Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The days in our life, and the lives in our days...

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 Bashura are opening their small shops across the road. The packed matatus are bouncing down the dirt track 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 privelege 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 (there are more species of birds in Uganda than in all of North America). 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 to 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. 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.

For lunches and dinners we cook a combination of local Ugandan food (some of the healthiest in the world), prepared by Sophie and Mama Ruth, which includes matooke (steamed, mashed plantains that taste like mashed potatoes), rice and beans, posho with mukene sauce (mukene are small fish; posho is steamed bread similar to a dumpling), and my concoctions -- pasta, stews, etc. The market produce -- fruits and vegetables -- is abundant and varied. We also eat roast or fried goat, Nile perch, tilapia, and snack on fried grasshoppers with cold beer in October and November when they are in season. 

After the morning ritual, I 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; I'm nearly 65. 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 a plotline that you come across often here. I'm living it.

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

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

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

Stalking the Dewey-Eyed Platypus




When I told a friend that one of the main reasons I was going to Australia was to try to find a platypus, he said, “Aren’t they mythological or extinct or something?” They are not. In fact, platypuses are surprisingly abundant, though the odd, duck-billed creatures are also a shy, elusive evolutionary anomaly that few Australians – to say nothing of foreigners – have ever laid eyes upon. Some consider seeing one in the wilderness tantamount to bumping into a mermaid or a unicorn. When the first platypus skin arrived in London in 1798, many thought it was a hoax, and the poor thing has never entirely shaken the stigma. What could it expect given its looks?


The platypus safari commences with a flight out of Brisbane’s Archer Field in a blue and white, 10-seat, twin-engine airplane cruising over a parquet of flat green farmland and eucalypt forests. It is early fall – that is, April – in Queensland, warm and a little humid.


After an hour and a half, and an in-flight picnic of cheesecake and orange juice, we land on a grassy airstrip near Carnarvon National Park. Once I’m out of the plane, dozens of grasshoppers – the kangaroos of the insect world – hurdle over my feet and crash into my ankles as three yellow and blue pale-headed rosellas – small parrots – slalom between the polished trunks of the nearby gum trees. Within a few minutes the hot weight of the outback sun has caused my bald scalp to get as overheated as my prose, and I’m thankful that I’ve brought along an old tan Borsalino and a pair of cheap sunglasses. I put both on my head, where they stay for the remainder of the expedition, and we drive off toward Carnarvon Gorge, home of the platypus.


The man driving is John Stoddart, who, along with Linda Stoddart, his wife, manages the Oasis Lodge adjacent to Carnarvon National Park. They are both former high school teachers, and like many Australians, they seem to find wry humor in both the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Stoddart, I find out, knows a lot about platypuses. During the next few days’ conversations he gives me a short course in Beginning Platypusology 1A.


To start with, he says, they’re smaller than most people assume. The average adult is a foot to 18 inches long. The heaviest one on record weighed less than 5½ pounds. They have a birdlike snout that resembles a duck’s, but the grayish bill is soft, not hard. They are mammals of the order called Monotremata (the only other member is the equally bizarre, hedgehog-like echidna, also a native of Australia), characterized by their egg-laying and the cloaca, a single orifice for excretion and reproduction.


Monotremes are also the only mammals known to react to electrical fields. Platypuses have electrosensitive pores in their bills used to detect the electrical currents generated by the muscle activity of their prey – shrimps and insect larvae. (They have a tremendous appetite complemented by “a metabolic rate like a blast furnace,” according to “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’ definitive history of Australia’s founding.) It is believed that they may also use their electrosensitivity – a true “sixth sense” – for “seeing” stationary objects under water.


The platypus has beautiful, thick, waterproof fur and a plump tail something like a beaver’s, the top of which is covered with fur. They were hunted for their luxuriant pelts until 1912, when legislation was enacted to protect them nationwide.


Much like birds, they have a single functioning ovary, the second one being poorly developed. The females lay eggs but suckle their young with extraordinarily rich milk. Platypuses have webbed feet and the males have a venomous spur on each rear leg that can deliver a nasty sting. Stoddart tells me the story of a man he knew who managed to get spurred in the finger by a male platypus. “The poor bloke’s finger was no good after that,” he says. “It turned blood red and shriveled to a point like an old carrot.”


Aborigines knew the platypus as Mallangong, Boonaburra or Tambreet, and it figures in some of their myths. In one – a moral tale – the platypus’s origin is attributed to a wayward duck who disobeys its elders, wanders away from its pond and is imprisoned and raped by a randy old water rat. The child this coupling produces is a platypus. This is no less solid an explanation of the platypus’s beginnings than most modern researchers have provided.


Platypuses are found in deep burrows along the muddy banks or feeding among the shoreline reeds of rivers, streams and ponds in eastern Australia, on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia (where they were introduced by a naturalist in 1940) and in Tasmania. Just one pair – named Jack and Jill – successfully bred in captivity, and that was 50 years ago. On the official Australian wildlife cuteness scale the platypus rates second only to the koala and just slightly ahead of the wombat. The palm-size baby platypus is too cute to discuss in rational terms.


While Carnarvon Gorge is a platypus stronghold, John Stoddart tells me, I shouldn’t get my hopes up about actually seeing one, but if I want to try, dawn or dusk are the best times to seek out Australia’s duck-billed irregularity.


As intent as I am on satiating my desire to meet a platypus, like every other first-time visitor to Australia, I also hope to see a wild kangaroo as soon as possible, and shortly after arriving at the Oasis Lodge I get to – they’re all over the place.


The lodge consists of a central reception building, which houses the dining room, a library where gatherings and nature talks are held, and a number of luxurious “tent cabins” that evoke camping without actually immersing you in its often romanticized but typically uncomfortable specifics. The buildings are scattered over several acres of lawn, with palms and gum trees to provide shade. Scattered over the lawn are kangaroos, looking so much like giant prehistoric mice I’m inclined to offer them a piece of cheese.


When they aren’t lollygagging around on the lawns – their usual midday activity – they are grazing or bounding or battling with each other, or staring at the guests. The lodge asks guests not to feed the kangaroos, which has kept them untamed, so you can’t approach any closer than about 10 feet. That’s good, because the rebounding beasts can get to be a nuisance.


Indeed, in some places tourists find that they must apply popular aerosol kangaroo repellents, such as “Roo-quat” and “Roo-Be-Gone” as frequently as sunscreen. And if you absent-mindedly leave your door open, making it possible for one of the large marsupials to sneak in and jump on the bed (they’re worse than young Homo sapiens when it comes to this activity), they can destroy a box spring in mere minutes, play hell with a goose down comforter and make an expensive duvet history in a matter of seconds. It is no coincidence, then, that neither pogo sticks nor trampolines have ever been marketed in Australia.


At one point I ask Stoddart what the word “kangaroo” means. “Joseph Banks,” he replies, “was the naturalist that sailed to Australia with Capt. Cook. The story’s told that when Banks came ashore and first glimpsed the hopping creature, he asked a native what it was, and the aboriginal said something that sounded like ‘kangaroo.’ Later Banks asked another aboriginal what the word meant. ‘Kangaroo,’ the native told him, means ‘Hell if I know.’”


Curiously, I find no verification of this report in the literature. But in “The Fatal Impact,” Alan Moorehead’s elegant account of Cook’s “invasion” of the South Pacific, Banks is quoted and he does sound perplexed. The naturalist accurately describes the gray kangaroo as “of a mouse-colour and very swift,” and then remarks, “What to liken him to I cannot tell.”


Fortunately for Joseph Banks, his powers or description were not further taxed by the platypus. It would be another 27 years before a European (not Banks) first stumbled upon the fur-bearing duckoid, foolishly sending the hide off to London where he was ridiculed mercilessly. (There are certain discoveries it’s best not to reveal.)


Carnarvon Gorge itself looks like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon with forest poured into it. The massive rock cliffs are composed mostly of sandstone capped by a layer of basalt. The forest below is light and airy, home to a variety of tall eucalypts – the slick-barked Sydney bluegum is the most prevalent – with macrozamia and other palms, native hibiscus and the sandpaper fig growing beneath the silver-green foliage of the gum trees.


Extravagantly painted parrots (splashed with crimson, chartreuse, deep yellow, electric blue), large white cockatoos with an ear-splitting shriek, and jug-headed kookaburras (like our kingfisher, but with a taunting cackle as their song) are plentiful. The wealth of butterflies is a poignant reminder of how scarce they’ve become in much of the United States.


The sun-mottled forest floor is carpeted with high grass and bracken ferns. It is common to see eastern gray kangaroos, wallabies (a smaller kangaroo) and the occasional dark-coated rock wallabies (a shy kangaroo that behaves like a mountain goat) either nibbling at the ground cover or bounding through the brush. There are also ibis, heron, blue-faced honeyeaters and pied cormorants. And a smallish python known as a carpet snake – because of the pattern of its scales – in addition to bearded dragon lizards, turtles and monitor lizards, called goannas, that can reach 4 feet in length.


At night the Carnarvon sky is ink-black felt speckled with white paint. Nocturnal animals are ubiquitous, including an assortment of possums and a sweet-faced, big-eyed creature known as the sugar glider – so called because, like a flying squirrel, it uses the webbing between its front and rear legs to sail from tree to tree where it feeds on the eucalypt’s sugary sap.


At the bottom of the gorge runs Carnarvon Creek. Along its banks grow wispy Casuarina trees and the weeping red bottlebrush. Near the water’s edge are found green tree-frogs, which are preyed on by the creek’s freshwater keelback snakes. And if you’re extremely quiet and very still (and don’t wear bright-colored clothing) and patiently watch for the telltale shivering of the reeds, you may catch sight of a platypus. But, as I’m often told, “It ain’t too bloody likely.”


From April through November, staff members of the Oasis Lodge lead daily hikes, some of them fairly arduous, throughout the gorge and up to its more spectacular vistas, like Boolimba Bluff. (I hiked to the bluff on a Sunday. As I stood at the top looking down to the camping area from hundreds of feet above, a hymn being sung by the small congregation attending an outdoor Anglican service – which I could not see – came wafting up out of the gum forest. The effect was reminiscent of a scene from “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”)


You can go hiking on your own, of course, but the young, dauntingly vigorous staff members make good company. They’re also knowledgeable about the terrain and the gorge’s flora and fauna, not to mention the fact that they carry a big backpack full of tea and snacks, which they prepare and serve during a rest stop along the way. One of the least strenuous walks is geared specifically to those desperately seeking platypuses.


On the appointed day we get up before sunrise and drive a mile or two to the Carnarvon Gorge trailhead. I keep the window down as we drive through the dawn forest so I can listen to the bird songs and other noises – the archetypal “jungle sounds” we’ve heard all our lives in Hollywood movies. The caustic laugh of the kookaburra is especially familiar. (One of the many perverse satisfactions of living in the media-besotted world, I’m ashamed to admit, is visiting the real thing and finding it exactly as depicted in a motion picture or on television – the twisted pleasure of having reality validated by illusion.)


As instructed, our small group has worn dull-hued clothing. The platypus has keen vision (and conservative taste in apparel), and it is put off by loud outfits. We’re also told not to speak, which certain of us find particularly onerous.


We enter the forest and walk over the creek on stones to reach the start of the Nature Trail. We follow the creekside path with nothing but cackling kookaburras and beeping Nikons to puncture the primeval silence. Across the creek, a wallaby and its offspring are having breakfast, which gets me to thinking: When God created Australia’s animals, perhaps he somewhat overestimated his abilities. At the very least the deity exhibited peculiar taste, if not a perverse sense of humor.


First of all, most of the beasts’ proportions are screwy; they look like a design experiment gone wrong or a rough sketch for an animated character that should have been canceled by the cartoon committee before it could see the light of day.


Consider the kangaroo – it is essentially a fur-upholstered pear with spring-loaded rear legs. Its creator apparently ran out of steam about waist level because, except for its well-developed biceps, the upper trunk, arms and head of the venerable kangaroo don’t amount to much when compared to its substantial lower body. Fortunately, the beasts seem to have little or no self-consciousness about having such a preposterous appearance, as that could only generate complex neurosis that would be no help whatsoever to a creature that must focus most of its attention on dodging boomerangs, bullets and dingoes in a natural environment that can be harsh on the best of days.


The Australian people, on the other hand, are quick and funny, gregarious and natural-born raconteurs. As testament to their bountiful good humor, they have courageously put the kangaroo, and the equally illogical emu, on their national crest, and the platypus on their 20-cent piece. A race less comfortable with irony might have downplayed such a collection of ridiculous faunae, but the Australians are proud of their continent’s curious beasts, and on average, more knowledgeable about them than we are about our more banal assortment.


When you ask Australians a question, they’ll often give a well-informed answer or, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll make up something that either sounds like the truth or actually improves on the truth. In either case you come away satisfied.


The Nikons are beeping excitedly as we approach the platypus viewing overlook. We make a few detours to the creek bank, but the guide shakes her head and motions us onward. Finally she stops at a clearing atop a small embankment and indicates that we should form a line. It’s about 20 feet to the other side of the creek where tall reeds wander into the slow-moving water, creating a perfect feeding area for the platypus.


The sun hasn’t yet ascended above the walls of the gorge, but the sky is the color of a morning glory blossom and the sandstone cliffs are either changing from orange to pink or from pink to orange. We stare intently at the reeds and the nearly still, black water. Nothing. A Nikon beeps. Nothing. A couple of people move off down the trail, impatient. Nothing. Then the guide points emphatically and whispers, “There.”


Something is moving through the reeds, jostling them as it goes, something underwater. And then, just clear of the reeds and out in the open, no more than 4 yards away, it comes to the surface. First the legendary bill, followed by a slick, furry back. It’s a great brute of a platypus, easily 12 inches long, maybe 14. It takes a breath, quickly glances at us with its small, dewy eyes, and disappears into the dark creek with a kick of its back feet. The reeds jiggle a little. And again nothing. And a Nikon beeps as the morning sun drools through the eucalyptus leaves. And we walk on.


Later, back at the lodge, I tell John Stoddart of our luck. “Was it a good-size one then?” he asks.


“Probably about 8 feet,” I say. And for a brief moment his eyes widen before he explodes with a kookaburra chortle, which makes me think that for a second or two, I just may have had him going.


Manuel Alvarez Bravo
The second most refreshing thing about Manuel Alvarez Bravo is that he’s not Ansel Adams. The first is his photographs — they are dreamy, literally. But that’s not news. Bravo has had his work described as dreamlike for much of the last century. Adams was a master landscape photographer, but Bravo, whose contributions to 20th century art are at least as significant as Adams’, is a master at chronicling the interior, making photographs that illustrate the subconscious landscape.
This is especially true of “Nudes: The Blue House,” a new book of photographs by Bravo, some taken as recently as the ’90s, some dating back to the 1930s, with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes. It’s a small book of about three dozen images of women — Bravo likes women — all nude or partially so, and all, it seems, captured while in the middle of some sort of implied narrative.
That’s Bravo: He’s always telling the story without a plot, the story that never stops — the tightly constructed tale of whatever is going on at the moment he takes the picture. Like a dream, it makes perfect sense while you’re in it. If Cartier-Bresson was champion of the decisive moment, Bravo’s pictures have made the indecisive moment iconic.
Though he worked with models (not professional ones) to produce the images in “Nudes: The Blue House,” often he has not captured poses so much as anti-poses, the evocative moments between those self-conscious instances when model and photographer conceptually come together. “My work is completely natural and spontaneous,” he once told Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper. It is also unnatural and carefully planned, albeit instinctively, not consciously.
Our tendency is to look at photographs slowly, to amble through the gallery or page through the book, pausing at each new image, taking it all in, but Bravo’s nudes should be flashed on a wall, seen as a flipbook, perceived subliminally, run past furtively, then back again. There’s a longing in his images that’s better experienced by glancing at them than studying them pensively. “I don’t look for anything,” Bravo told the New York Times, “I discover things.”
One of the things he seems to have discovered over and over during the seven or eight decades of his career is the exhilaration of discovery. But the leap Bravo made that has always given his work a perpetually modern, fresh spirit is that his photos are not about him, they’re not even about their subject — they’re about the person who’s discovering them.
When I was a college student, I was lucky enough to work as a teaching assistant for film director Alexander Mackendrick (“The Ladykillers,” “The Man in the White Suit,” “The Sweet Smell of Success”). He used to say that movies take place in a theater located inside the head of each person in the audience. Bravo hangs his pictures in a gallery at that same location.
The classic narrative hook of a quest, or of longing, is one of the themes that runs through “Nudes.” The women are often looking at something, as if for the first time, or seeking something or on their way somewhere.
In “Vertical Panoramic Nude,” Bravo tips his hat to Duchamp as a nude woman ascends a short staircase to a drape that’s just blowing open. In “Between White Walls” another woman looks downward as she approaches the top of a curving staircase. “With Architecture II” gives us a naked woman walking away from us, down the sidewalk. And in one of the book’s most elegant images, “The Feet on the Ground,” a blonde, wearing only low-heeled pumps, turns away to walk up a desert road bordered on one side by a large tangle of swordlike agave plants.
Where are these women headed? They’re all going to the same place. They’ll be going with you. You’ll take them along to have coffee, or to the bar or to have dinner or to meet with friends. Or they’ll come to you later, after you fall asleep — that’s when the drape will blow all the way open; that’s when the woman will reach the top of the staircase, look at you and speak; that’s when the agave plants and the lady in the pumps will resolve whatever it is they’re conversing about. And you won’t be able to get any of them out of your mind.
Bravo was embraced by surrealism at its beginnings, and embraced it back, but he is a Bravoist more than a surrealist; he’s not a trickster. He’s also not humorless. The last photo of a woman in the book is “Lucy.” She faces us, we see her from the shoulders down, she holds a small tray just below her navel. On the tray are two artificial eyes. Now Bravo’s got us. We must look at her nipples, but we can’t take our eyes off those eyes, either. The picture is the first thing Fuentes mentions in his introduction: “We experience a shiver, just the kind we feel in the sliced-eye scene in Luis Buñuel’s ‘Le Chien Andalou.’ In this photograph of ‘Lucy,’ the ambiguities of the gaze become a triple challenge for us. We must wonder: is it our privilege to see ‘Lucy’ with no eyes other than the nipples of a decapitated body? Or are the eyes on the platter looking at us? But the woman’s breasts: don’t they have a gaze? Doesn’t the body have its own way of seeing and being seen?”
Bravo’s career has spanned almost the whole of what’s called modern art while not losing relevance. He’s nearly always found his subjects near his home in Coyoacan, south of Mexico City. He’s shown with Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Imogene Cunningham and Dorothea Lange and has been the subject of one-man shows and the recipient of myriad awards across the globe. In his own small Mexico City gallery, Bravo was showing the work of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and Jose Clemente Orozco as early as 1927, three years after he bought his first camera. Just three years later he was cameraman on Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Que Viva México.”
By 1938 he had met the bull goose surrealist André Breton, who asked him to take part in a Mexico City exhibition of surrealist art. It was for that show that Bravo created one of his most famous and startling images, “Good Reputation Sleeping,” which is included in “Nudes.” It’s a picture of a woman, wrapped in bandages at the ankles, hips and wrists, lying on a blanket outdoors next to a wall. Four prickly cactus buds lie next to her. Her pubic hair peeks through a gap in the bandages. It’s quintessential Bravo, an image of divine tension, carnal, but also religious, casual and ethereal. But then the jolting juxtapositions in dreams are often what wake us up.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Running Into an Old Friend



In its glory years of 1959-1960 I was a member of the Hayward Public Library Bug Club. I've always had an affinity for insects. The wonderful woman who ran the Bug Club was Gladys Conklin, the children's librarian. She also wrote children's books -– about bugs. One of them, “I Like Bugs,” was dedicated to me and a friend: “the 6-year-olds in the Bug Club.” Many years later Mrs. Conklin, which is what I always called her, got Alzheimer's disease. One day the garden gate was accidentally left open and Mrs. Conklin wandered out. She was never seen again.

She would be happy, I think, to know that I am in Africa, which has plenty of bugs. Some are very strange looking and some are very large, others are exquisitely beautiful and some look good to eat. I've dined on the grasshoppers here. When I lived near Kampala, I had a conversation with Grace, mother of Elijah, about eating insects. It went like this:

Me: I ate some grasshoppers today.

Grace: And ...

Me: Pretty good, tasted like almonds.

Grace: I've never had almonds.

Me: They taste like grasshoppers.

Grace: I want to eat a scorpion. They look so good.

Me: But they're poisonous.

Grace: You take off the poison part.

Me: I knew that.

Then there are the bugs that don't get eaten. They get taken for a ride. Walking home today, I came across two schoolgirls going down the road. As I passed them, I saw that one of the girls had a big grasshopper sitting on top of her head. “Can I take a picture of you and your pet,” I asked. “Her?” she said, pointing up to the grasshopper. “Sure, I forgot she was up there.” I took the shot, showed it to the girls, riotous laughter ensued. I think I heard a tiny snicker come from the grasshopper. Perhaps her name was Mrs. Conklin.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Dancing with Mr. Demerol



The Fentanyl had vanquished everything bad except the itch at the end of my nose. Fortunately, the Chinese man with the upside-down smile had stepped over to help. He was standing directly above and behind me. “That always happens about now,” he said, scratching enthusiastically with an antiseptic-scented index finger. It was a good thing he was willing, because my arms were restrained with black Velcro straps and my ticklish snout was driving me crazy. Not that it mattered much. I was on the way out just as the surgeon, Dr. Low, was coming in. Still, even though the room was starting to breathe with me and I felt as if I were floating on my back in a pool of hot cotton, there was time left for conversation. “Do you know what John Huston said when he was asked how he’d lived so long?”

“No,” the anesthesiologist said, cranking up the sodium pentothal. “What did he say?”

“Surgery.”

Dr. Low laughed and the room filled with black light.

At the time I was living in San Francisco, on Taylor Street near Jackson, a few doors down from the Golden Lion restaurant, around the corner from the cable car barn, and the Chinese Hospital was the only health facility I could get to without driving. I may have had a volcano in my viscera but I wasn’t about to give up my parking space. The two-and-a-half-block walk down the steep hill was excruciating, but for some reason heart attack and cancer (which usually pop into my mind at the first sign of odd pain) didn’t occur to me. Apart from the intense discomfort, it was an exquisite ache, centered perfectly in my chest, alternately burning like a fist of lava and throbbing in counterpoint to my heart. If it hadn’t hurt so much, its singular symmetry and rhythm would have been a pleasure. Anyway, it was being taken care of now. Dr. Low was cutting out the devil appendix while I did the backstroke in the underworld.

Moments later (so it seemed), I was eased into a bed next to a window that looked out on a wall. “Who’s he?” I asked the nurse, nodding toward the old man in the other bed. “He’s your roommate. He had an operation just before yours. He’s a Filipino. He’s not awake now.” I could see that, but he was groaning. Then again, so was I. He looked to be about sixty-five, a small, muscular man with big hands and most of his hair still black. We were in and out, the two of us. He’d mumble and I’d grunt, I’d sigh and he’d say something in Tagalog. It went like that into the evening until the sandman, a Mr. Demerol, sent us off to sleep in our stainless-steel canoes.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in an all-blue world. I was seeing the lights from the nurses’ station glowing through the curtains that enclosed the old man’s bed. A cape buffalo had one foot where my right hip pocket should have been. I pushed the button and a few minutes later a young nurse came in, gently rolled me over, and gave me another shot of Demerol, then rolled me back. She seemed embarrassed. “Thank you,” I said, and she patted my ankle as she left. She was a young soul with an old heart.

“Tell me the funniest thing,” the old man said slowly.

“What?” He seemed to be wide awake.

“Tell the funniest thing that ever happened to you,” he said, batting back the blue curtain so that he could see me.

It was a reasonable request. I thought for awhile. “I don’t know if this was the funniest,” I said, “but it’s a contender.” As the Demerol lifted the buffalo’s foot, I told him about my flight to Paris a few years before.

“My friend and I figured that we’d be up all night and that it’d be much cheaper to buy a bottle of liquor instead of buying single drinks.”

“True,” he said.

“So as soon as the plane left Dulles, I bought a big bottle of Remy Martin cognac at the onboard duty-free shop. Then, being that I’d made the purchase, I sent my friend to retrieve a couple of paper cups from the restroom. We had to be cagey pouring the stuff because you’re not supposed to open the duty-free liquor on the plane. But we got it poured and managed a quick toast before the cognac began dissolving the glue that held the cups together. I was wearing a baggy cotton sweater and about $6 worth of Remy Martin dribbled from the cup to my wrist and down my forearm, and collected into a big cognac reservoir in the sweater’s elbow. I spent the rest of the flight sucking a mouthful of soggy, intoxicating yarn and ignoring the quizzical looks from the stewardesses. I got pretty looped.”

After an awkward pause he said, “That’s almost funny.” I had a tough customer on my hands.

I don’t know what his habits were in the real world, but I’d later find that in the Chinese Hospital the man rarely slept unless he had visitors. At night he came alive. He favored conversation between the hours of two and five in the morning, though sometimes he’d perk up as early as midnight. We’ll call him Leon. I had little to do over the few days I was in the Chinese Hospital but chat with Leon when he was awake, write down our conversations when he wasn’t, and dance with Mr. Demerol as the spirit moved me.

Right after the cognac story he said this: “Okay, what’s the saddest thing?”

“The saddest thing that ever happened to me?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll pass on that one,” I said.

“That’s right,” Leon said with a slight smile as if I’d solved a riddle. “You keep it always here,” he tapped his head, “and here,” he pointed to his heart, “but you never say it. The saddest thing you can’t say.” I nodded and there was a long silence.

I came to like him very much. I liked his mastery of the non sequitur (unpredictable changes in direction can be invigorating), his peculiar curiosity, and his screwy, invented expressions. (Once, when I made a claim he doubted, he declared it “about as likely as a luau in Lapland.”) Leon was part imp, part gangster, and something of a mystery. He seemed to be able to pass from consciousness to sleep almost instantly. He’d be lying as still as a statue and then suddenly say something like, “I grew up in Los Angeles.”

“Really,” I’d reply, “I thought maybe you’d grown up in the Philippines.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re Filipino.”

“I’m not Filipino,” Leon answered. “I’m half Mexican and half Scottish.”

“I thought I heard you speaking Filipino.”

“No, that was Latin.” It was definitely not Latin, but I didn’t quibble.

“How old do you think I am?” This was obviously a point of pride (and, after all, the man had just weathered surgery) so I trimmed a few years from my estimate.

“Sixty-two?” He smiled.

“I’m seventy-nine,” he informed me with the justifiable glee of a man who’d just had seventeen years added to his life. “I grew up on the east side of Los Angeles where they used to call it Edendale. I lived there until I was twelve and then we moved here. The Mack Sennett movie studio was in Edendale. You know who Mack Sennett was?” I did. Famous for the Keystone Kops movies, Sennett has given Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton their first film jobs. “Constance Talmadge, the actress, would come to our house,” Leon continued. “My mother owned a coat with a leopard collar that Constance Talmadge wanted – real leopard, very luxurious. I think my mother finally gave it to her.” Leon was getting drowsy. “They’d give me fifty cents a day,” he said slowly, “and Mr. Keaton would chase me around for the movie. I was just a child, but I liked being in the movie.” And he was asleep.

In the morning an elegantly dressed Chinese woman entered the room, walked over to Leon and kissed him. “This is Grace,” Leon said to me. Grace smiled. She appeared to be in her sixties. I assumed that she was Leon’s wife. “I just go by Hang Ah,” she said holding up a large bag and pulling out several pieces of dim sum. “You have some.” And she placed a pork bun, two potstickers and a piece of shui mai on a napkin next to my water pitcher. “Don’t believe anything Leon say!” she whispered, making sure Leon could hear, and they both laughed. Grace took off her coat – it had a leopardskin collar that looked like the real thing – and pulled a chair close to Leon’s bed.

I nibbled at the pork bun. The morning nurse had encouraged me to walk as soon as I thought I could. I was so sore I wasn’t sure I could even stand, but I wanted to give Grace and Leon some time alone so I drew my curtain and very, very slowly got to my feet. By the time I returned to the room ten minutes later, Grace was packing up the translucent bits of paper that had wrapped the dim sum and Leon was fast asleep, making a sound like a motor boat with water hyacinths tangled in its propeller going through muddy water. I thanked Grace for the food, we made small talk for a minute or two, and she left.

Late that night, about eleven-thirty, a noise in the hall woke me. The room was blue again; the nurses were laughing quietly outside. At Leon’s bedside were two well-dressed men in their late twenties, talking to him in whispers. He seemed to be angry with them about something. They left abruptly. Leon pushed back his curtain and looked over at me. “My sons,” he said without me asking.

“They like to visit late, huh?”

“They’re night owls.”

Leon told me dozens of stories about his early life while we shared that room. He reminded me of my own father at about the same age. In his last decade my father’s memory for the recent past was nonexistent, but he could recall the most minute details of his youth. Leon’s memory worked like that. We spent many late, blue-lit hours in the early decades of the century, the time Leon remembered best.

Being in the Chinese Hospital amplified the feeling of being healed in the past. Built in 1924, it has a time-out-of-time atmosphere that carries over to the doctors and staff. The hospital facilities are entirely modern. The only thing out of date is the attitude of the people who work there, which harks back to a less accelerated era when brusqueness was rarely encountered in such an environment. The hospital nutritionist stopped by to see if I wanted American or Chinese food (I chose Chinese), then visited me again to find out if the fare was to my liking. The amiable anesthesiologist came in one day – smiling right side up – to see how I was feeling, and stayed for nearly a half hour, discussing the weather, joking about my itchy nose, and telling me more about my appendix than I cared to hear – “It was all black and full of pus,” he said cheerfully. (Later, when I married a medical professional, I learned that that kind of talk is considered pleasant chit-chat in the health biz.) Dr. Low, too, paid me several leisurely visits. The nurses were kind and funny, and enjoyed telling me about their children. The Chinese Hospital was the perfect context in which to hear Leon’s tales of his life.

“This isn’t a funny thing and it’s not sad either,” he said to me one night. “It’s more of a secret thing, but it happened so long ago I guess it doesn’t matter. It was the late 1930s – ’38 or ’39 I think. I’ve never told anybody this except maybe Grace. Nobody knows this,” he whispered conspiratorially. “I’d moved down to Los Angeles from San Francisco. I was in my late twenties. A fellow I met one night told me about a job down in La Jolla. I didn’t have much money so I hitched down and called the number he’d given me from a diner. And the man hired me over the phone – never even met me. Guess who that was,” Leon asked me.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“He was the writer. The detective writer, you know? Mr. Chandler.”

“Raymond Chandler?”

“Yes, that’s who.”

“Amazing. What did you do for him?”

“Well, I would do all sorts of things. Odd jobs, whatever needed being done. And I would drive him some nights when he went visiting.”

“I’ve heard he was sort of a solitary character.”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “You know his wife was older than he was and she was ill, she was an invalid and he took care of her. And he wrote his books and articles.”

As he spoke I imagined the Chandlers whiling away the warm La Jolla evenings together. I’d been to the town at night just once. I remembered the sea smell of the mist mixed with the scent of the night-blooming cactus, and how sensuous the curved trunks of the palm trees looked when illuminated by the warm yellow headlights of slow-moving Bentleys. “But they would go visiting?” I asked Leon.

“No, no. Mrs. Chandler was bedridden, but she wanted Mr. Chandler always around. So in the evenings he’d work or read to her. Then, when she went to sleep, he’d go visit his friend. But by then he’d be a little drunk. He never showed it, but he was a big drinker, you know.”

“I’ve heard that,” I said.

“So he’d call me to come drive him because it was quite a few miles north, up the coast to Encinitas.”

“Who did Chandler visit? Was he having an affair?”

“No, not at all. Mr. Chandler was very much in love with his wife. No, see, this is the part you’ll find surprising I think. He’d go on these late-night visits up to Encinitas to see the famous Indian. Those two had become acquainted, become friends some way. I don’t know how.”

“Who are you talking about” I asked Leon. I thought he was being overly mysterious considering that we were discussing events that took place a half century earlier.

“The yogi!” Leon said impatiently, as if I was fool not to have known. “Yogananda. Paramahansa Yogananda, the great yogi from India. I would drive Chandler up there to the house on the cliffs above the ocean. He told me they often talked about his stories.”

“No! You’re kidding. I can’t imagine they’d have had anything in common.”

“They were as different as butter and bone meal,” Leon said in a low, comical voice. “But I drove him up there dozens of times. I met Mr. Yogananda twice. Very nice man, though he could have used a haircut. Mr. Chandler would stay for a couple hours. I’d go for a walk and have a cigarette or two, or sit in the car and read the Daily Racing Form.”

The conversation put me in mind of my world-traveling raconteur uncle who once told me about a fellow he met in London who – every time my uncle finished a story – replied, “Interesting if true.” It’s a line I never would have used on Leon, but his Chandler and Yogananda revelation briefly tempted me. The Demerol was trying to drag me out of the dance floor of sleep and I was trying to stay awake long enough to ask Leon a few more questions about the unlikely alliance between Mr. Chandler and Mr. Yogananda. But suddenly he was snoring away, so I gave in and let Mr. Demerol lead.

When I woke up the next morning the nurse was pushing a wheelchair into the room. “I’m going home,” Leon explained. “Enjoyed talking to you.”

“Why don’t you write down your phone number,” I said, my writer’s brain sensing story potential.

“I don’t have a phone,” Leon said (I knew he was lying, everybody has a phone). “But I’m at Red’s Place – just down Jackson here at Beckett on the corner – every Thursday night from seven ‘til eleven or so. That’s my night out. Come by. I’ll tell you some more. It gets better. You can buy me a drink.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Thursday?”

“Every Thursday.” He nodded and the nurse helped him into the wheelchair and put a large paper bag on his lap.

The next day I checked myself out of the Chinese Hospital. They’d been so good to me, I actually wrote a fan letter to the nurses and Dr. Low.

The following Thursday at about seven-thirty I caught a cab at the corner of Pacific and Taylor and had it deliver me to Red’s Place. I stayed for nearly two hours, drinking J&B with water back and inhaling the other customer’s Camels. Leon never showed up. I did the same thing on the next Thursday, but I came later and stayed longer, until about midnight. I also described Leon as best I could to the bartender, but he couldn’t recall seeing anybody like that.

On the third Thursday after I came home from the Chinese Hospital I walked down to Red’s Place around 9:30 in the evening. It must have been late September, but it was still a warm night and there were a lot of children playing on the sidewalks in Chinatown. A fair number of young, backpacking tourists were wandering around with the same dazzled, fey demeanor they exude wherever in the world you come across them. As I walked, the aromas of seafood, car exhaust and stirfry wafted about, blending together into the singular, unmistakable Chinatown smell that I’ve had in my olfactory memory bank since I was a child. As I said, there were children all around, a few old men, a few backpackers and, as I arrived at the doorway to Red’s Place, Leon’s two well-dressed sons. They entered just ahead of me. I ordered a beer and stood there sucking up Camel smoke and trying to make eye contact with Leon’s sons. After ten minutes of watching them in deep conversation I walked over to where they were sitting. “Excuse me,” I said. “Is Leon your father?”

“Who are you?” the heavier one asked.

“I was in the hospital with your father. I saw you there one night visiting.”

“Leon’s not my father,” he said. “I just do some work for him sometimes.” And he smiled and checked his watch, and the two politely excused themselves and walked out.

After that, if I was in the neighborhood on a Thursday, I’d sometimes go by Red’s Place, but I never saw Leon and I never saw his “sons” again either. Over the next few months I pretty much forgot about all of them, including Chandler and Yogananda.

Generally, I don’t pray. I’ve never found it very effective. It could be my technique, or it could be my lack of faith. It’s foolish of me no doubt, because writers of all people need as much help as they can get – who wouldn’t find comfort in an alliance with a supreme being? In any case, though I didn’t pray for it – indeed, I’d stopped thinking about it – my prayers were answered. By sheer coincidence I came across the ending to Leon’s story in a basement restaurant on Pagoda Place.

I have a friend, Liz, who loves dim sum and I’m fond of it myself. About five months after my appendectomy we had a date on a Tuesday morning to meet at Hang Ah Tea Room. I like Hang Ah because the dim sum is quite good and the place is a charming dump, which means you don’t have to compete with a herd of people to get a table and you come away with that stomach satori that is the only thing any of us really wants (or perhaps one of two things). It’s the oldest dim sum dive in Chinatown and its cellar location gives it a tawdry appeal that the owners could probably cash in on if they wanted to, but thankfully have not.

On our way in Liz and I stopped in Hang Ah’s entryway to look at the Miss Chinatown photos. As we were standing there, out walked Grace, Leon’s wife. I might not have recognized her except for the leopardskin collar of her coat. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen like that. It made me think of Constance Talmadge and Edendale and Leon-the-child being chased by an as-yet-unknown Buster Keaton for fifty cents a day. It’s funny how everything can get all mixed together in a moment – it’s often like that in dreams, but you don’t expect it to happen in reality.

“Grace!” I said. I startled her. She didn’t recognize me. “I’m Doug,” I explained. “I was in the hospital with Leon.” She squinted and smiled.

“Oh yeah,” she said, taking my hand. “I remember. How are you doing now?”

“All better.” I patted the spot now occupied only by a phantom appendix and a faint hoofprint. “How’s Leon?”

Her smile wilted. “Leon’s gone,” she said sadly. “He passed on…one months. Just one month ago.” He’d been such a vital character. Even in the hospital he looked so healthy and fit that I’d figured he’d live another decade or two or three. I didn’t ask her what he’d died of. What’s it matter?

“Well, he was a great guy,” I said. Liz had drifted into the restaurant as I talked with Grace.

“Great guy!” Grace agreed. “We take him back to Manila for the burial. That’s what he want.”

“Manila?”

“Oh yeah, he come from there, you know. Grow up there.”

“Really? For some reason I thought he grew up in Los Angeles. I must have got it wrong. Did he spend a lot of time in L.A.?”

“No, I have a sister there. We visit her a couple times, but usually she come up here – better Chinatown,” Grace laughed.

Now Grace had me going. “I guess he was a big reader, huh?”

“Oh yeah, he drive me crazy reading and re-reading those detective books and all about the movies and the crazy religions, but he always make a good living,” and her eyes started to tear up as she thought about him and I wanted to stop talking to her because I never know what to do at such times.

“Grace, I’m so sorry, but I know you’re going to do fine.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured me in a motherly tone. “Nice to see you.” She smiled and squeezed my hand. As she walked down the alley toward the street, I noticed her black-and-gray hair made an oddly dramatic lacework over the leopardskin collar – there was something bittersweet about it, but I don’t think I can explain it. I then walked inside the restaurant where Liz had already ordered pork buns, potstickers, shui mai and shrimp dumplings, and I told her the whole story, starting with the anesthesiologist itching my nose and ending with Grace’s leopardskin collar partly covered by her black-and-gray hair.