Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Brief Anthology of Songs that Stopped Making Sense Long Before 
"Stop Making Sense"

Boop boop diten datem whatem choo

Boop boop diten datem whatem choo
Boop boop diten datem whatem choo
-- Three Little Fishes, Josephine Carringer and Bernice Idins

Ooo eee, ooo ah ah ting tang

Walla walla, bing bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bing bang...
--  Witch Doctor, Ross Bagdasarian Sr., aka David Seville

Sitting on a corn flake

Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you've been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long
-- I am the Walrus, John Lennon, Paul McCartney

Having a 2 year old at 65 takes you into downscale neighborhoods of recorded music that you have not visited in a long time, maybe ever. Such has been my entirely pleasant experience. I'd say it's been a trip down Memory Lane if I had any memory. Instead I have Google, which has rendered  a mother lode of nonsense songs from the last century -- the stuff my toddler is enchanted by. I also tapped what remains of the brains of old chromosome-damaged friends and recent acquaintances. Turns out they are full of nonsense and had many good suggestions for nonsense songs I might try to make sense of. 

Why, I wonder, after the mega-hits have faded along with the stars who performed them, do nonsense songs still have legs, they endure for decades and never seem to lose their usefulness, which is what exactly? What are they good for? Why do we keep them around? Why do they retain their popularity with youngsters as well as adults? What is the multi-generational appeal of these absurd vocalizations? In my case, it enables me and my son, Mukisa, to bridge a 63 year gap with silliness, nonlinearity and a reason to dance together (not that we need one). These songs are a terrific means of multi-generational merging, loud, often melodic, play at its best and most entertaining. For example:


One of the first in recent times, and still one of the best, is the exquisitely nonsensical Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll from his splendid and surreal 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. As you will recall, it starts like this:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe

'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought

Jabberwocky then goes on for another four stanzas, demonstrating what Beowulf might have been if written by Beatrix Potter while on psilocybin. I love the atmosphere of menace and terror Carroll concocts with words of his own invention: the frumious Bandersnatch, the Jubjub bird, and later, The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! The horror, the horror. Later others set Jabberwocky to music, among them, believe it or don't, Donovan and the University of Utah Singers: Jabberwocky:


About 1939 one of the great classics of the nonsense genre was born, Three Little Fishies. If your mother didn't sing it to you as a child you were deprived. The song, which tells of three little fish who disobey their mama and live to regret it, goes like this: 

Down in the meadow in a 

little bitty pool
Swam three little fishies
And a mama fishie too
"Swim," said the mama fishie,
"Swim if you can."
And they swam and they swam all
over the dam

Boop boop diten datem whatem choo

Boop boop diten datem whatem choo
Boop boop diten datem whatem choo
And they swam and they swam 
right over the dam

"Stop!" cried the mama fish,

"Or you will get lost."
But the three little fishies
didn’t want to be bossed
The three little fishies
went off on a spree, 
And they swam and 
they swam right out
to the sea

The three scaley juvenile delinquents finally get back to the pool, but not before scaring the bejesus out of us and encountering a whale. (Where was the father!?) It was recorded by Kay Kyser, Glen Miller and many others, but perhaps most profoundly by that great wackjob, Spike Jones and his band The City Slickers, Three Little Fishies: 


Perhaps no finer purveyors of nonsense have gifted us in contemporary times as Lennon & McCartney of the Beatles, and their most impressive effort (among many) must be I Am the Walrus:

Mr. City policeman sitting

Pretty little policemen in a row
See how they fly like Lucy in the sky
See how they run
I'm crying
I'm crying, I'm crying, I'm crying

Yellow matter custard

Dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess
Boy, you've been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down

I Am the Walrus:

WTF does it mean? Still, it advances the cause of nonsense, that intellectual exercise that everyone from toddlers to elders can throw themselves into with enthusiasm, commitment, and nonlinearity.


One of the great shaman of sense-lacking song was Roger Miller, most famous for King of the Road, a song that is too linear to make a contribution to the canon. Instead we hail him for You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd. A sampling of its finest lyrics: "Ya can't roller skate in a buffalo herd...Ya can't take a shower in a parakeet cage...Well, ya can't go a-swimmin' in a baseball pool...Ya can't change film with a kid on your back...Ya can't drive around with a tiger in your car...Ya can't go fishin' in a watermelon patch." I once ran into Miller at San Francisco Airport. I walked over, greeted him and told him I loved his work. "And I love yours," he said.

You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd:


Now comes Slim Gaillard, the jazzified high priest of senselessness in song and his exquisite  “Yep-Roc Heresay,”, the lyrics of which are almost entirely in Arabic...or maybe Armenian...or something. He's apparently singing about food:  yabra (stuffed grape leaves), harisseh (a semolina dessert), kibbeh bi-siniyyeh (a dish of meat and bulgur), and lahm mishweh (grilled meat), etc. Like other songs with cryptic or impossible to understand lyrics (see Louie Louie), Gaillard's Opus Maximus was banned on several radio stations. In fact, its meaning is entirely benign unless one is offended by food. One critic, Qifa Nabki, points out that the songs title is "...a botched transliteration of the first two words of the song: 'Yabra… Harisseh…' I can’t really tell if Gaillard’s own pronunciation is wrong or whether some record company executive couldn’t figure out what he was saying." Long live Slim Gaillard (too late, he split the scene in 1991).

Yep-Roc Heresay:


Naturally, Monty Python belong in the pantheon of nonsensical song, not to mention complete idiocy. One of the group's greatest contributions — R rated -- goes like this:
Isn't it awfully nice to have a penis
Isn't it frightfully good to have a dong
It's swell to have a stiffy
It's divine to own a dick
From the tiniest little tadger
To the world's biggest prick
So, three cheers for your Willy or John Thomas
Hooray for your one-eyed trouser snake
Your piece of pork, your wife's best friend
Your Percy, or your cock
You can wrap it up in ribbons
You can slip it in your sock
But don't take it out in public
Or they will stick you in the dock
And you won't come about

Monty Python, The Penis Song:


Interestingly, or perhaps not (depending on what interests you), there is another Penis Song, this one by Macklemore. It is, um, long, but here is just the tip:
I wish my dick was bigger, yep, I can admit it
I'm above average on inches but I wanted damn double digits
If I had a big ol' cock what would I do?
I'd probably go to Florida and show it to Trina and screw
Get butt naked and start streaking at my school
And get arrested but at least the girls would be impressed
With my third leg and, and then I'd go to a keg and
Do a keg stand, get drunk and do the running man
With no clothes on just to show off

Macklemore, Penis Song:


Nothing like a radical change of course to keep the reader's attention, so let us leap directly from the third leg ravings of Macklemore to, well, Mary Poppins as interpreted by Julie Andrews:

It's Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Even though the sound of it
Is something quite atrocious
If you say it loud enough
You'll always sound precocious
Because I was afraid to speak
When I was just a lad
Me father gave me nose a tweak
And told me I was bad
But then one day I learned a word
That saved me aching nose
The biggest word you ever heard
And this is how it goes
Oh, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Even though the sound of it ...and on and on until you run screaming from the theater or TV room.


As appealing as it is -- Andrews could never fully extract herself from its multisyllabic clutches -- one punning wag once called Mahatma Gandhi a "super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis."


Here's a grim little ditty that takes us all to heaven. It may not be a light hearted romp, but does show you how to turn a dark hearted chant into a highly danceable singalong.

Three, six, nine, the goose drank wine

The monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line
The line broke, the monkey got choked
They all went to heaven in a little row-boat



Clap-Pat: Clap your hand, pat it on your partner's hand (right hand)

Clap-Pat: Clap your hand, cross it with your left arm, pat your partner's left palm
Clap-Pat: Clap your hand, pat your partner's right palm with your right palm again
Clap-Slap: Clap your hands, slap your thighs, and sing a little song; go:

My mother told me

If I was good-ee
That she would buy me
A rubber dolly

My aunty told her

I kissed a soldier
Now she won't buy me
A rubber dolly

The Clap Clap Song:


Finally, the world of nonsense and blithering wackadoodleness would be a poorer place indeed without Witch Doctor, written by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. who performed as David Seville. Seville later created the voices for Alvin & the Chipmunks and in this version we hear him try out the little rodents singing abilities:

I told the witch doctor

I was in love with you
I told the witch doctor
I was in love with you
And then the witch doctor
He told me what to do
He told me
Ooo eee, ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla, bang bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bang bang
Ooo eee ,ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla ,bang bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bang bang

Witch Doctor:

Sigh, there are so many more greats in the Nonsensical Hall of Fame and the Idiotic Grand Ole Opry, but time and your patience require that we bring this disaster to a halt. As we do, spare a thought for Mairzy Doats:

I know a ditty, nutty as a fruitcake 

Goofy as a goon and silly as a loon 
Some call it pretty, others call it crazy 
But they all sing this tune: 

Mairzy doats And dozy doats 

And liddle lamzy divey 
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you? 

Mairzy Doats:

Hum a few bars of the Monster Mash:

I was working in the lab late one night

When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
For my monster from his slab began to rise
And suddenly to my surprise
He did the mash
He did the monster mash
The monster mash
It was a graveyard smash
He did the mash
It caught on in a flash
He did the mash
He did the monster mash
From my laboratory in the castle east
To the master bedroom where the vampires feast
The ghouls all came from their humble abodes
To get a jolt from my electrodes
They did the mash
They did the monster mash
The monster mash
It was a graveyard smash
They did the mash
It caught on in a flash
They did the mash
They did the monster mash
Monster Mash:
And raise a glass to what may be the greatest of them all, the one and only One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eather: 

Well, I saw the thing comin' out of the sky

It had the one long horn, one big eye
I commenced to shakin' and I said "ooh-eee"
It looks like a purple people eater to me

It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater

(One-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater)
A one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater
Sure looks strange to me (one eye?)

Well he came down to earth and he lit in a tree

I said Mr. Purple People Eater, don't eat me
I heard him say in a voice so gruff
"I wouldn't eat you 'cause you're so tough"

One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater:

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.

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 (it was never a colony). 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 mens “blessing” in Luganda the language most widely spoken here, though there are 52 indignous languages. 
At 3, Mukisa 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 $600 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 fetches $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 me, “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. Once, he came running to me: "Daddy, Sunny pushed me!" "Did you push him first?" "No, I bit him first."5 demerits for bad behavior; 5 credits for honesty.

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 boy 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 that 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 eat 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 Basharat 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 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 -- the Great Rift Valley, the Source Perrier of humanity 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 put it (repeatedly) in Slaughterhouse Five. 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.