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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Old Bones

Dinner: circa 1965

Dinner is a private excavation into family, a daily social interaction primeval.  Dinner is a truce between Mom and Dad who chew their food while holding back opposite views on The War. It’s a lesson in etiquette: what to do when your mouth is full of stories and the phone rings and it’s your best friend and you’re not allowed to leave the table. What to do when the paper boy comes to your front door wanting payment for the latest front-page gore about the War.

Dinner is a mealtime prayer followed by a diatribe against student protesters and long-haired draft dodgers. Dinner is talk about the price of gas and groceries. Dinner is me asking my youngest brother to Please pass the milk and then saying Thank you.

Dinner is tuna casserole spooned like army rations onto Melmac.  Dinner is Operation Rolling Thunder and watching Channel 9 news to hear a report on Viet Cong, communists, gooks, guerrillas, and GIs. It’s elbows off the table, chin off my plate, chewing with my mouth closed while listening to yesterday’s body count added to the sum from the day before. It is my oldest brother, his long, red hair dragging in beef gravy, tearing up his draft notice.

Dinner is whispers about friends of friends who bought a car with bloodshed money given to them in exchange for their son’s life. Dinner is me quibbling with Mom about whose turn it is to do the dishes. (Who will clear the table and who will wash and who will dry?)

Dinner, circa 1965, is a knock on the door and Marines bearing the news of a soldier’s death. Dinner, circa 1965, is a heavy body bag that is dragged through napalm jungle to decompose in front of us on the kitchen table.  Dinner, circa 1965, is a family in a far-off village who sits down to eat bombs that have fallen from heaven into their bowls of rice.

Dinner: circa 2000

An immigrant family from a bombed-out village lives in the kitchen of my youth. The family eats dinner slowly, with mouths closed, wary of exposing battle scars, wary of choking on old bones that no one else can swallow.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

iThank you, Mr. Jobs

There are two types of people: those who have an iPhone, and those who want an iPhone.  Thanks, Mr. Jobs, for sharing your genius with the world.  May you rest in Peace.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011


Party Shoes

Cinderella, a red tulip of a girl,
labors to free herself
from her glass slipper.

It holds her fast, prettily,
like a Waterford vase
constrains a flower.

The clock strikes twelve.

Petals fall.  Stems droop.
Water evaporates and
blossoms are dumped

from cut glass to haute trash.
In darkness, Cinderella
rummages the dumpster,

searching for her
bygone beautiful self.
Meanwhile, vase and slipper

sit empty, ready to enclose
the next beauty.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011


Be careful with your work.
You know boredom
is a crushing disease that

distorts your spine
blurs your sight
creases your stomach
fattens your hips and
shrivels your brain.

We’d be better off writing
poems, those little afflictions
whose only side effects are
bruised egos



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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stars Born From Dust

We are stars born from dust.
We take turns looking through a telescope,
our magic keyhole into night.

The Universe is our treasure room:
The gilded sky is pressed between
the pages of creation, each star a blazing jewel
that we study with a lens. We gaze a long time,
taking turns, searching for something special,
not sure how to capture the moving night.

Objects that were dim and
light years away now burn near and bright.
Light is enduring: more than time,
more than earth, than water, than you, than me.
We gaze into our remote part of the Universe
to see what’s there.   What’s there is

empty space,

a place where galaxies expand, collapse
then move apart.  A space where
wild comets fly out of orbit, and,
like fast-burning stars,
plunge into shifting seas.

Beneath the cool cotton of your shirt
you feel strong as Atlas.  Beyond
your body mass is a shiny scythe of a moon,
and beyond that - far, far, beyond -
is Andromeda.  Tonight we travel
as far as Sirius where I pause long enough
to be amazed at the promise of We because
We is a binary star in a singular-star universe.

Infinity is your arms around me -
as absolute, certain, and undeniable
as the rings around Saturn.

You aim the telescope
toward Jupiter,(a huge thing that looks
layered as agate), and say:
What a beautiful night.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Angel Wore Stradivarius

Stradivarius Violin : Detail of a beautiful violin with the score Stock PhotoThe Devil may wear Prada, but a Dutch angel named Simone Lamsma wore a strapless Cremona Stradivarius with bow at the SPCO performance last night as she played the Lindberg Violin Concerto (2006).  The concerto, which began with Lamsma playing solo violin, intensified as more strings, oboes, bassoons, and horns were added until reaching its fortississimo conclusion.  The audience responded with a standing ovation.  Created in 1718, the “ex Chanot-Chardon” Stradivarius is on loan to Lamsma from renowned violinist Tim Baker who purchased it from Joshua Bell.  In 1999, the “guitar” violin was featured in the movie The Red Violin.  Based on last night’s performance at the Ordway, 26-year-old Simone Lamsma will be able to accessorize her virtuoso performance with world-class violins for years to come.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Stanley Expedition – A Concise Account of the Historic Re-creation of Stanley’s Route to Find Livingstone


Note: This is a refreshed version of an article that I wrote, which was published on Sunday, October 21, 1990 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
       We’ve been camping every night since we left Tabora on foot. We are now in Mpanda, which is 150 miles from The Stanley Expedition’s destination of Ujiji, the fishing village where Stanley spoke the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
       The days of hiking are hot, and the nights are cool. None of us have bathed for 11 days, so we smell from dirt and sweat and campfire smoke. Frequently, we’ll come across rivers or mud holes, but nobody bathes for fear of contracting bilharzia, a blood fluke present throughout Tanzania. The fluke burrows through skin and infests internal organs causing painful and cumulative damage. We drink water only after treating it with iodine tablets, or filtering with a Katadyn. The iodine makes already tainted water taste more so, while filtering is laborious and time consuming.
       Two-thirds of Tanzania is uninhabitable due to the lack of potable water and the abundance of tsetse flies. Our 14-member group has yet to find potable water, electricity or a paved road. Many of us question our sanity in leaving jobs, homes, families and friends to recreate journalist Henry Morton Stanley’s historic 868-mile journey to find Dr. David Livingstone, a Scottish physician, missionary, and early explorer of Africa.
       When Dr. Livingstone was working in remotest Africa, a group of friends wrote him: “We would like to send other men to you. Have you found a good road into your area yet?” Dr. Livingstone replied: “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”
       The men and women in the 1990 Stanley Expedition are ordinary people who were chosen from amongst 300 applicants worldwide. For me, the expedition is an adventurous way of fulfilling a childhood dream to travel to “The Dark Continent,” a phrase first attributed to Stanley in his book Through the Dark Continent. The book is an account of Stanley’s 999-day endeavor to trace the course of the River Congo to the sea. Starting with 356 people, 114 survived of which Stanley was the only European.
       Biographers and historians have written that each day of Stanley’s 1871 exploration to find Livingstone was rife with hardship and danger. Late in the 20th century, we also suffer travail. Many times during the expedition, I wished that I was back in the suburbs close to all the day-to-day conveniences and fun activities that the Twin Cities has to offer. Yet, in Africa, I persevere by hiking as far as 26 miles a day across tsetse-fly infested terrain in 100-degree heat saddled with a 30-pound backpack.
       We watch our every step so as not to twist an ankle or disturb one the many dangerous animals that inhabit Tanzania. The need to be cautious is reinforced when the expedition team leader informs us that he has banished the medical officer. Also banished by the team leader are the photographer, the cook, the navigator and his buddy. (Both the navigator and his buddy are US Marines.) Those of us who remain with the expedition share the dubious quality of acquiescing to the team leader who favors dictatorship over democracy, a leadership stance made worse after he downs a few beers.
       With five expedition members having been dismissed, the tasks of setting up camp and preparing the evening meal are endless and exhausting. Tents must be setup and firewood cut and gathered. The latrine must be dug. Thorns and tall grasses must be cleared away from the campsite. Fortunately, two askaris have joined the expedition bearing rifles and machetes. Their rifles are powerful enough to kill an elephant. The head askari casually hikes along with us and uses his right hand to hold the gun barrel while resting the rifle stock on his shoulder. Impressive, the rifle ammunition is the size of a Tampon Super.
Africa - Askari Hamedu
Askari with rifle and cigarette.

     The askaris use their machetes to clear the campsite. Both men have paired their government-issued camouflage uniforms with loafers. The head askari wears white, plastic loafers and his assistant wears dark blue leather loafers. Our group provides them with hiking boots, food, water, bedrolls, tents, toiletries, hats, utensils, and flashlights.
       While the Stanley Expedition men journal and doze, the Stanley Expedition women prepare the evening meal. Both the men and the women hike an average of 15 miles a day across a harsh and vast wilderness, but only the women are expected to take over cooking duty. We prepare the meals in crude and filthy conditions while sitting on the ground under mosquito netting. Cooking is done over wood fires in pots supported by hunks of termite mound. Most nights, chunky water is the only available liquid and becomes a staple throughout the duration of the expedition.
       We cut up vegetables, and then winnow stones and chaff from the rice before throwing everything into a pot. Though our personal hygiene is repugnant, it is important that our ration of rice be free of stones so that no one breaks a tooth. (There are no dentists within hiking distance of our tented, nomadic campsites.) Meals have included rice with cabbage, rice with tomatoes, rice with eggplant, rice with catfish, rice with peanuts, rice with impala, and rice with rice.
       Wild game is a treat that comes at an emotional cost. One afternoon several of us women accompanied head askari on what we thought was a wildlife safari. To our astonishment, the “safari” became a hunt for impala, an elegant, beautiful herd animal which the head askari tracked, shot, and dressed. We women, a couple of whom had cried when the impala was killed, prepared the venison for dinner and then consumed it along with freshly caught catfish, boiled potatoes, fried eggplant and tomatoes.
       After dinner, the women clean the cooking pots using sticks followed by a scouring with a handful of sand or small stones. One evening a hyena assisted with the cleanup by charging through camp just as the meal was cooking, grabbing the pot from the fire, and running off into the dark. The next morning, we found the pot a short distance outside the campsite. The pot, now dented with canine-like tooth markings, had been licked clean.
       While the women clean up the primitive kitchen, the Stanley Expedition men tell drunken tall tales around the campfire while mapping out the next day’s journey.
       The bedtime routine consists of brushing one’s teeth with minuscule amounts of treated water and wiping one’s face with moist towelettes, a singular luxury in a harsh environment. By the end of the day, my face was so layered with dirt that when I took off my sunglasses, I looked like a raccoon. All trips to the latrine include a flashlight and a shovel. Exhausted, everyone crawls into grubby sleeping bags. Everyone, that is, except for the person assigned to the first shift of guard duty.
Guard duty begins at 9 p.m. and ends at 6 a.m. when we are roused in the dark from our two-person tents. Guard duty detail consists of stoking the fire and protecting the camp from poachers, bandits, and carnivorous animals. My watch, which is about to begin, is a two-hour shift.
       The night sky is beautiful and filled with constellations only visible in the southern hemisphere. Across from me, on the other side of the campfire, is the head askari. I watch as he inserts the blade of his machete into the fire, and then balances a glowing cinder on the tip of the blade before drawing it close to his mouth to light his cigarette. After the askari turns in for the evening, I begin to journal. Suddenly, out of the darkness and into the campfire light, six men approach carrying automatic rifles.
       Until that moment, I had never pictured myself dying by gunfire in a foreign land. I sit quietly, tending the fire in silence and in fear. On the ground beside me rests a .357 Magnum. I push the holstered gun behind me, out of the firelight and into the shadows. The armed men begin to speak to me in Kiswahili, which I do not understand. The noise alerts the askari – a game scout with military training – whose job it is to warn and protect us from dangers.
       After a show of documents and some discussion with the askari, the armed men depart. The askari explains that the men are regional police. Apparently, our group has created an uproar by inadvertently tenting near a refugee camp populated by Ugandans who fled the country during the Idi Amin regime. The askari handled our blunder wisely and well: the police allow us to continue along our historic route through Uriwira.
       While the Southern Cross is still visible in the wane morning light, we are given the signal that it is time to break camp. Weary, we crawl out of our tents and huddle in the chill air around the fire. If we are lucky, there is leftover rice for breakfast. If not, we forage through baskets in the Toyota Land Cruiser, which is a service vehicle that carries food and equipment. On the best mornings, we find juicy oranges, roasted peanuts, and ripe bananas. On the worst mornings, we subsist on air and chunky water.
       After our meager meal, the morning routine begins with a trip to the latrine followed by tooth brushing and swathing our blistered feet in moleskin. Moleskin was voted the single most important non-food commodity in camp. One fellow with size 13EE feet suffers greatly in spite of using mega amounts of the stuff. Except for the lack of potable, water foot problems are the team’s most common complaint, though not the most serious. Other afflictions include malaria, typhoid, pancreatitis, heat exhaustion, diarrhea, burns, hives, ringworm, assorted insect bites, a botfly infestation, a sprained ankle, and a dislocated jaw when one female tent mate hauls off and hits another.
       All of these maladies occur after the medical officer is long gone, though nothing matches the botfly infestation for sheer dreadfulness. Alone in her tent with a flashlight clenched between her teeth, one of the women cleans a swelled area on her thigh, then watches as botfly larvae hatch from the wound. Her scream raises the hair on the back of my neck.
       We begin hiking at 7:30 a.m. The terrain may be dry and woodsy (reminiscent of an Indian summer day in Minnesota), steep and mountainous, or wet and marshy. Some days, razor sharp elephant grass towers over our heads and we must constantly push it aside to see the next step in front of us. Other days the blood-sucking tsetse flies dive bomb us, taking bites which leave huge welts and the threat of encephalitis.
       We take breaks every three to four miles in the morning, and every hour in the heat of day when temperatures can climb to 118-degrees Fahrenheit. Breaks are used to apply moleskin to fresh blisters, rehydrate with clouded water, and eat a sour orange or two. Occasionally, biscuits acquired from a village magically appear and are a shared reprieve from an otherwise grim journey.
Villagers are warm and welcoming. The women wear khangas, rectangles of colorful cloth long enough to both clothe a woman and enfold the baby that she carries on her back. Many villagers have never seen a white person. Our group is repeatedly mobbed by the curious. Sometimes children cry when we pass through a village. Tears are turned to smiles as balloons and pencils inscribed with “The Stanley Expedition” as handed out.
       Tanzania is an economy of scarcity. Unlike Westerners who habitually stock up on household provisions, the villagers go to market each day to buy or barter what they need. The day we wanted to purchase several dozen eggs, there were only four available in the entire village. Occasionally an egg contains a balut, which isn’t discovered until cracking the egg open and spilling its foul contents into a sizzling pan of fresh eggs.
Africa 20 schilling
       Packaged, processed, or imported foods and beverages are a rarity in the East Africa bush. Soda pop is an exception, including Coca Cola. It can be purchased, unrefrigerated, for 100 Tanzanian shillings, or about 50 cents U.S. In a country where the annual per capita income is $200, this is an extravagance. In contrast, chai, hot tea made with tea, raw sugar and hot milk, costs ten cents a cup. Chai, a small comfort on a difficult journey, was my drink of choice despite the risk of contracting tuberculosis, diphtheria, or scarlet fever due to the use of unpasteurized milk.
       Many foods, including cheese, are a rarity despite goats and cattle being plentiful. The villagers eat and drink only what they can produce locally. Food is cooked over open fires, its preparation unaided by blenders or mixers or food processors. Many children are scarred with burns from falling into cooking fires.
       Along our historic route, many villagers seeking relief from malaria and chronic pain ask us for medicine and painkillers. These items are simply not available in the African bush. Villagers live in mud huts and sleep on straw mats raised up by roughhewn wooden poles. Chickens and dogs share living quarters with families. The sick and lame are carted around in wheelbarrows. One woman, whose legs were stricken with polio, dragged herself along the rutty roads with her arms.
       Since East Africa has some of the toughest terrain and poorest road conditions in the world, most vehicles are four-wheel drive. In an area thick with elephant grass, the Land Cruiser radiator frequently became clogged and overheated. Every time this occurred, the driver had to open the hood to remove the grassy encasing from the radiator, resulting in an average speed of 9 mph.
       Roads may be blocked by fallen trees, or may have potholes the size of small craters; wooden bridges may be in a state of collapse due to flooding; areas may be washed out by the rainy season, disconnecting one village from another. One day the Toyota Land Cruiser was stuck in mud so deep that it took an entire day to dig it out. By nightfall, with no way to re-provision, we were out of food, out of water, out of clean clothes, and out of enthusiasm.
       Very few Tanzanians have motorized vehicles so journeys near and far are accomplished on foot, by bike, or by hitching a ride on an infrequent work truck headed for a populated area. Almost always, pedestrians carry essentials on their head such as firewood, cooking oil, sacks of flour, sugar cane, or baskets of vegetables for market. Bicycles, usually black in color, are one-speed with fat tires. Unless it’s already occupied by a passenger, bikers strap their load to the rear fender.
       While in towns and villages, we are very careful about taking pictures. No photographs are allowed of government structures including schools, regional game offices, banks, post offices, military installations, airports, or train stations. According to a missionary whom I met, she was in a plane taking off when a fellow passenger snapped a photo from his window seat. The control tower ordered the pilot to land, and the man’s camera was confiscated.
       In another incident, one of the members of our expedition was mobbed after taking a photo of a storefront. The worst misunderstanding occurred when the proprietor of a hotel thought our video battery pack was a “bugging” device, and that we were a group of spies. Police were summoned to investigate, arriving at 11:30 p.m. with guns drawn and wearing commando gear. After a display of documents, the police were convinced of our benign intentions and politely left. From then on, we always asked permission before snapping a photo or publicly displaying any “suspicious” equipment.
       Incidents like these were dramatic, but were few and far between. Most often our group was greeted by villagers with “Jambo,” and “Habari safari.” The Tanzanian government provided the expedition with highly-skilled askaris. The Tanzanian people helped us with everything from washing our grungy laundry to assisting with money transfers, which entail multiple rubber stamps by multiple bureaucrats. In Sikonge, we were offered refreshments and shelter from the heat; in a remote area near Uriwira, a family let us camp on their land and provided chairs and kerosene lamps so those of us on night watch could read comfortably; in Igonye, we were given four papaya as gifts when we bought leavened bread; in Mpanda, a government official loaned us his vehicle and driver so we could visit Katavi, a remote game preserve that boasts the largest cape buffalo, hippo, and crocodile populations in Tanzania.
Stanley Livingstone Stamp
The Stanley Expedition reached Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika 63 days and several-hundred miles after setting out from Bagamayo on the east coast of Africa. As we approached the monument marking the spot where Stanley “found” Livingstone, villagers danced and sang in loving memory of Dr. Livingstone’s healing powers. When he died in 1873, loyal attendants carried Livingstone’s body over 1,000 miles so that it could be returned to Britain. Though his remains were interred in Westminster Abbey, his heart was buried in Africa. 
       In 1899, Henry Morton Stanley was knighted in recognition of his service to the British Empire. His grave in England is marked by a large piece of granite inscribed with the words "Henry Morton Stanley, Bula Matari, 1841–1904, Africa.” Translated, Bula Matari means “breaker of rocks.”
       As for the leader of the 1990 Stanley Expedition, according to a reliable source, his name was blacked out of the visitor registry at the Livingstone Memorial Monument in Ujiji.
       As for the medical officer who was dismissed halfway through the expedition, he signed the visitor registration on July 11, 1990 at 3 p.m. East Africa time, adding the following comment:

In search of the spirit of that which was lost.

Sandra with daypack and journal.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Going to Gombe Stream

Baboons on shore of Lake Tanganyika - Gombe Stream
       I awoke to the sound of measured footsteps on the pebbled beach and quickly zipped out of my sleeping bag. Two short steps later, I was out of my closet-size room and in the communal eating area of the hut looking through the steel-mesh enclosure that separated me from the jungle. An askari was approaching. His heavy-cotton uniform was a stylized composition of color: a reckless meld of giraffe, zebra, leopard, and eland in camouflage hues. The soles of his falling-apart combat boots flopped about like a pair of fish out of water. He had come to guide us over the Rift Escarpment, into the wilds, so our group could observe Gombe chimpanzees in their natural habitat.
       Our group of seven was once part of a larger group that had completed then split off from an expedition whose purpose was to retrace the route of newspaperman Henry Morton Stanley to find Dr. David Livingstone, an early European explorer. Our trip to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania was our reward for surviving the grueling safari.
       Our journey to Gombe had begun in a small fishing village on Lake Tanganyika where we hailed passage aboard a boat by waving a white t-shirt from shore. Several boats of various sizes and shapes skimmed by before we attracted a small boat crewed by two Tanzanians. We negotiated a fare of 10,000 schillings ($50 U.S.) for our group’s 10-mile passage aboard Inkunge.
       Inkunge was a modest boat about 12-feet long with three horizontal planks for passenger seating. The vessel was rough-hewn: a montage of weathered wood held together by industrial staples. A Johnson-25 outboard motor clung to Inkunge’s stern, and a four-prong anchor hung from her bow. She was a slow-leak of a boat: a rusty metal bailing bucket was continuously in use by one of the boatmen. There was not a single life jacket on board and, with some reluctance, our group crowded into Inkunge.
       As we made laggard passage northward on the great African lake, one of the boatmen held up an empty fuel can in viewing range of every village that we passed. The third village was covered in smoke that spewed ash from a searing fire. Villagers formed a line from the lake to the burning huts on the hills, passing buckets of water hand-to-hand in a tedious but determined effort to douse the blaze. At village four then village five, the boatman continued to hold up the fuel can. A villager in the sixth village en-route to our destination flagged us to shore. There, our boatman purchased enough fuel to complete our two-hour passage to Gombe. One of the women in our group, a flight attendant, who had traveled to Africa many times said, “TAB! That’s Africa Baby!”
       As a United States citizen traveling in Africa for the first time, I learned firsthand that TAB is waiting many days for a “scheduled” train, plane or dhow to arrive, then, once aboard, waiting longer. TAB is where every road was an unpaved, battered washboard populated by work trucks, flesh-eating ants, and barefoot villagers who muddled through the scat and tracks of wild animals carrying stupendous loads. TAB is where the villagers ask to touch your straight, blond hair then offer you a chai, a chapatti, and a chair while they inquire about your watch, your hiking boots, your compass, and your clothes. TAB is where one-half bar of soap and one-third roll of toilet paper is meant for two people for a four-night stay in a “hotel” with no electricity or running water. TAB is where wild herd animals lope across the savannah by day, and lions prowl at night, roaring just outside the campfire.
       TAB was our first look at Gombe from Inkunge on Lake Tanganyika where we were enamored by thatch dwellings and a baker’s dozen of baboons on the beach. We had come to see chimpanzees and were unaware that Gombe Stream was also home to several troops of baboons. From the lake looking toward shore, it appeared as if the baboons had built the low thatch dwellings, and we were the human extras in Planet of the Apes. The scene was complete when we disembarked and a sign on shore warned:

“...obey all rules or you may be responsible for the shooting of a wild animal, an animal who has more right to live in Gombe National Park than you do. You are entering his home. Please do not endanger his life.”

       A short time later, on my return trip from the Gombe Stream jungle outhouse, I had occasion to heed the wildlife warning. The number one rule for the remote outhouse is to keep it locked from the outside so a human will not find it already occupied by a baboon or a chimpanzee. Once inside the outhouse, a sign instructed me to lock the door not for privacy, but to prevent a startling visit from a curious primate. I completed the locking in followed by the locking out, then bounded down the path toward the lake just as a slender green snake slithered into the privy.
       In the middle of the path, blocking my way, was a large male baboon. A boulder with eyes, he looked impassable. When having a chance encounter with a baboon, the askari had advised our group that one should squat low and avoid eye contact. To do otherwise may result in a boxing match. I averted my eyes quickly and squatted lower than a toadstool. Time passed. My legs ached; still I was afraid to look at the path ahead. When I finally glanced up, the path was clear and I proceeded to the lake with caution.
       Bathing in Lake Tanganyika was an exceptional luxury in Tanzania. While on The Stanley Expedition, our group had to bypass many water activities for fear of contracting bilharzia, a water parasite that burrows through the skin and infests internal organs. My bathing reverie was short-lived, however, when the floppy-soled askari stopped by and said, “No crocodiles have swum in this part of the lake for many years.”
       The morning of the next day, the askari came to our hut to guide our group to view the chimpanzees. Living inside the steel-mesh hut was like being in a cage. Though it kept the primates out, it also served to give us humans the experience of what it is like to be on display in a zoo. The baboons stood outside the enclosure and hollered and gawked at us. And, just like those humans who poke at birds in cages, the baboons put their great, dark fingers through the wire openings to jab at us.
       The askari led us up into the hills of Gombe with the soles of his boots flapping with military imprecision. I made a mental note that when I returned to the states, I would make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute to cover the cost of hiking boots for the guides at Gombe Stream.
The day was hot and dry so we stopped at a tall, narrow waterfall to rest. The ground where we sat was wet and mossy. The cadence of the falls seemed to be the music for thousands of butterflies, which hovered about like tender, white cherry blossoms riding the breeze. In the quiet of the moment, I understood why British primatologist Jane Goodall had come to choose her life’s work in Gombe Stream.
       We continued the hard hike upward to the escarpment, sometimes catching sight of Lake Tanganyika below. At the top of the rift, the askari signaled us to be still; there were chimpanzees up ahead in the feeding area. The feeding area was open and grassy with the surrounding Equatorial forest and the protective trees being a distance away. On the verge of a close encounter with wild chimpanzees, I recalled the animal advisory tacked to the wall of our hut (emphasis mine):

Chimps are three times stronger than the average man...and have been known to leap up, hit, and pound people who annoy them. And: Chimps have been known to seize, kill and eat small human children... And: If a male chimpanzee charges you, stand up and hold onto a tree. Be calm.

       Our group sat tentatively on the dry ground as benign-looking chimps scratched, stretched, ate bananas, and groomed one another. Each time I raised my camera to take a picture, I felt intrusive, like a paparazzi exploiting a celebrity’s privacy. I shot only one photograph. It shows an adult female chimpanzee gnawing on a leafy branch.
       I left the group and returned to the hut alone along the beach route. Just outside the hut was a large, vacant tree. I sat down to a simple meal of plantains and rice as a troop of fifteen baboons filled the tree like large plums, their primate scent mingling with my food. The troop played, petted, teased, mated, nursed, frolicked, screeched, scrambled, swung, and otherwise carried on while I observed them behind the safety of the mesh enclosure. Compressed into a single hour in a single tree was a microcosm of a millennium of baboon life. It was wild. That’s Africa, Baby!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Homage to Summer - pictorial

Bicycle and Shed
I have
traveled well
together for many 
years.   Orange, blue,
blue, yellow, white, silver
blue, I have trusted you in all
your incarnations. We have seen
seedlings become trees, and we have
seen trees bursting with buds turn green
then red then winter bare. We have seen trees
ravaged by insects and latticed by woodpeckers.
We have seen scores of trees bend and break in the
path of tornadic storms. We have seen trees cut, quartered,
dismembered, mulched, and then hauled away by earsplitting
trucks. We have seen trees in splendor and in despair. It is now
October of our accumulated years together. Trumpeter swans have
returned to winter in the nearby lake; the hummingbirds have all flown
to sunnier climes. The nights are getting longer and soon you and I will part
company for six full moons. While I retreat to my chair to read beside the fireplace,
you will stand in wait behind locked doors.
As the ground thaws and the trees grow pregnant with buds, I shall leave the warmth of the house to cross the dormant lawn. Ever so carefully, with failing sight, I will turn the dial clockwise, counterclockwise, then clockwise again. Reluctant, the battered lock will release and the doors to the shed will fold outward like pale yellow rose petals to the sun.
There I will find you with dust clinging to your lean frame and flat tires looking forlorn from the long winter.         No matter.   I will wash you off              and air you up and we will ride through the
forest   in
in     pine,
daz      zled
by         the
l  i  g  h  t  .

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The Vowels aeiou and sometimes y





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Thursday, September 8, 2011


Clouds facing N at 63 Southwood
 There is a place
with sky
more beautiful.
There is a place
where the moon
shines brighter,
where the stars
are more numerous,
more vibrant.

There is a place
where the sun
shines hotter longer
and the firmament
is a deeper hue.

But Here,

s       c      a      t      t      e      r      e      d
a       c       r       o       s       s

a cerulean sky,
in this place
clouds clouds beautiful clouds
That glide


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Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Conch Shell 005

She discards the shell of her last life
wishing she could send it far off
into the future, or to some other distant place,
but instead she does what all shell collectors do,
which is to pile old shells in a grisly heap
in the corner of the room where she ponders
the first year that she grew a shell.

Her shell is heavy as a giant clam.
It took decades of angry multiplication and soul
division to finally outgrow it and, when she casts it aside,
it’s just a short time before she puts on
another shell bigger and thicker than the first.
Though it’s enormous, the shell hides
only what everyone can already see.
There are other shells, too,

each more ponderous than the one preceding, and each time
she outgrows a shell and casts it aside, it makes a noise
like teeth gnashing, which is exactly the sound
of Past colliding with Present, and soon
there is room in her heart wholly for empty shells
and gnashing teeth. On the rare days

when the sun comes out
it’s like opening a letter from a favored friend.
Still, she carries two umbrellas
just in case it storms and when someone tries to wrest
her umbrellas from her, she defends her right to carry them
because battle is easier than learning to drink
from the pouring rain. She returns

to her room of discarded shells
to pick up Flamingo tongue,
Atlantic slipper, glossy dove,
queen conch, the shell of a sea turtle -
and soon finds that the giant clam,
Sovereign of the Sea,
is no longer suitable as armor.           


she looks for shelter, or a place where her life
can burst forth like flowers sprung from the desert
after the end of a long drought.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Good Night From Iraq

Hi, Mom.  I had a great day today on a mission
to clear and search a sector in Samarra.  Danger
was palpable.  We found a cache of weapons
of all types (grenades, AK47s, etc.), as well as food
left cooking on the stove.  In the distance, Iraqi kids
could be heard laughing, just like kids at home.

Good news.  I may soon get to come home
on leave to see little Daniel, my newborn.  Next mission:
to spend time with friends and family.  I miss the kids.
Thanks for sending their photos to FOB[1] Danger. 
Thanks, too, for the microwavable food,
batteries, razors, and DVDs.  The best weapon

against boredom is a movie.  (My favorite “weapon”
is Napoleon Dynamite.  Great laughs!)  Our home
here is a rat maze of plywood with food
stashed in cubbyholes.  Tomorrow’s mission
is to convert toilets into showers (not too dangerous).
Toilets are a hole with a boot print on each side.  Kids

like to follow us and watch us work.  The kids
say “Mister, give me candy,” as they eye our weapons.
When we work on our bunker, I forget the danger
around us.  It’s like working with buddies at home
only in Iraq we are on an historic mission.
One day in Shibob a local invited us to share food,

some bread that tasted like lefse.  The tribal food
is pretty good though I miss pizza.  The kids
get nearly all of our chocolate.  On a recent mission
we also gave them soccer balls.  Toys are weapons
of peace that Iraqi youth are happy to take home;
soccer gives boys something to do that won’t endanger

their lives.  Soon, my platoon will leave FOB Danger
and head for Baghdad.  We’ll carry canned food
(nuts, tuna, soup, Velveeta) from home,
and distribute candy and pens to the kids.
The biggest threat to any convoy are IEDs[2], weapons
planted along a route that explode and derail a mission.

Keep sending food.  Love to All, Your Son.  P.S.  Each mission,
though dangerous, brings me closer to home.
Soon, I will put down my weapons.  Soon, I will hold my kids.

[1] FOB: Forward Operations Base.  FOB Danger is in Tikrit.

[2] IEDs: Improvised Explosive Devices.

An Opera in Five Concise Acts


Assemble objects from a girl’s life. {Fairy tales, baby dolls, blood,
broken bones, baby teeth, piggy bank, pop beads, jewelry box,
hula hoop, Dick and Jane, Nancy Drew, polished agates, four-leaf clovers,
Emeraude, blue suede shoes, forty-fives, diary (no key), pom poms, sewing kit,
figure skates, Play Do, tap shoes, tonsils, birth stone, bookmarks, stubby crayons,
tea set, cowgirl boots, Easter hat.}  Store them in a barrel, 90-proof.

Act I.  Scene- Years later.

Woman.  Pieces pile.  Decades of brokenness.   A few lucid moments. 
Swirly eye of agate. Swatches of Rapunzel’s golden hair.
Red scraps of cloak.  Shards of Cinderella’s slipper. 
Dark piece of Sleeping Beauty’s beauty. 
Diary pages torn, unreadable.
A green leaf spared from a cast-off lucky clover. 
Silver coins, round edges mashed in dirt. 
Baby doll, left arm missing, dead on the street.

Chorus.  We pour ourselves a rummy shot, a rummy shot of life;
We drink the sweet and bittersweet, the sugar and the blight.
Bottles never empty and drunks are never filled;
We break our bottles into bits on Alcoholic Hill.

Act II.  Scene- The same.

Woman.  Watercolors rain downhill.

Act III.  Scene- The same.

Woman.  I get confused describing. 
Is it a man or a fish?
Homo sapiens or barracuda?
Both are made by God.
But which is fish eyed, scaly skin and tearing teeth?
And which hails from farmland baling love?
One is piercing.  The other pierced.  Green lungs,
but whose?  Briny brain, but whose?
Which brings everyday chaos,
laughter made from dirt?

Act IV.  Scene- Temple of the Goddess.

Goddess.  Sweep up this mess.
Woman.  I sweep brokenness long and hard.
Goddess.  Lay the fragments to rest.  Let’s go hand in hand, not one before the other.

Act V.  Curtain opens.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Homage to Summer

You and I have traveled well together for many years.  Orange, blue, blue, yellow, white, silver blue: I have trusted you in all your incarnations.  We have seen seedlings become trees, and we have seen trees bursting with buds turn green then red then winter bare.  We have seen trees ravaged by insects and latticed by woodpeckers.  We have seen scores of trees bend and break in the path of tornadic storms.  We have seen trees cut, quartered, dismembered, mulched, and then hauled away by earsplitting trucks.  We have seen trees in splendor and in despair.
It is now October of our accumulated years together.  The trumpeter swans have returned to winter in the nearby lake; the hummingbirds have all flown to sunnier climes.  The nights are getting longer and soon you and I will part company for six full moons.  While I retreat to my chair to read beside the fireplace, you will stand in wait behind locked doors. 
As the ground thaws and the trees grow pregnant with buds, I shall leave the warmth of the house to cross the dormant lawn.  Ever so carefully, with failing eyes, I will turn the dial clockwise, counterclockwise, then clockwise again.  Reluctant, the battered lock will release and the doors to the shed will fold open like rose petals in the spring.  
There I will find you with dust clinging to your lean frame and flat tires looking forlorn from the long winter.  No matter.  I will dust you off and air you up and we will ride through the forest in reverence, breathing in pine, dazzled by the light.


        I like animals that feed themselves
like leopards and other predators
who pounce, gorge, and vanish.  I like
night animals that howl and prowl, gore
and roar, that know how to pick a carcass
clean.  I like animals that live outdoors


and animals with eyes that glow
in the dark. 

There is a dust-felted train
that travels from Ujiji to Dar es Salaam. 
People on the train share a berth with
goats and chickens.  I prefer to travel
among a hundred-thousand hooves
that stampede unshod across
the savannah.  I like
animals who cut the landscape

 in two.

Ode to Chocolate

sjbestland copyright 2011

O Chocolate! here in candy store cases
you front the aisle of Bloomingdale’s, what Balzac
called “the great poem of display.”  You are
my first stop in a life-long pursuit of things
Forbidden.  Here, under glass gleaming, is my
Apothecary of blue-ribbon candies, edible pounds
of joy.  Chocolate sleek and sophisticated, you are
dressed in gold foils shimmering.  Chocolate clusters,

you draw me near with pecans that poke, beckon,
arouse.  Assorted chocolates tempt me: shall I taste
them all?  Reading their names - truffles, turtles,
caramels, creams - here are pharmaceuticals
for the gods.  I imagine lifting the lid - only a whiff
and I’m thinking about the chiffon suss of decadence,
the sugary swirl of indulgence, the titillating taste
of desire.  I sink my teeth into the tender skin and lay bare
a secret.  Is it chewy coconut?  Wild raspberry?  Milk chocolate? 
dark chocolate?  Frothy dubonnet...or wicked toffee carre’? 
I strut to the next department smacking my lips - decorative
tulips are piled high in translucent bins - full-grown flowers
plump with foliage cut from green silk.  I free the blooms
and spread them across the tile floor to make a lush garden
path.  I glide in heaven back to the Devil sweets, a lady
returning to her decadent lover.  What do I see in chocolate?

Romance and turpitude.  Passion and depravity.  Love
and idolatry.  Virtue and vice.  Sin and more sin.  Sin in a box. 
Sin in a bite.  I want to wear it.  Look how I take truffles
and twist them into my hair.  I wear creme de boulee’
like a crown.  I attach bonbons to my body like jewels. 
Strawberry fondants bedeck my arms; my legs
are adorned in assorted creams.  Look, my candied body
made harmonious with silk tulips.  Look how I cadence
with the garden’s color.  Look at my cocoa bean
eyes, my sugar-coated silhouette, my bouchee profile.  This
is what sin is: using temporal things to hide my nakedness.

O Chocolate!  I wear you as a gown.  I pouf and rustle, melt
and bustle.  Look, the sleeve designed of Hershey Blisses.  Look,
the bodice of plain and peanut M&Ms.  Look, the skirt of Tootsie Rolls.

Call me Ghiradelli.  Call me Frango.  Call me Fannie May. 
And you -
you may call me Godiva.