Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where are you now?

The other night, I dreamt of you. It often happens in times of great personal transition.

I dreamed that the Great Whatever let me in on the Secret of what lay beyond the dark doorway. Another life to have a throw at the target. Another step toward nirvana.

And everyone around me, all those who have been with me on this journey --family, friends, soul-mate --would be reunited, each with our different roles in the new cycle. To rediscover one another; to continue to teach and learn from each other; to take another step on our collective path.

But you would not be with us the next time around. That is what the Great Whatever told me in my dream. That you would not advance. That you would linger.

And I was filled with sorrow. And I knew that I would rather not advance unless we could all be together. Because, despite all the pain of it, I could not leave you behind.

Before you left, you wrote letters to each of us. Delivered posthumously.

And you wrote to me: "I'm sorry for the times I've wronged you. But I know those times are already forgotten."

Not forgotten, perhaps, but forgiven. And there was never anything that would make me want to leave you behind.

So, Dad, tell me: Where are you now? Can we go on? Or, when my time comes, shall I wait for you?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Celebrating Senegal's 54th birthday

Last Saturday, April 5th, the Senegalese Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington held its annual commemorative celebration of Senegal's Independence Day.

In addition to its primary function (recognizing Senegal's independence from France in 1960), the event is an outreach to the Portland community. Most of the Association's members are Senegalese immigrants (many with American kids and spouses) and this event provides a vehicle for introducing Senegalese culture (food, clothing, music, dance) to the people of the Pacific Northwest.

Monsieur Maty setting the mood with some djembe
This event has been going for six years now and it continues to grow apace. Attendance this year approached 300 people. Every year, we see new faces as members of the Association broaden their circles at work, in their neighborhoods, at school. It is to the point where we may have to find a new facility, since the crowd packed the Hollywood Senior Center to near-capacity.

Héctor Miramontes, representing the City of Portland, and Emcee Masene
Further, we're now gaining recognition in the larger Portland community. This year, we had two guest speakers: Héctor Miramontes, representing the City of Portland, and Scott Maguire, State Operations Director for Senator Jeff Merkley.

Senegalese ladies in their traditional finery

I love this festival for many reasons. The traditional costumes of the Senegalese women dazzle with color, the music is infectious and happy, and the food is delectable. In general, I find the festival to be a perfect encapsulation of the Senegalese worldview. That is to say positive, appreciative.

Souke, Maty, and Awa: three of the heroic Senegalese chefs
A lot of work goes into preparing for the party. But in particular I must acknowledge the efforts of the women in the community. They cook copious amounts of traditional Senegalese food. And they take pride in their exertion.

At my home on Friday, the night before the party, Maty and her two friends Awa and Souke, started cooking at 5pm. I left the house to give them room and returned about midnight. They were still cooking.

I went to bed at 1am. They were still cooking.

I was fast asleep when Maty finally woke me. "Can you give Souke a ride home?" she asked.

My mind was a fog. "What time is it?" I asked.

"Six-thirty," she said.

I opened my eyes. "Are you serious?"

They'd been cooking all night. Thirteen and a half hours. Their heroic effort was replicated in the homes of the other Senegalese ladies throughout the Metro area.

Eat, drink, laugh, dance!
They're a proud people, these Senegalese. I'm so grateful to have come to know them.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Cockburn plays the Aladdin

Heady days, here at the Sound and Fury dispatch desk. A weekend full of events. Sunday evening, I made my way down to the Aladdin Theater to see Rose City favorite Bruce Cockburn play.

For those who aren't familiar with him, Bruce is a traveling bard, a guitarist/singer/songwriter out of Ottawa. He's traveled all over the world, often to troubled places: Afghanistan, Mozambique, Nicaragua. He's a passionate advocate for the downtrodden and for environmental issues. He uses that passion as inspiration for his songs. He writes about injustice, often angrily. But there is also a spiritual thread in his lyrics. He writes movingly about those moments that world travelers know; the lonely-triumphant feeling one gets when one is all alone and far from home, the peace that descends on the soul at odd moments.

He passes through Portland every year or so. I last saw him in 1998 at the Rose Garden.

This time it was the Aladdin Theater, a scant three miles from my home. (Ah, the perks of living in the city!) Aladdin seats about 600 people and it was filled to capacity. It was an older crowd. At 52, I was on the younger side of it. Bruce is himself 68.

In the moments before the show, when the lights went down, the customary low booming calls of "BRUUUUCE!" went up from among the audience, who erupted when he came out. He slung on his guitar, stepped up to the mic, gave a wave and a low-key "Hi, there. Thanks for coming out," and launched right in.

Just Bruce, by himself. There was no band. Throughout the evening he enthralled his audience with two six-string guitars, a twelve-string, a dobro, and another instrument that I describe as a cross between a steel guitar and an autoharp. He also used foot pedals to sound two different sets of chimes and made skillful use of effects pedals.

His black shirt and trousers and high black military boots lent him a severe appearance, but he engaged the audience jovially. Portland loves Bruce and he assured us it was mutual.

He played two sets and a set of 3 encores. I was pleased with the set list. In addition to his new material, he hit a lot of the old favorites: "Stolen Land," "Wondering Where the Lions Are," "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," "And They Call it Democracy," and, of course "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."

The evening felt like a reunion of old friends who thoroughly enjoy one another.

I love Bruce.

Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor

Who rob life of its quality
Who render rage a necessity
By turning countries into labour camps
Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom

Sinister cynical instrument
Who makes the gun into a sacrament -
The only response to the deification
Of tyranny by so-called "developed" nations'
Idolatry of ideology

North South East West
Kill the best and buy the rest
It's just spend a buck to make a buck
You don't really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there's one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello

And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy

See the loaded eyes of the children too
Trying to make the best of it the way kids do
One day you're going to rise from your habitual feast
To find yourself staring down the throat of the beast
They call the revolution

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there's one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

But, as I stated earlier, this was a fun-filled weekend. My wife and my Senegalese community had a party on Saturday night. More about that later...

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Book review: Oryx and Crake

Most of the time, I try to refrain from ragging too hard on authors when they produce books I consider sub-par. Writing a novel is a difficult feat. But Margaret Atwood, known mostly for her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, is an established writer. As such, she gets no leniency.

Flat-out: Oryx and Crake, her dystopian novel that purports to depict a near-future in which genetic modifications to plants and animals has brought about an apocalypse, is a drab and monotonous read. It sucks.

The story goes like this: Snowman is a survivor of a man-made cataclysm that has all but obliterated humanity. He lives in a tree where he gazes out over the much-risen sea at the ruined towers of a drowned human city. Mankind's heirs to the earth, a genetically-modified human-like species with blue skin and pacifist temperament, looks to Snowman as a sage --a guru from the crumbling past. Snowman, in a half-hearted determination to survive, is not above using his position of authority to convince the new "people" to do his bidding. Clad in a bed sheet and half-starved, Snowman remembers the world as it was just before the apocalypse: dystopian and starkly divided between the haves and have-nots. Snowman, we learn, lived among the corporate elites, the haves, by virtue of his well-educated, professional parents. As an adolescent, he befriends a classmate, Crake, who is on track to become a brilliant bio-geneticist. As the novel progresses, Snowman cynically recalls how Crake changed the world.

I wonder, is the prose in Atwood's other books as wooden and unpolished as in this one? At times, in her attempts to explain the world of Oryx and Crake, Atwood takes the easy out with drab, expository sentences. At other times, she affects the sneering, cynical tone of her wholly unsympathetic main protagonist. No eloquence. No lyricism. No polish. Her prose doesn't evoke imagery. Rather, it sketches out stick-figure drawings and relies on the reader to insert the color.

The book has no emotional depth. The two title characters, Oryx (a child prostitute from Southeast Asia) and Crake are thinly drawn. We never, for example, learn Crake's motive for doing what he does. Snowman, the one character in the book that is reasonably fleshed-out, is annoying and unlikeable.

The novel lacks suspense. Everything is foreshadowed. There are no real surprises. And there are gaping holes in the plot. Atwood does not recount how Crake found Oryx. She does not reveal the nature of the relationship between them.

Atwood makes a start at a decent subplot (Snowman's mother, Sharon, rebels against the status quo, abandons husband and child and becomes a political subversive), but never satisfactorily ties it up. (Everything to do with Sharon happens "off-stage." When she dies, there is no emotional impact. It's never even clear what she was trying to accomplish.)

This is the first Margaret Atwood book I've read. Very probably, it will be the last. It's very disappointing when an established and acclaimed author turns out to be a hack. But so be it.

Among living authors, I prefer Eleanor Catton. Or David Mitchell. Or Cormac McCarthy.