me wherever I go, a movie star without portfolio. In the upcountry villages, everything I do is fascinating, foreign, often funny. I am now and will forever be The Other, the muzungu, the foreign one, always consulting maps, always asking for directions and how to say something, always joy.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Addendum No. Four: Traveling in Mexico

I've gravitated toward tropical climates, ancient cultures, and carpe diem societies ever since I first began traveling. I've been to Mexico many times for both pleasure and work. I've also traveled in Southeast Asia, Brazil, Africa, Hawaii, where I owned property near Puna on the Big Island for several years, and watched a grown man teaching young girls the hula on the beach at Honaunau as spinner dolphins danced offshore. I love the heat, the pounding monsoons, the lush foliage, the weird insects and reptiles, the extravagant birds and the even more extravagant humans. Tropical people are what attract me the most. They're so sexy, funny, rarely in a hurry, never irritable or angry. The fat sultry clouds are always welcome as they float in on the hot morning winds, weeping and sobbing over the jungles, the mountains, and the savannahs. The cliffs covered with thick moss want to be petted. But the human life is what keeps me coming back, a craving for the culture, the sound, the tastes and aromas. Mexico and Mexicans drew me back so many times. I looked at them, their caramel faces, and they looked at me, the vanilla Californian. We engaged in a poetry of lyrical glances and stumbling phrases, grasping enough to know that we wanted to continue our awkward interpersonal symphony. When I'm in Oaxaca, home of my coincidentally named pal of many years, Roger Mexico, who suggested this topic, I go to the Zócalo in the evenings and watch the couples dance. Some have been coming there to dance in the dark for decades; everything from their souls to their clothes is perfectly matched. I watch them a long, long time, then I find a willing partner in the crowd, ask her to join me for a dance or two or three. She is invariably beautiful, exquisitely dressed. I am invariably a tall, bald gringo who dances like a three-legged dog, and just as happily. The music begins and away we go, swimming through the other couples, sashaying, skipping, strolling, twirling, sailing, unfurling...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Addendum No. Three: Tech Big Shots I Have Known

My old friend Ann-Marie suggested I write about a few of the people I knew in tech. Though I knew none of them well, The people I found most appealing of all the honchos I met in high-tech were Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon/WebMD and MyCFO (Jim and I were both high school dropouts, but he's a wee bit richer than I am), John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, founders of Adobe, and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars films, founder of Industrial Light & Magic and founder of the the George Lucas Educational Foundation where I knew him. Clark and I talked almost exclusively about dogs. He had two Samoyeds that he'd bring by my cubicle at SGI every couple weeks and we'd talk as the dogs snoozed or begged for treats; I'd bought a box of treats just for them so they always arrived at the cubicle 5 minutes before Jim did. We'd also discuss his love of sailing, and his ideas for a high tech boat. He mused about writing his life story, which he later did -- with the help of a friend of mine. He had an ego, but he mostly kept it partitioned off and only brought it out when dealing with other egos, notably engineers and other tech execs. I also had some dealings with Adobe's John Warnock and Chuck Geschke. (Years after I met Geschke, he was kidnapped and held for 5 days.) They were both warm, avuncular types, quite unlike the other various CEOs in Silicon Valley, most of whom were asshats of the 33rd degree. Warnock was at gathering once a few years back and attracted much attention by first spilling his drink then finding a rag to wipe up the mess with. People were amazed that a billionaire would do such a thing instead of expecting himself to be waited on, but that was typical of Warnock. It was also indicative of the pretentiousness and entitlement people expected of the high-tech big shots, and apparently still do. For about 9 months in 2006 I worked at Skywalker Ranch and attended many small meetings with George Lucas where I had a chance to observe him close-up. Skywalker is a surreal, too perfect sort of place, a result of George's cinema-besotted imagination and an endless amount of money. There's a sweetness and kindliness to George even though he is often remote and awkward. I suspect Asperger's. In any case, he was always friendly when I met with him, asking if I wanted coffee, offering a chair and so on, yet it was obvious he didn't do these things naturally. He'd been schooled, maybe by his overbearing secretary, to interact with people in such a way when he was hosting them. Also, he needed to employ these traits if he wanted to work in the necessarily collaborative film industry. His fame could not have been easy for him and he sought out ordinary places of refuge, such as a coffee shop I frequented long before I worked at Skywalker. He'd come in, sit at the counter by himself and chat with the waitress. She'd tell him about an argument she had with her mother and he'd sympathize, ask endless questions about the dull minutiae the young women had an endless supply of. They were mind-bogglingly boring conversations but Lucas loved them, did everything he could to extend them. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Addendum No. Two: My Heart
My friend Kaitlin, who is all heart, asked me to write about my heart. It's a tiny, shriveled thing so this will be a short entry. But here's the good news: My heart tripled in size and got much healthier as soon as I saw my son emerge from his mother nearly a year ago. He is now my cardiologist and everyday earns the name we gave him, Mukisa, which means blessing in the Luganda language. My heart broke, literally -- and only literally (I'm with Susan Sontag: illness as metaphor is baloney) -- on Easter Sunday 2013 when it nearly ground to a halt thanks to three arteries that were almost completely blocked (99%, 99% and 84% -- almost enough for you?). The pain was stunning, magnificent and left little question what was going on. Lucky for me, I was near one of the best cardiac catheterization hospitals in the USA and a friend and emergency medical people got me there very quickly. The surgeon told me I was about 45 minutes from the Great Beyond when the ambulance delivered me to the hospital. But the best part happened just after they loaded me in the ambulance at a rural fire station in Marin County, California. As I say, it was Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection, if you believe in such things. They put me on a gurney and rolled me into the back of the van. My mind was going like crazy, crazily thinking of all kinds of things in no particular order, kind of a waking dream. Oddly, I was not scared at all, too much other stuff was happening. The doors closed. So of course I thought of The Doors, and of course I thought of "When The Music's Over," and of course I thought of one of its most famous lines, "Cancel my subscription to the resurrection." That was early Sunday morning. Tuesday about noon, I walked out of the hospital -- pain free, energized, thankful -- and went home with four stents in my heart. They are still there, making sure things keep pumping until Mukisa is at least 25. I believe.

Addendum No. One: Things I Like to Cook
As I mentioned earlier, I find cooking therapeutic and have for decades. After writing this, I'll go home and cook a chicken stew for my wife, my sister-in-law, a couple friends and my son, Mukisa. He's now got seven teeth and is very enthusiastic about eating anything and everything and lots of it; my kind of dining companion. Nattabi bought the whole chicken at the market the other day. It's an African chicken, so it tastes like real chicken, not some Foster Farms plasticine robot chicken. I like to chop and drink something alcoholic while doing so -- restricts your intake and sharpens your knife skills if you're interested in retaining your fingertips. I'll dice onions, lots of garlic, bell pepper and potatoes. I'll saute all that in olive oil and butter, and throw in a little salt and a bunch of black pepper, also some sugar to help the onions brown. I'll then cut up the chicken. It's a big sucker so it may take awhile. Once it's in pieces I'll brown it. I'll then mix everything together, add some water and some wine and let it cook verrrrrrrryyyyy slowly, with oregano and rosemary, maybe a bit of curry powder. It will be a one dish meal, my favorite due to my terminal laziness. I will announce it to my guests as Memphis Booth chicken, aka Coq au Kampala, in honor of the man who asked me to write on this topic.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

25. Dreams
I mean the kind of dreams we have when we sleep -- not waking dreams or daydreams, not dreams one has about loved ones,  not wet dreams,  not dreams one projects about accomplishment or lovers, not vague dreams about this and that. NO, REM dreams is what I'm referring to, the intense ones, the take no prisoners dreams. I have a half dozen or so most nights. Let me tell you. They're always weird, with strange conversations, transformations, hallucinations and interactions -- rarely nightmares,  but often anxiety producing. Then, just occasionally, I'll have a dream of unspeakable  grandeur and beauty, shimmering, surreal, visually staggering. Such a dream will come to me without warning. Here's one I had years ago and still vividly recall: I'm walking in a field of waist high grass, a light breeze is blowing,  music of the glass harmonica plays gently in the distance, all very ethereal, spacey. 8 or 10 large  black and white butterflies come gliding towards me just above the grass. Suspended from the body of each butterfly is a crystal sphere about the size of a grape, swinging gently as they fly. What did it mean? I know not, except to tell me, "Welcome to your mind, this has been a brief demonstration of what it can do when you let it fly..."

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

24. Comfort and Discomfort
"Bite your tongue, get a cinder in your eye. When you feel good, you feel nothing." That ol' hedonist Buckminster Fuller said that. It's always made more sense to me than geodesic domes and dymaxion vehicles. We are sentient, sensual creatures (like the other earthlings) and our feelings -- physical and emotional -- control us, shape our lives. Our ability to deal with those feelings, to manage them and cope with how they manage us is the defining quality of our time here. Some of us are masterful, never show an emotion without intending to, others show too much, too many, inappropriately, inexplicably. Living with a small baby 24-7 gives me an opportunity to witness how he deals with feelings, frustrations, fears (doesn't have nearly enough in my opinion), hunger, anger. He is an even, sweet tempered little guy, but can swing wildly if provoked. And what provokes him? Being tired, uncomfortable and hungry are what get to him most and quickest, it seems. Discomfort is the tough one, because it is essential to keep us going, keep us vital, I believe, even while it can be enormously annoying. Too much comfort dulls us, fattens us, slows us physically and mentally, puts us to sleep. Too much discomfort makes us irritable, angry, skews our judgment. Where is the balance, how do we find it? Somehow we do, or can. Laziness is our greatest challenge when seeking that balance. Maintaining ambition, not fearing struggle is the divine path. When my 11 month old son sees my eyeglasses on our bed, he will exhaust himself getting to them (they fascinate him for some reason). Watching him try, drawing on every bit of energy he has, is an inspiration to me, and illustrates what it is that keeps people going forward when success seems impossible.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

23. Generosity
People have given me cars, thousands of dollars, tens-of-thousands of dollars, put me up in their homes for months, helped me in uncountable ways over and over. Once I was given a trip to Europe, all expenses paid. And people have given me extraordinary amounts of their time, good advice, kindness. Meanwhile, I've often been less than generous, far less. Selfish to put it bluntly. It took me a long time to wise up, to acquire the strength to believe in generosity. To grasp that karma is a real thing. Finally, I understand it, its value, and much too late in life I began to practice it in an authentic way. As I became more generous in thought and deed, a strange thing happened: generosity came back to me. I suppose there was an element of selfishness to my embrace of generosity. Perhaps that's always the case. In any event, I had to learn it and keep learning it, and always will. And should I forget even just briefly, I know my son will remind me.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

22. Antiquity
Old, old ancient things have always fascinated me. This was exacerbated, no doubt, by growing up in a place -- California -- were very little was old. 1850 was ancient. I craved contact with the old. My uncle, a world traveler and antique dealer knew this. He brought me a nail, an old rusty nail, square, curled in a spiral at its pointed end. He'd found it on the wall of Constantinople. I still have it somewhere. He also showed me his collection of Phoenician tear bottles, small irridescent glass bottles that the Phoenician women would collect their tears in when a husband went to war, a child died or some other heartbreak occurred. When I was in outback Australia, I met a guy -- Grahame Walsh, now dead -- who had documented most of the aboriginal rock painting in the country, some if it tens-of-thousands of years old. The place I found most moving was a rock wall he led me up to in Carnarvon Gorge. As we came around a bend, there it was, 80-90 feet, and for half of that height the sandstone was covered with handprints -- black, ochre, red -- as vivid as if they been made the day before. "3000 to 5000 years ago," Grahame told me. "That's when these were made, 3000 to 5000 years." And as he repeated the age a tear rolled down his ruddy whiskery cheek. Where's a Phoenician tear bottle when you need one?

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

21. Memory
Three members of my family have been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. It's a heartbreaker, to put it mildly. To witness its onset is to watch the erasure of personality and attachment, the inability to, for the most part, communicate with friends and loved ones in any meaningful way, to see the bridge from past to present fall down and float away. Then, as the disease intensifies, comes the inability to care for oneself, to comprehend time and space and recall one's place in the world, in a family, in a relationship, to clean and take care of oneself. I'm 64, rapidly closing in on 65, and my memory is not what it used to be, though I don't have Alzheimer's as far as I'm aware. (Interestingly, a neurologist told me that Alzheimer's is not a genetic trait.) I jokingly tell people that I'm so much happier since I've lost my memory, but I'm not entirely joking. Partly it's the absence of great swaths of memory that brings contentment, and partly it's my terrific wife, Nattabi, and baby son, Mukisa. I believe that I've also done some things over the years that have contributed greatly to my reasonably good (if forgetful) mental condition. I've kept moving and changing and seeking fresh experiences. I've stayed active in creative work, and always will as I'm not a rich man. I've used the robust sense of humor I inherited from my parents, and I've sought out people who also like to laugh and believe that whimsy is essential. Writing forces me to exercise my memory, and as a major yapper I think that the narcotic of lively conversation is the key to staying intellectually engaged. I believe too much comfort is a danger. And physical activity is important, including sex. Most of my suggestions here are obvious and oft repeated, but it's surprising how people forget the obvious, and forgetting everything else can soon follow.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

20. Psychiatry
Psychiatry was invented to battle terrible darkness and untangle sorrow and depression. Though it's been around in some form for centuries, the word first emerges in 1808, created by Professor Johann Christian Reil in his paper “On the term of medicine and its branches, especially with regard to the rectification of the topic in psychiatry”. American Indians would give an agitated, confused person a big tangle of string to untangle, hopefully untangling their own thoughts, emotions and delusions in the process. It worked sometimes. Freud and Jung developed other methods of varying effectiveness, later came Rollo May, Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, and the humanist-centric talking cure, therapy. There's been more to it than that, of course, but those were some of the high spots introduced in the mid to late 20th Century, techniques that seem to work for many, to alleviate suffering. Anti-psychotic drugs continue to be used widely, they can be a godsend. Carl Rogers, especially, was a champion of the talking cure -- "I hate my father," you tell me. "So you hate your father," I say back to you. "Yes," you say. "He refuses to take me seriously." I say, "I understand your father doesn't take you seriously. Why is that? How does it make you feel?" You think, then reply, "Makes me feel terrible and angry." I ask, "Does hating your father make you feel better?" And we continue on in that vein for an hour or so, reforming words and sentences to dig down into the bedrock of your feelings about your father and get at your sorrow and anger, start to heal your feeling and thoughts, bring them out into the light. It can be a long process, decades sometimes, but it can turn a life around, put people back together who've become hopelessly estranged and bitter. I've seen it happen. It's a force for good.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

19. Darkness
1969. I'm 16, having just emerged from the darkness of childhood, now wondering what darkest adulthood has to offer. The Youngbloods release a particularly appropriate anthem, "Darkness, Darkness." It opens with a haunting, sawing cello riff that chases the darkness from my teenage brain whenever I hear it. "Darkness, darkness, be my pillow," goes the first line. What do we make of darkness, how do we cope with it? The Manson murders are everywhere in the news. Manson explains, "From the world of darkness I did loose demons and devils in the power of scorpions to torment." America shudders. Altamont is imminent. How does this sunshine and rainbows generation deal with that? In my childhood it was the imaginary bears populating my bedroom, dwelling in the darkness. Then it was the darkness that dwelled inside my mother and sent her away to a dark place for months at a time. I left home to escape it, but my own darkside accompanied me. Later, I found a way to conquer it, read something Twain, that dark soul, wrote about it: "Courage is not the absence of fear," he said, "it's the conquest of it." I found courage in that. Darkness did not become my friend nor my pillow, but it ceased being my enemy. I learned to navigate it, not allow it to cripple me, even if it insisted it accompany me wherever I went, day and night, alone or with friends and lovers. I learned to cultivate it for my own creative purposes, let it consume itself like a hoopsnake. It was Mark Twain, first, later Carl Jung who helped me. "Knowing your own darkness," Jung wrote," is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people."

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

18. Filmmaking
Film is the best way yet invented to tell the truth and tell lies at the same time. What appears to be real life is nothing more than a trick -- still, dead, sequential photos strung together in a long strip and projected in such a way as to convince the viewer they are seeing reality. Truth, as Godard put it, 24 times a second. I worked in films for a decade or so, in Hollywood. The work is rigorous, though, at the time (late '70s, early '80s), the plentiful cocaine helped keep one going. The part of the process I loved was editing. Sitting in a darkened room at a Steenbeck editing machine and watching a scene turn into reality as the montage of pictures, voices, music becomes convincing and, with luck and skill, compelling. As I mentioned earlier, Velazquez invented cinema in 1656 when he painted Las Meninas, though the Lumiere Bros. created the technology that made film the worldwide phenomena it still is. Film reached its most evolved state in the silent era. As someone suggested, it's development happened backwards. Movies should have begun in color with sound, then progressed to black and white, silent. In Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden recognizes the faded silent film star played by Gloria Swanson and asks, "You used to be big in the movies, didn't you?" She replies disdainfully, "I'm still big, the movies got small."

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

17. God/No God
“In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” "God created man, and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor." Wilde must have said both, but I'm too lazy to verify by Googling. I relented, got some energy, Googled it. I find those quips or ones like them variously attributed to Voltaire, Twain, Shaw, Rousseau, and so on. I'm sure Wilde said them also as he didn't think twice about appropriating the witticisms of others. His friend Whistler once made a clever remark and Wilde said, "I wish I'd said that." Whistler said, "You will." Speaking of appropriating the witticisms of others, here's a favorite: "When God created man he overestimated his abilities." Amen. My wife is a devout Christian, I'm an atheist. We don't let it get in our way. Her mom is Muslim, her dad is Christian. They've been married 40 years. As for my son, when he is old enough, he can make up his own mind, and always have the freedom to change it. When prayer is called for, I ask my wife to do it -- "He knows I don't believe in him, so your prayer will be more effective," I tell her, assuming God will overhear. How can there be a God? It is absurd. No more absurd than the Easter Bunny, Santa, leprechauns, but absurd. Yet billions insist that the deity exists. Most say he's a guy, some say he's both male and female. Why would gender matter to a true God? How can there be a God if children are tortured, women are raped, men are dragged behind trucks? That's not a God I want in my life or my world. What happens in the brains of otherwise intelligent, wise men and women that makes them buy into this ruse? In "Letters From Earth," Mark Twain asked the same question, albeit more eloquently: "The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God's treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them. Your country and mine is an interesting one, but there is nothing there that is half so interesting as the human mind."

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet

16. Snorkeling
Ever since I first took lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) at age 13, I'd been looking for a way to duplicate the experience, and especially the fantastic polychrome hallucinations, without actually dropping acid. It took me a couple decades, and a couple hundred trips on psychedelic drugs, but I finally discovered snorkeling. For the cost of a plastic tube, a swim mask and some rubber flippers, I was able to turn on, turn in and drop out without the angst, wear and tear, tour through past lives, and tearing the doors of perception off their hinges. My first underwater trip was in Hawaii, at Honaunau Bay. It was there I fell in love with the Hawaii state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Say it fast. Or just call it a trigger fish. I also became besotted with 25 or so spinner dolphins, and they with me, I like to think. I'd go swim with them every morning when they dropped into the bay to feed, leap 10 feet above the water, and twirl their lovely sleek bodies in the Hawaiian sunlight. Later I snorkeled in Mexico, at the Great Barrier Reef, and off the coast of Zanzibar (OMFG!). I saw giant clams, whales, sharks, huge turtles, lion fish, shipwrecks, barracuda, giant grouper, manta rays, parrot fish gnawing on coral (crunch, crunch), trigger fish, eels, octopus, jellyfish, chambered nautilus, bright blue starfish, and a naked girl laughing under water. Later, on shore, she explained, "I wasn't laughing at you. I was just coming on to some acid." No explanation necessary, my dear.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

15. Alcohol
The more you drink, the funnier it gets: I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a prefrontal lobotomy. Funny, huh? The first job of a crazy person, a crazy person once told me, is to make you crazy too, bring you into their world. Alkies are the same way. "Have another," they'll say, "I'll buy." And before you know it, you're buying. For those of us with anxiety carved deep into our lobes, alcohol is the great soothing agent, the great release. Most of us no longer get drunk, I'm sad to report. Once you've been going at it hot and heavy for several decades it becomes a part of your personal ecology. If you're lucky you get lightly buzzed while those all about you are going to pieces. You don't spill things or vomit on yourself or get hostile or start touching inappropriately. You stay you, but a significantly less anxious version. It can be glorious. Once you turn pro, you start by late morning and keep going through the day or as long as your finances hold out. You become seductive and manipulative and a brilliant conversationalist -- all qualities that encourage others to buy drinks for you, more fuel to keep the entertainment coming. The great alkies -- think Wilde, Whistler, Bacon, Mailer, Vidal (it's an endless list) -- were cut from the same cloth: Brilliant, or at least very smart, charming, funny, wordy, wicked, sexy (though not that into actual sex), and with the stamina of cape buffalo. You could call them deplorable, sad, shipwrecks. On the other hand, they were given a life to spend, they spent it lavishly. As Charlie Parker put it when considering his naked form in the mirror shortly before he died: "I done wore this thing out." He was 35, the coroner guessed 70. I got another one for you: Two lobotomists walk into a bar...Cheers.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

14. Dance
He was a verb named Trip, a gifted ballet dancer. So gifted that Robert Joffrey flew from New York to San Francisco to offer him a contract in his acclaimed dance company. But no, he turned down that offer, not interested. He was on a different career path: Junkie, occasionally employed drifter with a heroin habit. Trip's beautiful mind, body and heart belonged to smack, though he would have a one night stand with cocaine if there was no junk available. We all fell in love with him. He was strong and fragile and had movie star looks and charisma. Yes, Trip was his real name. When we met, he was 19, I was 15. Trip was his name and his destiny -- to trip lightly through life, then stumble, fall, crash, burn. Maybe some of us could have stopped him, stepped in front of him, held out our hands, yelled "Stop, in the name of love!" But the music was so loud, the lights were flashing so fast, so brightly, the room spinning so madly, the flames were so high. Maybe we could have stopped his descent, his gorgeous graceful hideous death spiral. But we didn't, did we?

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

13. Painting
There's Velazquez and there's Bacon, then there's all the rest, scores of geniuses among them, but Velazquez and Bacon were giants, they stand apart, even Picasso was not of their caliber, even Rembrandt, Michelangelo. To stand before Velazquez's Las Meninas, painted in 1656, is to fall into that time, the lives of those people -- yes, their emotional world and interrelationships; he knew them all. Velazquez invented cinema centuries before the Lumiere Bros; he painted in time and out of time. He breathed painting and his heart continues to beat beneath those canvases in the Prado. Bacon got Velazquez more deeply than can be fully grasped; he channeled him. Bacon took Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, appropriated it and reinvented it as a horror, a nightmare, rendered as skillfully as the original -- a screaming pope looking into the heart of hell.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

12. Money
As James Baldwin pointed out, money is like sex: When you have it, you don't think about it. When you don't have it, you think of little else. These days, I think of little else. Boo-hoo. And as Tammy Wynette sagely remarked, it doesn't buy happiness, but it does take the edge off misery. I'm in favor of misery avoidance. To achieve it, I have -- and continue to -- do all manner of work whether I like it or not. I also borrow shamelessly, I'm ashamed to say. I've never figured out how to have money flow to me regularly, uninterrupted, plentifully, except for brief periods of time now in the distant past. Boo-hoo. Some people achieve a state of plenty-money with apparent ease, apparently. They are a wonder, supernatural and magic. I now live in a place where many people -- both rich and poor -- assume I'm wealthy, even though they are often better fixed financially than I am. It's odd. When I have money, I give chunks of it away to friends, family, strangers. Never loan money, always give it away. A rich man taught me that. The equation of having money and having happiness is vague at best, as many have pointed out. As equations go, Tammy Wynette's comes closest to the truth.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

11. Death
There's life and there's death. Depending on your point of view, one of them has a more promising future than the other. We've only experienced life in a direct, primary way. Death we don't know, not at all, though we may think we do. We know it only as a secondary experience. We know it once removed.  Even if we held a living being in our arms as they passed over, that's as close as we've come, as close as we can ever come until we pass over ourselves -- to a great beyond that for all we know may not be great at all. It may be tiny and dull and inconsequential if it exists at all. A near-death experience is not death, only nearly. We can speculate about how it feels when our time comes, but that's often nothing more than wishful thinking in which we go to a place of infinite splendor and wealth, where we get laid as much as we want, eat as much as we like and never get fat. Where we are surrounded by all we've ever loved. And Elvis is always at the next table. We can guess that all sensation stops, all thoughts and light and heat and cold cease forever. We can try to imagine, but we can't know until we know, and at that point, what will we know, you know?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

10. Service
"It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."
-- B. Dylan

Or it could be both. Or neither. Service, selflessness, giving back. Call it what you will. Mr. Dylan is correct, sort of. You won't have to serve somebody, but if you don't your life will be poorer for it. It seems counter-intuitive. Take love by making love? Really? Yes, it turns out to be very intuitive. You can do it at home or you can do it on the other side of the world. You can do it for humans or animals or the earth or some part of the earth. You can do it for a flea, a bumble bee or a baby. Orphanages need people to hold babies, coo to them, give them warm, regular physical contact. Go to them, do that. Children need people to teach them to read. Teach them. Self absorption is dull, it will frost you with drear. Give, don't take. Please.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

9. Cooking
With cooking as with writing, I hope others will like it, but if not I'm prepared to enjoy it all by myself. I moved out of my parents home when I was 16 and never developed the fast food habit, so I had to learn to cook. Luckily, by 17, I met my best friend and he was a terrific cook. He also turned me on to Craig Claiborne's New York Time's Cook Book, one of the few you will need. The others are The Tassajara Bread Book, The Greens Cook Book, The Joy of Cooking, and Julia Child's The Art of French Cooking. And then you'll need none of them, because you will have internalized the alchemy that makes for great food. And what is that? Well, it's like sex: You get what you give. It must be sensual and you must be attuned to your partner's, or partners', desires. Flavor, texture, heat, cold. Some dishes are best if made quickly, others need time. My cooking guru always served dinner late -- 10pm or 11:00 -- Lamb Stew with White Wine, Oxtail Stew, Beef Tongue, Onion Soup with Vermouth. You eat, you drink, you drink some more, and more, then let the bed swallow you, transport you into darkness, softness, dreams, the arms of a lover.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

8. Reading
My early memories of reading aren't of reading, but being read to. I didn't start reading by seeing words on a page, reading for me began with hearing words strung together and shaped into stories. My mother would perform the stories, giving the characters -- the animals from Wind in the Willows or Pooh -- distinctive, quirky, funny voices. She also invented a recurring story she told me every night as I lay in bed, the Adventures of Baby Bear. I had a role in that story: the adventures usually included me. I now have a little boy. He's nearly a year old. And just the other day it dawned on me that among the many endearments I shower him with one of the more frequently invoked is "Baby Bear." To read or be read to is to have a movie projected inside your head, to have your imagination fed. And over time, you develop an appetite, you hunger for it. And maybe you become a cook yourself.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

7. Travel
“You go away for a long time and return a different person -- you never come all the way back.”
― Paul Theroux

We rarely traveled far when I was growing up. We were a large family -- 5 kids-- and didn't really have the funds to go on long vacations, or any vacations. We went to the beach occasionally, we drove up to the Gold Country in the Sierra foothills (we lived in the Bay Area), that was about it. It was a major event when, at age 12, my mom and dad and I drove down to Anaheim over Christmas to spend the holiday at Disneyland. It was such a major event my mom had a psychotic break and a doctor had to come to the Travelodge and inject her with an anti-psychotic so she'd top seeing giant shrieking lizard heads crashing out of the wall. My dad sent me to the Magic Kingdom by myself the following day, but I stayed off the spinning teacup ride where things had started to go to pieces for mom the day before. Going to pieces a little, in a good way, a manageable way, is one of travel's best aspects. One goes somewhat mad, right? -- like Alice did when she tumbled down the rabbit hole. The disorientation is invigorating. One is reinvented by searching, finding the way, discovering, exploring, not knowing, learning, yearning, falling in love with places, people (and in my case), a person. The new gives us new life, meaning, restores our sense of wonder. We get scared, seek protection, find friends and comfort. See other worlds, hear unfamiliar sounds, smell unfamiliar aromas, eat new flavors, develop new hungers. We change and, as Theroux, observed, never come all the way back. As it should be, no? Like snails, we should leave a trail that maps our movement through the world.

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

6. Animals
There were the animals of my childhood -- Rusty, Sundance, Clackers, Putty, Prince & Prince, Huntley & Brinkley -- then there was The Animal, the God Dog, that kingly presence called Mauka, the grand Newfoundland, who flew through my life on his shaggy black angel wings for far too short a time. A few eloquent years, then he was gone, back to the universe on the other side of the mirror. I cried all night after he died in my arms with one last heaving operatic dog breath; then I listened to Erik Satie piano music for the rest of the week. Ahh, but he was to come back. He actually withdrew from this vale of tears slowly, delicately, coming to me in the dark of night several times over the months following his passing, sleeping in the room where I slept, throwing himself heavily to the floor as was his habit, snoring, turning and pawing the carpet until the sun started to hit the blinds. I still see him sitting in Tomales Bay, neck deep, just sitting there letting the waves gently massage him. Many memories, of course, but perhaps this one paramount among them: We are walking single file across the vast field at Millerton Point, a mesa that sits above Tomales Bay, a shimmering, pristine finger off the Pacific. Just ahead of me I see a snake, basking in the midday sun. I step over it; it's motionless. But as Mauka goes to step over this stick, it moves. He starts, grabs it with his mouth. "No," I say. "No, no, drop it." But this is a game of course, a game that requires running, so that I cannot grab the stick. And off he goes, galloping through the golden palomino grass, head held high, 3 foot long snake writhing and wriggling in his mouth. He looks like the image on an 18th century flag -- Don't Tread on Me. I see him now so clear, running into the sun, his massive black form racing through the blonde grasses and the serpent curling into the light and the sky.